Victoria Harbour Migratory Bird Sanctuary

The Victoria Harbour Migratory Bird Sanctuary (MBS) is located on the south point of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. It offers an important habitat for many seabirds.

Importance of the sanctuary: migratory birds and other wildlife

Victoria Harbour Migratory Bird Sanctuary, the first bird sanctuary in Pacific Canada, is located along a busy wildlife corridor around the southern tip of Vancouver Island, in Juan de Fuca Strait, in the heart of the Salish Sea. It lies in traditional Lekwungen (Songhees and Esquimalt First Nations) territory, in “the place to smoke herring”. It also lies next to five municipalities in the Capital Regional District of British Columbia (BC): Victoria, Oak Bay, Esquimalt, Saanich and View Royal.

This sanctuary was established on October 27, 1923 to control hunting of birds such as Brant at a time when market hunting and rapidly dwindling numbers of geese and ducks were concerns. Low numbers of birds, for various reasons, remain a concern today. The sanctuary encompasses all of Victoria Public Harbour, one of the six federal harbours in BC included in the Six Harbours Agreement of 1924.

In recent decades, deindustrialization, cleanups, ecological restoration and wildlife recovery programmes by several governmental, private, non-governmental and volunteer agencies, enterprises and organizations have contributed to the return of clean waters and wildlife not seen in more than half a century, and fueled urban renewal. The construction of a regional sewage treatment plant, starting in 2017 after decades of discussions, is another noteworthy initiative.

This sanctuary is home for valuable wildlife including birds, fishes, mammals, molluscs, crustaceans, plants and other organisms including several species at risk. Though this sanctuary is located adjacent to a bustling city, it remains an important roosting and overwintering site for a large number of migratory bird species that use this vital habitat either seasonally or year-round. This sanctuary provide critical habitat for many species of coastal and marine plants and animals, including several federally designated Species at Risk.

Pacific black brant
Pacific black brant at Clover Point, 2017. Photo: Marie O’Shaughnessy
 

Did you know?

The pacific black brant, a small sea goose, is a fairly common spring migrant, often seen feeding on nearshore seaweed and eelgrass. Now rare winter residents, brant were common in winter 100 years ago, and were a favorite Christmas meal. A desire to rein in market hunting of birds, particularly brant, in the 1920s and 1930s, led to the establishment of three bird sanctuaries soon after the signing of the Migratory Bird Convention with the USA in 1916.

Main bird species present in this MBS include:

Outer coast, winter:

  • bufflehead
  • surf scoter
  • pacific loon
  • red-necked grebe
  • harlequin duck
  • black-bellied plover
  • black turnstone
  • mew gull

Protected waters, winter:

  • American wigeon
  • common merganser
  • hooded merganser
  • bufflehead

In summer:

  • rhinoceros auklet
  • Heermann’s gull
  • California gull
  • western purple martin
  • violet-green swallow
  • osprey

Year-round residents:

  • glaucous-winged gull
  • pigeon guillemot
  • black oystercatcher
  • pelagic cormorant
  • bald eagle
  • pacific great blue heron
  • belted kingfisher
  • Anna’s hummingbird
  • northwestern crow
  • common raven

The Oak Bay portion of the sanctuary is one of a number of regionally important wintering grounds for migratory birds. It has a total winter bird population of approximately 4200 birds, representing 21 species of waterbirds including gulls, cormorants, diving ducks (ducks that dive below the surface of the water to feed), dabbling ducks (ducks that feed mainly on the surface instead of diving), grebes, alcids (sea birds) and mergansers; 90% of this population is concentrated in waters less than 11 metres deep. Though many of these species are solely winter residents, several, such as the pelagic cormorant, are year-round residents of the area. Pelagic cormorants in particular have at least 239 pairs breeding on the Chain Islets, Lewis Reef and Harris Island. Of these islands, only Harris Island is included within the migratory bird sanctuary.

Landscape

This sanctuary includes 1840 hectares of marine and estuarine waters below the high-water mark, in Portage Inlet, the Gorge Waterway, the Selkirk Water, Victoria Harbour and in coastal waters from Macaulay Point to the Trial Islands and Ten Mile Point. It includes the shores of Holland, Finlayson, Clover, Harling, Gonzales and Cattle points, and Ross, Gonzales, McNeill, Oak and Cadboro bays.

This sanctuary contains a large area of marine water and coastline. The marine landscape is studded with small islands and rocky reefs, surrounded by strong tidal currents. The rocky shoreline is interspersed with sheltered and open water bays. A portion of the sanctuary contains a 7 km long narrow tidal channel that supports extensive eelgrass beds. The land around the sanctuary is low elevation and heavily urbanized. If undisturbed the vegetation develops into Garry Oak ecosystems. These rare communities are characterized by Garry Oak, Arbutus and beautiful wildflowers.

Habitats include shallow and fast-moving tidal waters, kelp forests, eelgrass and surfgrass meadows, mud flats, tidal marshes, small estuaries (Colquitz, Craigflower and Bowker), shellfish beds, fish and krill nurseries, sand and pebble beaches, rocky shores and several islands with maritime meadows and dwarf Garry oaks. The sanctuary provides important habitat for all kinds of birds and wildlife, including rare and endangered plants of the Garry oak associated ecosystems (Macoun’s meadowfoam, Victoria’s owl-clover), olympia oysters (Species of Special Concern), northern abalone and southern resident orcas (endangered).

Did you know?

The noisy and comic displays of the black oystercatcher can be observed on the rocky shores year-round. This large shorebird nests on several islands and islets. In winter up to 75 oystercatchers congregate and roost on islets near Kitty Islet in Oak Bay.

Black oystercatcher
Black oystercatcher. Photo: Marie O’Shaughnessy


The inner and outer harbours provide wintering areas for mergansers, while offshore kelp beds at McMicking Point, Clover Point and the numerous small bays each support additional bird life, particularly shorebirds. The Clover Point area attracts impressive numbers of waterbirds, especially during the winter months; Over a 4-year period, 161 species of birds have been seen at the point. While some of these birds are rare or infrequently seen, a large number are common to the area.

Did you know?

Grebes regularly eat their own feathers and feed them to their newly hatched chicks. This behaviour helps them to form a pellet out of any indigestible material that they may have eaten, which they later regurgitate.

Areas such as the head of Portage Inlet and the Trial Islands are considered to be especially important for wildlife. Portage Inlet, an area of extensive eelgrass beds, provides important habitat for wintering waterfowl.

Map of the area

Map of Victoria Harbour Migratory Bird Sanctuary
  • Long description

    Map showing the location of the Victoria Harbour Migratory Bird Sanctuary (MBS) in relation to British Columbia, Victoria, Esquimalt, Portage Inlet, Clover Point, Trial Islands, McMicking Point, Harris Island, Oak Bay, Baynes Channed et au détroit de Haro. The map shows the refuge boundaries, which enclose a large part of waters surrounding south part of the Island and spread towards the navigational passage between Esquimalt and Victoria. The MBS is located south of Highways 1 and 17. The scale of the map is in kilometers. Permanent waters, intermittent waters, roads and highways are shown on the map. An inset on the map shows the location of the shelter in Canada.

Planning your visit

Ignored and neglected for decades, Victoria Harbour Migratory Bird Sanctuary may be the most visited and “bird watched” sanctuary in Canada simply by virtue of its urban location, the abundance of urban parks and public spaces around it, its natural beauty, and the large, regional populations of birders and nature enthusiasts. In 2015, it was recognized as NatureHood by Nature Canada for its exceptional coastal and marine wildlife, possibly the best in urban Canada.

Migratory Bird Sanctuaries, such as Victoria Harbour, are established for the protection and conservation of migratory birds. Whether these areas are used for feeding, resting or nesting, they play an important role in the survival of many species. Activities that could harm migratory birds, their nests or their eggs are prohibited. Portions of the Victoria Harbour Migratory Bird Sanctuary are designated as a provincial ecological reserve and are governed by an additional set of regulations. Please ensure that you are aware of how you can help protect this sanctuary and please read the restrictions, including those on firearms and hunting, which are in place to conserve the wildlife that call it home. Dogs and cats must not be allowed to run at large inside Migratory Bird Sanctuaries.

If you would like further information on what is permitted in Migratory Bird Sanctuaries, please visit the Management and Activities section of the website. For more information on Victoria Harbour Migratory Bird Sanctuary in particular, please contact our regional office.

Key facts about Victoria Harbour Migratory Bird Sanctuary

Protected Area designation Migratory Bird Sanctuary
Province or territory British Columbia
Latitude/longitude 48°25' N, 123°20' W
Size 1841 hectares (31.03 terrestrial and 1809.97 ha marine)
Date created (Gazetted) 1923
International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) management category N/A
Additional designations None
Main habitat type Open sea (60%), rocky seashore (20%) and tidal channel (20%)
Key bird species Canada goose, glaucous-winged gull, pelagic cormorant, mergansers, dabbling and diving ducks, loons, grebes, shorebirds, alcids, pigeon guillemot, black oystercatcher, bald eagle, pacific great blue heron, belted kingfisher, Anna’s hummingbird, northwestern crow, common raven and America white pelican.
Listed species under the Species at Risk Act (SARA) Ancient murrelet, band-tailed pigeon, marbled murrelet, red knot (roselaari), pacific great blue heron (fannini), peregrine falcon (pealei), vesper sparrow (affinis), grey whale, harbour porpoise, humpback whale, killer whale, sea otter, steller sea lion, northern abalone, olympia oyster, bearded owl-clover, bear’s-foot sanicle, California buttercup, coastal scouler’s catchfly, dense-flowered lupine, golden paintbrush, Macoun’s meadowfoam, rosy owl-clover, seaside birds-foot lotus, Victoria’s owl-clover, white-top aster
Management agency Canadian Wildlife Service, Pacific Region
Landowners Transport Canada, Department of National Defense and Province of British Columbia

Related links

Contact information

Environment and Climate Change Canada – Pacific and Yukon Region
Canadian Wildlife Service
Ecosystem Conservation
5421 Robertson Road
Delta BC V4K 3N2

Toll Free: 1-800-668-6767 (in Canada only)
Email: ec.enviroinfo.ec@canada.ca

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