Surreal Somass Estuary

The forecast was pretty good and I decided to check out an area that I haven’t birded before: the Somass Estuary in Port Alberni, on Vancouver Island. Sandy McRuer of Rainbird Excursions wrote up a post describing the estuary and how to get there and I figured that it might be good for some winter birding.

Sandy’s directions to get to the estuary were excellent and I had no problem locating the parking areas. I decided to stick with the unsigned access point and from there it was about a 10 minute walk to the estuary along a gravel road that follows the Somass River. Not much to see along this stretch but in the spring I imagine that it would be a little more productive. There looks to be a plantation of Black Cottonwood (or similar species) along the non-river side of the road.

Pipe Walk
The main pipe carrying water through the estuary and under the Somass River to the mills on the other side.

At the end of the road I followed an overgrown dyke towards the elevated water pipe that takes water to the mills on the other side of the Somass River. It’s a bit of a scramble up onto the walkway beside the pipe but from this access point you need to cross over to the other side in order to get to the sewage lagoons. Non-birders at this point are probably thinking “Sewage lagoons …????” Birders are probably thinking “Sewage lagoons …!!!!”

I’m not exactly sure whether access onto the dykes around the lagoons is permitted but I did run into a couple of other people out walking their dogs in this area. There was no signage indicating that the area as closed. In fact, the only signage that I did see suggested that on a sunny day this might actually be a pleasant destination.

Lagoon A Beach
A friendly sign near the first settling pond – this area seemed to be popular with ducks and gulls as well.

While the natural estuary was fairly quiet in terms of birds, “Lagoon A” was extremely busy – plenty of gulls, American Coots, Ring-necked Ducks, and some Scaup. There were a few Bufflehead and some Northern Shovelers as well. The birds were pretty skittish and even with my telephoto I couldn’t get close enough for decent photographs.

Outer Settling Pond
Not as many ducks on this large pond but I did see some Scaup, Ring-necked Ducks, and Northern Shovelers.

The outer mill settling ponds were much quieter but there were large mixed flocks of mostly Scaup and Ring-necked ducks on the water. With the fog it was quite surreal walking around the ponds. The dykes closest to the Somass River provide good views across the river to the mills on the far side.

Somass River
Looking across some of the remnants of the estuary at the mills on the other side of the Somass River.

In total I spent close to 2 hours wandering around the ponds before heading back to my vehicle. I think what really struck me about this area was how close the settling ponds were to the river. I had to wonder what would happen in the event of a tsunami like the one Port Alberni experienced back in 1964. The irony is that there was a small 5.6 magnitude earthquake off of Ucluelet while I was out exploring the ponds. I felt nothing, but this would definitely not be a good place to be when the big one hits!

No real “wow” birds today, but several that I haven’t seen too often this winter in other parts of Vancouver Island. The numbers of ducks and coots was impressive – there must be some good feeding in those ponds! I’ll work on tallying up the species and update this post tomorrow.

Getting There:

Note that Sandy’s original post indicated the two access points into the estuary. I felt more comfortable walking the unsigned gravel road than using the pipeline and/or sewage lagoon access road from where it leaves Mission Road. Switch to Satellite view to get a better idea of the landscape.