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Clover Point is for the Birds by Agnes Lynn

(This article was originally published in the April 2007 Newsletter)

Clover Point isn't exactly Beacon Hill Park but we like to think of the entire waterfront area near the Park as part of it whether we are talking about plants or birds. The rare birds on Clover Point are as important as the rare plants. This unique geographical feature jutting out into the ocean makes it a popular stopping point for many interesting species. I thought you might like to know about some of the common and uncommon species that one can enjoy on or near Clover Point. It is one of the very best bird watching spots on Vancouver Island.

The most obvious birds working the rocks right now are the noisy Black Oystercatchers, Black Turnstones, Surfbirds, Dunlin, Black-bellied Plovers and Sanderlings. They are around the Point for many months of the year. I have been down there either in the pouring rain or late in the day when it is almost dark and no one else is around to disturb them. I have seen the Surfbirds and the Black-bellied Plovers come right up on to the grassy areas to enjoy the change of habitat. It is a treat to examine them closely. I'm looking forward to the arrival back of the Least Sandpipers and Western Sandpipers any day now. Clover Point is a favourite stop for us crazy birders as we might see a Greater or Lesser Yellowlegs, a Spotted Sandpiper, Killdeer or a few of the less common shorebirds, in season, such as Baird's Sandpiper, Semi-palmated Sandpiper, Short-billed Dowitcher, Whimbrel or Marbled Godwit. There is a slight chance of seeing a Red Knot, Semi-palmated Plover, Ruddy Turnstone or a Rock Sandpiper working around the Point. These last birds are very infrequent visitors to the area and might show up a couple of times per year.

The Victoria Natural History Society operates a Rare Bird Alert hotline at (250) 704-2555 or www.vicnhs.bc.ca on the web. If you spot a rare bird, call this number and if you are interested in what rare birds are around, either listen to the message on that phone line or check the web site. To decide if the bird is a rarity, we have a checklist which you can obtain from Swan Lake Nature Sanctuary ($2.00) or I often have a few spares with me if you happen to see me there. If you see something you are not sure about, you could ask anyone that you see with a spotting scope as those are normally the keen birders and most will be willing to answer your questions about a particular bird.

There are also other birds besides shore birds and water birds. Regrettably, the Rock Pigeons have claimed a spot down on the Point but I recently saw a California Quail hanging out on the rocks with the other shorebirds, not rare but interesting, probably visiting from Anderson Park in Oak Bay. We have none in Beacon Hill Park due to the dogs on the loose. As to owls, we have Great Horned Owl and Barred Owl close to the waterfront but not necessarily right on the Point, more likely in the shoreline shrubbery but a Short-eared Owl was seen not long ago right down on the beach. Near Christmas 2005, there were several reports of Snowy Owls on or near Clover Point. One perched on the lamp standard right on the Point. In the warmer weather, the Turkey Vultures also like to take a few passes by to see what is happening and they try to find nearby thermals to cruise around in like the hang gliders do. The Bald Eagles are almost always nearby. A couple of them are currently trying to set up housekeeping in the Park and they visit the Point frequently. The previous couple nested in the Park for 20 or so years. They nested near the Great Blue Heron Rookery which contains about 100 nests. The heron babies hatched just in time to be food for the baby eagles, sad but true. The Great Blue Herons also hang around the Point and the beach nearby to do their fishing. An occasional Osprey is seen but they don't nest in the area currently. We frequently see a Peregrine Falcon working between the Point and the Park dining on all sorts of other birds. There are even photos of a Peregrine attacking a Marbled Godwit. It carted it away but dropped it. The observer last saw the Godwit had recovered and was flying rapidly out to sea to escape the Peregrine. We do not know the end of that story. The Cooper's Hawks that nest in Beacon Hill Park occasionally check out the Point for easy snacks as well.

We have observed an American Kestrel checking out the dining possibilities on the grassy slope above the Point towards the road. Here we find Savannah Sparrows and the occasional Horned Lark and Lapland Longspur later in the summer. Long-time birder Ron Satterfield said that in the past the Point frequently had these species in good numbers plus birds such as the Western Meadowlark and Snow Bunting but these last two are now extremely rare here. Now with the dogs running rampant over the area, not much sets down on the grass. Ron said that years back he could easily count about 70 species on his walk along from his house just the other side of Ross Bay Cemetery to Clover Point. Now we would be very lucky to find 40 species. A very rare bird for Victoria was seen at Clover Point in late November. It was a Gray-crowned Rosy Finch, more commonly found high in the mountains. We had quite the gathering of birders there that Saturday morning from all over the island. It stayed for a few days and was protected from the dogs and people by staying up close to the sewer pumping station building out of harms way. Other odd visitors lately have been a Townsend's Solitaire and a Palm Warbler, neither bird being at all common in the Victoria area. I won't mention the other nearby woodsy birds who do make passes by the Point to check out the situation as they generally don't hang around that long. Oh, I guess the European Starlings and the Northwestern Crow do spend a lot of time on the beach.

I always check all the gulls on the rocks and in the water for rarities. The most common gull is the Glaucous-winged Gull, followed by the petite Mew Gull which really does have a call that sounds like its name. You will see a very few Herring Gulls or Western Gulls but quite a few Thayer's Gulls once you learn to recognize their small bill and bubble-gum coloured legs. In the warmer months, you will see California Gulls and some Bonaparte Gulls but the Bonaparte are often far out on the water traveling in large flocks. Heermann's Gulls will show up later on. They have red bills so are easy to identify. You might find an uncommon Ring-billed Gull or something even more exciting such as a Slaty-backed Gull. Of course, once you think you have them sorted out, they will moult and totally confuse you and I haven't even mentioned all the hybrids. Gulls take a lifetime to learn. You might spot a look-a-like gull fly by such as a Black-legged Kittiwake and, later on, we usual have some Terns. Last year there were Caspian Terns around for quite a while. There were a few at Clover Point but the bulk of them stay at Esquimalt Lagoon. Also on the water I have seen Red-necked Phalarope and you might possibly see Red Phalarope in amongst the gulls on the water. They are a treat that you normally would only see from the Coho ferry or farther offshore.

Last fall we were treated to a rare spectacle when the Brown Pelicans stopped at Clover Point. One day there were two who rested there. I was only lucky enough to see one. There is a photo of it accompanying this article. It was a juvenile. Adults were seen at Race Rocks about the same time. I was most distressed to see stupid people rushing up to it despite it obviously being stressed, probably very exhausted and hungry as it should not have been anywhere near Victoria but much further south. One person was even approaching with a long stick. My husband told me to hush up when I yelled at the idiots to stay back but I didn't care. The bird needed someone to speak up for it.

So we have hardly even mentioned what you can see in the water yet. Unfortunately very common is the Canada Goose who hangs out on the rocks or in the water. The ducks who are closest to shore are the beautiful Harlequin Ducks. They frolic around in the water near the shore and often are resting just at the edge of the water. It is hard to believe their beautiful colours. An odd little duck that showed up not that long ago was a Ruddy Duck, more common on fresh water. Also in close are the year-round Mallards and the American Wigeon who leave in the summer. There are three different Cormorant around and they may be perched out of the water drying their wings or busy fishing. In order, from most common to uncommon, are Double-crested, Pelagic and Brant Cormorant. There is an undocumented record of a Red-faced Cormorant. Hooded, Common and Red-breasted Mergansers are usually close to shore. Likewise Buffleheads are close in and are a dime-a-dozen over the winter but gone in the summer. The Common Goldeneye hangs out near the Bufflehead but there are just a few of these around. You will see a little farther out a good number of Surf Scoters but will only see White-winged Scoter once in a while. If you are lucky, you will spot a group of Long-tailed Ducks. They rarely come in singles. Typically out there are also Common Loon, Pacific Loon and Red-throated Loon. It is extremely rare to see a Yellow-billed Loon. The last bunch of birds in this middle area is the Red-necked, Horned and Western Grebe. They are harder to see than the others so a spotting scope helps here. The alcids commonly are farther out and much harder to see. From most common to uncommon, they include Pigeon Guillemots, Rhinoceros Auklets, Common Murre, Marbled Murrelets and Ancient Murrelets. It is very rare to spot a Cassin's Auklet. Another member of that group is the Tufted Puffin which is a very occasional fly-by.

That covers almost all the birds commonly seen at Clover Point but other uncommon ones include fly-bys of Trumpeter Swans, Greater White-fronted Geese and Brant. A couple of recent odd sightings of off-shore birds included a Pomarine Jaeger and a Northern Fulmar as Clover Point juts out enough to catch a few of those birds normally only seen by boat.

Would you believe the above list of birds only includes those seen over the last year or so as reported by the local birding community? I mention this because I want you to go out and enjoy this rare piece of real estate. It is used by too many people and dogs for other activities than bird-watching and it concerns many people that the over-use will further degrade what birds and how many stop here. The birds use Clover Point as a safe spot to spend a bit of time to have a rest after a long journey or to 'grab' a bite to eat. I would like to take this opportunity to suggest some changes to Clover Point access. The planners have suggested that cars should be banned from Clover Point but I don't believe the cars are that serious of a problem if driven slowly. If necessary, some speed bumps could be added to slow the cars down but I don't believe we need to have cars removed from the area for the well-being of the birds. The drive around and places to park give great pleasure to the able-bodied but more importantly to those who are not able to get out and walk along the shore. It is as close as they can get to being out on the water without actually going out on a boat which is not practical for most people. What I do believe needs to be done is to eliminate the off-leash dogs from the Point. It would be simple enough to make the boundary for the off-leash area a ways back from Clover Point. They already have a very long piece of extremely prime waterfront for the doggies. The dogs lobby would wildly object to eliminating dogs completely from Clover Point but having the dogs on leash and having enforcement 7 days a week during all daylight hours would be very beneficial to the birds. I believe we would see a lot more birds return to the area if this was put in place. When we compare our waterfront areas to other similar urban areas with strict curtailment of off-leash dogs, it has been shown that the population of birds has not dropped anywhere near as severely as in the Victoria area. But putting in the regulations will mean nothing unless enforcement is also there. If the city says that is too expensive to enforce, perhaps we could institute a system of volunteer wardens who monitor the situations as they do in the CRD Parks, not just related to dogs but to other regulations such as bikes and chasing or injuring animals and destroying habitat. The CRD wardens are very effective at pointing out the rules to the public and normally most people will heed the regulations if they are enforced in a consistent manner. Public pressure often works well to control those who continue to flaunt the rules. I really think it is worth trying before there are no birds left to be concerned about.

If you would like to have a quick peek at the birds of Clover Point, join us on Camas Day for our early morning bird walk. See the Camas Day poster for details.