Last weekend I went over to Vancouver with two other birders/photographers to “twitch” the red-flanked bluetail and brambling reported on British Columbia Bird Alert. Part of our plan was to spend the remainder of the day out looking for owls and other birds out at Boundary Bay.
There are a couple of places to access the dikes at Boundary Bay, but 72nd Street and 64th Street (see Google Map below) are both particularly good. Short-eared owls and northern harriers are regularly seen hunting out over the salt marsh and perched out on drift logs. Typically snowy owls show up every seven years or so—however this is the second year in a row when they’ve made an appearance at Boundary Bay.
Our first stop was 72nd Street. We walked east on the dike away from the parking area and past a golf course. The open area of the golf course and the fence line on the ditch side of the dike was excellent for perching short-eared owls (Asio flammeus). Several were out hunting over the salt marsh as well. We also got great looks at a rough-legged hawk (Buteo lagopus) at the top of a tree in the golf course.
Further down the dike we spotted a single snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus) out on the drift logs well out of range of my 105mm lens. Entering the marsh to get closer to a snowy owl in order to photograph it is frowned upon. Most of these birds need to rest and conserve energy during the day—when they’re flushed they burn calories that they need to survive.
Signage instructs visitors to “Please Respect the Wildlife—Do not approach, please stay on the trail… Use a telephoto lens or binoculars instead.” Here’s where I ran into a bit of trouble. When I saw the pattern created by a patch of ice in the marsh and the dramatic sky I thought that it would be OK to get a little closer to make the photograph. First I checked for wildlife—nothing within range of my binoculars. My interpretation of the signage was that it referred to wildlife and since there was none to approach it would be fine to make a brief sortie just beyond the drift logs to get the right composition. I tried to explain this to a couple who started harassing me while I was out there to no avail. As far as they were concerned, I was stalking snowy owls and not simply taking a picture of the ice. To be fair, I was off the “trail” but there wasn’t any other way to get that wide expansive feeling of the salt marsh. I’m pretty careful about not flushing birds, but I guess maybe I was setting a bad example.
Further down the dike we got a great look at an American Bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus) which was standing stock still on the ditch side of the dike until it was flushed by a person walking by (on the trail, incidentally). We had been talking about bitterns on the way over and it was a weird coincidence that we saw one later in the day, not a bird I see regularly. Birding is like that sometimes. At the parking lot at least six photographers were in the fields on the ditch side of the dike setting up to photograph short-eared owls which were actively hunting around them. Nobody seemed to be giving them a hard time even though they were on the other side of an “Authorized Access Only” gate.
At this point we headed back to the car and drove over to the 64th Street access. The day was edging toward sunset but we had enough time to walk down the dike to where a group of about a dozen photographers were located watching snowy owls. I experienced a bit of lens envy looking at the impressive array of glass pointed out at several owls out on salt marshes. As it got closer to sunset they began to fly from the marsh, over the dike and onto the top of the buildings in a massive greenhouse complex on the land side. I did a quick count and tallied 15 on top of the buildings and another 5 out in the salt marsh.
Again, the owls were well beyond the reach of my lens, but on the way back to the car in the setting sun we found one perched conveniently on a post on the other side of the dike ditch. The snowy owl seemed comfortable with the water between it and us and we were able to get some excellent views of it before the sun went down and we rushed off to catch our ferry back to Vancouver Island. It was a great way to end a great day of birding!
Snowy Owl photograph courtesy of George Bowron.
Two good access points for birding at Boundary Bay are the parking areas at 64th and 72nd Street. These can be reached via Highway 10 (Ladner Trunk Road).