commando birding in tofino

Commando Birding in Tofino

by George Bradd, Tofino


On a wet May morning, the call I was dreading came in; I picked up the phone. A gravelly voice said, “Alright your on mate, we want to hire you to bird until you drop.”

I hung up the phone and looked at the sheets of rain lashing the window and listened to the sound of the wind howling around the cabin. I had already spent the morning getting so wet you could ring out water from my daypack.

Now it was only noon, and I would be outside in that cold rain until dark.

There was no choice; I had my orders from Lieutenant Tim Cowley of the British army. This was military birding in Tofino.

This whole tour had started when I received e-mail from Tim while I was birding in Argentina last year. He wanted to organize a birding tour to Tofino for his military buddies. Kidnapped by Colombian guerilla fighters while birding, he had just spent four months in captivity in the hills. Not able to find the dove species he was seeking while a free man, he managed to tick off the bird while in captivity.

As if this wasn’t enough, he also saw 28 other new species of birds while kidnapped. Now he wanted to bird Tofino. Were we man enough to bird with this group?

Early morning found me waiting in the pouring rain on Method Marine dock. Marine weather forecast was not good. Swells in excess of 3 meters.

The pressure was on. This group had come from Ethiopia, Malaysia and the UK to bird Tofino. It was decided that an offshore trip for Albatross (the original objective) was not possible, but instead they would go out to Cleland Island with bird guide Adrian Dorst. After a safety briefing by the captain, 10 large men garbed in camouflage boarded the boat. I reminded Adrian that he had wished for some real birders on this tour.

One of the soldiers overheard us and said, “Well you’ve got them now, like it or not.”

Three hours later, after a storm tossed voyage, the troops disembarked for regrouping. Some of them had preferred weathering the storm on the back deck, afraid of missing even one bird. Most normal people would be ready for bed after riding 4-meter swells but not this platoon. A quick lunch and now they wanted me to bird until I drop.

Some of the shorebirds seen on the boat tour had not been seen well enough for some of the boys to count the birds on their life list so they wanted better looks. I had been relieved when Adrian told me they had seen Wandering Tattler thinking nobody was going to ask me to find one for them. Now everybody was expecting a perfect look at these birds.

They don’t call the bird Wandering Tattler for nothing. From its breeding grounds on mountain streams above timberline in the northwest to the west coast of Ecuador in winter, this bird loves to wander. It cannot reliably be found in the same place from day to day. Travelling in singles or pairs, never big flocks, they are inconspicuous on the rock and hard to find. They are also timid and fly away if disturbed. I knew our chances were not good.

I managed to round up a few straggling Western Sandpipers on the Tofino mudflat and now we were on a rocky beach looking for the Tattler.

I had already scanned the rocks with my scope finding nothing and was starting to get that feeling that bird guides have when they can’t find a target species. I was hungry, cold and wanted to go home. Somebody yelled, “Got one!” and eleven men dropped and crouched aiming their spotting scopes seaward. I instinctively ducked with them. I imagined myself crouched in a trench of sandbags ducking sniper fire. Fatigue was setting in fast.

Hours later, still at it, we waded through puddles on the Tofino Mudflat Conservation trail behind the big yellow gate. It was almost dark and we were looking for Pacific Slope Flycatcher. We couldn’t find it and I was secretly hoping we wouldn’t find it, so I could go home. It is not a cooperative bird at best, having a habit of hiding behind branches at mid or low canopy level and not returning to its original perch after it flies, making it hard to follow.

A slight glimpse of movement in the rainy shadows gave it away as the flycatcher flew away from us. Instantly all binoculars shot up and we waited for it to move again. And we waited and waited. Not a word was spoken; a few birders crept very silently to each side to cut off any exit the bird might have.

Now I was shivering almost uncontrollably and very weak and cold, but I could not dare to suggest we quit. Finally after what seemed like hours, the bird flew from a dead snag out to a semi-hidden perch. Everyone got a good look, and all checked it off on their life lists.

Looking at the group leader I meekly mentioned that I was a bit hungry. Noting that the enveloping gloom made further birding impossible, he reluctantly nodded his head in assent, and we headed back to the road, target species in the bag.

I was ready to drop.

George Bradd operates Just Birding, a Tofino company specialising in birdwatching tours. For more info, visit his website at

Tofino Birdwatching Articles

Tofino Time Magazine June 2005

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Tofino bird watching guide George Bradd writes about 'Commando Birding' in this article from Tofino Time magazine.

tofino time june 2005

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