While waiting for my plane to take off at Ottawa International Airport, I pulled out the weather app on my phone to check the forecast at my destination: Vancouver, a city on the west coast of Canada. Vancouver is known for its gray rainy winters so, given it was mid-January, I prepared myself for the worst. I was pleasantly surprised to see 3 straight days of sun and temperatures between 6-10 degrees Celsius. Perfect for being outdoors and photographing the bird life!
My boyfriend and I were embarking on a 10 day trip to the west coast and I had “negotiated” with him for 2-3 days of Vancouver winter birding at the start of the trip before heading to Whistler. Armed with insider tips from the Instagram community as well as eBird research, I had planned an itinerary that centered around an area called Delta, 30 minutes south of Vancouver.
Day 1: Vancouver Winter Birding Diversity
On the first morning we went for breakfast near our accommodation, steps away from Granville Island. It was a crisp clear morning and we had fantastic views of downtown Vancouver’s cityscape and the snow-capped north shore mountains. After we ate, we decided to walk north along the seawall towards Vanier Park. At the last minute I decided to head back up to the apartment to grab my camera, just in case.
Just in case? A short walk turned into a 2 hour bird-fest and we were almost late for picking up our rental car. Since Vancouver is much warmer than the rest of Canada, we were pleasantly surprised (ahem, overwhelmed!) by the variety of species spending the winter here. We were delighted by Anna’s Hummingbirds, Fox Sparrows, 2 Bald Eagles, Barrow’s Goldeneye, a Great Horned Owl, Bufflehead, American Wigeon, Hooded Mergansers, Bushtits and more!
In the afternoon, we saw over 500 Bald Eagles in Delta! I did a separate post on this amazing spectacle that you can read about here.
In addition to Bald Eagles, there was great spot along the 72 where you could see a variety of Gull species from the side of the road. Having no experience with Gulls from the west, it was definitely a challenge trying to identify what I was seeing! My strategy was to take photographs of Gulls that stood out and to work out what they were later.
How would you do trying to identify these Gulls?
I saw Glaucous-winged, Mew, Thayer’s and Herring Gulls at this spot! And those are just the ones I figured out 😉 Not to mention all the hybrids (there are so many in the west!).
We continued south along the 72 and parked at the Boundary Bay Dyke. This is a great spot overlooking Boundary Bay where you can see Northern Harriers and Short-eared Owls hunting late in the afternoon. It is an AMAZING spot for photography. There are also hundreds of shorebirds and waterfowl along the shoreline, but you need a scope for decent views.
Day 2: It’s All About the Waterfowl
Day 2 was spent entirely at the George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary, about a 40 minute drive from Granville Island. We were greeted by hundreds of ducks just wandering around the parking lot. And these weren’t just Mallards, there were American Wigeon and Northern Pintail as well!
Once you get past the parking lot, the sanctuary itself is a really special place with a “choose your own adventure” network of trails through a variety of wetland habitats. I was really blown away by the number and diversity of waterfowl that spend their winters here. What was most impressive was how close these ducks were for taking photographs!
There are other “big-ticket” items like the somewhat tame Sandhill Cranes that wander down the paths. It’s also a good spot to see roosting owls and I got my lifer Northern Saw-whet Owl on one of the trails. Lastly, there is one of, if not the, only flocks of Black-crowned Night Herons that can be found mid-winter in Canada!
You can also see songbirds flitting in the vegetation along the paths and at various feeders.
Day 3: Stanley Park
Despite having announced that the “birding” portion of our trip was over, I managed to sneak in one more outing to Stanley Park! I knew this was a good spot for Black Oystercatchers and I was really hoping to see them on the trip.
I discovered that walking along the seawall from First Beach to Second Beach in the afternoon means you’re looking directly into the sun (AB Tip: Do the seawall in the morning!). Nevertheless it was a really cool spot for birding and before long I heard and then saw my lifer Black Oystercatchers!
I was also thrilled to see my first male Harlequin Duck and as well as large groups of Surf Scoters close to shore. Further out, there were Western Grebes, Pelagic Cormorants and Horned Grebes. You really needed a scope to see some of these more distant species though.
I also saw a lifer Pacific Wren flitting in between the rocks along the shore.
Vancouver Winter Birding Round-up
My overall impression of Vancouver winter birding was just how much diversity there was compared with Ottawa. Many of the birds I saw are considered common, so I’m sure the novelty of seeing these species would wear off if you were a local, but for me it was thrilling!
Species we get in Ottawa like the Black-capped Chickadee, Dark-eyed Junco and Fox Sparrow just looked different in Vancouver. I found myself enjoying the challenge of trying to figure out why I recognized these birds, but they looked so different from what I was used to. (AB Tip: In some cases, Vancouver gets different subspecies to the east).
Despite 3 action packed days, I barely scratched the surface of the winter birding and photography opportunities that are available around Vancouver. This isn’t a place that you do in a weekend and feel like you’ve seen it all. Either plan for a longer trip or to go back for a second time!
- I stayed in South Granville because I wanted to be near downtown. You could easily stay further south to save yourself the 30-40 minute driving time to Delta.
- We found it easy to rent a car and do everything without a guide. AB Tip: Picking up your rental car in the city is much cheaper than at the airport.
- The Sibley Guide to Birds, 2nd Edition was an invaluable resource for helping with some tricky id’s (especially Gulls and Pacific subspecies!).
This guidebook is also available in Canada.
Click here for the trip bird list. I saw 54 species over the 3 days, including 12 lifers.
If you liked my trip photographs, check out my article: Mastering Manual Exposure For Bird Photography for the settings and techniques I use for bird photography.