A large bird with its long, narrow wings outstretched hovers overhead in the grey sky.
“OK, see that? You guys got that?” shouts Tom Bearss excitedly. “That’s an osprey.”
A dozen members of the Delta Naturalists Society—all of them decked out in weather-appropriate waterproof gear—grab their binoculars, zoom in on the raptor, and express acclamations.
It’s an encouraging start to an otherwise dreary day, but there are plenty more species these casual birders hope to spot on their recent outing to Iona Beach Regional Park in Richmond, so they trudge ahead.
“The reason we came here today is because this is the only place, that we know of, where yellow-headed black birds nest,” said Bearss, president of the society.
The yellow-headed blackbird is just one of many migratory species returning north to nest after spending the winter down south. Another “target” bird for the group is the newly-arrived purple martin.
Located along the Pacific Flyway migration route, the Fraser River delta is an important stopover for millions of travelling birds annually. The Fraser estuary has been identified as an Important Bird Area under a BirdLife International program and some portions, including George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary on Westham Island, have been designated for conservation.
World Migratory Bird Day, which this year takes place May 12-13, is a global awareness-raising campaign initiated to highlight the need to protect migratory birds and their habitats. In South Delta, some environmentalists are concerned the spate of residential, commercial and industrial developments proposed for the area could pose a risk to wildlife populations, including migratory birds.
As the Delta naturalists venture deeper into the park, they stop periodically at marshy ponds to admire winged species flitting about. Tsawwassen resident, author and South Delta Leader columnist Anne Murray, known as the “guru” of the group, easily identifies a yellow-headed blackbird perched in the distant reeds without the aid of her fogged up binoculars.
Murray explains that many avian species are currently just arriving, just leaving or simply passing through the area as they make their annual journey from California, Mexico and South America back to their breeding grounds in Yukon and Alaska.
“If you live on insects then you’re not going to survive much in the frozen north,” Murray said. “But in the summer it’s fine, there’s tons of insects in the Arctic.”
With developments on the horizon in South Delta, she worries what might become of vital wildlife habitats and feeding grounds.
“I’m really concerned when I see any loss of farmland,” she said. “The farmland is used very heavily by migrant birds, particularly the ducks, geese and birds like the sandpipers.
“I was just driving through an area that’s slated for development on the Tsawwassen First Nation lands yesterday and there was a huge flock of snow geese on that farmland,” she noted.
Murray said habitat is essential to keep birds around.
“And the habitat has to be something that supplies lots of insects and lots of nesting places.”
Delta-South independent MLA Vicki Huntington last month released information revealing a vast amount of local farmland could be slated for industrial, port-related development. Apart from the arguments of eroding the environment and food security, at stake with the possible development is a destabilization of the Pacific Flyway, Huntington said after releasing the information.
“Without the upland forage that agricultural land provides, the ecosystem supporting the Pacific migratory bird flyway will collapse,” she said.
David Bradbeer, program coordinator at Delta Farmland & Wildlife Trust, told the Leader in an earlier interview that the area Huntington highlighted is used by a diversity of wildlife, including migratory waterfowl, shorebirds and wintering raptors.
“Those farms support migratory waterfowl that will be moving south in the fall. Some of them will spend the entire winter here and a lot of the time they feed on the agricultural fields,” he said.
Through stewardship programs, the trust encourages Delta farmers to plant grassland set-asides, winter cover crops and hedgegrows and grass margins, all of which provide habitat for a diversity of wildlife, including migratory birds.
“It’s a fairly simple math equation. Less habitat, less birds,” Bradbeer said.
Port Metro Vancouver is in the early phases of planning its proposed Deltaport expansion called T2, which would see the addition of another multi-berth container terminal at Roberts Bank.
“Certainly migratory birds and the impact on their habitat is of significant importance for the port,” said Darrell Desjardins, director of environmental programs for the port authority. “Any port expansion, and that includes port operation, has to be respectful of the migratory birds and the ecological significance of Roberts Bank.”
He said early field studies are underway to look at significant species, such as the western sandpiper, that are currently moving through and feeding at Roberts Bank.
After Deltaport’s third berth opened in 2010, Desjardins said a study, reviewed by independent scientists, reviewed the effect of the project on migratory and resident birds.
“We were looking to see if there was any ecosystem trends attributed to Deltaport third berth and the good news is that there has been no negative impacts on waterfowl or shorebirds utilizing Roberts Bank,” he said.
In the past Desjardins said the port has undertaken a number of projects to protect birds, including a barn owl nesting program and a habitat program along the east causeway.
“We actually excavated about four kilometres of shoreline to create fish and wildlife habitat,” he said. “That shoreline has been developed to enhance fish resources, but also feeding areas for waterfowl and shorebirds.”
The environmental assessment for T2 will include a review of area farmland.
“The port would be considering those environmental assessments and looking at ways to offset those impacts to agriculture and wildlife use.”
Entertain and educate
Back at Iona park, the Delta birders wander around the sewage lagoons at the nearby wastewater treatment plant.
“Have you seen the solitary piper?” Bearss asks a passing worker in a reflective vest and hardhat.
The man shakes his head, no, clearly accustomed to bird watchers scouring the treated sewage pools for rare species.
Bearss says there is a great deal of concern among the Delta naturalists when it comes to looming developments and, while many of his members write letters and advocate for environmental conservation, lobbying is not his personal forte.
The Delta naturalists set up educational displays at community events throughout the year and organize monthly presentations at Cammidge House.
“I want to entertain and have fun and enjoy, and educate the kids,” Bearss said.