Big Year

Grey Whales aren’t the only awesome tourist-inducing spectacles on their way to the West Coast. Spring is in the air, which means a huge variety of birds are too.

The Pacific Rim National Park’s sandy beaches, mud flats, rocky shorelines and dense rainforest create the perfect spring break vacation destination for over 300 species of birds.

While species like Bald Eagles, Steller’s Jays, Oystercatchers, and Great Blue Herons, can be spotted year-round on the West Coast (where part of the bird-watching movie “Big Year” with Jack Black and Owen Wilson was filmed.) year. Many more join the fray between March and May.

During these months, the West Coast provides important staging grounds for migratory birds including a variety of Geese, Warblers, Shorebirds and Hummingbirds who use the area to rest and refuel, much to the delight of local and visiting bird enthusiasts.

Many birds have already begun their journey but shorebirds won’t completely fill the skies until the beginning of April, according to Pacific Rim National Park terrestrial biologist Yuri Zharikov.

“Often it’s a matter of weather. Birds will use favourable winds they like to fly with the tail wind so often they’ll sit and wait until the wind is right,” he said.

Some birds actually sample wind speeds at different altitudes to choose the most optimal flight path.

During their spring migration, migratory birds are dressed to impress and many will be in full breeding plumage when they reach the West Coast making them as colourful and visually stimulating as they can be to attract a mate and, indirectly, the eyes of tourists.

“A lot of them will start their breeding plumage molt already in the wintering grounds and will complete it as they migrate,” Zharikov said. “We’ll get a progression of birds from full winter plumage to full breeding plumage that really depends on time.”

In order for the West Coast to continue playing host to the diverse array of birds, these birds must be able to refuel and rest undisturbed.

“If for whatever reason it cannot do that, say it’s disturbed every hour and has to fly and expend energy instead of gaining it, it will abandon that site because it is no longer feasible to use it,” Zharikov said.

If a large patch of a bird’s flight path becomes unusable, it may give up its migration altogether.

The West Coast’s portion of the spring migration is supposed to taper off in May but Zharikov said some birds appear in full breeding plumage in June when they should be in the Arctic.

“They are the individuals that aborted their migration at some point along the way,” he said. “They’ve just basically turned back and are beginning to fly back to their wintering grounds without ever being able to reach their breeding grounds. It’s like they fired a blank shot essentially and they’re coming back.”

Shorebird populations are on the decline and the general consensus amongst researchers is that compromised staging grounds in high human usage areas are to blame, according to Zharikov.

Pacific Rim National Park visitors can help these birds complete their breeding quest by staying at least 25 metres away from any that they spot and dog owners are reminded their pets must be leashed at all times within the Park.

“It’s not only about you when you stand on the ground, there is a circle around you that you occupy,” Zharikov said. “You can make that footprint on the landscape very slight and very temporary and very small or you can make it permanent and large and destructive.”

reporter@westerlynews.ca