Not only is Vancouver one of the most beautiful cities in the world, but it also boasts world class bird watching. This country is spread out over a multitude of Micro ecosystems, from the spectacular snow-capped mountains to the north, to the farmlands in the south and east. All of it is transected by the mighty Fraser River meandering through marshland, multi-armed, to the Pacific Ocean to the west. This little portion of heaven is also one of the major stops on the Pacific Flyway giving it one of the best spots for migration birding. It rarely freezes solid along the coast in the winter months, which makes it one of the only spots in Canada for winter birding of terrestrial migrants. Vancouver is solidly in the Temperate Rain Forest as well as having areas that are in the rain shadow of Vancouver Island. These two environmental facts give it an average yearly rainfall difference of 55 inches. In the south, near the border, there is just 45 inches of rain contrasting with the 99 inches that fall along the mountains to the north, all of which is located within an hour’s drive. If you are looking for an amazing birding experience, Vancouver is one of the world’s best and as a bonus, you will get the amazing scenery thrown in for free.
Vancouver is west of the Rockies which gives it a very distinct geographic boundary separating the western species like the Stellar’s Jay from the more common Blue Jay to the east. If you are from the east or south I recommend a field guide. I don’t always use a field guide, but when I do……. I enjoy Sibley’s Field Guide to Birds of Western North America (pause for comedic effect.) A good portion of the species that live here year round have a slight darkening in the coloring of their feathers. Downy Woodpeckers, Song Sparrows, even Sooty grouse are somewhat grayer here on the “Wet” coast along with several other birds but are still considered the same species anywhere else on the continent. Reasoning for muted white is most likely the dense and dark forests here as well as the greater amount of overcast days giving darker birds the advantage for survival. In the summer there is a large diversity of birds that breed here, spread out over the different ecosystems. From the mountain birds, like Sooty Grouse, Black and Vaux’s Swifts and Olive-sided Flycatchers to the heavy Fir and Cedar forests like Hutton’s Vireo, Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Band-tailed Pigeons and Varied Thrush. There are also the deciduous forests made up of Cottonwood and alder and willow, where you will find Bullocks Oriole, Western Tanager, Rufous Hummingbirds and Willow Flycatchers. In the winter there are a great many birds that stay along the coast including Brant, Long-tailed Duck, Dunlin, Peregrine Falcon and a large number of Bald Eagles. Because the delta rarely freezes for long, there are several birds that make their home in the marshes and farmland as well including, Trumpeter Swans, Virginia Rail, American Widgeon, Short-eared Owl, and the Western Meadowlark.
The Parks and Rec
The jewel in Vancouver’s crown has to be Stanley Park. The 1000 acre park is surrounded by the salt water of English bay and Vancouver Harbour and is home to a wonderful array of species. You will find the Ocean going birds in the waters around the park on a path at sea level called the “Sea Wall.” There are freshwater birds in Lost Lagoon and the forest birds that live among some of Vancouver’s largest trees in the middle of the park. The trails here are well kept, very accessible and in close proximity to downtown. Another notable park in Vancouver proper is Queen Elizabeth Park. Not only is it one of the higher points to view the city from, but the many different plant species here draw in a great many type of birds to this little island in the city. When you are finished with your birding, you can head to the Bloedel Conservatory on the top of the park grounds and see some of the tropical birds housed in the geodesic dome that was built in 1969. An area that is fantastic for birding just alongside the Vancouver International Airport is Iona Island. Although a cab ride is required from the airport, there is a wonderful walk around the outer ponds which are home to several duck species in the breeding season as well as close ups of Marsh Wrens and the only place in the lower mainland to see Yellow-headed Blackbirds. If you are stealthy enough, this is also one of the best places to see Wilson’s snipes. The walk out on the Jetty, which extends well out into the ocean, can be very productive if the tide is right, especially during migration. In the fall you can see Snow Bunting, Horned Lark, Lapland Longspur and is one of the best places for Wandering Tattler. Because of the distance out into the straight, there is a good chance of seeing birds that rarely come ashore, including Yeagers and several species of gulls and terns. A must see spot in Vancouver is the Reifel Bird Sanctuary in Delta, just south of the Airport. This is a series of ponds and dykes on the flats where the Fraser River meets the ocean through a series of shallow islands of silt deposits. The sanctuary has done a wonderful job of using a combination of plants to keep the diversity of birds interesting. Among the highlights here are the Sandhill Cranes that nest here and the Black-crowned Night Herons that winter in the refuge with the Cranes. This is a great location for rarities as well with Tropical Kingbirds, Bohemian Waxwings, Snowy and Great Grey Owls all making brief appearances in the last couple of years. Rare bird sightings in Vancouver can be found "here."
At night, one of the magical things about Vancouver is to be able to look up towards the mountains and see the lights on the tops of the mountain in three locations along the north shore. These are fabulous locations for boarding or birding in the winter when the snow is falling but they are also the perfect place for bird watching in the summer. The three ski hills in close proximity to the city are Grouse, Cypress and Seymour. Grouse has a spectacular gondola ride to the main staging area. Both Cypress and Seymour are accessible by vehicle all year round. In the winter, trails are perfect for snowshoeing, where you are most likely going to see Gray Jays, Mountain Chickadees, Red Crossbills with the occasional Sooty Grouse. In the summer months, the snow has melted almost completely by May and hiking boots will get you into some spectacular areas allowing views of American Dipper, Townsend Warblers and Hermit Thrush. My favorite walk is one around Yew Lake at Cypress Bowl which leads to all sorts of fantastic sights. This including a section of old growth forest trunks that four full grown men can’t put their arms around. Look for Red-breasted Sapsucker and Pacific Wren and Varied Thrush in the old growth. Always good to keep your eyes open here in the summer so as not to startle the bears that are usually in the area eating berries….. not people.
The Farmer and the Dell
The Fraser River mouth is one of the largest, most fertile deltas in British Columbia and is a major stopover on the Pacific Flyway, allowing hundreds of thousands of birds to recharge on their way north to breeding grounds or south to warmer winter weather. In Richmond and Delta, during the winter months, the hay and corn fields are packed with waterfowl like the Trumpeter Swan, White-fronted Geese, American and Eurasian Widgeon as well as the raptors that feed on the birds here like Bald Eagles and Northern Harriers. If you are lucky enough to know where the carrots were grown in the summer, this is where the swans love to be. In the summer, the fields are alive with the Savanah Sparrows, Brewer’s Blackbirds and Barn Swallows. In several barns here in the lower mainland live our Barn Owls which are essentially the only members of their species to breed in Canada. There has been a concerted effort by the local owl groups and government to help the process of making baby Barn Owls. In some of the parks in Surrey and Richmond, they have gone to making miniature barns for the owls to nest and roost which helps in the symbiotic relationship of farmer and owl. A family of Barn owls can eat up to 2000 small rodents a year and that means those little critters eat less of the farmer’s crops or animal feed. These farmlands are vital to the bird populations that make them home and an irreplaceable stop along the journey from the artic to the tropics. These farmland should be viewed as a resource for birds and people alike as both species are running out of room for collecting food.
The Great Big Blue
Two locations to get wonderful land views of the birds on Vancouver’s salt water, besides Stanley Park, are the pier at White Rock and Lighthouse park in West Vancouver. White Rock is south and very close to the USA border crossing at Blaine. This little suburb of Vancouver is in the rain shadow I mentioned and gives it a wonderful chance of being sunny even if Vancouver is under a blanket of clouds. The pier is a wonderful place to see all sorts of salt water birds as well as grab a great meal. Be warned that summer is very busy here and it is recommended to bird in the early morning. There can be some fantastic looks at the three types of scoters, grebes, and loons as they will feed in and around the pier if the tide is right. Lighthouse Park requires a bit of walking from the parking to the water. (Hint: the trip back up the hill is the hard part.) Once there, the view is beautiful. Some of the birds to be seen here are Marbled Murrelet, Pigeon Guillemot, Black Oystercatcher and the beautiful Harlequin Duck. If you are going to spending any amount of time here head to one of the islands that have to be reached by ferry. These can be some of the best birding opportunities for seeing the oceanic birds as BC Ferries has a fantastic view from most of the car decks. If you get there early enough, the ferry jetty in Tsawwassen is also a fantastic place to see shorebirds and bay ducks from.
These are just some of the highlights from our wonderful city, but Vancouver is full of fantastic locations to bird and it is extremely difficult to hit all of these places, even if you have a week. If you are interested in making a trip this way and like to adventure out on your own, I would be happy to recommend an itinerary, free of charge. I will even guide a tour if that is what your heart so desires, but that does come with a small price tag which we can discuss when you click “here.”
“Beauty and the Birds” is how Vancouver should be noted in the travel guides, at least for the people interested in birding. The beautifully green city, back-dropped by the snow-capped mountains and the sounds of birds in every tree-filled corner. Plan on spending a week at least if you want to catch all that Vancouver has to offer. Once you have been to the Left Coast, you will want to stay. It happened to me!