Captain's Log

The Sea Birds Of Vancouver Island

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As an island in the Pacific Northwest, Vancouver Island has a broad collection of birds and wildlife, both on land and in the sea. Learning to recognize different species can bring us closer to nature and keep us aware of the world we live in. Here are just some of the birds you might encounter walking the ocean shores of Victoria, or on one of our wildlife sightseeing cruises.


Two male harlequin ducks ride the waves between two female harlequin ducks. Credit to Peter Massas on Flickr.

Two male harlequin ducks ride the waves between two female harlequin ducks.

Not all ducks are found in ponds and marshes. A number of them — and their closely-related cousins — can be found riding the ocean waves, often close to shore. A few, known as sawbills, even eat fish! Some of the more common sea-faring ducks you might see on and around Vancouver Island include the Harlequin Duck, Eiders, Scoters, the Long-tailed Duck, Goldeneyes, and Mergansers.


A laysan albatross, Phoebastria immutabilis. Credit to DickDaniels on Wikimedia.

A laysan albatross, Phoebastria immutabilis.

The albatross is a large seabird spread across the Southern Ocean and North Pacific. Though they once lived in the Atlantic, they can no longer be found there. Thankfully, although they're listed as near-threatened, we can still sometimes see them around Victoria! The kinds of albatrosses that fall into our range are the Laysan Albatross, Black-footed Albatross, and Short-tailed Albatross.


A Buller's shearwater, Puffinus bulleri. Credit to Aviceda on Wikimedia.

A Buller's shearwater, Puffinus bulleri.

Outside of the breeding season, shearwaters are pelagic birds, meaning that they don't venture near the shore, but you can still sometimes spot them — they often follow whales and fishing boats hoping for a catch of fish. Shearwaters are long-lived and have some of the longest recorded migrations of the animal kingdom, up to 64,000 km or more a year. Some species you might see in the waters around Victoria are the Short-Tailed Shearwater, Sooty Shearwater (listed as near-threatened), Flesh-Footed Shearwater (listed as near-threatened), Pink-Footed Shearwater (listed as vulnerable), and Buller's Shearwater (listed as vulnerable).

Storm Petrels

A Leach's storm petrel, Oceanodroma leucorhoa. Credit to C Schlawe from the National Digital Library of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.

A Leach's storm petrel, Oceanodroma leucorhoa.

Petrels are seabirds with a "tube-shaped" nose that actually fall into a number of different species. Shearwaters are considered a type of petrel. Storm petrels are similar, but have a more fluttering flight and don't fly as close to the waves as shearwaters often do. We have two small storm petrel species that frequent our waters: the Fork-tailed Storm Petrel, and Leach's Storm Petrel (listed as vulnerable).


A Brandt's cormorant, Phalacrocorax penicillatus. Credit to Alan Vernon on Flickr.

A Brandt's cormorant, Phalacrocorax penicillatus.

Cormorants stick close to shore, and it's believed that these large birds may have once been freshwater birds at some point in history. Their hooked bills are very distinct, and they catch fish (typically herring) by diving from the water's surface. Cormorants found around Victoria include the Double-Crested Cormorant, Pelagic Cormorant, and Brandt's Cormorant.


A black-bellied plover, Pluvialis squatarola. Credit to Hans Hillewaert on Wikimedia.

A black-bellied plover, Pluvialis squatarola.

Plovers are wading birds that feed mainly on insects, crustaceans, and worms, hunting by sight as they run and pause along the shoreline. One species, the killdeer, can also be found in meadows and will distract predators from their nests by pretending to have a broken wing. Plovers you might see on Vancouver Island include the Pacific Golden Plover, American Golden Plover, Black-Bellied Plover, Semipalmated Plover, and Killdeer.


A short-billed dowitcher with a red knot (listed as vulnerable) in the background. Credit to Matt Edmonds on Wikimedia.

A short-billed dowitcher with a red knot (listed as vulnerable) in the background.

Like plovers, sandpipers wade along the shorelines hunting for invertebrates in the mud and sand. Their long bills are sensitive, allowing them to feel beneath the surface for food, and are different lengths so that several species can feed in the same area without competing with one another. Vancouver Island is home to many different species of sandpipers and close cousins, some of which include Godwits, Turnstones, Shanks and Tattlers, Dowitchers, and Calidrids.

Skuas & Jaegers

A south polar skua, Stercorarius maccormicki. Credit to Paride Legovini on Wikimedia.

A south polar skua, Stercorarius maccormicki.

Skuas (and jaegers, the smaller of the species) are fishers and scavengers, often chasing gulls and other seabirds to attack them and take their catch. Strong and acrobatic, they won't hesitate to dive bomb intruders who come near their nests. Species near Victoria include the South Polar Skua, Pomarine Jaeger, Long-Tailed Jaeger, and Parasitic Jaeger.

Murres, Auks & Puffins

A common murre, Uria aalge. Credit to Andreas Trepte,

A common murre, Uria aalge.

Murres and murrelets, auks and auklets, and puffins are all closely related seabirds in the Alcidae family. They're famously known for being able to "fly" underwater as well as in the air, although they're clumsy on land. Though their black and white feathers and upright posture might remind you of penguins, don't be fooled — they aren't related. Some species you might spot are the Tufted Puffin, Cassin's Auklet (listed as near-threatened), Pigeon Guillemot, Common Murre, Ancient Murrelet, and — if you're lucky — the endangered Marbled Murrelet.


A Western Gull, Larus occidentalis. Credit to David Iliff on Wikimedia.

A western gull, Larus occidentalis.

No list of seabirds is complete without the ubiquitous gull family. Gulls have been symbols of the sea for ages, and their distinctive cry is a sure sign that you've reached the shoreline. Most of the gulls on Vancouver Island fall into the Larus family, with the Western Gull being commonly seen. Other species include the Glaucous-Winged Gull, Slaty-Backed Gull, Common (or Mew) Gull, Ring-Billed Gull, Herring Gull, and Heermann's Gull.


An arctic tern, Sterna paradisaea. Credit to Jamumiwa on Wikimedia.

An arctic tern, Sterna paradisaea.

Terns are a subgroup of the family Laridae, which makes them closely related to gulls and skimmers, although they are slimmer birds with long tails and short legs. They breed in noisiy colonies and lay their eggs on bare ground, without a nest. Like shearwaters, terns are long-lived and long-distance migrants, though they may not travel quite as far. Three terns you might see around Victoria are the Arctic Tern, Common Tern, and Caspian Tern.


An osprey, Pandion haliaetus. Credit to Mike Baird on Flickr.

An osprey, Pandion haliaetus.

There are a number of "sea eagles" around the world, but only one frequents Vancouver Island waters: the Bald Eagle. It lives mainly on fish and builds the largest tree nests in the animal kingdom. Other raptors that frequent our shores include the Peregrine Falcon, which hunts petrels, auks, and murres; the Osprey, which hunts fish much like the bald eagle; the Turkey Vulture, which feeds on carrion such as dead gulls; and the Red-Tailed Hawk, which has been known to hunt fish and waterfowl.

Black Oystercatcher

A black oystercatcher, Haematopus bachmani, in Esquimalt. Credit to Alan D. Wilson,

A black oystercatcher, Haematopus bachmani, in Esquimalt.

Finally, all on its own is the black oystercatcher. The only oystercatcher species in this part of North America, it's easily recognizable with its all-black feathers, pink legs, and bright red beak. It prefers protected shorelines, especially near jetties, and feeds mostly on molluscs. See if you can find any in Esquimalt Lagoon!