tofino shorebirds - winds from the south bring a blizzard of birds

Winds from the South bring a Blizzard of Birds

by Adrian Dorst in Tofino

W 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 beaches.

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

Tofino Birdwatching Articles

tofino | tofino time | activities | accommodation | events | directory
maps | travel | food | art & artists | photos | horoscope | tides
search | magazine | issues | articles | advertising | contact us

hosted in tofino by & studio tofino
© 2002-2014 copyright Tofino Time Magazine in Tofino Canada
© 2002-2011 Tofino Time Magazine & ThinkTank Design Inc.

Shore birds in Tofino. Introduction to the species of shorebirds found in Tofino during the spring migration: Sandpipers, Whimbrels, Plovers, etc.

tofino time may 2004

quick links:
tofino accomodations
tofino calendar

tofino surf report
tofino horoscope
september horoscope
tofino map
tofino fishing report
tofino tides
tofino weddings

tofino events:
tofino concerts
tofino events
tofino movies
tofino festivals
tofino yoga classes

tofino time magazine:
tofino time september 2012
captain vincente tofino
readers choice: the best of tofino
floating gardens at freedom cove
tofino event listings for september 2012
tofino concerts in september 2012
tofino movies in september 2012
tofino tide table for september 2012
tofino surf reports for september 2012
cox bay | wickaninnish beach
chesterman beach
tonquin beach
tofino brewing co.
horoscope for april 2013
tofino wedding guide

tofino accommodation:
tofino cabin
tofino camping
bed & breakfasts in Tofino
tofino hostels
tofino motels
tofino hotels
tofino vacation rentals
petfriendly accommodation

tofino bike rentals
tofino bear watching
tofino bird watching
tofino boat charters & cruises
tofino fishing
hot springs cove
sea kayaking in tofino
tofino storm watching
tofino surfing
tofino whale watching
tofino yoga

tofino art galleries
tofino books
tofino boutiques & gift shops
food stores in tofino
tofino outfitters

tofino yoga, spa & wellness
tofino restaurants
tofino internet cafes
tofino travel & transportation
tofino real estate
tofino vacation rentals
tofino weddings

tofino events
tofino concerts
tofino movies
tofino calendar
tofino cabins
tofino maps
tofino jobs
tofino media