Month: September 2017

Migration madness!

It is that time of year again, the end of summer is migration season, and here on Vancouver Island, thousands upon thousands of birds are making their way south along the Pacific flyway. Rocky Point Bird Observatory is located on the tip of southern Vancouver Island, everyday a dedicated group of banders and volunteers band/ring birds on their migration in order to monitor their populations, track migrations and gain a better understanding of the health and life cycle of a number of species.

The past few weeks I have been helping out with their banding and have been lucky enough to see some incredible birds. The bird observatory bands in two locations, one is located in a marina and is a mixture of forest and shrubs, and the other is on a secluded military base, this area is more wild, with forest, open grassland areas and beaches. The view from the banding station is incredible, and species such as orcas, wolves and bears can be spotted. Last week whilst checking one of the nets near the water, we heard the loud unmistakable sound of a whale breathing, a humpback whale was fishing close to shore, and we watched as the whale swam away surfacing just once more in the distance!

The day was a busy one for birds, as we caught and banded a steady number, at that time it was mostly warblers and sparrows that were starting to come into the nets. We mostly banded the beautiful savannah sparrow, these sparrows have neat brown bars down their back, with a black and white speckled front, and a striking yellow smudge on the top of their eye, which looks like they have some eye shadow on! Other highlights included yellow warblers and the brightly coloured Wilson’s warbler. Along with the songbirds, raptors migrate in large numbers, and Rocky Point is a particularly good place to see them. Hundreds of turkey vultures soar overhead, Cooper’s, sharp shinned, red tailed and Swainson’s hawks can be seen within the flock of vultures. Having seen a lot of raptors that day, we managed to get two in the net, both sharp shinned hawks (pictured), one male and one female. The female is noticeably larger, but the species is still small. Up close you can really see how perfectly they are adapted to predate on birds, built for soaring and speed, with large yellow eyes and long sharp talons. They are very light and agile, you have to hold them by their feet in order to avoid getting sliced open by their talons. As I was packing up to leave I heard a shout from across the field, ‘CRANES’ , having never seen cranes, but always wanting to, I grabbed my binoculars and ran, watching two elegant sandhill cranes fly right over my head, you could hear them calling to each other. Humpbacks, hawks and cranes, I could not believe my luck!

This week out at the marina site, Pedder Bay, we saw the scale of migration that is currently taking place. On average, I have found that banding around 50-60 birds is a good and busy day. However on Wednesday, we banded 198 new birds, a record for the site. The day was hectic to say the least, as more and more birds kept entering the nets. Sparrows were the most common by a mile. Often when banding through migration you see birds come in waves, one week one species or type of bird dominates, then the following week another, and that day was definitely a sparrow day. We had a few of the tiny ruby crowned kinglets in the nets, the kinglets (similar to goldcrests, for UK readers), will soon we travelling through in large numbers. Despite banding 198 new birds, we hardly scratched the surface, walking through the area it was clear that there were hundreds of birds, sparrows were flying out of the grass from all directions, we are still relatively early into the migration season, so it is pretty remarkable to have banded such a high number of birds! The migration of birds is happening right across the northern hemisphere, above our heads millions of birds are making long and treacherous journeys south, if you get the chance to get out and see them I would definitely recommend it. A lot of the birds we are seeing on Vancouver Island, have travelled from northern Canada, and are on their way as far south as Costa Rica!

Looking for a VERY STRANGE seabird

Last week I went to the coast of Vancouver Island, looking for a secretive and strange seabird, the Marbled Murrelet! They held a secret for many years, but what is it?

Marbled Murrelets are moving from their summer grounds out to sea for the winters. These plucky birds are able to survive a harsh winter out in the Pacific Ocean.

Wild days on Pender

Dotted throughout the Salish Sea are the beautiful southern Gulf Islands, despite being close together these islands each offer something slightly unique. One of these islands is Pender Island, and last week I took a couple of days to go and see what wildlife it has to offer.

Driving around the island you cannot help but notice the large number of trails that head down towards secret bays and beaches. Because of the small size of the island, it is very easy to explore. The days we were there were hot and sunny, perfect weather to see turkey vultures soaring above the fields and roads. They are expert gliders, and you can see them making subtle movements to steer, without needing to flap their wings, however their time in the area is coming to an end as soon they will begin migrating in large numbers south, into the USA.

We hiked up Mount Norman, a fairly steep hill located within the national park, at the top, an incredible viewpoint gives you a birds-eye view of the area. The hike is through a mixed patch of woodland, and on the walk the loud call of pileated woodpeckers was echoing around the forest, ravens flew overhead and a lovely downy woodpecker was pecking away directly in front of me, these tiny woodpeckers are black and white, with a bright red patch on the back of their head.

Walking down the trails towards the bays and the beaches, you are never really sure exactly what you’ll find, each beach is different, with a different view, rock formation etc, but one thing that is a constant is the kingfishers. Belted kingfishers are all over the island, the long chatter, described as a mechanical rattle can be heard in pretty much every bay and on every beach. An interesting species to watch, they confidently patrol their territory ready to chase any unsuspecting gull, heron or kayaker that is passing through. They are a large kingfisher that stands at about 30 cm, their size means it is easy to watch them fish, they hover over the water before loudly plopping in and grabbing their prey.

As the nights start to draw in I am trying to see as many summer sunsets as possible, and so I followed a trail down to the water to watch. The bay I found was surrounded by arbutus trees, a large native species, with twisted branches and unmistakable orange/red peeling bark. The bay was quiet, a large fried egg jellyfish (named perfectly, seriously, look it up!) was bobbing in the shallows. From around the coastline one of my favourite birds appeared, a lovely osprey, the white, fish eating raptor. I could not believe my luck as the bird starting to gracefully circle, the sky was glowing pink, the sea was calm and it was going to fish right in front of me, a perfect wildlife moment I thought! But, guess who showed up to spoil my peaceful scene, the confident kingfisher, rattling away. The belted kingfisher came out of the trees and flew directly at the osprey, escorting it out of the bay, before proudly perching back in the trees.

The last bit of wildlife came that night, as owls hooted in the forest behind where I was staying. I decided to go and listen, half asleep and clutching my phone for light, I had a new wildlife experience, bats, now I have seen bats plenty of times, but never in the forest. I watched the bats flying through the trees, weaving around them expertly. Their clicks were audible, I have no idea what species they were, but seeing them in this setting highlighted how incredible they are. To navigate a thick forest, in the dark is beyond impressive, a brilliant end to a wild couple of days on Pender Island.

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