Bountiful birdlife dominates Bowker estuary

Crows, gulls and geese happy at home where the creek meets the ocean

After its sometimes dismal, oily and buried passage from the University of Victoria, Bowker Creek seems at its most cheerful when it finally tumbles into the sea beside Glenlyon-Norfolk House School.

Free at last, it seems to say, and there at the estuary where fresh water meets salt the local gulls, crows and geese disport themselves with joy.

Gulls and geese stand at the side of Bowker’s final freshwater pool and drink deeply.

Crows watch from the branches above, seeming to carry on a constant commentary among themselves on their non-crow neighbours, which gets even louder when a non-bird approaches. Researchers have recorded thousands of meaning-laden vocalizations uttered by crows, who share information and instruct their offspring on how to live a prosperous life. Crows learn by communication.

I put my backpack on the sand and start across the slippery little rock bridge that goes from one side of the creek to the other, and immediately the Canada geese, who glide on currents where salt water mingles productively with fresh, decide to leave their meditations and hustle up the slope of sand to investigate my belongings. They converge on the pack which contains my lunch, but I retrieve it before they get too far. They scatter with casual insouciance and glide serenely back across the little bay with young in tow, while I keep my pack close for the rest of my visit.

The gulls I see may be Glaucous-winged, Western, Thayer’s, or a hybrid. Although separate species these birds interbreed, and ornithologists deduce that their huge range allows for unique specific variation in particular habitats, but that all descend from one ancestral gull.

Seagulls, crows and Canada geese all form monogamous pairs that last for life. Among the geese, the female chooses the male based on his displays of honking and wing flapping, and then stands beside him for life (when not honking and wing-flapping in turn). Here at the estuary, I don’t know whether these ones are year-round residents or some of the migrating clans.

Geese and crows are assiduous parents. The geese, when not gliding elegantly about beaches, are vegetation-grazers who favour parks, farms and golf courses, while the crows and gulls are dumpster divers and omnivores. Considering their habits, it’s a puzzle that gulls always look so clean, their breasts a snowy blinding white. They will prey on the eggs and young of other birds, including the geese, as will crows on baby songbirds.

All are attracted to the shoreline.

The gulls ride the fresh, salty and intoxicating air currents, and crows love the mussels exposed at low tide even more than the pizza slices they handily extract from people’s picnics.

Surprisingly few people make their way past the south end of Willows Beach to visit this teeming bird zone. Here, these three familiar species form a ruling triumvirate, exploiting the elements of air, earth and water, sometimes joined by mallards and becoming a “gang of four.” We can only envy their ease of movement as they swim or fly, leaving us earthbound and marveling.

For humanity, birds have always represented freedom and spirit. Their spirit pervades Bowker estuary just as their feathers litter the beach and pools. They were here five thousand years ago when the retreating Ice Age carved Bowker’s stream bed out of rock, 10,000 years ago when the shoreline was under water, and even 20,000 years ago when it was covered by a kilometre and a half of ice.

Birds were here, then, long before the human invaders that came south from the ice bridge once linking Asia and North America.

Now, researchers tell us that local gull populations are dwindling due to lack of fish and loss of shoreline habitat. This little estuary still belongs to the birds however, and provides a bit of sanctuary alongside the urban landscape that presses against the beach.

Barbara Julian is an Oak Bay writer and nature enthusiast who writes here once a month about the region’s suburban wildlife.