By Steve Ogle
Veteran birdwatchers know that a rewarding vacation involves travel through a variety of habitats, maximizing the chances of finding a diversity of birds and other wildlife. Along the way, these different ecosystems allow for a change in scenery and even culture, helping to build an engaging journey beyond just an impressive bird list.
The Cariboo Chilcotin Coast region delivers a birding experience like no other. Traversing from the heart of British Columbia toward the stunning coast offers something for the expert or beginner birder, and all levels in between. Amid arguably the most spectacular scenery in all of British Columbia, it’s possible to birdwatch world-class hotspots within a day’s drive of a major metropolis—without any crowds. This area is home to one of the highest diversities of breeding birds in all of North America. The quest to find some of these birds begins in Williams Lake and the journey west along Highway 20 takes nature lovers through a spectrum of landscapes: lakes, grasslands, dry forests, mountains and rainforest before eventually dipping into the Pacific Ocean at Bella Coola. This route is also a journey back in time, where relatively modern motifs such as ranching and fishing interact with a traditional, vibrant and welcoming First Nations culture.
Before embarking on Highway 20, it is prudent to fill up on supplies in Williams Lake, not to mention stop at Scout Island at the west end of the namesake “Puddle” (as Williams Lake is affectionately known). Here, a mix of open water, wetlands and riparian shrubbery provide a rich birding experience to kickstart the journey. The entire Chilcotin Plateau is dotted with stunning lakes and you’re only scratching the surface here in town. If lucky, American White Pelicans may mingle with Common Loon, Western Grebe, Cinnamon Teal and Osprey out on the lake. Scout Island itself is the perfect theatre to listen for the flute-like song of the Veery, a thrush at the northern end of its range. For a visual showcase, look for a bright orange Bullock’s Oriole or Western Tanager, both tropical birds spending time up here to nest. And speaking of breeding, red fox often den at Scout Island.
From Williams Lake, it’s only a short drive to the next stop: the Fraser River. While you marvel at the largest watercourse in British Columbia, be on the lookout for dry forest birds. The sediment-rich river sets a bubbling backdrop for scoping Western Kingbird, Say’s Phoebe and Mountain Chickadee. Park at the pullout before the bridge and take note of the sparsely-treed hillsides—you’re now in the Interior Douglas-Fir Biogeoclimatic Zone. After crossing the river, it’s not far to an ideal layover for a couple of nights: the welcoming Historic Chilcotin Lodge. On your way there, just west of the river take note of a road leading south. This is the way leading to Doc English Bluff, a hotspot worth checking out in the evening after a hearty meal at the Lodge.
An hour before dusk, backtrack toward the Fraser River and turn onto Moon Road. Once past the bluff itself (a small pass), you can pull out and wait for the action to begin. While Vesper Sparrows sing their evening serenade, Common Nighthawks may whirl overhead, and on a calm night once darkness sets in you may hear the calls of the Common Poorwill and—if lucky, the enigmatic Flammulated Owl. Both of these latter species are at the northern end of their breeding range, but this is an ideal location to hear them. Take note: before embarking on this road (and others on this journey) be sure to advise someone of your location, as cell coverage is often scant in this area.
Sunrise at Chilcotin Lodge may find you on a deck chair with a hot coffee, overlooking part of Becher’s Prairie, a unique grassland setting that is wonderful for not only birds, but just soaking it all in. Hopefully, you brought your camera because Mountain Bluebird nest in the parking lot, and a hummingbird feeder may lure in both Rufous and Calliope Hummingbirds. Take note of the forest fire across the highway that threatened the lodge in 2017. We recommend two nights at the lodge to settle into the slow-paced rhythm of the Chilcotin. When it’s time to head out birding, the most inspiring destination is across the highway at Farwell Canyon, a wild gorge cut by the aquamarine Chilcotin River. On the way, stop at the large pond on your right for a while and admire some wetland birds, including a small colony of Eared Grebe and Yellow-headed Blackbird. Meanwhile, Ruddy Duck engage in their strange courtship behaviour!
Once at the canyon rim, stop and take a look around. Golden Eagle and Prairie Falcon are rare residents of Farwell Canyon. Once at the bottom of the road, try the pullout just after the river crossing (high clearance might be needed!). The bend in the river is a gorgeous spot for lunch and for searching for California Bighorn Sheep on the opposite side of the river. Overhead, the twittering of White-throated Swifts is a sure sign you’re in dry grassland habitat. Another indicator might be the pricky-pear cactus that wants to stick to your pantleg, so be careful!
If time permits, a drive up into Becher’s Prairie north of the highway is worth it. White-throated Sparrow and House Wren are species that have invaded the re-growth after recent forest fires. Round-up Lake and other alkaline ponds are magnets for shorebirds in the right season, and rare species often show up. Scan for Wilson’s Phalarope and Long-billed Curlew, both regular breeding species.
When it’s time to continue west, you’ll do so with a full heart—and belly—after a stay at the Lodge. Another accommodation option is Pasture to Plate in Redstone. While cruising the highway, be on the lookout for wildlife such as moose and black bear, as well as bird species, including Great Gray Owl that like to perch on fenceposts.
Before reaching Tatla Lake, the Coast Mountains come into view. Before going that far, it’s worth having a look at Pinto Lake and nearby ponds, as Trumpeter or Tundra Swans may be found here during migration. Always check for shorebirds, especially since Semipalmated Plover and Least Sandpiper breed nearby, as do the more common Solitary and Spotted Sandpipers. The main reason to depart Highway 20 at this point is to visit the azure waters of Eagle Lake. To slow down your pace, wonderful accommodation options are possible here, but even stopping briefly provides a chance of seeing the isolated population of Arctic Tern breeding at the west end of the lake. A spotting scope is recommended for the best views. Savvy backroads drivers can connect from here to Tatlayoko Lake to get fully immersed in the Coast Mountains, or in the lake itself. The seasonal Tatlayoko Lake Bird Observatory is a must-visit during August and September, where expert ornithologists and a steady stream of migratory birds will garner your attention. Ideally, provide advanced notice of your arrival. Another option is to take a half-day horseback ride into the Potato Range using Homathko River Inn’s friendly services. Birding by horseback? Why not?
Back on the main highway, Anahim Lake or Nimpo Lake are worthwhile stops, although a boat is helpful to explore these waters. Even from the deck of a cozy fishing lodge, it’s possible to see pelicans, loons and even Sandhill Crane. Either lake is a worthy base for exploring the majestic Rainbow Range or even one of the remote fly-in wilderness lodges found in the vicinity. If your target is alpine or subalpine birds, this part of the Coast Mountains offers an almost arctic-like feel, as species such as American Golden-Plover, Willow Ptarmigan, Gray-cheeked Thrush, Blackpoll Warbler and other species breed here. Mosquitoes also add to that arctic feel so come prepared. If hiking the Rainbow Range, be alert for hazards associated with mountain travel such as fallen trees from an old forest fire, snow, and hiking in bear country. Those braving a day trip in the Rainbow Range will have a chance to find other sought-after species such as Black-backed Woodpecker, Golden-crowned Sparrow and Northern Hawk-Owl, not to mention woodland caribou and, of course, grizzly bear.
At this point along Highway 20, you are fully immersed in the Coast Mountains, even when descending to the Bella Coola Valley. If you feel small, that’s completely understandable! Indeed, very few places on earth have more of a “mountain feel” than Bella Coola, but the focus here is on rainforest birds. Once at the bottom of “The Hill,” an exciting descent from Heckman Pass, visitors will leave Tweedsmuir Provincial Park and follow the Atnarko and Bella Coola Rivers down to the ocean. To get to know the area, the Bella Coola Valley Museum and Copper Sun Art Gallery are excellent introductions to the deep culture here, both past and present. For nature lovers, Bella Coola may be unparalleled, not just for the overall scenery but also while taking a walk through the forest. The best place is Snootli Regional Park, where a short loop takes visitors through a grove of giant Western red cedars, towering above the luxuriant forest floor. Barred Owl live here, as do Pacific Wren, Varied Thrush, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Vaux’s Swift and Pileated Woodpecker among others. Various accommodation options exist in the valley. Tweedsmuir Park Lodge and Eagle Lodge are two favourites.
On your way home, you have two options to continue the road trip: Backtrack through Williams Lake, or embark on the Discovery Coast vehicle ferry, which takes you through a matrix of deep, mountain-edged fiords down to Vancouver Island. With either departure option, you may leave feeling that the departure was too soon.
Steve Ogle is a photographer, birder, and adventurer based out of Nelson, BC. Steve began his career as an ornithologist at the Long Point Bird Observatory in Ontario, close to where he grew up among the company of eastern migratory birds. He has since headed west but continues to exhibit an affinity for migration by travelling abroad on birding and photo assignments. Learn more.