Western Canada: Vancouver,
For Julia this was a first trip to the land of maple syrup and Mounties – for Simon, a return to old stomping grounds after 28 years. Exactly the period between England appearances in World Cup Semi-finals….
We chose an “open jaw” approach, flying to Vancouver, and then driving inland to depart from Calgary on the high prairies of Alberta, 1000km inland. 16 days was just about right – although you could always spend longer!
Day 1 successfully blew away the jetlag cobwebs with an early seaplane flight (tick) out to Victoria on Vancouver Island, and a full morning out on the water in a RIB with Orca Spirit Adventures. Spoiler alert: Orcas were seen! We connected with one of the transient pods in the area, well offshore towards Washington state (possibly even in US waters!), and had a great half hour with these amazing animals.
We even managed to identify the big bull in the pod (from photos and the online directory) as T073B, who was already an adult when Simon was last here, in 1990! He went on to become a minor local celebrity in late July 2018 when he got “stuck” (maybe) in a harbour further north on Vancouver Island – he was coaxed back out to sea by recordings of his family!
The “mini pelagic” also produced lots of other excellent mammals, including Sea Otter, Steller’s Sea-lion and Harbour Seal, plus Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel, Rhinoceros Auklet, Marbled Murrelet and a nice selection of other coastal and semi-pelagic species.
We spent a total of three nights in Vancouver – Mt Seymour wasn’t quite as good as expected, but served to introduce us to commoner forest and montane birds, and we also worked Stanley Park (Wilson’s and Black-throated Grey Warblers) and a few other local spots, plus the George C. Reiffel reserve just south of the city, on a hot tip which paid off – a maiden Sandhill Crane sighting! In fact, a family party. We also saw highlights such as Wilson's Phalarope, Swamp Sparrow and Marsh Wren here.
We did the “big drive” east on our first travelling day, getting as far as the attractive little railway town of Revelstoke for a night. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get to the higher altitudes of the local National Park – something about a rogue bear! But the lower slopes were fairly productive, as were some swamplands in the valley floor, which turned up a whole stack of passerines, including Yellow, Nashville, Audubon’s and Macgillivray’s Warblers, Common Yellowthroat, American Redstart, Cedar Waxwing and more – plus a Harlequin Duck on the river.
Onwards to Golden, where we stayed in a cracking little AirBNB log cabin out of town, in a wildlife-rich area with lots of quiet backroads. Lots of mammals (White-tailed Deer, Snowshoe Hare, Black Bear etc.) and birds (Western Tanager, Red-naped Sapsucker etc.) to see. Plus an interesting little Timber Wolf sanctuary.
We visited various sites near Golden and Field, notably Takkakaw Falls and Emerald Lake, and had distant (!) views of the famous Burgess Shales formation high on the mountainside. Plenty of the expected mountain birds started to appear – Clark’s Nutcracker, Canada Jay, both Kinglets, Mountain Chickadee, Bald Eagle, and Varied Thrush, among others.
Next up was four nights in Banff. Being here at peak tourist season was never going to be ideal, and we quickly learned to start early and avoid the obvious honeypots, which were little less than overrun at times. Up at high altitude at Sunshine Meadows was a big highlight, with stunning scenery and a scattering of birds (White-crowned Sparrow, Buff-bellied Pipit, Common Loon), but truly wonderful wildflowers.
We explored various backroads and hiking trails as well as we could – and indulged a little more than usual on our 20th wedding anniversary…. Fenland and Vermilion Lakes were regular haunts, and produced stacks of White-winged Crossbills, American Three-toed Woodpecker, Boreal Chickadee and fantastic point-blank views of a Beaver, very likely the local celebrity, Barry. Also lots of other mammals around Banff, such as Mule Deer, Columbian Ground Squirrel, American Red Squirrel and Least Chipmunk. A scattering of migrant and resident wildfowl and waders spiced things up from time to time – both Yellowlegs, Spotted Sandpiper, Bufflehead, Hooded Merganser and Barrow’s Goldeneye, for instance. We also saw Black Swift, but somehow managed to miss Townsend’s Solitaire, and American Dipper has now established itself firmly on the bogey list….
Onward and north with a long drive to Jasper via the Icefields Parkway – jaw-dropping mountains and glaciers all the way – plus Bighorn Sheep! Jasper felt much less crowded and with far more accessible backroads and trails, and we enjoyed lots of time in the field. Again, the high altitude walking was a highlight, this time at Whistler’s Mountain. We connected to the extreme with White-tailed Ptarmigan up here, plus Horned Lark, but the other stars were mammalian – stupidly confiding Hoary Marmots, plus Pika. Lower altitude mammals included Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel, Elk and more.
An interesting feature of Jasper NP was the widespread and quite alarming-looking tree blight, caused by the Mountain Pine Beetle. Because of warmer winters and a lack of fires (or the suppression of the ones that do happen), the beetle has increased explosively in the past decade. Apparently over half of the NP’s forests are now affected, with whole hillsides covered in red, dead trees. More and bigger fires are a certainty in the years to come, and the landscape will experience a period of remarkable change.
We rejigged our itinerary towards the end of the trip, and headed south and then east a day earlier than planned, to visit a couple of sites near to Calgary. The species list soon climbed rapidly as we left the high mountains and found some wetlands – Killdeer, 100s of Franklin’s Gulls, American Black Tern, Swainson’s Hawk and Brewer’s Blackbird all ticked off – plus a Coyote.
Our last full day was a really packed affair. Frank and Weed Lakes produced an absolutely stunning variety of species, including (Western) Willet, Solitary Sandpiper, Marbled Godwit, Long-billed Dowitcher, American Avocet, Wilson’s Phalarope, Eared Grebe, American White Pelican, Canvasback, Redhead and 100s of Ruddy Ducks, Yellow-headed Blackbird, Western Meadowlark and an out-of-range Sedge Wren. But the scarcest bird was (ironically) an Arctic Tern, a pukka Alberta rarity! The wetland bonanza was further enlivened by SOMEBODY getting the (4x4) hire car stuck in three inches of mud, and us having to call out the local towtruck via a desperate call to the Mounties….
In the afternoon, we visited the astonishing Badlands landscape at Drumheller, some miles north-east of Calgary, and took in a couple of hours at the world-class Royal Tyrrell Museum – dinosaurs and everything else coming out of our ears – including an original specimen of Confuciusornis!
And so concluded a high altitude, largely sunny, low diversity but high quality adventure!
With thanks to Claudia Copley and Ken Marr of the Royal BC Museum for entomological and botanical ID help respectively, Cris Guppy and Norbert Kondla, and Wendy Taylor of the Royal Tyrrell Museum, Drumheller for dino ID help. And not just the few which appear on this website!
Return to trip reports
|"Barry" the beaver - ridiculous views in Banff|
|Westbound over Greenland||In over Nunavut|
|Hudson Bay||Over Jasper NP|
|The route: Vancouver, Revelstoke, Golden, Nanff, Jasper, Calgary|
|Douglas's Squirrel||Red-winged Blackbird|
|Glaucous-winged Gull||Broad-leaved Helleborine - introduced!|
|Vancouver Harbour||Seaplanes at dawn|
Stanley Park and
|The San Juan Islands|
|All aboard||Lady in red|
|Ready for some whalewatching...||...as you can see|
|Pigeon Guillemot||American Black Oystercatcher|
|Sea Otter||Steller's Sea-lion|
|ORCAS!||A family of transient (Bigg's) Orcas|
|The big male...||Some silly nonsense|
|..T073B - at least 35 years old!||Harbour Seals|
|At Capilano Park||Juvenile Great Blue Heron in Victoria|
|Brown-headed Cowbird||Wood Duck|
|Spotted Towhee||House Finch|
|Yellow Warbler||Sandhill Crane - LIFER!|
|American Redstart||Audubon's Warbler|
(=Great Northern Diver)
|Chestnut-sided Chickadee||American Robin|
|Oregon/Slate-colored Junco||Cedar Waxwing|
|Julia at Field||Our AirBNB at Golden|
|Extreme zoom...||...to the Burgess Shale quarry (geologists visible!)|
|Self-explanatory||Anomalocaris (in the
Royal Tyrrell Museum)
|One of the original fossils||Columbian Ground-squirrel|
|Emerald Lake, near Field||Takkakaw Falls
(means 'wow!' in Cree)
|MacGillivray's Warbler||Song Sparrow|
|Snowshoe Hare||Lorquin's Admiral|
|Pink Wintergreen||Cornus canadensis, or Bunchberry|
|Timber Wolf - captive||Timber Wolf - captive|
|Arnica mollis||Canada Jay (was Gray Jay until 2018!)|
|Ruby-crowned Kinglet - weighs <7g|
|Least Chipmunk||Savannah Sparrow|
|White-tailed Fawn||White-tailed Deer|
|Mountain Chickadee||American Three-toed Woodpecker|
Banff - Vermilion Lakes & Mt Rundle
|Mt Sparrowhawk, near Canmore||Banff Springs Hotel|
|Afternoon tea, Canadian style||Across to the Bow Valley|
|By canoe at Vermilion Lakes||Mirror calm|
|Arsing about on the water||2-for-1 NZ Sauvignon at our anniversary meal|
|Barry the Beaver!||Barry underwater!|
|At Sunshine Meadows||At Sunshine Meadows|
|Indian Paint-brush||Northwestern Fritillary|
|Sunshine Meadows||Recent burn at Sunshine Meadows|
|Golden-mantled Ground-squirrel||(Distant) Varied Thrush|
|Moraine Lake||Lake Louise|
|White-crowned Sparrow||Musk Rat|
|Northern Waterthrush||Red-breasted Nuthatch|
|Red-breasted Nuthatch||Bald Eagle|
|Fold mountains near Jasper||On the Icefields Parkway|
|Bighorn Sheep||Bighorn Sheep|
|Athabasca Glacier||Athabasca Glacier|
|Athabasca Glacier||Athabasca Glacier|
|The inevitable selfie||Peyto Lake|
|American Pika||Hoary Marmot|
|White-tailed Ptarmigan||Location identified after the event!|
|Whistler's Peak (2470m)||Whistler's Peak - note
the swathes of dead conifers!
|Whistler's Peak||Near Jasper|
|More dead trees
(note the altitude limit)
|Athabasca Falls||Maligne Canyon|
|The Athabasca River||Trash Panda beer break|
|Thanks, Gavin!||Eared (=Black-necked) Grebe|
|(Western) Willet||Wilson's Phalarope|
|Drumheller hoodoos||Drumheller badlands|
|Geo tick!||(American) Barn Swallow|
|Swainson's Hawk||Another hoodoo pic|
Ma = Millions of years ago
the first beaked bird
|Lambeosaurus (75Ma)||Champsosaurus (c70Ma)|
|Dunkleosteus (360Ma)||Borealopelta markmitchelli (110Ma)|
|Mosasaurus missouriensis (with embedded tooth! 74Ma)||Shastasaurus sikkaniensis (210Ma - the largest known marine reptile)|
|The 'Black Beauty' T.rex specimen||Struthiomimus altus
(70Ma - birds are dinosaurs!)
|Anchiceratops (72Ma)||Ceratopsian sp. (Cretaceous)|
|Dimetrodon (280Ma - more closely related to us than to dinosaurs!)||In country|