Winter at Helmcken Falls

Helmcken Falls is certainly one of the most spectacular, accessible waterfalls in British Columbia. Located in Wells Gray Provincial Park, you can access the waterfall by paved road. Of course road accessibility in winter is impacted by snow- the region receives a great deal of snow! We were fortunate in that when we traveled to the park this past week the road into the falls viewing area had just been plowed, and when we arrived we were the only people there. (Subsequently we saw two other vehicles on the road- certainly not crowded!) It is also the location of one of the most dangerous and difficult ice climbs on the continent, and the 141 metre climb was made in February by a renowned climber from Alberta. (I don’t think I would want to watch such a climb!) The waterfall is about two and a half times the height of Niagara Falls, but in winter, a significant part of the falls is concealed by a gigantic ice cone that forms around the base. The drive into the falls is beautiful, and we were fortunate to see crossbills, a black-backed woodpecker, a Cassin’s finch, a ruffed grouse, eagles and numerous other birds. In the summer, we have seen black bears and a moose on this same road.

The sign welcoming you to Wells Gray Provincial Park.
Red crossbill (male).
View from the lookout. This photo shows the very large ice cone that has formed from the frozen spray.
Helmcken Falls and canyon.
Ice formations at the edge of the falls.
The top of the falls.
A bridge on the way to the falls. We watched the snow plow exiting the bridge. It is pretty tricky for the operator as the plow is wider than the bridge, so he had to angle the plow significantly!
Pine siskin.
Cassin’s finch.
Heading south to Clearwater after visiting Helmcken Falls.
Ruffed grouse.

February in SW British Columbia

I very much enjoy the winter, outdoors in South Western BC, particularly when I think of winters in other places I have lived. Most weeks, I am able to get out two to four times a week for walks, hikes, cycling or birding. Although there are many rainy days, there are still numerous opportunities within the rainy weeks for good outings. The fact that there are so many northern birds wintering in the area makes this region one of the best winter “birding” locations in Canada. So far this year (mid-month), I have managed to see more than 100 species of birds in the area. (Serious birders are able to find many more species than I am able to find!) I know this is not a large number compared to what could be found in such places as Florida and other warmer locations, but it is certainly much more than I was able to identify when living in Ontario and Quebec, and we have mountains and ocean to enjoy as well. Here are some of my favourite photos from the month (so far).

Barred owl, watching me from high in a cedar tree.
Northern pintail drake.
The pintails certainly spend a lot of time feeding, and I generally see their butts when I am trying to photograph them!
Northern pintail hen.
With the salmon flushed out of the rivers, it is now more common to find bald eagles in trees or on poles near the shoreline and near “fast food” locations such as landfills. Without fish readily available, the ducks and other birds are much more nervous when eagles are around. Often when a large number of birds lift-off, it is due to the presence of eagles.
The eagles can be seen pairing up. For those that stay year-round, many are starting nesting activities. While most of the eagles in the area will leave in the Spring, there remain a substantial number that nest in the region.
Eagle couple.
The trumpeter swans are still present in large numbers and stay on a number of ponds and lakes in the area overnight. In the morning they leave the ponds ands forage in farmers’ fields. It is fun to watch them take-off at day break. They require a long “runway” to take off, and literally need to run on the surface of the water, flapping their wings to lift-off. It is a noisy spectacle!
There are a large number of owls in the region, but they are not easy to find as many species are nocturnal. It had been more than a year since I last saw a great-horned owl (although we hear them from time to time on our street, at night). When I found the owl in this photo, I was actually looking for the much smaller saw-whet owl, in a tree where I had seen one a year earlier. No saw-whet owl this time, but much higher in the tree I saw this great-horned owl glaring down at me, from about forty feet above me. Saw-whet owls have been few in number this winter.
Short-eared owls have been relatively plentiful this winter. As they do some of their hunting in daylight hours (particularly in tidal marshes) they are also easier to photograph.
It seems that every time I have seen short-eared owls, I have also seen northern harriers, with which they compete.
Another bird that will soon be nesting in the area, is the great blue heron.
The winter months are also the best months to see ducks. I am amazed at the size of fish some ducks can swallow. (Yes, I watched this hooded merganser swallow the fish whole!) Lesser scaup in the foreground.
I can never resist taking photos of the wood ducks! (I think this photo would make a good puzzle!)
The spotted towhee is one of the most prevalent songbirds in the area in the winter. (Not much of a song though.)
House finch on a blackberry bramble.
Purple finch
Yellow-rumped warbler (hiding his yellow rump).
I went looking for the elusive pygmy owl. No luck in that regard; the scenery is a pretty good consolation. Mount Slesse.
Mount Baker (Kulshan). The view I never get tired of! It is the dominant mountain seen from the Lower Mainland of BC.

More from January: in SW British Columbia

This has been a good month for photography in southern BC, particularly compared to much colder places I have lived. While there has been a lot of rain, it has been warm and the non-rainy times have been excellent for being outdoors. When I have been tempted to complain, I think back to being stuck in a snow-filled ditch at -25 Celsius in SW Ontario while trying to find snowy owls! So far I have taken more than 3000 photos this month – a great number by my standards. Here are a few of my favourites. I don’t think I have posted more than one or two of these on Facebook.

Sunrise over Mount Baker (Kushan) taken from our deck.
Mature bald eagle with dead salmon being pursued by juvenile eagle.
Bald eagle, landing. (Harrison Mills)
Barred owl sleeping after a large meal. There were wings of a gull on the ground below this owl.
Bald eagles competing for the prize.
Northern shoveler drake.
Beaver, just a few feet in front of me, slipping into the water.
Great blue heron observing me, while I was observing a family of beavers.
Common goldeneye drake.
North shore mountains, taken from Howe Sound.
Mount Baker, from the Salish Sea
Common loon
Common goldeneye family.
Glaucous winged gull
Pileated woodpecker (female).
Anna’s hummingbird, flaring his gorget.
Long-eared owl
Sea lions
Trumpeter swans taking off.
The same trumpeter swans in flight.
Mount Slesse, seen through a hole in the clouds.
Northern pygmy owl
Wood duck drake
Double crested cormorant.
Mount Baker and the Burnaby skyline.
Sea lion
Anna’s hummingbird
Beaver. I was on a bridge and watched as this beaver swam to the bridge. When it saw me, it flapped its tail and disappeared under the water.
Bald eagles

Short-eared Owls

Earlier this week, we were fortunate to have good views of short-hard owls at Brunswick Point, Delta. We had timed our visit to coincide with high tide, in the belief that rodents would be forced to the surface and inland by the rising water. Whether this rationale was correct or not, it worked and we were able to watch northern harriers and short-eared owls actively hunting. This is quite different from our experience with short-eared owls in Southern Indiana, where it was exceptional to see them at any time other than dawn or dusk, as they would hunt there nocturnally – except in cold or snowy weather.

More from the Nature Reserves of the Lower Fraser Valley in November

The lower Fraser is an incredibly rich area for biodiversity. The river, the valley and the delta combined with a mild climate all contribute to this richness. For birding, November is one of the best months; quite a contrast from the rest of Canada. Many birds from further north are able to winter in the region, while other birds remain year round. The following photos were all taken in the last week.

Short-eared owl. They have recently arrived in the region.
Sandhill crane. While there are some permanent residents, there is a migration ongoing that passes through the Fraser delta.
Tropical kingbird. Normally found in Mexico, a few migrants actually work their way north. There are reports every year or two in the Vancouver area. Definitely a rarity.
Trumpeter swans. Several thousand winter in the valley, generally roosting on small ponds and lakes at night.
American avocet. Not a common bird to see in the region in November.
American goldfinch. Most migrate but some remain for the winter.
Bushtit. A year round resident.
Snow bunting. Another winter visitor.
American bittern. Not too common and generally very difficult to spot. This one was unusually cooperative.
Spotted towhee. One of my favourite residents.
Least sandpiper. Literally hundreds of thousands of shorebirds pass through the Fraser delta, and many stay in the area for the winter.
Sharp-shinned hawk. With the loss of leaves, hawks are generally easier to spot in the winter months.
Great-blue heron. Just can’t resist taking photos of these birds, that are present in large numbers, year round.
Cooper’s hawk. Another hawk that is easier to spot in the winter.
Bald eagle. Their numbers increase dramatically in the winter months.
Ruddy duck. Again, winter is the best time to see ducks in this region.
Ring-necked duck.
Snow geese. These geese winter here in the thousands, migrating from Siberia.
Barred owl. Always a favourite to see!

Autumn in the Fraser Valley

After a warm and dry September and October, Autumn has come to the Fraser Valley, with rain, cooler temperatures and some snow. The following photos were taken this past week.

Bald eagle, Harrison River.
Snow geese. Westham Island.
Spawning chum salmon. Chehalis wetland.
Harrison River
Cackling geese.
Sandhill crane.
Northern harrier , Westham Island.
Barn owl.
Red-tail hawk.
Brown creeper.
Bald eagle.
Male Anna’s hummingbird
Barred owl.
Great-blue heron.
Sunrise over Mount Baker.
Fraser River.

Drama with the Elk in Banff

We had the opportunity to watch a herd of elk, in Banff. Within a herd of more than 80 elk, it would appear that there were two dominant bulls, some lesser bulls, some juvenile bulls with the remainder being cows and juveniles. Above the road we were on, was the dominant bull elk, with a large number of cows. Below the road, there was another large bull elk, with a lesser number of cows. This bull elk, and the cows were clearly agitated and restless. Meanwhile we heard bugling, from the dominant bull in the upper herd. Slowly but surely the cows from the smaller, lower heard started to migrate to the upper herd and the dominant bull. This caused great distress for the other bull and he made moves on several occasions to cross toward the upper herd, presumably to challenge the other bull, Each time he proceeded, he backed off, eventually settling down in the lower field. Meanwhile two lesser bulls started sparring. The following photos illustrate the drama that played out.

Some of the cows and juveniles in the upper herd.
The dominant bull elk, with two juveniles.
The second dominant elk with the lower herd, pacing back and forth. He was extremely agitated and made several short charges. The marks on its side are likely the result of a previous battle with the other bull. We had heard reports that they had indeed battled the day before.
Two cows from the lower herd. They seemed very nervous of the bull and were chased at one point.
The second bull elk, after deciding not to challenge the bull from the upper herd.
Cows from the lower herd, migrating to the upper herd and the dominant bugling bull.
Younger bull elk, trying to establish “pecking order”.

Mount Saint Helens

Last week we traveled to Mount Saint Helens. It was our third attempt to view the mountain. On our first attempt, we had a good visit to the Visitor Centre, but the mountain was obscured by cloud. On our second attempt, we had to turn back because of dense fog! On this trip, the mountain was in clear view, although as the day wore on, nearby mountains (Mount Rainier and Mount Adams) became obscured by rapidly building clouds, which came with the mid 30’s temperatures (90 degrees Fahrenheit). The National Monument dedicated to the 1980 eruption is awesome, in the truest sense of the word. It is difficult to imagine the slide that took more than 2000 feet off the mountain. It is just as difficult to imagine the blast that scorched and knocked down large trees more than twenty miles away. Similarly it is difficult to imagine an 800 foot tsunami in Spirit Lake, caused when it was hit by the immense slide. The film we saw in the Visitor Center is exceptional. After our visit to the Visitor Centre, we decided to take the back roads that approach Spirit Lake from the east. Despite a long drive over very slow roads, it was well worth the effort.

Mount Saint Helens
Mount Saint Helens National Monument Visitor Centre
The view from the Theatre at the Visitor Centre. After the movie, the screen lifts to reveal this view.
One of many bridges on the way. This one is 370 feet above the canyon.
Erosion through the volcanic mud flow, below Mount Saint Helens.
A barren mountain slope more than 20 miles from Mount Saint Helens, showing trees scorched and blasted to the ground by the 1980 eruption.
Driving to the east side of Mount Saint Helens, we had only brief views of Mount Rainier, due to the build up of clouds in the heat.
Spirit Lake, viewed from the east. The scorched remains of thousands of trees trunks from the eruption litter the lake.
Scorched remains of tree trunks in Spirit Lake.
Elk, on the drive to Spirit Lake. We also had a large black bear run across the road in front of us, after which it scrambled at great speed up a steep slope. No photos as I was driving, and he disappeared quickly!
Mount Adams, one of four volcanic peaks we saw on this outing (Mount Rainier, Mount Saint Helens and Mount Hood being the others).
Steam, emerging from the dome on Mount Saint Helens.
The view from Windy Point, which was the end of the road on this eastern entry to the Mount Saint Helens National Monument.

At the Osprey Nest

In Abbotsford, near the Fraser River, there is an osprey nest I like to visit from time to time. Last year, I was able to watch a pair of ospreys raise one chick. On various visits, I saw the adults on the nest, and later when the egg had hatched, bringing fish to the chick. This year, this same pair has had two chicks that are now close to fledging. I was lucky enough to see the ospreys mating in late April, shortly after their return to the nest. More recently I have watched as the parents return with fish and the juveniles practice flapping their wings, soon ready to take flight. One is clearly more advanced than the other- I believe it hatched earlier than the other. But earlier this week I was able to watch the mother selectively feed the less developed of the two chicks. It has been interesting to watch how the one parent on the nest is well aware of the approach of the other with food, well before I can hear or see the approaching parent. It is also interesting to see how defensive the ospreys become when an eagle or vulture passes nearby. On my last visit to the nest, I was also able to observe a raccoon and two black bears that were foraging nearby (too far for good photos). I expect one of the juveniles will fledge this week. I look forward to more visits.

Osprey in flight near nest in late April.
Male osprey approaching nest.
Male osprey, landing on female.
Note the manner in which the male has clenched its talons to prevent harm to the female.
Three months later – July 25. Mother osprey with two chicks.
Male osprey, bringing “catch of the day” to the nest.
Mother feeding juvenile osprey. She would break off pieces of fish and feed the two juveniles. It seemed that she was deliberately feeding the lesser developed juvenile more. This happens to be the more developed juvenile.
Male osprey, returning to the nest with more fish. I have observed the osprey delivering full fish , as well as “half fish”, as in this photo.
The two juveniles. The one juvenile has been spreading its wings over the last week. The second juvenile has not started this behaviour yet.
Female osprey returning to the nest with a stick that it carefully placed. The juveniles clearly thought that mother was returning with food. Was the mother teaching Nest Building 101?
Mother watching junior flexing its wings.
Father, off to do more fishing.

Summer Birds: Western Canada

A selection of bird photos taken in Western Canada in late May, June and July.

Sandhill cranes – mating dance
Common mergansers
Lazuli bunting
Varied thrush

Common yellowthroat
Cooper’s hawk
Cedar waxwings
McGillivray’s warbler
Western tanager
Western tanager
Black-throated grey warbler
Black-headed grosbeak
Pileated woodpecker
Black-throated grey warbler
Bullock’s oriole
Yellow warbler
Willow flycatcher
Bullock’s oriole (female)
Townsend’s warbler
Common mergansers
Common merganser with chick on back
Pine siskin