Red phalaropes are a popular sight during the Tofino Shorebird Festival. They breed in the Arctic and winter off the coast of Peru, spending roughly 10 months of the year on the open ocean. (Photo - Raincoast Education Society)

Red phalaropes are a popular sight during the Tofino Shorebird Festival. They breed in the Arctic and winter off the coast of Peru, spending roughly 10 months of the year on the open ocean. (Photo - Raincoast Education Society)

Tofino Shorebird Festival ready for flight

Annual event raises awareness of tiny travellers

Birders are flocking to the West Coast to participate in one of the region’s longest running celebrations and one of the world’s longest spectacles of flight.

Tens of thousands of vibrant little travellers, including whimbrels, sandpipers and dunlin, are embarking on their annual journey from South America to their Arctic breeding grounds, stopping only a few times to rest and eat along the way.

One of those stops occurs in Tofino and the Raincoast Education Society is excited to take the opportunity to educate locals and visitors on the flurry of winged wonders during the 21st annual Tofino Shorebird Festival, which will run from May 4-6.

The festival uses the Tofino Mudflats, a member of the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network, as its home base and Raincoast Education Society executive director Mark Maftei said the festival helps raise awareness of the important role the area plays in the migration’s “extraordinary spectacle of nature.”

“It’s a fairly narrow window of time, but it’s an amazing sight to behold and it also really provides a concrete example of the ecological importance of this habitat,” he said. “We’re talking tens of thousands of birds…There’s probably a minimum 15 species that you’re going to definitely see every single year.”

He said coastal development in other areas has pushed shorebirds out of many of their traditional feeding grounds and put populations in peril.

“They have not fared particularly well in terms of the population declines that they’ve suffered as a direct result of human interference,” he said.

“We don’t hunt them anymore, but now the biggest threat that faces them is the destruction of these stop over sites that they rely on during migration. A lot of the areas that they use are in high demand for humans to use as well.”

He added that, while Tofino remains relatively pristine, human interference still occurs through disturbance, which can limit the amount of time and space birds have to feed. That’s dangerous because shorebirds need to roughly double their weight before embarking on the next leg of their journey and, those that can’t, might not make it to the end of their journey.

“Starting down in South America all the way to Alaska, the Tofino Mudflats are probably one of the last relatively pristine areas that they can rely on,” he said adding birds can be pushed out of their local feeding areas by people and pets. “It limits the amount of time that they’re able to feed and just puts an extra stress on them during a brief part of their yearly cycle when they’re really susceptible to that stress…The number one offender here are off-leash dogs.”

He hopes the shorebird festival helps raise awareness so that people can begin to understand the important role they play in either helping or hindering the migration through stimulating lectures, boat trips and family fun activities.

“We have a lot of unique events and opportunities,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun events that are all focused on raising awareness and informing people. It’s a great way to spend time outdoors and learn more about nature.”

Tofino mayor Josie Osborne helped coordinate the festival for several years during her time with the Raincoast Education Society. She said the event remains a “personal favourite” of hers and she’s excited to see shorebird knowledge boosted both locally and beyond.

“The quality and level of education provided at this festival really is unparalleled,” she said. “Events are intimate, social, fun and filled with valuable information and teachings about the importance of these migratory birds and the habitat they require. It’s very encouraging to see new, younger birders and the deep appreciation and interest that Tofitians have for the protection and health of these amazing little animals.”

Anyone looking for a delicious way to support this year’s festival is encouraged to attend a Brunch for the Birds fundraiser on April 22 at Tofino’s Wickaninnish Inn.

“Every year, they host a scrumptious, delicious brunch and the proceeds go directly towards supporting the Shorebird Festival,” Maftei said.“The Eggs Benedict you eat on April 22 is going to support what we do May 4-6.”

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