As I write this article I am sitting in a hotel room overlooking the beach and the Pacific Ocean near Tofino.
There is not a cloud in the sky and the sun is soon to set over the Pacific. All day, as we walked the beaches, we’ve been watching the surfers trying to catch that perfect wave. But the surfers aren’t the only things out there in the water. Looking for birds on the ocean while standing on the beach is challenging! Any bird resting on the water is hidden from view by the waves most of the time. When you do spot a bird, it is visible for just a few seconds. But with a bit of patience, there is a lot out there to see.
Gulls are one of the first things we think about when near the ocean and certainly they are numerous here. Most of the ones I’ve seen today are Glaucous-winged Gulls, by far the most common at the coast. This species does wander inland in small numbers but is generally thought of as a coastal gull; it breeds on the coast. Herring Gulls and California Gulls, are here too, but they occur regularly inland and breed at freshwater locations. Several other gull species are also seen here.
Cormorants can be seen flying over the ocean all day long. There are three species down here and separating them in flight at distance is not easy. Double-crested, Brandt’s and Pelagic Cormorants are all seen regularly. The latter two are strictly salt-water birds and they never wander inland. Double-crested, however, frequently occurs inland and will breed on fresh water.
Three different species of Loons also winter regularly off the B.C. coast. The Common Loon, (quite familiar to us in the Kootenays), is joined by the Pacific Loon and the Red-throated Loon. The latter two breed only in the north. I have occasionally seen Pacific Loons on Arrow Lake during migration, but never a Red-throated.
There are also a number of duck species that choose to winter along the B.C. coast; notably Long-tailed Ducks, Harlequin Ducks, White-winged Scoters and Surf Scoters. Long-tails are Arctic breeders that generally head directly to salt water after the breeding season. They do occasionally occur in interior waters during migration. Similarly the two Scoters breed in the north and winter on salt water. The Harlequin Duck breeds throughout southern B.C., always on fast-moving rivers. I have seen them on occasion on the Kuskanax.
There are also several species of seabirds that live their entire lives on coastal waters. Unlike the families discussed above, these families do not venture inland and are usually quite unfamiliar to those of us who spend our lives far from the ocean. Species like Marbled Murrelet, Rhinoceros Auklet, Common Murre, Tufted Puffin, and Pigeon Guillemot all occur quite regularly along this coast.
If one were to take a boat and go offshore a few kilometres, there would be still more to see. Species like Sooty Shearwaters, Northern Fulmars, Black-tailed Albatross, and Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels are all regulars on the open ocean. These birds live their entire lives wandering the seas. They breed on remote islands or on rocky outcrops around the edges of the oceans.
Coastal birding is very different to birding on the Arrow Lakes. The variety seems endless! Unfortunately, most seabirds are simply some variation of black and white; identification can be challenging!