Tofino birding: The Windbirds are Back!
by Adrian Dorst, Tofino
Over the past decade and a half, Tofino has become widely
known as a destination to observe Gray Whales in migration. Less well
the fact that Tofino, situated as it is on the Pacific Flyway, is also
an extraordinary place to observe a multitude of migratory birds. Tofino
residents may become aware of this fact when, on soggy days in late
March and early April, the village green may literally be covered by
American Robins as they cock their heads in search of worms. Or when,
in late April or early May, after an incoming storm front abruptly
the night sky, we suddenly see hordes of Golden-crowned Sparrows descending
on the young, tender plants in our gardens. Birders call these inundations "fallout." What
gardeners call the birds is probably best left unsaid.
Among the most obvious migrants in Tofino are shorebirds, also known
as waders. Beginning in early April, the vanguard of the migration
in, with small groups of Greater Yellowlegs leading the pack. By the
third or fourth week of April the migration begins in earnest. Then,
large flocks of Western Sandpipers and Dowitchers arrive from Mexico,
Central America, and Ecuador, while their Whimbrel cousins wing here
from as far away as Chile.
Whenever possible, these birds take advantage of favourable winds.
It's why Peter Mathieson referred to shorebirds as "the wind
birds," which became the title of his book. One Western Sandpiper
carrying a minute radio transmitter, and undoubtedly taking advantage
of a south-easterly storm, flew from San Francisco to the Copper River
delta in Alaska in under 3 days, a distance of 3,000 kilometers. This
bird obviously did not stop in at Tofino for the usual 3 days of R&R.
Most Westerns, however, drop in to replenish their stores of fat by
feeding on beaches and mudflats along the route at places such as San
Francisco, Coos Bay Oregon, Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor, Washington,
as well as Tofino and Boundary Bay in the lower mainland.
Each spring, several million shorebirds stop at Boundary Bay in the
Lower Mainland. In Tofino the numbers are considerably less, with perhaps
200,000 birds passing through. At the peak of the season, clouds of
up to 20,000 birds may be seen in the area between Sharp Road and Jensen's
Bay. But Tofino has the advantage over Boundary Bay in both variety
of species, and easy accessibility. Sit quietly on the grass in a tidal
meadow, and waders of up to a dozen species may feed in close proximity,
some approaching within 20 or 30 feet.
Tofino also hosts several birds rarely seen at Boundary Bay. Flocks
of up to a 150 Whimbrels, a type of Curlew, may be seen probing for
ghost shrimp on exposed mudflats. And in recent years, similar-sized
Godwits with long upturned bills have been showing up with increasing
frequency. This is probably due to the fact that this prairie nester
has expanded its range into Alaska, where its population is now increasing.
Over 40 species of shorebirds have been recorded in our area, with 30
of those occurring regularly.
Expect to see up to a dozen varieties on the Tofino mudflats on an
average day. If you are lucky, you may also enjoy the spectacle of
Falcon, or its smaller cousin the Merlin, swooping in on a flock in
a surprise attack. Prepare to be astounded at the sight of 20,000
flashing silver as the birds swoop and turn as one like an animated
cloud. Optimum time for observing the migrants in Tofino varies but
the first two weeks in May. Western Sandpipers usually peak during
the first week in May, so don't wait too long. Whimbrel numbers
peak about mid May or soon thereafter.
Adrian Dorst is a Tofino nature photographer, carver, and birdwatching
guide. His photos can be found in our photo
gallery or on Adrian's website at www.adriandorst.com.
Tofino, situated on the Pacific Flyway, is an extraordinary place to observe migratory birds. Windbirds article by Adrian Dorst