This story was featured in the Winter 2019 Indulge magazine, delivered with your Peace Arch News on Friday, Nov. 15.
With summer now a distant memory, those who revel in cold-weather activities are likely keeping a close eye on the north shore mountains’ snowpack, digging out down-filled jackets and eagerly anticipating the first opportunity for a winter hike, a snowball fight or ice-skating.
But there’s another breed who also can’t wait to venture outside over the fall and winter seasons – they are the twitchers, the listers, the protobirders, the stringers, and any other term that applies to someone with a level of interest in the feathered friends that live in or visit our neighbourhoods, parks and waterfronts this time of year.
Local birders say, as the temperature dips, the opportunities to catch a glimpse of all manner of winged wonders multiplies exponentially.
In fact, “this is now the perfect time of year” for birding, says John Gordon, a retired photojournalist and member of the Langley Field Naturalists.
“This is the tail-end of the migration.”
Boundary Bay – including Centennial Beach in Tsawwassen, Blackie Spit in Crescent Beach and east to White Rock’s pier and shoreline – is part of a geographic range deemed to be among Canada’s top-rated Important Bird Areas (IBA).
The designation – there are approximately 600 IBAs in Canada – identifies the area as being of international significance to birding populations, providing critical nutrients to birds on the Pacific Flyway; a major north-south route for migratory birds that extends from Alaska to Patagonia and, according to Ducks Unlimited, “encompasses the most varied waterfowl habitats in North America.”
Gordon said a visit to Mud Bay this time of year is eye-catching: “there’s as many as 100,000 birds there.”
“Tens of thousands of ducks which breed in the Interior… come here in the wintertime, because it’s so mild,” he said.
On any given day, the view from the end of White Rock pier can also be spectacular. Gordon estimates he saw around 1,000 birds there on a recent outing.
The list of birds that can be spotted locally is extensive, from Pacific and common loons, to western grebes, snow buntings, purple finch and snow geese.
The grebes breed up around Salmon Arm and Castlegar, while the snow buntings migrate from the Arctic.
For the buntings, “this is summer,” Gordon said.
“Where they live in the summer, it’s like winter for us. So, they’re coming here to get out of the cold.”
He described their journey as “an incredible migration.”
As with any other pastime, the range of interest and dedication in birders is almost as varied as the number of species of birds that are out there.
Some spend just a few minutes gazing out their kitchen window at the flurry of activity that unfolds in their backyard every morning; others may have a favourite spot, or “patch,” they routinely visit, confident it will be rife with views of colourful plumage, and possibly a surprise or two; still others, the “listers,” invest countless hours in an effort to document as many species as they can – and are willing to travel great distances to do so.
For Gordon, who lives on the Surrey/Langley border and names Peninsula naturalist Al Grass as his mentor, birding became his passion about a decade ago, shortly after retiring from 30 years in the newspaper business.
He said after sitting at home “in a bit of a daze” for the first couple of weeks, he set out, camera in hand, for the George C. Reifel Bird Sanctuary in Delta. The image he captured of a hummingbird that day “just blew my socks off,” he said.
“I looked at the picture (and thought), ‘I now know what I’m doing for the rest of my life.’”
“Birds have this incredible pull on people, because they can do things people can’t – like fly, like swim underwater, like fly across the globe,” Gordon said. “Once you start getting into birding, it’s a lifetime pastime… good for the soul.
“Some people call it ‘competitive meditation,’” he added, of the quest to add more and more species to personal lists of birds seen.
Cathy Steele of Wild Birds Unlimited in South Surrey agreed that birding is a great way to get back to nature, and, that there is no shortage of places nearby to do it.
“We have some great winter birding areas,” Steele said, naming the Serpentine Fen Wildlife Management Area as an example.
Located in the 4900-block of King George Boulevard, the fen is a hot spot for migrating birds, she said. And, “if the winter is colder, sometimes there’ll be snowy owls there.”
Steele named Crescent Beach as one of the best local areas to see shorebirds and seabirds, while Campbell Valley Park in south Langley boasts a bounty of songbirds; where chickadees can be coaxed to eat from visitors’ hands, and red-breasted nuthatches abound.
Steele said the latter, with its short tail, sharp bill, black crown and quick movements – “the cheekiest little bird” – is among her favourites.
She also said that while studies out of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology indicate a decline in bird populations over the past 30 years, locally, “this is the busiest I’ve seen it in a long time.”
Both she and Gordon said getting started down the birding path is simple and inexpensive. All that’s needed is a guide book – Gordon recommends The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, as well as the eBird app, to help track sightings – and a decent pair of binoculars. From there, the costs are up to each birder as to how far, quite literally, they want to go with their new pastime.
Gordon said he’s transitioned from a “cultural traveller,” who has seen such wonders as the Taj Mahal and Venice, to one who plans his travels around birding. He’s now seen for himself approximately half of the more than 1,000 bird species that call Mexico home.
On a decidedly shorter sojourn last month, he added a never-before-seen-in-Canada bird – the yellow-browed warbler, native to Asia – to his list, photograph and all, after investigating a sighting on Vancouver Island.
It took two trips in the same weekend to catch the glimpse, and Gordon said he was far from the only person on the same quest. Birders came from across Canada and the U.S. for the opportunity, and for Gordon, at least, it was well-worth the effort.
“I got the picture,” he said.
It’s not unusual for feathered out-of-town guests to make the log books of volunteers who participate in the White Rock Christmas Bird Count. The one-day tally is among thousands conducted around the world as part of an effort by the National Audubon Society to track how bird species are faring. Notable local sightings in the past have included a dipper, an orange crown warbler and a rusty blackbird.
Those interested in learning more about birding – where to go, the variety of what is out there and more – can check out monthly walks hosted by Wild Birds Unlimited on the second Wednesday of every month (call 604-536-4011 or visit surrey.wbu.com for more information). As well, Gordon regularly shares his sightings, insights and more at thecanadianwarbler.blogspot.com
Keen to share what he’s learned and educate others about birding, Gordon was among photographers to donate images to Nature Vancouver, for publication in The Birders Guide to Vancouver and the Lower Mainland.
He couldn’t say enough about the positives he’s gained from birdwatching.
“It’s brought me closer to nature,” he said. “Before I was birdwatching, I was walking around in a cloud. I don’t think I was observing.”
The unknown is also always a bonus, he said.
“One of the things about birdwatching is you never know what you might see.”