The ‘Olympics of birding’ arrives in BC this month with the hotly anticipated landing of the International Ornithological Congress in Metro Vancouver. From August 19 - 26, this massive conference will see hundreds of avian experts arriving from around the world—with bird-loving locals also invited to dive into a nest-full of tours and events that are open to the public.

Events & activities

These feather-twitching public events—under the Vancouver International Bird Festival banner—range from a family-friendly avian-themed parade to an eagle-focused movie premiere to the unveiling of a public art installation. But locals with a deeper interest in the wild world of beaky critters can also check out a host of one-off guided tours, joining participating congress delegates at locations around the region.

These expert-led, daylong excursions include visits to Delta, Squamish, and Fort Langley as well as a behind-the-scenes exploration of the taxidermy-driven Beaty Biodiversity Museum at the University of British Columbia. But one of the most sought-after tours will take place right here in Richmond, at Iona Beach Regional Park.

Iona Beach Regional Park Tour

Departing by bus from the Vancouver Convention Centre on August 24, Banding & Birding at Iona Beach Regional Park includes two main facets: guided birdwatching in the popular riverfront park (where you may see songbirds, waterfowl, shorebirds, raptors, and seabirds) plus a fascinating up-close look at the ongoing conservation study that’s being conducted here by local non-profit organization WildResearch.

Iona Beach Regional Park - Photo: John LeeA swallow at Iona Beach Regional Park. | Photo: ​John Lee

We chatted with biologist Andrew Huang—a program manager at WildResearch’s Iona Island Bird Observatory—about the vital work this immersive tour will showcase. “We use the power of citizen science to monitor populations of mainly migratory songbirds here in spring and fall,” he explains, adding that this means banding over 50 species of songbirds every year, including sparrows, warblers, swallows, thrushes, finches, wrens, and chickadees. Many of these populations, Huang says, are in decline.

Black-throated grey warbler at Iona Beach - Photo: Andrew HuangBlack-throated grey warbler at Iona Beach Regional Park. | Photo: Andrew Huang

The banding, of course, is hands-on work. “We set up mist nets to trap the birds, which we then place in handmade cotton bags and bring to our hut. We can then assess their age and sex; check the amount of fat they have stored; identify the species; and measure their weight and wing-length. Then we put a tiny, near-weightless aluminum identification band on them and release them.”

Over the years, this labour intensive, volunteer-driven work has produced some highly insightful research data. “We found that the longer the warblers stick around in Iona, the more fat they gain on their bodies. More fat means they’re able to move on to their next destination for breeding or overwintering—migration is a very arduous journey and it’s fuelled by this body fat.”

Iona for birders

Even if they miss the upcoming International Ornithological Congress tour, Andrew says, local bird fans should certainly plan their own Iona Beach Regional Park visit, whether they’re veteran birders or novices looking into birdwatching as a new hobby. He says he never tires of seeing hummingbirds here—a fairly common Iona Beach sight—but he’s also seen a wide array of lesser-spotted birds, ranging from a Virginia rail and a black-throated grey warbler to northern harriers, palm warblers, and northern shrikes.

A rufous hummingbird at Iona Beach - Photo: Andrew HuangA rufous hummingbird at Iona Beach Regional Park. | Photo: Andrew Huang​

But when is the best time of year for birding at Iona Beach Regional Park in Richmond? “Anytime is good: in summer you get the breeders; spring and fall you get the migrants; and in winter you get overwintering individuals. Arrive early in the morning: that’s when the songbirds are most active. For barn owls or short-eared owls, go at dusk. For waterfowl and shorebirds, it depends on the tides. The trick is to be patient!” he says, adding that Terra Nova Park and Sturgeon Bank Wildlife Management Area are also great Richmond birding sites.

And while the International Ornithological Congress event is fast approaching, you don’t have to take the tour to find out what WildResearch is up to in the park. Huang invites anyone to drop by and visit their Iona Beach Regional Park site during banding season—typically from mid-April to the end of May and from the end of August to the beginning of October. If you’re bringing a group, he suggests emailing ahead of time. And if you’re keen to volunteer and participate in their essential work, have a chat with the researchers while you’re there.

Virginia rail at Iona Beach - Photo: Andrew HuangVirginia rail at Iona Beach Regional Park. | Photo: Andrew Huang​