Friday, 16 September 2022

Canada Family Holiday


As I mentioned a few posts back, at the end of June we went on a family holiday to the west coast of Canada. Normally our holidays are fairly low key but, partly in reaction to two years of lockdowns and partly due to pressure from younger members of the family who want to see the world at their parents' expense, we decided to have a "proper" holiday for once. We invited my VLW's brother and sister along with us so there were seven of us in total. The basic idea was to fly into Vancouver, spend three days there exploring the city, then hire a couple of cars and drive to the Rockies, spending a few days in the Jasper National Park area, then drive along the Icefield Parkway (the most beautiful road in the world!) to Banff National Park area where we would spend a few more days before heading back to Vancouver for one night before flying home. This was very much a family holiday, "not a birding holiday" as my VLW pointedly reminded me so any birding would have to be done en passant. However, everyone was keen to see things like Bears, Moose and Elk etc so there would be some good scope for nature watching in amongst the holiday activities. As this is a nature blog I won't bore you all with a blow by blow account of what we did on our holiday but instead will keep it focused on the wildlife. Of course, much of what I'm photographing is pretty common over there but for me it has great novelty value.

Part 1 - Three Days in Vancouver

Vancouver is a hip and happening city on the west coast right by the sea so it doesn't take too long to get into the countryside. On our first full day we went to Granville Island (via a very cute little ferry boat!) where the main point of attraction was all the Glaucous-winged Gulls loafing about. In the harbour area were also Cormorants (both Double-crested and Pelagic) and Great Blue Herons. I also saw a couple of Peregrines fly over as well as a Bald Eagle. The three children went on a whale watching boat trip where they managed to see a large pod of Orcas. In the city itself there were not many birds to be seen (apart from a few GW Gulls) but I did manage to find some White-crowned Sparrows.

Adult Glaucous-winged Gull

1s Glaucous-winged Gull

Double-crested Cormorant

Pelagic Cormorant

White-crowned Sparrow
1s California Gull (I think!)

Great Blue Heron

We went for a walk in Stanley Park where we found a lovely lake (Beaver Lake). There were quite a few birds to be seen here including Song Sparrows, Tree Swallows, Wood Duck and Spotted Towhee.

Song Sparrow

Spotted Towhee

Wood Duck

We took a bus to the Capilano suspension bridge - a spectacular wire-strung suspension bridge over a steep gorge. Whilst the entrance price was eye-wateringly expensive (they do seem to like to gouge tourists in Canada) the scenery was really nice. It also had a tree-top walkway in amongst the forest. Douglas Squirrels were to be seen here. We also saw a Hummingbird species and I saw a Black Swift fly over the gorge. This was probably the rarest bird that I saw on my trip as it a very localised speciality of gorge habitat.

Douglas Squirrel

Video here

En Route to Jasper

Once we had picked up the cars we decided to head to Jasper via the north route so we could stop off at "Jacks Bar & Grill" - a riverside restaurant that happens to feature in the Netflix series Virgin River that my VLW and daughters liked. The food was good though the experience was somewhat marred by our car getting towed to a nearby compound where we were charged an arm and a leg to have it released. It did rather seem like a scheme to prey on unsuspecting tourists though technically we should not have parked where we did.

Part way through our journey we ground to a halt as it turned out that a rock slide had blocked the road. Apparently some climbers had disturbed the rocks which had come tumbling down. Sadly two of the climbers were killed. Whilst waiting by a rather pretty lake side for someone to come and clear the rocks, there was plenty of wildlife to see including Bald Eagles, Cedar Waxwings and a Warbling Vireo. Finally, after a three hour wait, the road was cleared and we had a tricky drive in the dark and rain to our overnight stop in a motel in Kamloops.

The motel turned out to be right beside a river and in the morning the trees were full of Red-winged Blackbirds along with an American Goldfinch, Tree Swallows and a Northern Flicker.

Female Red-winged Blackbird

Northern Flicker


The next day we finally arrived at Jasper National Park. We'd just gone through the toll area and bought our pass. I said "so where are these bears then?" and literally a minute later we saw a car pulled up by the road side with a Black Bear right next to it eating dandelions. We got point blank views for a few minutes before it ambled off into the forest. What a great start!

Black Bear by the Roadside

Our accommodation turned out to be a couple of wood cabins on the outskirts of Jasper. There were Columbian Ground Squirrels all around the cabin area which were cute. One day a pair of Elk wandered right past the house. The first day we went on a local hike from Jasper itself. There were various heard-only birds that I couldn't identify though I did manage to get Pine Siskin and Black-capped Chikadee. On one of the lakes on the trail were a family of Barrow's Goldeneye.

Female Barrow's Goldeneye

I don't know what exactly this is but in the UK I would call this a White-faced Darter

Towards the end of the walk it started to rain quite heavily though we did manage to see an Elk quite well.


The next day we drove up to Moose Lake in the hope of seeing the eponymous animal. Sadly there were none to be seen though the lake itself was lovely. A family of Grey Jays proved to be very tame and would come and sit on your outstretched hand. 

Swainson's Thrush

Myrtle/Audubons's Warbler Intergrade 

On the main lake (Maligne Lake) there were Cliff Swallows and Tree Swallows hawking over the lake and I found a Greater Scaup by the edge.

Greater Scaup

On the drive back to the cabin we came across a mother Black Bear and cub which gave us great views by the road side for several minutes. So that was three bears notched up already!

Mother Black Bear

The next day we explored a local lake which had a Common Loon on it and we could hear distant Wolf howls (apparently a common occurrence).

Common Loon & young (Great Norther Diver to you and I)

The Icefield Parkway

After our three days in Jasper it was time to hit the highway again. The Icefield Parkway is a scenic road (supposedly the "most beautiful road in the world") that runs through the middle of the Rocky Mountain range from Jasper to Banff. Armed with our tourist guide book, we were told of lots of things to stop off for en route. This could include: looking at gushing waterfalls (the rivers were very full due to the unseasonal amount of rain that had fallen earlier in the year); stopping in a layby to look at stunning mountain scenery; viewing one of numerous glaciers along the route or going to look at a stunning blue lake. The lakes are coloured blue due to the presence of rock flour which is a very fine suspension of rock particles in the water that have the property of turning the water turquoise. All I can say is that the scenery was absolutely stunning. One runs out of superlatives to try to convey but we would stop and gaze with awe at the next view, thinking that it couldn't get much better but no around the corner was yet another jaw-dropping view. Some of the stops were rather busy so there wasn't much wildlife to see and as the road was comparatively busy there were fewer roadside opportunities though in passing we say deer and Elk.

Stellar's Jay at a car park at the summit of a mountain pass

Brown-headed Cowbird by some picnic tables near a lake where we had our lunch

One of many lakes coloured blue by the rock flower

We had booked a visit to the XX Glacier towards the end of the day. This was an amazing experience where an almost military-like operation would ship you out via coach and then a giant "moon buggy" with huge tires onto the glacier. We got to spend 20 minutes walking about on the glacier before being driven back to the main base. On the way back we saw an Arctic Fox by the road side. As part of the experience we also got driven to a "sky walk", a glass viewing platform jutting out from the side of a cliff. Once again the views were spectacular and there was a Mountain Goat conveniently perched on the cliff side right next to us. 

A Mountain Goat Perched Precariously on a High Cliff Face


To break up our journey we decided to have a few days of comparative rest in a log cabin a bit off the beaten track at a small town called Nordegg. The idea was that because of the rigours of a road trip where you are upping sticks every couple of days, it would be good to have something comparatively low key for a few days so we could just rest. The road off the Icefield Parkway up to Nordegg was quiet but very scenic in a more low key sort of way. This area is known for its wild horses and we did indeed manage to see some by the roadside. The cabin turned out to be lovely, a well equipped and modern building with a firepit outside that one could sit around. The only downside was that the water pump system was so loud that we all had a rather fitful first night there before we got the owners to talk us through turning the pump off at night.

Nordegg itself turned out to be a delightfully small town with very few shops and nothing much to do. I was told that a lot of "weekenders" would come to their huge log cabins (ours was comparatively modest) and engage in outdoor activities such as hiking, trail riding and hunting etc. The highlight of the town (for us at least) was a pie shop that did great pies including gluten fee ones so I could eat them too! We paid a couple of visits here!

It was while we were staying here that I remembered reading about the Merlin bird app having a sound id option. After upgrading my phone suddenly I was able to get an id for all the birds calling around me. This was a game changer as far as I was concerned as I went from basically not knowing what any calling bird was (how different to the UK where I would expect to know everything) to suddenly having an id for everything. Not that it was 100% accurate, I would watch it in real-time as it "listened" and id'ed things. Where a bird called repeatedly and the id always came up the same then I would be confident in the id but sometimes the tiniest of tweets would come up with something pretty left field and I knew not to trust it. At the very least I could look up the call on my Peterson "Birds of North America" app to confirm.  This app was a pretty neat smartphone app with maps, calls and reasonable pictures which were bundled together in a nice compact manner. At under a tenner to unlock it all, it was definitely worth it on my trip.

Thanks to the app, all these mystery calls deep in the pine forests suddenly because understood. The commonest was Dark-eyed Junko (the North American equivalent of a Chaffinch) but there were also Fox Sparrows, various Chickadee species, Evening Grosbeaks, Red-breasted Nuthatch and American Robin to be heard. At dusk as we sat around the firepit toasting marshmallows we would hear this weird bubbling noise which turned out to be Wilson's Snip drumming.

American Robin was very common everywhere we went. There was a nest near our cabin

Chipmunks were fairly ubiquitous as well


After our comparative rest in Nordegg it was back on the highway. Armed with the Merlin app now, I would routinely walk about with it on in order to see what was about. This way I was able to add all sorts of heard-only birds to my trip list. As I said above, the accuracy may not have been 100% but the app id was a great starting point. We travelled the second half of the Icefield Parkway (having turned off it for Nordegg) and continued to stop at the various guide book stopping points. Once more it was stunning scenery with various (common) birds en passant

The Banff area itself was much more touristy than Jasper and the experience was rather different. We ended up having to book an Air BnB 20 minutes drive outside of Banff itself as that was all we could find. Our main tourist targets here were: Lake Louise (an extremely beautiful but insanely popular turquoise lake surrounded by stunning mountains and XXX Canyon. The only trouble was that the Lake Louise car park was known to fill up by about 9 a.m. so would require an early start. So we made a supreme effort and were on the road for the 45 minute drive shortly after 7:30 a.m. However, as we got nearer signs started appearing saying that the car park was already full and directing us to the shuttle bus car park instead. With our main plan already in tatters we thought we'd try this though from what we'd read this was usually booked up as well. We ended up in a large ski lodge car park where we were told that the earliest shuttle bus availability was 3:30pm! We went to the ski lodge main building to have a cup of tea and to think about it. Here we discovered that in the summer they operated gondola rides up the mountain where you could go hiking and take in the views. This wasn't originally in our plans but given we had 7 hours to kill and we were already there we decided that we might as well pay the eye-watering ticket price and do that. This turned out to be a great decision as it was probably one of the top activities of the holiday! To start with we were told that one of the two hiking trails was closed because of a Grizzly Bear and cub that was blocking the path. However, the good news was that they could be viewed from the gondola ride up the mountain. So it was with great excitement that boarded the ski lift. The adults chose an enclosed gondola whereas our children opted for an open seat one. Sure enough the mother and cub were easily seen on the way up just where they said they would be. It was great finally to get to see a Grizzly Bear!

At the top we went to the viewing platform where in the bright sunshine we had amazing views of the mountain ridge with Lake Louise in the distance. It was simply stunning. After a while of taking in the views we decided to go on the easiest hike. This was a rather short but very steep slog up the hill before cutting into the woods a bit and then heading back down again. Back at the main viewing area we sat and had our sandwiches. At this point we overheard one of the rangers saying that there was a male Grizzly Bear that had wandered close to the other side of the electric fence that bordered the viewing area. We went to take a look and were treated to good views of him lolling around, cooling himself down on some of the remaining snow that was still around and rooting around for food.

On the way back down we all opted to go in the open top gondola seats. About two thirds of the way down we spotted a Black Bear wandering across the area shortly ahead of us. By the time we got to the bottom he was rather distant for photos but it was great to have a fourth Bear for the day!

Finally our shuttle bus time came and we bordered the bus. Looking back up the mountain from our coach seat we could just make out the male Grizzly who had wandered onto a different part of the mountain now but was still in one of many long clear corridors that went up the mountain.

Lake Louise itself was pretty stunning being a bright turquoise colour surrounded by high mountains. The only trouble was the number of people: there were thousands of them. After taking a few photos we wandered along the lake shore path for a while and gradually numbers thinned out. I had my Merlin app on the whole time and picked up a few more ticks including Lincoln Sparrow that I actually managed to see as well as a silent warbler that was probably a young Blackpoll Warbler though it was hard to tell. Eventually we headed back to the car park to join the scrum waiting for the shuttle bus back to where our car was parked. Then it was back on the highway back to our Air BnB. There was one more bit of excitement en route when we saw a bunch of cars pulled up by the side of the road. It turned out to be a mother and cub Grizzly close to the road side just the other side of the large fence designed to keep the wildlife off the main road. However as the road was a dual carriageway it was too dangerous to stop so we didn't have the opportunity to take any photos. Still, that pushed our bear tally for the day up to 6 with 5 Grizzlies and one Black. Quite amazing!

The next day we walked a beautiful trail by the side of a river that cut through some mountains. There was not much in the way of birdlife to report though I did come across some Twin-flower flowers that are a specialist rarity in Scotland. 



The following day it was time to start the long slog back to Vancouver. Once again we decided to stop off at Kamloops, this time staying at a hotel on the other side of the river. The interesting thing about this one was that it had a large reed fringed pond in the grounds. This seemed to be an oasis for birds and I passed some wonderful time birding the area both in the evening of our arrival and the morning of the next day. In the evening the reeds were full of roosting Red-winged and Yellow-headed Blackbirds. Around the area were Common Yellowthroat, House Finches, Goldfinches, Cedar Waxwings and various Warblers to be seen. There were also ducks on the pond itself, including American Wigeon and Ruddy Ducks as well as American Coot. I even spotted a Beaver swimming in the water. In terms of the variety and entertainment value, this site was probably the birding highlight of the whole trip!

Cedar Waxwing

I didn't know that Collard Dove could be found on the American Continent as well

Ruddy Duck

Red-winged Blackbird

Yellow-headed Blackbird

Vancouver & Home
The next day it was the final leg back to Vancouver. Having driven thousands of miles without incident I managed to disgrace myself by scraping the side of the car against the multi-storey carpark entrance wall right at the end. I was so cross with myself! Thankfully for peace of mind we'd opted for the full collision damage waiver option when hiring the cars so the only cost was my wounded pride.

We spent the night in a rather upmarket hotel and went out for dinner to a restaurant that night to mark our last night in Canada. The next day whilst the others went shopping my brother-in-law and I opted to walk back up to Stanley Park and have a wander around. The main sighting of note was a family of Racoons along the shoreline.

Racoon Family

Finally it was time to head back to the airport and then for home. We arrived back to the tail-end of the heatwave and an unbearably hot few days in the UK. Looking back, it had been a very memorable trip. Like any road trip, it was hard work at times but the memories of the scenery and the wildlife will stay with us for a long time.

The Columbian Ground Squirrel was fairly ubiquitous and often very tame


Moth said...

Sounds great & nice write up!!! Didn't know white-tailed eagles were around there - Ithought they were only in Alaska, so thanks for the info! x

Adam Hartley (Gnome) said...

Hi Moth, that was actually a typo, I meant Bald Eagle of course! Sorry about that!