Birds on the Bay

Birds on the Bay is an annual celebration focused on raising public awareness and knowledge of Boundary Bay's international designation as an Important Bird Area. This program identifies, protects and monitors a network of vital habitats for the conservation of bird populations and biodiversity around the world. In 2005 Boundary Bay was designated a Western Hemispheric Reserve by the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network.

Boundary Bay, Canada's top bird area, is a major stop-over on the Pacific Flyway. Habitats of eelgrass beds, mud flats, estuaries, salt marshes, bogs and watercourses support more than 333 species, some rare and endangered.

Boundary Bay is situated 30 minutes south of Vancouver, British Columbia, site of the 2010 Winter Olympics and two hours north of Seattle, Washington in the Pacific Northwest. Communities within the Boundary Bay Watershed are the City of Surrey, Corporation of Delta, City of White Rock, Township of Langley and on the US side, Point Roberts, Blaine and Birch Bay.

Photo: Hank Tseng

Fraser River Estuary Shorebirds

International Travelers

In April, the last of winter storms drain their fury across the Fraser River Estuary. But carried on the southerly winds that lash at marshes and mudflats is a million tiny shorebirds. Their journey to the Fraser began one month earlier on warm beaches thousands of kilometres to the south.

The stirring urge in the hearts and minds of three million Western Sandpipers began in February and March on warm mudflats in Mexico, Central and South America. The strong urge to reproduce required a journey that would end in western Alaska only after high endurance flights across more than 70 degrees of latitude. Across desert, mountain range, along Pacific shores flew flocks of sandpipers. Assisted by southerly tailwinds they arrived on the Fraser River Estuary tired and hungry.

Not a month goes by when shorebirds are not on the Fraser River Estuary. When the Western Sandpiper departs for the Alaskan tundra, Killdeer, Spotted Sandpipers and Black Oystercatchers will be settling on eggs along the shores of the Fraser. They will be tending their young when the first Western Sandpipers arrive in late June on the way south after breeding. In August, scores of species from across the western Arctic, the boreal forest, Yukon mountains, Siberia and the heartland of British Columbia will slip out of the air to spend a few days on the estuary. In autumn, the Dunlin arrives in choreographed flights in flocks that rival the exhilaration of the jet engine roar of a passing flock of a hundred thousand Western Sandpipers. Dunlins will remain on the estuary for the winter and depart as the Western Sandpiper returns in spring.

The wealth of the shorebird community on the Fraser River Estuary is measured in its number of species and their abundance. Sandpipers, dowitchers, plovers, yellowlegs, curlew and others know the Fraser River Estuary. About one quarter of the worlds 212 species have been seen on the Fraser River estuary. More than 500,000 Western Sandpipers, 60,000 dunlins, and three thousand Black-bellied Plovers can be seen on some days. Other species occur in smaller numbers but many are widespread. All shorebirds rely on the abundant food produced in the estuary and farmlands to continue a journey to countries throughout the western hemisphere.

Marvels of migration

Each tiny sandpiper requires immense amounts of food to power flights across the 12000-kilometer one-way trip between breeding grounds and winter quarters. They must also have sensitive navigational aids on board to navigate the flight and they must have finely tuned senses to avoid the dangers along the way.

Migratory flights of shorebirds often include non-stop journeys of hundreds and sometimes thousands of kilometers of non-stop flying at elevations of up to three kilometres above the Earth. There the birds catch the steady flow of winds that can double their ground speed. The flights require a great deal of fuel. It is not uncommon for small shorebirds to carry an additional 50% of their lean weight as fat stored beneath the skin to power the journey. In the hand, the yellowish hue of the fat glows through the birds skin. Each leg of the migratory journey expends huge amounts of this fat and in some cases the birds will burn muscle so that they arrive emaciated and tired. Upon landing, sleep is a priority and the birds tuck the head beneath the wing for a few moments of rest. Then they are off along the beach in search of food. Tiny worms, clams, small fish and microscopic life on the mud surface are on the menu of the 50 species of shorebirds on the Fraser River estuary. Ravishingly hungry, the birds set about pecking and probing in a frantic search for food. The winds will be favourable soon and those that can replenish the spent fuel in time will launch a flight that will take them 1000 or more kilometres to the north.

While the shorebirds are busy finding food, their predators are searching for them. Spring brings large numbers of Peregrine Falcons to the estuary. Unsuspecting sandpipers are their quarry. The peregrine begins its attack over a kilometre from the flock of shorebirds. They gain speed and streak across the beach often springing out from behind marshes or the dikes. A thousand tiny screams go out as the falcon flashes through the flock. In the whirring of wings and cacophony of shrieks, the sandpipers instinctively bunch together in a tight flock able to dodge most falcon attacks. Nine times out of ten, the sandpipers escape but on the one occasion, the falcon snatches an unsuspecting sandpiper from the ground or a split second after take off.

At least half a dozen times, a sandpiper will stop on migration to refuel and be pursued by falcons. Those that successfully run the gauntlet reach the tundra breeding grounds where parenting begins anew. In a month or more, they will be returning south for the winter quarters and the game of life and death plays out once more along the Pacific shores.

The Fraser River Estuary

Sandpipers fuel their lives on a diet of invertebrates caught in the sand and mud beaches, marshes and in the soil of farmlands. Most of these tiny animals go unnoticed and carry unfamiliar names; polychaetes, tanaids, corophium to name but a few. But these humble abundant creatures are the critical link in the lives of shorebirds along the Pacific Coast. The tiny animals eat tiny decaying particles of plant leaves drifting out of the marshes, on plankton floating in on the tides, and creatures in soils enriched by farmers tilling the land. Up and down the coast, the great migrations of shorebirds depend on a network of sites with similar rich intertidal mud and marshes that provide food for their journeys. The lives of the worlds most travelled vertebrates are entwined in the ecology of beaches reaching across the hemisphere.

When and Where to See Shorebirds

One or more species of shorebird is always present on the Fraser River Estuary but the best time to see a variety of species is in August. Late April and early May is the best time to see large flocks of sandpipers. Arrive on a rising tide so that the birds are brought closer to you. Use binoculars and telescopes to get close views - these birds require time to rest and feed. A local bird checklist will help narrow your choices in a field guide. Some of the sites along the Fraser River Estuary are regional parks or wildlife lands that cater to people but many other areas are privately owned lands requiring permission to use. Please consult a map and show appropriate courtesy.

Blackie Spit

The brackish lagoon at the mouth of the Nicomekl River and the broad mudflats in Mud Bay have long been known to be among the best places to search for shorebirds on the Estuary. Large shorebirds such as curlews, godwits, yellowlegs and dowitchers seem to like this area of the estuary. Many rare species have been recorded from Blackie Spit. Watch for Willet, Long-billed Curlew, and Marbled and Hudsonian godwits.

Serpentine Fen

The grassy habitats and sloughs are a draw for Golden-plovers, Buff-breasted Sandpiper, ruff and Sharp-tailed Sandpiper. In winter, Dunlin and Black-bellied Plover use the mudflats and fields. Thirty-two species have been recorded from the Fen.

Mud Bay

Black-bellied Plover, Short-billed and Long-billed dowitcher, Western Sandpiper and Dunlin are found regularly in the Bay. They roost at high tide between the mouths of the Nicomekl and Serpentine rivers and along the northern shore of Mud Bay.

88th Street Pump Station

Midway along the shore dike of Boundary Bay is a pump station. It can be reached by walking west along the dike from 104th Street. The discharging water draws yellowlegs, dowitchers, Western and Least sandpipers, and many other species.

Beach Grove Lagoon

Just off 12th Avenue in Tsawwassen is a small tidal lagoon that next to Blackie Spit is one of the best places to see shorebirds. Western, Least, and Semipalmated sandpipers are frequently seen and a few Red-necked Phalaropes seem to like this place. If lucky you might spot a Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Ruddy Turnstone, or a Solitary Sandpiper. Thirty-five species have been recorded at the lagoon and on the nearby beaches.


The farmlands near 64th, 72nd and 112th streets in Delta are used by Black-bellied Plovers, golden-plovers, Dunlin, Buff-breasted Sandpipers, Whimbrels, and Western and Least sandpipers. Tilled soils, newly planted fields and pasturelands seem particularly attractive in winter. In summer, Killdeer breed along the roadways and farm edges.

BC Ferry Terminal and Jetty

The Black Oystercatcher was a rare visitor to the Estuary until about a decade ago when a pair took up residency on the jetty. Two pairs are now present. Nesting occurs along the west side of the jetty. Also present on the mudflats are large flocks of Dunlins in winter, Western Sandpipers and yellowlegs during migration and if lucky you might spot some rare species such as Marbled Godwits. Take care to park off the jetty. The pilings of the ferry terminal are the only reliable place on the estuary to see Black Turnstones and occasionally a few Surfbirds and Rock Sandpipers put on a show. They are best seen from the ferry while in dock.

Brunswick Point

This area more than any other is the place to see the great flocks of sandpipers. In late April or early May, the rising tide brings in tens or hundreds of thousands of sandpipers scurrying along the mud. In winter, Dunlin and Black-bellied Plover are seen here. Yellowlegs and dowitchers are also present in small numbers on migration. Do not venture on to the soft oozy mudflat.

George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary

The Sanctuary is a must-see destination for budding and advanced birders. The ponds are used by a suite of common species: Western and Least Sandpipers, Dunlin, Short-billed and Long-billed dowitchers, Greater and Lesser yellowlegs. This is also the most reliable place to see Sharp-tailed Sandpipers. Many rarities have shown up here and the staff of the sanctuary can let you know what has been seen recently. Thirty-nine species have been recorded at the Sanctuary.

Iona Beach Regional Park

The ponds and adjacent beaches have drawn large numbers of shorebirds and birdwatchers over the years. The flocks of Western and Least sandpipers, Dunlin, Black-bellied Plovers, yellowlegs, and dowitchers attract rare species. Many Asian species such as Spoonbill Sandpiper, Far Eastern Curlew, and Curlew Sandpiper have been seen here, and this is one of the best places in North America for Sharp-tailed Sandpipers. As of 2002, 47 species had been recorded at Iona.

International Responsibility

The governments of Canada and British Columbia jointly nominated crown lands on the Fraser River Estuary as a Hemisphere Reserve of the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network in 2004. The reserve includes the intertidal portions of Sturgeon Banks, Roberts Banks, the South Arm Marshes, and all of Boundary, Mud and Semiahmoo bays.

The Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Networks Fraser River Estuary Hemisphere Reserve shown in green encompasses beaches and marshes that support over 50 species of shorebirds.

The Fraser River Estuary dedication ceremony in honor of being recognized as a WHSRN Site of Hemispheric Importance was celebrated on Friday 29 April 2005.

The Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Networks (WHSRN) mission is to conserve shorebird species and their habitats across the Americas through a network of key sites. Over 55 sites across the hemisphere are now included in the WHSRN network. The Fraser River Estuary exceeds the minimum Hemisphere Reserve criteria of at least 500,000 shorebirds annually or 30% of the species flyway population based on peak counts. Only 16 other Hemispheric Sites have been included in the Network.

What will WHSRN do?

Although WHSRN has no legal clout, by joining the network, the owners have recognized the international significance for shorebirds of their lands. The WHSRN program assists by:

Ensuring that the Networks conservation actions are the effective and appropriate application of the best available information;

Implementing shorebird conservation action at Network sites throughout the Americas;

Creating and maintaining informed, involved, empowered and interconnected human communities at Network sites.

WHSRN is an international, collaborative project headquartered at the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences in Manomet, Massachusetts. It has partners that include over 250 organizations and agencies in seven countries. WHSRN works very closely with the Canadian Wildlife Service in Canada.
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Rob Butler


Important Bird Area Information

BirdLife International initiated the Important Bird Area Program to identify, protect and monitor a network of vital habitats for conservation of bird populations and biodiversity worldwide. Over 100 countries have joined to build a global network of IBAs.

Identification of Sites

The first step is to identify essential sites for birds. Sites may include areas with endangered birds, large numbers of birds, nesting colonies, migration stopovers and/or winter destinations. Strict scientific criteria must be met for a site to be listed on the Important Bird Area database. In Canada, 597 IBA sites have been designated, 89 of which are located in British Columbia.

Monitoring IBA Sites

Research is essential to determine whether IBA sites are providing healthy habitat for birds and if bird populations remain stable. The Canadian Wildlife Service and Simon Fraser University conduct studies on Western Sandpiper, Dunlin, Harlequin Duck, Snow Geese and Brant. Friends of Semiahmoo Bay Society map and monitor eel grass habitat in Boundary Bay. Local birders participate in the Breeding Bird Survey, Beached Bird Survey, Christmas Bird Count, Nocturnal Owl Survey and Raptor counts.

For more information, visit Important Bird Areas of Canada or download a copy of the BC Important Bird Areas brochure.