The first of March was a typical early spring day, overcast, dull and drizzely, so neither a lion nor a lamb, and the rest of the month remained pretty much the same way, although we got less rainfall than usual. Out at the pond spring was still gradually unwinding. The ducks remained active throughout the month and most days I would see all five species that were frequenting the pond, both hooded and common mergansers, buffleheads, ring-necked ducks and mallards. I spent quite a bit of time trying to photograph the ducks and managed to get several good photos of the female common mergansers, although the other species were never quite as cooperative.
Common merganser female
Common merganser female
On the third of March the pair of eagles were perched on the far side of the pond most of the time I was there, and it was only when another eagle came along that one of the pair took off and chased the intruder away. Unfortunately all this activity took place at such a distance and so quickly that photographing it was not possible. That same day though I found several spiders webs in the fence in the parking lot, so already the orb weavers were active. These are most likely from Araneus diadematus, the Cross Spider, but I will have to see the spiders later in the year to be sure.
By the middle of the month several plants were becoming more obvious. The leaves of yarrow were unfurling in many places, and at the east end of the pond little western bittercress was up and in bloom. This early in the year the bittercress is quite small and easily missed as the white flowers are tiny.
The other plant I looked for was the seaside rein orchid. This is an unusual orchid in that the leaves appear as early as late February, but then completely die off, and when the flower spike finally appears in July there are no leaves on the plant.
Seaside rein orchid
The seaside rein orchid is found in the field north of the river. This field is largely covered by roadside rock moss, Racomitrium canescens, which is a very common moss that is found in exposed areas like roadsides, open fields and even rooftops. It is easily recognized by its pale yellow green colour when wet, and almost whitish appearance when dry.
Roadside rock moss
The beavers are not the only mammals making the pond their home, as there is also a muskrat in the west pond. I had only seen the muskrat once before at the pond, but on one of my trips this month I managed to see and take a photo of it in the west pond. The impression I have is that the beavers stay largely in the east pond and the muskrat in the west pond, even in the winter when the high waters turn the two ponds into one large pond.
Woodland bird activity picked up through the month, and I began hearing robins singing in the area, as well as song and white-crowned sparrows, and Bewick’s and Pacific wrens. On the 18th of the month I had my first yellow-rumped warbler, and on that day I also had both ruby-crowned and golden-crowned kinglets and brown creeper. The last two species were both first records for the area. I have been keeping records of the birds I see in the area ever since my first visit, and prior to that a study of the area was done that recorded all the birds observed. The combined list is now 76 species. This list can be seen on the Comox Valley Naturalists Society’s website as an attachment to the Little River Area write-up under the Nature Guide. This link will get you to the area write-up.
The same day I also explored the Douglas-fir woods at the northeast corner of the property. In the middle of the woods there is a wood ant colony, and on this day the surface of the mound was swarming with ants. These ants go deep underground in the fall and spend the winter in a state of hibernation. Only when the days warm up again in the spring do they return to the surface and become active once more.
On one of my last visits to the pond in March I noticed the eagle back on the nest across the road from the southwest corner of the property. At this point I am not sure if it is really using the nest or not. If it is the young will eventually be evident. I will have to keep checking. Most of the ducks have left the pond, by the end of the month. On my last visit I only saw the mallards and a single ring-necked duck. The other ducks have probably left for larger ponds and marshes that provide more nesting sites and protection during the breeding season.
I have always found March to be a rather slow month regardless of where I am, but spring seems very slow to unfold at Little River Nature Park compared to other areas in the valley. This is in part due to how much disturbance the area has seen and how small the woodlots are. The field to the south of the pond was thick with Scotch broom up until recently when broom busting parties got rid of most of it. I suspect that it will take a few more years of constant broom elimination before many of the native wildflowers start to come back. The field to the north of the pond where the Little River flows through also has a broom problem, and one that has not as yet been tackled. Fortunately the broom is not so thick as to dominate. By the end of the month the leaves of several species of flowers were in evidence but I did not find any flowers. I looked for wildflowers in the northeast woods but could not find any. I suspect its small size and how much people-use it gets might be factors.
Today, I was finally inspired to write a story again. It was a week ago, the last day of March, when I took my first maiden voyage in my car as far as Christmas Hill on my own. I was quite overwhelmed with my lack of confidence. I had no hopes of seeing any butterflies and so it was mostly a test of my endurance since I’d become ill. What was so amazing was that I actually made it without any problems, aside from a horrendous amount of anxiety!!
Up until then, my photographs and stories throughout the fall and winter seasons had been about birds coming to my feeder or ducks along the nearby Gorge Waterway. Therefore this trip to Christmas Hill was, for me, a long and lonely drive. With camera and water around my neck I started climbing up the hill. I didn’t have to go far at all. Swirling orange was there to greet me almost immediately! Two Satyr Comma’s were dancing in the sky, twirling around each other, probably for territory. And then one landed right on the path to sun itself. Although it took off several times, I know these butterflies and they tend to come back to the same spot. One only needs to be patient and slow in approaching them to get a decent shot. I got several and I was elated. Due to territory disputes the other Comma was not allowed to land on the path and although this butterfly looked a bit worn, it was my first shot of the season. Here are two of the best shots I managed to take.
I climbed up to the top of the hill and spotted a single Sara Orangetip but the day was far too warm for it to want to land. It took all of my energy just to get up to the summit and back down again. But I was both thrilled and a bit sad because of my feelings of nostalgia. How many butterflies would I see this season? To date that is an unknown.
During this time of testing for me, the birds have kept coming to my feeder and on very special occasions, I have had a symbolic “visitor”, namely that lovely male Goldfinch. As he has become more golden with the season, a friend has urged me to include this picture that I took since my last blog. This occurred at a time when I needed feelings of hopefulness, and it seems this is when the angels of Nature come with their blessings. Although I took many pictures, this pose shows him at his jaunty best.
I’ve also had a flock of Pine Siskins return and their comical antics always make me smile. They are fast little critters so to get shots of them on a branch is a treat indeed.
The nostalgia I’m feeling takes me back to the last trip I took to SwanLake a few weeks ago. The day was fairly overcast and I had help getting there so I made the most of it. I had seen several Golden-crowned Sparrows, but one happened to fly up onto a branch. This presented a much better chance at a pleasing photograph than one would normally get, as these birds are mostly ground feeders. I was pleased with this opportunity and made the most of it.
So now I will leave you with a poem. I have discovered something I never thought I would. People. People are a part of Nature too, and now they have become a very important part of my world. They have read my stories and enjoyed my photos, poetographs and poetry. Today, one of them decided to do something very special for me because she had enjoyed my blogs so very much to date.
So here is to the human spirit and the kindnesses I have seen in human nature. We are all connected and we need to remember that. This poem and dedication that follow were inspired by one such “angel” today. Alas, I do not have her picture except in my mind’s eye.
I thought that spring had left me in the cold
I thought that maybe it would never come
because my weary spirit felt so old
because the shocks of life had left me numb.
But came a bird of gold again one day,
returning just to give me back my heart
and then a flock of Siskins came my way
and gold crowned angels came to do their part.
Up Christmas Hill I ventured all alone,
not thinking that I’d see a butterfly,
but there two Comma’s saw me on my own
and fluttered down from swirling on up high.
And then a Robin’s song came ringing clear
reminding me of angels always near…
Dedicated to my friend, Robin, who took me into her heart today. With healing hands and no strings attached, she helped me start on the road to a better life, where all things are possible when I believe and have faith in all of Nature’s angels…and, most importantly, in myself. And here is a thank you to all the human angels who have blessed me with their presence as they walk alongside me on my journey.
© Copyright by Annie Pang April 7, 2013.
Hello again. It has been quite a while since I have posted anything so thanks again to my blog partner, Terry, for his entertaining and informative blogs…and the great poetry he writes!
Well, back here in Victoria, it has been an unseasonably mild, but moody and grey winter. On the occasional sunny days I have tried to get out to the Gorge with my camera, but most times I’ve been there it has not been sunny. So this blog covers early to mid-March including what has been going on here at my home bird feeder and just a few things along the Gorge Waterway as well.
The snowdrops had been out for some time so here is a picture I took in GorgePark. As they are white, I find it difficult with this camera to get well-defined shots, but here is one.
At the beginning of March, I was so pleased and surprised when, after no sightings of my beloved Goldfinches since last spring, I saw a pair flutter in to feed briefly. The male was only just beginning to show a bit of his spring plumage with a few black and yellow markings on top of his head. This is the picture I got of him.
The female was evident as she had no such changes occurring. These were the only two that I saw.
As the day was sunny, I headed out to the Gorge Waterway where I was pleased to find my old friend, the Great Blue Heron, had returned to his favourite feeding spot. The light was bright enough and the tide was low, so I was able to get this shot.
Although I saw a small raft of American Wigeons up feeding on grass, no diving ducks were evident and I found this troubling since the numbers I’d seen were fairly diminished this last season.
There was one exception however, a raft of Goldeneyes and there was a surprising number of Goldeneye males…seven actually, and only two females. How many fellows does a gal need…or even want? I wonder what happened to the rest of the females. A good birder friend in Saskatchewan has told me how brutal the mating rituals of the male ducks can be, practically or literally drowning the female during the act of mating with several males pursuing one female at one time. This may account for the diminished numbers. Apparently when the male ducks run out of females to mate with due to fatality or flight, they will engage in mating with each other and also remain companions for the entire season. As we don’t really witness diving ducks mating here in Victoria I guess I’ll have to take her word on this one as there seems to be no other explanation for the diminishing numbers of female Hooded Mergansers, Buffleheads, Common Mergansers, etc. in the last number of years when they overwinter here. In any case, I was lucky to get this shot of the most Goldeneyes I have ever seen here and hope you enjoy it.
There was also a lovely pink rhododendron in bloom along the Gorge Waterway and I was cheered by the promise of spring. This plant has sometimes started flowering as early as January so I was surprised that it was coming out this late.
As Saskatchewan is seeing probably one of the longest and most brutal winters in about 20 years, I felt compelled to send my friend a cheerful picture of some ornamental Japanese plum blossoms that were just coming out in early March. These were taken at my home.
She was very pleased to see flowers, something she tells me she won’t be seeing for another couple of months as things stand.
Time passed…in actuality only two weeks or so, when I got a very pleasant surprise; a few actually. The first one was when a male Northern Flicker showed up at my kitchen window feeder. What was remarkable and exciting was that this was a male Hybrid between the Red and the Yellow-shafted Northern Flicker. The underfeathers were yellow and there was the tell-tale red-crescent on the back of the neck, however his “mustache”, normally black on a Yellow-shafted was red, which was from the Red-shafted “parent”or ”grandparent”of this bird. What a pretty sight I thought to myself.
A few days later, I heard what sounded like a jack-hammer on my roof, and it took a while to realize that, as I’d seen both Red-shafted and Hybrid Flickers, one of these was looking for food on my roof!! At least that’s what I thought it was doing but again, I found out that this “drumming” ritual was more of a territorial behaviour at this beginning of mating season. I’m not so sure I’m crazy about that, but it didn’t last too long and only for a couple of days. Maybe my roof didn’t taste that great. One can only hope I suppose.
The last and most lovely surprise, after a two week absence, was another appearance of the male and female Goldfinch. The male was dramatically altered and had a complete black cap now and mostly bright yellow feathers. I was fortunate to have someone there to point him out to me so I grabbed my camera and took as many shots as I could. At the end of this narrative, you will see my altered Goldfinch friend as well as another parting poetograph at the end.
So…now other than those pesky Starlings and House Sparrows as well as the House Finches, who are looking a bit worse for wear, this narrative has been my excitement here in Victoria. My outings have diminished for now, but I remain hopeful to be able to find the time and strength to venture out into nature again with my camera and some warm sunshine.
I may even find a butterfly but for now, I will leave you with this poem of reflection that echoes my concerns and moods about our ever changing environment and bird population which, as always, I find parallels my own inner being. I still hold onto hope that things will improve, because one must believe or hope dies.
In the Spring Sunlight
So many weeks ago since the Goldfinch had been
with his promise of spring not yet to be seen.
I left my home to find the ducks
and I found a life raft of Golden-eyed luck.
The water glistened as I walked along
and carefully listened for sweet birdsong
but all was quiet except for some crows
clawing and cawing their aggressive woes.
The water glistened in the springtime sun
with the blossoms smiling with new life begun
and I walked along in my melancholy mood
looking for the love for my spiritual food.
But none did I find outside of the sun
and the blossoms and life I saw had begun.
So I dove within for inner sight
and found myself in the spring sunlight.
Then the Goldfinch returned to show me his gold
and suddenly I didn’t feel so old…
© Annie Pang March 15, 2013.
I have a small native plant garden on the north side of my townhouse, and there are a number of fawn lilies, both pink and white, growing in it. Some of these plants are well along and look like they are very close to coming into flower. So two days ago I decided to take a quick trip down to the Tsolum River floodplain, which is the best place I know of in the valley for fawn lilies, to see if any were in bloom. I walked most of the length of the trail looking for any blooms, but to no avail. It wasn’t until I was on my way back that I finally found one lonely pink fawn lily in flower.
This is just the start, and in a few days I suspect that there will be many more plants in flower, and eventually the woods will be thick with thousands of fawn lilies. They will line the trails and carpet the depth of the woods, sharing the space with the first trilliums and other early spring flowers. If I can find the time I will pay another visit and do another blog at the peak of their flowering.
The only other native flower I saw with the fawn lilies two days ago was the Yellow Stream Violet. Eventually this plant will produce clumps of flowers that will add splashes of yellow alongside the trail.
I am always looking for insects on trips like this, and on this occasion I was not disappointed. Most of the insects I saw were smaller flies that are often difficult to identify, but I did see a couple of bee flies and managed to get a photo of one of them. This is the greater bee fly, Bombylius major, and it is a very common fly in the early spring.
I find bee flies quite fascinating, partly because of their bee-like appearance and habit of hovering briefly in one spot, and partly because of their vampiric habits as larvae. Most bee flies are ectoparasites on the larvae of solitary wasps. The female fly simply drops eggs into the burrows of the wasp, and when the eggs hatch the larval flies will quite actively seek out the larval wasps and attach themselves externally to the wasp. The bee fly larva now becomes quite sedentary, sucking the juices out of the wasp larva without leaving any visible markings. Eventually the wasp larva becomes nothing more than a dried out husk and the fly a plump larva ready to pupate. Television and Hollywood have nothing on these guys.
Every spring I await the blooming of the first spring flowers. I am not talking about the snow drops, crocuses and daffodils that are so common in gardens by now, but rather the first of the native bloomers. Here in the Comox Valley on Vancouver Island the first native spring flowers are skunk cabbage and gold star. I had been following the growth of the skunk cabbage in a wet wooded area alongside a road that I frequently drive, and on March the 11th I decided I should take another look to see if the flower spikes were fully developed. Sure enough the spikes were fully up, although the leaves were just starting to show. So I took some photos and continued on to Point Holmes where the coastal sand dunes support a great population of gold star. These were also well started, with a good sprinkling of flowers showing, so I photographed a single flower and the largest patch I could find.
Unfortunately I obviously was not concentrating on what I was doing as I was not very happy with the results of my gold star photos. I decided to wait and go back the following day, but as is so typical here on the island, the weather was not conducive to photography that day, or the next, or the next. Well, I finally did get my photos yesterday, so here is a somewhat late blog with photos.
I decided to show both the skunk cabbage from the 11th and from yesterday, the 15th just to show how much four days of growth can make in that time. On the 11th I could only find single flower spikes that were well developed, and the leaves were just starting to poke out of the mud.
Four days later there were many well developed clumps with good sized leaves. Eventually the leaves will be much larger than the flower spikes.
Gold star, Crocidium multicaule, is common on stable, coastal sand dunes and other sandy soil at low elevations. The best places I know of to look for it in the valley are at Point Holmes and Kin Beach. This beautiful little flower will eventually carpet the ground at Point Holmes, turning the dunes a bright, cheery yellow. Like the skunk cabbage I noticed a considerable difference in the gold star in just four days, but here it was primarily in the number of blooms which had more than doubled. These early plants are only about 3 or 4 cm high, but as the spring progresses they become taller, often getting 20 cm tall.
On my first trip I saw several very dark wolf spiders running amongst the logs at the high tide below the dunes. I had found this same species on previous years and had it identified by a local expert as Pardosa lowriei. This is a fairly large and quite common wolf spider in this habitat and yet there is very little information about it on the web. I had to do quite a bit of digging just to get an idea o its distribution, which seems to be from Alberta and British Columbia south to California.
The days are getting noticeably longer and even though we are not getting much sun, average daytime highs are gradually creeping up there. We are beginning the long, slow, crawl towards spring. As the earth warms up, roots begin taking up more water, combining it with carbon dioxide, and with the sun’s increased energy, converting them to carbohydrates with oxygen released as a waste product. This is, of course, photosynthesis, a process used by plants and some other organisms to produce their own food, and it has been the source of energy for almost all life on Earth for the last 3.5 billion years.
In northern climates most plants largely shut down during the winter months, some simply slowing down food production, some losing all their leaves, some dying right back to the roots and some dying completely, relying on their seeds for the next generation. But by February this trend is beginning to reverse itself and a walk around the pond with the local botany group early in the month revealed new buds forming on the red huckleberry, and catkins on both the alder and the willows.
Red huckleberry buds
There is a bald eagle nest just off the southwest corner of the park and right beside the road that has been active for a number of years now. On another walk early in the month I met a young couple who mentioned that they had seen the eagle on the nest just the day before. Bald eagles typically start working on the nest by early February, either starting on a new one if they are first time nesters or the old one has been destroyed, or adding to and repairing the old one. Egg-laying usually starts towards the end of February. By the end of this month I still had not seen any activity in this nest, but I often heard the eagles calling from the woods just west of the pond. Perhaps the birds have relocated because the nest was too close to the road for comfort
Bald eagle nest
The same day I talked with the young couple about the eagle I observed three beavers in the east pond, swimming round and round and occasionally slapping their tails. Normally a tail slap indicates the presence of danger, but in this case I really think it was an indication of annoyance or frustration. I was not the only one who was watching this event as about 11 other people were at various places around the pond watching the beaver. Normally beavers are not active during the day, but rather are nocturnal. The only time they become active during the day is when the dam needs to be repaired or they have a need to gather more food. As there is no dam associated with these beavers they must have needed more food. With so many people around the edge of the pond, they could not even find a safe place to exit the pond to do their search. Finally, after more than half an hour, they gave up and disappeared into the lodge.
Beavers live in extended families, comprised of two adults and young up to two years of age. They have 1 to 9 young every year, with pups being born in April to June, so potentially an extended family can be quite large. Obviously at least one of the three I saw that day had to be a young beaver, but all three were quite large so it was difficult to determine which ones were adults and which were pups. There was one that seemed to be a bit smaller, but it was obvious that any young had to be from the litter born almost two years ago.
I explored the small woods at the northeast corner of the pond three times this month. I doubt that this woods is even as much as an acre in extent, so biodiversity is rather poor here. The dominant tree is Douglas-fir, although there are a few grand firs and shore pines as well. After a careful search I found some branch tips with the short, light green needles that indicate new spring growth. Douglas-firs have quite distinctive seed cones with bracts that are three forked and often remind people of the back ends of little mice hiding in the cones.
Douglas-fir seed cone
Ground cover here is mostly salal with scattered sword ferns. I did find the leaves of some rattlesnake plantains in one spot. This is a very common orchid in coniferous forests on the island, and is our only orchid that retains its leaves all winter long. The leaves are quite distinctive with a white stripe down the middle and generally with fairly strong mottling or striping, although this can vary considerably from plant to plant.
The area between this wood and the pond, and extending along most of the north side of the pond is a brushy area of mostly alder with some willow. Many of these bushes have lichens in the genus Ramalina growing on them, and in some places this lichen is thick. Lichens are a composite organism formed by a symbiotic relationship between a fungus and either a green algae or a cyanobacterium. Because the fungus is generally the dominant organism and is always present, lichens are classified in with fungi. This means that they are no longer considered plants as the fungi are now in their own kingdom.
On my walks around the pond I was regularly hearing the Red Crossbills jip-jipping as they flew from tree top to tree top looking for cone seeds. There were a few other birds as well, including Pacific wren, Bewick’s wren, ruby-crowned kinglet and song sparrow. The song sparrow was often heard singing, even from the other side of the pond.
On one of my trips I saw a male hooded merganser on the west pond. I had seen and photographed the female here earlier this month, but this was the first time this year that the male was present. I grabbed my camera and folding stool and went down to the shore hoping to get a photo. The bird simply swam across to the other side of the pond to get away from me, Patience is a virtue in cases like this and an hour of waiting finally resulted in the bird coming quite close and my getting some great shots. This is a strikingly handsome duck and one that I have been trying to get good photographs of for a long time. The male hooded merganser can depress its crest so that the white is a fairly thin line or erect it fully so that it looks like it is wearing a huge, black and white helmet. The fully raised crest is part of the courtship display. In this case, in the absence of a female, the bird kept its crest in a partly raised position the whole time.
Hooded merganser male
Hooded merganser female
Four days later I returned to the pond and found both the male and female hooded mergansers swimming together and a single male common merganser with three females. By now most mergansers have formed a pair bond, so I am not sure why this particular male had three females in tow. I did observe some interaction between two of the females on more than one occasion, so perhaps it was a mated pair and two additional females hoping to steal the male from the mated female. Although the hooded mergansers never came close enough for more photos, the male and two of the female commons eventually came close enough for some good shots.
Common mergansers, male and two females
So spring has started, slowly, but the signs are showing. Overnight lows are now consistently above freezing. The last couple of trips out to the pond I was seeing good numbers of midges and the song sparrows were singing more often. Hopefully we will start to get a few more sunny days.
Now as the soil begins to warm
and roots begin to stir,
first signs of spring are showing now
on willow, alder, fir.
And in the air the midges fly,
their numbers growing strong.
While ‘cross the pond the song sparrow bursts
into loud, joyous song.
The ducks are found in mated pairs,
The eagles build their nest.
And beavers swim around the pond
as for fresh food they quest.
Its early days, there’s so much more
that spring has yet to give.
But still the promise is now there,
to stir, to wake, to live
Annie’s most recent, beautiful blog on the Gorge Waterway has inspired me to write a similar blog on one of my favorite areas for waterfowl in the Comox Valley. Goose Spit is a spit of land that sticks out into the ocean from Willemar Bluffs, partially enclosing Comox Bay and the Courtenay River Estuary. The base of the spit, extending out for about a third of its length has public access along a road that goes to the military base (HMCS Quadra) and the K’omoks Band property that occupy the outer two thirds of the spit. The public access area has several parking and pull-off areas as well as public port-a-potties, and is a popular place for local residents. Most days there will be at least a few people using the spit to walk their dogs, get some exercise, or, on nice sunny days, just to enjoy the weather. For those who want more of a walk, it is possible to walk along the outer beach right to the tip of the spit when the tide isn’t high (everything above the high tide mark is either military base or K’omoks Band property). This photo shows part of the spit taken from the bluffs.
Because the spit it only a five minute drive from where I live, and because of the opportunities it offers for bird photography, I will often take a drive there just to see what is happening. It is primarily waterbirds and waders that are attracted to this place, and although it is rather devoid of bird life in the summer, in the winter and during migration it can be quite spectacular. At the base of the spit where there is complete public access I find that the bay side of the spit provides the best opportunities for photography. Just as the road comes down of the bluffs and hits the base of the spit there is a mudflat area that is quite extensive at low tide. Here a lot of the dabbling ducks gather, and its not uncommon to see mallards, pintail, green-winged teal, and both American and Eurasian wigeon. There is often a great blue heron here and during migration flocks of shorebirds often use the mud flats.
The best time to photograph the ducks though is when the tide is fairly high as this pushes them in close to the road. I find that getting out of the car just results in the ducks making a quick exit, either by swimming further out or even flying, so I tend to pull the car up as close to the shore as possible and use it as a blind for getting my shots. This shot of a Eurasian wigeon is typical of the types of photographs I can get doing this.
Further along the spit, but before the military base, the water drops off more quickly and this area is good for the diving ducks like bufflehead, goldeneye, greater scaup and white-winged and surf scoters. I have spent quite a bit of time over the past three years trying to photograph these birds, particularly the scoters. Here everything has to be just right to get really good photos. I look for days when the tide is quite high to bring the birds in close to shore, but I also want good light, preferably high, thin overcast, plus calm seas. This also has to happen in the morning or very early afternoon otherwise the sun is in the wrong location, and finally, I am always trying to avoid other people as much as possible, as anyone coming too close will push the birds out beyond where I can get good shots.
What I do is wait in the car until the ducks all dive then quickly get out, go down to the shore, set my folding, three-legged stool up and sit and wait until the ducks come back up. If I am not quick enough the birds swim out from shore and I have a long wait until they come back in. I use a folding stool because I have an artificial right knee that doesn’t bend very well making it difficult to get down and back up off the ground. If you can easily sit on the ground, or even lie down, then a piece of carpet would work well instead of the stool. By getting low you are reducing your profile and the ducks are more likely to disregard you. You are also getting down at a much lower angle which makes for a much more pleasing photo. I must admit too, that sitting is much more comfortable than lying down or even standing. At this point it often takes lots of patience as the birds are regularly disturbed by the people walking their dogs or out for exercise, but I generally do come away with at least a few good photos like this one of a white-winged scoter.
Although the scoters are the most cooperative here, often coming in quite close, occasionally something else like this male bufflehead will come in close enough to allow for a good shot.
The last time I went out to the spit, conditions at the base of the spit were just not right. The tide was too far out and there were lots of people walking along the beach rather than just on the road. As a result the ducks were well out from shore. With low tide however, a walk out to the tip of the spit was possible. This is about a 2.2 km walk, much of it along a pebble beach, so there generally are not as many people out here as at the base of the spit. There was a fairly heavy cloud cover that day, but the forecast was for it to break, and there were already some breaks in the clouds, so I decided to take a chance. Part way along the beach I found a flock of shorebirds, mostly dunlin with a few black-bellied plovers in amongst them, and most importantly, from my perspective, a single sanderling. This was the first one I had seen this year, so I concentrated on it and managed to get a reasonable photo.
As it happened, by the time I got to the end of the spit it was obvious that once again the weather would not cooperate and the clouds were, if anything, heavier than when I started. At least there was no indication of rain, and so I figured that I could still potentially get some photos. I generally have two goals when I go out to the tip of the spit. The first is that here the ducks like the scoters will often fly fairly close to the tip of the spit as they round it either going into the bay or back out to sea and in-flight shots are possible. I am still trying to get some killer shots of these birds in flight. On this occasion I did manage to get a photo of a white-winged scoter in flight, but because of the poorer light, it is still not the great shot I am looking for.
The water drops off quite steeply here and as a result there is almost always a flock of long-tailed ducks in fairly close to shore. I have photographed these ducks many times and have taken some quite good shots of them on the water, but up until this time I had never been able to get an in-flight shot, so this was my second goal. When I am photographing the long-tails, I am actually hoping for human disturbance. Generally the birds are just a little too far out to get great shots of individual birds with my lens. I use an Olympus micro four thirds camera with a 100 to 300 mm lens. Because it is a micro four thirds system this is the equivalent to a 200 to 600 mm lens, but here I would need almost double that as a rule. But when a boat goes by it will often cause the birds to swim in closer to shore and that is when I can get my shots. On this occasion I waited for well over an hour and not a single boat came along, so I occupied my time with shooting the flying scoters, and taking shots of groups of long-tailed ducks like this one.
Finally it was long past noon and I was getting hungry, so I decided to head back. About 100 meters down the beach I suddenly realized that a boat was coming towards me, close to shore, so I quickly scrambled back to where the long-tails were. I just barely made it before the boat disturbed the ducks, but it was so close to shore that instead of pushing them closer it caused them to take flight. My camera wasn’t set up properly for in-flight shots, but I shot like mad anyway, taking perhaps 20 shots and hoping for the best. As it turned out only one shot was good enough to save, but all things considered it was not a bad shot of a male and female taking off.
Bird photography takes a lot of time and patience, and I have spent many days in the field without taking a single good photo. On this particular day, for a while I thought it was going to be one of those days, but as I sat there watching the antics of the long-tailed ducks and listening to them constantly calling, I couldn’t help but think that the true value of my efforts wasn’t the photographs, but rather just the pleasure of the experience.
There is nothing quite as therapeutic as a lovely walk along the Gorge Waterway in the sunshine. For those of you who do not live here however, I should mention that Victoria weather at best is very unpredictable and, usually at this time of year, very gloomy and damp. The low light can make it rather camera unfriendly but I always take the camera along just in case.
In late January and early February, I was fortunate enough to get out and make the best of a few sunny days and see what was new, what was old, and what was expected or unexpected, all the while hoping to get a few good shots to record as much as I could. Some days I lucked out and of the many shots I took usually a few were usable, sometimes more if the lighting was right and my reflexes weren’t too tardy.
On a particularly lovely day I managed to capture some rare images of ducks that I have found very hard to photograph, one being the female Bufflehead and the other, the Common Goldeneye. In the case of the Common Goldeneye male, it usually swims too far out for my camera to be able to get a decent image but this one time it was just close enough. It was also challenging because it was diving for fish and spent very little time above water. The image I got when it surfaced was very dark but as I knew I had captured the eye (very hard for me) I managed to lighten it up sufficiently to get a sharp enough image, the first I have ever been able to get of this species of duck. I was exhilarated that I had managed to get a shot that was not extremely blurry for a change!!
Along the waterway, especially on the weekends, there are always people walking their dogs, jogging, pushing babies in carriages, boaters out in kayaks or, far more irritating, motor boats zipping by causing all the ducks I am trying to photograph to flock off in all directions. This is a very frustrating experience especially when the perfect shot may present itself. People like to stop and socialize, compare dog breeds and generally just enjoy the lovely scenery of the waterway. And on these sunny days when I am out, the green grass and blue sky make it feel more like March than January or early February. But I have to wonder how many of the passersby know anything about the various ducks on the waterway or just take them for granted as part of the scenery.
During the time this blog covers we took our two little dogs walking with us but as soon as an opportunity presented itself for a photograph I would quickly passed my dog leash to my partner and clicked away as fast as this slow camera allowed. Over several days I was able to get a variety of species. In my previous blog I included a photograph of a male Bufflehead, and in this one I offer a fairly decent pic of a female. The trick in getting a photograph of her while she was fishing was to follow the bubbles as she was underwater and which gave me a fair idea where she would surface. It worked well this time!
We have two species of Mergansers here on the waterway as well, one being the Hooded Merganser. I got this image of three males in one shot, perhaps not as clear as I would like but the winter ducks are usually a fair ways out as I’ve mentioned. I have observed only one female so far, and was unable to get a shot of her. Oh, wouldn’t it be nice to have such odds for us human gals. We’d certainly be much more “sought after” because of our scarceness. I certainly wouldn’t mind having three males vying for MY attention. But I digress. Here is the picture of the three males.
The other species of merganser we get here is the Common Merganser. I managed some far off shots of both a male and a female merganser. They are quite unique in appearance.
Male Common Merganser
Female Common Merganser
I would say that the most common and easy to photograph winter ducks we get along here are American Wigeons. Like Mallards, these are not diving ducks as are the others I have or will be showing in this blog, but are “dunking” ducks. Now in past years, I have often found one pair of Eurasian Wigeons in a raft (a group of ducks is referred to as a “raft” as opposed to a “flock”), but not this year. Since I didn’t get any exceptional shots of Wigeons so far this year I have included a couple of shots from a previous year that do include the Eurasian Wigeon and its mate. As you will see, the Eurasian has a beautiful red head and even its mate, though not very colourful, differs in appearance to the female American Wigeon in that she has darker, almost chestnut feathers around the head and body. They do make a handsome pair. I am fond of Wigeons as they have such friendly and pretty faces and the males have what looks to be green mascara running down the back of the eyes and neck. Lovely!
Mixed flock of American and Eurasian Wigeons
Male and female Eurasian Wigeons
These shots are rare for me, but I wanted to share them with you as I observed the number of birds become fewer and fewer. So far I have seen no other species, but if I do, I will keep you updated.
The swans were far off on the far side of the waterway, sunning or foraging and the Great Blue Heron has not been seen since that day in January when it magically flew up and landed for some fishing. I miss the numbers of birds I am accustomed to seeing but am grateful I have at least been able to share some with you.
Back at home, I have had a rare and sweet visitor for many weeks now. A Ruby-crowned Kinglet has become a regular at my suet feeder, although the little mite is so quick and never still, I can’t tell you how many tries it took before I finally managed to get this shot. I wanted to end this blog with a poem (yes, another sonnet) and one last picture of this sweet little bird who comforts me when I am unable to get out and enjoy my walks along the lovely Gorge Waterway. I still feel so fortunate to be living so close to such a lovely marriage of man and wildlife (although I do wish that dogs were not allowed to chase the ducks on the beach by the old schoolhouse!). The last poetograph is one more of the waterway and follows this sonnet and picture of the Kinglet. Thank you for joining me on this little part of my life with Nature and people.
Come little Kinglet
Come little Kinglet, come and visit me
and lift my spirits with a lovely view,
pretending I’m not here that you don’t see
the shots I try in vain to take of you.
The outside world awaits me but for now
the sight of you sustains me for a while,
so like a hummingbird in flight somehow
your antics to grab suet make me smile.
Though when the sunshine calls I’m off and gone
to see what ducks are on the waterway,
when I come back it’s you I’m counting on
to give the time at home a sunny ray.
Along the Gorge I walk to find a duck,
then I return to you, my prayer for luck…
© Annie Pang February 7, 2013.
Winter rains have filled the ponds, causing them to overflow their banks, flood the gravel bar at the southeast end and the low area between the two ponds, and create a single, large pond. It now looks much like it did when I first saw it, causing me to name it in the singular – Little River Pond. It will remain like this until the rains stop and the heat of summer evaporates much of the water. Most of the gravel bar is under water and much of what isn’t, is just barely above the water level. I have to wonder how the tiger beetle and sand wasp larvae can survive in these conditions, but every spring the adults appear again. For now, though, the gravel bar is devoid of life.
Little River Pond showing flooded narrows
Not all life is silent, though. The bald eagles regularly fly overhead, giving their weak, high-pitched chirping whistles in antithesis to their massive strength. An occasional crow or raven gives out its rasping call and the local flock of red crossbills flies from tree to tree looking for seeds to eat and calling “jip, jip” as they go. chestnut-backed chickadees and song sparrows forage in the bushes around the pond, and from the small patch of woodland across the pond a spotted towhee gives a raspy “zreeee.”
Red Crossbill (photographed in 2007 in Edmonton)
On the pond you may hear an occasional “quack quack” from a mallard as the small resident flock forages among the flooded bushes between the two ponds. There are other ducks as well. The ring-necked ducks are usually present, but wary, frequenting the far shore and swimming into the bushes if they feel threatened. The two female buffleheads that are usually present don’t seem to be as wary, and if you are quiet they may swim close by you, diving regularly for whatever they can find on the bottom of the pond.
Earlier in the winter I had noticed a large number of freshly cut branches at the entrance to the beaver lodge. It was obvious that the beaver was stocking up on food for the winter. Beavers will remain active all winter long but will stockpile branches in the fall to minimize how frequently they have to go out foraging for food in the winter. During the summer months they feed on fresh green shoots and roots of plants, but in the winter they have to feed on tree bark, and for this purpose they will sometimes cut down quite large trees.
On one of my visits to the pond I had the opportunity to talk with a local resident, who told me that the beaver had finally felled a large tree at the west end of the pond earlier in the winter. I walked down to the west end and found the tree the beaver had cut down, a large cottonwood with a diameter where the beaver had cut it of about 60 cm (2 feet). Most of the side branches had been cut off and much of the bark on the main trunk was chewed away. Obviously this was the beaver’s source of food for the winter.
Cottonwood trunk stripped of bark
January has been rather average weather-wise, although I suspect that we have had less sun than average. Daytime highs have generally been up around five degrees and the warmest day hit nine. Although we have had a fair bit of rain as usual, and the occasional wind storm that typically comes down the Strait of Georgia, there has not been a major winter storm with a dump of snow this month. At Little River Pond no ice formed other than overnight ice in the shallow, flooded areas, which quickly melted as daytime temperatures rose.
Life in the water slows down in winter, but activity never completely stops. The only evidence of any fish I saw was a single fish jumping on January 1, most probably a sea-run cutthroat trout. This doesn’t mean that the fish aren’t there; they are simply not rising to the surface for insects. The adult cutthroats, which are typically found in sheltered estuaries and tidal lagoons, return to fresh water in late fall and early winter and spawn in late winter to early spring. The young stay in fresh water for two or three years before they migrate to the ocean.
I did a couple of sweeps with my insect net to see what I could find in the water. My net has a very fine weave so it collects even the tiniest arthropods.
The first sweep was shallow, through the vegetation, so that I avoided getting any of the bottom muck. I transferred it to a large plastic jar that I keep just for that purpose and immediately, even through the murky water, I saw life. A tiny predaceous diving beetle, probably less than 3 mm long, rose to the surface for a bubble of air. Then I noticed several damselfly nymphs swimming in the murky water. I decided to bring the jar home to let the silt settle out of the water.
By the time I got home it was obvious that the water was teaming with life. There were at least a dozen damselfly nymph, a number of caddisfly larvae, a couple of daphnia, several cyclops and numerous tiny arthropods that I finally decided must be clam shrimp. The last three were all around a millimeter or less in length, just barely visible to the naked eye.
I did my second sweep almost three weeks later, and this time I went deep into the muck, looking for larger aquatic insects. Sure enough, I dredged up two dragonfly nymphs, which was not in the least surprising as this pond has such a high number and diversity of dragonflies.
I also got a water boatman and a small predaceous diving beetle larva, also known as a water tiger, and this time there were lots of caddisfly of at least three types. It is these larger creatures that are necessary to sustain the fish population.
Water tiger with cyclops at lower left
With temperatures often ranging into the high single digits, I really expected to see at least a few insects and other terrestrial invertebrates. I was not disappointed – on almost every visit I saw at least one or two small flies, most likely midges of some sort. On one occasion I took the time to overturn a few logs, and on my third attempt I found several very active European sowbugs.
That same day I found a larger fly lapping up some juices from bark remaining on the cottonwood tree trunk that the beaver had felled. This is probably an anthomyiid, or root maggot fly, although according to Matthias Buck at the Royal Alberta Museum, there is a possibility it is a muscid. Flies in these two families are often so similar that it is impossible to identify them to family, let alone genus or species without collecting them.
Fly, either anthomyiid or muscid
Now, as the end of the month draws near, the days are getting noticeably longer and soon the first signs of spring will start to appear. But I’m not holding my breath; I know how cruel winter can be, and a serious winter storm is always a possibility in February. My one consolation is that here on the coast such storms are often followed by rain that quickly melts the snow away.
As winter’s winds roar down the strait
the pond lies silently,
broken only by eagle’s screams,
a small cacophony.
But all’s not dead, for in the pond
life stirs ’gainst winter’s hold.
A caddisfly, a diving beetle,
a dragonfly nymph bold.
And on dry land a thorough search
‘neath logs and dead leaf litter
reveals more life that’s active still,
sowbugs and other critters.
But most are dormant, most await
in silent slumber too,
for the first sign of spring’s return,
to begin life anew.
Note: I am posting this blog on World Wetlands Day, a day that is meant to draw people’s attention to the need to protect wetlands everywhere in the world. If you have read this this blog and not read the introduction, which was the previous post, I reccommend that you read it as it will set the scene for this ongoing blog and will also reflect the need to protect wetlands. You can find more information on World Wetlands Day here and you can find the introduction to The Pond blog here.
Little River Pond is a short, eight minute drive up island from where I live. I moved to Comox on Vancouver Island in the fall of 2009, and that winter I discovered the pond while exploring the coast looking for good birding areas. The only birds that I found of interest that winter were Ring-necked Ducks and Hooded Mergansers, but the following summer I again checked out the pond and found that it was a superb place for dragonflies. I have a particular passion for dragonflies and I love the challenge of photographing them, especially getting in-flight shots, so Little River Pond quickly became a favorite haunt.
The pond is really two ponds connected by a very short channel. In the winter the water level rises and the ponds overflow their banks becoming one large pond. There is also an outflow stream that connects the ponds to Little River, a short distance away. These are not natural ponds though, but rather gravel pits that were used in post WWII times as a source of gravel for the nearby runways at CFB Comox. Fortunately the ponds were allowed to revert to a natural state and now support a wide variety of aquatic life.
In 2011 the area was designated as a nature park by the Comox Valley Regional District. There is now a parking lot and sign at the entrance to the park, making it easy to find. The park is right alongside Wilkinson Road just down island from the ferry to Powell River at Little River. As well as the ponds, the park includes the connector stream to Little River, plus a stretch of the river itself and the surrounding meadows and woodlands.
The main focus of this blog is to follow the ebb and flow of life in and around the pond for a whole year. Wetlands are the life blood of the planet. Whether it is lakes, rivers, marshes, bogs or ponds, life cannot survive without the water they provide. It seems that most of our wetlands are under attack by industry, agriculture and general development. Far too often we pollute and drain without any concern for the consequences. It is encouraging to find a man-made wetland in the middle of an urban setting that is being protected. The diversity of life in this one small pocket of wilderness is quite impressive if you take the time to look. Unfortunately most people do not take that time. My hope is that this blog will open up the eyes of those people who live near Little River Pond, and perhaps, for those people who do not, it will make them more aware of the wildlife in and around their own local pond.
So follow me through the seasons at the pond as I search out the secret lives of insects and their relatives, scouring the vegetation, turning over logs and stones, using a dip net to look at aquatic life and using an ultraviolet light to attract nocturnal insects. Join me as I document the spring migration of birds and record their breeding success. I won’t forget the resident beaver and the other mammal visitors to the pond, and of course there’s the fish, frogs and snakes. And for those botanists amongst my readers, I will try to document the flowering time of the various plants.