Birding in British Columbia
Where in Canada can you, in a few hour's birding, see both Short-eared Owl and Oldsquaw? Bald Eagle and Lincoln's Sparrow? Red-throated Loon and Common Bushtit? None are rare birds; most are common in places. But there are few places where it is possible to see all six, and many more, on a morning walk. One place where it is possible is at Island View Beach and Cordova Spit, on the Saanich Peninsula north of Victoria.Island View Beach is the geological offspring of the several ice sheets which covered southern Vancouver Island as recently as ten thousand years ago. The ridge which runs north and south to the west of the beach was laid down as glaciomarine sediment in the ice ages, and rose as the land rebounded after the weight of the ice was removed. Thousands of years of wave action since then have eroded the ridge, depositing the sediments along the shore and further north to give Cordova Spit its classic shape.
For birders, the appeal of this area lies in the mix of smaller habitats which are found within it. The waters offshore attract thousands of seabirds in the fall and winter. Shorebirds use the beaches in migration. Passerines breed in the dunes, thickets and abandoned farm fields behind the beach, and others return here each fall to spend the winter. Both diurnal and nocturnal raptors hunt in the fields and hedgerows as well.
Much of this attractive area is, fortunately, protected as Island View Regional Park. To reach the park, drive east on Island View Road from the light at Highway #17 (the Patricia Bay Highway). Drive as far as you can go, and park in the lot at the beach. A small area around the boat launch ramp is park, but the main body of the park lies a few hundred metres to the north. The strip north of the boat launch ramp is private property, except for the parking area and a trail to the park. The property owners, however, are cooperative and the public is not discouraged. The beach below the high tide line is, in theory, public property. However, because the shoreline has shifted with the sands, even the lawyers are uncertain about who is entitled to do what where!
The park's northern boundary abuts the East Saanich Indian Reserve. Walk this area at your own discretion; there is nowhere to ask permission at this point.Island View is a place for winter birding. In the waters of Cordova Channel off the beach, look for four species of loons: Common Loons are regular, and Red-throated Loons sometimes feed only a few feet off the beach. Pacific Loons are regular through the winter, and increase in numbers greatly in late winter and spring. Yellow-billed Loon is a possibility in winter. Red-necked and Horned Grebes are the most common, with Western being rather erratic here, and Eared Grebe quite uncommon.Sea ducks are abundant. Surf and White-winged Scoters are common, and this is one of the best places in Victoria to see Black Scoters. Barrow's Goldeneye may be among the Common Goldeneye and Bufflehead, and Oldsquaw can be heard gabbling further out. Red-breasted Mergansers are common, and Greater Scaup can be found also. Harlequin Ducks are present, usually near the north boundary of the park. Back from the beach, the park offers a good mix of fields crisscrossed with rows of old fenceposts, and ditches. Watch for Northern Shrikes on these posts, and on the many hawthorn trees in the hedgerows. Northern Harriers are regular in winter, and Short-eared Owls appear most years. These two species can sometimes be flushed from the fields west of the main trails, but don't get trapped by the many drainage ditches. In the rainy season even the fields are too wet to walk. Island View is a good spot also for Peregrine Falcons and Red-tailed Hawks. Bald Eagles are often seen perched in the snags along the ridge.In the thickets, look for Lincoln's Sparrows among the Song Sparrows and Rufous-sided Towhees. Ruby-crowned Kinglets like the hedgerow at the north boundary of the park. In the fields, wintering Western Meadowlarks and Savannah Sparrows may be joined by American Goldfinches.In the spring, these same fields produce most of the expected migrants, but more unusual birds have been seen; a Mountain Bluebird was found here one year. Returning breeders include Common Yellowthroats, White-crowned Sparrows, and Tree Swallows, which use the nest boxes provided for them by the Esquimalt-Saanich Pony club.Along the beaches watch for peeps and other sandpipers; Ruddy Turnstone has been seen here. Beginning in March, Brant congregate to feed on the eelgrass in the sandy shallows. There are good opportunities to see many species of seabirds in either of their alternate or breeding plumages.As summer comes on in earnest, Island View Beach gets less interesting for the birder. Seabirds have gone, passerines are quiet, and the beach is noisy with your families of Homo sapiens. It's a good time to move along to Cordova Spit, which will be discussed a little later on. However, if there are no revellers on the beach, perhaps an evening of owling would be in order. Barred Owls have been seen in the thickets near the parking lot. Great Horned and Western Screech-owls live in the woods on the ridge, and Barn Owls may possibly come down from their hunting territories in the Martindale Valley, west of the ridge.In late summer, the south bound shorebirds are moving, and Cordova Channel offers several species of alcids. Pigeon Guillemots are common, and Rhinoceros Auklets can number in the hundreds. Marbled Murrelets may be seen in both basic and alternate plumages.Late summer is a good time to look for gulls; I have seen eight species at once on a sandbar just off the beach. Heerman's Gulls can often be found here, but are more likely at Cordova Spit. Island View Beach and Cordova Spit are also good bets for Ring-billed Gull, uncommon in the Victoria checklist area.
As the warm days of fall descend on Island View, look for migrants, especially along the drift logs behind the beach. American Pipits are sometimes found, and Horned Larks are not unexpected. Lapland Longspurs and Snow Buntings are uncommon but regular. Often in fall, good numbers of Northern Flickers can be found here, in all manner of pure and hybrid plumages.
Cordova Spit is made of all the sediments washed along the beach at Island View. It offers some very good birding opportunities, but access is not as good as at Island View Beach. Most of the spit is part of the East Saanich Indian Reserve. Many band members do not mind birders, but you may be approached to explain you presence.
Access by road is at the east end of Mt. Newton Cross Road. It is sometimes possible to ask permission at the band office on the way in. Another option is to go to the KOA Campground (which leased land from the band) and ask if you can park in their parking area. The owners used to be very friendly, but they have been a little reluctant in recent years. Some birders park beside the road and walk in through the campground.If time permits, you can also walk the beach from Island View Regional Park. The northern third of the spit is designated as municipal park and is of course open to the public.Cordova Spit can be hot or cold. Most of the same species found at Island View can be expected here, too. Other interesting records include White-faced Ibis, Upland Sandpiper, and Bar-tailed and Hudsonian Godwits. Common Nighthawks sometimes nest on the spit. In spring and fall shorebirds may be numerous in the lagoon at the base of the spit, and along the beach at the outlet of the lagoon. Try to be there on a rising tide. The end of the spit can be good in fall for larks, and in winter sometimes flocks of Black-bellied Plover and Dunlin are among the dunes.Cordova Channel is an excellent spot for seabirds as it changes with the tides, and the quieter beaches here can offer good looks at shorebirds and gulls.Both Cordova Spit and Island View Beach also have interesting beach/dune plant communities. Look among the grasses and drift logs for Yellow Sand-verbena and Beach Morning-glory. Cancer-root is an interesting plant which is a parasite on members of the composite family.Mudflats and mixed woods, seashores and salt marsh, these two areas have much to offer the visiting birder. At any time of the year, except high summer, the birding can be excellent and makes Island View Beach and Cordova Spit well worth a visit.