The Trans-Canada Jay Highway

My 2022 Canada Big Year

by Robert Baumander

January 4, 2024

Birding changed my life. . .

I shouldn’t be alive. I was born in 1960 with multiple birth defects and now live with a laundry list of chronic conditions for which only modern medicine has kept me alive and mostly well, all these many years. I spent the first 51 years of my life flitting along, thinking many times I had found my passion: magician, escape artist, photographer, cyclist, baseball videographer. But in late 2011, I saw the movie “The Big Year,” and by the time I left the theatre I knew I had finally found my true passion, the one thing that was missing from my life: birding.

It was not just everyday birdwatching I craved, but chasing, listing, traveling to see the birds. Birding, combined with my love of photography, travel and the natural world.

After listening to Mark Obmascik’s book, The Big Year (the basis for the movie) I knew what I had to do. So, as a novice birder, I attempted a rookie Big Year in 2012, having never used binoculars until Christmas Day 2011, and saw 600 species, for the most part, being guided by experienced birders wherever I went. In the early months, I had no idea what I was doing, but I was committed to learning everything I could about birds, birders, and Big Years by the time I saw my last species on December 30, 2012, a White-crowned Pigeon near Key West Florida.

Since then, I have birded all around North America, and by the end of 2021 I was approaching 700 species for the official ABA Area List. It was near the tail end of COVID-19 and I was itching for a new adventure. Had it not been for travel restrictions, I might have spent my time, (and money), chasing rarities throughout the ABA Area. Instead, I was mostly birding at home in Ontario, and it didn’t look good for international travel any time soon, so Lower 48 rarities would have to wait.

Canada was mostly open, and I had not yet birded in all the provinces and territories. I figured, now that I was officially retired from my 40 years as Video Coordinator for The Toronto Blue Jays Baseball Club, I would see the country and bird in as many places as my health, time, and money would allow me to get to.

Dovekie: Jan. 1, 2022. Crystal Crescent Beach Provincial Park, Halifax County, Nova Scotia.

Somewhere along the line, during my planning, I was suddenly committed to a Canada Big Year. As it turned out, not a lot of people had ever done that. ABA Big Years, sure. Provincial and State Big Years, t hat too. But Canada? Only a few had attempted it, and only two people had ever topped 450 species, a couple birding together, in one year. I wanted to try and see if I could do that too, birding mostly on my own this time.

Down East. . .

So, on December 30, 2021, I was going to fly to Newfoundland, so I could see a Dovekie on January 1, 2022, to start off my new Big Year. That would be the 10th anniversary of my 2012 Big Year, and a rematch with the species I missed on the final day of 2012. But COVID was still a thing, and if I went to Newfoundland, I would have been required to isolate for 5 days before getting out into the birding world. So, I flew to Nova Scotia instead. However, since I am taking you on a journey across the country along the Trans-Canada Highway, our story must begin in Newfoundland, as far east as you can go on Canadian soil.

Overall, I made four trips to Newfoundland during 2022, including a successful chase for a Redwing, Eurasian Golden Plovers and a Graylag Goose. My friend Jared Clarke was always available to give me advice and directions throughout the year.

There are so many incredible places to visit in Newfoundland, and the drive from St. John’s to Portugal Cove is not to be missed, with stops at Witless Bay, Ferryland, and of course The Million Dollar View. In St. John’s, you can visit the easternmost bit of land in Canada, one of the “Four Corners” of the True North. It is a great spot to search for seabirds, especially during migration. Though I didn’t make the trip in 2022, no summer visit to Newfoundland is complete without going to Cape St. Mary’s to see the Northern Gannet nesting colony.

The mainland portion of the Trans-Canada Highway begins in Sydney, Nova Scotia. On January 1, Nova Scotia was open for business and birding, s o that is where I began the first day of the year: driving north from Halifax, not for a Dovekie, but for a reported Pink-footed Goose. Whatfound at the Kerrs Mill Bridge for my first bird of the Big Year was, instead, a Rock Pigeon. The Pink-Footed Goose, like in the movie The Big Year, would have to wait.

American Oystercatchers seen after the Grand Manan pelagic. July 1, 2022. New Brunswick.

That afternoon I headed to Crystal Crescent Beach, where after 10 years of waiting, I finally saw my lifer Dovekie at sunset on the edge of the North Atlantic Ocean. A great way to celebrate the first day of 2022.

Canada’s east coast is a birder’s paradise year-round. The incredible rocky shores on the North Atlantic Ocean and the Bay of Fundy provide views for days.

Over the course of 12 months, I made 14 trips “down east.” Halifax is famous for the Peggy’s Cove Lighthouse, but it also has a great restaurant, where they serve an amazing lobster eggs Benedict and a pretty good cup of coffee, too. And only on the east coast can you find a Christmas tree made out of lobster traps!

I returned in February for a second attempt at the Pink-footed Goose and Common Gull. Traveling to Nova Scotia in the winter always poses risks. In this case, an ice storm the day before I arrived knocked out the power, and I had to scramble for accommodations up in Cape Breton. I ended up at the Lovely “old-time-y” Hearthstone Inn.

The next morning, I hunted for the goose and found four out on the ice up in Cape Breton, and later that day, in a New Glasgow parking lot, complete with KFC and a movie theatre, I found the French fries-loving Common Gull.

Common Gull: Feb. 7, 2022. New Glasgow, Nova Scotia.

I made an emergency trip to Nova Scotia in April when I heard that the Steller’s Sea-Eagle had returned to the province. When I was there in January, it had been tantalizingly close in Maine. I was up at dawn and made it to Wallace Bay National Wildlife Area to search for this amazing bird. I spent two days searching this beautiful habitat, but the only bird I added on the trip was a Swamp Sparrow.

The sheer number of incredible habits in Nova Scotia is sometimes overwhelming. One of my favorite things about my Big Year was the places in Canada I was able to discover because of the incredible diversity of habitats to bird in, not to mention where rare birds showed up. Beauty and birds. Can’t beat it!

I was back in June for another Canadian rarity, a Wood Stork near Tor Bay, and in September went on a pelagic down in Briar Island and scored a great number of seabirds, including a South Polar Skua! Briar Island is a must-see when visiting Nova Scotia, and a great place for seabirds and great seafood.

South Polar Skua: Sept. 10, 2022. Pelagic trip to Brier Island-Bay of Fundy, Nova Scotia.

Meeting so many people from the Maritimes birding community was one of the highlights of my trips east, and they all went out of their way to help me on my many quests. You’ll never meet a nicer group of people or birders.

Juvenile Razorbill: July 1, 2022. Grand Manan, New Brunswick.

In New Brunswick just across the Bay of Fundy, Grand Manan is a must-see. Taking the Coastal Transport Ferry from Blacks Harbour, you cross the ever-present Bay to a world “oceans” away from the everyday. I stayed at a lovely bed and breakfast, that even served a gourmet dinner, making the stay even more comfortable.

I went to the island for a Canada Day pelagic to the Atlantic Puffin breeding colony. It was one of the coolest experiences, seeing thousands of puffin pairs, taking a ride on a skiff around the island, and witnessing a baby Razorbill climbing out of its nest, possibly for the first time.

Later in the day, with the help of Karen Miller, the record holder for the New Brunswick Big Year, I was able to see American Oystercatchers, not at all on my pre-Big Year Radar. I was lucky enough to stumble upon a boat for viewing the birds when I was trying to figure out a way to see these visitors from south of the border.

Nothing compares, though, to finally seeing the Steller’s Sea Eagle. Late in November, I drove over 16 hours, after being alerted that this giant roving Siberian bird of prey had shown up in Bouctouche, New Brunswick. At one point I spent nearly five hours driving through the night in blinding snow on scary two-lane gravel roads, and was rewarded the next afternoon by seeing a bird that has become a celebrity in the North American birding community, having travelled countless thousands of miles since appearing in Alaska in 2021.

Atlantic Puffin: July 1, 2022. Grand Manan, New Brunswick.

Before the year was over, I had one last reunion with many of the east coast birders when we saw the first Green-tailed Towhee to show up in New Brunswick in 21 years.

I didn’t spend much time in Prince Edward Island, but the $55.00 bridge toll was worth every penny to see an ABA Area Code 5 Gray Heron at Prince Edward Island National Park. Though my experience there was brief in 2022, I shall return for a longer stay on my next trip to eastern Canada.

La Belle Province

Quebec is the next stop along the Trans-Canada Highway after leaving the Maritimes, and it was a trip to this province in early January that had my blood pumping. With the exception of the departure of the Montreal Expos (don’t get me started), Quebec is a beautiful province to visit in the summer, and I did that in 2021 on my first sea-eagle chase. In the winter it is a cold, cold place to go birding, and I only went after birds that I may not have seen anywhere else that year.

In this case, my target was a Brambling. I drove from Ontario the previous night and was in Pinson Du Nord by 8:30 the next morning. It was -40C, which translates to an equivalent -40F. I never travel anywhere in the winter now without my heated mittens and -60 rated Baffin Island boots, and was still cold. But the excitement coursing through your blood when you spot a rare bird warms you up pretty quickly.

Being in Quebec, naturally everyone I met spoke French (I did not), but one other fellow did speak English. He had driven up from the U.S. to see a Great Gray Owl. Bonus! I wanted – needed – to see one, too. So, we spent the rest of the day searching for the owl and finally found it at sunset that evening.

My only other trip to Quebec was in late November in search of a Fieldfare. Though I did not find it, I was within seven hours of New Brunswick when the Steller’s Sea-Eagle called. So, even though I mostly passed through Quebec in 2022, there are some amazing places to visit between Montreal and Quebec City, all the way up to Gaspé.

Steller’s Sea Eagle: Nov. 26, 2022. Rotary Park, Bouctouche, New Brunswick.

“Yours to Discover”

There is a lot to discover in Ontario, as the dittie goes. And our next stop along the Trans-Canada Highway was Ontario. It is my home province. Ontario is big. How big, you ask? Over 33% larger than Texas. And Texas is BIG. Birding in Ontario is a challenge because most of us drive within the province and some rare bird chases can be over 16 hours away. The five birders that completed Ontario Big Years in 2022 can attest to that.

I did spend a little more than half the year birding at home, driving from my base in Brantford as far as Thunder Bay, where I saw a Sharp-tailed Grouse, to as close as Niagara Falls, where I was able to see a long-staying Black-bellied Whistling Duck and Black Vultures flying over the Niagara River, crossing the border just long enough to be counted.

Of course, one can’t talk about Ontario birding without highlighting one of the greatest birding spots in North America during spring migration. Birders from all over the world migrate to Point Pelee National Park every May to see the spectacle of migrating song and shore birds landing at the tip, (the southernmost point in Canada), and often counting over a dozen warblers before breakfast. A smart birder never arrives at the park after sunrise in May if they want a good parking spot.

Not to mention the rarities that show up every year. Many birds that are easy for an ABA or Lower 48 Big Year are rare north of the border. Case in point: A Bell’s Vireo had birders racing across the park to get a look before it flew off. At nearby Hillman Marsh, we have the annual pleasure of seeing American Avocets and a long list of other one-stop sandpipers. Further down the highway along Lake Erie is Rondeau Provincial Park. Fewer birders go there, but the birds are just as plentiful. I had Henslow’s Sparrow and Summer Tanager in the park that spring.

There are so many destinations in Ontario that one could write an entire book on birding the province, and a few have. One of my favorites, the first patch I ever birded in regularly, is Colonel Samuel Smith Park on the shores of Lake Ontario in Toronto. Fifty Point Conservation Area was home to a southerly sighting of a Boreal Owl in 2022, and a migration stop-over for Cave Swallows as well. I got a Purple Gallinule, also rare for Canada, in Pickering, Ontario, Lark Sparrow and Eurasian Tree Sparrow near Long Point Provincial Park, Tropical Kingbird and Magnificent Frigatebird in Southwestern Ontario, and a pair of male Kirtland’s Warblers singing at the Packard Tract in Simcoe County.

In a first of its kind for Canada, Simcoe County and the Canadian Wildlife Service partnered to restore a patch of young pine forest in an effort to attract these threatened migrants. By the June of 2022, the birds were finally spending the summer. Eventually, the hope is that the Kirtland’s Warblers will have a new North American breeding territory in Canada.

Looking for the Marsh Sandpiper: May 3, 2022. Thedford Sewage Lagoons, Ontario.

However, the rarest bird of the year was discovered in Ontario while I was in British Columbia: a  Marsh Sandpiper at the Thedford Sewage Lagoons near the south end of Lake Huron. I was in Vancouver birding with my friend Rich, whose local knowledge helped me often throughout the year, when I was informed of the Marsh Sandpiper. I was a long way from home. I changed my flight for the next morning and spent six hours in the air concerned that it might have been one of those dreaded one-day wonders that you miss when you’re on the wrong side of the country to see it.

I landed in Toronto to news that the bird was still being seen and as soon as I got my car, I drove to Brantford to pick up Sue, and calmly as I could, drove to the Thedford Sewage Lagoons. Though it was raining, that didn’t dampen the spirits of the birders who were there. With the help of local Ontario Field Ornithologists ambassador Alvin, we got amazing looks at this Canadian celebrity bird, even if the pictures on a gray and wet day did not come out that well.

Go West. . .

As we move along from Ontario, via the Trans-Canada Highway, or Via Rail, we travel north along the highway, or in my case aboard a train, up past Rainy River and into Manitoba. For nostalgia, I took the train from Toronto to Winnipeg. I had taken the train with my family to Saskatoon one summer as a youngster and thought it would be fun to relive the experience. Train travel in Canada takes you through every habitat and ecosystem. From the proverbial mountains, to the vast, flat prairies.

I added only one year bird in Manitoba, a Ferruginous Hawk along Highway 1 in Whitehead as I entered the wide-open grasslands of the prairies in Saskatchewan and Alberta. Along the Trans-Canada Highway, the roads seem to stretch into infinity with nothing but fields of tall grass on either side. Eventually, you make it to Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan. I came for the Burrowing Owls, but was even more entertained by the prairie dogs, who have “towns” built throughout and below the park. It is a symbiotic relationship with the other residents, and the Burrowing Owls make their nests in old prairie dog holes. I took a side trip to Saskatoon to visit the street where my mother grew up and also was able to locate a few Baird’s Sparrows where they breed near Moose Jaw. Returning south, thanks to a tip from a Saskatoon birder, I found a Cordilleran Flycatcher at Cypress Hills Provincial Park, and then had to sneak past some intimidating cows on the way back to my car.

I had quite a few adventures in Alberta. Alberta is home to a whole group of western specialty birds, seen at various times of the year. In the summer of 2022, after two years of people being stuck at home due to COVID-19 restrictions, it seemed the entire country was on the road, and rental cars and hotels were overbooked. On one occasion, my rental car reservation was cancelled just as I was heading to the airport. Thanks to living in the era of social media, I was able to contact some local birders who were kind enough to drive me around that first day.  it was my drive up to Lake Louise, an amazing destination in the mountains of Northern Alberta, that was the most fun, exciting, and at times, terrifying adventure in late January of 2022.

Canada is big, the provinces all bigger than most states in the US. D riving anywhere is an adventure, even on the best of days, b ut the drive up to Lake Louise was as breathtaking as it was frightening. The snow and ice-covered roads tested my four-wheel drive, snow tires and nerves to the limit. Eventually I made my way along 115 miles of the Trans-Canada Highway to the Chateau Lake Louise to see a Clark’s Nutcracker.

Great Gray Owl: Jan. 22, 2022. Boisé des Châtels, Quebec.

In June, I scored a Sprague’s Pipit, Prairie Falcon and Yellow Rail in the farm fields south of Edmonton. In September, I saw Rock Wren in Drumheller, along with Lark Bunting and Thick-billed Longspur just north of the US-Canada Border that separates Alberta from Montana.

The True North. . .

Before heading into British Columbia, we need to take a detour off of the Trans-Canada Highway, and fly north to the Yukon and Northwest Territories. Of course, I wanted to see the whole country, but the Yukon held a special place in my birding heart. The inspiration for my Big Year was, of course, the movie of the same name, but I also learned that the scenes depicting Attu were filmed north of Dawson City along the Dempster Highway in Tombstone Territorial Park.

Getting there is also an adventure. On June 1, I flew into Whitehorse, and drove to Dawson City, which felt like I had gone back in time to the Old West. It reminded me a lot of Tombstone, Arizona. The rough dirt and stone roads result in virtually every car having cracked windshields. Mine came pre-cracked so I didn’t have to worry about extra insurance! Of course, there were also a few specialty birds up there, including Smith’s Longspur, and two lifers: Rock Ptarmigan and Gyrfalcon.

I have to admit that I probably sacrificed a bird or three in British Columbia or elsewhere because of these trips. From the beginning of my Canada Big Year, setting a record was not my top priority. Yes, I wanted to see most of the birds that make Canada home in the summer, but more importantly, I wanted to see most of the country that was my home. I could have gone to Saskatoon during fall migration to watch the Whooping Cranes pass through, but I also wanted to visit the nesting grounds of lots of birds, including American Avocets, Bonaparte’s Gulls (which I saw close-up), and the Whooping Cranes, which I saw from a long way away in the Northwest Territories.

Near the end of June, I flew into Yellowknife and then drove over eight hours all the way down to Fort Smith and Wood Buffalo National Park. Once again, I was in a world that was a long way from the everyday birding experience. Unlike the Yukon, which is mountainous, the Northwest Territories are mostly flat and covered in boulders leftover from the ice age, called glacial erratics. Many parts look like deserts. I’ll have to return one winter to see the Northern Lights, which were not visible on my summer trip. It is a sight not to be missed.

That West Coast Vibe. . .

Finally, but most importantly, we arrive in British Columbia. I took nine trips out west and saw over 120 year birds in Canada’s most western province. The beautiful thing about trips to the Pacific Northwest is that the weather is pleasant year-round, even in the depths of winter. Well, with the exception of the mountains. The first of my nine trips was in mid-January, and my target was another lifer, a Yellow-billed Loon. I found the loon on a balmy winter day in Nanaimo on Vancouver Island. The ferry ride alone, from Vancouver, is worth the trip. Vancouver Island is one of the most beautiful destinations in North America. It was only January 15, but I had already added two lifers and was climbing slowly toward the 700 ABA Area species I had so long coveted.

I had hoped to see a Brambling up in Revelstoke, though I did find a Lesser Goldfinch, with the help of a local birder, who had the goldfinch coming to her feeder for months. The drive up to Revelstoke, about 350 miles northeast of Vancouver and up into the mountains, was at times as beautiful as it was terrifying. Whiteouts and speeding logging trucks are why it’s known as the Highway Thru Hell.

My plan for the early part of 2022 was to chase rarities first and get regular breeding birds later. That, at times, might have cost me a bird or two, but seeing the country, chasing rare birds, and adding to my ABA and Canada Life Lists were my top priority, rather than breaking records. Birding is a personal journey and at the time, I had no thoughts of where I would end up come December.

California Scrub Jay: Jan. 28, 2022. Vancouver, British Columbia.

I had just returned home to Brantford, on January 20, when a California Scrub-Jay was being reported back in Vancouver. I booked a flight and Sue was like, “didn’t you just get back from BC?” But, who knew how long this bird would stay? As it turned out, quite some time, and a few even showed up in the fall. However, one never knows if a rarity will be a one-day wonder or a long staying vagrant.

At this point in the narrative, I have to pause and give credit to my spouse. Sue was a birder long before I began birding in 2012 with an out-of-nowhere ABA Big Year. And in 2022, I did it again: a  Big Year with almost no notice. Behind nearly every Big Year birder is a spouse, with the patience of Job (mostly), who recognizes that sometimes the best thing you can do for your husband, wife, boyfriend, girlfriend, best friend or child, is to let them follow their passion. Sue has been kind enough to indulge mine and I couldn’t be more grateful for the support of the sometimes crazy and maddening way I choose to spend my time and pursue my passions.

Back to BC. In May I returned for a pelagic into the North Pacific Ocean from a little coastal town called Tofino. If you haven’t heard of it, you may have seen it in the Big Year movie. It stood in for many of the west coast towns and pelagics. They have whale watching year-round, but the Whale Centre specializes in trips for birders to get seabirds that just can’t be seen from land. The boat is small by comparison to, say, what you’d have taken on a Debi Shearwater trip.

Usually, the weather is nice and the seas calm, but on this first trip the water was angry and it rained throughout. Alas, after four hours I was helping chum the sea and my camera was damaged beyond repair, but the birds were worth it, especially the Pink-footed Shearwater, Black-footed Albatross and Fork-tailed Storm Petrel. I returned to Tofino at the end of July for two more boat trips, one especially to get a Tufted Puffin.

On the land side, from Metro Vancouver to Lillooet, from Chilliwack to Salmon Arm and Osoyoos, I was fortunate enough to see so many birds I never even knew you could find in Canada before beginning my travels in January of 2022. Canyon Wren and Chukar, Gray-crowned Rosy Finch and Pygmy Nuthatch, and so many more. But there were the unexpected vagrants and rarities: i n Tofino, a Snowy Plover at Pacific Rim National Park; i n Salmon Arm, a Clark’s Grebe.

It could be argued that seeing the Steller’s Sea-Eagle or the Marsh Sandpiper were the high points of my year, but for me, that was undisputedly the Flammulated Owl. It was my dream bird, as I heard a young birder say when he saw his first Yellow-crowned Night Heron at the age of eight. I was 62 and just as giddy. It was not just a lifer, not just species 400 for my Canada Big Year, but my ABA #700. It took me about a year to see the first 600, so the journey to 700 couldn’t have ended in a more satisfying way.

Flammulated Owl: ABA Area #700, and Canada Big Year #400. July 15, 2022. Rose Valley Regional Park, Okanagan, British Columbia.

After a day-long drive from Medicine Hat, I arrived at Rose Valley Regional Park just outside Kelowna an hour before sunset. After a short walk, I quickly found the nest hole in the birch tree where, I was informed by my Brantford friends Ellen and Jerry, the Flammulated Owl was to be found. Though the owl had not commonly shown itself until after 8:30pm, it poked its head out early, ready for pictures before dark. As exciting as that was, I also saw one of the baby “flammers” sitting next to the parent in the tree cavity. The only thing missing was someone to celebrate with. These days at least, you can share your excitement on social media and get a few virtual high fives. I celebrated myself that evening, as I often do, with a steak dinner.

All good things. . .

It was, as in 2012, a very good year. But it had come to an end. I succeeded beyond all my expectations, seeing 456 species in 2022, the most species an individual birder had ever seen in Canada in a single year. I arrived back in Brantford with a few hours left before the sun would set on my Big Year, did one more eBird list and went home to spend the last evening of the year in my living room with Sue, rather than alone in another hotel room. I still ordered dinner delivery.

Birders celebrate a successful chase for a Redwing in Newfoundland, including Jared Clarke (second from left) & Kyle d’Entremont (middle, thumbs-up). Mar. 16, 2022. Mayor Ave. Cemetery, St. John’s Newfoundland.

I had not anticipated seeing even 450 species as the year began. I just wanted a different kind of adventure. And I sure did get that. Birders all across the country and a few locals here in Ontario, some of them doing their own Ontario Big Years, kept me going. I’ve never been one to chase records, just to do the best I was capable of. Not to mention I finished on top of the eBird list for Canada in 2022, something else I never expected. Not bad for a skinny 62 year old with stents in his heart, chronic kidney stones, Post Concussion Syndrome, and an alphabet soup of cognitive and mental disorders. For starters.

After spending 40 years traveling North America with the Toronto Blue Jays as their Video Coordinator, and now spending more time at home after another year of travel, I continue my birding, but now get to talk to many of the birders who were my inspiration to do a Big Year in the first place. In my first episode of The Big Year Podcast, I got to speak to Sandy Komito. Amongst birders, he is a legend. He set records before the advent of hourly rare bird alerts and social media. Sandy, along with Roger Tory Peterson, Kenn Kaufman, Lynn Barber, and so many others, forged a trail for all of us to follow and for that I am grateful.