Michael Dossett photographed an eye-catching Costat’s Hummingbird at his home in Central Abbotsford. Tourism officials are looking at ways to cash in on the region’s biodiversity. Michael Dossett photograph

Can Abbotsford become a birder’s paradise?

Tourism agency hopes to attract bird enthusiasts, cyclists

Abbotsford is known for its agriculture tourism, mountain views, and hiking and mountain biking trails. But the city’s tourism leaders are now eyeing another possible attraction that may have flown under the radar in years past.

While you may not know whether that bird twittering by your window is a wren or a finch, each year thousands of people devote significant time and money to finding and watching different types of avian species. Some will travel their province – or even the globe – looking to see as many species as possible for their “Big Year.”

Others just try to figure out what birds they’re observing around their homes, while occasionally heading out for the day to spot a new or rare bird.

Now, sparked to the idea by local birders, Tourism Abbotsford’s Craig Nichols and his team are set to figure out how they can turn the city’s attractiveness to birds into more customers for restaurants and hotels.

“We know people travel for these types of activities,” Nichols says. What’s more, trying to attract birders will complement the continuing focus on agri-tourism.

“It’s pretty interesting when we start to peel the onion on this,” he said. “It fits so well with the strengths of Abbotsford.”

Chris Buis was one of those birders who helped alert Nichols to the possibilities presented by avian tourism.

Buis runs Brookside Inn alongside his wife, Sandi, and together the two catalogue the various species that drop by their boutique hotel, just off Ross Road south of Highway 1.

They have also occasionally sent Nichols photos taken on and around their property. The couple themselves aren’t “twitchers” – a term used for those who fly off around the world after a report of a rare bird. But they’ve seen firsthand the possibilities in birding from their own clients – including one person who came from Toronto just to see a rare bird Sandi had spotted. Five years ago, the Buis hopped in their car for their longest birding roadtrip. They drove to New Westminster to view a red-flanked bluetail – a fist-sized, ordinary-looking bird that was rarely seen in North America. The Buises may have spent their day in New Westminster, but others had come much further; one woman had flown from Florida, and was dismayed to realize she wasn’t quite prepared for the mid-winter snow.

With its fields, forests, wetlands and mountains, Buis noted that Abbotsford has a range of habitats that may draw an above-average range of birds. Sumas Mountain is also regularly touted as a “biodiversity hotspot.”

Melissa Hafting, who runs the BC Rare Bird Alert blog, said Willband Creek Park is a particular hot spot and a good spot to see swamp sparrows, American bitterns, and trumpeter swans. Other parks with water, such as Mill Lake and Fishtrap Creek, are also favoured bird-watching areas, and Sumas Prairie “has been great this year,” Hafting said, with at least two gyrfalcons, a pair of golden eagles and 60 gray-crowned rosy-finches in the area.

Hafting also said Abbotsford has been home to a provincial rarity: a male Costa’s hummingbird, which has wintered at a private home since last September.

Local bird expert Rick Toochin, who has been developing a bird atlas for UBC, agrees. He noted that many of the rarer species that call B.C. home often have habitat in Abbotsford.

The early plans for Tourism Abbotsford’s birding campaign are modest; Nichols said the organization will look at creating some pamphlets to try to alert locals to the possibilities in Abbotsford.

But education is also key. News of rare birds usually travels by word of mouth and through a variety of blogs run by active members of Lower Mainland’s birding community. But for the general population, a bird may just look like a bird, leaving hoteliers unaware that a celebrity animal has taken up residence in their tree.

“Most people see a bird fly by and it’s a ‘little brown bird.’ ”

In addition to birding, Tourism Abbotsford is also eyeing cyclists as part of its new strategy. Nichols noted that cycling tourism has taken off in Europe and could work well here.

“They’re planning their vacations or weekends away around communities with real good cycling.”

Like birding, it can tie into the region’s existing tourism focus on agriculture.

“Agri-tourism always will be the backbone … but for long-term success we don’t want to just rely on agri-tourism,” he said. Nichols’ team hopes to put together a package for cyclists that could suggest routes and stops along the way. “What a beautiful way to spend a day or an afternoon, cycling through the Sumas Prairie.”

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