Birding in British Columbia
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The Globe & Mail's Peter Whelan has written of its magic and called it the "... richest Christmas-count route in Canada". Twice it has produced a hundred species for Christmas bird counters. It regularly attracts scarcities, strays and stragglers for listers. 'It' is the Martindale Valley of southeastern Vancouver Island, off Highway 17 about half way between the Swartz Bay ferry terminal and the city of Victoria.
Martindale Valley is defined here as the area bounded by Island View Road on the north, Highway 17 on the west, Welch Road on the east and Dooley Road on the south. Martindale Road divides the area in half. From the north, access is via Island View Road or Martindale Road; from the south, by Welch Road via Brookleigh. From north to south the area covers about three kilometers. The valley is adjacent to the Island View Beach area. Martindale, in combination with Island View Beach, should give a visiting birder more than enough to fill a day of birding.
The Martindale Valley -- or "Martindale Flats" as the area is known by local birders -- is agricultural country; apart from wooded areas along the highway and the fenceline hedgerows that trace boundaries between land holdings, the area is wide open -- you can see a long way. Even without birds this is a nice place to go for a walkabout. In growing season much of the valley is under corn and various vegetable crops. All of it is privately owned; it is essential that birders respect the few no-trespassing signs, stay on the perimeters of actively cultivated fields and ensure they have no negative impact on fields or crops. By and large farmers and landowners have not objected to birders; as long as we behave ourselves, we can live in hope that most of the flats will remain largely open to birding in future.
From late October to early spring gumboots are essential equipment for birding Martindale Flats. In winter much of the area is under water, drainage ditches have to be navigated and the birding routes identified here can be pretty mucky.
Martindale is a mecca for great numbers and good diversity of wintering waterfowl and hawks. Some 170 bird species have been recorded in this small area. Thirty-four Anseriformes species, including Emperor Goose, have occurred in the Martindale zone of the Victoria Christmas count circle, which extends eastward from the area covered here to Cordova Bay. In spring and fall, Martindale has attracted an impressive list of island prizes, including Cattle Egret, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Sandhill Crane, Northern Goshawk, Rough-legged Hawk, Swainson's Hawk and Gyrfalcon. Both Golden-plovers, Baird's Sandpiper, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Stilt Sandpiper, Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Upland Sandpiper and Ruff are included among at least 24 shorebird species recorded at one time or another in the Martindale CBC zone. Passerine highlights include Tropical Kingbird, Palm Warbler, American Tree Sparrow, Vesper Sparrow, Swamp Sparrow, Harris' Sparrow and Bobolink. Some of these are one-of-a-kind sightings; others have been fairly regular in recent years.
At any time of year birding at Martindale is better than a day at the office, but the best times of year are fall -- especially late fall -- and winter. Spring migration is less productive here than elsewhere in the Victoria checklist area because of the shortage of woodland and 'edge' habitat. In early spring the still-wet flats are a good area to see swallows and the valley ponds and drainage ditches are reliable for producing some of the first Cinnamon and Blue-winged Teal of the season. Occasionally in spring one or another of the several ponds in the flats produces a surprise such as Ruddy Duck, Canvasback, White-fronted Goose or Wilson's Phalarope. One spring day Bruce Whittington and I were astonished to find a thousand Band-tailed Pigeons on valley fields.
For visiting birders the valley's main spring attraction has been the skylarks. Martindale is one of the last areas on the Saanich Peninsula where one can still hear and see Eurasian Skylark. By March, males are courting and conducting their spectacular aerial song-and-dance routines high above the flats. By April, pairs are nesting, and I have found nestlings by mid-month.
During breeding season Martindale's fields are under intensive cultivation and hold little interest for birders looking for rarities or high species counts. There are rewards, however, for those with other interests. Ring-necked Pheasant populations have declined sharply on the Saanich Peninsula but this species still breeds in the valley. Barn Owls have bred in and near the valley and occasionally they have been seen hunting after nightfall over the flats.
The Martindale Valley is a fall stopover point for birds on their way to points south, most notably shorebirds and open-country songbirds. In past years, when farm ponds were more frequently drained for agricultural ends, the flats were especially good for shorebirds. Today the ponds often remain full year-round but the valley still helps to refuel southbound peeps, Pectoral Sandpipers and dowitchers and, occasionally, some of the more exotic shorebirds itemized above. Most years one or two Whimbrel make an appearance and later, after the fall rains have flooded fields, Common Snipe often return in numbers. On one November day I counted 78 in the southeast corner of the corn field south of Martindale Road.
Sandhill Cranes occasionally drop in and stay long enough to give listers one more item to add to their year totals. As for passerines, American Pipits gather in impressive numbers; look them over closely -- in 1992 Red-throated Pipit was found close by Martindale, in similar habitat. Yellow-rumped Warblers -- including surprisingly good numbers of the 'Myrtle' race -- migrate in small or not-so-small squadrons. In late September it is not strange to find groups of twenty or more in the hawthorn hedgerows skirting valley fields. Don't be surprised to flush two hundred Savannah Sparrows on a valley walkabout. In fall Lincoln's Sparrows are here, sometimes in good numbers. Thickets and the edges of the drainage ditches and ponds regularly turn up rarer treats: Swamp Sparrow, American Tree Sparrow, Yellow-headed Blackbird, Common Grackle, and, once, a Bobolink, at the margin of the ditch running east from the L-Reservoir. Later in fall, Snow Buntings and Lapland Longspurs run the birders' gauntlet; more often than not, Martindale is one of the areas in which they are found. Horned Larks also pass through and sometimes linger long enough to gratify CBC counters.
Winter is Martindale's 'prime time'. The cold, dark season provides a great feeding table for large numbers of waterfowl. In winter fourteen species of Anseriformes regularly depend on the larder left behind after fall harvest is done. American Wigeon and Mallard are the most numerous ducks, with Christmas Bird Counts sometimes producing 4,000 or more individuals of each species. A typical CBC will also yield hundreds of Canada Geese, one or two hundred Northern Pintail and Green-winged Teal and smaller numbers of Northern Shoveler, Gadwall, Ring-necked Duck, Lesser Scaup, Common Goldeneye, Bufflehead, Hooded Merganser and -- a Martindale 'specialty' -- Eurasian Wigeon.
Trumpeter Swan is another popular Martindale draw. As recently as a dozen years ago this once-endangered species was scarce on Martindale Christmas counts
(none were recorded in the 1979 through 1981 counts). But Trumpeter numbers have risen and last winter up to 200 gathered and fed in fields on either side of Martindale Road where they provided a fine show for birders and nature-lovers. And for birders with patience and a good spotting scope, it is generally possible to find one or more Tundra Swans among their lookalike relatives. Snow Goose and White-fronted Goose are uncommon but regular in most winters.
Where there are ducks, there are 'duck hawks' too. Martindale is likely the best place in Victoria's checklist area to find Peregrine Falcon. One to three of these marvellous birds rule the roost in a typical winter. Sometimes a birder is lucky enough to see a Peregrine catch and kill a duck, and if that evidence isn't available as proof of their hunting prowess, something else is: the number of picked-clean duck carcasses you can find on a winter day.
A dozen or so years ago, for a period of three winters, Gyrfalcon was a regular visitor to the flats. It is more sporadic now but this big, beautiful falcon does show up once in a while. When one does, lucky birders have been treated more than once to a falcon 'grand slam' -- seeing Gyr, Peregrine, Merlin and American Kestrel on the same day, all the falcons that occur on Vancouver Island. A word of caution, though: captive birds are sometimes flown in the valley, so be watchful for falcons wearing jesses. Bald Eagle, Red-tailed Hawk and Cooper's Hawk are everyday raptors in winter; Golden Eagle, Rough-legged Hawk and Northern Goshawk are more unusual and not to be expected every year.
Duck throngs are not the only mobs to look for at Martindale in winter. Big flocks of Brewer's and Red-winged Blackbirds forage with starlings and Northwestern Crows, and occasionally a Rusty Blackbird or Brown-headed Cowbird shows up -- just to ensure you're paying attention. As for shorebirds, groups of Dunlin and Black-bellied Plover sometimes join the Killdeer and Common Snipe; rarely, a dowitcher lingers into winter.
Martindale boasts other winter specialties. Usually one or more Short-eared Owls can be counted on to make a winter appearance. They are typically flushed from or near the grassy fringes of one of the valley's drainage ditches. A couple of years ago, a Long-eared Owl was found in the teasel woodlot southeast of the model plane airstrip. Snowy Owl has been recorded, and it's no surprise: the flats are well suited to this species' habitat preferences; in their periodic 'invasion' years Snowies are as likely to turn up at Martindale as anywhere else on the peninsula.
One or two Northern Shrikes are present throughout the winter, competing for attention with the 20 to 30 Western Meadowlarks that make the valley home in winter. Skylarks are usually present in small numbers, identifiable by the 'chirrup' call they give on being flushed. They no longer appear in the big flocks they once did.
The Martindale Valley is a 'hot spot' for winter rarities. Almost every CBC produces something special to warm a counter's heart: Harris' Sparrow in 1993, Orange-crowned Warbler and American Tree Sparrow in 1992, Horned Lark and Swamp Sparrow in 1991, Mountain Bluebird in 1990, Snow Goose in 1989, Palm Warbler in 1988, Swamp Sparrow in 1987. The Martindale zone always produces a higher species count than others in the Victoria count circle, and reached a peak of 104 in 1990 and 1991.
The Martindale Valley deserves the attention Peter Whelan and others have given it. In all seasons, and in its many different faces, Martindale is a vital and beautiful oasis for a great number of migrant and breeding birds.
Site Guide originally written by Alan MacLeod for British Columbia Field Ornithologist 4(3) September 1994.
The Martindale Valley birding ethics sub-code is as follows: