Anne Murray: Birds or planes? Dilemma at Boundary Bay Airport

    1 of 1 2 of 1

      East Delta residents were shocked recently by the sudden demolition of a group of large black cottonwood trees at Boundary Bay Airport. The cottonwoods were popular with roosting eagles; one tree held a nest, with an eagle already sitting near it, ready for the breeding season. This was the second round of tree cutting at the airport: another nest and stand of trees were felled last spring. The airport is attractive for eagles and many other bird species because of its location beside the shallow waters of Boundary Bay, a major migratory stop-over and wintering area for tens of thousands of shorebirds, a hundred thousand waterfowl, and the greatest number and diversity of wintering birds of prey in Canada.

      Just north of the airport is Burns Bog, a wetland habitat for ducks and geese, and the location of the Vancouver Landfill, which has attracted gulls and other scavengers ever since it opened in the mid ’60s. Tens of thousands of gulls, of several species, together with northwestern crows and bald eagles, feed at the landfill every day. Big flocks of gulls regularly fly across the airport to rest or roost in the bay and many join with clouds of blackbirds and crows to feed at a nearby compost facility and turf farm.

      The airport’s location makes it a prime candidate for bird-plane collisions, which typically occur near water and landfills. One pilot narrowly averted a bird strike when gulls passed right across his flight path on their “regular route from the dump to the beach”, less than a kilometre from the runway. On another occasion, a student pilot on his first solo flight experienced the scare of having a mallard crash through his window. Fortunately, incidents so far have been relatively minor, yet the risk of something more serious cannot be overlooked.

      So what on Earth is an airport doing in such a bird-rich, agricultural area, squeezed between the Boundary Bay Wildlife Management Area and the Burns Bog Ecological Conservancy Area? Should the dangerous consequences not have been foreseen?

      Boundary Bay Airport began its existence in 1941 as a flight training centre for the Royal Canadian Air Force set amidst an open landscape of hay fields, boggy ground, and salt marsh. Three fighter squadrons rotated through the base before it was decommissioned at the end of World War II. The site became the Vancouver Wireless Station, and a small community grew up nearby, complete with gardens and trees, before that too closed down and the land became vacant.

      In 1976, Transport Canada proposed the reactivation of the airport for flight training and for light piston and turboprop airplanes. The conditions imposed by the federal environmental review panel included operational procedures to minimize impacts on birds and detailed studies of bird populations and movements. Any changes to the specified uses would trigger another environmental assessment. As a further condition for opening the airport in 1982, some old field habitat would be set aside as a raptor management area. A compliance committee reiterated the need for further environmental assessment when Transport Canada wanted to expand operations five years later.

      In 1997, Transport Canada circumvented this requirement by selling the airport to the Corporation of Delta for a dollar, as the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act only applies on federal lands or for projects using federal dollars. In 2004, Delta entered into a long-term lease with the current operators, Alpha Aviation, which invested $35 million in a new terminal and extensions to a second runway, for which B.C.’s Ministry of Transportation chipped in $600,000. The intention was to service corporate jets, charters, and some scheduled flights.

      The airport is probably here to stay but it is unfortunate that this site was chosen. According to a Delta staff report, “Boundary Bay Airport is recognized by Transport Canada as having one of the most extreme wildlife environments of any airport in Canada due to its location on a migratory bird route, seaside location, natural habitat, temperate climate, and it is surrounded by agricultural land rather than industrial land.”

      Transport Canada regulations require a wildlife management plan “to promote aviation by reducing wildlife hazards and risks to aircraft”. This regulation, mandating the removal of habitat and birds, inevitably conflicts with the federal environmental review panel’s instruction to “minimize impacts on birds”. Removing habitat around an airport, such as the eagle trees, is usually only the first step. To discourage birds, most airports scare and chase them off with dogs, falcons, or firecrackers, lure them away by creating more attractive habitat elsewhere, or simply kill them.

      Alpha Aviation is still attempting habitat management rather than culls, and has municipal and provincial permits to remove up to 71 cottonwoods, including the two eagle nests near the runway. The company obviously wants to operate with a good safety record and conform to regulations, and pilots are well aware of the hazards. Yet, with habitat diminishing around the delta, the wildlife pressure on the airport is becoming more intense.

      This month alone, biologist David Hancock recorded around 1,000 bald eagles at the landfill. Hancock suspects poor runs of chum in local streams exacerbate these numbers. If more birds gather in the area, Transport Canada is bound to require yet more habitat and wildlife removal. Will this mean ducks, shorebirds, gulls, eagles, or owls culled? Will surrounding farmland and habitats be converted to other uses in the name of aviation safety? Ironically, an attempt is currently underway to lure snow geese away from Vancouver International Airport by providing alternative feeding habitat in Delta fields. The landscape is becoming very crowded with all these demands, and all too often it is nature that misses out.

      Anne Murray is a naturalist and the author of two books on Lower Mainland nature and ecological history—Tracing Our Past: A Heritage Guide to Boundary Bay and A Nature Guide to Boundary Bay.




      Jan 26, 2011 at 2:54pm

      Don't look to Delta council for anything but more development, including the paving over of farmland and the cutting down of bird habitat. Especially from their newest member Ian Paton, the "fake farmer", whose father would be ashamed of him for continuing to destroy our farmland.

      Jean Wightman

      Jan 26, 2011 at 3:10pm

      As always, I so much appreciate the articles written by naturalist Anne Murray. She brings to us issues of critical importance and especially her passion and concern for wildlife in this area of prime agricultural land and wildlife habitat.
      What can each of us do?
      We can begin by supporting people like Ms. Murray and start to write to higher ups and let them know of our concerns. Eagles are desperate for places to live as I see more of them in Tsawwassen.
      I wonder if the proposal by a Vancouver company to plant communication towers in Tsawwassen might impact wildlife? Please take time to look into this.


      Jan 26, 2011 at 5:05pm

      "sudden demolition of a group of large black cottonwood trees"?
      Wow. There's so much wrong with that sentence.
      Would Anne Murray rather we shut down Vancouver International, as well? After all, the entire lower mainland is a corridor for migratory birds
      I'm not sure that Abbotsford Airport is out of that corridor.
      We're so lucky she permits us to live here at all1

      Terry McComas

      Jan 26, 2011 at 6:28pm

      As a naturalist, who received his pilot training at Boundary Bay Airport, I believe that both complying with Federal regulations and protecting life, both human and avian, are important. To my mind, cutting down the trees, given that only one bore an inactive eagle's nest, is acceptable and appropriate.

      Our mere living affects wildlife adversely. Do not all of us who live in Metro Vancouver contribute to the erosion of animal habitat?

      Richard from Delta

      Jan 26, 2011 at 7:10pm

      Thank You Anne What has been brought forward here affects more then Boundary Bay Airport. But it calls to question the whole Federal Environmental Review Proccess What is the point of having these bureaucracies and processes paying out Millions of Tax Payers Dollars if a few Years go by and all the recommendations and policies be it Habitat Compensation or remediation measures contingent to the operations and procedures do to environmental conserns Can Be Set Aside Be it through a change in ownership or economic pressures.
      If anything the Bird Strike problems at Boundary Bay Airport have been magnified by the developments near by Yet the operator wishes to proceed with the use of Jet Aircraft , Larger planes and scheduled services outside the origanal review proccess Thus putting lives at risk

      Hawk Eye

      Jan 26, 2011 at 8:28pm

      Well written and very well-balanced article. Having overseen airport wildlife programs, it's the norm to encounter militant environmentalists who disagree on any iota of change, good or bad, at airports. I'm familiar with Anne, and quite impressed with her awareness of historical details, safety and wildlife issues of this particular airport.

      Ian Moul

      Jan 27, 2011 at 10:08am

      This story is a perfect example of how what started as an innocent good idea, like opening an old airport, was followed by short term planning and slipping around full environmental impact studies. The cost to sort this out will be hundreds or maybe thousands of times the cost of appropriate planning in the first place. It is impossible to move the thousands of eagles and millions of waterfowl and shorebirds that winter here. We can be quite certain that someday there will be a tragedy.
      The removal of existing and potential eagle nest trees will not stop the eagles. If there is food the eagles will come. When food (and nesting structures) are available there is an eagle nesting territory on average each kilometre of coastline. If we remove the trees they will attempt to nest on power poles and in smaller and smaller trees. A map of most known Bald Eagle nesting territories in south-western BC may be found at
      Anne Murrey’s story reminds us of the importance of planning that works with and understands our local natural systems.

      Ursula Easterbrook

      Jan 28, 2011 at 3:27pm

      Delta, the "Doormat for Canada", is fast becoming a pathetic place to live! Looking into the future, I can only see: extensive building of housing and malls, industrialization, specific types of agriculture (blueberries, cranberries and greenhouses) and transportation networks. This will mean the end of bird migrations as we know them; there isn't enough agricultural land left for the migrants to rest and feed.
      Even wildlife reserves and parks are pushed to the limit with a burgeoning population who need more space to exercise, recreate and experience nature.
      In 2010, the building of the South Fraser Perimeter Highway and the new roads connecting the Tsawwassen First Nations Industrial complex with the rest of the Lower Mainland, have seen the cutting down of many large trees along roads and fields - the ones that serve many raptors as perching and nesting site. So a few more trees cut by the airport is either of great significance or of no consequence - it depends on whether you approve of progress or the "Death of Nature".