COVER STORY: Humans biggest threat to Delta’s birds of prey
If you ask any avid bird watcher for his or her destination wish list, you can bet South Delta will be on it.
The region is blessed with some of the most bird-friendly climate and habitat in the country, from the sphagnum moss of Burns Bog to the foreshore marshes surrounding Boundary Bay and Roberts Bank.
In the recent National Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count in Ladner, volunteers tallied a record-setting 146 different species, higher than Victoria.
“I don’t think anyone would question it is the best place in Canada in winter for birds,” says Anne Murray, a local author and naturalist.
Murray has written two books about Boundary Bay, documenting the landscape changes she’s seen in her 25 years in Delta. Of particular interest are the birds.
“I just like to go out on a regular basis and watch as birds come and go,” she says, adding it’s fun to challenge one’s identification skills.
“A lot of people don’t even notice the little ones. They can be walking along and don’t even see and hear them. But once you’re tuned in you can’t miss them.”
It’s entirely appropriate this region was named Delta. By definition, deltas refers to the deposition of sediment and formed at the mouth of where a river flows into the ocean, in this case the mighty Fraser, which winds 1,375 kilometres from the Fraser Pass at Mount Robson to the Pacific Ocean. The South Arm marshes of the Fraser runs past the George C. Reifel Bird Sanctuary and Roberts Bank, two of the most important ecologically important bird estuaries in North America.
Kathleen Fry, a wildlife biologist since 1977, says the Reifel sanctuary is popular for bird watchers in winter looking for evening grosbeaks, common redpolls, and birds of prey.
“Compared to the fall migration, in the wintertime what you have is birds concentrating near the coastal waterfront because it’s a little milder climate,” she says.
As a result, the bird sanctuary’s busy season is actually the coldest and rainiest months of winter.
“Right now we’ve got a little saw-whet owl along one of the trails who sometimes has a lineup of 20 people waiting their turn to take a picture,” she says laughing, before adding they ensure visitors do not intrude on their sleep cycles.
Fry says there’s a growing craving from the public for birds, particularly with the advance of digital photography.
However, that public appetite for bird watching is a concern for Bev Day, founder of the Orphaned Wildlife Society (OWL), a bird rehabilitation centre in Delta. She says human encroachment into bird habitat is part of the reason for an increase in injured birds arriving at OWL.
Northern hawk owls are so rare that when one appeared in the Reifel sanctuary last year, thousands of people showed up to see it. Day says the stress ultimately killed the bird.
“He never even had time to hunt,” she says bitterly.
OWL took in a record 491 injured and sick birds in 2012, and still have about 200 birds on site that won’t be released back into the wild until the spring.
Day says they manage a 70 per cent survival and release rate by ensuring the wild birds aren’t stressed out by needless handling, and by segregating predators from prey.
Simple things like not allowing an eagle look at a small owl it would rather have for a snack in the wild.
The most common reason for bird injuries are interspecies fighting, but more frequently it’s because they’re being hit by cars.
“We’re teaching the kids about not throwing apple cores or a sandwich out the window of the car because that’s what brings the mice into the side of the road and that’s why the birds get hit,” says Day.
Although she’s always had respect for the intelligence of birds, Day’s respect has grown over the 37 years she’s worked with them. She has seen evidence that some bald eagles will show awareness of food scarcity, which is surprising because birds of prey are largely ruled by their stomachs.
“Adults will allow a juvenile to come and take part of the food, and then chase them off of it and eat the rest,” she explains.
Wetlands, bogs, and marshes aren’t the only essential habitat for birds. Murray says Delta’s ample farmland provides migratory birds with a resting spot not available in most other municipalities in the Lower Mainland. The fields are often filled with snow geese or trumpeter swans which appear as dancing, white snowflakes from a distance.
“And they don’t mind if it floods, it’s actually good for birds and so you get lots of water fowl in there, as well as hawks and eagles,” she says.
Boundary Bay is likely the best spot in Canada to see birds of prey, such as the threatened short-eared owl, and the saltwater marshes provides plenty of food for raptors.
The beautiful black-and-white Arctic snowy owls have appeared in Boundary Bay in each of the past two winters for what bird experts are calling irruption years, irregular migration patterns that are not expected to continue year over year.
But as farmland is lost to development, bird watchers are concerned the birds will be lost as well. An estimated 70 per cent of the Fraser estuary’s original wetlands have been lost to dyking, dredging, draining, and filling since the land was first settled in the early 1800s.
Southern B.C. is the last refuge for barn owls in Canada, a species that is an undervalued part of the food chain, says Day. By removing habitat for barn owls, farms rely more on rodenticide chemicals which can then get into the grains humans use for flour and bread.
“People just don’t realize what they’re doing,” says Day. “Birds have really learned to adapt to us. But we really have to learn to adapt to them.”
OWL Penny Drive
OWL is looking to relocate after repeated floods at their facility have created a safety concern for volunteers and birds. The non-profit wildlife rescue is collecting now-discontinued pennies to help raise funds for a new home. OWL is located at 3800 72nd St., Delta. Pennies can be dropped off anytime between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. (closed on holidays). Anyone interested in making a donation to OWL help them find a new home can call 604-946-3171.