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It's for the birds: Why Southern Vancouver Island is a bird migration hot spot, despite unleashed dogs

Southern Vancouver Island is a crucial resting and feeding spot for migrating birds. Unleashed dogs are often a threat, bird experts say.

The dog races down the beach in joyous abandon startling the shorebirds into the sky.

It’s a common sight at local beaches, despite the fact that the southern tip of Vancouver Island, from the Esquimalt Lagoon to Ten Mile Point, is within the Victoria Harbour Migratory Bird Sanctuary.

People pay little attention to — or perhaps don’t even notice — the blue loon sign affixed to beach railings indicating the shoreline is a protected area for seabirds, waterbirds and shorebirds and that dogs must be on a leash. And hour after hour, day after day, the birds are scattered as they try to feed or rest.

It’s a concern for bird expert Ann Nightingale, who understands that most people love their pets and want them to have fun. Unfortunately, many don’t believe their unleashed dogs are causing harm.

A lot of birds migrate through Greater Victoria and they need protection, says Nightingale. The birds have travelled hundreds, sometimes thousands, of kilometres, and they need food and rest and a refuge from their travels.

“Migration is very hard on the birds. A lot of them die. … By the time they land and are feeding or resting in a place, they need that,” says Nightingale.

“If one dog disrupted them at 7 a.m. and they were left the rest of the day, it is not going to be a particular problem for the flock. But if one dog comes at 7 a.m, and another at 7:03 a.m., and another at 7:07 a.m., and another at 7:10 a.m. and this goes on all day and they have to generate the flight-or-fight response over and over again, it further weakens the birds. It makes them more susceptible to predation, exhaustion, disease.”

Victoria is one of the premier birding sites in all of Canada, says birder Geoffrey Newell. About 420 bird species have been recorded here over the years.

“Southern Vancouver Island is a significant area for sure,” says Newell. “We’re right on the Pacific flyway. Lots of migratory birds are coming through in both spring and fall migrations.”

What makes Victoria even more special is the “Island effect,” says Newell. Birds heading south during fall migration hit the southern tip of Vancouver Island, then have to cross Juan de Fuca Strait.

“A lot of birds will settle to rest and refuel before they make the trek across the strait. So what you have is a traffic jam, an accumulation of their migration right here. It’s a birder’s paradise for sure.”

Fall migration depends on the species. The first fall migrants — the least sandpipers and the western sandpipers — begin to show up as early as late June. The two species breed in the Arctic and make their way south along the Pacific coast.

A lot of birds come through at peak migration in September and October. Some, such as ducks, geese and swans, come through in late October and November, even early December.

“So fall migration is a really broad window and it depends on the species,” says Newell.

Spring migration is more narrow. When birds migrate north, they want to get to their breeding sites and start nesting when the time is at its peak in terms of food and warm weather. The birds will migrate north in April, May and June, a two- or three-month window depending on the species.

“And Victoria is an exciting place for spring migration too. The birds cross the Juan de Fuca Strait coming north and they are tired after the crossing, so they look for the first place to land to rest and refuel which is often the southern tip of Vancouver Island,” says Newell.

“We’re very fortunate to live in a place where we have a mild climate,” says Nightingale, who is a volunteer and a Rocky Point Bird Observatory board member. “We have birds that come here only to breed. We have birds that come here from the north to spend their winters. And we have birds that come here in-between.”

Migration is not just north to south. Some birds migrate from the mountains to sea level. “A great example of that is the varied thrushes everyone is seeing. They are on Vancouver Island all year round but they stay at the higher elevations for breeding and only come down to the coast in the winter when the food supply in the hills runs low or gets covered in snow,” says Nightingale.

In this area, most of our ducks are here in wintertime. A lot of them come from the mountains. Harlequin ducks come from their breeding area in mountainous, rapidly moving streams and fly to the nearest coastline for the winter, she says.

Some birds, like the mergansers, crisscross the continent from northwest to southeast and the reverse.

“Migration isn’t defined by direction or duration or even timing. It can happen for different species at different times. The reasons for movement are for food or for breeding territories.”

The robins we see now are not necessarily the same robins we see all year. The robins that breed here go south in August and there is a real drop in the number of them, says Nightingale. “And all of a sudden, there are lots of robins in September. These are the robins that come from the north. Then in February and March, we’re just inundated with robins because the ones from the south come back before the ones heading north leave. We have a huge overlap of both populations.”

Most migratory birds are quite predictable. There’s usually a range of a couple of weeks at the end of each season when they will return.

“You know what time to start to look for the chipping sparrows and they occur in big numbers and are quite predictable,” she says.

Shorebirds tend to arrive in clumps. They come through on their way to the Arctic in late April and May and they come back south from July to September. Most people wouldn’t notice the sandpipers coming through in large flocks. They’re really small and come through in large flocks, Nightingale says.

In the winter, 50,000 small grey and white shorebirds called dunlins, flock to Boundary Bay in Vancouver. “If you look down the beach, you wouldn’t see them. You pretty much have to step on them to notice them.”

In the spring, Victoria is known for its really high number of migrant songbirds. The flycatchers, warblers and vireos are small and colourful, says Newell. “Some will spend the winter in Central and South America. They fly a long way for little birds.”

Two good sites to see spring songbirds are Mount Tolmie Park and Uplands Park, which are Garry oak ecosystems, says Newell. “The leaves are home to very large numbers of caterpillars which the birds feast on in the spring.”

Finding rare birds who have drifted off course is one of the most exciting things about birding, says Newell.

In 2015, he spotted an oriental green finch, a species that breeds in Siberia and winters in Japan. He believes the bird was lost in an Arctic storm and came across the Aleutian Islands to North America, flying down the North American coast instead of the Asian coast.

“That was the first record for the bird in Canada and the second for North America,” he says.

In July 2021, Newell discovered another Asian bird, a wood sandpiper, at Panama Flats. It stayed there for five days, allowing birders from all over B.C. and Washington state to come and see it.

Two months ago, he discovered an Arctic loon at McMicking Point, near Kitty Islet in south Oak Bay.

“It’s another bird found in Siberia and has a small breeding population in extreme northern Alaska. They almost never show up. You want to enjoy all the common birds, but when you see something extra rare like that, you get a little more excited. It’s like going on a scavenger hunt or a treasure hunt. You never know what you’re going to see when you’re out birding.”

Newell says he finds the blue “Migratory Bird Sanctuary” signs extremely helpful.

“Not only just to have people understand that a dog running on a beach can disturb birds, but just for public awareness. So many people walk along the shoreline and they don’t know it’s a bird sanctuary. So just to inform people is a really good step forward,” he says.

For the past few years, Newell has been part of a discussion about which beaches should offer protection to migratory birds.

“Obviously we need people to have beaches where they can run their dogs. So which beaches need to be protected for the birds and wildlife? And which beaches are less significant for them that we can be flexible on?”

Clover Point is an example of a great compromise, says Newell.

The rocky shoreline at the point itself is particularly important for migratory birds. At the low- and mid-tide levels, nine species of migratory gulls and sandpipers roost and forage in the rocks. “But if you look at the designated dog beaches towards Finlayson Point, they’re not as significant for the birds as the point itself. You have the two designated areas, so everyone can have their own little niche.”

Similarly, the rocky area at the south end of Willows Beach is extremely important for migratory birds, especially sandpipers and plovers. “Sometimes you will see 100 or 200 of these birds, roosting or foraging there during the migration season, August through November.”

While that small shoreline is important for those birds, Willows Beach isn’t as important for the birds.

Capital Regional District Parks has done a good job of explaining how Witty’s Lagoon should be reserved for the birds, he says. People and dogs hang out on the beach but the lagoon itself, which is significant for migratory shore birds, is off-limits.

“That’s really helped,” says Newell. “I’ve rarely seen dogs and people in there. The areas are naturally separated by habitat. But the lagoon itself is muddy and not that enjoyable.”

It’s been harder to reach a compromise at Island View Beach, which is not part of the Victoria Harbour Migratory Bird Sanctuary but a CRD park.

“It’s a difficult spot to deal with because the birds are all over the place and that’s where the people and the dogs like to walk as well,” says Newell, who gives guided talks at the beach.

The once-endangered Brant geese come to Island View Beach because they rely on eelgrass beds for feeding, says Nightingale. “They really don’t have many places along the coast where they can stop and feed. But some people think nothing of running their dogs into that group.”

Having an on-leash area will allow the bird to have a little rest, she says.

Nightingale would like to see certain areas of the beach designated for dogs but on-leash areas on the stretch where the Brant geese feed. “It’s hard to see some of the birds that are there. The shore birds are very cryptic and you might not think there are any birds, but there are.”

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