Birding in British Columbia
Kelowna, the largest center in the interior of British Columbia, provides many excellent birding opportunities. For the visiting birder, many good birding locations are accessible by bus or taxi within the city limits. While many birders visiting the Okanagan may want to extend their journeys into the South Okanagan for the numerous specialty birds that reach the northern edge of their ranges there, the Central Okanagan Valley offers some of the best shorebirding, gull-watching and urban birding experiences in BC. With the use of a car one can explore numerous mountain roads a short distance from the city. Although spring and summer are generally considered the best birding months in the Okanagan, the Kelowna area produces some consistent rarities during the fall and winter periods as well, most likely due to the fact that there are more birders here than in any other city in the interior of BC. The Okanagan Valley Rare Bird Alert hotline is a great way for visiting birders to learn of hard-to-find species that are occurring in the valley. The hotline is updated almost daily (250-491-7738). Whether the purpose of your visit to Kelowna is pleasure or business, this site guide will outline a few of the best birding locations you may want to include in your trip.
Robert Lake to Beaver Lake Road
This route is probably the most productive one for finding the most species in a single day, especially during spring to fall, in the Kelowna region. You will require a vehicle to follow this route which can take from half a day to an entire day, depending on the pace of your travels.
From Harvey Ave (Hwy 97) in Kelowna, head N. on Spall Road, which will soon become Glenmore Road. Follow Glenmore to Scenic Road (approx 6 km) and turn right. Continue along Scenic Road, watching for Say's Phoebes and Brewer's Blackbirds on the fence posts, and turn left on Valley Road. Follow Valley for a short distance, stay left and park at the end of the road near the kiosk. You will now be able to see Robert Lake in front of you. There is an attractive road running around the S. side of the lake, but it is off limits, so please just bird from this parking area. A scope is very helpful here.
Robert Lake is a prairie-type alkaline slough. Wet years bring the water levels up nearly to the parking area whereas during dry years the lake is a dust-bowl by late July. When the ice melts in late February the first migrant ducks begin arriving, including many Northern Pintail, Green-winged Teal, Gadwall, Common Goldeneye and of course Mallards. April brings Cinnamon and Blue-winged teal as well as Northern Shovelers. April also brings the first shorebirds, mostly Killdeer and the first American Avocets. Avocets breed here some years and in others they breed at the pond at the Kelowna Landfill just to the north. Black-necked Stilts have become almost annual at Robert Lake in early May.
Summer brings heavy breeding activity to Robert Lake with the most conspicuous species being Wilson's Phalarope, Killdeer, Spotted Sandpiper, American Avocet, Ruddy Duck, Gadwall, Mallard, Redhead, Green-winged, Cinnamon and Blue-winged teal, and Canada Geese. The open country surrounding the lake is excellent for Say's Phoebe, Western Bluebird, Western Meadowlark, California Quail and Red-tailed Hawks. Savannah Sparrows and Song Sparrows sing from fence posts, while noisy Yellow-headed and Red-winged blackbirds sing loudly from the marshes. Evenings bring large flocks of Barn, Bank and Violet-green swallows as well as legions of Common Nighthawks in to feast on insects over the lake.
Fall is arguably the most exciting time to bird at Robert Lake. Shorebirds gather in flocks to feed on the mudflats and in the shallow waters of Robert Lake from late July to early October. Through the month of August one can find up to 15 species of shorebird on a good day. A helpful hint is that on sunny days you will want to visit Robert Lake in the evening because otherwise sunlight will be glaring off the lake and making bird ID near impossible. The common August shorebirds include Semipalmated Plover, Killdeer, Wilson's Snipe, Spotted, Solitary, Pectoral, Baird's, Least, Western and Semipalmated sandpipers, Wilson's and Red-necked phalaropes, Long-billed Dowitchers and both Greater and Lesser yellowlegs. Rarities are annual, however, so be on the watch for Stilt Sandpipers, Short-billed Dowitchers, Ruddy Turnstones, Sanderling, and who knows what else. During late September and early October, most other shorebirds have departed, but those that remain are often worth checking. Black-bellied Plovers are often accompanied by American Golden-Plovers and you can find them by checking the mudflats and nearby fields. Gulls also gather here in the fall and amongst the common Ring-billed, Herring and California gulls, scan for rarer Glaucous-winged, Thayer's and Mew gulls.
Winter finds Robert Lake covered in snow and ice. There have been some interesting birds here however, including Gyrfalcon and Swamp Sparrow. Northern Shrikes are a regular site at Robert Lake and along the access roads during the winter.
Kelowna Landfill and Glenmore Road
From Robert Lake retrace your route to Glenmore Road and continue N. You will soon see the Kelowna Landfill to the east. Birding is currently permitted at the landfill, as long as you register at the front desk. Simply wait in line and inform the attendant in the small hut that you are going birding. Stay out of the way of machinery! Gulls are abundant at the landfill, with their numbers and varieties being most significant from October to April. The most abundant species, often present in the hundreds, are Ring-billed, Herring and California gulls. Lesser numbers of Glaucous-winged and Thayer's gulls are also present. Be sure to scan for Glaucous and Mew gulls since 1-5 are present throughout the winter. Rarities are also possible and Iceland Gull has occurred here. Eagles gather around these birds as well, hoping for a sick or slow gull. Good numbers of Bald Eagles should be seen and perhaps one or two Golden Eagles as well.
If you follow Road # 1 all the way to it's south end you'll find a large pile of wood chips with a blocked off road on the right hand side of it. You are permitted to remove the "road closed" sign as long as you return it to its initial position immediately. Follow this dirt road S. and you will find Alki Lake. This large alkaline lake is the home to BC's largest breeding colony of American Avocets. The birds only breed if the water levels are high enough to create small islands on which they take refuge. Black-necked Stilt has also bred here! Fall and spring brings interesting shorebirds so be sure to scan the ponds and islands well with your scope. Please stay near your vehicle for safety reasons.
Return to Glenmore Road and continue N. You will come to a small pond on the E. side of the road shortly thereafter. This pond is usually good for ducks and Eared Grebes. Continue on and you'll come to one more pond, good for shorebirds.
Beaver Lake Road
Follow Glenmore Road to Hwy 97 and cross it to find Beaver Lake Road. If you're coming from Kelowna, head N. on Hwy 97 into the town of Winfield and turn right on Beaver Lake Road. This 16 km road winds through a variety of different habitats. During the first km you will drive quickly through the industrial properties until you find the open grasslands. These grasslands dominate between km 2-6 along the route. During spring and summer the grasslands are alive with Western Meadowlarks, Eastern and Western kingbirds, Say's Phoebes, Western and Mountain bluebirds, Vesper and Savannah sparrows and brilliantly colored Lazuli Buntings. Fall and winter brings the possibility of finding Lapland Longspurs, Snow Buntings, and Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches as well as Rough-legged and Red-tailed hawks. You will pass by a few isolated groves of aspen trees which can be alive with birds. Drumming Ruffed Grouse are heard often during April and May in these groves. Breeding Willow Flycatchers, Bullock's Orioles, Red-naped Sapsuckers, Downy Woodpeckers and Yellow Warblers will easily be found. During winter you may find a Northern Pygmy-Owl or Townsend's Solitaire in these aspens. At km 6 there is a pull out on the right hand side of the road. This marks the transitional zone between the forested regions and the grassland habitats along this route. A stop at this spot during the breeding season can often reveal up to 20 species! You can then continue your journey through the Ponderosa Pine / Douglas Fir forest, home to Red-breasted Nuthatch, Mountain Chickadee, Steller's Jay, Clark's Nutcracker and Golden-crowned Kinglets (all year round residents). An evening drive through these woods in April will produce multiple calling Northern Saw-whet Owls! During summer there will be a plethora of warblers to be discovered in these coniferous woods including western species like Townsend's and MacGillivray's warblers. Western Tanagers and Cassin's Vireos are also quite conspicuous. From about km 14 onwards you will be in spruce woodlands with a different bird composition. Be sure to check all chickadees for Boreal Chickadees and watch for roaming flocks of Pine Grosbeaks and White-winged Crossbills. Once you reach Beaver Lake at km 16 be sure to take a hike along one of the nearby trails since American Three-toed Woodpeckers are often seen there. Once you've exhausted your resources at Beaver Lake you have two choices. You can return to Kelowna, or you can take Dee Lake Road (heading N. off Beaver Lake Road just before you get to the lodge) which will eventually deposit you in the Coldstream Valley near Vernon. If you do take Dee Lake Road your chances of finding boreal species such as Three-toed Woodpecker, Spruce Grouse, Rusty Blackbird, Pine Grosbeak and White-winged Crossbill are greatly increased. Just stay on the main road and once you hit pavement in Coldstream continue heading N. to Hwy 6 which will take you back W. to Vernon.
The Kelowna Waterfront
The Kelowna Waterfront is heavily developed, however it remains one of the best places in the Okanagan for waterbirds! This route does not require a car. You could walk to many of the locations or utilize city transit. The route is most productive from late October through March.
From Harvey Ave (Hwy 97) in downtown Kelowna take Ellis St N. for about 20 blocks. You will see the bay and a park on the left hand side of the road, beside the omnipresent Riverside Mill. This bay offers protected waters where hundreds, perhaps thousands of waterfowl spend the winter. The most abundant species will be American Coot. Many diving ducks flock together in the bay as well, including Greater Scaup, Ring-necked Duck, Redhead, Canvasback, Common Goldeneye, Hooded Merganser, Common Merganser, Bufflehead and sometimes small numbers of Lesser Scaup. Rarities to watch for include Long-tailed Duck, Surf Scoter and White-winged Scoter. Some dabbling ducks will be seen too, including American Wigeon. Be sure to scan through them for the odd Eurasian Wigeon. Grebes are numerous in Sutherland Bay as well and you should have no trouble finding Red-necked, Pied-billed, Horned and Western grebes. Eared is rare but regular in the winter too. Gulls often rest on offshore pilings and you should check through the common 4 species (Herring, Ring-billed, Glaucous-winged, California) for uncommon species like Thayer's or Mew.
From Sutherland Bay head back S. along Ellis St to Recreation Ave and turn right. Follow this road and you will see the Rotary Marshes nestled beside the tallest high rises in BC, away from the Lower Mainland. This is a busy little park with paved trails utilized by walkers, bikers and roller bladers. During summer a pair of Ospreys breed on the platform out in the marsh and they are observed by hundreds of passers by. During fall and winter you can often find Hooded Mergansers, Ring-necked Ducks, Gadwall, American Wigeon, Mallard, Bufflehead and Lesser Scaup on the ponds at the Rotary Marshes. A Tufted Duck returned here for 3 consecutive winters in the early 1990s! It is worthwhile to walk the small jetty in the park where you can scan Okanagan Lake for grebes. While Common Loon is quite common be sure to check for other rare loons since Red-throated, Pacific and Yellow-billed have all occurred here at some point. The rocky shoreline is great for Lapland Longspur and Snow Bunting in the fall and winter. Amongst the Song Sparrows, check for American Tree Sparrows in the weeds along the path in winter, as well. Yellow-rumped Warblers have turned up here consistently in the winter, and in 2001 a Palm Warbler successfully winter in the vicinity.
From Rotary Marshes your best option is to follow the lakeshore path S. on foot to Waterfront Park. This is a mid-sized manicured park with green grass and ornamental trees. Despite its uninviting appearance, at least to birders, it has turned up some interesting birds. The best of which was a Palm Warbler that spent the winter between here and the Rotary Marshes. A small creek runs through the park, flowing into man made ponds via a series of cascading waterfalls. American Dippers have been found here in the past. Scan through the flocks of American Wigeon for Eurasian Wigeon a regular visitor in the winter and early spring. Check the ornamental bushes for wintering Yellow-rumped Warblers and Ruby-crowned Kinglets as well. You can follow the boardwalk along the lakeshore to the Kelowna Yacht Club on foot, or you can return to your car at this point.
Kelowna Yacht Club
From Waterfront Park follow Sunset Drive S. past to Water St and turn right. You will pass by the Grand Okanagan Hotel and Prospera Place and you will soon see the characteristic masts of a yacht club jutting into the sky on the right side of the road. Good luck finding parking, but once you do check amongst the boats for ducks, grebes and loons.
Again, it would be best to follow the path S. by foot to City Park, but you could also drive via Bernard Ave. City Park is a large park situated on the N. side of the Okanagan Lake Floating Bridge. It is a park with old ornamental trees and well kept lawns and beaches. Birding can be slow, but you should find more ducks, grebes and gulls along the shoreline and perhaps a roosting Great Horned Owl in the park itself.
Maude Roxby Bird Sanctuary
If you are walking, you will most likely want to take the bus or taxi from City Park to the Maude Roxby Bird Sanctuary, although the walk of approx 4 km can be enjoyable. Follow Bernard Ave S. from City Park and cross over Hwy 97. You will now be on Abbott St, an attractive area of town with well-kept gardens and old-english type street lanterns. Follow Abbott past the Kelowna General Hospital, making a few twists and turns, to Francis Ave and turn right. At the end of this short street you will find the access gate to the Maude Roxby Bird Sanctuary. The bay here is excellent in winter for gulls and waterfowl. Tundra Swans can be found here in numbers, often accompanied by Trumpeter Swans. Scan through the gulls for uncommon species! The beach here can be good for shorebirds in the fall, especially Western Sandpipers, Spotted Sandpipers and Killdeer. Just to the N. of the beach you will see a grove of willows. Take a walk along the boardwalk here to investigate the trees and marshes of the Maude Roxby Bird Sanctuary. Breeders here include Sora and Virginia rails, Song Sparrow, Red-winged Blackbird, Bullock's Oriole, Yellow Warbler, Western Wood-Pewee and the ubiquitous California Quail. Migration brings number of migrant warblers, vireos, flycatchers and sparrows. This sanctuary is one of Kelowna's best birding locations and has turned up a long list of strays over the years including Black-and-white Warbler, Magnolia Warbler, Gray Flycatcher, Iceland Gull, Marbled Godwit and Parasitic Jaeger, to name a few.
The Mission Creek Greenway
Mission Creek slices through Kelowna on its route from the mountains SE of the city to its terminus at Okanagan Lake. A wonderful trail system follows the shores of the creek from Lakeshore Road into Gallagher's Canyon nearly 20 km away! You can walk large portions of the greenway or you can access the best areas via car. This guide will briefly outline the most productive areas along the creek. Stop at the Mission Creek Eco-Centre on Springfield Road, E. of Dilworth Rd to pick up maps and more information on the greenway.
Gordon Road to K.L.O Road
From Hwy 97 in Kelowna take Gordon Road to Mission Ck (approx 7 km) and turn into the parking area immediately S. of the creek. You could also park at Casorso Road (in between Gordon and K.L.O). Walk through the playing fields to the strand of cottonwoods denoting the creek. The path is well kept and is easily accessible throughout most of the year. During the winter it can be covered in snow and ice which can make walking difficult. The path is shared by bicyclists and walkers so be respectful of other who are enjoying this incredible path system.
Spring brings lively birdsong to the old-growth riparian forests along Mission Creek. From May to July you should hear uncommon birds like Veery, Least Flycatcher, Northern Waterthrush, Winter Wren and Gray Catbirds along the trail. Winter is a favorite season to bird along Mission Creek. When the waters are open numerous American Dippers bob up and down in the icy waters, feeding on larvae on the creek bottom. You can usually find a flock of Common Goldeneyes with one or two Barrow's Goldeneyes (uncommon in winter) mixed in. Foraging flocks of Black-capped Chickadees are sometimes accompanied by a Ruby-crowned Kinglet. Pileated Woodpeckers make their presence known with loud calls and drums. Owls can be spectacular along Mission Creek during the winter. Great Horned Owls are the most common and can be found by extensively searching through the tangles of cottonwood branches. Western Screech-Owls can sometimes be found be checking old woodpecker holes in cottonwood snags. Northern Pygmy-Owls sometimes harass small birds along the pathway in invasion winters. Other more rare owls such as Great Gray and Long-eared have also been seen. A consistent area for Great Gray Owl in the 2001-2003 time frame was along the N. side of the creek about 200 meters E. of Casorso Road.
Sutherland Hills Park and Mission Creek Regional Park
Located along Springfield Road just E. of Dilworth Road is Mission Creek Regional Park. This large, very popular park consists of playgrounds, picnic areas and walking paths. Park in the parking lot and if open pay a quick visit to the Mission Creek Eco-Centre (the log cabin) for a brief overview of Okanagan natural history. Cross the bridge over Mission Creek, checking for American Dippers below, and penetrate the coniferous forest ahead via the well marked trails. This is Sutherland Hills Park. Miles of trails run through Ponderosa Pine forests here giving visiting birders easy access to Okanagan specialty birds. Pygmy Nuthatches are common, often wandering in large flocks through the pine canopy. Mountain Chickadees can sometimes be spotted amongst the Black-capped Chickadees. During winter watch for Brown Creepers and the occasional Northern Goshawk. Spring and summer breeders in the park include Downy Woodpecker, Warbling Vireo, Western Wood-Pewee, Bullock's Orioles and the odd Black-headed Grosbeak. A series of small ponds are home to Kelowna's largest breeding population of Wood Ducks! At the main pond watch the hummingbird feeder on the nearby log home for Black-chinned, Calliope and Rufous hummingbirds. During fall migration the park is crowded with birds taking advantage of a bountiful berry feast. You will be amazed by the mid-August numbers of Eastern Kingbirds, Western Tanagers, Gray Catbirds, Northern Flickers, warblers, vireos and the like that are found in this jewel of a park. It is easy to forget you are in a city and lose yourself amongst the pine trees, until you hear the wail of a nearby ambulance siren or the honking of car horns.
East Kelowna Road to Gallagher's Canyon
Follow Springfield Road E. to Hollywood Road South and turn right. You will come to a 3 way stop and you will want to turn right onto East Kelowna Road. Watch for a parking area soon after on the right. The open area around the parking pull-off is good for California Quail, wintering sparrows, wintering Northern-Pygmy-Owls and perhaps a winter Lewis's Woodpecker. During the spring and summer a male Rufous Hummingbird often uses a perch near the parking lot from which to watch over his territory. During 2004, the trail upstream has not been developed as of yet, but it soon will be. You will then be able to follow it into Gallagher's Canyon where many unique birds can be found. Layercake Mountain in Gallagher's Canyon is a majestic geological wonder. Its rocky cliffs are home to White-throated Swifts, Rock and Canyon wrens and breeding hawks and Golden Eagles during the summer. Pacific-slope Flycatchers, Veery and Red-eyed Vireo are common in the riparian woodlands in Gallagher's Canyon. Watch overhead for summer resident Swainson's Hawks. Winter brings American Dippers to the creek and Northern Pygmy-Owl and Townsend's Solitaires to the forests of Gallagher's Canyon.
Other Kelowna Area Birding Locations
Chichester Bird Sanctuary
Located on Chichester Court, off Fitzpatrick Road in Rutland, this small park has hosted nearly 200 species of birds, the most of any single site within the Kelowna area. It is most productive during spring and fall migration when trees can be dripping with warblers, flycatchers, vireos, Western Tanagers and other species. Breeding birds at the sanctuary include Marsh Wren, Common Yellowthroat, Yellow Warbler, Red-winged and Yellow-headed blackbirds, Sora and Virginia rails, American Coot, Mallard, Canada Goose, Gadwall, Redhead, Green-winged, Cinnamon and Blue-winged teal, American Robin, Song Sparrow, California Quail, Black-billed Magpies and some other more common residents. Fall brings numerous sparrows so the observer should scan through the flocks of White-crowned Sparrows for the rare White-throated, American Tree or Harris's! Winter is slow at the sanctuary, but you should find Bohemian Waxwing, Great Horned Owl (willows at the N. end of the sanctuary) and assorted waterfowl. The list of rarities is long, but to name a few Upland Sandpiper, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Purple Finch, Tennessee Warbler, Black-crowned Night-Heron and Barn Owl.
This small, privately owned pond on Munson's Road can be accessed off Benvoulin Road. It is a great spot for migrant geese in the spring and fall. Check the pond and nearby fields for numbers of Canada Geese with the possibility of finding a Snow, Greater White-fronted or Cackling goose amongst them. The pond is worth checking at other times of the year for uncommon waterfowl. The road leading to the pond has been very productive for Harris's Sparrows in the winter. Once you've located the winter flock of White-crowned Sparrows scan through them to find a Harris's.
Okanagan Mountain Provincial Park
Unfortunately over 90 percent of this huge wilderness park was burnt in the catastrophic wildfire of 2003. You can access the park by following Lakeshore Road south as far as you can into the Kelowna Mission area. The park begins where the road turns to gravel. Details of what birds will be found after the fire is unknown, but birding should remain interesting along the main road through the park. In winter you should find good numbers of Townsend's Solitaires perched atop the snags. This park is one of the best places within the Okanagan to find Northern Pygmy-Owls. It is possible to see 5 or more in a day during the winter. During summer, watch for Blue Grouse on the road as well as many hummingbirds at the log cabin with the red roof just S. of the parking area. Fall brings huge numbers of Common Loons to Okanagan Lake just offshore. With a scope scan through them for possible Pacific and Yellow-billed loons.
Old Vernon Road and the Kelowna Airport for Raptors
This short route is best done from November to March. It is a route primarily for raptors. Follow Old Vernon Road E. from Hwy 97 in N. Kelowna. Old Vernon Road essentially runs through the main agricultural area of Kelowna and open country is excellent for hawks, especially during the winter. Drive the road and take any side roads that look appropriate for hawks to find numbers of Red-tailed and Rough-legged hawks. You should also see American Kestrel, Merlin, Sharp-shinned Hawks and perhaps a Bald or Golden Eagle. Be sure to scan the airport fields, great for buteos. You should bump into a Northern Shrike along Old Vernon Road during the winter as well. By doing this route in the summer you should find Swainson's Hawks from late April to August. Prairie Falcon, although rare, has also been recorded in this area, along with Short-eared Owls. If you are interested in finding Gyrfalcon, try the Marshall's Feedlot along the W. side of Hwy 97 about 5 km S. of Old Vernon Road. A Gyr has been each winter from 2000-2003.
Chris Charlesworth is a experienced birding guide based in Kelowna, BC. He is an active member in the BC birding community, leading trips for the local naturalist group as well as maintaining the Okanagan Rare Bird Alert. Chris is also the founder of Avocet Tours, a birding tour company that offers guided birding trips within the Okanagan region as well as abroad. Learn more about Chris and Avocet Tours at: www.avocettours.ca
The site guide is copyright ©Chris Charlesworth 2004. All rights reserved.