Wednesday, January 5, 2011

A Long Weekend in Vancouver

Tucson Audubon Field Trip Report -- November 18-22, 2010
By Rick Wright

The weather is always a topic of conversation on British Columbia’s Lower Mainland—but never would I have predicted that we’d be talking about snow and cold in mid-November.

But snow it did, and though the record cold wasn’t really much by the standards of other, less temperate regions, it still meant parkas and gloves every one of the five bird-filled days our congenial group got to spend together.

Undaunted, we went on to find 112 species, all within an hour’s drive (and most much closer) of our comfortable hotel; apparent hybrids and identifiable forms upped the total further. There were lifers aplenty for some of us, but all of us enjoyed the opportunity to get to see—and to get to know—so many birds that can rarely or never be watched in the areas we call home.

We began at one of North America’s best and best-known urban birding spots, the 1,000 acres of forest and shoreline of Stanley Park. Birding the edges of English Bay gave us our first looks at the abundance of waterfowl that is so characteristic of this region in winter; close views of Barrow’s Goldeneyes and Surf Scoters are always exciting, but it was the Harlequin Ducks that provided the real show, squeaking and diving and generally looking irresistible just off the seawall.

Lost Lagoon was quieter, but the famous sparrow spot at the west end was good as always for nice looks at a variety of passerines, including Chestnut-backed Chickadee and the first of many Golden-crowned Sparrows we would see.

Just as impressive, in a scurrilous way, were the park’s abundant raccoons, some of them feeding nearly from the hand of visitors braver or more foolish than they should have been.

A quick stop at the Vancouver Aquarium paid off with a fine Slate-colored Junco right in the parking lot; this is a very uncommon bird in southwest British Columbia at any season. A traditional spot near the disused salmon hatchery was occupied by an American Dipper, untroubled by the rain that turned to steady drizzle and chased us inside to lunch, a fortifying warm chowder beneath the watchful eyes of some stuffed mounties.

We would run into a real mounty the next day as we headed towards Iona Beach, where the Snow Geese on the Fraser River matched the weather.

They were joined by a few Trumpeter Swans, one of several flocks we saw over the weekend.

The great performance here, however, was that of a Peregrine Falcon, which materialized out of thin drizzle to suddenly and definitively adjust our Dunlin estimate—down—to 3,099.

The ponds themselves were packed with ducks, and the reliable roofs of the sewage plant were lined with gulls, among them a few Thayer’s. Golden-crowned Sparrows, by now familiar but no less exciting, joined dark reddish Song Sparrows and Sooty Fox Sparrows in the brambles, where a Northern Shrike kept a beady eye out for whom he might devour.

The masked bird no doubt ate well that day, though the four late Barn Swallows hunting in the air were certainly too fast and too maneuverable even for him.

The next morning really put the lie to Vancouver’s famous Mediterranean climate.

But the little pond at Vanier Park produced the hoped-for Eurasian Wigeon and a tiny, dark-breasted Cackling Goose. The source of the Northwestern Crows’ noisy excitement was revealed when a Short-eared Owl flew out over our heads, corvids in hot pursuit; the owl and its dark attendants flew up, up, and across English Bay, where we finally lost sight of the owl high over the water.

Jericho Park at sunrise was a pink and white winter wonderland.

The ponds harbored a female Eurasian Wigeon among the abundant Mallards and American Wigeons, and as the day brightened, Varied Thrushes and American Goldfinches climbed to the treetops to have a glance at this suddenly white landscape. On English Bay, hundreds of Surf and a few White-winged Scoters were diving for mussels. Horned and Western Grebes, Red-breasted Mergansers coming into their bright plumage, and the usual complement of natty Barrow’s and Common Goldeneyes rounded out an impressive day’s duck list.

Less cooperative was a single Ancient Murrelet far out on the bay, which granted a total of about two seconds’ visibility before diving and apparently swimming straight west to Japan.

Our alcid luck would improve on our final day’s ferry trip, but meanwhile there was Reifel Refuge, the North American continent’s biggest bird feeder, where everything from Sooty Fox Sparrows to Wood Ducks came out to partake of the millet feast.

We found what are believed to be British Columbia’s only wintering Black-crowned Night-Herons dozing on the roost, and sorted through the abundant waterfowl and feeder birds before heading out to the foreshore. An American Bittern flushed twice, unfortunately never staying up long enough for all to see it, and a small family of Sandhill Cranes permitted almost intimidatingly close approach.

Perhaps the day’s most dramatic sighting was one that didn’t “count” at all.

This dazzling male Northern Pintail x Mallard hybrid was the first any of us had seen in the wild; it’s a common and well-known combination in captivity, but I’m afraid that I don’t usually have the patience to scan through big flocks of waterfowl. And yet it worked again later that same day, when we discovered a very sweet, very white apparent Bufflehead x Common Goldeneye at the Tsawwassen Jetty. That combination is rare, or at least rarely seen; the Vancouver area seems to be a hotspot for it, though.

The next morning found us up and out early, early, early, to make the 7:00 ferry to Swartz Bay.

It was once again cold, so cold that we waited quite happily inside for the sun to rise.

Unfortunately, even after the brightened it was windy, making it physically impossible (not to mention uncomfortable!) to stand outside for the entire trip. But our excursions out onto the deck were rewarded with views of Common Murres, Marbled Murrelets, Pigeon Guillemots, and a couple of Cassin’s Auklets; as expected, we ran across large numbers of Brandt’s Cormorants once we were through Active Pass.

It’s often the case that the best birds show up on the way home—not this time. Instead we were treated to the best mammal of the trip, a small gang of Orcas loafing playfully just off the boat—a sure way to end a weekend’s birding on a high note.

In all, we observed more than 100 species of birds over the weekend, many of them giving outstanding and close views. Even better, we enjoyed good company over the entire trip, making the birding every bit as good as the birds.

- Rick Wright


  1. It was a truly great group of birders to spend a long weekend with--you just can't beat birding with kindred spirits.


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