I recently ran across a couple at Victoria Quay in Port Alberni. They had the tell-tale sign of a birder and a visitor – binoculars hanging from their necks and hanging around the signs by the Somass River. I approached them and they started asking about how to get to the bird sanctuary on the other side.
I’ve written about the sanctuary, that is, the Somass Estuary Project before on my blog (A Birder’s Site Guide for the Somass Estuary, Vancouver Island) but I realized, in talking to them, that there are quite a number of other places to find birds in the Valley. Here are my top five birding locations in the Alberni Valley.
1. The Somass Estuary
This area is an excellent place to look for birds. It is best in the winter when the waterfowl are wintering. However summer birding is also good. For a detailed guide to it you can follow the link provided above.
2. Kitsuksis Dyke
This is the most easily accessible spot where you can find decent birding in the Alberni Valley. Kitsuksis Creek flows into the Somass River just beside the Clutesi Haven Marina which you drive by on Highway 4 on your way to the West Coast. The easiest way to visit is to take the right fork just after the little bridge over the creek and park just past the restaurant on the right.
I have created a map from Google to show the route. The entire route is paved and located on a dyke that was created after the tsunami in 1964. I have marked the main route in red. In green are interesting alternatives. The creek is tidal up to the Gertrude Street Bridge. Across from the Marina is a swampy little wood where I suspect the beaver I often see there lives. The entire creek is lined with willow and there are wooded areas mainly on the west side of the walkway and upstream from the Gertrude Street bridge. There are two foot bridges at the top and at the bottom. Recently a trail has been built from the upstream pavement as far as the railway trestle to a little falls where a strong run of Coho now exists thanks to dedicated efforts of a salmon enhancement group.
The entire walkway is very good for warblers like Orange-crowned, Black-throated Grey and Wilson’s in the spring. In the summer, this area is one of the few areas on Vancouver Island where you can find Green Herons. And of course, there are a variety of sparrows, towhees, juncos and a resident Merlin. In the winter, it’s a good idea to walk up to the little pond where you often find Ring-necked ducks among others.
3. Burde Street Ponds
Located on the east edge of Port Alberni, there are two beautiful little ponds that I enjoy visiting at any time of year. To get to them, you need to take the left fork as you arrive in town off the hill. You will pass the Visitor Information Centre on your right. Follow the road past the West Coast General Hospital and take a left on 17th, 16th or if you miss them 15th Avenue and go a couple of blocks to Burde Street. Turn right and drive past to the 4-way stop sign and past the subdivision on your left. Look for a small parking area with a yellow gate on the left. Park here or across the street if it is full. You will be at one access point to the Log Train Trail. About 100 meters in there is a short path up off the rail grade that will take you to a good view of the lower pond. In June, it is a magnificent place when the Yellow Flag Iris is in bloom. It’s very invasive, but beautiful. This pond and the upper one are excellent places to find Wood Ducks, Bufflehead, Lesser Scaup, and Hooded Mergansers in season. From time to time, you may also see the beaver that make their home in the upper pond. Herons and Belted Kingfishers are also possible here. All along the rail grade, you will encounter a very good variety of forest birds.
After you return to the rail grade, about 100 meters further on look for a trail leading east up off the rail grade. It will take you through the older second-growth forest into a 10-year-old cut block with mostly Red Alder regenerating. The path leads up to the second pond which has a couple of good access points to see what is on the pond. The beaver lodge is easily visible and there is a short side trail to the beaver dam! The path loops back to Burde Street along the logging access road through the young alder and Douglas fir. You’ll find White-crowned Sparrows, MacGillivray’s and Orange-crowned Warblers here as well as Red-breasted Sapsucker in the older fringe of trees along the ponds.
4. McCoy Lake Area
McCoy Lake is a broad shallow lake surrounded by private property and Indian Reserve. The reserve side is undeveloped and consists of swampy bog. The west side is swampy farmland. Bring a spotting scope if you want to see what is on the lake.
This area is interesting in any season. The lake is one of the few places on Vancouver Island where you can reliably find Ruddy ducks in winter. The winter rains create flooding around the perimeter of the lake and attract a good variety of ducks and raptors as well as Wilson’s Snipe, and Killdeer. The open fields attract thousands of migrating Savannah Sparrows, American Pipits and sometimes interesting shorebirds like Whimbrel and Pectoral Sandpipers in the spring and fall. The summer sees good populations of four species of swallows; Violet-green, Tree, Cliff and Barn. This is partly thanks to Bill Thompson Sr. who built twenty or so swallow boxes around his house when he was alive.
To get there, drive up River Road from Port Alberni along the Somass River to the grey iron bridge. After going over the bridge look for the second left turn onto McCoy Lake Road about 500 meters further on around the bend. The road will take you up past the road to the local landfill and then the view opens up when you get to the agricultural area. The road will bend to the right. There will be a turn off onto Stirling Arm Drive. Don’t take the turn but continue straight. You will go past an old farm, across a small creek and up onto a knoll with a house on it. This is the most productive area. There are a couple of turnout spots in the area. But the whole road is a good area to walk along. You can continue along this road until you meet highway 4 again.
5. Taylor River Estuary
The Taylor River flows into the west end of Sproat Lake. The mouth of it has many side channels and sloughs. The vegetation is dominated by alder and salmonberry. Interestingly, a major part of the estuary contains a patch of deciduous old growth that survived the 1967 fire that burned the entire end of the valley. This is extremely unusual. The riparian character of the area below the river contrasts sharply with the hillsides dominated by second-growth Douglas fir. And the views of the surrounding mountains are wonderful. The bird life here is prolific in the summer months but pretty quiet during the winter.
Finding this area is easy. Follow Highway 4 westward out of Port Alberni. There is a turnoff to the left 20 km past the West Bay Hotel, the last commercial establishment before you get to the Tourist Info Centre at Pacific Rim. Immediately, you will have to choose between a left or right turn. Right leads to a very popular unofficial camping area. Along the road, there is a view of the mouth of the river where you may see Hooded Mergansers, Wood Ducks and perhaps a Common Loon. The dense shrubbery contains Wilson’s, Yellow, Black-throated Grey, Orange-crowned and MacGillivrays’ warblers as well as Common Yellowthroats, Warbling Vireos and even a Red-eyed Vireo if you are lucky. Going the other way takes a short distance to where the road is ditched, making any further progress by car impossible. Half a kilometer up is an old bridge. From it, you may see a Spotted Sandpiper, or Common Mergansers. A Dipper is also possible here. On the other side is a junction where the road runs back to the lake or west to Highway 4.
Back at the initial turnoff, you can also turn right and follow the road up the mountain side. This road has been deactivated and so don’t try to drive this one. However, a short walk up it leads to a rocky bluff where there is a good view of a little pond you can see from the highway. A longer hike takes you up the side of the valley to some dead trees remaining from the fire I mentioned. This area has become a good place for woodpeckers and for Band-tailed Pigeons.
There are a number of other places to bird in the Alberni Valley. Sproat Lake Provincial Park, Mulcaster Slough or Swamp, McLean Mill, and Turtle Lake are some others. In fact, there are so many lakes, swamps, bluffs, and trails around the area that you are bound to find some other interesting places on your own. These places are offered just to get you started.
About the Contributor:
Long-time Vancouver Island resident, Sandy McRuer, runs Rainbird Excursions, an ecotourism and sightseeing business in the Port Alberni & Qualicum Beach area. He is an ex-forester and avid birder. More of his images can be found on Flickr.