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Creating naturehood: Victoria Harbour Migratory Bird Sanctuary marks 100 years

Migratory bird sanctuaries were designed as a respite for millions of birds on their long migrations, serving as places to feed, nest and rear their young, but they have become about much more than migrating birds

Back in 1914, when Martha the ­passenger pigeon drew her last breath in a Cincinnati, Ohio zoo and the ­once-plentiful species passed into extinction, conservationists were aflutter.

From 3.5 billion individuals to zero in 50 years was quite the wake-up call.

How could we have hunted and eaten so many in such a short period of time? And what other birds were on the precipice of oblivion?

A convention of U.S. and Canadian scientists ­followed. In 1916, the U.S. and Britain — on behalf of Canada — signed the first Migratory Bird Treaty to share responsibility for the birds. The Migratory Birds Convention Act became law the following year in both countries to provide sanctuaries for migratory birds under threat.

The first Canadian sanctuary was declared in 1919 in the Gulf of St. Lawrence to protect the northern ­gannet, big seabirds that were being harvested for food and cut up for fishermen’s bait.

In the Victoria area about the same time, the Pacific black brant was being targeted for meat markets. The brant was coveted as the perfect Christmas goose, plump and tasty, and hunters picked them off with other ducks and geese in great numbers at Clover Point and other local shores.

The federal government declared the first protected area for migratory birds in Western Canada on Oct. 27, 1923: the Victoria Harbour Migratory Bird Sanctuary.

The sanctuary, which is marking 100 years next weekend, covers 30 kilometres and 1,840 hectares of Greater Victoria’s tidal waters, shorelines and islands, from 10 Mile Point to Macaulay Point in Esquimalt and up the Gorge Waterway to Portage Inlet.

Two more migratory bird sanctuaries were added in 1931 — Esquimalt Lagoon, encompassing 134 hectares of tidal waters and 100 metres inland, and 150 hectares of coastal marine environment at Shoal Harbour on the Saanich Peninsula.

There are more 270 species of birds in the region, including the marbled murrelet, rhinoceros auklet, Pacific great blue heron, black oystercatcher, black turnstone, western purple martin, Olympic gull, Pacific loon, and yes, the Pacific black brant.

The brant goose is still around, stopping here briefly in the spring and feeding on eelgrass and seaweed, although larger numbers are seen in the Parksville area.

The sanctuaries were designed as a respite for millions of birds on their long migrations along the Pacific Flyway, serving as places to feed, nest and rear their young.

But they have become about much more than migrating birds.


The three local sanctuaries are the founding units of the Greater Victoria NatureHood, designated in 2017 by Nature Canada, formerly the Audubon Society of Canada.

The goal of the initiative was to revitalize the sanctuaries and connect urban Canadians to nature where they live, says Jacques Sirois, chair of the Friends of Victoria Harbour Migratory Bird Sanctuary.

Despite its urban location, disturbance by humans and their pets, habitat loss and degradation, water pollution, invasive species and past overfishing of herring, the Victoria Harbour Bird Sanctuary is on the rebound.

After decades of restoration projects, cleanups and urban renewal, the area is seeing the return of species such as western purple martins, bald eagles, northern elephant seals and orcas and humpback whales.

A black bear spotted recently walking along the Gorge Waterway and Portage Inlet was feeding on Olympia oysters, which have made a comeback after a massive cleanup of the waterway over the past several decades.

Three weeks ago, Bigg’s orcas were spotted in the Upper Harbour as far as the Selkirk Trestle, chasing their main prey, harbour seals. The seals, in turn, were after salmon and herring in an industrial area that’s being cleaned up and seeing the return of eelgrass and other marine vegetation.

Remediation projects at Laurel Point, once home to a lead-paint factory, have attracted back river otters, while their larger cousins, the sea otters — nearly wiped out last century due to trapping — are emerging again at Race Rocks and the Trial Islands.

Cleanups at Rock Bay and Lime Bay in Victoria Harbour are once again allowing the growth of eel and surf grasses as habitat for fish and birds.

Herring, critical food for migratory and shore birds, as well as fish and humpback whales, are also returning to the region after decades of overfishing.

Sirois, a volunteer warden at the Trial Islands Ecological Preserve, said he counted 150 California sea lions, five Steller sea lions and 300 harbour seals on a kayak trip around the rocky shores in January. “We haven’t seen anything like this for over 25 years.”

A 2022 herring spawn off the Fisgard Lighthouse was the best in a decade, and attracted thousands of gulls and shore birds.

Environmentalist Bob Peart of the Friends of Shoal Point Harbour Society estimates more than $2 billion has been spent on revitalization projects in the capital region over the past two decades, with money flowing from all levels of governments, private companies and individuals, and boots on the ground from countless volunteers.

Projects have ranged from the McLoughlin Point Wastewater Treatment Plant in Esquimalt — which opened in early 2021 to finally begin treating capital region sewage that was previously pumped into the ocean — to myriad stream-restoration projects that continue to bring spawning salmon back to urban creeks and watersheds.

“It’s really amazing when people come together,” said Peart. “It’s heartwarming to see and to build this interest.”

What often isn’t measured when natural areas are restored in sanctuaries is the benefit to humans, he said.

“Most people don’t realize the connection between human health and ecosystem health, and it’s vital to understand and should guide all government policies, though often it doesn’t,” said Peart. “It’s vital that children and families get outside — that’s why park systems and conservation measures are so critical.”

Often, Sirois said, that environmental work involves individuals, ranging from an “elderly woman with a cane” protecting a moulting elephant seal on a public beach to a strata corporation in Victoria’s tallest building deciding to install nesting platforms for peregrine falcons, and marinas installing boxes for purple martin nesting.

“I think the feds are a little surprised the Victoria Harbour Bird Sanctuary has no plan and no manager,” said Sirois. “It’s just a bunch of passionate people who want to do the right thing. We have something special here to care for and people just feel that in their guts.”

Sirois said so many people are involved in the sanctuaries that it’s difficult to make a complete list. They range from marine scientists and volunteers restoring kelp forests, clam beds, tidal flats and marshes to botanists restoring Garry oak ecosystems and rare plants, including golden paintbrush, bear’s-foot sanicle, seaside birds-foot lotus and seaside juniper.

Sirois noted Victoria’s Vital Signs report — the annual social checkup published every year — has continually listed the natural environment as the region’s No. 1 asset. “That speaks volumes on the level of concern and care,” he said.

Site fidelity

The Victoria Harbour Bird Sanctuary provides some of the best birding opportunities in Canada.

There are 30 bird-watching hot spots, including viewpoints like Cadboro Beach, Cattle Point, Kitty Islet, Clover Point, Ogden Point Breakwater, West Bay and Songhees walkways, Selkirk Trestle, Esquimalt Gorge Creek, Gorge and Gorge Waterway parks (Saanich), Craigflower Bridge, Portage Inlet Linear Park, Seabird Park and Cuthbert Holmes Park.

From mid-October to mid-March, when all the winter migratory birds (many ocean going) appear, it’s easy to see 60 species a day.

But Ann Nightingale of the Rocky Point Bird Observatory said overall bird populations have been on the decline worldwide due to climate change and continuing human interference, including habitat loss due to development, overfishing and the destruction of insects.

She said bird populations have decreased by as much as 30% over the past 50 years worldwide. Barn swallows, once a very common bird, are now red-listed, their demise linked to humanity’s desire to rid ourselves of mosquitoes and other insects we consider pests. “We haven’t really fully grasped the interconnectivity of things,” said Nightingale.

Recently during a storm in Chicago, more than 1,000 birds crashed into a four-storey convention centre in what was described as a “perfect storm” of bird collisions — brisk winds, cloudy skies and glass windows with the lights left on.

Most migratory birds become disorientated by light pollution and building owners should turn off lights at night, said Nightingale.

She said simple things can make a difference, like not raking your leaves in the fall to preserve insects and food sources, and keeping your cats indoors and dogs on a leash while at the beach.

Nightingale, a self-described “birdvangelist” who bands several birds each year for the Rocky Point Observatory, said she connected with birds because of their “site fidelity.”

“Most come back to the same spots every year, so the birds in our backyard this year will be the same as last year,” she said. “They come back to what’s familiar.”

Nightingale banded a tiny Rufus hummingbird eight years ago and says it has come back every year from Mexico to her yard. “That’s an amazing task for a 3.5-gram bird,” she said.

Leash up on the beaches

The hunters are long gone, but threats to birds remain in the sanctuaries.

Some observers feel the most direct threat since the shotgun has been off-leash dogs.

Sirois said nearly all of the waterfront in Greater Victoria falls under sanctuary protections, creating what he calls “an enforcement challenge” in the most popular dog-walking destinations.

“Entitlement is extremely high in the dog-owning groups,” says Sirois. “They say their dogs are doing no harm.”

Sirois said enforcement officers are being told by dog owners that they should “deal with big-game poachers and not to take it out on dogs.”

But Environment and Climate Change Canada is starting to crack down in the sanctuaries, saying it has received feedback from the public, community organizations and other government entities expressing concern about dog disturbances to migratory birds.

The ministry said its research shows dogs can cause disturbance to birds that results in “displacement, reduced foraging rates, nest abandonment, increased alert behaviours, and even increased mortality.”

Last month, a Saanich woman whose unleashed dog was seen chasing a great blue heron at Cadboro Bay Beach was issued two fines totalling $500 for violating leash rules in the Victoria Harbour Migratory Bird Sanctuary.

The woman first received a $100 fine from the Capital Regional District after a bylaw officer witnessed the dog running toward a heron while unleashed on Aug. 25, 2022, as dogs are required to be on-leash in Cadboro-Gyro Park.

The officer also contacted Environment and Climate Change Canada, because the incident happened in the sanctuary.

The owner argued her dog didn’t hurt the heron and asked the tribunal to consider that no harm was done.

Tribunal review officer Leslie Belloc-Pinder called the argument an “understandable, but vexing position” to environmental protection measures that are intended to have the broadest possible application.

“While an individual infraction, considered on its own, can often be characterized as insignificant or benign, the cumulative effect of every infraction is enormous and could lead directly to the environmental harm Canada seeks to minimize by implementing various environmental statutes and agreements,” Belloc-Pinder wrote.

Migratory bird sanctuaries require “diligent and constant protection” because violations are likely to be discreet and fleeting, Belloc-Pinder wrote, adding that it’s not legally relevant whether the dog touched or visibly harmed the heron it chased.

Municipalities have scrambled to bring their own bylaws in line with the leash rules of the sanctuary at the request of the federal government, because contradictory rules have led to confusion for dog owners.

Victoria removed Gonzales Beach from its list of off-leash areas, and Saanich removed Cadboro-Gyro Park. Oak Bay clarified on its website that dogs should be leashed on Willows Beach and McNeill Bay at all times.

Ian Fraser, animal control officer for Victoria, Esquimalt and Oak Bay, said he can only enforce local bylaws, but hopes municipalities can align rules with the federal act.

“Right now, it’s creating a lot of confusion.”

Saturday events

• Join the Gorge Waterway Action Society at Gorge Waterway Nature House in Esquimalt Gorge Park for a free drop-in family event from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. that includes crafts, nature scavenger hunts, guided bird walks and plant walks, games and more.

• Swan Lake Christmas Hill Nature Sanctuary: Explore ways to avoid bird collisions and other bird-friendly resources; learn about winter ducks and join a walk and talk about birds, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

• Celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Victoria Migratory Bird Sanctuary at a drop-in event at Beacon Hill Park play area on Arbutus Way with touch table and games where you can learn about local birds and bird walks around the park (binoculars available to borrow), 1 to 3 p.m. hosted by the Rocky Point Bird Observatory.

• Songhees Walkways Pocket Beach, 1 to 4 p.m. Join Peninsula Streams Society to learn how this beach has been restored to create habitat for those really tiny fish that feed the bigger fish that feed the whales.

• Birding in the City at Cattle Point in Oak Bay, 1 to 3 p.m. Join Friends of Uplands Park and NatureKids BC with family-friendly activities including making a bird craft, matching bird beaks to tools, planting berry bushes for birds, and enjoying a bird walk.

• Dave Dunnet Theatre at Oak Bay High School, 2121 Cadboro Bay Rd., 7 to 9 p.m. Join Dr. Rob Butler to learn about crows. Admission by donation.

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