Victoria Harbour Migratory Bird Sanctuary

Victoria Harbour Migratory Bird Sanctuary (MBS) is located in urban Greater Victoria, near the southern tip of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. It is home to approximately 270 bird species including seabirds, waterbirds and shorebirds, notably in winter. This site supports over 75 species of animals and plants of federal and provincial conservation concern. It covers 30 km of Victoria’s remarkable coastline and encompasses several unique natural areas.

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 restoration on the Trial Islands, the cleanup of the Gorge Waterway, Rock Bay and Laurel Point, and the construction of a regional sewage treatment plant are examples of noteworthy initiatives.

This sanctuary provides critical habitat and is home for valuable wildlife including birds, fishes, mammals, molluscs, crustaceans, plants and other organisms including several federally designated 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.

Image of a Marbled murrelet on the water
Marbled murrelet. Photo: Jacques Sirois 

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:

In winter:

  • bufflehead
  • surf scoter
  • pacific loon
  • common loon
  • red-necked grebe
  • horned grebe
  • harlequin duck
  • black-bellied plover
  • black turnstone
  • short-billed gull
  • American wigeon
  • common merganser
  • hooded merganser
  • red-breasted merganser
  • ancient murrelet
  • common murre
  • golden-crowned sparrow

In summer:

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

Year-round residents:

  • glaucous-winged gull
  • pigeon guillemot
  • black oystercatcher
  • pelagic cormorant
  • bald eagle
  • pacific great blue heron
  • belted kingfisher
  • Anna’s hummingbird
  • American crow
  • common raven
  • mallard
  • Canada goose
  • marbled murrelet
  • Brandt’s cormorant
  • double-crested cormorant
  • Cooper’s hawk
  • song sparrow

The Oak Bay area within and near the MBS is known for its importance to birds. In particular, over 230 species have been recorded along Enterprise Channel, as well as McMicking Point. Other noteworthy areas within the Oak Bay region include: the Trial Islands, the Bowker Creek estuary, the Chain Islets, Baynes Channel, and the “Oak Bay Flats” with their large submarine sand dunes. Thousands of birds (Brandt’s cormorants, rhinoceros auklets, glaucous-winged gulls) are attracted to the area when krill and forage fishes abound, creating a giant feeding frenzy. Hundreds of Heermann’s gulls, Bonaparte’s gulls, surf scoters, Pacific loons, common murres, ancient murres and marbled murrelets may also partake in the frenzy. In summer, over one thousand glaucous-winged gulls nest on the Chain Islets with pigeon guillemots and black oystercatchers. Cormorants are no longer known to nest there possibly due to the return of predatory bald eagles in recent decades.

The MBS is also home to western purple martins with nesting boxes installed at seven locations between Cadboro Bay and Portage Inlet. It features an outstanding assemblage of over twenty rare plants (e.g. golden paintbrush, Victoria’s owl-clover) on the Trial Islands, and suitable habitat for giant Pacific octopus, northern abalone, Olympia oysters, Coho salmon, cutthroat trout and bay pipefish. Confirmed mammal sightings include otters, seals, whales, and two killer whale ecotypes (transient and southern resident).

Despite the strong return of bald eagles and western purple martins, and the proliferation of (invasive, resident, introduced) Canada geese in recent decades, widespread declines of coastal waterbirds (e.g. western grebe) are worrisome. These may be caused by habitat loss and degradation, lack of food availability, warming ocean waters and anthropogenic disturbances.


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, the Gorge Waterway, consists of a 7-km long narrow tidal channel with extensive eelgrass beds and unusual reversible rapids. The land around the sanctuary is low elevation and heavily urbanized. If undisturbed, the vegetation in this area develops into rare Garry oak ecosystems, consisting of Garry oak, Arbutus and Douglas fir trees surrounded by an array of wildflowers.

The Victoria Harbour MBS consists of a wide variety of habitats, including shallow and fast-moving tidal waters, kelp forests, beds of eelgrass, patches of surfgrass, vast mud flats and shellfish beds, tidal marshes, fish and krill nurseries, rocky shores, and islands with Garry oak trees and associated ecosystems. The Trial Islands feature the largest maritime meadow in Greater Victoria.  Large sand beaches, several pebble beaches, and six small estuaries are also notable habitat types within the MBS.

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 on a shoreline
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.

Some of the most compelling landscapes include the Trial Islands with its heritage lighthouse; Cattle Point with its view of Mount Baker; Clover Point with its view of the Juan de Fuca Strait and the Dallas Bluffs, and the Gorge Waterway at and near the Tillicum Narrows.

Map of the area

Map of Victoria Harbour Migratory Bird Sanctuary
Map of the Victoria Harbour Migratory Bird Sanctuary (MBS)
  • Long description

    Map showing the location of the Victoria Harbour Migratory Bird Sanctuary (MBS) in British Columbia in relation to noteworthy locations such as Victoria, Esquimalt, Portage Inlet, Clover Point, Trial Islands, McMicking Point, Chain Islet, Oak Bay, Baynes Channel and the Salish Sea. The map shows MBS boundaries, which encompass a large portion of waters surrounding the southern tip of Vancouver Island and spread north through the passage between Esquimalt and Victoria. The scale of the map is in kilometers. Permanent waters, intertidal waters, roads and highways are shown on the map. An inset on the map indicates the MBS location within Canada.

Planning your visit

Due to Victoria Harbour MBSs proximity to city centers and the abundance of urban parks and public spaces around it, the MBS is a popular destination sought after by bird watchers and nature lovers. The MBS attracts many nature enthusiasts to participate in wildlife viewing, trail walking and nature photography.

Before visiting the Victoria Harbour MBS, it is best to consult the many eBird hotspots located around the sanctuary (see Related links). Grab a bike map of the Capital Region and explore the area by bicycle, or cruise the shoreline areas by boat. The eastern portion of the Galloping Goose Regional trail is another great way to explore parts of the MBS by foot or bike, amongst other local trails.

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 MBS are designated as provincial ecological reserves and are not open to the public; they are governed by additional sets 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
48°25' N, 123°20' W
1841 hectares (31.03 terrestrial and 1809.97 ha marine)
Date created (Gazetted)
International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) management category
Additional designations
Main habitat type
  • Open sea (60%)
  • Rocky seashore (20%)
  • Tidal channel (20%)
Key bird species
Listed species under the Species at Risk Act (SARA)
Management agency
Canadian Wildlife Service, Pacific Region
Transport Canada, Department of National Defense and Province of British Columbia

Contact Us

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

Toll Free: 1-800-668-6767 (in Canada only)

Related links

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