Spring in Victoria Means the Return of Birds and Bird-Watchers!

If you think birds are cool, then Victoria in the spring is the place for you. If you don’t feel as strongly about birds, but enjoy quiet walks along beautiful wetlands, seashores, and forests, then befriend a bird-watcher and let them bring you to Victoria!  If you think bird-watching is something that only retired hippies can find entertaining, allow me to change your mind.

I am a newly-minted ‘bird nerd’ myself, which means that I have a lot to learn, so I won’t be waxing lyrical about the song of the American bushtit (which I still can’t say without giggling) or the subtle distinction between the Empidonax flycatchers (below).

Seriously? There’s a difference? (Source: National Geographic Field Guide, 6th edition)

From an amateur’s perspective, bird-watching has a more practical allure to me: it allows me to wander aimlessly through beautiful places with no greater goal than simply to look. In today’s world of smart phones and instant gratification, I find it rewarding to shut off my electronics and practice my powers of observation. Birding requires the use of many senses: you have to look carefully for camouflaged birds, and to listen intently for unique calls that might betray a rare find. Like a puzzle, the clues must be found and arranged into meaning. I’m also a big fan of to-do lists, and I find it satisfying to cross birds off my list as I see or hear them. By opening up my senses, I can ignore the temptation to check my texts or play mindless online games. The only Angry Birds I’m likely to encounter are the ones protecting their nests!

Another thing that intrigues me about birding is that birds can tell you a lot about the state of the world around you. Many birds migrate through Victoria by the season. Their movements have more to do with the weather than with the calendar date, so you can tell that spring has really arrived when you hear the first warblers sing, or see robins flocking to your garden to fatten themselves up on worms. Victoria lies in the path of the Pacific Flyway  one of four major routes for migratory birds in North America. Early spring is a time when the overwintering birds haven’t completely left yet, and many birds who are migrating from the south are beginning to show up. Whether you’re a seasoned bird enthusiast or a reluctant tag-along, you’re bound to see something that makes your day. Here are a few of my favourite birds that can be found and identified easily in Victoria in the spring:

Common Merganser:

Common Merganser, Victoria Whale Watching

These ducks are mostly thought of as fresh-water birds, and can be found around Victoria’s lakes and rivers, but they are also often sighted in protected marine waterways like the Gorge. Males have striking green heads and bright white flanks, whereas females are grey with rust-coloured ‘mohawk’-style feathers on their head.

Northern Flicker:

Northern Flicker, Victoria Whale Watching

A member of the woodpecker family, these brightly-patterned birds somewhat resemble a large robin the way they pick at food on the ground instead of in trees like most woodpeckers. They eat a lot of insects, and often hunt for anthills on the ground. When they fly, you can see their bright-white rump and little orange patches on the underside of the tail.

Great Blue Heron:

Great Blue Heron with Victoria Whale Watching

A number of small shorebirds, like the dunlin and least sandpiper, show up here only briefly in the spring. Victoria is a stopover on their migration northward to breed. Shorebirds are distinguished by their long legs and long bills, and are found – you guessed it – along shorelines. The largest and most majestic of our shorebirds is the Great Blue Heron, an enormous bird that in flight resembles a pterodactyl. Their screeching calls also bring to mind Jurassic Park. While many of these beautiful big birds are here year-round, most come in this time of year to nest. We start to see lots more of them around the Inner Harbour in February and March. They nest in early spring, and in previous years several nests have been spotted in Beacon Hill Park in downtown Victoria.

Orange-Crowned Warbler

Orange-Crowned Warbler, Victoria BC

These adorable little yellow-green birds are favourites of mine. They show up around now and stay until late summer before returning to wintering grounds down south. There are several species of warbler returning to the area right now, and they can often be heard before they are seen. Orange-crowned warblers have a trilling song that changes pitch halfway through, and a high ‘chip’ call. They are recognizable by the little patch of orange feathers on the top of their head. They nest in open, shrubby areas, and can be found in forested patches as well. These warblers are a common sight around my bird feeder in the summer.

There are hundreds of other birds to see in Victoria in the spring, and there are places within walking distance of our central business district where you can see them. From downtown, try Beacon Hill Park, the Victoria Breakwater and waterfront along Dallas Road, or Esquimalt Lagoon. If you have a car or can take a taxi, other great places for shorebirds and seabirds are Witty’s Lagoon and Cattle Point. For waterfowl and perching songbirds, try Swan Lake or Viaduct Flats. If ponds aren’t for you, try Observatory Hill or Mount Tolmie – these spots can also make great hikes, if you want to park at the bottom of the hill, or you can drive to the top and enjoy the view. A favourite place of mine for birding and hiking is East Sooke Park. And of course, the best way to spot seabirds that you can’t see from shore is to get out on one of our wildlife-watching expeditions!

When birding, remember to bring binoculars and/or a camera with a good zoom, a bird identification guide, plenty of water and snacks, and comfortable shoes. Always dress for the weather and plan to be out of the woods well before nightfall. Bird lists for Victoria and the surrounding areas can be found online here or here.

Spring is a great time to visit Victoria, and all of us at SpringTide look forward to seeing the thousands of guests we will greet in the coming months. As the days get longer, birds are not the only thing coming back into the area. The first migratory whales are beginning to arrive!  We can’t wait to share the best of the West Coast with you!

From all of us here, happy spring and happy birding!

Kat Nikolich

Biologist, SpringTide