VANCOUVER — British Columbia is where birds of a feather flock together — the province’s many bird watchers, that is. That's because Canada’s most westerly province is a vast and diverse natural region located on the Pacific Flyway, extending from Alaska to Patagonia, which migrating birds use seasonally while heading to and from their breeding and feeding grounds.
That means bird watchers can see many rare species almost anywhere here, from the province’s offshore pelagics and beautiful alpine plateaus, to its temperate rainforests and pocket deserts, or along its stunning coastal cliffs.
B.C. boasts the highest number of bird watchers in Canada and they range in age from young to old and from serious to casual. In fact, bird watching, or birding, has become one of the fastest growing hobbies in North America. Interestingly, in Canada, more time is spent bird watching than gardening. Young recruits to the sport are introducing new technologies, like smartphones and digital cameras, to record the birds they spot.
The COVID pandemic has only helped to popularize birding. At the height of the pandemic, people began to notice a fascinating world of birds just outside their windows and downloads of the Bible of birdwatching, the National Audubon Society’s bird-identification app, doubled in March and April. Over that same period, unique visits to the Audubon Society’s website were up by a half-million.
Meanwhile, the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology saw downloads of its free bird-identification app jump 102 per cent over the same period.
The interest in birding here is so great that many communities host bird festivals at various times of the year. Here’s some of the best events and places where bird watchers gather in B.C. annually:
Above: Birdwatchers in British Columbia come in all age groups and from every walk of life.
Fraser Valley Bald Eagle Festival
Home to one of the largest over-wintering population of bald eagles, the Fraser Valley hosts hundreds, even thousands, of eagles each fall as the magnificent raptors gather along the river’s edge to feast on the spawned-out salmon carcasses.
Set in Harrison Mills, just 30-minutes east of Mission, B.C., the festival has taken place each November for the past 25 years with activities that include educational displays, guided and self-guided tours and much more.
B.C. Bird Trail
With birders always looking for somewhere to quench their thirst, the B.C. Bird Trail has you covered with a carefully curated list of restaurants, cafés and pubs, including the Milltown Bar & Grill facing Richmond’s north coast, from where you can enjoy a meal or drink while watching the birds.
Birders get uninterrupted views of the Fraser River and Iona Beach Regional Park from the Milltown.
The Black Goose Inn in Parksville offers plenty of outdoor seating and views of the ocean and serves up a wide variety of beer on tap and the best British home-cooked meal on the island.
Above: Great blue herons do not migrate and depend on wetland habitat in the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island.
Chilliwack’s Great Blue Heron Nature Reserve
The great blue heron is one of the most distinctive North American birds. However, the Pacific sub-population do not migrate and depend entirely on wetland habitat in the Lower Mainland and on Vancouver Island for their survival.
The Pacific sub-population great blue heron is a species at risk and requires significant conservation efforts to ensure the long-term viability of its population.
The Great Blue Heron Nature Reserve in Chilliwack is home to one of the largest heron nesting colonies in the Lower Mainland. With 95 active nests, the colony is active from March through July each year.
A unique bird and experience
Birdwatchers here love to follow the migration of the bar-tailed gotwit, which travels one of the longest distances of any bird annually through B.C. to feeding and breeding grounds in the South Pacific.
The bar-tailed godwit, a larger wader bird, breeds along the Arctic tundra and boasts a population of about 100,000. Recently, through satellite tracking, it was discovered that the bar-tailed godwits make an epic non-stop flight of 11,680km from Alaska to New Zealand each season.
In B.C., the rare bar-tailed godwit is a regular migrant and has been seen in over 60 provincial locations, including Boundary Bay in Delta. Those looking to follow the path of these incredible creatures can chart their journey online by visiting the Global Flyway Network.
Above: Bird watching can be a family affair and a nice walk in the park.
North Island Wildlife Recovery Association
Founded in 1985, the North Island Wildlife Recovery Association (NIWRA) is a non-profit, world-class rehabilitation and educational facility situated on eight acres of immaculately manicured grounds. It cares for animals with all types of needs, including birds with broken wings, orphaned black bears, electrocuted eagles and much more.
The centre is also home to over 40 permanent resident birds, who were injured in such a way that they couldn’t survive in the wild. These include King Arthur, an uncommonly sighted golden eagle, who was shot in the wing joint, and Nugget, a steller jay who was illegally raised as a pet and eventually handed to the centre in deplorable conditions.
Rare bird alert in September
It’s not at all unusual for passionate birders to travel long distances to spot a rare bird. And for those people, September is their month.
With the kick-off of the migratory season, birds can sometimes be pushed off course and frequently land in some unknown territory.
The BC Rare Bird Alert provides current information on rare and noteworthy bird sightings in the province. Most recently, on Sept. 9, 2020, a juvenile curlew sandpiper was sighted in Parksville, making it the 15th recorded sighting of the bird in B.C., thus far. The medium-sized wader, with a long, slightly down-curved bill, normally breeds in the Russian tundra and winters in Africa, Australia and South and Southeast Asia.