columbia wetlands large

4 Fall Birding Excursions in British Columbia

columbia wetlands large

The Columbia River Wetlands in eastern British Columbia is one of North America’s premier destinations for avid birders. (Claudia Laroye photo for Vacay.ca)

As pandemic pastimes go, birding is one of the most accessible and popular activities around. Outdoors in the open air, participants can spread out and train binoculars in envious appreciation of birds flocking together while we remain physically apart.

Located on the Pacific Flyway, British Columbia is home to many excellent and world-renowned birding destinations. From ocean shorelines to wide river valleys and dry interior deserts, these four birding hotspots across British Columbia offer hours of avian appreciation during the fall migratory season.

A greater yellowlegs enjoys a snack. Photo credit: Christopher Stephens

Parksville, Vancouver Island

Situated on the calm eastern shore of Vancouver Island, Parksville is marked with wetlands, estuaries, creeks, and rivers, making it a paradise for migratory birds heading south for the winter.

Enjoy a birding tour with local naturalist and birder Christopher Stephens of Pacific Rainforest Adventure Tours, who showcases the 100-plus species of avian life that frequent the region. These include turkey vultures, ptarmigan, sandpipers, shorebirds, hawks, eagles, finches, plovers, Anna’s hummingbirds, and small shrikes, also known as “butcher birds” for their feeding habits.

“The Oceanside region is a great overlap area for migrating birds,” Stephens says. “The Englishman River Estuary, Parksville Wetlands and French Creek estuary provide hours of fascinating birding and opportunity to spend time out in nature.”

Birder and naturalist Christopher Stephens conducts birding tours in the Parksville region. (Claudia Laroye photo for Vacay.ca)

Parksville’s intertidal zones offer both shelter and food sources like green crabs, salmon, sculpin, and other smaller invertebrates, attracting a wide variety of avian life.

“There are lots of bird species all year round. In fact, this region is a global birding destination,” Stephens adds. “The unique collection of birds makes for a fascinating observation time, especially during the busy fall season.”

George C. Reifel Bird Sanctuary, Ladner

Spread over nearly 850 acres of managed wetlands, marshes and dykes in the Fraser River Estuary, Reifel Bird Sanctuary is located on Westham Island west of Ladner.

The sanctuary encompasses part of the Alaksen National Wildlife Area in the Fraser River delta, attracting greater than 1.4 million birds migrating from Siberia to South America each year.

More than 300 bird species have been recorded in the sanctuary, including Sandhill cranes, great blue herons, eagles, Northern Saw-whet owls, and many shorebird species.

Reifel Bird Sanctuary is well-known for the spectacular white snow geese that flock in great numbers during the migratory fall and spring months.

Note: The sanctuary has instituted a visitor reservation system on its website to ensure guest safety and physical distancing.

A bluebird day for spotting birds at Reifel Bird Sanctuary. (Claudia Laroye photo for Vacay.ca)

Robert Lake and Chichester Wetland Park Sanctuary, Kelowna

Kelowna, the largest centre in the dry interior Okanagan Valley, provides many excellent birding opportunities, particularly shorebirds attracted to shelter and food sources of the region’s various lakes and water bodies.

The Chichester Bird Sanctuary is a small wetland park in Rutland that has hosted nearly 200 species of birds. Wetlands are a rarity in the arid climate of the Okanagan, and during the fall migration period, the skies and trees above the central sanctuary pond are crowded with bird life, including: warblers, flycatchers, wrens, blackbirds, Mallards, magpies, robins, and various sparrow varieties.

Robert Lake is a prairie-type alkaline slough with mudflats that attract a wide variety of migrating birds in fall. Popular shorebirds include plovers, snipes, killdeer, sandpipers, and gulls.

Spotting killdeer along the shore. (Photo courtesy of Christopher Stephens)

Columbia River Wetlands, Golden

The Columbia River is a British Columbia Heritage River and the largest river in the Pacific Northwest. Passing through Golden in the eastern part of the province, the river slows as it winds its way through the mountain valleys, creating significant wetlands that attract birds, wildlife and human observers.

The Columbia Wetlands is the largest intact wetlands in North America, providing a support system for hundreds of thousands of birds, fish, reptiles, and mammals. It’s home to the second-largest concentration of great blues herons in western Canada, with more than 300 nesting pairs. The wetlands sees about 15,000 migrating waterfowl every fall, along with thousands of songbirds and birds of prey, including ospreys, bald eagles, sparrows, grebes, and flycatchers.

A birder’s best option is to paddle through the wetlands on a self-guided canoe tour of a half- or full-day duration. Bring binoculars to spot and identify the many bird species when you’re out on the water.

Canoeing through the Columbia River Wetlands. (Claudia Laroye photo for Vacay.ca)

The BC Bird Trail

Launched in partnership with Destination British Columbia, Birds Canada and local tourism partners, the new BC Bird Trail takes flight as one of the province’s latest fresh air, year-round experiences.

Capitalizing on the strength of its location on the Pacific Flyway, the BC Bird Trail is an exciting guide to explore birding, conservation, and community in British Columbia.

“The BC Bird Trail visits some of the best birding locations in southwestern British Columbia,” says Dr. David Bradley, Director, BC Programs for Birds Canada. “You can see massive flocks of wintering shorebirds, ducks, and raptors in the Fraser River Estuary, stare at the largest colonies of pterodactyl-like herons in Western Canada, or witness the wealth of the herring spawn run on eastern Vancouver Island. It’s all here – and it’s amazing.”

The Trail launches with a series of self-guided itineraries throughout three regions in southwestern BC. Starting from Central Vancouver Island, the Trail flows east, towards Richmond and Delta, and ending the Fraser Valley. The Central Vancouver Island region takes visitors through a coastal tour of Cowichan, Nanaimo, and Parksville Qualicum Beach.

The second region, Richmond and Delta, are often called the epicentre of birdwatching in British Columbia, due to the year-round nature of birding activity. In the third region, birders can visit Fraser Valley riverside stops in the communities of Langley, Abbotsford, Chilliwack, and Harrison.

“Whether sighting bald eagles during the salmon run, or spotting migrating waterfowl in the wetlands, bird watching in British Columbia offers an immersion into nature,” comments Richard Porges, Interim President and CEO of Destination British Columbia.

“The BC Bird Trail explores urban and rural landscapes, where diverse habitats offer a wealth of viewing opportunities all year long. This partnership is a wonderful example of local networks using their collective power to bring a unique tourism product to life, and together we are highlighting BC’s must-see destinations for locals and visitors alike.”

Fall Birding Tips

  • On the warmer, sunnier days, watch the sky for migrating raptors like turkey vultures, soaring high in late summer’s warm air currents.
  • Keep an eye on late fruiting trees and berry bushes to spot birds enjoying a sweet fall harvest.
  • If the weather turns foul, check the edges of large bodies of water as birds will rest and wait for good weather before making the journey south.
  • Got a backyard garden? Let flowers go to seed to help attract seed-eating birds.
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Claudia is a travel writer and editor in Vancouver, Canada. She writes about adventure, family, food and wine, luxury and sustainable travel for print and online publications around the world. In addition to travel, Claudia loves chocolate, guacamole and pineapple margaritas.