For the second time in four years, I spent Christmas of 2013 on Vancouver Island, and had some good opportunities to do some bird photography while I was there.
The Comox valley is situated on Vancouver Island’s east side, on the Strait of Georgia, about 100 kilometers northwest of Nanaimo, British Columbia. You might remember the Comox from the winter of 2012/2013, where a vagrant Citrine Wagtail decided it would attempt to overwinter there in a farmer’s field. I always enjoy my trips to the Comox area, especially in winter, as it’s a bit of a break from the cold, snow, and dull colors of home back in Calgary.
The Comox valley is unique in both its proximity to the ocean, but also in its fairly typical coastal old-growth forest habitat, with plenty of very large pine and spruce trees around. These quickly rise up to the magnificence of Mt. Washington, at 1585 meters, which serves to provide a bit of an early sunset, especially in the depths of late December.
There are a huge number of good places to bird in the area, as evidenced by this eBird Hotspot map of the area. I’ve visited a good number of these spots over the past couple of years, but I do have my favourites.
The Courtenay River Estuary has always been a very productive spot for me to bird. It’s where I have found quite a few life birds, and the best way I’ve found to explore the estuary between mid-morning and afternoon is by walking the Courtenay Riverway Heritage Walk, especially on a sunny day, where you’ll have the sun at your back, and good light on the birds.
Along this stretch of pathway, you’ll be hard pressed to miss the many Fox Sparrows, Pacific and Bewick’s Wrens, Song Sparrows, and you might even get a lucky sighting of an overwintering Ruby-crowned Kinglet, which came as quite the surprise to me!
It’s almost impossible to miss the abundance of Bald Eagles about, and I happened upon this pair eyeing up some Glaucous-winged and Herring Gulls during a fairly intense mid-afternoon rain shower on my last day in the valley.
Being a town right on the ocean, there are always a few surprises to be found. While running some errands one day, I took a bit of a walk around the Comox Marina, and a pathway that runs behind some of the houses turned up a couple of hardy Anna’s Hummingbirds, and yet another lifer, this Golden-crowned Sparrow, which unfortunately appears to be suffering from a deformity of its lower mandible.
Another particular favourite spot of mine to visit is Goose Spit Regional Park, at the end of which is a facility owned by the Department of National Defense. This particular landform is an estuarine sand spit that is fed by erosion of the nearby cliffs and partly encloses the Courtenay River Estuary on the north side. The beach below the bluffs has some good songbird habitat, but the real beauty to be found here are the water birds. Waterfowl, shorebirds, Great Blue Herons, and Bald Eagles can easily be found here, and it can be particularly magical late in the afternoon, with the golden hour light and amazing backdrops providing an incredibly memorable experience.
If you find that the numerous locales within a short distance of Comox aren’t quite enough for you, a trip down towards Parksville and Nanaimo provide a bit of a different environment along the shore. Rathtrevor Beach Provincial Park in Parksville turned up a good variety of shorebirds, and my absolute favourite coastal waterfowl species, the Brant.
But of course, how could anyone write about the Comox Valley and forget to mention the hundreds of Trumpeter Swans that overwinter here every year. That alone would be enough to brighten any inland birder’s Christmas, let alone all the other great things to see in the Comox Valley!