Enter the cold, wet world of winter waterfowl . . .
There are snowbirds that don’t flee Canada’s cold winter. And they stick together. These avian travellers are part of Destination BC’s recently-launched attraction – The BC Bird Trail, a bird-themed driving trail with good bird watching opportunities and cafés and restaurants to refuel nature lovers.
Although many people are aware of British Columbia’s summer wildlife viewing, less known is the damp world of winter waterfowl and the scale of the phenomena. Bird Life International estimates 2% of global American Wigeon and 1% of Northern Pintail populations stop in the Fraser River estuary annually. Daily waterfowl counts regularly exceed 100,000 birds in fall and early winter!
I decided to visit British Columbia’s Lower Mainland in early November, choosing to drive from Calgary so I had maximum flexibility around winter storms and tide tables.
Little did I know that I’d be one of the last travellers to make the trip before an atmospheric river wiped out several major highways.
But that’s another story . . .
I started my wildlife explorations with a stop at Harrison Hot Springs for some eagle watching. Thousands of Bald Eagles make their way to the nearby Chehalis Flats Bald Eagle & Salmon Preserve for the winter. On the day I visited it was raining so much I could barely open the window to watch eagles squabbling over salmon. In past years there was a Fraser Valley Bald Eagle Festival but with the pandemic, organizers have gone to a self-guided event, recommending places where you can see the big birds. I counted over a dozen eagles in fifteen minutes before darkness fell.
Boundary Bay Dyke
The next morning driving roads through Agassiz and Chilliwack enroute to Delta, Richmond and Surrey I saw several flocks of Trumpeter Swans, grey-coloured cygnets nibbling in fields next to their snow-white parents. Other farmland held flocks of Snow Geese, Mallards, and gulls, some settling in for the winter, others stopping for refueling on migrations further south.
Finally, I arrived at the Boundary Bay Dyke, the best place to watch large flocks of winter birds. Parking is limited to only a few spots along the dyke so I started at the Heritage Air Park in Delta.
Locking the truck, I walked up to the dyke and a world of watery bird watching. There were several flocks of Snow Geese, their white feathers flashing as they swam towards the sun. Dozens of Northern Pintail Ducks, a white-crescent along their face and a slender tail (hence the name), gave them a graceful look as they paddled by. But it was a sparrow-size bird that stole the show.
A Dunlin Murmuration
Until a couple of weeks previous, I barely knew what a Dunlin was. This two-ounce shorebird spends most of its summer in the Arctic breeding and seldom passes inland. At one time it was called the Red-backed Sandpiper because in summer it sports a black breast and rusty-back, but now its name is Dunlin to reflect the dun-coloured winter plumage.
In my home town of Calgary, if a single Dunlin is sighted in spring, birders rush to see it. Here, my mind was blown as I watched huge clouds of Dunlin spinning across the sky. Thousands would fly one way in tight formation, the sun catching the white of their bellies, before the flock would turn as one and reverse direction, the brown of their flapping wings forming an undulating feathered tornado . . .
Sticking together in a large murmuration offers protection for the tiny birds. I watched a Northern Harrier Hawk plunge into the flock and the dunlins seemed to accelerate their rapid back and forth directional changes, perhaps confusing the predator. The hawk emerged with nothing in its talons.
Walking along the dyke an hour later I noticed a solitary Dunlin fly by and wondered if it was a bird with a strong sense of independence or a bad sense of direction. Minutes later I watched a Peregrine Falcon gaze intently at the bay before lifting off with a few strong wingbeats.
The fastest bird in Canada, the Peregrine flew towards an isolated Dunlin, quickly locking onto its movements as it chased the Dunlin back and forth through several sharp turns before the falcon struck the smaller bird. The chase was over and the Peregrine flew away, the Dunlin clasped in its talons.
As I walked back towards the truck, a grey-haired fellow carrying a large camera, pointed at a thick bush. “There’s a Cooper’s Hawk in there,” he whispered, holding his camera at the ready. This forest hawk is hard to spot so I enjoyed the chance to watch it as finches flew within millimetres of the powerful predator.
“Have you been to the dyke further west?” he asked. When I explained I was a tourist, he suggested I make an extra stop. “There’s often Short-eared Owls in the area and yesterday, a Barn Owl was spotted although people were getting too close to the bird.”
Photographers can be a problem for rare birds, overstaying their welcome or getting too close to owls and other raptors and impeding their hunting. I decided not to go to the park where the Barn Owl had been seen but when I pulled into the dyke parking lot and saw a cluster of people with enough cameras and binoculars to stock an optics store, I figured the owl had changed neighbourhoods.
Walking up to the group, I asked what they were watching. “A Barn Owl is sitting on the ground behind that bush,” exclaimed one fellow, decked out in camouflage from neck to ankle although I was pretty sure the bird could see him – or at least the dozen people standing next to him.
I looked over at the bush and saw nothing. Then I looked again and saw a blond lump that turned into a fluttering Barn Owl in seconds. It was the first time I’d seen one and it looked as ghostly as described in my bird ID app. I snapped off a few photos, stunned that this bird was out in daylight.
According to experts, Barn Owls are strictly nocturnal and seldom seen during the day. The species is found in very few places in Canada so most people have never seen one, hence the excitement over this bird. With enough photos to prove I’d seen the bird and not wanting to disturb it further, I walked away to the dyke.
Along the gravel path I saw more cameras and spotting scopes turned towards Boundary Bay, cyclists weaving among the bird enthusiasts. Scanning the ocean-side meadow, I was stunned to see another owl perched on a distant log! It was the short-eared owl, tiny feather tufts atop its head giving it a delicate appearance.
Spotting two of Canada’s rarest owls in one day along with several hawks and thousands of ducks and waterfowls was for a birdwatcher like pulling triple cherries on the slots in Vegas! I decided these snowbirds shouldn’t be missed and started planning an encore next year.
If you go:
Check tide tables and plan your visit to coastal areas during a rising tide otherwise ducks and shorebirds may be too far away to see.
Become familiar with some of the Birds of British Columbia and check The BC Bird Trail for recommendations on natural areas in Fraser Valley with good bird watching. My favorites include Blackie Spit in Surry, Boundary Bay Dyke (accesses at Delta’s Heritage Air Park, 64th Street, and 72nd Street), Serpentine Fen in Surrey, and Garry Point Park in Richmond.
The areas around Boundary Bay Dyke are devoted to agriculture and wildlife. There is a good selection of hotels in nearby Richmond and Surrey. I stayed at Surrey’s Civic Hotel, Autograph Collection which gave me great views of the sky after I put the binoculars down. The hotel is part of a vibrant urban scene with the Simon Fraser University – Surrey Campus, city hall, a library and Central City mall within easy walking.
The author travelled to British Columbia in November 2021. She received assistance from Discover Surrey but they did not review or approve this story.