Anne Murray: “Peep in” highlights sandpipers threatened by Port Metro Vancouver development

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      A crowd of about 70 people gathered at Brunswick Point on Easter Monday (April 21) for a “peep in” organized by opponents of the Deltaport Terminal 2 project. Unlike many protests, this was a delightful occasion of nature and beauty. The stars of the show were 80,000 or so small sandpipers, also known as peeps. The shorebirds were feeding busily in the mud of Roberts Bank, their backdrop the huge cranes and wharves of Port Metro Vancouver’s superport. Every now and then, the sandpipers rose and fell in dense, twisting flocks as they were startled by a passing harrier or falcon. The assembled crowd watched in awe, exchanging information and sharing stories. Everyone was concerned for the future of these little birds as they stop by on their long migration journeys.

      The proposed Terminal 2 expansion of Deltaport would double the size of existing facilities and damage the habitats and tidal flow patterns on Roberts Bank. Long causeways to the port and Tsawwassen ferry terminal prevent water from the Fraser River, and the sediment it carries, from reaching the southern banks. This has already led to instability in the delta slope, a reduction in build-up of marshland, and changes to the ecology of the shallows. Juvenile salmon that rely on the inshore estuarine waters are forced to swim around the port structures, diverting them into the deeper waters of the Georgia Strait with its lurking predators. An environmentally responsible and technically valid option, though expensive, would be to breach the causeway with culverts, to allow water through and restore the intertidal ecosystem. Instead, Port Metro Vancouver plans to widen the Deltaport causeway, add yet more rail and road corridors, and build another huge artificial island at the end of the present terminal. Salmon, sandpipers, and orcas would all be badly affected by such a plan. This never-ending expansion of Deltaport, in the face of numerous environmental concerns, risks breaking the international Pacific Flyway migration route for shorebirds.

      During the peep-in, several species of shorebirds were flocking together at Brunswick Point, including the first wave of western sandpipers coming north, a larger number of dunlin, and a few black-bellied plovers in their stunning spring plumage of silver and black. The tide was moving out fast and the feeding flocks moved with it. The swirling flocks provided a stunning show, even as individuals got lost in the crowd.

      The little birds make an awe-inspiring 11,000-kilometre journey from South America to their breeding grounds in the Yukon Delta, Alaska. The western sandpiper is the most numerous species at Roberts Bank and measures only 17 centimetres. Weighing roughly the same as a granola bar, it flies at a rate of 200 kilometres per night. The dunlin, another sandpiper species, is a little larger and darker. The peeps eat voraciously, picking and probing in the nutrition-rich mud flats. Environment Canada scientists discovered that both species consume biofilm, a bacterial mucous on the mud’s surface, that the peeps “snot-feed” by sucking through their bills. Their survival critically depends on having biofilm and other mudflat organisms available to eat during migration stops. If they lost energy for flight, they would fall into the sea and die. Changes to the water flow around the port affect the composition of the mud flats, in ways that are not well-understood, and transportation routes introduce invasive non-native plants and animals, causing drastic changes to habitat. It is not known what impact the complex interaction of such changes will have on the overall food supply for shorebirds.

      Peak numbers of western sandpipers occur at Brunswick Point between April 25 and May 5, while dunlin peak a week or so earlier. Each bird stops here only a few days to fuel up, feeding day or night according to the tides, and there is a constant flow through of new birds arriving while others depart. Biologists estimate 600,000 western sandpipers and 200,000 dunlins pass through Brunswick Point mudflats during northward migration, with total peak numbers ranging from 83,100 to 1,125,000 through the last 30 years. As much as 50 percent of the entire flyway population uses the area. Combined with numbers at other locations, such as Boundary Bay and Sturgeon Bank, it is apparent that virtually the entire flyway populations of both species stop in the delta on migration. This is a huge responsibility for Canada and B.C.

      Other birds and animals are also abundant at Roberts Bank and are affected by the port’s development plans. A short-eared owl cruised low over the marshes, on the look out for voles (a dead one lay by the path, perhaps dropped by a bird), and northern harriers sailed past on gently tilting wings. Flocks of snow geese called incessantly as they flew overhead in V-shaped skeins, circling the fields in the hope of finding somewhere to feed. The wintering snow geese numbers have been high this year and now they are joined by spring migrants from California and the Skagit, so the search for food becomes more urgent. When the sedge marshes are flooded or eaten out, they rely on farm fields with abandoned potato crops and stubble. Such fields are becoming scarcer as urban, retail, and port-industrial uses take over more and more farmland in the acres east of Brunswick Point.

      The snow geese are on their way north now, heading for Wrangel Island off the coast of Russia. Like the sandpipers, these birds are shared with other countries and places. They become a local responsibility when on our shores. We should expect (and demand) that politicians recognize this responsibility and protect their habitats with the full force of the law.

      In other bird news: Vote for your favourite Vancouver city bird

      Six popular Vancouver birds that live here all year are competing for your vote for next year’s official city bird. The winning bird will be used in promotional material for Bird Week in 2015. Get your vote in by May 10.

      Anne Murray is the author of A Nature Guide to Boundary Bay and Tracing Our Past: A Heritage Guide to Boundary Bay, an ecological history of the land and water south of the Fraser River. She is an independent writer and naturalist, blogging at www.natureguidesbc.wordpress.com. Her books are available in local bookstores and online at www.natureguidesbc.com.

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      Roger Emsley

      Apr 25, 2014 at 6:52pm

      Port Metro Vancouver is trying to downplay the importance of the biofilm on Roberts Bank. The addition of a second container terminal risks destroying this vital food source. As a result there will likely be population level declines - if not outright destruction -of the Western Sandpiper 80 percent of which rely on Roberts Bank to feed during their migration. Ask Port Metro Vancouver how they plan to mitigate the destruction of the Western Sandpiper