Birdwatching in the Vancouver Island Region
|Bald Eagle, Vancouver Island|
As they soar high above like aerial monarchs, or perch in bushes close by the patio to fill the air with cheery song, Vancouver Island’s birds add such impressive majesty and engaging colour to Island life that it’s hard to remember these are the descendants of dinosaurs. Millions of years ago their ancestors ruled all on earth; the thunder of their passage shook the very ground. Now birds are among the most decorative commonplaces of our lives, offering beauty, joy and not incidentally a lot of practical help to human existence.
Saying Vancouver Island is a birdwatching paradise is like saying the ocean is a great place for fish. One can hardly step outside without encountering our avian cohabitants. Eagles soar past the grand steps below the Empress Hotel in Victoria’s Inner Harbour. Ospreys prowl the skies above Kennedy Lake, a half-hour outside Tofino. Hummingbirds buzz the understory of old-growth forest, looking for their favorite salmonberry blossoms. Geese clack like castanets in the sky overhead, ravens call in the woods at dawn, and cormorants greet the sun with wings spread wide on dock pilings at almost every coastal bay. More than 220 kinds of birds live on or frequent the Island, north to south, east to west.
This is by some measures the world’s most popular outdoor activity—reckoned #1 in North America, among other things, with more than 50 million regular adherents. Especially zealous practitioners travel the world and maintain life lists encompassing hundreds (sometimes thousands) of different birds they’ve seen. Our Island is a great place for such fervent fans—and equally so for those who keep no count and simply want to enjoy the sight of fellow creatures in all their splendour.
Virtually any forest, prairie, tideflat or marsh on the Island is a bird habitat, welcoming shoreline species such as cormorants, gulls, sandpipers and more. Rocky islets just offshore are good places to spy oystercatchers, with their vivid orange beaks. Suburban gardens and woods are the home of Steller’s jays, chittering chickadees and towhees, and lively northern flickers that prowl dry ground looking for ants. Songbirds hug the underbrush and spread their music—is there anything more beautiful than the evening grace notes of a song sparrow? All these can be found anywhere on the Island.
That said, there are quite a few exceptional locales, some devoted especially to bird habitat, where fanciers can be sure they’ll spy any number of species. Swan Lake and its neighbour, Christmas Hill, right outside central Victoria and easily reached on the area’s bike path network, is a great place to spy the lake’s namesake trumpeter swans, large, elegant birds reminiscent of those so commonly seen in Europe. One also sees grebes, numerous ducks, loons, both green and blue herons; and in the wetlands and hillside meadows, red-winged blackbirds, the beautiful northern harrier, five kinds of swallows. Hunting them all and small rodents may be peregrine falcons, kestrels, various hawks, eagles and the fierce northern shrike, a small but ardent bird of prey. That’s not a complete list by any means—and this is just one small preserve in the very heart of the Island’s biggest metropolitan area.
Somenos Marsh, just outside Duncan, is much like Swan Lake, with a vast expanse of wetland that holds 200 bird species. Here too are trumpeter swans, birds of prey, ducks and loons and grebes and more, many of which stop here on their lengthy, incredible journeys from south to north and back again each spring and fall. But some are year-round residents, such as the swans.
In Nanaimo Harbour, one of BC’s loveliest parks, Newcastle Island, is home each summer to large numbers of purple martins, the largest and most conspicuous member of the swallow family. Returning each spring to nest boxes bird fanciers have placed on and near the island’s dock, the martins greet visitors to the Island’s quiet Douglas-fir/Garry oak habitat, which itself is home to woodpeckers, jays, crows, hummingbirds and dozens of songbirds. Herons, cormorants and other shorebirds frequent the Island waterfront. But the Island’s glory is its martin colony—these beautiful and active birds come here all the way from their winter grounds in South America, and putting up homes for them is a tradition begun centuries ago by Native Americans in eastern North America.
Two other attractions in the same general area are places where birds benefit from human intervention. At the Birds of Prey Centre, outside Duncan, visitors can experience up close the wondrous flight and austere beauty of hawks, eagles and falcons that have been brought here for rehabilitation after injury. And at the memorable World Parrot Refuge, east of Nanaimo in Coombs, dozens of gaily coloured tropical birds greet visitors in the open-air aviary. Once pets, but abandoned by humans and brought here, these long-lived parrots, canaries and other birds are astoundingly personable and gregarious. Meeting them is an affecting experience not soon forgotten.
Equally rare wild birds are sometimes seen on the Island. The Western Meadowlark, whose gorgeous liquid song greets the sun in prairie habitats, has largely vanished from the coastal Northwest, but is an occasional visitor. Marbled murrelets, rare old-growth forest birds, ply the shorelines when they are not nesting in the deep woods. Northern goshawks, huge raptors usually confined to the Western interior, can be spied by lucky watchers. Lesser nighthawks, acrobatic insect-hunters, show up on occasion.
One can never be sure what you’ll find—except that, if you step outside, birds are a certain sight on Vancouver Island. And while we’re appreciating their beauty, grace and sheer variety, let’s not forget that our birds help maintain the ecological balance of life here. The many birds that feast on summer and autumn salmon runs help enrich the environment by scattering the dead fish remains, a key part of the cycle of life along our rivers. And the air and woods would be black with insects were it not for birds such as swallows!
We owe a lot to the descendants of the dinosaurs, and a good start on that debt is appreciation. Birdwatching visitors who would like to prepare for their trip to the Island can consult Keith Taylor’s Birder’s Guide: Vancouver Island, which offers a complete guide to species and locales; it’s easily found online. Then, just get out there and keep your eyes and ears open.
Discovering Duncan, Vancouver Island
|Duncan's famous handcrafted Cowichan sweaters|
Location alone would make Duncan a special place: It nestles along the banks of the Cowichan River in the lower end of the Cowichan Valley, the heart of Vancouver Island’s vineyard, orchard and farming country. Facing southeast into the sun, it’s a balmy, sheltered locale where tall cottonwoods line waterways, deep forests blanket surrounding ridges, and the coppery scent of the nearby tideflats drifts in on the sea breeze.
It’s also the commercial and cultural center of its valley, with 5,000 residents, attendant schools, shopping, performance venues and tidy residential districts clustered on the valley floor. But there’s much more to Duncan than this.
Most famously, it is the home of 80 totems that were carved and raised in the second half of the 20th century to honour the area’s past as the homeland of the Quw’utsun’ people, a Coast Salish band. Scattered around the city in medians, parks and plazas, the totems comprise one of the largest such collections in North America, and have brought Duncan its nickname, “City of Totems.”
Also striking is the City Hall, home of the municipal government. Built in 1913 as the town’s post office, the vivid red brick building is a conspicuous landmark whose white trim and clock tower stand out for many blocks.
At the edge of the city, beneath the cottonwoods along the riverbanks, the Quw’utsun’ Cultural Centre is a replica native village that introduces visitors to the traditions and lifestyles of the valley’s indigenous people. Today the Quw’utsun’ belong to British Columbia’s largest single First Nations band, and are known for the famous handcrafted Cowichan sweaters whose distinctive patterns, beauty and usefulness make them favourite souvenirs. Cultural centre visitors may also experience a dance, story and chant program and enjoy a traditional salmon feast during the centre’s summer season.
North of the city, the BC Forest Discovery Centre is an interpretive facility devoted to depicting the region’s once-huge forest products industry. Displays describe the natural history of the Douglas-fir, Western hemlock and Western red-cedar trees on which the industry was built. Guests can ride an antique railroad through the complex, and watch logging skills demonstrations during the summer visitor season. This is also the site, each spring, of the bigleaf maple syrup festival—yes, our maples can be tapped, just as those on the East Coast are.
Next to the forest centre is Somenos Marsh, one of Vancouver Island’s most important bird refuges. The more than 200 kinds of birds that live or visit here are obviously as fond of the area’s virtues as is everyone else who samples the gentle life in the valley’s lovely town center.
For more on the amazing totems of Duncan, check out the video below.
Breweries & Distilleries in the Vancouver Island Region
|One of Vancouver Island's many Brew Pubs|
Once upon a time every big town and small city had its own craft bakers, coffee roasters, food purveyors—and brewers and distillers. Locally made beer, cider and other distilled products were staples of life for centuries; partly because there used to be no safe public water supply, and partly because enjoying the products of local artisans was a treasured daily experience.
While that tradition nearly disappeared in the mid-20th century, Vancouver Island has ever since been one of the capitals of its resurgence. Today there are craft brewers, artisan cider makers and even local distillers across the Island, perfecting a modern industry that has been in place long enough now to represent a new Island tradition. Local beer, wine, cider and ale—Yes, we have that. A lot of it, in fact.
Though various craft breweries around Canada claim to have been first this or that, there’s no question that Victoria’s Spinnakers Brewpub, which opened its doors in 1984, was one of the modern pioneers of this movement. Today it remains heartily committed to fine craft-brewing products—including some based on regional ingredients such as Northwest hops and pumpkins (yes, really, in the seasonal Pumpkin Porter)—and to local foods as well at its fine waterfront tavern.
Spinnakers has since been joined by other craft brewers in Victoria, Nanaimo, Duncan, Comox and Tofino, as well as Salt Spring Island.
Meanwhile, in the lovely Cowichan Valley’s world-class horticultural climate—the same area so many wonderful Island wines are made--Merridale Estate Cidery helped pioneer a corollary craft, artisan cider. Also a longstanding tradition, cider had fallen even further into obscurity when the first trees were planted here in 1990, thus helping inaugurate the North American revival of this craft. Today Merridale is a national leader in artisan ciders, has added a lovely restaurant that, like the one at Spinnakers, focuses on Island products for its ingredients; and makes and sells a half-dozen splendid ciders as well as brandy from apples and blackberries. The newest addition is apple vodka—vodka made from fruit, rather than just flavored with fruit.
Merridale has since been joined in this unique craft by Sea Cider Farm, on the Saanich Peninsula north of Victoria. Meanwhile, the distillery craft is taking hold here, too, with two Island producers ramping up their first issues of artisan whiskies and other spirits. Shelter Point Distillery in Comox plans to release its first whiskey in 2014; and Island Spirits Distillery, on remote Hornby Island, markets botanically flavored gin throughout Western Canada.
And in Victoria, where modern artisan brewing started all those years ago, Victoria Spirits has leaped into the fray with hand-made small batch gin. In a former British colonial capital, that’s entirely fitting—as is the way these new versions of old traditions enhance Island life for all.
Breweries & Distilleries
- Tofino Brewing Company - Tofino
- Longwood Brew Pub - Nanaimo
- Vancouver Island Brewery - Victoria
- Philips Brewery - Victoria
- Hoyne Brewing Company- Victoria
- Shelter Point Distillery - Campbell River
- Driftwood Brewery - Victoria
- Saltspring Island Ales - Saltspring Island
- Phrog ~ Island Spirits Distillery - Hornby Island
- Wolf Brewing Company (formerly Fat Cat Brewery) - Nanaimo
|Tofino Brewing Company, Vancouver Island - Photo: Wickaninnish Inn|
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