Birding used to be a niche hobby for a small flock of bird fans. But more and more of us are curious about taking up this relaxing pastime: it’s a chance to explore the great outdoors at the same time as reconnecting with nature and wildlife. And there’s a cool way to discover birding in Richmond—one of BC’s top bird-spotting capitals.

Available for free day-use (a refundable credit card deposit is required) from the Tourism Richmond Visitor Centre, Budding Birder Backpacks are aimed at anyone who wants to give birding a go. Each backpack is filled with all you need for a great day out: birding books, quality binoculars, and a checklist map of local birds.

On a recent fine fall morning, I picked up a Budding Birder Backpack and joined James Casey from Birds Canada—one of the Budding Birder program’s sponsors—for an immersive introduction to bird-spotting in Richmond.

Budding Birder Backpack
Budding Birder Backpacks are available from the Tourism Richmond Visitor Centre. | Photo: John Lee

Why Richmond?

“Richmond is on the Pacific Flyway with a wide variety of birds moving through or overwintering here,” said James before we set out. “The Fraser River estuary is also a very productive habitat, and there are lots of local birds here too.” A year-round birding destination, October to March is great for spotting, he added, noting that winter—with Arctic birds arriving and storms pushing coastal birds to shore—is especially popular.

Gear-wise, first-timers don’t need pricey equipment, he continued. The Budding Birder Backpack is a great way to get started, while a basic camera with a decent zoom is also recommended. Dressing sensibly for the weather is vital, and a free phone app such as Merlin is also worth considering if you want some extra help to identify what you see.

Garry Point Park

We decided to hit three different Richmond areas on our morning expedition. And the first was just a 10-minute stroll from the Visitor Centre. Garry Point Park is popular with walkers and kite flyers, but it’s also a magnet for birdlife. I’ve seen wintering snow geese here before and James has seen lots of swallows buzzing across the grass.

But while it seemed quiet on our visit, everything changed when we stopped near the tranquil Scotch Pond area. Standing still and tuning in to your natural surroundings can be a highly productive birding tactic. And as we stood silently between the trees, finches, robins, and black-capped chickadees suddenly popped out in the branches above.

Garry Point Park
Standing still reaps birding rewards at Garry Point. | Photo: John Lee

After showing me how to adjust my binoculars (the Birding Backpack also includes printed instructions), James pointed out some more birds. In the water ahead, there was a pair of greater yellowlegs—a slender bird with a long bill and striking mustard-yellow limbs. And, flying past, we saw some dark-eyed juncos newly arrived from the north, plus a fast-moving kingfisher, with its bayonet-like bill ready to spear its next fish.

Garry Point Park
Scotch Pond is a great place to do some birding. | Photo: John Lee

Iona Beach Regional Park

Hopping in the car, it took just 25 minutes to reach one of BC’s most celebrated birding destinations. With a wide array of habitats in a relatively compact area­­—not to mention its unrivalled accessibility—Iona Beach Regional Park is a brilliant place for avian observation. Loved by veteran spotters, it's also ideal for novices keen to see lots of different birds.

Iona’s terrains include sand ecosystems, dense forest, wetland habitats, and estuary shorelines. And while the tide was out on our visit—check ahead for tide times if you want to see shorebirds—it wasn’t long before the day’s most memorable sight emerged. A large, cinnamon-brown raptor with a distinctive white rump was swooping gracefully along the shoreline, diving up and down in search of prey. It was a juvenile northern harrier, confirmed James, and easily one of the most beautiful birds I’d ever seen.

Iona Beach Regional Park
Iona Beach Regional Park is one of the region’s most celebrated birding sites. | Photo: John Lee

Giddy with spotting excitement, my binoculars were suddenly glued to my eyes as I scanned the park. The grassy trails here are easy to walk and the soundtrack of ever-changing birdsong was constant. Consulting James and the Backpack’s birding guides, I saw spotted towhees, savannah sparrows, Anna’s hummingbirds, and a lively little ruby-crowed kinglet playing hide-and-seek in the blackberry bushes.

But we weren’t the only ones looking for birds at Iona. Bird conservation organization Wild Research conducts regular bird banding here to monitor avian populations. On our visit, their catch-and-release nets were up and their tiny shed was a hive of activity. “The most interesting bird we've had recently was a cooper’s hawk,” said ‘bander in charge’ Amanda Edworthy, who chatted while fitting a leg band to a young cedar waxwing. “But I’d really love to see a Virginia rail—I think it's only happened once here.”

Wild Research shed
The Wild Reseach birding station. | Photo: John Lee

Back on our way, we ended our Iona visit at a nearby lagoon. On the rippling water, my binoculars spied gadwalls, pied-billed grebes, and­ some female northern shovelers, their long bills giving them an almost cartoonish quality. Then, as we headed back to the car, we saw a pair of cooper’s hawks battling talon-to-talon in mid-air.

Cedar Waxwing
Banding a cedar waxwing at Iona. | Photo: John Lee

Minoru Park

There was just enough time for one more stop on our Richmond bird-spotting adventure. And this one was right in the heart of the city. An easy-access urban birding destination, Minoru Park is a popular hangout for locals who love strolling its tree-lined trails and sitting at its lakeside benches. But a surprising multitude of feathered fauna is also drawn to this relatively compact green space.

Minoru Park
Minoru Park is great for urban birding. | Photo: John Lee

Tiny wrens and shy towhees bustled on the woodland floor. But focusing higher up, I also spotted a downy woodpecker—with its red-spotted head—and a beautiful orange-striped varied thrush. The star, though, was a lovely little red-breasted nuthatch, which flitted around a tree to escape my gaze. It was the kind of thrilling little bird I’d love to see again—which means the Richmond birding bug had hit me hard already.

Essential info

Budding Birder Backpacks can be reserved in person at the Tourism Richmond Visitor Centre in Steveston or by emailing in advance of your visit. The packs are for day-use only and a fully refundable deposit of $300 will be secured on your credit card when you pick one up. There is a limit of one pack per party of four.