Bowen Birds

Photo: Islander Peter Robinson

Bowen Island Birds

This feature shows just a sample of the incredible bird life we have here on Bowen, given the diversity of habitats over a small area – marine habitat, extensive forests, freshwater lakes and rural settings. All these birds either live on Bowen year-round, or rest and forage here during migration to and from their breeding grounds.

Psychologists have found that the average American 3 year old can recognize 100 logos, but grow up knowing few local birds or plants. Let’s try to change that on Bowen! Here’s a fun thing to do if you have children – ask them which bird’s song they’d like to hear – in 3 seconds you can play it at!

For tips on books, apps, online resources and binocular advice, click here.

Thank you to our local photographers, Ben Keen, G. Bagshaw, William Leithead and Peter Robinson, and to others that graciously allowed their stunning photos to be used in this feature.

American Robin

Familiar to most, the Robin is a type of thrush. Robins eat earthworms in the morning and more fruit later in the day. Since they often forage on lawns, they are vulnerable to pesticide use.

Photo taken on Bowen by G. Bagshaw.

Spotted Towhee

A large sparrow with red eyes, known for their two-footed, backwards-scratching hop to stir up
insects and seeds on the ground. Common in Bowen backyards. Listen for their buzzy, upwards song.

Photo by Ben Keen.

Varied Thrush

Similar in size and shape to the Robin, but with an orange eyebrow and wing bars, and a striking black breast band on the male. Can be spotted on Bowen year-round.

Forgages for insects in the summer, switching to nuts, seeds and left over berries in the winter. Planting a variety of native berry shrubs, like salmonberry, thimble-berry and snowberry will help attract them to your property. Song sounds like a peaceful, long whistle of a single note.

Photo by Ted Ardley.

Stellar’s Jay

An excellent mimic with a large repertoire, the Steller’s Jay can imitate birds, squirrels, cats, dogs, chickens, and some mechanical objects. Named after George Steller, a naturalist on a Russian ship who found the bird on an Alaskan island in 1741.

Photo taken on Bowen by G. Bagshaw.

Black-capped Chickadee

Curious and cute, chickadees hide food items for later, remembering up to 1000 hiding spots. On Bowen year-round. Photo taken on Bowen by Ben Keen.

Photo taken on Bowen by Ben Keen.

Chestnut-backed Chicakdees

Chestnut-backed Chickadees are only found in the Pacific Northwest. They are very sociable birds. A neat fact about them is that half their nest material is usually animal fur and hair.

Photo by Corey Cartwright.

Pine Siskin

Pine Siskin fly in gregarious large flocks and their wheezy twittering can often be heard before they’re seen. Year-round residents on Bowen, their numbers fluctuate as they search for the best seed crops each year.

Photo by Steven Smethurst.

Dark-eyed Junco

Dark-eyed Junco is a type of sparrow that is very common at Bowen feeders year-round. Often you’ll see the white tail feathers flash as they flit away. They typically nest on the ground.

Photo by Steven Smethurst.

Anna’s Hummingbird

Weighing no more than a nickle, these flying jewels are common on Bowen, some staying through the winter. They partake in action-packed courtship displays, where males fly up to 40m into the air and then swoop to the ground with an explosive burst of noise that they produce through their tail feathers. They position themselves at the right angle to the sun so the female sees their irridescent gorget (throat patch).

Photo by Ted Ardley.

Rufous Hummingbird

One of the feistiest hummers in North America, they breed further north than any other hummer and migrate via the Rockies to the southwestern states or Mexico in winter. Some birds travel over 6000 km one way – one of the longest migrations based on body size. They have an excellent memory – revisiting spots in subsequent years where they remember there used to be a feeder.

Photo by Ted Ardley.

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Downy Woodpecker

The most likely woodpecker you’ll see at your feeder, although the larger Hairy Woodpecker is similar looking. Woodpeckers don’t sing songs but ‘drum’ against wood or metal to establish their territory.

Photo by Ben Keen.

Pileated Woodpecker

Our largest woodpecker by far, the Pileated Woodpecker is here year-round. They will visit your yard for suet and they love apples on your trees! The large rectangular holes these woodpeckers make in trees and downed logs as they search for ants and other insects, provide shelter sites for swifts, owls, ducks and bats.

Photo taken on Bowen by G. Bagshaw.

Northern Flicker

The Northern Flicker (photo above) is also in the woodpecker family. There are two distinct groups: in the west we have the “Red-shafted Flicker” (named for the colour on the underwings), and in the east and far north are the “Yellow-shafted Flicker”. They are often on the ground and lawns looking for ants and beetles. The white rump is conspicuous in flight.

Photo by Nigel Tate.

Red-breasted Sapsuckers

Sapsuckers are a sub-group of woodpeckers. Red-breasted Sapsuckers are the only sapsucker we find on Bowen, and the species is restricted to a relatively narrow band along the west coast of North America. They drill evenly spaced rows of shallow ‘wells’ in shrubs & trees, then visit the wells later to lick out the sap that’s been produced with their brush-tipped tongues, also eating the insects that were attracted to the sap.

Left photo: Peter Robinson; right photo taken on Bowen by G. Bagshaw.

Tree Swallows

Tree Swallows return to Bowen in the spring and are acrobats in the air, picking off flying insects. They nest in tree cavities, hence their name. Unfortunately, their numbers appear to be decreasing in general and on Bowen. Photo by Ben Keen.

Violet-green Swallows

These swallows can look black and white, until the sun hits them in the right way and shows their stunning metallic green backs and iridescent purple rumps. They are particularly fast fliers, reaching speeds of 45km/hr. Killarney Lake is a good place to spot several species of swallow. Photo by Nigel Tate.

Yellow-rumped Warbler

The most common warbler on Bowen each spring. They can live year-round in the very southwest corner of BC, but most migrate to Mexico and Central America in winter. Photo by Claudia Schaefer.

Yellow Warbler

One of the most commonly heard warblers
in spring & summer. Their song is a tumbling series of whistles that sound like “sweet, sweet, sweet, I’m so sweet!”. Photo by Nigel Tate.

Black-headed Grosbeak

Black-headed Grosbeak is in the cardinal family. Its melodious song sounds like a tipsy Robin. Males spend an equal time sitting on the nest and feeding the young, unlike many other bird species. They effortlessly shuck sunflower seeds with their heavy bills. Photo by Ted Ardley.

Barn Swallow

Barn Swallows once nested in caves, but have adapted to build their cup-shaped mud nests almost exclusively now on human-made structures. This is the only swallow species that has a forked tail. They can often be seen skimming Killarney Lake for insects. The exploitation of this species for use in the hat-making trade led to the start of the Audubon Society in 1905. Photo by Ted Ardley.

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Male Red-winged Blackbird
Femaile Red-winged Blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird

One of the earliest signs of spring is the ‘liquid gurgling’ call of this bird returning for nesting season, often heard near the USSC boardwalk. Males puff up their ‘shoulder pads’ when they sing to attract females. They can live up to 15 years long. Photos taken on Bowen by G. Bagshaw.

Male Common Merganser
Female Common Merganser

Common Merganser

These ducks nest in hollow trees or large cavities made by Pileated Woodpeckers. The young leave the nest at just one day old, tumbling to the forest floor and catching all their own food under the protection of their mother. They dive for aquatic insects and move onto fish usually after 12 days. Red-breasted Mergansers are also found on Bowen. Photo by Ben Keen.

Yellow-headed Blackbird

An occasional visitor to Bowen, this striking bird has a call that sounds like a rusty farm gate opening. Occupies the same reedy marsh habitat as Red-winged Blackbirds. A male Yellow-headed Blackbird may attract up to 8 females, but only helps feed the nestlings in the first nest established. The other females have to feed their young by themselves. Photo taken on Bowen by G. Bagshaw.

Wood Duck

With ornate on nearly every feather of the male, Wood Ducks are considered one of the most stunningly pretty of all waterfowl. They nest in tree holes and are one of the few duck species with strong claws that can grip bark and perch on branches. Wood Ducks pair up in January and arrive at their breeding grounds as ‘a couple’. The oldest recorded individual was a male over 22 years old. Photo by Nigel Tate.


This very small, striking duck disappears underwater as it swims to the bottom to feed. Females are grey-brown with a white cheek patch. Unlike most ducks, the Bufflehead is often monogamous, staying with the same mate for several years. They can live up to 18 years in age. Fossils of this species date as far back as 500,000 years. The Bufflehead is a common visitor at Killarney Lake and the pond at Quarry Park. Photo by Ben Keen.

Northern Pintail

These elegant ducks can occasionally be spotted here during migration. They migrate at night at a speed of 77 kms/hour! The longest recorded non-stop flight was 2900 kms. Photo by Ben Keen.

Female Hooded Merganser
Male Hooded Merganser

Hooded Merganser

This striking duck can sometimes be spotted at Killarney Lake until it disappears underwater to feed on fish, crayfish and other food that they grab with their thin, serrated bills. They find their prey using impressive sight, even changing the refractive properties of their eyes for underwater vision. They also have an extra eyelid, called a ‘nicitating membrane’ which is transparent, and protects the eyes while swimming, much like goggles. They nest in tree cavities, and like the Common Merganser, ducklings jump to the ground when they are just one day old. Left photo (female) by Nigel Tate; right photo (male) by Ted Ardley.

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Marbled Murrelet

A seabird that’s also a forest bird, this bird fishes along the foggy Pacific Coast, then flies inland to nest in mossy old-growth trees over 200 years old. These stocky little birds dive for zooplankton and fish using their wings to “fly” underwater. Logging of old-growth has reduced their population to dangerously low levels. First identified in 1789, an actual nest was not found until 1974 after loggers found young and eggs in downed trees in BC. A Threatened Species at Risk in Canada. Photo by Ben Keen, taken from Bowen’s west side.

Surf Scoters

Surf Scoters are sea ducks that winter along our salty coast and migrate to the far north where the boreal forest meets the tundra, breeding in freshwater lakes. Flocks can be seen off Bowen and may include Black Scoters and White-winged Scoters. Photo taken by Nigel Tate

Double-crested Cormorants

Double-crested Cormorants are relatives of frigatebirds and boobies. From a distance, these prehistoric-looking birds appear black, but are quite colourful when seen up close through binoculars or a scope. Look for them standing with their wings wide in the sun – they have less preen oil than other birds so their feathers get soaked. Other cormorant species possible to see around Bowen are Pelagic and Brandt’s Cormorant. Photos taken by Nigel Tate.

Black Oystercatchers

Black Oystercatchers have a very restricted range, only found in a thin band along the Pacific Coast. They forage for marine organisms when the tide is out. They remain paired year-long, often flying in duets over water and shore giving their high, rising whistles. They are easily scared off by approaching people or kayaks, costing them energy and foraging opportunity, so please keep your distance if you spot them. Photos by Nigel Tate, including chicks and one adult actually holding an oyster!

Green Blue Heron

We are lucky to have this pterodactyl-like bird nesting on Bowen. The western subspecies ‘fannini’ is at-risk in BC & Canada. They have excellent night-vision and can hunt in the dark. Moving slowly through shallow water, their strike to catch prey is lightning fast, due to specialized neck vertebrae. Photo taken on Bowen by Peter Robinson.

Belted Kingfisher

Belted Kingfishers nest in burrows from 1-8 ft in length in earthen banks! They feed almost entirely on aquatic prey, diving through the air often vertically to catch fish. The oldest kingfisher fossil is 2 million years old. The bird’s loud rattle as it flies is often heard near the ferry dock. Photo by Nigel Tate.


Although a shorebird in the plover family, Killdeer can often be seen foraging on lawns and golf courses. They run in spurts, stopping with a jolt to startle insects. They lay their eggs on open ground, often on gravelly beaches, so watch where you step in spring. If you see one that appears to have a broken wing, it’s the mother pretending to be injured in an attempt to lead you away from the nest! Photo (left) taken on Bowen by G. Bagshaw; photo on right by Ted Ardley.

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Common Redpoll

These birds breed in boreal forests and tundra of the far north, but can occasionally be spotted on Bowen in the winter. In very cold temperatures, they are known to tunnel into snow for insulation. Their migration patterns are dependent on tree seed crops and are erratic – at least to us… e.g. a Michigan bird was later found in Siberia. Photo by Ben Keen.

White-crowned Sparrow

Occasional visitors to Bowen feeders for sunflower and other seeds. Keeping a brush pile in your yard helps keep this species and other small birds around, as they can forage while safe from overhead predators. One migrating individual was recorded as travelling almost 500 km in one night. Photo by Nigel Tate.

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Happy to visit a feeder especially if there’s suet, nuthatches also travel in multi-species flocks with chickadees, kinglets, and woodpeckers. Nuthatches search bark furrows for hidden insects. They have a fascinating habit of applying tree resin to their nest cavities in tree trunks. Photo by Nigel Tate.

Golden-crowned Sparrow

You may see this sparrow in your yard in spring, as it migrates to the bushlands of northern BC and the tundra of Alaska. Surprisingly little is known about their breeding habits. What is known is that the female collects nest material while the male follows her around and sings! Photo by Nigel Tate.

Hermit Thrush

This bird has a lovely, melancholy song. It doesn’t visit feeders but it will forage on the ground if your garden has shrubs. Mainly eats insects such as beetles, bees and wasps; in winter it adds fruit to its diet, particularly wild berries. Photo by Ben Keen.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Even smaller than a chickadee, yet a ball of energy flitting around in the lower branches of shrubs looking for insects. Its ruby crown is usually hidden, only showing during a male’s vibrant song. Often part of mixed species flocks. Photos: Ted Ardley (left) and G. Bagshaw (right).

Pacific Wren

This tinkling, bubbly songster is more often heard than seen within the dark understory of mature and old-growth conifer forests where they live. When they sing they hold their tail upright and their entire body shakes with sound. They move like mice through the forest understorey, hopping along logs and upturned roots. Photo taken on Bowen Island by G. Bagshaw.

American Goldfinch

Goldfinches are among the strictest vegetarians in the bird world, selecting an entirely vegetable diet and only inadvertently swallowing an occasional insect. Photo by Nigel Tate.

Cedar Waxwing

One of the few North American birds that specialize in eating fruit, these stunning, silky birds love the native Saskatoon berries and Indian Plums in my garden! They also like hawthorn and dogwood berries, sometimes becoming intoxicated on overripe fruit.

Photo of waxwing eating Saskatoon fruit by Nigel Tate; photo on right taken on Bowen by G. Bagshaw.

Golden-crowned Kinglet

Barely larger than a hummingbird, yet hardy enough to weather -40 degree temperatures further north. Can be found on Bowen year-round. Photo by Ted Ardley.

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How to Tell a Crow Apart from a Raven

While their difference in size is substantial (ravens are twice as big in wingspan than our crows), it can be difficult to judge relative size from a distance, so look for the tail shape – raves have a wedge-shaped tail while crows have a rounded one. If you see one up close, look at the beak shape: ravens have a real honker but crows have a more slender, pointy beak (see photos below of each species).

Common Raven

One of the smartest birds on the planet. They can mimic the calls of other bird species, and when raised in captivity, they can even imitate human words. Acrobatic fliers, they often do rolls and somersaults in the air, seemingly for fun. Young birds are fond of playing games with sticks, repeatedly dropping them from great heights, then diving to catch them midair. Photo by G. Bagshaw.

American Crow

Very smart, much like the Raven. Crows can make tools like shaping a stick to fit in a tree hole to explore for insects. Crows usually don’t breed until they are 4 yrs old; instead, the young help the parents raise the following broods for several years. Photo by Fred Lang.

Sharp-shinned Hawk

The smallest hawk in Canada & the U.S. Similar looking to the Cooper’s Hawk but smaller (25-36cm tall vs. 36-51cm for Cooper’s). Both these raptors have distinctive proportions: long legs, short wings, and very long tails, which they use for navigating through forests at top speed in pursuit of songbirds and mice. Both photos of females taken on Bowen, by Ben Keen (left), and G. Bagshaw (below).

Barred Owl

Our most common owl on Bowen, at night you may hear “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?’ Originally only found in the east, they have expanded their range out to our coast, displacing Spotted Owls already at risk where the two species overlap. Barred Owls don’t migrate, and usually stay within the same 6 km radius. This unique photo of the tail-feathers spread out was taken on Bowen by Peter Robinson.

Cooper’s Hawk

Cooper’s Hawk is among the bird world’s most skillful fliers. Bowen is near the northern edge of its breeding range. To distinguish from Sharp-shinned Hawk, look for the shape of tail end: Cooper’s are rounded and Sharp-shinned Hawk’s tails are square. Photo of male by Ted Ardley.

Common Nighthawk

Only here during breeding season, I sometimes see them over the Tunstall tennis courts, circling high above, feeding on insects. Their electric call actually sounds like a loud buzzing insect. Their numbers are, unfortunately, in significant decline. Photo by Ted Ardley.

Turkey Vulture

When soaring overhead, you can distinguish vultures from eagles by the upturned V-shape of their wings, as they make wobbly circles riding the thermals. Turkey Vultures winter in Mexico and S. America. Photo taken at Mt. Gardner dock by William Leithead.



For bird ID, guide books are great because you can flip through images. Try Peterson’s guide book to Western North American birds.

NatGeo Birds, while comprehensive, includes birds for all of North America, which means looking through pages of birds we’re unlikely to get here, which can make narrowing down the choices more difficult (although range maps are included beside each species, so you can see if the bird is likely to be found here).

For info about the life habits of our birds, try the The Birder’s Handbook.


Visit by the renowned Cornell Lab for song recordings, videos for each species, maps of migration, and lots of other amazing info.

eFauna is a great online directory of BC wildlife, managed by UBC and incorporating citizen science.


The Merlin Bird ID by Cornell Lab is the premier app for identifying birds in the field. BirdNET, also from Cornell Lab, records a bird song you’re hearing and can usually identify it!

iNaturalist is a fantastic, free, citizen science based app, also accessible on your computer. Use the map feature to zoom in on Bowen and see all the photo observations of plants & animals people have made here on island.


Choose a pair of 8×42 for birding (8 is the magnification, 42 is the width of the front lens in mm). It may seem like a good idea to get some with a magnification of 10, but they are more difficult to hold steady while keeping the bird in view. There are many articles on the pros and cons of each on the internet.

See for good information on choosing the right pair of binoculars for you or your child. The site also has a quick video on how to use them – it can be surprisingly hard at first to get a bird in your binoculars sights, even when you can see it clearly with your naked eyes!