Swallow Point Pelee
Credit: Jeff Chevrier

14 of the hottest birding spots from coast to coast

Birding may be popular, but it's never been cool. That might've changed with the release of The Big Year, a flick focused on the real-life obsession of trying to spot as many different bird species in a year as possible. Starring Jack Black, Owen Wilson and Steve Martin, the film's reviews are mixed. But no matter how it performed at the box office, The Big Year has surely changed how the world views bird watching.

That's especially true for the community of Tofino, on Vancouver Island's west coast. Canada's surfing capital stood in for the Oregon coast in The Big Year and it's got the birds to back up its growing reputation as a birding destination. Besides being on the Pacific Flyway—a major migration route—and an overwintering spot for many species, Tofino harbours many exotic and stray birds blown off course or totally lost.

Of course Tofino is not the only birding hot spot in Canada. Check out the migratory bird atlas from the government of Canada to find an important sanctuary near you. And surf through RAMSAR's site to find internationally important birding areas around the world.

Or just take our advice and check out these hot spots:

BC


George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary

The numbers say it all at this nature area on Westham Island in the Fraser River estuary: 240 species, 1.5 million total birds. The 850-hectare sanctuary, an hour from Vancouver, is a popular winter home of the lesser snow geese. Trails lead around the island and there's an interpretive centre.

Alberta


Lesser Slave Lake Bird Observatory

Song birds migrating from the northern boreal forest along the east side of the Rocky Mountains get pinched between Lesser Slave Lake and Marten Mountain, funnelling them onto the lake's eastern shoreline. In the fall and spring, as many as 5,000 birds fly through daily, giving weight to the Lesser Slave Lake Bird Observatory's reputation as "The Point Pelee of the North." It's also a hot spot for bird banding in the boreal forest with 102 species and counting.

Beaverhill Lake

This shallow lake, 70 kilometres east of Edmonton, attracts up to 50,000 birds at a time, more than 200,000 in total, during the peak fall and spring migrations. While the forest around the lake is important for raptors and other upland birds, it's the monster slough itself that's the big draw for 32 different species of ducks, geese, swans and shorebirds. The 18 km long, 10 km wide lake is only three metres deep with expansive and food rich shallow water and mud flats.

Manitoba


Oak Hammock Marsh Interpretive Centre

Migrating birds can do a lot of damage to farmers' fields by grazing—the sheer weight of thousands of birds doesn't help either. This engineered marsh is designed to mitigate the damage to commercial crops by encouraging birds to land there instead of the fields. Water levels are regulated to encourage nesting, feeding and resting. The birds are onboard: Hundreds of thousands of water and shorebirds stop in every spring and fall.

Quebec


Cap Tourmente National Wildlife Area

An hour north-east of Quebec City the Canadian Shield meets the St. Lawrence Lowlands, the Appalachian Mountains and the St. Lawrence River at Cap Tourmente creating a unique ecosystem including a huge bulrush marsh. This area was Canada's first RAMSAR recognized wetland and is protected as a National Wildlife Area. Greater snow geese stop here on their annual migration as do dabbling ducks, while warblers and other song birds flock between the escarpment and the St. Lawrence River. More than 306 species have been IDed in the sanctuary, which includes interpretive trails and a visitor centre.

Ontario


Point Pelee National Park

The narrowest point across Lake Erie attracts both birds and butterflies during the fall migration as they flock in the forest and protected marshes on the long spit, waiting for the ideal weather window to continue on their way. In the spring it's a good resting spot after the long crossing. Yet, any time of the year Point Pelee is considered one of the greatest birding destinations in the world with 360 species identified in the park.

Lake St. Clair

The system of marshes and dune ridges along the shore of Lake St. Clair is one of southern Canada's most important resting, feeding and breeding areas for migratory birds, especially tundra swans and canvas back ducks—25 and 18 percent of the species' population respectively. In the spring, more than 350,000 birds stop along the shore. Fall numbers are lower, but still impressive.

Long Point Provincial Park

The micro climate created by this sand spit on the north shore of Lake Erie supports species usually found much further south. It's also an important stopping spot for migrating tundra swans, canvasbacks and redhead duck. Song birds, bats and butterflies also use the park as a resting area during the spring and fall.

Saskatchewan


Quill Lakes

Named after the feather quills found on the shore and shipped to England to be turned into pens, it's no surprise these likes are great for birding. 85,000 geese, 100,000 ducks and 12,000 cranes visit Canada's largest saline lake and neighbouring lakes twice a year. The lakes are at the bottom of a closed drainage from the surrounding glacial moraines, an important nesting and staging area in eastern Saskatchewan.

PEI


Malpeque Bay

Famous for its oysters, the bay on PEI's north shore is equally ideal for nesting colonies of herons, cormorants and Piping plovers. 25 kilometres of sandpits and dunes protect the salt and freshwater marshes from the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The intertidal flats attract migrating waterbirds.

New Brunswick


Grand Manan Island

The twice-daily flush of the Bay of Fundy's huge tides bring marine nutrients to the surface, attracting bird life and marine species year-round to the islands around Grand Manan, the largest in the Bay of Fundy. The island is on the eastern flyway, where many migratory birds stop. 360 species have been identified and 131 have been found breeding on the islands.

Newfoundland


Witless Bay Sanctuary Ecological Reserve

An hour south of St. John's and on the edge of the Avalon Peninsula is one of the busiest bird colonies in Canada. The islands of Witless Bay are home to North America's largest Atlantic puffin colony (260,000 nesting pairs), the second largest Leach's storm petrol colony (620,000 pairs) and thousands of black-legged kittiwakes and common murres. The May to September nesting season is the only time of year these bird species spend on land.

Nova Scotia


Southern Bight-Minas Basin National Wildlife Area

Big tides expose sand and mud flats in this bay near Wolfville, attracting large numbers of waterbirds like ducks, geese and swans. But it's especially important for sandpipers: Bird counters estimate more than 100,000 semi-palmated sandpipers and 10,000 Least Sandpiper are among the one to two million birds present during the summer.
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