The Snow Geese Migration

On New Year’s Day, we got the year off to a great start by driving out to Delta to see the Snow Geese. These large white birds are amazing to watch. Unlike Canada Geese, they do not usually fly in an organised V-formation but travel together in large dense flocks. On the ground, they are watchful and restless and will suddenly take off when Bald Eagles, people, dogs or other perceived threats are nearby.

The flock will start to grow noisier as the warning signal spreads and then suddenly the geese will take flight en masse and circle round and round in a chaotic jumble of wings, honking constantly. Eventually, they’ll land again.

Hundreds of geese taking off


Snow Geese mate for life. Within the flocks, you may be able to identify family groups. Although the young born each year are fully grown before they migrate here, like seagulls, their first set of adult feathers is grey, not white. Look for small groups containing two white birds and several darker birds.

We were lucky enough to spot a blue goose. A blue goose is a snow goose with a dominant dark gene and is not as common as the white goose. Both white and blue actually have completely white heads, but the soil they are digging in gives them a rusty orange colour.

One of these things is not like the others…

We visited in the late afternoon to time it for when the tide was high in the Estuary. This meant that the birds would move inland to the farms and be easier to view. As we watched and waited, more and more geese flew in to join the flock.

An incredible sight!

Snow Geese migrate here from Wrangel Island, Russia every winter.  They usually arrive in late October and stay in the area of the Fraser Estuary and surrounding farmland until late December. After that, they move to the Skagit River estuary, just south of the Canada/US border in the State of Washington. Both areas have flat farmland and coastal marshes which provide the birds with good food sources. They return to the Fraser estuary in spring, departing in April for the breeding season in Wrangel Island.

There is a bird count every year which is based on aerial photography. In 2016 there was a massive population increase of about 50% with over 100,000 birds arriving in Delta. The 2017 count is likely to be similar. It’s an amazing sight so if you didn’t manage to catch them this winter, try again in spring!

Whale Watching in Victoria

One of my favourite tourist activities in port cities and towns is whale watching. I love the ocean. I love getting out on a boat, smelling the salt in the air and scanning the horizon for a glimpse of sea creatures.

This Fall we took a day trip to Victoria and went whale watching with Springtide Whale Watching and Eco Tours. We were on one of their 60 foot motor yachts, the Marauder IV. The boot can accommodate 84 passengers plus crew. It was a pretty comfortable boat with a few options for sitting or standing on multiple decks. Susannah and I went immediately up to the bow to get a good photography spot where we’d be easily able to see over both sides of the boat.

We cruised out of Victoria Harbour and once out into open water the captain sped the boat up and away we went. Up at the bow, it got pretty bumpy so we sat down on the deck for awhile. It also got really cold and although we had brought extra layers we were very grateful for the jackets that the crew offered to everybody.

It wasn’t long before we spotted our first whale – a humpback. We tracked it for awhile and watched it arch and dive, sending water cascading over its beautiful tail.

It’s amazing how a whale can be identified by its unique colouring and markings with scratches and nicks accumulated over its lifetime.

Watching closely we realised our humpback was not alone – there were two! In the next couple of photos, you can see them together.

We were not the only ones watching – here is the Orca Spirit Adventures tour.

It seems like the whale watching companies have pretty good peer relationships so there was no competition to get closer than each other or to do anything that might harm the whales. That’s very important to us and why we select “Eco” tours. This boat looks super close but they weren’t moving and also the photo is taken with a very long lens which compresses distance.

The next photo shows you the size of a humpback whale compared to a tanker. It may also give you an idea of how busy shipping lanes could negatively impact whales.

We traveled around in search of more marine wildlife but failed to find any other cetaceans. We were taken to a little island with hopes to see seals, otters or maybe even an Orca. Our trip took place near the end of the massive BC forest fires which meant that the sky was very smoky and hazy. It was kind of eerie.

We saw harbour seals sunning themselves on the rocks.

There was some nice birdlife as well.

Our onboard naturalist gave an interesting talk about kelp and its uses and we even got to taste some freshly cut. Then we motored back to port to end our trip.

Whale watching is always unpredictable as you never know what you are going to see. Although there were no Orcas for us this time around, we did enjoy the majesty of the humpbacks.

We coupled this excursion with a morning visit to Victoria Butterfly Gardens. Together with our lovely afternoon out on the water, this made a great day trip from Vancouver.  As always, Victoria did not disappoint.

Victoria Butterfly Gardens

I had been wanting to go to the Victoria Butterfly Gardens for awhile now but we never seemed to have enough time when visiting the Island. This trip we factored in a bit of extra time and put it in the schedule. I’m glad we did.

We caught a morning ferry over to Swartz Bay and arrived at Butterfly Gardens not long after they opened. The building seems quite small from the outside, but inside it contains quite a lot. Just past the admission counter we explored the newly opened (January 2017) Insectarium. This area houses a collection of unusual looking and interesting insects. I was fascinated by the leaf cutter ant colony and seriously could have watched them working for hours.

Leaf Cutter Ants

Some of the other insects were camouflaged pretty well.

After moving slowly through the insectarium we entered the tropical Rain Forest area which houses the butterflies. I immediately noticed how hot and humid it was. I’d definitely recommend wearing layers when visiting. The change in temperature may cause your camera (or glasses) to fog up but there an anti-fog station right by the door to help visitors deal with this.

The Gardens were smaller in area than I expected, but they are large enough to spend time meandering around or even to just sit and watch the butterflies fluttering by.

Susannah just chilling with the butterflies

The educational component of the Gardens is really good and there’s plenty of interesting info to read while you walk through.

Signs tell you to watch where you put your feet and it’s good advice. I almost stepped on this pretty little guy.

Tailed Jay

They have 70 different species of butterfly. Me and my macro lens had a lot of fun!

Tiger (or Golden) Helicon
Brown Clipper
Giant Owl Butterfly
Mexican Sister

The Gardens has a variety of lush tropical vegetation and there is a waterfall at one end which runs into a pond. The pond contains fish and ducks and two resident flamingoes. There are also tortoises, parrots, frogs, iguana, and geckoes. All of the animals there are rescues, donations or adoptions.

Flamingo

Red Footed Tortoises

Victoria Butterfly Gardens is located in Brentwood, about 15 minutes drive from the Swartz Bay Ferry Terminal or 30 minutes from Downtown Victoria. It’s only about 5 minutes from Butchart Gardens so it would be great to do both in one visit.  I would suggest allowing about 1-1.5 hours for the Butterfly Gardens and Insectarium, depending on how fascinated you are by small things.

The ticket prices may seem a little high for the size of the space, but no other place on the island offers the same experience and parking is free, so factor that in. I definitely felt it well worth a visit and if I were local I’d consider an annual pass which is just under the price of two visits.

Kayaking at Bowen Island

A few years ago Susannah and I decided to get away from the city for awhile so we moved to Bowen Island. We found an amazing house on the West Side of the Island, not far from Bowen Bay. In the Fall, not long after we moved, I had a medical procedure for back problems and at the same time, I came off some pretty hardcore prescription pain medicine. Our location on the Island was very quiet and peaceful, so it was a great place to recover and recuperate. We went for long walks in the forest, enjoyed watching deer hanging out in the backyard and saw the most amazing sunsets at the beach. After 6 months, we reluctantly decided it was time to move back to the City, so in the Spring our Island adventure came to an end.

One thing we never had a chance to do while on Bowen was kayak, so after we moved back to Vancouver we decided to revisit on a day trip. For my birthday we went back to Bowen Island and across to Bowen Bay. After launching we had to choose to paddle left or right. We headed to the right with the intention of sticking to the coastline but then we heard something amazing.

Across the water, floated a sound of deep exhalation. And again. We looked over the water and spotted a dorsal fin of and Orca as it surfaced. Then another. Then another. We changed our course and headed towards Pasley Island. There appeared to be 3-4 Killer Whales swimming not too far off the Coast.

We were very careful not to get too close (all images here are taken with a long zoom lens). Canadian law states that any vessel should stay 100m away from whales. We paddled to about that distance and then stopped to observe. It was hard to tell where they were going to surface and for awhile they seemed to be heading West but then an Orca surfaced unexpectedly close to us. So close in fact that Susannah had to reverse paddle to retain a respectable distance between us and them.


Orca tailslapping

The sound they made when surfacing to exhale was amazing. Watching them was incredible. There was one large male whose huge dorsal fin was quite intimidating.


We quietly watched them for about an hour before they headed out into open water and we paddled back to the beach.

After a bit of a rest and some “OMG” debriefing time we ventured out again and to the left. This time we were treated to some cool bird life.

Belted Kingfisher (female)



We returned to the beach to watch the sunset and then headed down to Snug Cove to grab some food before catching the ferry home.

An experience like this is totally random and lucky (we could have paddled left and not seen them at all!) and I am incredibly grateful for receiving it. It was a magical day and definitely a birthday to remember.

We took our own kayaks but there are rental kayaks available at Snug Cove. Bown Island Sea Kayaking offers lessons, rentals and guided tours from April till October. Have a go – I’m sure you’ll love it!

Hell’s Gate Airtram

With the fantastic weather we were treated with this Victoria Day long weekend, we thought we’d venture out on a day trip and explore somewhere new. We chose Hells Gate.

Hell’s Gate is located in the southern Fraser Canyon, 2.5 hours drive from Vancouver – ideal for day-tripping.  The name originates with the great explorer Simon Fraser who in 1808 wrote in his journal that “surely this is the gate of hell”, referring to the canyon’s towering cliff faces and the tumultuous water below.

Hell’s Gate Airtram is a scenic attraction (don’t forget your cameras) and one that is steeped in Gold Rush and early explorer history. The Airtram travels across and down into the gorge giving you a bird’s eye view of the mighty Fraser River, the railway and the suspension bridge.

The railway and river as seen from the Tram on the descent

Hell’s Gate Airtram is one of the steepest fully suspended trams in North America,  descending 152m down to the observation deck.



At the bottom, there is a large observation area with plenty of seating, a gift shop, the aptly named Simon’s Cafe, and a fudge and ice-cream shop where you can reward yourself for your bravery! There is also a suspension bridge where you can get a closer view of the roaring water.

Looking upriver with the observation area and cafe on the left

When we visited it was a very hot day so we enjoyed ice-cream outside, watching the tiny birds flitting around the feeders.

A Pine Siskin feeding

Afterward, we walked across the suspension bridge and up to the railway track. Having just visited the Yale Historical Site and reading the history of the railroad and gold rush, we found ourselves marveling at the strength and determination of the early explorers and railway builders.

Facts for the statistically minded: The gorge at Hell’s Gate narrows abruptly to 35m (110ft), causing the fast-flowing water to thunder through the passage. At high water level, over 750,000,000 litres (200,000,000 gallons) of water per minute flow through the gorge. That’s twice the volume of Niagara Falls!

Looking down you get a real sense of the power of the water.

Bird’s eye view of the suspension bridge

For History Buffs: In 1913, while CN was blasting for the passage of the railway, a major rock slide into the river caused a dramatic drop in salmon run numbers. In 1944 Fishways were built at the side of the river to allow salmon to move upstream against a slower current. There is an exhibit at Hell’s Gate detailing the development of the Fishways and the salmon recovery.

Ode to the Salmon

We loved our visit to Hell’s Gate Airtram. It was a great day trip but would also be a nice rest stop for a few hours if you were traveling further.

The scenery was picturesque.

The view from the suspension bridge

Tips: There are two free parking lots; one on each side of the road. If traveling from Hope you can park in the lot on the righthand side of the road and cross the highway via an overpass. If you have mobility concerns, there is a turnaround a bit further along the highway so you can come back and park in the second lot closest to the entrance to avoid the stairs. The facilities are pet-friendly so bring your dog.

Hell’s Gate is open from April 12-October 9 (2017 dates). Canyon Appreciation Day, with admission by donation, is on May 28 this year.  If you are looking for a uniquely BC experience, check it out.

VanDusen Botanical Garden

One of my favourite places to visit in Vancouver is the VanDusen Botanical Garden. The garden is open year round and there is something to see in any season. Different areas are designed to flourish at different times of the year giving the garden a fresh look each time you visit.

Spring is my personal favourite. I love the fresh green of new growth, the colourful spring flowers, and the soft light.

Also, if I’m lucky, I get to see ducklings and goslings – super cute!

Sleepy time
Mama keeping an eye out

After entering the Garden we always beeline towards the far edges of the grounds then work our way back. It’s a large Park and there’s a lot to see with different vegetation starring in each season. The Garden has good maps and info on what to look for and what is peaking at any time. Check out their bloom calendar.

There are sculptures dotted around the grounds and a hedge maze with a Monkey Puzzle Tree at it’s centre – good fun for young and old.

My sister Kristine and bro-in-law Hamish succeed in the maze
Sculptures are throughout the Garden

HINT:  VanDusen has a lovely café but on a sunny day I recommend packing a lunch and bringing a picnic blanket. There’s ample space to stretch out and relax. Special events such as the Sakura Days Japan Fair in April or the Festival of Lights in December are super crowded, but most regular days if you walk away from the entrance to the right or the left you’ll soon get away from the crowds.

A busy day with the Annual Plant sale at VanDusen
A quieter spot

VanDusen Garden is located on Oak Street at West 37th Avenue. They have a good sized free parking lot, but if there is an event on I’d recommend driving past the entrance and making the next right-hand turn as you’ll usually find street parking there.

The Garden is not pet-friendly so leave your four-legged friends at home.

Susannah (right) and I enjoying a late afternoon visit

VanDusen is a great place for photography.  I love capturing the beautiful colours in different light. For photography, you can get nice photos on any camera  – the photos shown here range from DSLR to point and shoot. One suggestion I’ll make is to vary your angles and viewpoints – go high, go low, zoom in, go very wide – changing your point of view can add an interesting element to the images.

The Formal Rose Garden

Keep your eyes open – you never know what you’ll see.

Dragonfly

Have you been to VanDusen Garden? What is your favourite part?

Bear Watching in Prince Rupert

Ok I won’t lie. When we decided to go up North I knew that the bear watching excursion was going to be the highlight of my trip. Coming from New Zealand where there are NO BEARS (actually there are NO predatory animals PERIOD), even the thought of encountering a bear scares the bejeezes out of me. Yet as a photographer I am in awe of them and definitely wanted to see them in their natural environment.

On our trip to Prince Rupert, we were fortunate enough to be hosted by Prince Rupert Adventure Tours for our bear watching excursion. As our awesome B&B was right on the water’s edge, we were able to walk down to the dock after breakfast to check in and board. The vessel is able to accommodate 100 passengers and despite being fully booked, including a large boisterous school group,  I have to say that it did not seem too crowded and everyone was able to get a good viewing spot. Everyone was very accommodating and looked out for each other despite language and age barriers so that was pretty cool.

The Grizzly Bear Tour motors through the Chatham Sound for about 1.5 hours in order to reach the Khutzeymateen Valley, which is not reachable by land. On the way we saw some fantastic scenery and plenty of wildlife to look for. We saw lots of seabirds and a cluster of seals sunning themselves on some rocks.

Great scenery in Chatham Sound BC

Once in the Khutzeymateen area the Captain and crew use binoculars to look out for bears. Patience and complete silence is the key to good viewing as the Captain will pilot the vessel up as close as he/she can without disturbing the animals. The schoolkids turned their volume right down and everyone was very respectful. There were about 3-4 kids who stayed out on deck the entire time, pointing out wildlife and speaking in whispers. Can anyone say “Future Marine Scientists”?

I loved that this was an eco tour and that the impact on the bears was minimal. There was one occasion on our trip where we saw a young bear and approached but the Captain chose to pull away and move on as the bear seemed agitated, perhaps sensing our presence. As much as I wanted some bear shots, I am happy that the correct ethical decision was made for the animal. We remained a reasonable distance from the shore at all times – all of the shots here are taken with a telephoto lens.

We saw several bears and were able to observe them for some time. They were much skinnier than I had imagined they would be. As it was Spring they would have only recently woken from hibernation. Once awake they move down to the coastline to feast on the lush green grasses that grow near the water’s edge, giving them the vitamins and nutrients they need to kick-start their metabolisms.

Check out the claws on this one! Very glad I was on a boat and well off-shore.

To be able to view an animal in nature without negatively impacting on it’s environment is simply awesome! The excursion was, as expected, an amazing highlight of our trip and an adventure that I would totally recommend. It was also a very long day (6 hours) and many of us were dozing inside on the way back to Prince Rupert, myself included. Once we neared the port the Captain and crew had another treat for us. They threw animal fat high into the air at each side of the boat and within minutes we were surrounded by about 30 eagles diving and grabbing the food with their talons. They were fantastic to watch and an exciting end to a great day.


Many thanks to Prince Rupert Adventure Tours for such a wonderful trip. It was awesome. We’ll be back 🙂

So that my bear story, tell me yours!