Next-Gen Birders Flock to Vancouver Along the Pacific Flyway

The migration patterns of birds follow predictable, seasonal schedules. But the complex, obsessive and mesmerizing behaviour of the birdwatching community, witnessed in their natural habitat, is anything but.

Clustered on the corner of West Cordova and Jervis streets, a set of unlikely peeping Toms stands beneath a glass building. Fifteen birders are training their binoculars on a stranger’s balcony, where six finches are perched on a dead tree. “This is where it gets kind of creepy,” says group leader and biologist Christopher Di Corrado, as the driver of a black Mercedes SUV slows, confused by the commotion.

As a birdwatching destination, Vancouver is unique. To the north is Stanley Park, a 1,000-acre wood that’s home to a heronry, bald eagle nests, and more than 230 bird species. South of the city is Richmond, which sees millions of birds pass through because of its location on the migratory Pacific Flyway. Then there’s the suburb of Ladner, home to 850 acres of bird sanctuary and wetlands where 75,000 or so snow geese settle before they fly north to Siberia in the spring. Delta, across the Fraser River, is one of the most bird-rich areas in the country, and home to a group lobbying hard for the title of Birding Capital of Canada.

That morning, Di Corrado’s birders began wandering the city’s waterfront for prized sightings at 6:20 a.m., fanning out across the grass in Coal Harbour Park. “Maybe today will be our day for a peregrine falcon,” he says, holding up two crossed fingers. “That’s my nemesis bird,” says Hannah Stockford, a 17-year-old birder who has flown in from Ontario for the 27th International Ornithological Congress (also known as the Olympics of birdwatching) and the Vancouver International Bird Festival. Someone squeals “Hummingbird! Hummingbird!” and Stockford takes off running with the rest of the pack.

September 25, 2019
Liz Kao wears a hat and jacket costume depicting a snowy owl
A feather identification installation frames an entire wall
Kao becomes a snowy owl, in a costume made by Cathy Stubington and Runaway Moon artists for the Birds on Parade event.
A feather identification installation at the Birding and Raptor Rehabilitation Centre in Boundary Bay.

A parade marks the grand opening of the festival. It’s a sight as elegant as it is bizarre, and gawkers line Vancouver’s Seawall to watch the flock, 100 bird-people strong. They are heard long before they are seen, drumming and chanting, a thunderous and rhythmic beat. They are birders, dressed as birds, on parade. A golden-tinged tree swallow on stilts checks her cellphone. A blackbird plays a violin. An unkindness of ravens swoops noiselessly by. A barn owl goes rogue and hoots through the crowd. A tutu-clad pink and green hummingbird thrusts his beaked head forward, seemingly disjointed from his neck. (It took him months to perfect the move.) “What kind of bird are you?” an onlooker calls out, and a hawk lets out a screech in response.

North Americans are birding in droves, more than ever before. The recent uptick of urban, tech-savvy and environmentally conscious birders has turned a pastime once relegated to retirees into a spectator sport. For months, these enthusiasts have studied movements and calls, designed and created costumes, prepared for this day. Now, metamorphosis complete, they glide through the city, out in the open, as free as the birds they have come here to see. Social media allows birders to track sightings in real time and cameras are cheaper than ever, which means websites like eBird (the citizen science project run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology) sees more than 500,000 users contribute more than 100 million sightings every year – the world’s largest birding community.

A grassy area of Stanley Park
Stanley Park’s Lost Lagoon, from where many birder walks take off.
Lolu Oyedele wears a seagull hat and matching blue blazer with wings attached
Stanley Park’s Lost Lagoon, from where many birder walks take off.
Lolu Oyedele gets all gulled up for Birds on Parade.

There are also countless characteristics unique to birders. The first: they are singularly focused on birds. When they trail off midsentence or stand in the open road, they are not daydreaming. They are not lost in thought. They are not even listening to you. They are scanning. They are taking notes. They see patterns in the sky. (A colony of noisy, upset gulls? Likely a sign a bald eagle is near.) They keep life lists, birds they hope to see before they die. And, as in any subculture, birdwatching is marked by moments of cooperation and competition. There are squabbles (techies who use apps versus the purists who use field guides) and tiffs (who owns the most cutting-edge binoculars and the veracity of claims of unusual sightings). What unites them is a heartfelt optimism, an unwavering commitment to seeing the parts of nature the rest of us would, too, if we only opened our eyes.

Outside the city’s convention centre, a dozen people practise bird-themed yoga, demonstrating how much birders will do in the name of these feathered creatures. “I want you to imagine you are a bird parent regurgitating food for your young,” says Kate Fremlin, a 33-year-old nose-studded ornithologist and yoga instructor from the North Shore, in breathy undertones. The yogis oblige, tongues outstretched. Fremlin guides them through “wing,” or arm, exercises, and brings the class to a close in what she calls a V-formation. One woman concludes with a perfectly executed crow pose. Another rises from Shavasana to lace up her birded sneakers. There’s something confusingly earnest about these people. And if the number of sparrow tattoos on display in this flock is any indication, one unshakeable truth is revealed: Once you bird, you never go back.

A group of birders line up with their gear along Dyke Trail
Serious birdwatchers flock to the Dyke Trail in Boundary Bay Regional Park.

Along the edge of Boundary Bay in Tsawwassen, a bespectacled and binoculared group lines the shore. Their stance: feet squarely shoulder-distance apart, arms at 90-degree angles and steady. Imagine a captain calling land ho, but with binoculars affixed to her face, an enormous camera dangling by her side, a stuffed owl tethered to her backpack, and a swallow scrunchie tying her hair back. The group is diverse, from graduate students to middle-aged conservationists to, yes, some retirees. And their feathers are not easily ruffled. They will stay here all day if they have to. The muted pastels of the grassy sand dunes lend the scene a certain serenity, one that’s quickly interrupted by an outstretched finger. Robyn Worcester, the group’s leader and a Vancouver-based biologist, thinks she’s seen a common tern, extremely rare for the region. “Raucous tern! Comin’ in hot!” she hollers. The sighting causes a kerfuffle. Scott Walters, a 35-year-old environmental consultant from Seattle, pulls a guidebook the size of a brick from his saddlebag, flipping frantically to the tern section. “It could be,” he says. “It could be!” When the tern turns around to reveal a bright coral bill – a telltale sign of the widespread and decidedly ordinary Caspian tern – the crowd lets out a low groan. “A Caspian tern,” Worcester says, crestfallen. “The loss of a common tern is painful,” Walters murmurs in sympathy.

A stream runs through the grassy lands of the Boundary Bay Regional Park
Four ducks swim in a pond
More than five million birds stop by Boundary Bay Regional Park each year.
Ducks on a pond at the George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary on Westham Island.

That evening, another cluster of birders crowds into the Stanley Park Nature House, for a bird walk hosted by Erynn Tomlinson. Tomlinson is vehement and vocal about her love of winged creatures, so much so that when she found a lack of birding apps on the market, the 39-year-old built her own. As she leads the group around the park’s Lost Lagoon, she peers into the dusk, calling out names (“Glaucous-winged gull! Black-capped chickadee!”) of species flying by.

Tomlinson got into birdwatching four years ago, when she realized birding was like a live-action game playing out around her. But the community wasn’t as enthused about the app she wanted to build. “I actually had people say ‘Great guidebooks already exist! Why are you trying to reinvent the wheel?’” she says. “There’s conflict between different types of birdwatchers: people who take photos and potentially get too close, people who use sounds that can disrupt breeding, and more purist nature lovers who lug around books and bags.”

Brett Koblinger and his sister Sarah Jane Hamilton have come on Tomlinson’s walk to develop their fledgling identification skills. Koblinger, 33, is visiting from his home in Austria.

The waterfront of Lost Lagoon at dusk
Lost Lagoon at dusk, with Vancouver’s West End in the background.
Owen Jardine poses in a rock pigeon hat and cape costume
Lost Lagoon at dusk, with Vancouver’s West End in the background.
Owen Jardine in a rock pigeon costume made by his mother, artist Robi Smith.

A year ago, Hamilton began to send her brother pictures of the birds that flocked to her Kitsilano balcony most mornings, hoping for his help in guessing what they were. He began to send his own bird photos back. They keep in touch across continents, finding answers to nature’s avian constellations together. For them, birds signify a point of connection in a wide world. There is something endearing, so curious, childlike and utterly harmless, in this way of perceiving the natural world – as though there is a story to tell, if you are paying enough attention.

On a misty Sunday morning, a van full of birders sets out from Vancouver. Birds sing in the morning, and are most precisely identified by song, so the van arrives at the Iona Beach Regional Park banding station by the streaky grey light of dawn. The park is north of an international airport, though you would never know it from the surrounding rainforest-green trees on the banks of the Fraser River. The seven birders have come to gently band birds that fly into the group’s gossamer nets, in an effort to track migration patterns. And, as with everywhere the birders go, they’re calling out sightings with levels of enthusiasm not native to just-past-daybreak.

A man in a plaid shirt holds a yellow warbler between his hands
Courtney Lahue and Andrew Huang stand in a grassy area
Axim Shariff holds a yellow warbler.
Courtney Lahue and Andrew Huang, of WildResearch, in the field near the Iona Island Bird Observatory.

There’s a Lincoln’s sparrow, a yellow warbler, a harrier. “Herons sound like dinosaurs,” says biologist Myles Lamond as he lumbers by. Catherine Jardine, a data analyst for Bird Studies Canada, examines the northern water thrush that one of the birders has just brought in. “I’ve got something better,” says Andrew Huang in a singsong voice, walking up to Jardine with a swagger and a small white cotton bag that holds an orange-crowned warbler. There’s an unspoken hierarchy here, and Jardine is at the top, rewarded with the honour of noting down the sighting in the ledger that sits on a countertop inside the banding office. Jardine carefully records the bird’s wing length and age beside its nine-digit identification number before carrying it back outside.

The warbler lies flat against her palm, perfectly still, and her fingers curl around it. She’s just barely brushing its delicate feathers. I remember a quote by Emily Dickinson, relayed earlier in the week by Margaret Atwood, patron saint of birders herself. “Hope is the thing with feathers.” Jardine stands in the muck, cradling this creature no heavier than a swatch of silk. And then she spreads her fingers wide, letting go, watching as the water thrush takes flight.

 

Vancouver Travel Essentials

Where to Stay

Pan Pacific Vancouver Floor-to-ceiling windows offer panoramic views of float planes landing in Vancouver Harbour, and the mountains that border the city’s North Shore, in this waterfront hotel steps from Gastown. After a leisurely walk to Stanley Park, or an early-morning run, the concierge will greet you with a complimentary towel and water bottle. And the rooftop pool and hot tub don’t hurt, either.

Food & Drink

Nightingale With a name inspired by one of Aesop’s fables and fresh cuisine inspired by the season, chef David Hawksworth’s third restaurant is nestled in one of downtown Vancouver’s historic brownstones and decorated with flocks of gilded origami birds. Start with a slew of vegetable-forward dishes — roasted cauliflower with sunflower seeds and charred lemon, grated beets served with horseradish labneh, dill and nigella seeds — and leave room for the thin-crust pizza topped with lamb sausage, broccolini, feta and mint.

What to Do

Stanley Park’s Great Blue Heronry Tucked away behind a group of highrises on Beach Avenue stands a cluster of trees home to one of the continent’s largest great blue heron colonies. The herons, a species at risk that has nested in the park for almost 100 years, can be spotted courting, feeding their young, and even fending off bald eagles, depending on the season. The livestream Stanley Park Great Blue Heron Webcam will help you keep tabs on your favourite herons from afar.

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