Watching Over Western Sandpipers
Join BirdNote on a trip to the Fraser River Estuary, where fresh water meets the salty Pacific Ocean in British Columbia, Canada. Scientists are confirming what locals and birders have long known: these mudflats are an important stopover point for Western Sandpipers during their epic migratory journey. But a proposed port expansion could jeopardize an important food source for the birds. Learn more about this threat to Western Sandpipers — and meet the people working to protect them.
There's more to the story!
- Get involved in shorebird conservation
- Learn more about the Fraser River Estuary
- Read about the Lower Fraser Fisheries Alliance
- Check out the Pacific Shorebird Conservation Initiative
- Learn why First Nations oppose the Roberts Bank terminal expansion
- Dive deeper into port expansion issues
- Visit the Roberts Bank Terminal 2 website
Ari Daniel: Hey there, I’m Ari Daniel, and this is Threatened, a new show from BirdNote about answering the call to protect the birds and places we love. The Pacific Flyway is a migratory route for at least a billion birds. For many, like the Western Sandpiper, it’s and epic journey twice a year. Each spring, they fly from wintering grounds in South America all the way to the arctic where they breed in the summer. They then fly south again in the fall.
Scientists studying one stop along this route, where freshwater meets the salty Pacific Ocean, are finding what locals and birders have long known. The Fraser Estuary is an important pit-stop along that journey. Producer Molly Segal takes us out onto the mudflats...
Molly Segal: At Brunswick Point, 18 miles south of Vancouver, British Columbia, on a late summer evening, you might find Amy Huestis stopping to marvel at the many types of birds that travel through this coastal spot:
Amy Huestis: The Western Sandpiper is a small shorebird that's kind of gray and brown on top and white on the bottom, and it travels in very large numbers.
[MUSIC starts to play: “Set the Tip Jar”]
It's so mysterious the way that they move in their big cloud… They move like a school of fish. They move in synchronized form… with white bellies and catching the light. And it appears and disappears in front of your eyes if it does that. And if it's happening at sunset, the white bellies of the birds will turn the color of the sunset. So they might turn completely orange and flash brilliant colors. So the way that you feel when you see fireworks or something like that or sparks going off, it's like, it's happening, but it's birds making it happen.
Molly Segal: Amy is an artist.
Amy Huestis: I walk every day at Brunswick Point.
Molly Segal: Every day for the past four years, Amy’s visited this spot.
She walks the trail, she writes, she draws and she soaks up her surroundings.
It’s part of a tidal mudflat.
Amy Huestis: The mudflats are very silvery and pretty. Right now they're extra pretty in the sunset because the sunset colors are reflecting and the water rivulets that run along them and they are tidal. So right now the tide is going out and part of the mudflats are exposed and part are under water. The parts that are exposed are covered in birds. Little shorebirds and herons are out there… There are just so many birds here, so many kinds of birds come through this one little spot.
Molly Segal: Depending on when you’re here, you might see Great Blue Herons, American Wigeons, Trumpeter Swans, or Snow Geese. Other shorebirds like Dunlin or Black-bellied Plovers… This place is where British Columbia’s longest river, the Fraser, meets the Pacific Ocean. The Fraser River Estuary is that in-between spot, where the fresh river water meets the ocean. And it’s considered one of Canada’s Important Bird Areas. In Canada, these areas aren’t necessarily protected, but they’re internationally recognized as being crucial bird habitat. The Western Sandpiper is one of those birds that stops through here. They weigh only about an ounce and a half — or, as people around here like to say, the same as a granola bar. Western Sandpipers migrate back and forth between the Arctic, where they breed, and as far south as Panama for the winters. On their way north, hundreds of thousands of them come through this area. In some years as many as 60% of the world’s Western Sandpipers stop here, in the Important Bird Area of the Fraser River Estuary.
[SFX murmuration of western sandpipers]
Molly Segal: And those shifting, glimmering clouds of birds – called murmurations – captivate many people.
Jason Puddifoot: It's a very individual pursuit. Being out on the mudflats, it's not a lot of people want to go out there and get covered in mud up to their navel, basically.
Molly Segal: The first time Jason Puddifoot came to Roberts Bank was about fifteen years ago
Jason Puddifoot: My partner took me out there on a date.
Molly Segal: It was during the birds’ spring migration north. When they got here, there wasn’t a single Western Sandpiper. But ten minutes later:
Jason Puddifoot: Thousands of these sandpipers came around the point and were flying right towards us. And they landed right there… at that moment I said this is something I want to do again. This is something I want to see again. Experience again.
Molly Segal: And he has. Every year he goes out and spends hours at a time at Roberts Bank to record sounds and video and to take photos. Roberts Bank is a hotspot for birds and those giant clouds of migrating sandpipers draw in bird watchers, convert non-birders into birders and captivate scientists, like Robert Elner.
Robert Elner: I was drawn to them initially by their numbers… Their beauty in terms of their flight and the amazing fact that they're migrating so far and they’re such tiny birds.
Molly Segal: Robert is an emeritus scientist for Environment and Climate Change Canada. He’s not an ornithologist, but he ended up discovering something that may be the crux of the survival of these birds. To get there, though, we have to start with crabs. Robert researched various crab species that also use intertidal mudflats. He saw something crab-like in how these shorebirds, including Western Sandpipers, were also using those mudflats. At that time, Robert says, people thought we knew everything there was to know about what Western Sandpipers eat:
Robert Elner: It basically ascribed what they were feeding to invertebrates without regards whether or not invertebrates were there.
Molly Segal: But once he started digging into things, he realized that the birds weren’t eating invertebrates all the time.
Robert Elner: Initially, starting to look at their diet and being told by my colleagues I was wasting my time because their diet was so well known, but persevering and noticing that there wasn't a lot of food from where these birds were apparently feeding and then looking in their stomachs and seeing virtually nothing there either.
Molly Segal: At certain times of the year, they had nearly empty stomachs – what seemed to just be sediment – and a long migration just didn’t seem plausible. But he and a colleague noticed something unique about Western Sandpipers. They have hairy tongues.
Robert Elner: And then slowly that sort of putting that jigsaw together, that the hairy tongue represented something they were eating on the mudflats… If you carefully look at a mudflat, you notice a gleam to it. I can sense the color to it.
Molly Segal: What he describes as a greeny-blue tinge.
Robert Elner: You can feel it if you're very careful; you put your finger right on the surface. It feels like the little bit mucous-y when you pull it away; you can actually taste it. It has a slight slightly sort of seafish-type sort of taste to it.
Molly Segal: This mucous-y coating on the mud is called biofilm. And take a close look at that biofilm… ok, not with the human eye, because I’m talking really, really small… and it’s full of living things – diatoms, which are single-celled algae. In other words, untold numbers of microscopic plant-like organisms. Robert saw the sandpipers eating this stuff. And it clicked: this is what the hairy tongues were for: picking those tiny diatoms out of the muck. But there was something else going on.
Robert Elner: The biofilm at that time when the birds were there was being subject to a shock, a salinity shock. That's our belief.
Molly Segal: In the spring, there’s a gradual increase of fresh water flowing into the estuary from the Fraser River. And when that fresh water meets the salt water, it creates the “salinity shock.”
Robert Elner: That salinity shock changed the diatoms from being ordinary plants, photosynthesizing producing sugars, into basically shutting down and producing high quantities of lipids in a very unique fashion.
Molly Segal: This is important. The birds were eating diatoms – those tiny algae – but instead of being rich in sugars, Robert found they were instead full of fatty acids. Side bar: in humans, one of the most well-known fatty acids is Omega-3. It turns out Western Sandpipers were seeking out other nutrient-rich fatty acids. Specific kinds of them and at specific times of year. The Western Sandpipers were eating the fatty-acid rich diatoms when they stopped over on their way north to breed — about half of the energy they get at this stopover is from the biofilm. They use their hairy tongues to suck up the biofilm on the mud – which explains the sediment in their stomachs. That “salinity shock” was literally changing what those tiny diatoms were producing. As for what the Western Sandpipers need these fatty acids for… you have to get out on the mudflat to answer that question… Like marine biologist Pat Baird, who’s based at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia.
Pat Baird: I've no idea why I'm always the one with my boots getting sucked into the mud.
Molly Segal: Pat studies seabirds, as well as shorebirds, and what they eat.
So, despite her better judgment, she’s spent a lot of time wrestling the mud in the Fraser.
Pat Baird: I'm always having to get pulled up in like my feet out of the mud, which I like, started to sink.
Molly Segal: A lot of birds migrate. But the Western Sandpiper has to go really far to mate. From as far south as Panama all the way north to the Arctic. Imagine if you were about to run a marathon you might eat a lot to prepare for that. Carbs. Protein bars. Western Sandpipers have specific requirements to make that journey.
Pat Baird: Well, it's like the British navy, when they went on those long voyages: their teeth fell out, they got gum disease.
Molly Segal: British sailors struggling with scurvy until they realized it was all due to a lack of vitamin C.
Pat Baird: then they found out that vitamin C helped them with that. And so they have enough things to eat, but they didn't have this one particular nutrient that was vital to their health.
Molly Segal: For sailors it was vitamin C deficiency, and citrus was a cure. For Western Sandpipers flying north to mate, a lot of the stuff they need to survive and to breed is hidden in the muck of the biofilm. She gives me a list of what those fatty acids help with: like cognition.
Pat Baird: They're trying to remember their route north; it helps with that, it helps with vision.
Molly Segal: And forming membranes, which they’ll need up north when laying their eggs.
Pat Baird: It helps with immunity. So, like, if you're migrating a long distance… if you get sick, if you get a virus or something, that impedes whatever you're doing. And so it's best not to get sick on the way north if you want to breed.
[MUSIC: ZigZag Heart]
The more I learn, the more incredulous I get… Diatoms are critical. They're the crux of the entire food web.
Molly Segal: If that process that “shocks” those diatoms into producing fatty acids — when the fresh water sloshes into the salt water — if it gets disrupted, the ripple effects could be big. Because when you’re talking about an estuary, you’re really talking about more than just the estuary, but also everything it touches… The Salish Sea on North America’s west coast, where the Fraser Estuary meets the Pacific Ocean… and back upstream...
[bring in sounds from Misty on Fraser River]
The reverberations could extend out to organisms that make their home in these waterways, like salmon…
Misty MacDuffee: So I'm here at the side of the Fraser, It is a beautiful morning on the river.
Molly Segal: Misty MacDuffee is a biologist with the Raincoast Conservation Foundation. She’s the director of their wild salmon program. Follow the Fraser upstream, and you’ll eventually meet the Harrison River, which is where Misty’s out on a boat, looking for Chinook salmon.
Misty MacDuffee: Now this is their homeward migration as adults, big four-year-old, sometimes five-year-old and six-year-old Chinook salmon that are returning to their spawning grounds.
Molly Segal: The Fraser River Estuary is vital for salmon. The Chinook salmon Misty’s looking for today and other species:
Misty MacDuffee: All five species of salmon rear and migrate through this estuary.
Molly Segal: Chum, coho, chinook, pink and sockeye.
Misty MacDuffee: The estuary is a place where they acclimatize to the presence of salt water, which is a big physiological change for the fish to go through.
Molly Segal: The Fraser River Estuary is that key transitional spot for these salmon, where they go from freshwater to saltwater. And the Important Bird Area encompasses this estuary and the mudflats. But it also extends over nearby areas containing farms, municipalities, and a busy port where container ships arrive and depart.
[SFX Jason’s recordings of the Port]
Molly Segal: The port at Roberts Bank is in the middle of those mudflats where the Western Sandpipers congregate. The Vancouver Fraser Port Authority proposed an expansion: to convert 177 hectares of mudflat and marshlands into more port. The proposed Roberts Bank Terminal 2 would handle larger containers, and more of them. The proposal has many people worried that it’ll be too much for some of the birds in this area. Like the Western Sandpipers. But the Roberts Bank Terminal Two proposal would make things difficult for other species too — like little salmon that have just hatched.
Misty MacDuffee: And if you're a tiny little juvenile salmon and you are wanting to migrate south, and it also is the route to the Pacific Ocean, you've got to get around physically, get around this project. And already the existing terminal is likely a barrier to that migration. What the proposed project would do is it would extend and expand the causeway and the footprint right out into Georgia Strait.
Molly Segal: A port expansion would make that obstacle even larger. And those small salmon?
Misty MacDuffee: They would have to move out into deeper and saltier water. And if you're a tiny little salmon, deeper, saltier water further away from shore is the last place you want to be.
Molly Segal: “The last place you want to be” because the open water means you’re more vulnerable to things that want to eat you. An estuary, with its mix of fresh and salt water, is a good place to adjust to that salt water… And it also has the food they need. A majority of the Fraser River’s 19 populations of Chinook salmon have been identified as at risk or worse. But Misty says if the port expansion moves ahead, things could get even tougher for the fish.
[MUSIC: Arctic Draba]
Molly Segal: Countless development projects have already changed British Columbia’s coast.
Murray Ned: Yeah, I think RBT2 is just one of many, one of thousands, probably one of thousands of impacts that have occurred over a much longer period of time… it and numerous other projects have contributed to where we’re at today.
Molly Segal: This is Murray Ned.
Murray Ned: I’ve lived in Sumas First Nation the majority of my life.
Molly Segal: He’s the executive director of the Lower Fraser Fisheries Alliance, a group that gives voice to some of the First Nations communities in the lower Fraser.
Murray Ned: There's two things that have been managed in my lifetime. And one is the fish and the other one is Indians or First Nations or Indigenous people. And the government of Canada, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans has full responsibility and perhaps the accountability for the management of fish.
Molly Segal: That means they decide which populations of which species, like salmon, can be fished – how many and when.
Murray Ned: I have to be very clear that First Nations have been displaced from management and control for over 150 years.
Molly Segal: Since he started fishing in the early ‘80s, Murray’s seen big changes in the number of fish out there, and with that, decreases in the amount he can catch and number of days he can fish. Pacific salmon stocks have declined for numerous reasons, including destruction of habitat, overfishing, and climate change. Some fisheries don’t open at all some seasons. These changes are already having an impact on future generations having access to fish like salmon.
Murray Ned: If you don't have the time on the river to be able to practice and share that, then you start to lose an opportunity to be able to share and then they lose out on, you know, a form of lifestyle and a way to at least sustain and provide some food for the food security for the year.
Molly Segal: Salmon have come up as part of the conversation surrounding the proposal for Roberts Bank Terminal 2. As part of the process, the port authority submitted its proposal for impact assessment. And in March of 2020, the review panel came out with its findings on that plan. It’s all very bureaucratic. The report is literally hundreds of pages and was submitted to the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada. In it, the panel raises concerns…including adverse effects on some First Nations in British Columbia. The review panel specifically mentions cultural heritage as well as loss of land use and resources. A few of the First Nations cited by the review panel have delegates with Murray’s group, the Lower Fraser Fisheries Alliance: Tsawwassen, Musqueam, and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations.
Rueben George: Over 80 percent of our traditional diet came from the ocean, and that, of course, included the salmon. And, you know, I'm only one generation removed from a traditional diet. I’m Rueben George from Tsleil Waututh Nation and a manager of Sacred Trust, which is an initiative to stop the Trans Mountain Pipeline
Molly Segal: Rueben left his career in family therapy to work on environmental issues full time.
Rueben George: And think of the beautiful area that we live in. Then just think of the destruction that this will cause. Think of the day that these things will not exist. And, you know, so much of the world's species have already died.
Molly Segal: In 2019 he spoke out in solidarity with the Lummi Nation over their concerns the proposed port expansion would reverberate beyond the Canada-US border.
Ellie Kinley: My traditional name is Tamas and I'm a member of the Lummi Nation.
Molly Segal: Ellie Kinley lives on the Lummi reservation just north of Bellingham in Washington State. Her treaty rights – both in Canada and the United States – allow her to fish a quota of salmon from the Fraser. She fishes commercially as well as for her own personal consumption. But traffic in the Salish Sea already has an impact on her.
Ellie Kinley: When we're out fishing all along the San Juan Island, these ships pass through, going from the south to the north. Two years ago, we were fishing off the top of the San Juan Island.
Molly Segal: A container ship went through.
Ellie Kinley: It sent a wave that was probably... eight feet high, at least. It was frightening.
[sound up from video clip]
Molly Segal: This is from a video her brother recorded. In it, you can see the wave crash into her boat.
Ellie Kinley: So it literally endangered our fishermen… And I don't even know what to think about an even larger ship coming into the Salish Sea. What that would do.
Duncan Wilson: What we're seeing is that vessels are getting larger. We're not getting more of them.
Molly Segal: Duncan Wilson is the vice president of environment, community and government affairs for the Vancouver Port Authority, which is leading the proposed expansion.
Duncan Wilson: So the number of container vessels calling the port over the last decade has been relatively flat, even though the cargo volumes have really gone up. And that's a trend that we expect to continue. We're running low on container capacity right now. And that's very important for us, not just because, most people think about containers is import goods, but in Canada, in Vancouver in particular, we export tremendous amounts in containers. So we need those, we need the containers coming in to have the empties to fill up with Canadian exports.
[MUSIC: Greyleaf Willow]
Molly Segal: Because the Lummi Nation is in the US, Ellie says the Vancouver Port Authority did not consult them about the proposed terminal 2 expansion.
Ellie Kinley: Just because there's an invisible border there doesn't mean the harm is going to stop at the border.
Molly Segal: She lives just 32 miles south of where the Fraser River meets the Salish Sea. For Ellie, there’s already too much traffic from ferries and shipping.
The salmon she fishes from the Fraser are already compromised… so to see another factor that could further complicate things for salmon?
Ellie Kinley: Can I use the word ludicrous? The Fraser River stocks are in trouble as it is. How do they even think it's possible to put that much more in those in the pathway of those fish and feel like it won't have an impact on those salmon? And salmon are only just one part of the ecosystem. You you harm the salmon, the Orca are right behind that. It's just incredible that they even think they can do that?
[gradual soundup from Fraser/Harrison – sound of an Osprey in the distance]
Molly Segal: For biologist Misty MacDuffee, these connections are crucial to understanding the importance of the Fraser River Estuary habitat.
Misty MacDuffee: You could focus just on single species, but really, it's an entire food web. Estuaries are these critical nurseries and feeding grounds in this whole food web of species that interact and rely on each other. Salmon and killer whales and Western Sandpipers are really just sentinels for how the entire food web is doing.
George Harvie: When I asked about the preliminary effects and concerns on, say, the killer whale population here, they said they would mitigate to the best of their ability.
Molly Segal: This is George Harvie. He’s the mayor of the city of Delta, where the Roberts Bank terminal is located.
George Harvie: And every time even and during the panel discussions, when we ask questions about threats to various species, et cetera, environmental concerns, and they've kept saying they would mitigate to the best of their ability. That doesn't give me much confidence at all. We need economic engines like the port for Canada. But in this case, the federal scientists could not support the project.
Molly Segal: Scientists with Environment and Climate Change Canada, who submitted their findings to the federal review panel. And their findings included some concerns around the environmental impacts.
George Harvie: And I believe very strongly that as a politician, as a mayor, we need to support our federal scientists. And until such time as federal scientists and the consultants for their Vancouver Fraser Report come together and have agreement, I cannot support this project.
[Jason sfx western sandpiper murmuration]
Molly Segal: This is what thousands of Western Sandpipers sound like. A mix of the birds as they feed and the port in the background. For Western Sandpipers, this fueling station is crucial, says biologist Pat Baird:
Pat Baird: They're kind of like, ah, like a little stepping stones north to their breeding grounds. And if one of the those stepping stones is not there, they just can't get there.
Molly Segal: She equates it to taking a long road trip where you run out of gas stations.
Pat Baird: Well, you couldn't go any farther. That would be it. Migration could theoretically stop because there are really no alternatives for these birds.
Molly Segal: The terminal two expansion at Roberts Bank could effectively take away a really important gas station from the sandpipers. So why wouldn’t they just stop elsewhere to breed?
Pat Baird: It’s just that these birds are programmed to go north and they're programmed to feed on these diatoms in order to be able to make that nonstop jump.
Molly Segal: Without it, scientists like Pat worry the Western Sandpipers simply wouldn’t make it.
[MUSIC: KeoKeo no drums]
Molly Segal: The Port of Vancouver has its own research on the mudflats and biofilm…
Here’s Duncan Wilson again.
Duncan Wilson: There will be no effect on the amount of biofilms as a result of the project. And even if there were small changes in the footprint, it's not going to, they'll not be of significance enough to have an impact there. The question is more about fatty acid content.
Molly Segal: But both Pat Baird and Robert Elner’s research shows this habitat needs the flow of cold water from the spring runoff, into the estuary, meeting the salty, tidal waters. It isn’t just fatty acids in general, it’s particular fatty acids at particular times of year. The proposed port expansion would change this flow of water. It’s clear to Pat Baird just how important it is to keep the estuary intact for the western sandpipers
[sounds from Jason of western sandpipers]
Pat Baird: I think if you walk there at most seasons, all you see is a bunch of mud and you think, “oh, that's an ugly place. Why don't they just put a giant port here?” But I think if you can walk there and see when the birds are actually using it, I think you'll get a better understanding. The more people that can go out there and walk along the dike and just look at the whole place in the springtime, in April, when the birds come through, I think will get a better appreciation of how important it is.
Molly Segal: It’s important not just for the Western Sandpipers and the many other birds, but for the people who’ve gotten toπ know the place — like artist Amy Huestis:
Amy Huestis: Visiting a place like Brunswick Point often is a way to engage with the bigger story of a, you know, mass extinction event. And we know very well that this is happening and we're seeing species disappear at an alarming rate. And the world we love in terms of wildlife is disappearing in front of us.
Molly Segal: And birders like Jason Puddifoot:
Jason Puddifoot: That connection to that sound they're they're saying something, you know, I don't know what they're saying, but they're they're doing something. And when they take off, you can actually feel them, too. You can actually feel the wind coming off their wings and hitting you as a large flock takes off directly beside you.
Molly Segal: When Western Sandpipers take off and continue their journey south for the winter, or north each spring to mate, they travel the Pacific Flyway. They don’t know the borders we create or the decisions we make about the spaces they use. But our decisions do have an impact on them. Not just for Western Sandpipers, but for so many other birds…
[Chorus of birds]
Ari Daniel: Thanks for joining us for this episode of Threatened. If you want to learn more about what you can do to help shorebirds, or where the port expansion currently stands, visit BirdNote.org and check out our show notes. Next week on Threatened, we head to the Boreal Forest, a vast swath of land that billions of birds call home.
Jeff Wells: And it is one of the most intact forest landscapes left on earth, about 80% intact. Virtually no footprint of industrial development. Because of that, it’s been able to support an incredible number of birds and diversity of birds.
Ari Daniel: And hear about the incredible journey to protect it.
Steven Nitah: Our people, they decided that we needed to protect the heart of our homeland, huge huge homeland. The most important lesson is if you take care of the land, the land will take care of you.
Ari Daniel: Subscribe now so you don’t miss it. You can also give a rating or review on Apple Podcasts — it really helps other listeners find the show. And stay in touch with us on social media by following BirdNote on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. BirdNote is an independent non-profit public media organization. If you like what you hear, support our programing. Visit our website, BirdNote.org, and click the donate button.
This episode was produced by Molly Segal, and me, Ari Daniel, with support from the BirdNote team. Thanks again for listening, and see you next week.
Artwork by Clint McMillen at Braincloud Design