Stretching for more than 250 miles along the coast of BC, the 21-million-acre wilderness is sometimes called the Amazon of the North. The vast, sodden land encompasses 1,000-year-old cedars, waterfalls spouting off the sides of moss-covered mountains, granite-dark waters, and glacier-cut fjords. It is the most biologically diverse region in Canada, with an abundance of wildlife. Including coastal grey wolves, grizzly bears, Sitka deer, whales, salmon, sea otters and its most famous resident, the rare, cream-coloured Kermode bear (also known as the Sprit Bear).
The tremendous diversity of the area means there are large numbers of both resident and migratory birds. Around 520 species of birds have been recorded in BC and some can only be found here. But it’s not just the variety and numbers of birds that makes it so special for wildlife and bird lovers. It’s the unique possibility of seeing birds and mammals together. The sighting of gulls can signal the arrival of a pod of whales – humpbacks and orcas can be regularly spotted, with Fin Whales increasing in numbers on outer shores. Hearing the Sandhill Cranes while watching the elusive Sea Wolf hunting in the early morning mist is an unforgettable experience. Finding Harlequin Ducks on a rock as the humpbacks perform their acrobatic breeches and spy hops is mesmerising.
If I had to choose my three favourite Great Bear Rainforest birds, these would be the Steller’s Jay, the Varied Thrush and the Harlequin Duck. The gregarious, omnivorous Steller’s Jay is the provincial bird of BC. It’s an excellent imitator of other birds and animals, and even mechanical sounds such as those made by phones, sprinklers, and squeaky doors. With a subtly beautiful plumage of sooty black and rich blue shades the Steller’s Jay easily blends into its shaded forest surroundings.
The extremely shy but very handsome Varied Thrush is similar in size and shape to a robin but with a slighter build and a bolder pattern. It winters along the coast of Alaska and British Columbia and has a haunting call consisting of a single, vibrating and nasally tone drawn out over a few seconds. It repeats the note several times in different pitches, with a few seconds rest in between.
Small flocks of Harlequin ducks can be seen on the rocky coastline, where they choose fast-flowing mountain streams for breeding. They are small ducks with small bills and the males have a striking plumage, with chestnut flanks and distinctive white patches on the head and body. Females are dusky brown with two or three whitish patches on their face. For a sea duck, Harlequins are pretty vocal with a mouselike squeak which varies in frequency and intensity.
In the Great Bear Rain Forest, it’s very likely you’ll see all three birds. They provide a splash of colour in a world dominated by blues and greens. Their calls are quintessentially West coast and there is nowhere else in the world where all three can be heard together. Their calls mean there could also be wolves, grizzlies, Spirit Bears or humpbacks close by.
Other notable birds include the Bald Eagle – the largest bird in BC, with a wingspan of up to 2.5metres. This white-headed bird of prey mates for life and has an amazing mating ritual. They lock talons in mid-air, then spin at breakneck speed, before hitting the water together. The salmon run often attracts large numbers of Bald Eagles, where they are versatile and agile hunters.
Black Turnstones winter along the rocky shores, with a high, shrill rattling call. The sight and sound of a large flock wheeling over the crashing waves can never be forgotten.
Whilst there are so many birds to add to a tick-list, the truly unique experience is to watch birds and mammals together. There is no better place on Earth!