Winter Birding at Oyster Bay

Oyster Bay
Looking out at the old pilings at Oyster Bay.

The eastern coast of Vancouver Island has many locations that are excellent for winter birding. Sheltered bays offer resting places for numerous species of waterfowl and the beaches can be productive for shorebirds. One of the highlights between Courtenay and Campbell River is Oyster Bay Shoreline Regional Park, which is located about three and half kilometers north of the Oyster River on Highway 19A, opposite the Driftwood Restaurant.

It isn’t a big piece of land, just 4.25 acres, and one can walk the entire park in about 15 minutes, but judging from the number of people out strolling dogs, bird watching, or just taking in the view from the park benches, it is a special place that is well used and enjoyed by many. To date 156 bird species have been recorded from the park, and a checklist of birds is available – contact Island Nature to obtain a checklist. BC Coastal Waterbird Survey data also provides a good overview of typical species that can be expected in the winter months.

A flock of wintering Dunlin at Oyster Bay.

Oyster Bay is situated along the Pacific Flyway, a major route for millions of migrating birds. Mud flats that have developed along the inside of the causeway have created an ideal stopover place for birds, providing protection and a rich source of mud-dwelling invertebrates to feed upon. This early in the year, wintering shorebirds like Dunlin and Black-bellied Plover feed on the mudflats while Black Turnstones search the rocky areas around the breakwater for small crustaceans and other food.

Large flocks of waterfowl use the sheltered water of the bay during the winter. Mallard and American Wigeon are common ducks here and if time is spent searching through the American Wigeon, finding a couple of less common Eurasian Wigeon is possible. Other ducks likely to be seen here in the winter include Green-winged Teal and Northern Pintail. Along the breakwater rocks, three species of gulls can be expected at this time of year: Glaucous-winged Gull, Mew Gull and Thayer’s Gull. Approach the top of the dyke overlooking the bay slowly to avoid flushing ducks that may be close to the shore.

Oyster Bay at Low Tide
Ducks on the shore and in the water at Oyster Bay during low tide.

Looking out from the beach towards the open waters of the Strait of Georgia can be productive for different species of ducks. Look for Surf Scoter, Harlequin Duck, Bufflehead and Common Goldeneye if they aren’t in the calmer water of the bay. Horned Grebe and Common Loon are possible and occasionally, Double-crested Cormorants perch on a set of pilings off shore.

Strait of Georgia from Oyster Bay
Strait of Georgia from Oyster Bay

Oyster Bay has an interesting history, and was not always the scenic nature reserve that it is today. In the 1930’s, the west side of the highway around Oyster Bay was a relief camp for unemployed workers. In 1939, Al Simpson, who formed the Iron River Logging Company, obtained the camp and timber rights of the area. The Iron River Camp had more than 100 houses, and the Blue Grouse Café was located where the Driftwood Restaurant is today.

A causeway, jutting straight out into the bay, was constructed, and logs from the Oyster River area were brought down and boomed in the bay. Simpson sank parts of dismantled ships to protect the boomed logs from winter storms, and eventually the ship parts were replaced with large rocks. Over time, land accreted on each side of the causeway, creating most of the park’s landmass today.

In 1944, Simpson sold the timber rights to H.R. MacMillan, but with a dwindling timber supply, and continued difficulties to protect the booms from winter storms, the camp closed in 1952 and all buildings were removed.

The future of the land was uncertain for several decades. In 1980 developers considered the bay for a possible coal port. Then in the late 1980’s, the bay very nearly became a private marina for some 500 boats. In 1989, the Oyster Bay Park Association (OBPA), a group of concerned citizens who lobbied to protect Oyster Bay as a wildlife refuge, came into being. The Regional District took an interest in the area and worked with the OBPA, to officially declare the area a park in 1996.
Today, dedicated members of the OBPA continue, in partnership with the Regional District, to provide stewardship for the park including trail upkeep, signage, invasive plant removal and native plant restoration. In the early days, Oyster Bay was completely covered in invasive Scotch Broom, and many “broom bashes” were held to return the land to a more natural state.

A highway rest stop adjacent to the park has parking, toilets and picnic tables. The gravel trails make for easy walking. The sinky mudflats along the causeway are dangerous and should be avoided, but there is a nice pebble beach on the east side. A spotting scope is very useful to sort through the large number of ducks that can gather on the bay and to pick out more birds that are further offshore.

About the Contributor:

Jocie Brooks is a naturalist and writer based in the Comox Valley, Vancouver Island, British Columbia.