Over a million shorebirds migrated through the Fraser delta last month. Ducks, swans, and snow geese were also on the move, heading for their breeding grounds further north and east. This month, it is the turn of warblers and flycatchers, small woodland birds that fly north to the boreal forest to build nests and raise young.
Bird migration is one of the wonders of the world: an immense, global response by Planet Earth to the availability of daylight, food, and the right climate. International Migratory Bird Day, celebrated on the second weekend of May, and especially this week’s Vancouver Bird Week, are an opportunity to recognize the importance of local habitats for the survival of the world’s birds. Many bird activities are being held in local communities, including Vancouver, Delta, and White Rock.
Metro Vancouver’s Fraser delta area is one of the top bird migration hot spots on the west coast of North America, particularly for waterfowl and shorebirds. It is one of only a few major stopovers for a million sandpipers that fly between South America and the Arctic, and back, every year. It is essential that the mud and sand flats of Boundary Bay, Roberts Bank, and Sturgeon Banks, the three main components of the outer delta, remain viable habitat.
According to a 2014 study by Environment Canada and Bird Studies Canada, it is possible that the entire Pacific Flyway population of two small shorebirds, the western sandpiper and the dunlin, may be found on the Fraser River delta during migration. The study authors calculated that 600,000 western sandpipers and 200,000 to 250,000 dunlins stop to feed just at Roberts Bank, with similar numbers occurring on Boundary Bay and Sturgeon Banks. Each bird may stay only two to three days, foraging and roosting, before pressing on with its journey. Many other species of shorebird also stopover at these important habitats, most migrating through northwards in April and southwards between July and October.
Sandpipers feed by probing in the mud for small creatures or by sucking up biofilm from the surface. If disturbed, they try and resettle just a few metres along to resume their feeding. With the tide going out, the shorebirds become very spread out and distant, and can be difficult to observe. However, when the tide turns, the incoming water coaxes the feeding birds closer and closer to shore. With no more mud exposed, the birds sleep, preen, and relax, restoring their energy for the kilometres to come. At this time, they are very vulnerable to attack from falcons and eagles and disturbance by dogs and humans.
Yet there is a much bigger risk to shorebirds about to happen, and it is attracting very little popular attention. The irreplaceable habitat of the Fraser delta at Roberts Bank is under threat from a huge expansion of Port Metro Vancouver’s Deltaport: the proposed construction of Terminal 2 (T2). The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA) has just released the T2 project’s Environmental Impact Statement, all 7,000 pages of it, in 10 large binders, and is soliciting public comments. Extraordinarily, the deadline for comments is June 15, which does not leave long to study the document, especially since printed copies are not available on request. Port Metro Vancouver’s T2 would see the existing three-kilometre causeway stretch much further offshore and link with a new artificial island (or pod) that would double the size of the existing port and greatly increase its impact on the surrounding ecosystems. Rail and road links have already been built across delta farmland, and the federal government is pushing for this expansion to the “Gateway to Asia”.
Previous expansions of Deltaport and the adjacent B.C. Ferries Tsawwassen terminal have, over the years, badly affected the natural habitat on Roberts Bank, by blocking the flow of fresh water from the Fraser River, and creating a more saline environment between the causeways. Important feeding habitat for the sandpipers, particularly biofilm, was destroyed as the water conditions changed. The port causeway creates a difficult barrier for low-flying flocks of migratory birds and many shorebirds perish on the overhead wires along its length. Small salmon fry leaving the Fraser River are forced around the long causeway, into deeper water with more predators, rather than staying close to shore as they formerly did. Terminal 2 would see all of these problems increased and the habitat degraded further. During previous expansions, suggested mitigation, such as removing the overhead wires, did not occur. The Port’s current efforts to bank habitat elsewhere to compensate for habitat lost on Roberts Bank are completely inadequate for shorebirds that have for millennia used the mouth of the Fraser River as a resting point on their migration. As a consequence of T2 development, should it go ahead, one of the most important habitats for shorebirds on the west coast of the Americas will be destroyed. Juvenile salmon will be displaced even further into the depths of the Strait of Georgia, and increased port traffic will be yet another hazard for the local orcas that frequent Roberts Bank and the Salish Sea.
A local group, Against Port Expansion (APE), is fighting the port development. Their April 25 “Peep In” on the Brunswick Point dike brought out a crowd to enjoy the shorebirds, commonly known as “peeps”, and to show their support for habitat protection. But this group desperately needs help and support from the mainstream environmental groups who have not yet become involved in this issue. The threatened loss of the Fraser delta’s international bird habitats should be front and centre for all concerned environmentalists and their voices must be heard. International Migratory Bird Day would be a good time to start.