Birding in British Columbia

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Esquimalt Lagoon Migratory Bird Sanctuary -- K. Slagboom photo

From downtown Victoria go North on Douglas Street. Douglas Street will eventually veer westward and become Highway 1. Remain on Highway 1 for about one km then take the right-hand exit lane towards Colwood. The road will take you underneath Highway 1 and the railroad. Continue forward and you will shortly cross a bridge beside the Six Mile Pub. Travel up the hill but move to the left lane because you will be turning left at the lights immediately past the Juan de Fuca Recreation Centre (turning onto Ocean Boulevard). Zero your travel indicator here. Go 0.4 km, turn left left again, and head toward Fort Rodd. You will be driving through a forested area of mixed fir, maple, oak and alder trees. Although the lands on either side of the road are private property there is room in several places along the way to pull onto the shoulder. Listen and watch for Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Song Sparrow, Winter and Bewick's Wren, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Dark-eyed Junco, Steller's Jay, Spotted Towhee, Orange-crowned Warbler, vireos, and Pacific-slope Flycatcher along this arbored way. At 1.8 km you reach a road on the left which will take you to Fort Rodd National Historic Site and Fisgard Lighthouse. Do not take the road to Fort Rodd at this time. Fort Rodd is another good place to check out after you have scoured the lagoon. There is local history, a pleasant walk, more field and forest birds, and a nice location for a picnic at Fort Rodd -- but our present objective is to bird the Lagoon.

As you pass the Fort Rodd turnoff the road turns toward the right and starts downhill. The road will then veer toward the left at the bottom of the hill. Slow down as you reach the bridge (at 2.5 km). There is just room for a single vehicle to park on the right shoulder immediately before the bridge and this is a good viewpoint. However, visibility for traffic coming downhill is poor and, if traffic is heavy, you may be better advised to park in the many wider spots just beyond the bridge.

Depending upon the tide there will be one island, and none to several small gravel bars, on the lagoon side of the bridge. These are regular lounging spots for gulls and should also be carefully scoped out for shorebirds. Mew Gulls and Glaucous-winged Gulls are frequent loungers but check the flocks carefully because birders have reported Heermann's, Bonaparte's, Ring-billed, California and even Western Gulls from this site. In the Spring watch for large orange bills and dark heads as small flocks of Caspian Terns may also rest on the bars. Shorebirds in season include Black Oystercatcher, Black-bellied Plover, Western and Least Sandpiper, Dunlin, Black and (rarely) Ruddy Turnstone, Sanderling, Dowitcher, Semi-palmated Plover, yellowlegs, and Killdeer.

Esquimalt Lagoon (inside) - K. Slagboom PhotoNorthwestern Crows and Glaucous-winged Gulls will be prowling around looking for shellfish which they will pick up and drop from a height in order to crack the shells. Avian disputes can occur regarding the ownership of the seafood lunch. Waterfowl may lounge on the island or bars or may be found swimming in close proximity to the bridge as this is one popular site for people to "feed the ducks". Red-breasted Mergansers and sometimes Common Mergansers may be seen snorkeling along the far shore or surfing down the stream after small fish. Hooded Mergansers, Mallards, Northern Pintail, Scaup, Bufflehead, Barrow's and Common Goldeneye, American Wigeon (watch also for an Eurasian Wigeon), Green-winged Teal, Canvasback, Pied-billed Grebe, Canada Geese, feral Mute Swans, American Coot and Double-crested Cormorants are all possibilities near this end of the Lagoon. Unfortunately, there is also a flock of feral Greylag Geese which have taken over the island. These are "dumped" geese and are not countable, just a nuisance. However, there have been Snow Geese seen at the Lagoon and a number of Brant stop over on their way to the Brant Festival in Parksville.

Do not forget to look up too. You may sight a Belted Kingfisher sitting quietly on a branch and, either stalking the shorelines or perched high in the evergreens, you may see a number of Great Blue Herons. Watch also for Bald Eagles resting near the treetops, Turkey Vultures soaring over, Common Ravens flapping by or the sudden burst of a Cooper's Hawk. Listen for American Robins, Northern Flicker, Steller's Jay and the "Chicago" of a California Quail. If you turn away from the lagoon you will usually find Rock Doves near the bridge and probably a few European Starlings, House Sparrows and Brewer's Blackbirds checking the roadside for edible bits.

Once you have given this end of the lagoon a good going over then you must make your first decision -- how to bird the rest of the spit (known also as Coberg Peninsula)? We usually park our vehicle near the bridge and bird along the lagoon side of the spit as we walk westward, then bird the Strait side on our way back to the vehicle. The spit is 2 km long. On the lagoon side there is a narrow gravelly shoreline with small areas of low grass plus a sprinkling of shrubby broom and wild rose. The grasses and shrubs hold, in season, Savannah Sparrow, Song Sparrow, White-crowned and Golden-crowned Sparrow, Brewer's Blackbird, House Sparrow, House Finch, Purple Finch, and American Goldfinch. Peeps and plovers can often be found along the shorelines. In 1996 a visiting birder was fortunate to discover a Mongolian Plover along this stretch. It stayed for a couple of days resting and foraging alongside Semi-palmated Plovers. Look out to the rocky island in the middle of the lagoon because Double-crested Cormorant frequently roost and dry their wings on that island. Check closely. Shorebirds may also be found resting or foraging among the crevices on the island. In addition to the waterfowl already noted scan the lagoon for Surf Scoter, Common Loon, Ruddy Duck and Red-necked Grebe. From late spring to early fall scan the taller trees along the lagoon for an Osprey or two as they seem to be regular visitors. Scan the grassy lawns across the lagoon for Canada Geese, Great Blue Heron, and yellowlegs or other shorebirds since that area provides the birds some respite away from the walkers, dogs and traffic along the spit. The elegant looking building up from the boathouse is called Hatley Castle and is part of the now, Royal Roads University.

Near this end of the lagoon the two shorelines converge quite closely. In these more sheltered waters check again for waterfowl and Belted Kingfisher. The shrubby trees on both sides of the water should be checked for Brewer's and Red-winged Blackbird, Brown-headed Cowbird, House Sparrow, House Finch, Purple Finch, Song Sparrow, Bewick's Wren and American Robin. Watch over the water for Barn Swallow, Violet-green Swallow and Northern Rough-winged Swallow as they swoop by for insects.

Although the lagoon itself ends, continue a bit further straight along the Ocean Boulevard. There are houses at the end of the lagoon. Be alert to the buzz of Rufous Hummingbirds coming in to the garden flowers and feeders and watch the hedges for Bewick's Wrens. Abutting the parking lot on the Strait side at this end of the lagoon are some patches of blackberry brambles and also a small copse of mixed alder, maple and pin cherry. A Palm Warbler was located here in early spring a few years ago so be alert to the unusual. Downy or Hairy Woodpeckers and Northern Flicker are possibilities in the trees as are Orange-crowned and Yellow Warblers, Chestnut-backed Chickadees, vireos, and Pacific-slope Flycatchers.

Esquimalt Lagoon Oceanside - K. Slagboom PhotoIf you return eastward on the Strait side of the road you should be able to find, in season, Common Loon, Pacific Loon, Red-throated Loon, Pelagic Cormorant, Double-crested Cormorant, Red-necked Grebe, Western Grebe (large flocks overwinter off the spit), Common Murre, Marbled Murrelet, Pigeon Guillemot, Rhinoceros Auklet, Red-throated Merganser, Surf Scoter, White-winged Scoter, Bufflehead, Barrow's Goldeneye, Scaup, Oldsquaw, Brant and various gulls.

Having returned to your vehicle your next decision is whether to go back up to Fort Rodd and enjoy your coffee and sandwiches at the picnic tables there or to head to Witty's Lagoon for a wholly different birding experience. The decision is yours -- enjoy!

Site Guide written by: Andy Buhler, editor B.C. Birding. Copyright © 1997

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