The Boundary Bay area is one of Vancouver’s premier wildlife destinations
As we walked slowly along log-strewn Blackie Spit, flocks of shorebirds flew low over the waves, their white feathers shimmering in the early morning sun. Ducks and cormorants streamed overhead, while loons and grebes dove in the waters offshore. A group of harbour seals lay hauled up on a nearby sand bar. With the sun still low on the horizon, the side-lighting made for superb viewing conditions. After some careful searching, we were finally able to make out a pair of marbled godwits, hidden among a flock of American wigeon in the tall grass. At the same time, a long-billed curlew popped into view, its prodigious bill dwarfing those of the godwits.
Our guide to the natural wonders of Boundary Bay was Anne Murray, a well-known naturalist, environmental activist and author in the Vancouver area. She has written two books on the natural and human history of the bay, which I would recommend to anyone visiting the Surrey – Delta area. The bay itself, which sits on the border between British Columbia and the state of Washington, has been designated a Hemisphere Reserve by the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network and a Canadian Important Bird Area.
With a son and daughter living near Vancouver – and now two grandchildren – I am fortunate to visit the area on a regular basis and enjoy nature almost at your doorstep. Nowhere else in Canada can you find abundant raptors, waterbirds, salmon and intriguing flora right in the heart of an urban area of nearly three million people.
From my daughter’s house in North Delta, I set out almost every day to discover a new park or nature reserve. Everywhere I walked, the sweet, earthy smell of the Pacific Northwest permeated the cool November air. Eastern grey squirrels and Douglas’s squirrels scurried over the thick carpet of fallen leaves, while northwestern crows, glaucous-winged gulls and bald eagles soared overhead. Every so often I’d come across a small flock of chickadees. As is always my habit, I would stop and start pishing to draw them closer. The chickadees would quickly approach – both black-capped and chestnut-backed – and, within a minute or so, a coterie of other species would join them. These usually included spotted towhees, gorgeous Oregon dark-eyed juncos, song sparrows, fox sparrows, golden-crowned sparrows and sometimes even a Bewick’s wren.
Anyone visiting the Vancouver area can’t help but be impressed by the huge, towering conifers. The three most common species are usually coastal Douglas-fir (cones with “rat-tail” projections), western red cedar (shredded, reddish bark) and western hemlock (flat, short needles). The dominant broadleaf trees are bigleaf maple (leaves 15 -60 cm across), red alder (a tree-sized version of our local speckled alder) and black cottonwood (a western form of the balsam poplar). As for small broadleaf trees and shrubs, you can’t go far without seeing vine maple (leaves with 7-9 toothed lobes), tall Oregon grape (spiny, holly-like evergreen leaves), salmonberry (raspberry-like shrub), hardhack (Spirea-like), Pacific rhododendron (large, leathery evergreen leaves), salal (small evergreen leaves) and Himalayan blackberry (thicket-forming; red, prickly stems). The latter is a non-native species that is abundant along roads and open trails.
At the level of the forest floor, fungi, mosses, horsetails and ferns prevail. The most visible of these are the sword ferns, whose robust, leathery fronds can measure more than a metre high. Deer fern, lady fern and licorice fern are also common. The latter tends to grow on the moss-covered limbs of broadleaf trees like bigleaf maple. Although yellow is the dominant fall colour on native trees – the oranges and reds of vine maple being an exception – the bright reds and burgundies of Japanese maples and sourgum trees stand out along suburban streets.
The cities of Surrey and Delta, where I spent most of my time, are located in the Boundary Bay watershed. This landscape was created by British Columbia’s mightiest river, the Fraser. The entire area is located on the Pacific Flyway, which is a broad north-south migration corridor extending from Alaska to Argentina. Birds interrupt their northward and southward journeys to rest and feed here. Some species, like grebes and harlequin ducks, arrive from the Rocky Mountains and Alberta to overwinter here.
Every fall, a succession of shorebirds arrives on the mudflats, shores and upland fields. Even in early November, large flocks of dunlin and black-bellied plovers are still present. In fact, many overwinter here. As fall progresses, waterfowl join the shorebirds until up to 200,000 ducks, geese and swans gather on the bay or in the fields of the surrounding area. This includes up to 80,000 snow geese, which descend from Wrangel Island, off the northeast coast of Russia. The majority of the wintering ducks on the bay itself are dabbling ducks like mallards, American wigeon, northern pintail and green-winged teal.
Thanks to the rich soil and strict development restrictions, much of the area is still farmland, where everything from blueberries to cranberries are cultivated in huge quantities. In parts of Delta, there is also old-field habitat where raptors abound. As you drive through this landscape, you can’t go far without seeing red-tailed hawks, peregrine falcons and bald eagles perched in trees or on hydro towers. In fact, this area has the highest diversity of winter raptors in Canada. Flocks of snow geese and trumpeter swans are also a common sight.
Hedgerows with grassy margins are a prominent feature in many fields. They represent miniature wildlife sanctuaries in their own right. Dominated by Himalayan blackberry, crabapples, hawthorns and roses, hedgerows provide food, cover and nesting sites for songbirds, raptors and small mammals. They also act as “insectaries”, providing habitat for a host of beneficial insects, including pollinators like bumblebees and native solitary bees. Management of these hedgerows is coordinated through the Delta Farmland and Wildlife Trust, which promotes the preservation of farmland and wildlife habitat in the Boundary Bay watershed through co-operative land stewardship with local farmers.
A life bird
When I visited Boundary Bay this year, I was determined to see a species that has always eluded me – the barn owl. The Boundary Bay area represents the northern limit of the barn owl’s range and is one of the few regions in Canada where a resident population still exists. After we left Blackie Spit, Anne and I, along with my friend Pat O’Gorman, drove over to the bottom of 72nd Street. Barn owls had been flying over the fields here earlier in the day. Although we found many interesting birds – a short-eared owl and a northern shrike, for example – it was too late for barn owls to be flying. Anne suggested I return at first light the following morning.
When I arrived shortly after 7 am, a group of photographers was already there. Judging by their focused attention, they had clearly found something. Almost immediately, I saw my first-ever barn owl. It was flying gracefully over the field with slow, buoyant wing beats. Every so often, the bird would drop into the grass for a minute or so, presumably having caught a vole. As daylight increased, I was struck by the contrast between the tawny-orange back of the bird and its white breast and belly. I was also impressed by the owl’s size. Its 42-inch wingspan was much larger than I expected. The curious dark eyes and white, heart-shaped face were also a treat to see when the bird flew close to the roadside.
Before long, a short-eared owl joined the hunting parade, as did a pair of northern harriers. At one point, a harrier tangled with one of the short-ears in full flight. This was clearly an attempt to steal food. Red-tailed and rough-legged hawks also flew by on occasion, while bald eagles perched in nearby trees. Before I left, I asked one of the photographers, Susan Tam, to send me some of the superb photos she got that morning.
Next, I decided to drive up to the Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary on nearby Westham Island. This is another wonderful birding destination. I stopped at a farm near the entrance to the sanctuary and asked the owner for permission to enter his barn. After a bit of searching, I found a big pile of white droppings and brown, regurgitated pellets on the barn floor. Looking up, two ghost-like barn owls peered down at me from a timber high overhead. Judging by the number of pellets at my feet, the hunting had been good. In fact, the barn owl is a superb “mouser” and has the keenest hearing of any bird ever tested. They can catch mice in total darkness, relying on sound alone. They swallow their prey whole and cough up pellets twice a day.
The Surrey and Delta area offers a large assortment of parks with well-maintained trails through beautiful forests. You often feel far from civilization. Over the course of my stay, I visited Green Timbers (home of the Surrey Nature Centre), Watershed, Bear Creek and Tynehead parks. The latter two are great locations to watch salmon spawning. They also have excellent interpretive signs explaining the life cycle of the salmon. At Tynehead, I saw several large coho, the males of which were a deep red colour. At Bear Creek, chum salmon were easy to observe. The fact that salmon habitat has been protected in such a densely-populated urban area made me wonder why Peterborough can’t make a similar commitment to protect the brook trout population in Harper Creek. And, for that matter, make Harper Park a showcase nature destination with trails, boardwalks, signage and a nature centre!