December 29, 2017

Retracing the Christmas Count

 We have participated in the Vancouver Christmas Bird Count in the past, and since we didn't manage anything exotic over the holidays we decided to be involved again this year. Unfortunately it rained the entire day so we got thoroughly soaked, didn't take many photos, and (worst of all) had pretty mediocre sightings. Luckily, the weather cleared a few days later so we took another long walk through Stanley Park in search of birds. The varied thrush is pretty stunning in good light and I always forget that we have them in decent numbers during Vancouver winters.
 Deeper in the forest, Kathryn turned up a pileated woodpecker tearing away at the side of a tree. It was a reasonably agreeable bird in that it let us get fairly close and photograph it for awhile, but was also a quickly moving dark bird in deep shade, so of 100+ photos there were only 2 worth keeping. An impressive sight and a good find all the same.
 Finally, we wound up on the sea wall and came across a group of 6 or so Black Oystercatchers. We have photographed and shared pictures of these birds in the past, but this set had particularly brilliant bills that almost seem to be lit from within. We've had several encounters with a group (we assume to be the same batch) of oystercatchers over the last week and learned their distinctive and high-pitched call is a surefire way to locate dark birds on wet rocks.

December 22, 2017

Walking with the Winter Waterfowl

My Christmas break started a little early and I was very pleased to have glorious weather on my first day off. Since Kathryn was driving for the ferries, I decided to walk down to Granville Island, meet up with her for a ride east, and then have a long wander home. On the way out I had a close look at a Bufflehead, which are a common duck along the coast here but typically as shy as they are small. This male surfaced repeatedly quite close to the seawall and I was able to capture the lovely iridescence on his head better than ever before - typically they look black and white and I had no idea their heads were so colourful.
 This pied-billed grebe has been lurking near some fishing boats in False Creek for most of the winter and I have long wanted to get a few pictures. As I initially searched its territory I became concerned it had moved on, but just as I was giving up it swam around a corner and posed quite obligingly.
 Every year Vancouver gets huge flocks of surf scoters during the fall migration and a handful of them stick around for the winter. With their white-patched heads and big orange bills they are easy to identify and always a pleasing bird to see. This one was quite close to the shore in English Bay and in perfect light to catch its markings and clearly highlight its eye.

November 1, 2017

The Eclipse

 Portland is a beautiful city which we had a great time exploring, but our primary purpose was to experience 99% totality in the eclipse. We were clearly not the only people with that idea but the spot we found was less crowded than we had feared (though we were in place by 6am just in case) It's also hard for anyone to get their head in your way when you're all looking at the sun, so personal viewing space was not a problem.
 The eclipse itself was incredible but in many ways different than I had expected. I had NOT thought the quality of the light would get so strange and diffused, or that you would feel a change in temperature so quickly. Somewhat naively I HAD expected a large shadow to move across the ground when in reality there is just a gradual darkening, because even 1% of the sun is pretty bright. My personal highlight was during near-totality when everyone was cheering and Kathryn shouted "WOOOOO!! UNIVERSE!!"
 I had also (somewhat foolishly) opted against getting a fancy (and expensive) solar filter. While we had no camera damage of any sort, all my photos were just giant flares. Fortunately, Kathryn captured some pretty cool blooms and edge glows like the picture above. As luck would have it, the fellow next to us that we'd spent the morning chatting with had a sheet of filter in a piece of cardboard you could drop over the end of your lens, and Kathryn used that to take a more classic eclipse photo as shown below.
Apologies for being so late getting these pictures up, the fall has been kicking both our butts, and finding the time and energy to even share a few pictures is tricky to do.

October 15, 2017

Travelling to Portland by Rail

 Getting from Vancouver to Portland by train is surprisingly easy provided you are willing to get started VERY early in the morning. The train leaves town at 6:30am and since it is an international trip, you are encouraged to arrive at least an hour early for ticketing and customs while some websites suggest an earlier arrival to ensure a good seat. Since we did not expect to be the only people going down for the eclipse, we were at the station by 5:15am and even that left us fairly late in the line. Protip: if you leave early for this trip, make sure you remember the delicious lunch you packed or it becomes the delicious dinner you return to.
 Once we were seated and the train was underway it was a very soothing chance to sit back and enjoy the scenery as it goes by. The trip is about 8.5 hours all in, but since you can get up for coffee and to stretch your legs anytime (except briefly at the border) you never end up cramped or uncomfortable. We had heard that the best view is from the right side (going south) and would certainly agree that its worth trying to get a seat on the seaward side for the journey.
 The train station in Portland is right downtown and we were easily able to start exploring the city as soon as we got off. In comparison, the airport is further out to the east and would have required a little more time tinkering with transit and collecting baggage before starting the adventure. All in all this is a very enjoyable and highly recommended means of getting from BC to Oregon.

October 1, 2017

Wandering Washington Park

 Somewhat confusingly, Washington park is neither in the city of state of Washington, but rather on the west side of the city of Portland in Oregon. Regardless of the unexpected given the location, it is a large and beautiful bit of land close the the heart of a sizeable city, much like our own Stanley Park. Near the train station, is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which does a great job of commemorating the people who served while also being a pleasant place AND including some lighthearted moments of Oregon history during those years to remind us all that real life continues during times of war.
 Next up, the International Test Rose Garden is apparently the oldest rose test garden in the USA, boasting over 7,000 plants from more than 500 variations. However you count them, the flowers in the garden were stunning and a delight to walk through, covering a large space to help diffuse the large number of people visiting at any given day.
 Also close to the main entrance was this neat old locomotive which I was unable to pass up the chance to have my picture taken in the cab of. Despite being decommissioned years ago and severely burned in an accident not that long ago, it has been very nicely restored and creates a great photo op.

September 24, 2017

An Introduction to Falconry

Earlier this summer, Kathryn found a voucher for a 2-for-1 raptor encounter, and we recently made the trip out to Maple Ridge to make good of our plan. For about 2 hours, we were able to spend time with a pair of Harris's Hawks, which are a neat bird native to Arizona and parts of South America. They are particularly good introductory falcons as they have a more gregarious social structure than most raptors, making them easier for beginners.
 The lesson began with an introduction on handling the bird via a traditional large leather glove. Their feed have a thong on the legs which stop them from running too much (Harris's Hawks have surprisingly long legs and are sometimes ground hunters in the wild) and help keep them tethered to your glove. Once we were comfortable with each other, we took a short walk through the forest to get used to the weight of the bird and for them to adjust to our voices.
 Then we had pieces of food placed on the top of the glove which the hawks collected in a series of short flights from nearby perches. It was very enjoyable to see them fly and to watch them land and eat on your hand (though you are certainly grateful for the thick glove). All in all a very fun (albeit short) experience which may have fully whet Kathryn's appetite to take a more extensive falconry course in the future.

September 5, 2017

Whirlwind House Guest en route to Oz

 My dad was passing through town on his way to Australia and stayed with us for a little over 24 hours. Luckily I had booked the day off once Kathryn suggested we have a bit more time together, so I was able to capitalize on the entire time for a visit.
 I wanted to have a hike somewhere that would be new for him, so we trekked up to North Vancouver and hiked a series of trails from the reservoir at Capilano Lake downstream through the canyon and ultimately to the salmon hatchery shown below. There were lots of Coho running and they looked to be in very good shape, so it was nice to see healthy fish returning to where they began to start the next generations. The grounds are quite informative as well and you can see into the huge tanks where they rear thousands of fry to the size where they are more likely to survive in the wild.
 We were also fortunate to have a nice close look at this little squirrel munching on some food quite fearlessly at the side of the trail. I would have taken a picture and assumed it was a red squirrel without a second thought, but dad mentioned that it might be a Douglas squirrel which is a more rare species on the west coast, and with a little internet searching low and behold it was. So a new mammal species for me to round out our walk and brief visit! :)