Birdwatching is having a moment, with people around the world embracing time in nature. Luckily for those of us on Vancouver Island, there are countless opportunities for spotting our feathered friends.
By Linda Barnard | Photo by BC Bird Trail
Credit birds with providing our outdoor soundtrack to the global pandemic. Urged to get outside by health officials, the chirps and trills of birds sparked curiosity and we looked up. Along with sourdough, dalgona coffee and online shopping, birdwatching emerged as one of the lockdown’s biggest trends. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology says its eBird app had 50,000 more Canadian bird-spotting submissions in April 2020 than the previous April.
Birding is already in our nature on Vancouver Island, with about 240 resident bird species. Parksville, two hours up-island from Victoria, is the Island’s year-round birding capital. Tens of thousands of birds take a break there while on the Pacific Flyway migratory route from Patagonia to Alaska. Others spend the winter, taking advantage of plentiful food and ice-free water.
The new BC Bird Trail, launched by Tourism Richmond in September, reflects the rise in birding’s popularity and its impact on tourism. Like an ale trail for bird lovers, the online resource and trip-planning tool has self-guided itineraries for birdwatching events and destinations across central Vancouver Island and the Fraser Valley.
Nancy Small, chief executive officer of Tourism Richmond, says the trail will put participating B.C. communities on the map as “the capital of birdwatching in Canada.”
Think of birding and birdwatching as pretty much interchangeable terms. “Twitchers” are their own thing, obsessives who will go anywhere to spot a rare or out-of-place bird to add to their tally. Grounded by COVID, they’re likely going a bit squirrely.
“I define birding/birdwatching as a spiritual, physical and mental experience that brings me hope, peace and relaxation,” says Melissa Hafting, a thirty-something Vancouver birder who runs the BC Rare Bird Alert website and founded the B.C. Young Birders Program, which includes Vancouver Island enthusiasts. “Getting out in nature to look at birds is necessary for my survival and mental wellness.”
Retired Parksville teacher Mike Yip knows how easy it is to fall for birdwatching. He became an avid birder and bird photographer the day he spotted a weird-looking duck with an oversized bill in 2004. It turned out to be a rare northern shoveler.
Yip has been hooked on birding ever since, writing several self-published books featuring stunning bird photography. His latest is A Beginner’s Guide to Common Vancouver Island Birds.
“The birds are fascinating. If you take your time, you’ll see all kinds of fascinating behaviours,” says Yip, who lives in Nanoose Bay. “Birds are all over the place. Wherever we look, we see birds.”
Getting Started with Birdwatching
Often soothed by birdsong during lockdown, I wanted to get better at spotting and identifying them. Between David Attenborough’s BBC documentaries and my grandmother’s detailed stories about the interplay and hierarchy among visitors at her backyard bird feeder, I knew a couple of basics but had a lot to learn.
Eager to up my birding game, I went to Parksville for a two-night getaway. Luckily, birdwatching is a safe COVID-19 activity — something that can be done in the fresh air, either solo or in physical-distancing groups.
Christopher Stephens, an expert birder and field ornithologist, led my first-ever birdwatching walk, a two-hour outing with Pacific Rainforest Adventure Tours in Parksville. A guided bird experience is an ideal starting point for a newbie. I didn’t have to memorize a bunch of Latin names, and
all I needed were sturdy footwear, a pair of binoculars and curiosity.
I’ve come to the right place, Stephens says. Parksville and neighbouring Qualicum Beach are the avian version of a five-star, all-inclusive resort: favourable climate; hospitable habitats like salt marshes, shorelines and estuaries and an all-you-can eat bird buffet from bitter cherries and conifer cone seeds to crustaceans.
Birdwatching: An All-Season Activity
The spring Brant Wildlife Festival draws passionate birders here to celebrate the annual arrival of thousands of migrating brant geese that pause to fatten up on eelgrass, sea lettuce and herring roe before heading north. Seaside Nature Park on Island Highway in Qualicum Beach is an ideal viewing spot. The covered, ocean-facing Faye Smith Memorial Pavilion also has plenty of interpretive signage to help with all sorts of birdwatching.
I even did some birdwatching from the balcony off my room at The Beach Club Resort in Parksville, which overlooks the boardwalk and famous beach. The sandy stretch of ocean floor exposed at low tide can stretch up to a kilometre into the Strait of Georgia, drawing wading birds, shore birds and gulls.
The Englishman River Estuary was the first stop on my birdwatching walk with Stephens. There’s exceptional four-season birdwatching in this area, including during the winter.
“We have trumpeter swans and snow geese that overwinter, and sometimes we get snowy owls, definitely all kinds of hawks and falcons and winter finches, which are very colourful,” Stephens says. “They look like Christmas ornaments.”
Lesson one of birdwatching: be still, be patient and watch.
Within a few minutes, birds became used to us, landing in surrounding trees. That rattling sound below us on the estuary? A belted kingfisher. I tried, but never managed to spot it. I have a ways to go on my binoculars skills.
Stephens helped me see birds I otherwise would have missed in low foliage and high up in trees. He explained who they were and how things like a long tail, a certain-shaped bill or stilt-like legs made each suited to their environment.
Later, we headed to French Creek Estuary to admire some coastal birds opposite the busy fishing marina, including leggy wading varieties, delicately high-stepping along the shallows.
Going to the Birds
Every birdwatcher has their favourite bird. Stephens has a fondness for the tiny brown creeper, which makes fearless vertical climbs up tall trees, pecking the tough bark for insects.
“Birdwatching is the ability to find some of the most unique and interesting animals that you can have a hope of viewing without an inordinate amount of trouble,” he says. “With mammals, you’re very lucky to see more than just a very small handful of species.”
He taught me to make a low “pshh-pshh” sound to attract birds in wooded areas. I was amazed that it worked. Visual clues can also lead to sightings. Dr. Lynne Brookes, former president of Arrowsmith Naturalists and long-time volunteer with the North Island Wildlife Recovery Centre in Errington, near Parksville, took me birdwatching in the 50-acre Heritage Forest of Qualicum Beach.
She pointed out wood shards at a tree’s base. That’s a sign that one of three species of woodpeckers on Vancouver Island had been at work on the dead tree trunk, burrowing in and straight down to create a nesting space. “It’s a lot of work being a woodpecker,” says Brookes, whose doctorate is in environmental education.
The white splat at the base of a tree is owl poop. Look up when you see it. One of the big birds might be on a branch overhead. But our owl had moved on.
Mobbing — when small songbirds round up in a group to chase off hawks, falcons and owls — creates a good opportunity to spot a fleeing raptor, says Stephens. And sometimes birds just show up while you’re walking back to the car.
As we wrapped up our bird walk, a large shape swooped in from the left with a low whoosh. It took a second to register a great horned owl had glided past my face. Stephens took off into the forest after it, making an occasional hooting call. I joined the chase, hoping to get a closer look. It was an exciting insight into the joy of birding.
We didn’t see the owl again, but I had a chance to admire a great horned owl up close as Brookes took me around the North Island Wildlife Recovery Centre.
The non-profit wildlife rehabilitation centre cares for injured animals and is home to a variety of birds too badly injured to survive in the wild, including owls, eagles, ravens, hawks and a personable Steller’s jay named Nugget. British Columbia’s provincial bird seemed quite fond of Brookes. Maybe because she visits him regularly, or it’s her Steller’s jay earrings.
At the turkey vulture enclosure, I learned these intelligent, red-headed birds will barf on creatures that threaten them, a story Brookes shares with gusto.
It takes time and practice to learn to spot birds and figure out who’s who, Brookes says. Knowing bird behaviours can help add to the experience.
Birding in Victoria
Kevin Slagboom has been birdwatching around Victoria for 25 years. The webmaster for Birding in British Columbia gets that it’s easy to become overwhelmed with new information when starting out.
Grab some binoculars and learn the common species first, he suggests. Once you understand what these birds look and sound like, it’s easy to spot ones that are new to you to expand your birding knowledge.
Going birdwatching with a small group lets you learn with physical distancing. Slagboom leads free Sunday bird walks at 9 a.m. at Swan Lake Christmas Hill Nature Sanctuary. Or join the free walks there on Wednesdays at 9 a.m.
Swan Lake is an urban wildlife oasis, he says, and an ideal location for beginners. See a variety of birds year-round, including spring warblers, wrens, downy woodpeckers, waterfowl, raptors and even the occasional
Watch other birdwatchers too. When they raise their binoculars or cameras, follow their lead.
Dr. Lynne Brookes says a backyard bird feeder provides a ringside seat on birds and interesting bird behaviours. You’ll have to buy seed and keep the feeder clean to ensure the birds stay healthy, she says.
Or start a wildlife- friendly garden with lots of native plants. Even just a few pots on a deck or balcony is a good start, suggests Brookes.
As for the increased interest in birdwatching, Brookes says birding has always been cool.
“But it’s getting cooler, I think,” shesays. “Cooler and more accepted. Happily, birds are everywhere most people go, and it costs no more than a good pair of binoculars and a field guide to participate — and there are great apps now too.”
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