A Primer On Nanaimo Bird Watching

September 6, 2017

Nanaimo is known for its natural beauty: the trails, waterfalls, and parks that are home to feathery friends of flight that watch from their perch. Local birder Spenser Smith shares his passion for birdwatching in Nanaimo, and highlights some great spots for you to check out.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself, and your passion for birdwatching?
Image by Spenser Smith

I am a writer, editor and photographer in the fourth year of my creative writing and journalism BA at Vancouver Island University (VIU). Social media analytics excite me, and I sometimes spend hours reading restaurant reviews on TripAdvisor for entertainment. I also just launched a brand new Nanaimo birding website, Birds and Bark.

My passion for birdwatching is a relatively recent one, though, as my fiancée can attest, it’s full-fledged; when I have spare moment, I’m usually birdwatching. The photography aspect is partly why I’m so invested. Shooting wildlife, particularly birds, is more exciting than shooting landscapes. However, more importantly, birdwatching is spiritually satisfying. Being connected to the movements and sounds of the forest has a profound effect on my consciousness. There’s something extraordinary about tuning into the billions of tiny, flying creatures around us and watching their lives unfold.

For the folks who have never heard of birdwatching or who have never been, how would you define it?

Birdwatching is simply the observation of birds as a hobby. It involves many elements and it differs from birder to birder. Some birders are focused on adding to their “life list”, a cumulative record of bird species they have identified. In that way, birding can be very much like a collecting hobby. While, on the other hand, some birders enjoy the social and recreational component of getting outdoors and sharing an activity with likeminded people.

What makes Nanaimo a particularly good spot for birdwatching?
Image by Spenser Smith

The quality and quantity of birdwatching spots in Nanaimo is incredible. I live near VIU and there are four great birdwatching spots (Buttertubs Marsh, Colliery Dam, Morrell Nature Sanctuary, and Bowen Park) all within a five-minute drive from my house. It’s somewhat surreal that I can be enjoying a quesadilla from Jalapenos after a class at VIU, and then 20 minutes later, I can be shooting photos of a barred owl family at Morrell Nature Sanctuary.

Also, it’s worth noting that you don’t have to walk far to get close to the action at most birdwatching spots in Nanaimo. For example, if you go to Buttertubs Marsh, there will be birds buzzing around you the moment you arrive.

For you, which Nanaimo species is most exciting to spot?

Image by Spenser Smith

While they’re relatively common in Nanaimo, there’s nothing like a finding and photographing a great blue heron. Whenever I find one, my heart leaps. Their absolute stillness in the water while hunting is stunning to watch and I love all the ways they can contort their bodies.

I’m also very excited for the chance to photograph a short-eared owl for the first time. I’ve been told by a few fellow birders that short-eared owls arrive in Nanaimo on migration in the winter. I’ve caught myself a few times this summer saying, “I can’t wait for winter to come”.

Can you share your favourite birdwatching memory with us?
Image by Spenser Smith

Just a few weeks ago, a couple friends and I watched three juvenile barred owls hunt a group of rabbits at Bowen Park. Attempt after attempt, the young owls failed to successfully grab onto their prey. The rabbits were masterful at evading the owls’ attacks, while, at the same time, they were strangely nonchalant about almost losing their lives. Right after dodging an attack, the rabbits would go back to chomping down on grass. The whole experience was primal. Watching the natural cycle of life and death that closely was like nothing I’d ever experienced before.

When you’re not out snapping pics of our flying neighbours, where would we find you?

As well as being a birder, I’m also a waterfall chaser. You could find me at Ammonite Falls, Beach Estates Park, or Granny Falls. I often tell life-long Nanaimo citizens about the waterfalls we have here and they are usually quite surprised.

I’m also big on the Nanaimo food scene. You could find me at Tomo Sushi eating the aburi nigiri combo, Figo Italian Bistro eating the spaghetti carbonara, or Asteras eating the greek ribs.


Thanks Spenser! Read more about birdwatching in Nanaimo over on his blog, Birds and Bark, where you can find out how to spot merlins at Buttertubs or barred owls at the Morrell Nature Sanctuary. If you’d like to plan your own outing, browse our outdoor adventure page.

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