A review by Gavin Bieber
Birdfinding in British Columbia by Russell Cannings and Richard Cannings
Greystone Books, 2013
466 pages, $29.95—softcover
It is safe to say that virtually all North American birders are familiar with the birding reputations of such mega-diverse states as California, Arizona, and Texas—and that many will find themselves making the ornithological pilgrimage to those states at some point in their birding careers.
What is less well known, especially to those US birders whose efforts in the field tend to stop at the border, is that the British Columbia list includes a remarkable total of 526 species. Now, though, with the publication of Russell Cannings and Richard Cannings’ new Birdfinding in British Columbia, the secret is out.
With an amazing breadth of habitats and many highly sought-after bird species, British Columbia occupies a place squarely in the top tier of American states and provinces: that list of 526 comes in at number five, just behind New Mexico and actually ahead of such famously birdy places as Alaska, Colorado, Florida, Ohio, and New Jersey. Among the species generally regarded as “difficult” in the Lower 48, all three of the ptarmigans, the Spruce and Sooty Grouse, Yellow-billed Loon, Slaty-backed Gull, Ancient and Marbled Murrelets, Tufted Puffin, Gyrfalcon, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Red-necked Stint, Flammulated and Boreal Owls, Black-backed and American Three-toed Woodpeckers, and Connecticut Warbler all breed or winter in Canada’s westernmost province.
Some 30% larger than Texas, British Columbia is vast, with extensive tracts in the north and along the Pacific coast that are very rarely explored by birders. Of particular interest on a continental scale are the areas surrounding northern Puget Sound and the Fraser River Delta, where tens of thousands of waterfowl, hundreds of thousands of shorebirds, and thousands of raptors and gulls winter or stop over during migration. There are days in late summer when the shores of Boundary Bay teem with a living carpet of more than a million shorebirds (mostly Western Sandpipers), and many winters bring numbers of Snowy Owls and Gyrfalcons down from their arctic haunts.
Before the publication of Birdfinding, there were several regional guides available covering limited areas in the province; at this point all of them are woefully out of date. This new guide, the first to cover the entire province, springs out of the epic British Columbia big year undertaken by Russell Cannings in 2010, in the course of which he traveled over 35,000 miles and personally visited nearly all of the sites covered in the guide; the result was a record tally of 373 species. Russell’s father, Richard, is a prominent ornithologist, ecologist, and author who has been studying British Columbia’s avifauna for decades. Together, the authors are eminently qualified to produce a comprehensive work on the best birding locations in this huge province.
Most visitors (and indeed, most British Columbia birders, too) spend most of their time afield in the southern part of the province, around the two largest cities, Vancouver and Victoria, with perhaps a side trip inland to the desert-like Okanagan Valley or to the forested Kootenay Mountains. The natural history of these and British Columbia’s wide range of other ecosystems is the subject of Birdfinding’s first three chapters; these useful introductory sections, like most of the rest of the book, are written in a very approachable tone, direct and folksy, at once informative and entertaining.
The authors cover most of the province’s more accessible sites. They divide British Columbia into eleven broad regions, each comprising a number of birding locations both well-known and obscure. The guide does an excellent job of treating most of the best sites around Vancouver, in the Cascades, in the interior Okanagan Valley, and on southern Vancouver Island; together, these make up the majority of sites most likely to be visited by birding tourists. This is also the region I am most familiar with, and I took advantage of a recent tour to British Columbia to “ground truth” many of the locations treated here. I was impressed by the accuracy of the information: We found the distances, road designations, and landmarks to be all as advertised, and the directions given are clear and concise.
The introductory materials include a brief month-by-month synopsis of the best birding opportunities. Each of the location accounts then provides a short list of the birds that might be found there; useful as they are, I find many of these lists optimistic, better reflecting the birds that are likely to be present than what one will necessarily see on any given visit. Most of the accounts provide detailed directions to the site in question, but they often do not specify where within each location a given species is most likely to be found, leaving the visiting birder to do some exploring on her own.
As thoroughly covered as the province’s well-birded southern regions are here, this guide’s excellent presentation of so many sites in the farther-flung central and northern reaches of British Columbia may be its greatest accomplishment. From the remote islands of Haida Gwaii to logging roads in the deep heart of the province, visiting birders will find wild places full of sometimes surprising birds. The Peace River District, a fascinating corner of northeastern British Columbia lying east of the Rocky Mountains and home to many “eastern” breeders, is particularly well treated.
The offshore waters of British Columbia are rich for the birder, but the lack of infrastructure on the west coast of Vancouver Island means that relatively few true pelagic trips are run out of the province. On those occasions when some enterprising birder has managed to assemble enough people to charter a fishing boat from Ucluelet or Tofino, the trips have recorded some great birds. For the most part, though, BC Ferries has to stand in as a substitute, and Birdfinding provides a thorough guide to the system’s most productive routes.
Unlike many similar books, this guide does not have bar charts depicting the birds’ seasonal abundance; such graphs can prove very handy in giving the visitor a clearer sense of what to expect, or at least what to hope for, where and when in the province. Their absence here, however, is simply a sign of the times: As the authors indicate, such information can be found today at eBird, whose continuously updated graphs and tables are a more flexible resource than any print book could provide. Further evidence of the increasing significance of digital media to birding is found in the guide’s list list of links to regional online forums and to nature and birding clubs throughout the province; there are also suggestions for the effective reporting of rare birds.
The abbreviated checklist at the back of the guide highlights a selection of especially desirable species, with detailed suggests for where and when to find them; I would have preferred a more comprehensive annotated checklist. There is no species index in the book, making it very difficult to identify likely locations for birds not covered in the brief annotated checklist.
Apart from these few shortcomings, the depth and breadth of information this guide presents, much of it never before available to the birding public, is stunning. The authors are to be commended for undertaking such a monumental task, and I am confident that Birdfinding in British Columbia will raise the province’s ornithological profile and help many a visiting birder, and even more than a few locals, for years to come.
- Gavin Bieber was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He developed a very early interest in the natural world, and has been an avid birder since the age of 5. Bieber currently works as a guide for WINGS/Sunbird, and sits on the board of directors of Tucson Audubon Society.
Recommended citation: Bieber, G. 2014. Birding British Columbia [a review of Birdfinding in British Columbia, by Russell Cannings and Richard Cannings]. Birding 46 (4): 67.
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