Richmond Olympic Oval and Fraser River Estuary
A Profile in Biodiversity of the Surrounding Area
The Richmond Olympic Oval, located south of Vancouver, is on the traditional territory of the Musqueam First Nation, one of the Games’ Four Host First Nations. With its heron-wing shaped roof, the Olympic Oval is right next door to the most Important Bird Area in Canada, the Fraser River Estuary. The Fraser River is one of the largest salmon-producing rivers in the world. Its estuary, part of the Pacific Flyway, is a key stop-over for over one million birds on their annual migration. The Fraser River Estuary boasts the highest concentration of wintering raptors in Canada. Official bird counts in the Fraser River Estuary are done throughout the year by bird watchers and birding organizations with support from Bird Studies Canada. Birdwatchers report their counts through e-Bird Canada and the BC Breeding Bird Atlas.
Comprised of Boundary Bay, Roberts Bank, and Sturgeon Bank, the 400 km2 estuary borders four local area municipalities: Richmond, Delta, White Rock, and Surrey. Various portions of the estuary have been designated for conservation and include the National Wildlife Area, a Migratory Bird Sanctuary, and a Provincial Wildlife Management Area. The estuary has been recognized by the Convention on Wetlands (Ramsar, Iran, 1971), also known as the RAMSAR Convention. It was designated as a wetland of international importance because it is used by more than 250 migratory birdspecies as a stop-over during their migration. Their migration route is known as the Pacific Flyway. Migratory birds use the flyway to travel between their southern winter feeding grounds and their arctic summer breeding and nesting grounds.
The estuary is vital habitat for birds, particularly migratory ones using the Pacific Flyway. The intertidal habitat of fresh and salt water produces marshes, sandbars, and mudflats.
Such habitat, including the temperate waters of the estuary, provides a rich variety of vital food sources. These food sources provide essential dietary requirements for migratory birds, including birds like the Great Blue Heron and the American Widgeon.
Canada’s west coast winters are mild enough that Great Blue Herons and American Wigeons here in British Columbia often choose not to migrate further south and remain along the coast throughout the winter. This is unlike the eastern Canadian populations of American Wigeon. They migrate to the southeastern United States while the Great Blue Heron colonies in north-central Canada and the United States often migrate to Mexico and Central/South America. American Wigeons nest in shallow freshwater wetlands from the northern United States to the Alaskan tundra. They are most numerous however in the prairie parklands of western Canada. Great Blue Herons make nests up to one meter wide in wooded areas. They eat a diet of small crabs, frogs, fish, snakes, voles, and small rodents as well as large insects such as dragonflies. Their graceful flight is truly something special to witness.
The estuary is also essential habitat for the Dunlin, Western Sandpiper, and Lesser Snow Goose. During their annual migration, they too make Olympian marathon journeys between their arctic breeding grounds and southern wintering grounds. The Dunlin, a shorebird, prefers to live in wet coastal tundra. Eurasian populations of Dunlin winter in southeast Asia and Africa. North American populations winter along the mild, nutrient-rich waters of the south coast of British Columbia and along both the U.S. southeast and southwest coasts. They can be seen in the Fraser River Estuary in vast flocks and fly in such breathtaking synchronicity they’d impress even the most critical Olympic judge. The Western Sandpiper and Lesser Snow Goose winter along the south coast of BC too, although most migrate to the southern United States and Mexico.
The Western Sandpiper, also a shorebird, eats mostly a diet of rich micro algal bio-film. This biofilm covers the mudflats that are exposed during low tide. The Lesser Snow Goose feeds on marshland plants like sedges, forbs, and bulrushes found in the intertidal marshes, as well as pasture grasses and waste grain from farmers’ fields during their migration. By contrast, the Dunlin’s diet is mostly insects, but also includes aquatic invertebrates such as molluscs, worms, and shrimp.
The Fraser River Estuary is also home to a wide variety of fish, as well as several reptiles and amphibians. The estuary is home to all five species of Pacific salmon, as well as herring, coastal cutthroat trout and several bottom-dwelling species including sturgeon and eulachon. The vital wetlands in the estuary provide essential habitat for reptiles including the northern alligator lizard, the western garter snake, and the western painted turtle. The western painted turtle is the only native freshwater turtle in British Columbia. Amphibians like the rough-skinned newt, long-toed salamander, western toad, and several species of frogs also thrive in the estuary. The estuary’s wetlands are able to sustainthe habitat and dietary requirements of all these species and many more because of the web of life it contains. This biological diversity is essential to the survival of many species in the estuary.
The estuary is also essential habitat for some unique aquatic wildlife including the Pacific water shrew, beavers, and even sea lions when salmon return to the Fraser River to spawn. While beavers eat a wood-based diet in the winter, they also eat herbs, grasses, fruits, and aquatic plants when these bloom in spring. The Pacific water shrew prefers a diet of aquatic insect larva, snails, slugs, earthworms and spiders. It can actually run on top of water for periods of three to five seconds. As an adept swimmer, the Pacific water shrew frequently dives for several minutes at a time in search of aquatic food sources. The wide variety of biodiversity in the estuary also attracts predators like Great Horned Owls, Red-tailed Hawks, Bald Eagles, and coyotes, who feed on waterfowl. Scavengers like striped skunks and raccoons feed there as well, searching for insects, invertebrates, small rodents, and waterfowl eggs. Healthy estuaries are essential to both humans and wildlife. They not only provide food, they support both commercial and recreational fisheries, help treat waste and run-off, work to maintain water quality, protect coastal areas from natural hazards, connect bodies of water for transportation and marine operations; and nurture a balance of the food web upon which all life depends.
Threats to the rich biodiversity of the Fraser River Estuary are mostly due to human activity in and near the river. The expansion of local transportation corridors threatens to alter habitat and disturb nesting and feeding areas. Pollution from nearby agriculture such as pesticides and fertilizers pose serious health concerns. Residential, commercial, and industrial expansion also put pressure on the biological diversity within the estuary. Wetlands and estuaries are becoming more widely recognized for their true value; vital habitat for all biodiversity. Given the intrinsic role that wetlands play in maintaining the web of life that sustains all life on Earth, together we need to ensure that wetlands are better conserved and protected. Many community groups are involved in the conservation and protection of the Fraser River Estuary and the birds and animals that depend on it.
Find out more. Check out the websites listed below:
- Canadian Biodiversity Information Network
- International Year of Biodiversity Official Videos
- Environment Canada - Hinterland Who’s Who Series
- Environment Canada - Biosphere
- Environment Canada - Project WILDSPACE
- Bird Studies Canada
- e-Bird Canada
- Important Bird Areas
- BC Breeding Bird Atlas
- BirdLife International: http://www.birdlife.org
- British Columbia Ministry of Environment – Environmental Stewardship Division
Biodiversity in BC
- BC Nature
- Biodiversity Atlas of British Columbia
- Nature Conservancy of Canada
- Trans Canada Trail
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