Birding in the Rockies
Cruising along pastoral Highway 95 in BC’s Columbia Valley, past cattle, horses, chicken pens, and colourful beehives, I’m drawn to a succession of telephone-like poles standing on the shoulder. Crowning the poles like oversized straw hats are nests woven from grasses, twigs, and branches. Pulling over, I watch a bald eagle clasp firmly to the edge of a nest and drop its marble white head down to meet a bundle of bobbing eaglets. I feel just as excited to witness the sight as those eaglets are to gulp down their highly anticipated meal. This uninhibited nature scene is one aspect that makes the Columbia Wetlands, flanked by the snowy summits of the Purcell Mountains on the west and the jagged Rockies to the east, part of what is known as the Pacific Flyway migration route.
Turning onto a narrow gravel road, I’m met by Mo Teasdale of Columbia Wetlands Adventures, located 26 km south of Golden. Walking along a dirt trail lined with sunshine-yellow daffodils and a rainbow of tulips, we cross a small creek with a beaver dam pinching, but not fully blocking its flow. Kokanee salmon, she says, run there in the fall. Continuing through a forest of willows and birches sprouting neon green spring leaves, we reach an open area with a panorama of majestic mountain views. “This,” announces Teasdale, “is our wetland heaven.”
Amidst bunches of fat grasses as well as slender, striped varieties, muskrat mounds rise from the marshes. Pointing to an art nouveau tree reminiscent of Beetlejuice’s garden, Teasdale explains the multi-level avian complex is the summer home of heron colony. “The herons return every year on March 14,” she says. “The first year we noticed two nests, the next year there were four, the next year eight. Now there are 40. Bald eagles swoop down and steal their eggs.”
On this tranquil day it’s difficult to imagine such drama as a few geese skim the water, their ripples sketching the still surface like an artist’s brush on a blank canvas. Following a series of floating boardwalks linked to a suspension bridge, Teasdale points to the end of one boardwalk sinking progressively into the water until it’s fully submerged. After one quiet week when no one visited
the dock, Teasdale returned to find the back quarter of a kayak protruding from under a giant beaver dam. “I suspect one of our kayaks is in their living room,” she says with laugh. “They built their dam on the end of our dock, and the dock sank. We love it!”
Indeed, re-wilding is happening in real time in the Columbia Wetlands, all to a soundtrack of loon calls. While this might be a tomb for an appropriated kayak, it’s the cradle of life for the most diverse bird population in all of BC, including prime breeding ground for bald eagles, osprey and great blue heron.
Flowing from Canal Flats at the southern tip of the Columbia Lake, around the Selkirks to where it hairpins past Revelstoke and across the US border, the Columbia River is the largest river in North America that reaches the Pacific (near Astoria, Oregon). Meandering like a well-fed snake, the river’s first 200 km from Canal Flats to Donald, 30 km north of Golden, BC, comprise the longest continuous wetlands remaining on the continent. Ranging from one to 2 km in width, the wetlands cover a 26,000 hectare mosaic of marshes and ponds, providing a life support system for 250 species of resident and migratory birds, as well as a plethora of plants, animals, and fish.
Wetlands are distinct ecosystems formed when water accumulates long enough for saturated, oxygen-depleted soils to develop. This allows for the growth of aquatic plants. Beyond providing a habitat for plants and animals, wetlands remove as much as 90 per cent of sediment and toxins from water, and slow the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The Columbia Wetlands are so valuable they were designated a Wetland of International Importance in 2005 by the Ramsar Convention, an international treaty for the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands.
In addition, they are the centrepiece of the annual Wings Over the Rockies Festival which takes place the first week of May. What began in 1999 as a small, informal birding festival now includes 7 days of talks by naturalists and wildlife biologists, interpretive hikes, workshops, boat tours, and presentations from experts ranging from world-class adventurers to polar bear specialists. Events take place indoors and out, in locations from Cranbrook to the Moberly Marshes north of Golden. For experienced birders, Wings Over the Rockies is an annual pilgrimage; for curious and interested novices, there’s no better introduction to the waterfowl, raptors, shorebirds, and songbirds that thrive in the Columbia Wetlands.
Wings Over the Rockies is not the region’s only world-class bird watching opportunity. At the southeastern town limit of Golden, the Reflection Lake viewing platform serves up a kaleidoscope of waterfowl, including Canada geese, mallards, coots, and trumpeter swans. On the Rockies’ eastern slopes, birdwatching opportunities also abound. In Kananaskis Country, where the plains transition to foothills and mountains, numerous species flourish including red-tailed hawks, black-billed magpies, Canada jays, ravens, and red-breasted nuthatches.
Every spring and fall, golden eagles pass over the Bow Valley on their annual migrations north and south. Flying in small groups at high elevations, each migration can involve as many as 5,500 eagles, with upwards of 850 passing overhead on a peak day. Mating for life and generally travelling in pairs, older eagles appear earliest in the spring when air masses are most stable. In the fall, younger birds are first to head south. Every October, Canmore celebrates this ancient migration with the two-day Festival of Eagles featuring hikes, interpretive presentations, exhibitions, and guest speakers.
Come winter, meet the birds of Banff National Park that don’t fly south by signing up for a snowshoe tour with Joel Hagan and Nadine Fletcher, master interpreters from Great Divide Nature Interpretation, or visit the birds of the Rockies’ southern reaches with Fernie’s Wild Nature Tours.
Snow, rain or shine, grab your binoculars, download a birding app to your iPad or smartphone, and become acquainted with the Rockies’ feathered inhabitants.
By: Lynn Martel