Tofino Birding: Fall Migration
by George Bradd, Tofino
As the early morning fog that hid the beach lifted slowly, it revealed a shoreline covered with sandpipers as far as the eye could see. Thousands of Western Sandpipers running together next to the water edge created an illusion of a wave of moving birds going against the incoming tide. Twisting and turning large flocks flew by looking like some strange moving brown and white cloud. Each successive wave of flying birds literally roared by with a loud sound of thousands of wings greeting the first rays of dawn.
Later that same sunny day, the long sandy stretches of Long Beach were empty of birds. Like a magic wand migration had swept the beaches clean of birds. Every single sandpiper had left and headed south.
Foggy mornings ground migrating birds and delight birders with birds arriving in such numbers as to be called a 'fallout' of birds. Many rare birds can be found during migration time. A Sharp-tailed Sandpiper was seen recently at Chesterman Beach.
Many species of migrating passarines also stop in Tofino during migration. Our local beaches are now being visited by flocks of little streaked sparrows with a yellowish colour on the face. These Savannah Sparrows have traveled all the way from Alaska. They hop and flit around the beach rocks and logs and feed on insects in the kelp at high tide level.
Forests adjacent to beaches or mudflats can be filled with migrating birds resting and feeding. Flocks of brilliantly coloured warblers, kinglets, creepers and flycatchers, can be found together sharing the trees, slowly passing as a group.
Migration occurs during the night for many species, daylight hours are for feeding and resting. Our recent period of cloudless nights has made it ideal for migrating birds. Many species of birds that are not recorded during the day pass over during night hours. Listening to sandpipers and songbirds passing over during the night one can identify sounds of birds that are not seen during the day. Bird banding stations that set out mist nets at night record many species that would go unrecorded otherwise.
Habitat destruction forces hungry birds to fly increasingly long distances with not enough food. Exhausted birds arriving on land may appear tame and are easy prey for predators.
With these flocks of birds comes the small Northern Pygmy Owl that hunts small birds. If discovered by the other birds while it is sleeping, the Pygmy Owl will by loudly harassed by an ever increasingly large group of jays, robins and sparrows until it flees the area. The mobbing behavior of the small birds often give away the location of these small owls that visit Tofino in the fall season.
Hawks also accompany the southern movement of migrating birds. Peregrine Falcons are now hunting the Tofino beaches for large birds. Young Peregrines are heavily streaked on the breast.
Merlins are also hunting small birds and sandpipers on the mudflat. This week I saw a Merlin try twice to take a Yellow-rumped Warbler that was flycatching out of some bushes. The warbler was just a little faster at twisting away from the hawk as it tried to grab the little bird in midair.
Migration takes its toll on bird populations, and many young birds don't even make it to the winter grounds.
A Great Egret, a rare visitor to our area, was initially sighted in nearby Ucluelet, and then it was not seen again for a few days.
Days later while I was canoeing down the Kennedy River; we paused by a beaver lodge on the riverside. I glanced at the sedge marshes on the opposite side of the river and there was a large white egret!
We paddled over for a closer look and the bird was not afraid of us. It hunted in the lily pads and grasses while in full sunlight, a shining pure white bird in the green and red marsh grasses.
The next day we went back to look for the egret and it was gone, perhaps headed back to Mexico for the winter.
This miracle we call migration is necessary for the survival of many bird and animal species. The other day we marveled as we watched a flock of Surf Scoters and a Humpback Whale breached right in the middle of them! Porpoises were feeding further down the beach, their sleek backs surfacing right among the grebes and ducks feeding above. Long lines of loons flew south their necks hanging out front of them. We live in the midst of so much wildlife here it is easy to take it for granted. David Suzuki, a famous Canadian scientist, has said we may be the last generation to understand what migration means. Changing temperatures due to global warming are changing bird migration arrival dates. This may put arriving birds out of time with their food sources. Only by preserving our natural environment will we enjoy such migration spectacles as we have here in Tofino. Let us hope that we are not the last generation to see migration and that the whales and birds will be wild instead of being a whale burger or oil soaked duck.
George Bradd operates Just Birding, a Tofino company specialising in birdwatching tours. For more info, visit his website at www.justbirding.com
Tofino birding: the fall migration brings many species of birds to Tofino, where they rest at the Tofino Mudflats, Chesterman Beach and the beaches of Pacific Rim National Park and Clayoquot Sound.