Bird watching

Banff National Park

Birding is an activity that everyone can enjoy! All you need is a pair of binoculars and a good field guide to help you identify the different birds protected in our park. For a close look at birds and other wildlife, a spotting scope is recommended. A Checklist of the Birds of Banff National Park is available online or at Banff visitor centres.

Over 300 species of birds have been recorded in Banff National Park. Spring and early summer are by far the most productive seasons. The best time for birding is between an hour before sunrise until 9 a.m. or 10 a.m. in the morning. Birds are generally more abundant in the montane and wetland habitats of the lower Bow Valley than other areas of the park. The town of Banff, the Cave and Basin marsh, and Vermilion Lakes are all productive birding areas.

Bird responsibly

Human actions can put birds at risk. When birding, follow these rules to protect birds and improve viewing opportunities:

  • Observe quietly and from a distance
  • Remain on designated trails
  • Leave the natural habitat as you found it
  • Respect any closures
  • Never feed birds
  • Never use recorded bird sounds to entice birds
  • Never shine lights on birds at night
  • Avoid using laser pointers and camera flashes


Town of Banff

The most productive areas in the town of Banff are the older residential areas at the foot of Tunnel Mountain, the Bow River upstream from the Bow River Bridge, and the area around the riding stables below Cave Avenue. The residential areas have many old spruce, pine and poplar trees and ornamental gardens. The riding stables area is a semi-natural setting of willow, spruce and marsh.

Late March to early May:
  • Early migrants are frequently seen in the town before they occur elsewhere because of the warmth and early snow melt. Red-winged Blackbirds, Song Sparrows, and American Robins appear late in March, particularly near the stables. The first Violet-green and Tree Swallows are likely to be seen over the town in late April.
Mid-May to mid-July:
  • Cliff Swallows nest on the Bow River Bridge and Violet-green and Tree Swallows nest in the town near Banff Avenue and feed over the Bow River. Robins, Starlings and House Sparrows are common. Starlings and House Sparrows are rarely seen elsewhere in the park. On Tunnel Mountain, there is a chance of spotting Clark's Nutcrackers , Pygmy Owls and Cassin's Finches.
  • Raptors such as the Pygmy Owl and Sharp-shinned Hawk may remain all winter near the town due to the abundance of House Sparrows, Clark's Nutcrackers , Black-capped, Boreal and Mountain Chickadees, and occasional Red-breasted and White-breasted Nuthatches. They are most readily viewed along power lines and treetops. American Dippers overwinter at Bow Falls. You may see their heads bobbing in the icy water.
Cave and Basin marsh

The Cave and Basin marsh is located 2 km west of the town of Banff on the south side of the Bow River from Cave Avenue. From the Cave and Basin National Historic Site, several footpaths will take you through the forest to the marsh and the boardwalk. The Cave and Basin marsh is a large wetland area separated from the Bow River by a levee. It is fed by hot springs that may create some open water areas throughout the winter. Tall willows grow in dense tangles throughout the marsh and the edges are lined by spruce and pine forest.

Late March to early May:
  • Song Sparrows and Red-winged Blackbirds are often found here before they appear elsewhere in the park. Throughout the willows you may find other early migrants such as Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Orange-crowned Warblers, and Dark-eyed Juncos. Waterfowl are abundant.
Late May to mid-July:
  • An abundance of waterfowl and small songbirds breed in the marsh and surrounding forest. Mallards, Green-winged Teal, and Barrow's Goldeneyes are the most common ducks. Warbling Vireos, Yellow Warblers, Common Yellowthroats, American Redstarts, Wilson's Warblers, Song Sparrows and Savannah Sparrows contribute to the loud choruses of June mornings at dawn. It makes this area well worth visiting. Some consider it to be a paradise for warblers.
Mid-August to November:
  • This is a major migratory waterfowl staging area where you will commonly see Mallards, Blue-winged Teal, Green-winged Teal, Lesser Scaup, Barrow's Goldeneye, Common Snipe and Killdeer.
Vermilion Lakes

Vermilion Lakes Drive begins west of the town of Banff and runs for 4 km parallel to and south of the Trans-Canada Highway. The Vermilion Lakes are a large wetland area of sedge and willow flats and shallow water bodies connected by many small channels. Stands of mature white spruce border parts of the lakes.

April to late May:
  • This is probably the most important single area in Banff National Park for migrant waterfowl. As soon as open water forms along the lake edges in late April, flocks of the common species as well as occasional Tundra Swans, Cinnamon Teal, Northern Shovelers, White-winged and Surf Scoters, and Hooded and Common Mergansers begin to arrive.
Late May to mid-July:
  • An impressive variety of bird species that breed in and around the lakes can be found on an early morning walk or paddle. You may be able to spot American Bittern, Red-necked Grebe, Pied-billed Grebe, Cinnamon Teal, Wood Duck, Barred Owl, Pileated Woodpecker, and Eastern Kingbird. Bald Eagles and Osprey nest beside the lakes. Give nesting birds space to minimize any disturbance and respect any closures.
Mid-August to November:
  • The number of waterfowl using the lakes increases throughout the summer to late September before winter migration. Common species are Mallards, Teal, Hooded and Common Mergansers.
  • Common Redpolls and Snow Buntings feed in the frozen marshes and lake edges, especially in early winter. American Dippers, few Mallards and Common Goldeneyes are usually present at a small warm spring on Third Vermilion Lake.
Johnston Canyon

Johnston Canyon is located on the Bow Valley Parkway, 23 km west of the town of Banff and east of Castle Junction. Start at the Johnston Canyon trailhead and follow the trail up Johnston Creek, 1.2 km to the lower falls or 2.5 km to the upper falls. A narrow-shaded canyon, kept moist and cool from several waterfalls spray, is surrounded by a mixed of spruce and pine forest.

June to mid-September:
  • Johnston Canyon is one of only three known breeding sites of the Black Swift in Alberta. The nests are difficult to spot high on the walls of the canyon, but the adults can sometimes be seen leaving the canyon in the early morning and returning near dusk. Protect black swifts by respecting closures and remaining on the trail. American Dippers also nest in the canyon and the surrounding forest is a good area to spot Winter Wren, Cordilleran Flycatchers, Townsend's and Yellow-rumped Warblers.
Bow River - Banff to Lake Louise

The Bow River parallels both the Trans-Canada Highway and Bow Valley Parkway from the town of Banff to Lake Louise. There are numerous access points to the river from both highways. The Bow River is frozen in parts for most of the winter and runs brown from glacial silt during spring melt until July when it becomes clear and blue/green. It flows through subalpine and montane willow meadows, and lodgepole pine and spruce forests.

Mid-May to mid-July:
  • Harlequin ducks gather along the Bow River at this time of year before dispersing. Females nest in small mountain streams and males return to the Pacific Ocean. Watch for them on gravel bars and small islands. You may also spot American Dippers, Spotted Sandpipers, Bohemian Waxwings and Common Mergansers. If you are paddling, please keep your distance from waterfowl to minimize disturbance. This is a popular canoeing river and a sensitive time of year for breeding waterfowl.
  • Mallard or Common Goldeneye may appear occasionally in patches of open water along the river. However, the only bird that is consistently spotted in winter is the American Dipper who can stay where there are patches of open water.
Bow Summit

Bow Summit is located 45 km north of Lake Louise on the Icefields Parkway. At this summit, there is the Peyto Lake parking lot on the west side of the highway with a trail that leads 1.5 km through the alpine to a scenic viewpoint at timberline. This is an area of open subalpine forest with Subalpine Fir and Engelmann Spruce that gives way to stunted fir with heath and herb meadows at higher elevations.

June to mid-July:
  • This is a very good place for an early morning walk to look for subalpine species such as Fox Sparrows, Hermit Thrushes, and Clark's Nutcrackers . Those who spend time above treeline can expect to find White-tailed Ptarmigan, American Pipits, and Grey-crowned Rosy Finches. In the meadows below the summit, look for the Savannah Sparrow, Solitary Sandpiper and Mountain Bluebird.

Birding Checklist

Date modified :