Best Places to Bird in Tumbler Ridge

Russell Cannings and Richard Cannings

Tumbler Ridge remains BC’s youngest community. It was created in the wilderness of the eastern foothills of the Rockies in the early 1980s as the centre for the area’s abundant metallurgical coal resources. Coal prices have subsequently fluctuated wildly, and mines have come and gone in typical boom and bust cycles. An unparalleled example of volunteer effort to diversify the economy and recognize the unique attributes of the community and its surrounding area has not only helped it survive, but has also propelled it into the international spotlight.

One of the catalysts for this was the discovery of dinosaur tracks by two young boys in a creek-bed just below town in 2000, when the extinction of the community due to mine closures was being predicted. This led to the formation of the Tumbler Ridge Museum Foundation, the Dinosaur Discovery Gallery in town, and the adjoining Peace Region Palaeontology Research Centre. Tumbler Ridge is now the centre of excellence in vertebrate palaeontology (including paleo-ornithology) in the province, and a seemingly never-ending series of exquisite fossil discoveries has made international news.

This has been complemented by the development and maintenance by volunteers of the Wolverine Nordic and Mountain Society of almost 100 km (62 mi) of hiking trails to areas of outstanding natural beauty and geological significance (including many birding localities). Together, the museum and the trails led to the volunteer-driven push for the coveted UNESCO Global Geopark status, which was conferred in September 2014. The Tumbler Ridge Global Geopark joins 110 others worldwide, and is only the second in North America and the first in the west. The Global Geopark status has the potential to further positively transform the nature of the community and the Peace Region.

The distribution of birds has everything to do with geology, geography, and relatively recent Pleistocene history, and is therefore part of the Geopark story. Tumbler Ridge is one of those precious localities in BC where “East meets West,” exemplified by the story of the splitting of the Winter Wren into two species, the Pacific Wren and the Winter Wren. The research was conducted by scientists from UBC at the Quality Falls trail just northeast of town. Singing birds of both populations beside the trail were mist-netted and their blood subjected to mitochondrial DNA analysis, which clinched the evidence in support of the split. This saga is interpreted through an exhibit at the Quality Falls trailhead.

And then there are the dinosaur tracks. Birds are descended from theropod dinosaurs, and so enjoying the Tumbler Ridge dinosaur trackways is a way of enjoying remote avian ancestral history. In summer, the Tumbler Ridge Museum Foundation conducts tours to two trackway sites: the Cabin Pool site by day and the Wolverine site by lantern-light in the evening, a uniquely evocative experience. On exhibit in the Dinosaur Discovery Gallery are some of the fossil bird trackways that have been discovered in the Tumbler Ridge area. By 2015, five such sites had already been identified, from an age spanning 40 million years, and most of the track-bearing slabs had been recovered by helicopter and added to the museum’s collections. Some of these avian tracks are unlike any previously known or described. The tracks at one of these sites are among the oldest known globally, from rocks 140 million years old.

A bird checklist documenting the 240 species that have been identified in the Tumbler Ridge area is available at the visitor centre. Visitors recognize that birding in the forested foothills may be more challenging than on the prairies to the northeast, but tend to agree that a birding visit to Tumbler Ridge is unlike any other.

BIRDING GUIDE

The Bullmoose Marshes Wetland area, just o Hwy. 29, 25 km (15.5 mi) from town, has two boardwalk trails (respectively 250 m/yd. and 650 m/yd. long). The peaceful ambience of this area makes it a favourite for local birders, especially in May and June. Summertime nesters of note include Olive-sided Flycatcher, Alder Flycatcher and Blackpol Warbler.

Tumbler Ridge also presents alpine access that is less challenging than in most other communities. The trail to the at-topped summit of Mount Spieker and the hiking route up Holzworth Meadows to Ptarmigan Ridge are favourite sites, and are likely to yield both Willow and White-tailed Ptarmigan, perhaps the Timberline race of Brewer’s Sparrow, and commoner alpine birds such as Horned Lark and American Pipit. Seeing Baird’s Sandpiper on the high summits or enormous flocks of Lapland Longspur in the alpine in fall is a treat reserved for few birders. However, there’s always the chance of seeing unexpected raptors such as Prairie Falcon. Plus, there’s the Golden Eagle migration, most impressive in the fall but also discernible in spring. At the right time, an eagle may be seen speeding overhead above the alpine ridges every few minutes. A more convenient vantage point closer to town is from the pull-out o Hwy. 52 at the Quality Canyon trailhead.

Excerpted from Best Places to Bird in British Columbia by Russell Cannings and Richard Cannings. Published by Greystone Books, April 2017. Condensed and reproduced with permission of the publisher.