Chances are if you’re traveling around BC this summer, you’re likely to be on a ferry once or twice. No matter if you’re going from Vancouver to Vancouver Island, between the Southern Gulf Islands, along the Sunshine Coast coast or even up to Haida Gwaii, ferries offer a unique experience for pelagic birding. 

Pelagic birding basically means to go looking for birds in open water, and a ferry trip makes it a very easy way to see some birds you can’t often see anywhere else. Many people go out on boats for purposeful pelagic birding expeditions, which can be difficult for a whole number of reasons, but ferry rides offer convenient pelagic birding for everyone, whether you’re an avid birder or just looking to kill some time on your voyage.

Make sure to bring binoculars if you have them, otherwise, birds like these distant Ancient Murrelets will just be tiny dots on the water. Photo by Shayne Kaye.

Make the Most of the Open Water

If possible on your ferry, get out to the outside observation decks. If you have them stashed in your vehicle, don’t forget to bring some binoculars with you as the birds you’ll be seeing won’t be getting too close to the ferry. You may want to bring or have handy a pair of gloves as even on a warm day, holding binoculars in the wind for an hour can chill your fingers. If you’re out looking for birds in the colder months, be sure to wear an extra layer or windbreaking clothing as it gets really cold out there. Oh, and don’t forget your sunscreen!

Use your binoculars (or camera with a decent zoom lens) to scan the water and along the shorelines. Look for activity on the water, as oftentimes if there’s some good eating, there will be a commotion of birds. Otherwise, keep scanning the waters for birds flying over the surface or popping back up from diving for food.

What Birds Are Out There?

The thing that makes pelagic birding so exciting is that a lot of the birds you’ll see live primarily out on the water. They rarely stay on land for long, mostly just for breeding purposes.

Here are some pelagic birds you could see on your next ferry ride through the Strait of Georgia or the Salish Sea.

Heermann’s Gull hovering over the water. Photo by Shayne Kaye.

Of course, there are several different species of gulls that can be seen throughout the year, including the small Mew Gulls that can be seen either bobbing in the water or hovering above the surface, and the dark-with-bright-orange-beak Heermann’s Gulls that like to hang out on sandy beaches and in kelp beds just offshore.

Rhinoceros Auklet hunt close to shore for small fish by “flying” underwater with strong wingbeats. Photo by Shayne Kaye.

Many birds in the alcid family can be seen out on the open waters: the dapper, black-and-white Common Murres, Pigeon Guillemots, which are often seen closer to rocky coastlines and have bright orangey-pink feet, and Marbled and Ancient Murrelets, with the Marbled having a while collar that separates its dark crown and back, as well as a shorter dark bill. An especially eye-catching member of the family is the Rhinoceros Auklet, which look like they have a cool horn on top of their beaks and streaking feathers coming from their heads that can make you think you’ve found a puffin (their close relatives) at first glance

Pelagic Cormorants have a thin neck that is straight in flight. Photo by Shayne Kaye

Double-crested, Pelagic, and Brandt’s Cormorants are amazing to see flying low over the water. They are all identifiable by their long necks and hooked bills. Double-crested and Brandt’s are common in Active Pass while foraging in water depths, while the Pelagic are usually closer to shore foraging over submerged reefs and rocky areas. If you’re closer to shore, watch for the iconic spread-winged sunning behaviour cormorants use to dry off after being in the water.

The plumage of Western Grebes is very dense and waterproof.

Grebes like the large Western Grebe can sometimes be seen floating around on the water. Look for birds with long necks, black-and-white plumage with a yellow bill, and red eyes.

If you see a gull that looks particularly aggressive, look closer in case it’s one of our three species of Jaegers (Parasitic, Pomarine, and Long-tailed), predatory birds that act like pirates, stealing food from other seabirds.

Common, Pacific, or Red-throated are the most common Loons to see from the ferry. Watch for slender cormorant-like birds that hold their heads low in flight over the water. 

Long-tailed Ducks can swim down as deep as 200 feet to forage for food. Photo by Shayne Kaye.

Long-tailed Ducks aren’t often seen, but if you get lucky, you might see this majestic-looking sea duck with extravagantly long, slender tail feathers.

Bald Eagle. Photo by Clint Rivers.

In addition to the pelagic birds, when going through Active Pass or passing close to shorelines, Eagles or Ospreys can sometimes be seen flying over beaches or perched on trees along the water’s edge.

Of course, it’s not just birds you can see out on BC’s coastal waters. Keep an eye out for whales, dolphins, seals, and sea lions.

We hope this helps pass the time on your next ferry voyage and introduces you to a unique aspect of the bird world. Happy birding! Looking for more reasons to do some pelagic birding? Read the National Audubon Society’s post about Birdist Rule #55: Go on a Pelagic Birding Trip.