Day 1: Arrival
Our Ultimate British Columbia birding tour begins in Fort St. John (just a short flight from Vancouver) where we meet at our hotel for dinner on the first night. We’ll discuss our plan of spending the next three days exploring the pleasant countryside, forests and wetlands of the Peace River valley.
Days 2 - 3: Peace River area
On our first morning we begin in earnest to track down boreal songbirds in the mixed woodlands near Fort St. John. The songs of “eastern” birds like Blue-headed Vireo, Black-throated Green and Cape May Warbler seem out of place here, yet they are three of many “Peace River specialties” that cross over from the boreal forest only in this part of the province. This part of the tour will focus on seeing as many of these species as possible. We’ll explore focal points such as Watson Slough (a site threatened by a hydroelectric project) for endangered Yellow Rail and Nelson’s Sparrow. Fort St. John’s sewage lagoons are less threatened but still harbor numerous species and if the timing is right we’ll catch the shorebird migration in prime season, with eastern species like White-rumped Sandpiper a possibility.
Beatton Provincial Park with its numerous boreal species will offer an exciting morning of birding. Blue Jays, Common Grackles, Broad-winged Hawks and other raucous birds welcome us in the mixed woods. In aspen stands we’ll be on the lookout for Connecticut Warbler, Pileated Woodpecker and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. The resonant song of Ovenbird will ring out, with more cryptic notes from other species like Black-and-white Warbler, American Redstart and Tennessee Warbler providing a backdrop. Scoping out Charlie Lake for scoters, loons, grebes and other migrating waterfowl will round out a diverse morning of birding.
To the south of Fort St. John we visit a site where Ruby-throated Hummingbird can be found. Nearby slopes conceal singing Canada Warbler and with some perseverance we admire these gorgeous birds. A hidden wetland be home to a pair of Hooded Mergansers. In grasslands and riparian areas further south toward Dawson Creek we will be on the lookout for Upland Sandpiper, LeConte’s Sparrow and Philadelphia Vireo among other species that have their stronghold in this part of the province.
Mountain conditions have a chance to influence our schedule but if there is a low snowpack we may try to access a higher elevation site that offers exciting possibilities, with the main targets being Rock Ptarmigan and Stone’s Sheep. Other species include Fox Sparrow, American Pipit, Horned Lark, Willow Ptarmigan, Townsend’s Solitaire, Golden-crowned Sparrow, and with much luck Bohemian Waxwing, Gray-cheeked Thrush, White-tailed Ptarmigan, Smith’s Longspur, Brewer’s “Timberline” Sparrow and Bay-breasted Warbler.
Up in the north other wildlife abounds and we might see mammals such as moose, black bear, groundhog, and the prairie subspecies of white-tailed deer. Nights in Fort St. John.
Day 4: Vancouver
We transfer via a short flight to Vancouver in the morning and hit the ground running by exploring a birding site near the airport. Iona Island is one of the best sites in a city that is renowned for good birding. We’ll listen for the chattering of Bewick’s Wren, Warbling Vireo and Bushtit as we explore this part of the Fraser River Delta. Iona is yet another primo site for shorebird and waterfowl viewing, and rarities are possible. A Spoon-billed Sandpiper was sighted here once! In one flock, we may see all seven species of swallows possible in Western Canada! From here we’ll head right into picturesque downtown Vancouver and through the rainforest environs of Stanley Park. We’ll cross over to the north shore for an early dinner. Night in North Vancouver.
Days 5 - 7: West Coast and Tofino Pelagic
This morning we’ll head upslope for some montane forest birding. Weather permitting, from Cypress Mountain we’ll have unreal vistas over the city while Vaux’s and/or Black Swifts parade by. This is our best spot on the tour for Black-throated Gray Warbler, Black-headed Grosbeak and Anna’s Hummingbird. At Cypress, where the 2010 Olympics were hosted, we’ll hear and perhaps see a displaying male Sooty Grouse booming one of the world’s lowest frequency songs. More obvious songsters include Olive-sided and Pacific-slope Flycatcher, Cassin’s Vireo, Pacific Wren, MacGillivray’s Warbler, Western Tanager along with Varied, Hermit and Swainson’s Thrush.
After this we’ll board a ferry from Horseshoe Bay to Nanaimo, and from the deck we can scan the waters of the Strait of Georgia for seabirds such as Brandt’s and Pelagic Cormorant, Rhinocerous Auklet, Marbled Murrelet and Pigeon Guillemot. Upon arrival we’ll get the sense of the relaxed feel of Vancouver Island as we traverse to the real west coast, stopping at a grove of majestic Douglas Firs, some more than 800 years old! Pacific Wren provides the complex audio backdrop to this wondrous ecosystem.
Nearing the coast we smell the ocean air and investigate the wild Long Beach, where we look for Black Oystercatcher, Willet, Sanderling, Hammond’s Flycatcher, Wilson’s Warbler and Chestnut-backed Chickadee, among others.
The next morning, weather permitting, we depart on a pelagic adventure, and we don’t have to go far to find excitement. Gray or Humpback Whales might be sighted in near-shore waters and we’ll visit a small colony of Tufted Puffins. Once arriving offshore at the deep Clayoquot Canyon we may encounter ocean-faring species such as Black-footed Albatross, Pink-footed and Sooty Shearwaters, Common Murre, Fork-tailed Storm-petrel, Red-necked Phalarope and Ancient Murrelet, among many others. Blue Sharks, Rizzo’s Dolphins and Northern Fur Seals are a possibility and we have twice seen the enigmatic Short-tailed Albatross, a species that nests in Japan. Surprises await us on this six-hour tour.
Our second full day in the Pacific Rim area allows a backup day for the pelagic tour and otherwise more exploration of the ethereal rainforests in this area. We’ll hike another old-growth trail, scan for Pacific Loons and scoters over expansive beaches and visit the town of Tofino, where Bald Eagles are more common than House Sparrows. Nights in Ucluelet.
Days 8 - 9: Victoria
This morning we’ll commute south to the provincial capital of Victoria, stopping en route to check an estuary for wildlife. Raccoon, Mink, and River Otter are common here. We’ll see why the southeastern part of Vancouver Island is so attractive to retirees. Once in in Victoria we’ll settle in and have some down-time to see the famed Inner Harbour. When it’s time for more birding we’ll head for Royal Roads University campus to clean up on western specialties like Hutton’s Vireo, Western Wood-Pewee and Red-breasted Sapsucker. Suburban Victoria has the highest density of Cooper’s Hawks in North America and Barred Owls are common in the city parks. We’re not done with our ocean watch however, and we’ll scan for Glaucous-winged, Western, lingering Mew and arriving Heermann’s Gulls. Great Blue Heron, Wandering Tattler and Harlequin Duck could be highlights at Clover Point. One day we’ll take a three-hour boat tour into Juan de Fuca Strait specifically to search for Orcas up-close and personal, as they munch on Chinook salmon. Humback whales are making a comeback and are a probable sighting, along with two species of Sea Lions.
In the evenings we’ll have a chance to relax amid Victoria’s charming ambience and perhaps enjoy a craft brew and some local seafood treats. Nights in Victoria.
Day 10: Manning Park
Keeping the flow, we depart Victoria and return on a different ferry back to the Lower Mainland, this time stopping at nearby Reifel Refuge. This renowned bird sanctuary will give us a great chance to get a closer look at some species. Resident Sandhill Cranes are of the friendly variety, and they can wander by with newly-hatched colts while we enjoy a picnic lunch. We may see a lingering Snow Goose, a chattering Marsh Wren and predators such as Peregrine Falcon and Great-horned Owl while at Reifel. Nearby, we may try for a roosting Barn Owl before driving to the Cascade Mountains. Night at Manning Park Lodge.
Day 11 - 13: The Okanagan
Manning Park is a stunning, mountainous birding venue. Depending on the snowpack in the mountains, we may be able to drive fairly high up into the montane zone to pick up some higher elevation species such as Boreal Chickadee, Pine Grosbeak, Clark’s Nutcracker and Spruce Grouse. At Lightning Lake we’ll have a look in the Engelmann Spruce forest for both species of Crossbill, Canada Jay and Northern Goshawk. We visit a roadside site where American Dipper nests. After lunch we’ll continue east and soon enter the Great Basin ecosystem. Nighthawk Road is a great introduction to sagebrush birding where hopefully we’ll catch Brewer’s and Lark Sparrows singing in the evening and with much luck we could encounter something rare such as Black-throated Sparrow or Sage Thrasher. These birds seem to arrive annually from south of the border, which is just over the hill. We arrive in the splendid Okanagan Valley in early evening and prepare for two final days of birding— possibly the best yet.
While in the Okanagan we’ll explore the best options for sagebrush and dry forest birding. Small lakes will hold plenty of ducks including Cinnamon Teal and Redhead. Near Oliver we’ll watch breeding Wilson’s Phalaropes try to out-compete Bobolinks for our attention while we search grasslands and patches of water birch for more amazing birds. At White Lake we’ll look and listen for Grasshopper Sparrow and Gray Flycatcher. At Vaseux Lake we’ll investigate the riparian areas for migrant surprises while listening to Canyon and Rock Wren both singing from the cliffs above (Marsh, House, Bewick’s and Pacific Wrens are also present!). We’ll scan for large and small birds alike, including Golden Eagles across the lake and Rufous, Black-chinned and Calliope Hummingbirds in the forests. Lewis’ Woodpecker, Williamson’s Sapsucker, Lazuli Bunting and Pygmy Nuthatch each have their favourite tree species to cling to. An evening foray might produce a Common Poorwill or Flammulated Owl.
If we need a breather there’s always a nearby winery to lunch at, or we can dip our feet into the warm waters of Osoyoos Lake nearby our hotel. Nights in Osoyoos.
Day 14: Return to Vancouver
On our final full day we have some time for more birding prior to returning on a four-hour drive to Vancouver. This leaves time for exploring since we take a different route—one takes us through other scenic mountains. We’ll be driving through areas of contiguous forest and may have time to detour and look for bonus birds. Night in Vancouver.
Day 15: Departure
Our British Columbia birding tour ends after breakfast and you can depart for flights home anytime today.