A flock of western sandpipers touches down on the beach, the birds running skittishly along the waters edge, dabbing at the wet sand with their bills. Then, as one, they take flight again, powering their way north to nest in never-ending daylight, on the shores of the Arctic sea. They will fly 11,000 kilometres, from wintering grounds in Peru, Ecuador, or Suriname, past hot Mexican beaches, the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco, and rain-swept Oregon shores. They can travel up to 1850 kilometres in one day—an amazing feat for little birds that measure barely 17 centimetres and weigh less than a granola bar.
Western sandpipers are just one of 50 shorebird species that visit the Lower Mainland, some migrating in flocks of thousands, others traveling in small groups. The twice-yearly, intercontinental movement of birds along the west coast, known collectively as the Pacific Flyway migration, flows north in spring and south in the fall. Similar flyways occur along the Atlantic coast and through the centre of the continents. Political borders are meaningless in this amazing natural phenomenon, and for some conservationists there is an increasing desire to transcend those barriers.
In tough economic times, there is a tendency to turn inward, shutting the doors on those outside our own cultural circle. Yet internationalism has always been a strong factor in Canada’s global reputation, and is increasingly important as we work to solve the world’s environmental problems.
A recent gathering in Vancouver of the Western Hemispheric Shorebird Reserve Network Council (WHSRN) exemplifies the new strategic direction that internationally savvy conservationists are taking to ensure the future of migrating birds. Overcoming barriers of language and distance, participants came from locations as far apart as Argentina, Delaware Bay, Mexico, and Alaska.
Such international cooperation is urgently needed, as many shorebird populations are in trouble, their migration habitats affected by accelerating industrial and urban developments, recreational activities, pollution, and other facets of modern life, that rob them of feeding places. The birds demand little of us humans, only an unpolluted, peaceful place to stop and feed for a few days before moving onward.
Like Canada, bird protection has not been a high priority for Argentina’s cash-strapped, government agencies. Yet, as Erio Curto explained, the non-profit Argentine Council of WHSRN galvanized local politicians. The council’s initiative managed to bring seven mayors to the table to sign their cities’ support of shorebird habitat and conservation.
Furthermore, regular council workshops around Argentina have led to new provincial conservation laws and even a government declaration that shorebird conservation is “in the national interest”. The secret to success, according to Curto, is personal commitments and recognition of shared interests when planning and delivering projects.
Similarly, in northwest Mexico, where there are a number of very important sites for migrating shorebirds, conservationists brought together volunteers, academics and government representatives from five states, in a planning strategy aimed at recovering shorebird populations.
Thousands of kilometres north, the Copper River delta, Alaska, is another hub of activity, with up to five million shorebirds migrating there annually, including 90 percent of the world’s western sandpipers and the whole Pacific population of dunlin. In this example, it was the U.S. Forest Service and partners, including Ducks Unlimited, that strengthened ties between Flyway communities through the formation of the Copper River Migratory Bird Initiative.
Activities include regular biologist exchanges with Latin America, and the creation of two online fieldtrips, Winging Northward and Migration, Science and Mystery, reaching hundreds of thousands of school children. A third webcast, WetlandsLive, due for broadcast from Vancouver in fall 2012, will include Boundary Bay. The Initiative also helped Asociacíon Calidris, a non-profit shorebird group in Colombia, develop community-based research, a migratory bird festival, and campaigns for protection of habitat.
The latest coordinated approach to shorebird conservation brings the action closer home. The Migratory Shorebird Project will use citizen science to connect communities across the Americas. Regular shorebird counts by volunteers will answer some of the pressing questions regarding factors driving changes in numbers and habitat needs. The Fraser River delta is a key site for the B.C. part of this program, run in collaboration with well-known local biologist, Dr. Rob Butler, and Bird Studies Canada, a non-profit organization. Training has begun for volunteer coastal waterbird surveyors to help them correctly count the tens of thousands of sandpipers descending each spring and fall on local mud flats.
Charles Duncan, director of the WHSRN Executive Office, organized the meeting in Vancouver and oversees a network of 87 shorebird sites in 13 countries in the Americas. Fluent in Spanish and English, Duncan is accustomed to the challenges of international coordination yet is convinced that the way forward is through mutual cooperation.
He stressed the need for “sister” sites, linking shorebird hot spots down the flyway. Boundary Bay and the Fraser River delta, a Site of Hemispheric Importance in the network, could link with the Copper River delta, San Francisco Bay, the Bay of Panama, or Paracas, Peru. Site level cooperation should not be limited to formal or conventional groups; there is much that can be done at the informal, community level.
Mayor Gregor Robertson and the City of Vancouver took a significant step by proclaiming World Migratory Bird Day in May 2011, which this year was marked by events organized by a variety of local groups and agencies. Many more opportunities are open to Vancouver and other Metro Vancouver cities to connect with communities along the Pacific Flyway, initiating exchanges and sharing celebrations around the incredible shorebird migrations. All it takes is some imagination and reaching out to join hands.
Anne Murray is a writer and naturalist, and the author of two books on the Fraser River delta—Tracing Our Past: A Heritage Guide to Boundary Bay and A Nature Guide to Boundary Bay—both available at bookstores and from Nature Guides B.C.