Each year in the spring and again in the fall, hundreds of thousands of shorebirds pass through B.C. on migration. (The term shorebird, is used to describe a large group of species which includes the sandpipers, plovers and several other related families.)
Typically, shorebirds feed along muddy shorelines, on beaches, or in wet fields. By far the most important feeding area in B.C. is the Fraser River delta. It is not unusual to see flocks of thousands in that area in early May. The interior of the province has no locations that attract such huge flocks, but there are a few locations that can boast some impressive numbers. Certainly the best spot in the southern interior is the mud flats at Salmon Arm. It is possible to spend a day there and see up to a thousand shorebirds of ten to fifteen different species.
The Arrow Lakes Valley is normally quite poor for shorebirds and will never challenge Salmon Arm. The ever-changing water level on the lake is undoubtedly what makes this valley so unattractive. Such conditions make it impossible for shoreline and aquatic vegetation to establish. In most places the mud and sand usually associated with shallow edges have been washed away leaving nothing but rocks and gravel.
There are just a few places left that still offer a little suitable habitat: the flats at Burton, the bay adjacent to the wharf in Nakusp, and around the mouth of the Kuskanax, for example. Despite these patches of apparently suitable feeding habitat, I see very few shorebirds in the valley.
But I got a very pleasant surprise last week as I was walking across the flats between the Nakusp beach and the mouth of the creek. First I saw two Semipalmated Plovers. At a glance, this bird looks similar to the more familiar Killdeer, but it is quite a bit smaller. Unlike the Killdeer, it will not remain to breed in the region. Also on the same little patch of mud there were seven Least Sandpipers and two Semipalmated Sandpipers. These small sandpipers, about the size of sparrows, run around on the shore picking up tiny morsels from the wet mud. None of these species occur regularly in the valley, and all are seen more often in the fall than the spring. Personally, I have seen each of these three species in spring no more than four times in the last 35 years.
As interesting as these birds were, the star of the show that day was a Marbled Godwit. This is a much larger shorebird with a very long two-toned orange and black bill. They winter in the southern U.S. and breed in the prairies. A godwit anywhere in B.C. is a good sighting; I have never seen one in the Kootenays before.
Just to round out a good day’s birding, I also saw a Caspian Tern along the lake’s edge. This large tern with a blood-red bill has only been reported on four previous occasions in our region.
One unexpected bird is exciting, but to get five in the same stretch of shoreline on the same day is quite remarkable! That’s what keeps me coming back.