It’s cold, it’s wet, but the birds are still out there! Winter birding in BC may be a bit discouraging given the weather and the dreary skies, but with the proper gear and some tips from us, you’ll be ready to enjoy the surprising amount of bird activity along the BC Bird Trail. Plus, what better way to push yourself to keep active outside than the chance of seeing waterbirds, raptors, and so, so many ducks!

Why Birding In Winter Can Be Great

Birding is diverse, it can be a thrilling and exciting adventure, or it can be a quiet and relaxing experience. It’s great for times when we need to be keeping our distance from others outside our household, and it’s a perfect way to explore new outdoor areas in your local community and keep yourself active.

And for all you avid birders, this time of the year is also pretty great for bird photography! The sun is lower in the sky, meaning you don’t have to deal with the harsh overhead light of a summer midday and you get nicer lighting for longer periods of time. As well, the esteemed “golden hours” for lighting around dusk and dawn are at much more reasonable times than in the summer—A 7:45am sunrise is a lot easier to go shoot than a 5:30am one!

A male Bufflehead running along the water as it takes off.

Admittedly, there are some unavoidable downsides to winter birding that can be deal breakers for some. But rain, wind, snow, and everything else BC winters throw at us can be mitigated with proper gear. Dressing in layers can help you during those windy sessions along the shores, and getting some good windproof gloves can save your hands some future hurting. Making sure to keep yourself dry will also help stave off the cold, so don’t forget your rain jacket! And maybe leave a spare set of clothes in your vehicle or backpack if you can, just in case.

And again, a tip for bird photographers, protect your gear! Colder weather drains batteries quicker, so pack a couple of spares for your camera. Also, you may want to invest in a rain cover for your camera that can protect your gear and let you shoot on rainy and snowy days. Heavy-duty covers are available if you’ll be out shooting in the elements quite a bit, but there are also inexpensive ones that can fold into a pocket in your bag just in case the weather turns while you’re out.

Just Think Of All The Birds You Can See!

It’s all about the birds, of course! Whether it’s out on the water, along the coasts of oceans and lakes, or inland in our forests, plains, and even backyards, there are birds everywhere in the winter.

A Cormorant drying off its wings in the sunlight. Photo by Shayne Kaye.

On the water, oceans and lakes are prime winter spots for birding, as ducks and other water birds are plentiful in the colder months. Cormorants of all kinds are out in higher numbers and Buffleheads are especially common on the water. 

You’ll find many varieties of ducks in lakes, such as Northern Pintails, Wigeons, Green-winged Teal, Greater and Lesser Scaup, Canvasback, and Ruddy Duck, and out on the ocean, sea ducks such as Common and Barrow’s Goldeneye, Mergansers (Common, Hooded, and Red-breasted), Scoters (Surf, White-winged, and Black), and Harlequin Ducks can often be seen from many of BC’s coastal areas.

Grebes, especially Horned, Red-necked, and Western varieties, are a more common sight in winter. American Coots, birds in the Rail family that look a bit like black chickens but swim like ducks, are also present in large flocks on lakes.

A Dunlin walking along a shallow ocean pool. Photo by Ray Hennessy.

Along the water’s edge, keep your eyes out for shorebirds. The shorelines on the South Fraser Bird Trail are great for winter birding. Dunlin can be found in massive flocks and other winter shorebirds such as Sanderling, Surfbird, Black Turnstone, and Black-bellied Plover dot the beaches.

On the land, winter offers some great opportunities for raptor sightings. Bald Eagles are especially common as they feed on the salmon spawning all over BC. Farmlands and fields are great places to camp out for short-eared Owls who will patrol the area. They are a fascinating species because unlike most owls who are nocturnal hunters, you can see short-eared owls active and hunting during the day, which is much easier to enjoy! Northern Harriers also patrol farms and marshlands. Look for a hawk-like bird with a face that looks disc-like like an owl. These raptors will hover in place before diving down at their prey.

A Short-Eared Owl prowls the farmlands. Photo by Pete Nuij.

In the region of the Columbia Valley Bird Trail, ducks and waterfowl are less common in the winter months, but raptors just Rough-legged Hawks and Northern Pygmy-Owls are a more common sight. Northern Shrikes, incredible predatory songbirds known as “butcher birds”, are also an exciting rarer winter sight. The Columbia Valley also gets BC’s common Cedar Waxwings in warmer months, but winter is the time to see Bohemian Waxwings. Common Redpolls and Snow Buntings might also make an appearance on your outings, and you might even get lucky and see a vagrant Northern Cardinal, a winter favourite from the East that doesn’t grace BC very often.

Northern Shrikes are the pint-sized predator of birds, small mammals, and insects.

The biggest prizes of winter are the rare sightings of a Snowy Owl or Gyrfalcon. These northern icons don’t come south very often, but the Fraser Valley and South Fraser Bird Trails will get a sighting every couple of years, so keep an eye on rare bird alerts.

A Snowy Owl with something to say. Photo by Ray Hennessy.

And for more common sights around your backyard or local parks, sparrows around this time of the year liven up Bird Trails all across the province. Fox Sparrows can often be seen foraging on the ground at the side of a trail and Golden Crowned Sparrows are all over the place, with their song a winter soundtrack staple.

Now, we’re off to enjoy the crisp air of British Columbia’s beautiful winter and hopefully check off a couple birds from our BC winter bird list.