Christmas Birding in the Comox Valley

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.

Comox Valley eBird Hotspots

Comox Valley eBird Hotspots

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.

Courtenay River Estuary December 2013

Courtenay River Estuary
December 2013

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!

Fox Sparrow Courtenay, British Columbia December 2013

Fox Sparrow (Sooty ssp.)
Courtenay, British Columbia
December 2013

Pacific Wren Courtenay, British Columbia December 2013

Pacific Wren
Courtenay, British Columbia
December 2013

Ruby-crowned Kinglet Courtenay, British Columbia December 2013

Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Courtenay, British Columbia
December 2013

Song Sparrow Courtenay, British Columbia December 2013

Song Sparrow (Pacific NW ssp.)
Courtenay, British Columbia
December 2013

Bewick's Wren Courtenay, British Columbia December 2013

Bewick’s Wren
Courtenay, British Columbia
December 2013

Chestnut-backed Chickadee Courtenay, British Columbia December 2013

Chestnut-backed Chickadee
Courtenay, British Columbia
December 2013

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.

immature Bald Eagle Courtenay, British Columbia December 2013

immature Bald Eagle
Courtenay, British Columbia
December 2013

Adult Bald Eagle Courtenay, British Columbia December 2013

Adult Bald Eagle
Courtenay, British Columbia
December 2013

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.

Golden-crowned Sparrow Comox, British Columbia December 2013

Golden-crowned Sparrow
Comox, British Columbia
December 2013

Anna's Hummingbird Comox, British Columbia December 2013

Anna’s Hummingbird
Comox, British Columbia
December 2013

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.

Eurasian Wigeon Comox, British Columbia December 2013

Eurasian Wigeon
Comox, British Columbia
December 2013

Harlequin drakes at sunset Comox, British Columbia December 2013

Harlequin drakes at sunset
Comox, British Columbia
December 2013

Great Blue Heron Comox, British Columbia December 2013

Great Blue Heron
Comox, British Columbia
December 2013

Bald Eagles fighting over a meal Comox, British Columbia April 2011

Bald Eagles fighting over a meal
Comox, British Columbia
April 2012

Surf Scoter Comox, British Columbia December 2013

Surf Scoter
Comox, British Columbia
December 2013

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.

Brant coming in for a landing Parksville, British Columbia December 2013

Brant coming in for a landing
Parksville, British Columbia
December 2013

Black Oystercatchers Parksville, British Columbia December 2013

Black Oystercatchers
Parksville, British Columbia
December 2013

Black Scoters Parksville, British Columbia December 2013

Black Scoters
Parksville, British Columbia
December 2013

Dunlin, Black-bellied Plover, and Black Turnstone Parksville, British Columbia December 2013

Dunlin, Black-bellied Plover, and Black Turnstone
Parksville, British Columbia
December 2013

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!

Trumpeter Swans Comox, British Columbia April 2012

Trumpeter Swans
Comox, British Columbia
April 2012

 

 

 

This entry was posted in Bird Canada, Canadian Birds, Nature Photography, Shorebirds, Waterfowl, Winter Birding in Canada and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Christmas Birding in the Comox Valley

  1. Dan Arndt says:

    Hi Sharon,

    One of the places that I’ve visited in the spring that has been incredibly great is the Cumberland Marsh. I managed to get quite close to a number of young Great Blue Herons (I suspect there’s a rookery there), as well as my lifer Red-breasted Sapsucker!

    Have fun out there!

    - Dan

  2. Sharon says:

    We are going to Courtenay-Comox over the Easter weekend. Was looking on-line for ‘birding things to do’ in the area and was delighted to find your post. Now I’m even more excited about the trip!! Thank you.

  3. David says:

    Absolutely amazing pictures! I wish I had gotten some time over Christmas for some birding.

  4. Christine says:

    Brilliant pictures, Dan. Your Blue Heron touching the water is gorgeous. Please keep up the excellent posts. Your blog about Parksville and the Island makes me homesick however – it was there as a youngster that I first learned my love of birding! So many species to encounter.
    Thanks.

  5. Beautiful photos of a count that was worth the effort! I must go out to Comox Valley one of these days…

  6. Dan Arndt says:

    It’s definitely a habit worth getting into! I will admit though, it’s kind of weird seeing so many sparrows and hummingbirds the day before Christmas!

    - Dan

  7. Dan Arndt says:

    Thanks Duane! Always appreciated!

    - Dan

  8. Terrific sightings and shots, Dan. I’m inspired to try a Christmas on the island for once instead of the frigid prairies. I can see where that could become a habit ;)

  9. Duane says:

    Great blog article and picturs Dan. Thanks for sharing :)

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