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Aquatic Birds at Lost Lagoon in Stanley Park, Vancouver

Linda Crampton is a writer who lives in Greater Vancouver. She enjoys walking and likes to take photographs of her discoveries.

A goose at Lost Lagoon

A goose at Lost Lagoon

Stanley Park and the Birds of Lost Lagoon

Stanley Park is a four-hundred-hectare oasis of nature in downtown Vancouver, British Columbia. The park is located on a peninsula jutting out into Burrard Inlet. One of its gems is Lost Lagoon, a freshwater lake that was once connected to the salt water in Burrard Inlet. Lost Lagoon is an enjoyable place to watch and photograph water birds. Many of the birds are very used to people and frequently swim close to the shore of the lagoon or walk over the trail that surrounds it. A nature house is located by the water.

A casual visitor to Lost Lagoon is likely to see Canada and cackling Geese, American coots, gulls, crows, pigeons, great blue herons, and a wide variety of ducks. Until 2016, they could also see mute swans, which have now gone to a wildlife sanctuary. There are many other birds that visit the lagoon and may be seen by a frequent and patient birdwatcher—especially if they have binoculars—including belted kingfishers, bald eagles, and cormorants. All of the photos in this article were taken by me during my many visits to Lost Lagoon.

Lost Lagoon at the Entrance to Stanley Park

The Heronry in Stanley Park

The Pacific Great Blue Herons in Stanley Park

2022 is the twenty-second consecutive year in which Pacific great blue herons have returned to their nesting site in Stanley Park. The nests are built high up in the trees by the parks board office. They're made of sticks and lined with softer materials such as leaves and moss. Some nests have been used for many years, usually with a little improvement at the start of each breeding season.

Great blue herons generally nest in the same area for a few years and then move to a new one. Sometimes though—as is the case in Stanley Park—the herons nest in the same place for many years. In some areas, herons are disturbed by human activity around them and abandon their nests. In Stanley Park, the herons breed successfully despite the presence of people nearby. Eagles are a threat to their nests, however. The Pacific great blue heron is classified as a species of special concern in British Columbia. The adult birds can often be seen around and near Lost Lagoon.


Heron courtship takes place in March. Courting rituals involve elaborate displays, especially from the males. The birds stretch their necks, raise their bills into the air, close their bills with a snapping sound, and perform bill fencing with other birds. They also raise their feather plumes and produce loud cries. They may display during flight as well as in the trees.

The females lay their eggs in late March or in April. The average number of eggs in a clutch is four. A female's eggs aren't all laid at the same time; there's a one or two-day gap between the appearance of each one. Every egg has to be incubated for twenty-eight days. Both males and females perform the incubation duties.

Great Blue Herons in British Columbia

More Pacific Great Blue Heron Facts

The scientific name of the great blue heron is Ardea herodias. The herons on the coast of British Columbia belong to the fannini subspecies. The birds are very large and may have a wingspan of almost two metres (about six and a half feet). Their long, thin legs create the impression that the birds are standing on stilts.

The herons are blue-grey in colour. They have a white head and a broad, black stripe above each eye. In the adults, plumes extend from the head and chest. The head plumes are most noticeable during the breeding season. The long, dagger-like bill is yellow.

Great blue herons eat mainly fish, but they may also catch amphibians, reptiles, birds, and small mammals. They are patient hunters, standing motionless in water or moving very slowly until they are close to their prey. Once the prey is in view, the heron lunges for it with its bill. Fishing herons are a common sight around Stanley Park.

A very confident heron

A very confident heron

Mute Swan Facts

Mute swans are native to Europe and Asia but have been introduced to parks in other countries. They were one of the first birds that I learned to identify as a child in Britain. The animals are bright white in colour and have a distinctive orange bill bordered with black. There's a black knob on the top of the bill next to the head. This knob is larger in the male swans. The birds usually swim with their long neck curved and their bill pointing downwards. Other swans generally swim with a straight neck.

Despite their name, mute swans aren't "mute". They do have a quieter voice than other swans and vocalize less often, however. Mute swans make hisses, grunts, and whistles on occasion, but they're best known for the "whooshing" sound created by their wings as they fly.

The swans feed on plants, which they gather from below the water surface or on land. Occasionally, they eat insects and small animals.

Male swans are known as cobs while females are called hens. The youngsters, or cygnets, are grey or buff in colour and have a dark bill. Breeding takes place in March or early April. The nest takes the form of a mound and is built on an island in a lake or close to the water's edge. Both the male and the female take care of the cygnets.

A mute swan

A mute swan

Mute Swans Courting and Vocalizing

The Mute Swans at Lost Lagoon

The mute swans at Lost Lagoon were popular birds. They were large, beautiful, and impressive animals. Their presence was controversial, however. Their wing tendons were cut so that they were unable to fly, a process known as pinioning. This process wasn't unique to the Stanley Park swans; it's done to swans and other birds in many parks around the world.

The official reason for pinioning the Lost Lagoon swans was to prevent the birds from travelling to other places and reproducing, since they aren't native to North America. Of course, pinioning also made sure that the birds stayed on the lagoon where visitors could admire them.

Pinioning means that birds are less likely to escape from predators such as coyotes, raccoons, off-leash dogs, and even humans. The swans do have a powerful bill and strong wings to fight predators. Swans at Lost Lagoon were killed or injured over the years by attackers, however. Shortly after one of the remaining four birds was killed by a river otter in 2016, the other three were transferred to an animal sanctuary to live out their retirement in safety. I took the photos in this article at Lost Lagoon before the birds were transferred.

A Pinioning Poll

Dabbling and Diving Ducks

A visitor to Lost Lagoon will probably see both dabbling ducks and diving ducks. Dabbling ducks feed by sticking their head in the water and their tail in the air to reach aquatic vegetation. They look as though they're standing on their head. Mallards are dabbling ducks. Diving ducks dive below the water's surface, submersing their whole body and swimming underwater to reach plants. The goldeneyes, scaup, and bufflehead shown in the photos above are diving ducks.

The American coot may also dive for food, although it isn't a duck. Its shape resembles that of a chicken. The bird belongs to the order Gruiformes and the family Rallidae (the rails). Ducks belong to the order Anseriformes and the family Anatidae.

Many species of ducks visit Lost Lagoon. The types that are seen will depend on the season, the weather, the time of day, and luck. Some species are very confident. They swim close to shore looking for handouts and come on land to feed when necessary. Other ducks are more wary and stay further away from the shore of the lagoon. A pair of binoculars or a long telephoto lens are needed to get the best view of these birds.

Lost Lagoon is a great place for duck photography. Even with a compact digital camera or a camera on a phone, people can get good pictures of the confident birds. More ambitious photographers with more expensive equipment will find even more birds to photograph.

A male mallard

A male mallard

Canada Goose and Cackling Goose Facts

The Canada goose and the cackling goose are very similar birds. They used to be classified in the same species, but in 2004 the species were separated. The scientific name of the Canada goose is Branta canadensis while that of the cackling goose is Branta hutchinsii. Confusingly, both birds occur in Stanley Park.

The cackling goose is usually smaller than the Canada goose and has a shorter, thicker neck and a stubbier bill. However, some subspecies of cackling geese are as large as the smaller subspecies of Canada geese. The species are easiest to distinguish when they are standing next to each other in a mixed flock. Luckily, mixed flocks are common. I suspect that the geese in the photos above are cackling geese.

Canada and cackling geese are often seen flying in a V-formation and frequently give a distinctive honk as they fly. Their diet consists mainly of land plants and grains, although they eat aquatic plants as well. Like mute swans, they also eat insects and small animals occasionally. The geese are found in a wide variety of habitats near water, including lawns and fields.

Both geese are monogamous. They mate for life, unless their partner dies. The nest is built on the ground, usually on a slightly raised area, and is cup-shaped. The female generally incubates the eggs and the male protects both her and the nest.

Cackling and Canada Geese Swimming Together

Getting to Stanley Park and Lost Lagoon

I live near Vancouver and often visit Stanley Park to look at the birds. It's easy to get to the park from the downtown area of Vancouver. It takes about twenty to forty minutes to walk to the park, depending on the starting point, the route, the walking speed, and the number of times that someone stops to take photographs. Lost Lagoon is very close to the park entrance.

The TransLink website has lots of information for people who want to explore the Vancouver area by public transit. There's a bus service to Stanley Park. Pay parking is in effect for people who want to drive to the park.

For walkers and cyclists, a pleasant alternative to travelling beside a road to reach the park is to follow a scenic trail known as the Seaside Greenway. The complete greenway is 28 km long, but the path can be joined or left at many places. The trail travels beside Burrard Inlet from Canada Place to Stanley Park. Canada Place is a business and tourist attraction. Someone following the route will find many great photo opportunities even before they reach Lost Lagoon.

Though I can see some of the birds mentioned in this article on a lake and stream near my home, Stanley Park has a much greater variety of birds. The park and the lagoon are wonderful places for a nature lover to visit.

References and Resources

  • Facts about the eagle predation on heron chicks from CTV News
  • Information about the mute swan move to a sanctuary from the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation)
  • The Heron Cam site from the City of Vancouver has information about the Stanley Park herons. The web cam generally becomes active in mid-February when the herons arrive.
  • How to get to Stanley Park via the Translink Trip Planner

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2013 Linda Crampton

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