FLY LONDON TO VANCOUVER
Our September birdwatching tour to Canada's Pacific Coast begins with a flight nonstop from London Heathrow to Vancouver, British Columbia’s largest city. We'll be met by Chris and transfer south (about 30 minutes) to our first hotel. Depending on flight schedules, we may arrive in time to enjoy a little introductory birding nearby. Night Vancouver
Days 2 - 3
FERRY TO VANCOUVER ISLAND & VICTORIA
After breakfast this morning we catch the ferry from Tsawwassen and sail across the Strait of Georgia to Vancouver Island. The 40km crossing takes under two hours and affords picturesque views of the islands and channels, with quaint little summer homes nestled into the trees of many islands as the ferry nears Victoria. There’s a good chance of spotting Surf Scoter plus a few seabirds and maybe a Harbour Seal or two from the boat.
Located at the eastern end of Vancouver Island, Victoria is the provincial capital of British Columbia and will be our base for our first two nights on Vancouver Island. Once ashore here, we’ll begin our birding by checking local parks, which at this time of year can be rewarding for passerine migrants. Tiny Golden-crowned Kinglets flit through the trees and Golden-crowned, Song and Sooty Fox Sparrows, Bewick’s Wren, Brewer’s Blackbird and the peculiar Bushtit are all to be looked for in autumn. Migrant warblers should be moving through, with Townsend’s, Audubon’s, Wilson’s and Orange-crowned among species to watch for. We might also be lucky to come across a few tardy Willow and Pacific-slope Flycatchers. The many attractive gardens in the city are home to Spotted Towhee, House Finch and the tiny Anna’s Hummingbird - the adult males a stunning study in green with iridescent pink crowns and throat.
We’ll devote part of the following day to further exploration of Victoria’s extensive wooded parks, before turning our attention to the coast and searching for seabirds and rock-loving shorebirds at headlands close to the city.
Coniferous forests close by Esquimalt Lagoon are home to Brown Creepers, Red-breasted Nuthatches and Downy Woodpeckers, while the lagoon itself can be excellent for Belted Kingfisher, Black Oystercatcher and noisy Northwestern Crows. We’ll walk the trails at Swan Lake in search of migrants and may find the likes of Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Yellow Warbler, Cassin’s Vireo, Lincoln’s and White-crowned Sparrows, and Western Tanager. In autumn, this freshwater lake can hold Ring-necked Duck and the Hamerkop-headed Hooded Merganser.
This is a good time of year to watch for seabirds such as Rhinoceros Auklet and Ancient Murrelet off the various headlands at Victoria. We’ll scan for them as well as Harlequin Ducks, California Gulls and Pelagic Cormorants - North America’s smallest cormorant, with its tell-tale slender neck and very fine bill. Grey-suited Wandering Tattlers, stocky Surfbirds and energetic Black Turnstones make up an appealing trio of waders that can often be seen feeding together along the rockier shorelines of Canada’s Pacific Coast at this season. Two nights Victoria
VICTORIA TO TOFINO, VIA CATHEDRAL GROVE
After breakfast this morning, we drive from Victoria on the eastern tip of Vancouver Island, north and west to the upmarket fishing resort of Tofino. Vancouver Island is a big place and, without stops, the journey takes around four hours - but we will plan to take most of the day for the drive is an immensely enjoyable one as we soak up the spectacular West Coast scenery. On a clear day, we should be able to see the ragged peak of Mount Washington, at 1590m the highest point on Vancouver Island.
We’ll break our journey today with a stop at Cathedral Grove, on the shores of Cameron Lake. Cathedral Grove is a ‘must’ to see some North America’s largest trees, the biggest of which is an ancient Douglas Fir that stands an incredible 76 metres high and has a girth of 9 metres! The old-growth forest is good for birds - although they’re not always easy to find! Residents to watch out for include Band-tailed Pigeon, Red-breasted Sapsucker, the impressive Pileated Woodpecker, Brown Creeper and Pacific Wren.
This is a truly beautiful region of Canada. As we descend from the mountains, our first peek at Long Beach merely hints at the miles of pristine sand and huge waves breaking just offshore. We’ll check-in to our comfortable hotel in a wonderful location at picturesque Tofino, which will be our base for a four-night stay on the island's stunning west coast. If time permits, we’ll enjoy an evening stroll along the shore in town: Bald Eagles perch on majestic Douglas Fir snags and Glaucous-winged Gulls gather on the docks awaiting the evening arrival of fishermen. Night Tofino
Days 5 - 7
TOFINO | PACIFIC RIM NATIONAL PARK & CLAYOQUOT BOAT TRIPS
The one-time fishing village of Tofino is now a popular and rather 'well to do' tourist resort. Vast sandy beaches, stretching as far as the eye can see, hold flocks of foraging waders, including southbound Grey Plovers, and Baird’s and Western Sandpipers. The fish rich waters of Clayoquot Sound also play host to a variety of cetaceans. In September, Humpback Whales are often to be seen playing in the churning waters just offshore. These massive whales breed in southern waters and migrate north to cooler temperate waters for the summer. Grey Whales (which breed off Baja California) spend their summers here too and, with luck, we may still find a few lingering individuals. Occasionally, pods of spectacular Killer Whales may be seen as they navigate through the waters of the sound.
During our stay at Tofino, we will spend two days enjoying the varied habitats of nearby Pacific Rim National Park - from its rugged coastlines, sandy beaches and tidal flats through to its ancient forests and bogs. A morning walk along the Rainforest Boardwalk will surely be a highlight here. Cloaked in moss, the huge Western Red Cedars, Douglas Firs and Western Hemlocks - some with trunks nearly ten feet across - are a marvel to see. Steller’s Jays and Golden-crowned Kinglets are common residents in the park, and the dusky plumage of both Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers that occur here will come as something of a surprise to birders who have previously only seen these very ‘black and white’ species in eastern North America.
We meander along the boardwalk, passing through a bog where Dark-eyed Juncos fidget amongst the shrubbery on the spongy ground. We’ll keep an eye open for possible migrants such as the kinglet-like Hutton’s Vireo and attractively marked Black-throated Grey Warbler. If we are especially fortunate, we may come across the solitary Sooty Grouse quietly going about its business amongst the dense firs - or perhaps chance upon an American Black Bear crossing the road!
A number of pristine beaches lie within Pacific Rim National Park. We will visit Long Beach and Wickaninnish Beach, both of which can be good for shorebirds. Pacific and Red-throated Divers, Red-necked and Slavonian Grebes, and White-winged and Surf Scoters are all possible offshore. Ospreys will also be heading south now and this unspoilt area frequently tempts migrants to linger late into September.
As a special highlight of our four-night stay at Tofino we plan to take two exciting boat trips (weather permitting), one in search of whales and inshore seabirds; the other to look for bears! Tree-clad islands with sandy beaches and calm glassy waters characterise Clayoquot Sound, where alcids such as Common and Pigeon Guillemots, Marbled Murrelet, and Cassin’s and Rhinoceros Auklets may be found. Pelagic, Double-crested and Brandt’s Cormorants are common here, sea lions loaf on the rocks and North American River Otters can sometimes be seen, frolicking near the mouths of creeks where salmon spawn. With luck, we’ll also be able to spot one or two endearing Sea Otters, casually floating amongst the kelp, as we did last time.
Heading out to some of Tofino's more remote beaches, our 2016 group was treated to sightings of no fewer than nine American Black Bears, including a mother with cubs. Bald Eagle was also seen on this trip, while our whale watching boat trip added Sea Otter and half a dozen or so Grey Whales. And in 2015, we enjoyed some extraordinarily close encounters with several magnificent Humpback Whales as well as Harbour Porpoises, Steller’s Sea Lions and a couple of California Sea Lions for good measure, too - all testament to the rich variety of wildlife around these island shores! Three further nights Tofino
EAST TO NANAIMO & QUALICUM
After some final birding around about Tofino this morning, we make the scenic drive back across the island to Nanaimo, a bustling coastal community on the more sheltered northeastern shore of Vancouver Island. Along the way, we may spot a few Turkey Vultures heading south.
At Nanaimo, we'll check the local marshes for lingering Common Yellowthroats, chattering Marsh Wrens and king-size Great Blue Herons. Nearby Qualicum Beach is an important staging area for passage gulls and waterfowl. We have seen Thayer’s Gull here (an early arrival from its Arctic breeding grounds), and other species to look for around town include Bald Eagle, Cooper’s and Red-tailed Hawks, Band-tailed Pigeon, Pileated Woodpecker, American Dipper, Bushtit, Red-breasted Nuthatch and the ubiquitous Northwestern Crow. Night Nanaimo
Days 9 - 10
FERRY TO VANCOUVER, BOUNDARY BAY & FRASER RIVER
After another look around the Nanaimo area this morning, we board the ferry in town and return across the Strait of Georgia to Vancouver City, where we’ll enjoy two final nights on the Canadian mainland.
Vancouver is surely one of the world’s most beautiful cities. Set beside the lapping Pacific Ocean, its modern high-rise buildings are etched against a backdrop of spectacular jagged peaks of British Colombia's Coastal Mountain range, making a wonderful setting to conclude our tour.
Just thirty minutes south of Vancouver city centre, the Boundary Bay and Fraser River complex form one of the most important bird areas in all Canada. A vital staging post for millions of migrating birds that follow the Pacific Flyway, this area is hard to beat for shorebirds in autumn. Tens of thousands of migratory waders - including impressive gatherings of Western Sandpipers and Dunlins, along with lesser numbers of Least and Pectoral Sandpipers, Grey and American Golden Plovers, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Red Knot, and both Long-billed and Short-billed Dowitchers - throng the tidal flats and saltings.
Birds of prey are drawn to the wetlands by the milling wader throngs and raptors to watch for in September include Peregrine, Northern Harrier and Red-tailed Hawk. Migration often brings unexpected surprises, one of the joys of birding. Boundary Bay is perhaps the best place in North America (outside of Alaska) to find Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, a rare but annual visitor from its Siberian breeding grounds; our 2016 group found a juvenile 'Sharpie', along with Pectoral Sandpiper. Two nights Vancouver
REIFEL REFUGE, FLY LONDON
Our flight back to London departs Vancouver in the evening, leaving us free to enjoy much of the day birding at the bird-rich George C. Reifel Refuge, on nearby Westham Island.
Comprising nearly 300 hectares (850 acres) of managed wetlands, natural marshes and dykes in the heart of the Fraser River delta, Reifel’s observation tower and several hides (or ‘blinds’ as they call them here) afford excellent views over the shallow ponds and intertidal marshes. Canada Geese and Sandhill Cranes are usually present in small numbers throughout the year (though the latter don't always oblige!), and the freshwater pools can be outstanding in autumn for shorebirds and migratory waterfowl. We'll enjoy a final chance to sift through parties of sandpipers, dowitchers and yellowlegs, looking for some of the more uncommon species such as Baird’s and Stilt Sandpipers.
A handful of Black-crowned Night Herons remain to spend the winter at Reifel and we may encounter one or two, while among the reserve’s many small birds Black-capped Chickadees can be extremely tame. Other possible species to watch for include Rufous Hummingbird, Tree Swallow, American Robin, Marsh and Bewick’s Wrens, Bushtit and the garrulous Red-winged Blackbird. With luck, park staff might be able to point us in the direction of a roosting Great Horned Owl (our 2016 group was again lucky) as our trip to Canada's West Coast draws to a close.
Our birding over, we swing back north to Vancouver airport for farewells to Chris and check-in for our overnight flight home.
Arrival back at London Heathrow early this afternoon, where our September birdwatching tour to Canada's West Coast concludes.