Winds from the South bring a Blizzard of Birds
by Adrian Dorst in Tofino
Well, its that time of year again and excitement fills the air. No,
no, not the hockey playoffs, but the annual arrival of shorebirds.
The season was off to an early start this year when 5 Greater Yellowlegs
were spotted by local ornithologist Ralph Crombie on March 21. This
was a full two weeks earlier than the earliest arrivals ever recorded,
another apparent sign that greenhouse warming is upon us. On the 30th
of March, no fewer than 31 Yellowlegs were present in the shallows
in front of my house, their ringing calls beautifully mimicked by a
starling in the tree above me. This also happened to be the largest
flock I have ever recorded in the Tofino area. Normally Yellowlegs
gather in much smaller numbers.
For bird enthusiasts, shorebird season is a rite of spring, confirmation,
if needed, that winter has blown its last breath and summer is just
around the corner. But there is much more to watching this annual parade
of wading birds as they pass through our area. Picture up to 50,000
birds rising at once, then drifting by like silvery white confetti
against the green backdrop of Meares Island. Such was the scene we
witnessed last year when record numbers of Western Sandpipers arrived
in the area all at the same time from their winter homes in Mexico
and Central and South America.
The knowledge that they come from distant lands and on fragile wings
ride the winds north to the Canadian tundra, this too is part of the
alure of watching migratory birds. Short-billed Dowitchers may winter
as far south as Peru, Whimbrels in Argentina, Ruddy Turnstones as far
south as Tierra del Fuego.
For birders, Tofino is one of the great places to be, situated as
we are on the Pacific Flyway. Think of this flyway as an aerial expressway
running north and south, and think of the Tofino area mudflats and
beaches as kind of a rest stop and restaurant. Just beneath the surface
of the sand and mud are millions of small worms that these birds feed
on to replenish their reserves of fat. Biologists, in fact, discovered
just how important these stops are when they established a direct relationship
between fat reserves and reproductive success. Too little fat when
on the breeding ground results in fewer offspring, or possibly none
at all. Knowing this, one can begin to understand the importance of
minimizing disturbance along the route, particularly by dogs.
Shorebirds vary widely in size, depending on the species, from the
diminutive Least Sandpiper which weighs a mere 20 grams, to the Whimbrel
which stands more than a foot tall and weighs 20 times as much. This
bird, with its down-curved bill, looks rather like it bumped into a
rock. It is also known as a Curlew. It so happens that the mudflats
of Tofino and Grice Bay, are the only major stopover area for this
species in British Columbia.
At the peak of the migration, 200 of these birds, and sometimes more,
may be in the area, feeding on Ghost Shrimp during the day and departing
for the safety of offshore rocks and islets in the evening. This species
is one of the last to depart our area, and numbers of them can still
be seen well after mid May in most years.
A large shorebird similar in size to the Whimbrel, but with a long,
slightly upturned bill, is the handsome Marbled Godwit. This bird is
also distinguished by its cinnamon wings in flight. These birds nest
on prairie sloughs of the Great Plains and winter along the coast of
California and Mexico, south to Belize. Considered rare on the BC coast
two decades ago, these birds have become considerably more common here
in recent years. This is probably due to a breeding-range expansion
to south-western Alaska in the 1970s. It is virtually certain that
the Godwits we see here are from that population.
Dowitchers are another species that pass through here in significant
numbers, specifically the Short-billed Dowitcher, which is associated
with a marine environment, as opposed to the Long-billed Dowitcher
which prefers fresh water. Dowitchers are Robin-sized with a very long
straight bill. In some years, concentrations of up to 5000 birds may
be seen probing the mud for worms. Long-billed Dowitchers turn up only
sporadically, usually at the golf course or airport.
The small shorebirds with the single black band across the chest
that you see all over Long Beach and Chesterman’s, are called Semipalmated
Plovers. This is a family of which all members are characterized by
short bills. Although they fill a similar ecological niche to sandpipers,
recent studies suggest they may be more closely related to gulls. Their
habit of tipping forward to eat will distinguish them from sandpipers,
even at considerable distance. The word “semipalmated,” refers
to the webbing between the toes, in other words, semi-webbed. If the
plover you see is larger and has two bars across the chest, instead
of one, you are looking at a Kildeer. As many as 8 to 10 pairs nest
at the airport.
The Black-bellied Plover is also fairly common here and, as the name
suggests, is readily distinguished by its black belly. In some years,
a smaller, paler version of the Semipalmated Plover shows up on area
This is the Snowy Plover, a rare visitor to Canada. It is normally
found no farther north than Grays Harbor, Washington. In the past 30
years, Snowies have turned up here in 5 different years, both at Long
Beach and at Chesterman’s. Any small plover in June is likely
to be this species, though they can occur in May. Look for black legs
and bill, instead of yellow, and a broken ring on the chest.
Best viewing areas for most shorebirds are Chesterman, Long Beach,
Grice Bay and the end of Sharp Road. Check your tide chart. An incoming
tide half way up is prefered for Sharp Road. Have a great time and
please leave your dogs at home.
Adrian Dorst is a Tofino nature photographer, carver, and birdwatching
guide. His photos can be found on his website at www.adriandorst.com.
Tofino Birdwatching Articles
Shore birds in Tofino. Introduction to the species of shorebirds found in Tofino during the spring migration: Sandpipers, Whimbrels, Plovers, etc.