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For many, a birding trip to the Queen Charlotte Islands is the trip of a lifetime with easily observed species that are difficult to find elsewhere. Surrounded by old growth temperate rainforest, steep rocky coast lines, sheltered bays, and open ocean, this area would be awe inspiring even without the amazing bird species. The rich marine life in the waters around the islands support about one and a half million nesting sea birds, one third of British Columbia's total sea bird population.
Pelagic birding as well as birding in the inshore and offshore waters can be very productive. These waters are teeming with alcids, loons, cormorants, and gulls. Alcid species include large numbers of Ancient Murrelet, Marbled Murrelet, Cassin's Auklet, Rhinoceros Auklet, Common Murre, and Pigeon Guillemot. Tufted Puffin are less common but easily observed in the southern waters near the small rocky islands they use for nesting. Horned Puffin are rare but can be seen with Tufted Puffin near some of the nesting sites.
There are large numbers of Bald Eagles and you can often observe dozens of these majestic birds at once. Another raptor of interest is the rare Peale's sub-species of the Peregrine Falcon. This darker sub-species breeds on the steep rocky cliffs in the area and hunts in the numerous seabird colonies. Loons are common in the area. The most easily seen loons are Common Loon and Pacific Loon but Red-throated Loon and Yellow-billed Loon are also possibilities. By far the most common cormorant is the Pelagic Cormorant but it is also possible to see Double-crested Cormorant and Brandt's Cormorant.
One of the greatest challenges to a birders observation skills are the variety of gull-like species. The most easily observed is the very common Glaucous-winged Gull but there are many others not to be missed. Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel and Leach's Storm-Petrel are abundant off shore in the summer. Northern Fulmar is common off shore but its dark color and habit of skimming the surface of the sea can make it difficult to spot unless you are searching specifically for it. Black-legged Kittiwake are common transients but they do not stay to breed. Other possible species to watch for are: Pink-footed Shearwater, Flesh-footed Shearwater, Buller's Shearwater, Pomarine Jaeger, Long-tailed Jaeger, South Polar Skua, and Sabine's Gull. Sooty Shearwater is abundant off shore but care should be taken not to confuse these with the rare Short-tailed Shearwater which is also in the area. On both of my trips to the area we found a flock of thousands of Sooty Shearwater covering the sea. Many of the birds were so heavy from feeding they could not fly and just ran across the surface of the water as we passed through the enormous flock. Humpback whales were also feeding among the huge flock making for an unforgetable sight. We saw many more species of birds and mammals so for a complete list click here.
It is better to take a cruise that lasts long enough to get used to the challenges of this kind of birding. It can take a few days to get your sea legs and more importantly, get used to using binoculars from a moving boat. Many birds will be close enough to identify without the aid of binoculars but you can see a long way at sea and effective use of a good pair of binoculars will increase your species list considerably.