This synopsis is our first blush at Southern Vancouver Island, which we define geographically as roughly Qualicum to Victoria. The region is a birding paradise, harbouring a large number of diverse locations that are in close proximity to one another. For bird and wildlife photographers, this is a definite plus for the region as it reduces travel considerably if one or two of the locations we recommend turn out to be unproductive on any given day.
Without ignoring the resident or over-wintering species, the prolific avian population results largely from the region being a rest stop for migrants from roughly March to May and August to October as they traverse the Strait Of Juan de Fuca between the Island and Mainland. Having said this, finding good photography sites can be challenging as habitat, terrain, light and tides can prove problematic. Moreover, as migrants move through the area, photography can be not only distinctly "hit-and-miss" but also disappointing based on "skittish" behaviour as the birds nervously rest and forage for food. Not withstanding, due to the close proximity of locations, opportunity abounds and amateurs will certainly benefit from the species diversity and the interesting light and backdrop challenges. Having said this, we both believe the area must be worked. As the birds primarily forage in shore kelp or on mud flats, a good knee high rubber boot is highly recommended.
We started by researching "birding" locations. However, many of the sites we found and visited proved disappointing primarily due to terrain, dense habitat and low light. This only served to underscore the distinctly different end games between birding and bird photography. However, nuggets do exist! A great synopsis that documents not only location and species but also time of year has been developed by a local birder/photographer/author, Mike Yip. Humour and targeted avian photography pervade his site, making it an excellent base to garner a good understanding of the potential of the entire region. The species count and photo documentation on his site are staggering and speak volumes for the knowledge that Mike has accumulated for this region.
We have only scratched the surface of Southern Vancouver Island and intend to add locations as we revisit. As it is close to home, this is definitely a destination site for us.
Our recommended locations in Victoria include: Esquimalt Lagoon (Colwood), Cattle Point (Uplands), Albert Head Lagoon (Metchosin), Whiffin Spit Park (Sooke), Clover Point (Victoria), Haynes Park and the foot of Bowker Avenue (Oak Bay). Coldstream Park is also a good area for American Dippers after the salmon spawn is complete in late fall. Our favourite location is Esquimalt Lagoon, especially for Black Oystercatchers.
To be fair, we found Witty's Lagoon and Island View Regional Park to be relatively unproductive and would recommend you leave both as locations of last resort (although the former has killer backdrops, it is a steep climb). The Swan Lake Christmas Hill Nature Sanctuary is a great place in Spring for Marsh Wren and Violet-Green Swallow. On our last visit, there was a Barred Owl just off the trail next to the parking lot. If you do visit, it's best to photograph from the trail as the habitat is restricted to public access. Kings Pond (Cedar Hill) and Mystic Pond (Saanich) are both good locations to capture ducks, especially in autumn as spectacular water reflections are produced as the leaves change color. Northern Shovelers are prevalent at both locations.
To the south of the city, the Nanaimo River Estuary houses two excellent conservation areas, the first at the end of Raines Road and the second at Holden Creek near the sharp bend on Macmillan Road. A good spot to camp is nearby at The Living Forest Oceanside RV Park on Maki Road. If you have a small boat, there is ready access to similar terrain as the above from the lower campsite. The inner city houses Buttertubs Marsh, which has a great 2.4 kilometer walking trail. Although there is little water access, the brush is active with smaller birds and the locaion appears to offer good opportunities during Spring nesting. We certainly liked some of the backdrops, especially thistles and felt that setting up and waiting may prove very productive. Time did not permit a visit to the Morrell Nature Sanctuary located to the west of Malaspina College. To the north, Pipers Lagoon Park and the adjoining Page Lagoon provide wide open shoreline and inner mud flats that also look productive. Access to both is off Hammond Road. North of Nanaimo on the Island Highway is Lantzville and Sebastion Park. It's just off the main drag and known to cough up a Spotted Sandpiper. If you go a little farther north on the Island Highway, take a right at the Petrocan Station and follow Northwest Bay Road to Beachcomber Regional Park. If you can avoid the dogs, it's a great place for Common Loon working the outer reaches of Nanoose Bay. If you sit on the point, it's also a good location to view Sea Lions as they feed on Herring.
To the south of the city, there is a conservation area boardwalk off Plummer that virtually rings the Englishman River Estuary (San Malo Mud Flats). We had no time to check out the nearby Craig Creek Estuary. To the north, Columbia Beach and Admiral Tryon's Lagoon actually sported a large population of Black Oystercatchers. Both locations can be accessed off Admiral Tryon's Boulevard. The French Creek Marina provides an alternate look at the estuary and inner harbour. You can often catch a Bald Eagle roosting on the restaurant side or Common Loon inhabiting the Marina. The best place for Brant is the Community Park off Corfield.
In the Spring, this area is a pitstop for migrant waterfowl, especially Brant, Scaup and Scoters. We recommend you time a visit to coincide with the annual Herring spawn as there are also a large number of Sea Lions and Gulls in the area. Although it's relatively easy to position for light, isolating a subject and decent backdrop can be challenging given the sheer number of birds that feed near the shore on eel grass and the nutrient rich Herring roe. Not all subjects are compliant so it's best to wait until either feeding or a rest and preen session is well underway. You'll definitely need a long lens, something in the order of 600mm with a 1.4X or 2.0X extender. As light can be low, don't be afraid to push ISO up a bit (we found 500 was usually adequate). Our favourite locations for migrating waterfowl were either the Viewing Stand just off the Old Island Highway or the beach at the foot of Kinkade Road. If you try the latter location, wandering north on the shoreline to the mouth of the Little Qualicum River generally produces lots of opportunities.
Perhaps the best location to photograph Long-Tailed Ducks in British Columbia is Deep Bay Spit, located between Qualicum Beach and Courtenay (access is via the West Island Highway to Gainsburg Road, right on Birne Road then left to the end of Deep Bay Drive). This is a winter location and good until late February. A calm overcast morning is best and success requires a long lens with a 2X extender. It's also a great location for flight images as ducks and cormorants are constantly coming and going. Parking isn't usually a problem (if the two end spots are taken, then use the roadside well away from resident driveways). The local marina is a haven for Surf Scoters which are often very compliant. The marina to the left of the parking lot is private property so be sure to ask the owner for permission prior to using his jetty or floating dock for photography.
This completes our synopsis of locations that appear to have excellent potential in the Southern Vancouver Island region. It is in no way exhaustive and we will undoubtedly add to the list as we continue to revisit over the coming years. We did manage to explore the Tofino area and discovered an active birding community with what looked to be excellent wildlife photography opportunities. We plan to followup later this year with Just Birding who appear to offer some good tours through shore and mountain terrain. There is a great RV site for camping at the Crystal Cove Beach Resort.
To see how we have fared in this area to date, visit Galleries 31 and 36.