Birding is a soft adventure activity. It is highly accessible, mostly free, very family-friendly and encourages outdoor exploration and spending time in nature.
If, like many of us over the past two years, you were looking up to the sky in envy as our feathered friends flew freely through the air while we were homebound, you may have become fascinated with the world of birds and their ways.
Kimberley Nature Park, BC Bird Trail
Birding and bird watching have been popular for years, but interest grew exponentially during the pandemic. In part because of our confinement but also because it’s affordable, accessible and anyone can learn the fine art and science of birding.
In truth, Canadians see birds every day—seagulls, crows, Canada geese, pigeons—but we don’t have to go far to appreciate even more. Canada is a birding bonanza. These guidelines will help budding birders learn the lingo, tools and tricks to fully swoop into the boundless beauty of birding.
North Island Wildlife Recovery Centre, Errington, BC Bird Trail
What is the difference between birding and bird watching?
The activities are similar but different. Bird watchers look at birds. Birders look for birds, sometimes obsessively.
In British Columbia, the BC Bird Trail offers great tips on where, how and when to bird along the Pacific Flyway.Christopher Stephens Photography
Liron Gertsman is a young Vancouver-based birding tour leader and accomplished photographer who runs guided tours with his company, Vancouver Birding Tours. When asked about what newbie birders should know when starting out, he confirms that the most important thing to have is a sense of curiosity and to use our natural senses—our eyes and ears—as a guide.
“When you’re out birding, even if you've got the most expensive and fanciest equipment in the world, the vast majority of the time you’re actually just using your ears and your eyes,” says Gertsman.
That said, it is very nice to have a pair of binoculars, especially if you want to closely observe behaviour and appreciate plumage and identify the birds that you're seeing.
A camera is also very useful. If you’re struggling to ID a bird in the field, just take a picture and then work on its identification later using an app or field guide.
Parksville, Central Vancouver Island, BC Bird Trail
New birders can make use of several free smartphone apps, designed to help identify birds around the world.
One of the best apps is the free Merlin Bird ID, created by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Merlin has photos, sounds, maps and range information for all the birds in Canada, North America and many other regions in the world.
The app even has identification prompts that ask about colour, size and behaviour markers to help determine bird species. Its built-in AI can also ID birds using sound and photographs.
Brant Viewing Area, Qualicum Beach, Central Vancouver Island BC Bird Trail
Birding Field Guides
Carrying a birding field guide is great for a handy reference to local bird populations. The Sibley Guides contain beautiful hand-drawn illustration of birds in Eastern and Western North America. The National Geographic and National Audubon Society field guides are excellent and divided by region. For younger birders, the DK Eyewitness Books include an engaging combination of bird photographs and words.
Fishtrap Creek Park, Abbotsford, BC Bird Trail
When is a good time for birding?
A passionate birder like Gertsman will argue that anytime is a good time for birding. But it depends on your geographical location and the seasons.
During the winter months, much of Canada is covered in snow and birding opportunities are more limited. In the milder climate of British Columbia’s south coast, winter offers good birding opportunities that can include early arrivals of snow geese mixed with blue herons, eagles and shorebirds.
No matter where you live, two of the best times of year are the spring and fall migration seasons. Canada is home to four major North American migration pathways (flyways)—Pacific, Central, Mississippi and Atlantic—when millions of birds travel to and from their winter and summer homes, offering spectacular opportunities for birdwatching.
Terra Nova Rural Park, Richmond, BC Bird Trail
Glossary: Fun birding phrases every birder must know
Birder: A person who enjoys birding and birdwatching.
Fallout: The result of bad weather preventing migratory birds from reaching their destination; they descend and seek shelter on land.
Lifer: A bird species you have never seen before in your life. A lifer allows a birder to add a particular bird to their life list.
Lister: A passionate birder who obsesses about the size of their life list. May keep meticulous lists of birds, dates and locations/countries.
Twitcher: A birder who is obsessed with their life list; may get a physical twitching response when they hear about a rare bird in their area or see a bird that they've never seen before.
Usual Suspects: Birds you would normally expect to see in an area each time you go there.
Terra Nova Rural Park, Richmond, BC Bird Trail
Do’s of Birding
Do enjoy birding! Spend time outdoors watching birds, with or without bins.
Do no harm. Be respectful of birds. Admire them at a distance to not stress or affect their behaviour, especially during nesting season.
Do be an ambassador for birds and the protection of their ecosystems, advocate for your local park, estuary or nature area.
Common Canadian birds and where to see them
Bald Eagles: Mostly coastal British Columbia but other provinces and territories as well.
Hummingbirds: Five species in Canada. Only the Ruby-throated hummingbird is found in the East.
Robin: Most of Canada. Red-breasted robins are seen as a first sign of spring.
Puffins: Primarily in Newfoundland and Labrador; sometimes in Nova Scotia and parts of Quebec.
Swallows: Aerial insectivores found in most of Canada.