A Good Year for Seeing Sandpipers

The Alberni Valley has never been a great place to see sandpipers (called shorebirds among birders). They generally like beaches and rocky coastlines. We see Killdeers, Spotted Sandpipers and Snipe here, the Killdeers and on farmer’s fields, Spotted Sandpipers along gravel bars of rivers and lakeshores and the Snipe in wet areas of fields.

But there is little habitat for the majority of the 20 sandpiper species that regularly pass through. The little habitat that exists is at what’s left of the estuary of the Somass River. And it is pretty inaccessible. For one thing, it is on the other side of the river. You need to drive through the Tseshaht Reserve along the Shoemaker Bay Road till you come to the road into the wastewater treatment ponds, on the left. It’s gated. So you need to walk in from there. That’s a 2.5 km walk along a semi-private road, before you get to the mudflats and gravel islands. And then it has to be low tide.

Or you could hop in a kayak, paddleboard or small boat to get there.

Pair of Least Sandpipers. They are the world’s smallest sandpiper.

This year however, you don’t need to go as far. The City of Port Alberni is near the end of a long construction project to update and improve the water quality of the sewage effluent into the end of the inlet. To do this, it bought the old, unused mill effluent lagoon and converted it to handle human waste. The old lagoon has been “dewatered” leaving a large puddle in the middle surrounded by sludge. It is a wonderful imitation of a mud flat. And it is attracting a nice variety of sandpipers. The walk in is almost half as long.

Young Solitary Sandpiper: Uncommon, you don’t see these in flocks, white spectacles and long yellowish legs.

Last year 4 shorebird species were seen at the estuary in August. In contrast, this year 11 species have been recorded, including Baird’s Sandpiper, Pectoral Sandpiper, both Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, and a Red-necked Phalarope.

Shorebirds are notoriously hard to identify. But digital cameras have made things much easier. One can now take dozens of pictures with exceptionally high performing zoom optics combined with so many features like auto focus, auto camera settings, that good pictures are pretty much guaranteed. So this has helped match the field marks that web pages tell us to look for, to the photo you’ve taken.

But I digress. It’s a good year to see shorebirds at the Somass Estuary!