The Budget Pelagic Tour

Whenever I make the crossing between Vancouver Island and the mainland on BC Ferries I always try to do a little pelagic birding, especially if the weather is good. Today I had a chance to look for alcids on the run between Nanaimo and Tsawwassen. This isn’t a particularly good route for budget birding (the Little River/Powell River route is much better in winter) but I did get some great looks at Common Murres (Uria aalge) from the front deck of the ferry.

Common Murres (Uria aalge) in flight
Common Murres (Uria aalge) in flight.

Several species of alcids form long lines on the water and the Common Murre is one of them. This seabird can be separated from similar looking birds like the Marbled Murrelet (Brachyramphus marmoratus) by its overall longer bill and body shape, as well as by the dark line extending through the eye on winter birds. Ancient Murrelet (Synthliboramphus antiquus) is darker and definitely has a more chunky look. Pigeon Guillemots (Cepphus columba) in winter plumage tend to be a little more mottled in colour.

Common Murres (Uria aalge)
Common Murres (Uria aalge) – note the mix of dark and light heads and the throat “collar.”

These murres were an assortment of birds in winter plumage and birds already making the change to breeding plumage. Some already had the solid dark head that is typical in breeding birds, while others still had the white face and black collar that mark winter birds.

Aside from the Common Murres there was little else out on the water except for some Mew Gulls, Glaucous-winged Gulls and the odd Pelagic Cormorant. The section between the terminal at Departure Bay in Nanaimo and the Entrance Island lighthouse off of Gabriola Island tends to be the most productive section. Often this is a good place to see marine mammals like Dall’s Porpoise as well. It is well worth spending some time on the deck of the ferry during this part of the crossing. It’s an affordable way to do some pelagic birding if you’re on a budget!