Day 1: Vancouver to Lillooet
We meet this morning in North Vancouver (people coming from outside the lower mainland will need accommodation the night prior). Our first stop after we drive up the Sea-to-Sky corridor is the Squamish River Estuary, a hotspot for birds and wildlife with stunning backdrops. Here we can warm up with a healthy dose of forest and wetland birds. It’s a good place to find Black-throated Gray Warbler, Bushtit, Glaucous-winged Gull and other Lower Mainland specialties we likely won’t find on other parts of the tour. After a couple of hours walking on flat paths, we’ll continue to Pemberton for a coffee shop lunch then continue over the mountainous Duffy Lake Road. This spectacular highway is one of BC’s best-kept secrets, though it’s only a few hours from Vancouver. We’ll stop for scenic breaks and to look for American Dippers and other birds. Night in Lillooet.
Day 2: The Dry Interior
Lillooet, on the banks of the mighty Fraser River, offers us a chance to explore some diverse birding that is similar to the Okanagan Valley but with more wide-open spaces. We can hopefully spot a Golden Eagle nest and find some roosting owls, not to mention find some grassland specialties such as Long-billed Curlew, Common Nighthawk, White-throated Swift and sparrows such as Chipping, Clay-colored, and if lucky, Brewer’s and Lark. On a more colourful note, we should spot the likes of Lazuli Bunting, American Kestrel, Bullock’s Oriole, Lewis’s Woodpecker and Western Tanager. The scenery is spectacular and the scent of sagebrush fills the spring air.
Around lunch we detour away from the Fraser and continue instead through the limestone cliffs of Marble Canyon and past the turquoise waters of Pavilion Lake. We’ll now be on the historic gold rush route to Williams Lake where we’ll finish our day. Night in Williams Lake.
Days 3 and 4: Chilcotin
We start at Scout Island near our hotel: a great place for riparian birds. We’ll listen and look for Gray Catbird, Black-headed Grosbeak and Veery, and probably see Red Foxes as they often have a den. Out on the lake we should find flocks of Western Grebes out on the town’s namesake lake. After refreshing back at the hotel, we gear up for a drive out to Becher’s Prairie, which is a fascinating complex of ponds and grasslands harbouring almost every species of breeding duck in the province, some shorebirds, and goodies like Sharp-tailed Grouse and Rusty Blackbird. This area is truly unique and we’ll have plenty of time to explore the grasslands, lakes, volcanic geology and impressive aspen groves. Species such as Least Flycatcher, Great-Gray Owl, Bonaparte’s Gull, Eared Grebe, Mountain Bluebird, Say’s Phoebe and American Three-toed Woodpecker inhabit this complex.
We can explore nearby Farwell Canyon with its nesting Prairie Falcons and jaw-dropping landscapes. On one evening guests can join for a night-time foray where we can hear and hopefully see Flammulated Owls and Common Poorwills down by the Fraser River. Nights at Chilcotin Lodge
Day 5: West to Nimpo Lake
We get an early start like the ranchers of this region, and head further down Highway 20 into the West Chilcotin, stopping to observe any lingering migrant birds such as Long-billed Dowitchers or Tundra Swans on some of the alkali lakes. This is the breeding area for American White Pelicans and there could be some visible without having to drive all the way to Stum Lake (the only actual place they breed in the province). With luck, we’ll spot a moose. We’ll also drive through the aftermath of some impressive forest fires.
After a couple of hours we turn into one of the most beautiful valleys in all of British Columbia: Tatlayoko. This area has spectacular scenery set against the Potato and Niut Ranges and there is also a lot of wildlife including the possibility of seeing a grizzly munching grass in a meadow. The area hosts a bird observatory for fall migration but it is also excellent in the spring. Interesting species include American Redstart, Purple Finch, Dusky Grouse, Calliope Hummingbird, Northern Waterthrush and some other species not found in the Lower Mainland. Nearby Eagle Lake has breeding Arctic Terns and likely some shorebirds. After a decent amount of time here we continue slightly further down the highway toward the coast. In the evening we can take a short drive to Anaheim Lake to search for the extremely elusive Yellow Rail. Night at Nimpo Lake.
Day 6: West into the Coast Mountains
This morning we can take some time to appreciate the opportunity to sit on a dock on the shores of a beautiful lake, drink coffee and just be in the moment.
When we’re ready, we head west to Heckman Pass and the Rainbow Range which, depending on snow, has relatively accessible birding for some awesome species including Willow Ptarmigan, Gray-cheeked Thrush, Boreal Chickadee, Golden Eagle and Black-backed Woodpecker. Hiking will be involved to see all of these species and we’ll have a packed lunch. There’s not much up here besides fresh air so we need to keep moving down the precipitous “Hill” (a steep series of switchbacks on the highway) into the Bella Coola Valley for a hearty dinner. In the next sixty kilometers we’ll traverse from the subalpine into relatively dry old-growth Douglas Fir into very wet Cedar-Hemlock forest. In the evening we can explore some of this area and go looking for grizzly bears if any have been sighted. Night in Bella Coola.
Days 7 and 8: Bella Coola
We’ll have a look near the hotel for more grizzlies then take a trip to Snootli Regional Park to walk among the giant cedar trees, some of which are truly exceptional. We will feel small. We’ll also visit the local museum and walk a trail in Thorsen Creek that has 3,000-year-old petroglyphs engraved on trailside rocks. Mysteries abound in these forests and the backdrop to these outings will be the sounds of Swainson’s and Varied Thrush, Pacific Wren, Bald Eagle, and Hammond’s and Pacific-slope Flycatchers. First Nations culture is alive and well in this valley, especially in Bella Coola itself where we can pass by and watch the inlet for orcas and other wildlife. Nights in Bella Coola.
Day 9: Departure
Our self-drive birding tour ends in the Bella Coola Valley this morning. Folks opting to take the 07:30 Discovery Coast ferry to Vancouver Island (with a reservation) can easily connect for this route, arriving in Port Hardy in the early evening. Other option is more direct driving route home via home (~12 hrs Bella Coola to Vancouver).