Many people go on our winter wildlife tours with the single goal of seeing marine mammals—whales, seals, sea lions, porpoise, otters. But wait. There’s a lot more to see out there. The Salish Sea is a marine bird-watcher’s paradise. It’s home to 73 species of birds, many of which are only here in the winter!
And we want you to see as many of them as you can!
The following are just 11 of the many bird species you might see on one of our winter wildlife tours. And no, we haven’t included bald eagles here because they tend to hog all the attention. Besides, they have their own blog!
The common and hooded mergansers, though closely related, are easily distinguished by the plumage of the males. The hooded merganser male sports a large black and white hairdo, while the common merganser male has a dark green head and bright orange beak.
These “sea ducks” can often be seen toting their chicks around the Salish Sea in late winter/early spring. If you’re lucky enough to spot some chicks make sure to take a close look—these two species can interbreed and make hybrid babies!
Named for its strikingly bright coloration, the harlequin duck is one of the most stunning of the marine birds that winter in the Salish Sea. Harlequins spend much of their life in rough waters and along windy, rocky coastlines. Bizarrely, this means that many of them experience broken bones from their turbulent lifestyle! They’re often seen at Race Rocks Ecological Reserve, which is known for it’s strong currents. Learn more.
What happens when a puffin and a duck have a baby? Probably nothing, but that’s what a surf scoter looks like. These flashy sea ducks, also known as the “skunk-head coot” or “skunk duck,” are known for the male’s striking orange and yellow beak and black and white pattern on its head.
After nesting, surf scoters become “moult migrants.” They stop on their way to their wintering grounds where they lose their feathers and temporarily become flightless. One of these spots is Puget Sound, just southeast of Victoria! Learn more.
Gulls have a bad reputation as being “rats with wings,” but we think they’re a diverse and beautiful family of marine birds. There are 18 species documented in the Salish Sea; of these, eight are common. Winter gulls include mew, herring and Thayer’s or Iceland gulls. Western gulls sometimes winter off BC.
Small and dainty Bonaparte’s gulls are mainly seen in the spring and fall, but they’re common year-round in the southern Strait of Georgia where we sometimes go on our tours. Some people think Bonaparte’s gulls are named after Napoleon Bonaparte. The name actually comes from his cousin, Charles Lucien Bonaparte, a naturalist who made important contributions to ornithology! Learn more.
Also known as “the tiny penguins of the north,” common murres are present in the Salish Sea most of the year. Their small wings make it hard for them to take off, but once in flight murres can reach speeds of 75 km per hour. Common murres are also one of the deepest-diving birds on the planet (after penguins), with a record of almost 170 metres. In fact, they’re the deepest diving bird that can still fly! Learn more.
These ducks look like their name sounds. Their large bulbous heads make them identifiable at a great distance. Buffleheads like to nest in old woodpecker holes in the forest. Though their heads are relatively big, buffleheads are one of the smaller ducks. Bufflehead populations are stable. However, their numbers are smaller than they used to be due to habitat loss and unrestricted hunting in the early 1900s. Learn more.
Known for their haunting vocalizations and dapper plumage, loons are mostly associated with freshwater environments. But they can be found on salt water in the winter, where they feed on small fish, crustaceans and mollusks. The two types most often seen here are the common loon, which tends to be solitary, and the smaller and greyer Pacific loon, which tends to hang out in flocks.
Despite its name, the oystercatcher spends more time eating mussels than oysters. You’ll often find these marine birds foraging in the intertidal zone along rocky shorelines. Their long, orange bills—which look like carrots sticking out of their head—are perfectly designed for breaking open marine invertebrates exposed by the low tide. Oystercatchers have distinctively shrill calls which means you often hear them before you see them! Learn more.
Black turnstones are small marine birds that camouflage well with the rocky intertidal zones and beaches on which they forage. They’re named for their ability to turn over stones to find prey, which consists of everything from invertebrates to the eggs of other birds. When they take flight, their wings reveal a unique striped pattern, which is how they’re most easily recognized. Learn more.
Great blue heron
These birds are iconic to the Pacific Northwest (and many other parts of the world) and are a frequent sight on our tours. They can be spotted balancing on a kelp forest, on rocks, or high up in their nests in the trees. Their massive wingspan and croaky calls make you think of a pterodactyl, and it’s always spectacular to watch them taking flight or hunting with their dagger-like bill. Learn more.
No list of winter marine birds would be complete without cormorants, which we see just about everywhere there’s a rocky reef for them to rest on in between dives. These black, long-necked diving birds—which look like bowling pins from a distance—are notable for their wettable feathers. Unlike other seabirds, they lack barbules on their outer feathers. This lets water seep in, which allows them to dive as deep as 55 metres in search of food. This is why on land we often see them stretching out their wings to dry!
We see three species of cormorant in the winter here—double-crested, pelagic and Brandt’s. Fun fact: a group of cormorants is called a gulp! Learn more.
So bundle up, grab your binoculars (or borrow ours!), come on out on a tour with us. Check these feathered wonders off your birder bucket list!
To book a tour, give us a call or book online!
And don’t forget—we continue to offer a 20% discount for residents of the 13 municipalities within Greater Victoria. Call our office so we can apply the discount to your booking; local ID verified at check-in.
Blog written by Eagle Wing Tours marine naturalist and educator Lili Wilson
Published January 20, 2023