birding vancouver: common mergansers in flight

A Beginners Guide to Birdwatching near Vancouver

posted in: Lifestyle, Outside | 2

I became mildly obsessed with birdwatching in the fall of 2015 after a brief sighting of a great horned owl on my sixth floor balcony. It was a surreal experience. Great Horned owls are bigger than you expect when they are perched only a few feet away! It’s back was to me at first and the wind blowing through its feathers made them look so soft. In the blink of an eye the big bird swiveled his entire head 180 degrees and looked right at me with huge mesmerizing eyes. I’m embarrassed to admit that it scared me a little and I gasped. Before I could exhale it had flown off into the night.

I spent the next few days obsessively google searching everything I could about great horned owls and their habitat. By the next weekend I had commandeered a birding friend to help me find where this owl roosted. I learned a lot in that evening. I learned that birdwatchers prefer to be called birders, that they refer to binoculars as bins and that they are an intense and passionate subculture. I learned that it’s way more fun in the field when you’ve done some research beforehand.  I learned that binoculars are harder to use than you think.  And I learned that birds watch us far more closely than we watch them.

vancouver birdwatching: female house finch
female house finch –  Photo Credit:  Melissa Martin Photography

We humans are giants compared to almost any species of bird, and chances are birds have spotted us long before we spot them. Most birds will fly away before you have time to focus your bins on them. If you move too suddenly, get too close, sneeze at the wrong time, or loose your patience, you could loose your opportunity. And every spieces has a different “personality”.   Both crows and pigeons can recognize individual humans and have been known to react differently to those who are friendly versus those who are not. Next time you are out and about and you pass a flock of hungry song birds, stop a while and notice how they react to you!

After one evening wandering through a park near my home, I was hooked.  And I’m not alone. According to this article in Global News, birdwatching is the fastest growing hobby in North America and one in five Canadians participate in it.  There are three areas designated as Importand Bird and Wildlife Areas in the Lower Mainland: the Greater Vancouver Watershed, English Bay and Burrard Inlet, and the Fraser River Estuary.  Here are my favourite spots to go in each of those areas… plus one bonus hotspot for the beginner.

Riefel Migratory Bird Sanctuary

As the name suggests, it is a sanctuary along the Fraser River Estuary where over 300 species of birds have been seen and recorded. The best time to see the most diversity is in the fall and spring when migratory birds take refuge and forage for food as they travel the pacific flyway between the arctic and Mexico. There is a resident great horned owl and a small family of resident sandhill cranes that you’ll be able to see along the intricate trail system. There are also a wide variety of waterfowl, raptors and song birds to see within the 300 hectares of managed wetland. It’s a great place for the novice birder because the staff and volunteers are more than happy to answer questions or help you find a particular species if they are in the park that day.

vancouver birdwatching: sandhill cranes
Sandhill cranes – Photo Credit: Melissa Martin Photography

Getting There:

5191 Roberstson Road Delta, BC

The sanctuary is located on Westham Island which is approximately 1 hours drive from downtown Vancouver. There is no pubic transportation to the sanctuary so you will need a vehicle to visit. Driving from Vancouver, take the 99 South through Richmond and through the George Massey Tunnel. Take the very first right, exit 29 and follow River Road into the little town of Ladner, BC. River Road makes a hard left and becomes Elliot Street. In100m turn right onto Bridge Street and then 200m after that turn left onto Gary street. Turn Right onto 47a Ave which will become River Road again. In three km, turn left onto Westham Island Road. At the end of this road on the left is Robertson road, the driveway for the George C. Riefel Migratory Bird Sanctuary.

Hours of Operation: 9am-4pm daily

Cost: $5 for Adults, $3 for Children and Seniors. Memberships also available.

For More Information:  visit the website

vancouver birdwatching: wood ducks
wood ducks – photo credit: Melissa Martin Photography

Stanley Park

Stanley Park is the jewel of Vancouver as far as city parks go.  It is located at the junction of English Bay and Burrard Inlet and at 400 hectares, it’s even larger than New York City’s Central Park. An extensive trail system winds its way through forest, seashore, and wetland ecosystems. Within each ecosystem a variety of raptors, shorebirds, songbirds and waterfowl congregate. There is even a colony of blue herons that nest near English Bay. My favorite time to visit has always been spring when goslings, ducklings and chicks overrun Lost Lagoon and the surrounding area. But this year it was just as fun to go in the fall and discover migrating birds I’d never seen before. widgeons, pintails, and coots to name a but a few. And just the other day I watched what looked like mergansers hanging out by second beach while a family of oyster catchers foraged along the shoreline.

vancouver birdwatching: Great Blue Heron
great blue heron in Stanley Park

Getting There:

The easiest way to get to Stanley park is by transit; simply take the #19 bus and get off at Pipeline Road and Stanley Park Drive.

You can also bike or walk from downtown, just head towards the Lions Gate Bridge and you will find Stanley Park stretches from the City limits right up to the bridge.

There are plenty of places to park a car in Stanley park if you prefer to drive, just be aware that pay parking is in effect for all parking lots.
Cost: Free

Hours: Always open

For more information:  visit city of Vancover website

vancouver birdwatching: mallards
ducks in a row

Cypress Mountain Provincial Park

The North Shore Mountains that make up the greater Vancouver watershed are best known for being outdoor adventure destinations than birdwatching hotspots. However, any serious birder in the Vancouver area knows that there are species in those rugged hills that you just don’t see anywhere else. They will also be more wild here; aside from the curious whiskey jacks, the birds you see in the mountains aren’t used to being around people. It might be more of a challenge here to spot certain species than at Riefel, where guests can purchase small bags of feed, but for many birders that’s part of the allure. You’re likely to hear and see small groups of ravens soaring the skies, sapsuckers, turkey vultures and other woodland warblers.

vancouver birdwatching: whiskey jack
whiskey jack – photo credit: Melissa Martin Photography

Getting There:

In the Winter months you can catch the snow shuttle up to Cypress Mountain, but otherwise you will need a vehicle. The Cypress Mountain Parking lot is at the top of Cypress Bowl Road.  Head west on highway 1 out of Vancouver towards Whistler and take exit 8, which is Cypress Bowl Road.  Stay to the right and take this all the way to the downhill ski area at the top of the mountain.

Cost: free

Hours: Always Open

Bonus Birding Locale: Blodel Conservatory

While the purist may not consider this birdwatching as it is essentially a collection of 200 exotic birds on display for the public, I personally love this place. All of the birds here have been donated by owners who could no longer keep them as pets or adopted from a non-profit rescue society. For a few of them, this is the first time they’ve been well looked after in their lives. I love to walk through and just listen to them chatter.  Last visit one of the cockatoos jumped off his perch and started walking down the path announcing “here I go!” I could also spend hours just watching the finches, waxbill and the like interact at the bird feeders, it really is anything goes!

Vancouver birdwatching: macaws
Green Winged Macaws: Carmen and Maria

Getting There:

4600 Cambie street Vancouver, BC

The Bloedel Conservatory is located at the City of Vancouver’s highest point in Queen Elizabeth Park and is easily accessible by transit.

It is within walking distance from both the King Edward and 41st street skytrain stations along the Canada line. Alternatively, the #15 Cambie bus will drop you right at the entrance to the park at 33rd Avenue. Visit translink’s trip planner if you are coming from somewhere other than downtown Vancouver.

The entrance main entrance to the park is on Cambie and 33rd street, but you can also enter from Cambie and 29th and Main and 33rd. If you are lucky you can find parking along the outer edge of the park, but within the park all lots are pay parking only.

Cost: $6.75 for an adult, $4.50 for children and seniors. Group rates and memberships available.

Hours: 10am-5pm daily

vancouver birdwatching: canary
canary at bloedel

What to Bring Your First Time Birding

  1. An experienced birder:  You really need someone who knows what they are doing the first time you head out to watch birds because trust me, there is a lot more to it than you think.  It doesn’t matter how much you’ve researched bird markings or bird sounds, you’ll need someone with experience to confirm your findings.  They are also likely to know where you are likely to find success.  If you don’t know anyone who is into birding already there are plenty of ways you can meet someone to go birding with in Vancouver.
    1.  Birding Pal:  This site is dedicated to connecting people who are interested in birding and contains an extensive contact list for people willing to partner up with others.
    2. Nature Vancouver:  This page has an extensive list of bird walks and bird counts in the Lower Mainland and Squamish.  It is a society that also offers field trips where non-members are welcome to attend before signing up.
  2. Binoculars:  The whole point of going birding is to be able to see the birds, and a good set of binoculars will help you see a lot more than the naked eye.   The better the binoculars, the better the better the view.  With that said, binoculars are expensive and can be very specialized.   Before you drop a few thousand dollars on a pair of binoculars, ask that birding friend of yours if they have a spare pair for your first excursion.  Chances are, they do.
  3. Appropriate Clothing:  The best time to go birding in Vancouver is between Fall and Spring, the coolest times of the year.  Remember that while you may be walking some distance to get to a hot spot, the majority of your time will be spent patiently waiting or watching.  Dress Warmly and stay dry – that means layer up!
  4. Field Guide:  Part of the fun of birding is identifying a new species.  This will be much easier to do if you have a field guide on you when you are out.  Personally, I prefer to ask the expert I’m with to confirm, but it’s also fun to give it a go yourself once you learn more about identification techniques.

Thanks to Melissa Martin Photography for the use of all the beautiful photos.  To view more work from Melissa, check out her facebook page


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