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 known
is 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
obscures 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 are shorebirds, also known
as waders. Beginning in early April, the vanguard of the migration
begins to trickle 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.
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
Expect to see up to a dozen varieties
on the mudflats on an average day. If you are lucky, you may also enjoy
the spectacle of a Peregrine 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 wings flashing silver as the birds swoop and
turn as one like an animated cloud. Optimum time for observing the
migrants varies but is generally 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 on Adrian’s website at www.adriandorst.com.
Tofino Birdwatching Articles
Tofino birding guide Adrian Dorst writes about the return of migratory birds during the spring migration of 2005.