Anne Murray: Vancouver is a great place for nature viewing

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      Sunshine and light evenings call us out of doors at this time of year, hoping to enjoy the sights and sounds of nature. Although urban sprawl is fast eating up much of the pastoral land around Vancouver, we are fortunate in still having plenty of wildlife at our doorstep. Black bears, bobcats, coyotes, porpoises, and sea lions, not to mention hundreds of bird species, all share the Lower Mainland with 2.6 million human inhabitants. Just don’t expect to stroll out and have a wildlife movie experience without a bit of planning. Wildlife must be discrete to survive in the modern world, and authentic experiences are often less spectacular but more engaging than when watched on a TV screen.

      Wild animals require food, shelter, and peace to survive and that means having the right habitat. Some animals are generalists and can adapt easily to any little clump of trees, patch of urban park, or even rooftops and overhead wires. Raccoons and coyotes can be extremely bold as they take advantage of messy garbage bins, having adapted to predator-free suburbs as the original forested landscape was cleared. Birds like the rock pigeon and European starling are quintessential city dwellers, moving in comfortably wherever they find some food and a handy spot to nest. Starlings were introduced deliberately to New York in the 1800s and soon spread across the continent. Aggressive and noisy, these often unpopular birds are interesting to observe. Their songs contain a lot of mimicry and in winter they form large roosting flocks and perform dazzling aerial ballets.

      Such common animals are not the sort to get your heart beating and your camera out, however. For that, you need to find better quality habitat and think about timing. Different species will be seen depending on whether you are in the forested mountains of the North Shore (grouse and grey jays), out in the water of the Georgia Strait (whales and porpoises), or walking the Delta and Richmond dykes (shorebirds and hawks). Most people go for a walk in the middle of the day, yet you stand a much better chance of seeing some interesting wildlife if you go very early in the morning, or later in the afternoon. This is not possible in all locations. Reifel Bird Sanctuary, which is fully staffed, is only open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.; some regional parks are gated until 8 a.m.

      However, some local parks are open dawn to dusk, and out in the countryside no one will stop you wandering around as first light dawns. It is in that magical time that the finest bird song is heard. Robins, thrushes, and finches pour cascading notes into the clear air, their voices carrying much better when there are no competing sounds. In early summer, wood-warblers, wrens, and vireos serenade in forested areas such as Pacific Spirit Regional Park. Black-throated grosbeak and western tanager favour cottonwood groves, yet are difficult to see in the tall trees despite their bright colours. Columbian black-tailed deer feed actively at dawn and dusk, and this is when you are likely to come across a black bear foraging by the roadside in rural areas. In grasslands, short-tailed weasels, rabbits, mink, or other small mammals may scuttle across the path. In the warm dusk, watch for bats flying and listen for Pacific tree frogs chorusing.

      For those hankering to see some sea life, June through September is a good time to spot orcas in the Strait of Georgia, either from a ferry or a dedicated whale watching trip. After being entirely hunted out, the mighty humpback whales are making a comeback and over the last 10 years individuals have been regularly sighted. Harbour porpoises are easy to spot once you realize that they only show a dark, pointed fin and a bit of back as they roll up to the surface and dive again. Harbour seals loll around in Vancouver Harbour and the occasional sea lion can be seen from Steveston wharfs, although many have headed to their colonies at this time of year.

      Visiting the right habitat at the right time of year increases the chance of wildlife viewing success. Many birds are migratory and only occur here at certain seasons. Boundary Bay and Roberts Bank are rather quiet in June, compared to the main shorebird migration times of spring and late summer/fall. Ducks and swans that were here in such numbers in winter have all gone north or inland to breed in the tundra or prairie potholes. Tidal conditions are important too. Summer is best for exploring intertidal life with the kids; miles of sand becomes exposed during daytime high tides, and crabs, clams, and snails are easily seen.

      A first priority of all wildlife viewers must be to avoid disturbing the animals (and plants) you are observing. Dogs bounding around are a disruptive influence in any habitat and can be guaranteed to scare wildlife away. Even dogs on a dyke tend to move the ducks further offshore. At Reifel Bird Sanctuary, where no dogs are allowed, birds can be seen really close up, and chickadees will feed from your hand. Photographers should be respectful of wildlife. Too many over-keen enthusiasts feel the need to get nearer to roosting owls or nesting birds by sticking their long lenses way too close. Not only is this unpleasant for the birds but it alerts predators to their location. Patience, stillness, and understanding the subject is what usually gets a winning photo. Do not use electronics to play bird calls to bring birds closer. Such call backs are very disturbing to wildlife, especially in a highly-frequented area like the Lower Mainland. Many species are naturally curious and if you just wait quietly, they will often come into view to check you out. Teach children to listen and observe nature and not to disturb the natural environment. They will gain a life time of enjoyment once they are alerted to the world around them.

      Going alone or with one or two other people is generally better for getting close to nature than a larger group, although guided tours can help introduce newcomers to nature watching. Local naturalist clubs, affiliated with B.C. Nature, offer many great opportunities to discover our local wildlife. Don’t confuse naturalist (a person who enjoys observing and learning about nature) with naturist (someone who enjoys being outside without clothing)! The Young Naturalist Society of B.C. has many fun activities for children and families. For those wanting to get engaged in field studies and citizen science, groups like Bird Studies Canada and Wild Research run many participatory programs. The Stanley Park Ecology Society is based in Vancouver’s premier park, and Nature Vancouver organizes regular hikes and birding trips, as well as habitat restoration projects. The locally-based Green Club promotes cross-cultural understandings of Taiwan, Asian, and Canadian ecosystems.

      Our amazing natural setting, rich in wildlife, is what makes Vancouver such an attractive and unique city. Make this the summer you get involved in learning and conserving our natural treasures.

      Anne Murray is an independent writer and naturalist and the author of two guidebooks to viewing nature and ecological heritage in the Lower Mainland—A Nature Guide to Boundary Bay and Tracing Our Past: A Heritage Guide to Boundary Bay. She blogs at To purchase her books and to find more information on nature in the Lower Mainland check out