Bird-watching is popular in the mountains, thanks to the approximately 300 resident bird species and the millions of migratory birds that pass through each year. All it takes is a pair of binoculars, a good book detailing species, and patience. Dense forests hide many species, making them seem less common than they actually are. The Columbia River wetland, between Radium Hot Springs and Golden, lies on the Pacific Flyway and is a major bird-watching area.
A wide variety of raptors are present in the Canadian Rockies—some call the mountains home year-round, while others pass through during annual spring and fall migrations. Golden eagles migrate across the Canadian Rockies, heading north in spring to Alaska and crossing back over in fall en route to Midwest wintering grounds. Golden eagles—more than 10,000 of them annually—soar high above the mountains on thermal drafts. Bald eagles also soar over the Canadian Rockies during annual migrations; mature birds can be distinguished from below by their white head and tail (immature birds resemble the dark-brown-colored golden eagle). Ospreys spend summers in the region, nesting high up in large dead trees, on telephone poles, or on rocky outcrops, but always overlooking water. They feed on fish, hovering up to 50 meters (160 feet) above water, watching for movement, then diving into the water, thrusting their legs forward and collecting prey in their talons.
Distinct from all previously listed species is a group of raptors that hunts at night. Best known as owls, these birds are rarely seen because of their nocturnal habits but are widespread throughout forested areas of the mountains. Most common is the great horned owl, identified by its prominent “horns,” which are actually tufts of feathers. Also present are the snowy owl and, in the north of the region, the great gray owl, the largest of the owls, which grows to a height of 70 centimeters (27.6 inches).
Bird-watchers will be enthralled by the diversity of eastern and western bird species in the Canadian Rockies. Widespread are magpies, sparrows, starlings, grouse, ravens, and crows. Blackbirds, finches, thrushes, hummingbirds, woodpeckers, flycatchers, and 28 species of warblers are common in forested areas. Ptarmigan are common in open meadows above the tree line. A popular campground visitor, the cheeky gray jay, is similar in appearance to the curious Clark’s nutcracker.
© Andrew Hempstead, from Moon Western Canada, 3rd Edition