URban SanCtuary 2017

Celebrating 100 years of the Migratory Bird Convention Act in Canada


Hooded Merganser, drake, a common wintering duck.


The Urban Sanctuary Project is a community initiative that aims to inspire others to become involved in the practices of a healthy ecosystem, with a special focus on Migratory Bird Sanctuaries. Celebrating the first three Migratory Bird Sanctuaries in Pacific Canada, in the heart of the Salish Sea, 2017 will mark the 100th anniversary of the Migratory Bird Convention Act, an important step in the history of the Canadian wildlife conservation movement. With increasing environmental concerns and decreasing bird populations worldwide, there is an increased need for appreciation and stewardship of our local ecosystems and the organisms within them. 

The Urban Sanctuary Project will raise awareness and encourage stewardship initiatives in the community, with a special focus on youth involvement and leadership mentoring. By increasing awareness of the sanctuaries, the public will become more informed and engaged in regional conservation issues. This will encourage our communities to advocate for better protection and preservation of the important habitats that migratory and resident birds and other wildlife rely on. By sharing the wealth of knowledge that exists in the city, we can improve the urban environments we live in based on informed consideration for the habitats and organisms around us. We believe that youth are a pertinent demographic to get involved with the Urban Sanctuary Project as they are the leaders of the future. 

Despite numerous challenges and some ecological degradation, Greater Victoria still has what is arguably the best coastal and marine wildlife in urban Canada, from whales to birds and rare plants. Residents consistently rank the regions’s  natural environment as asset #1. In fact, this Capital Regional District of British Columbia  has all the ingredients to become Canada’s first urban U.N. Biosphere Reserve.


Photo Credits: Stuart Clarke



Migratory Bird Sanctuaries

2017 will mark the 100th anniversary of the Migratory Bird Convention Act, an important step in the history of wildlife conservation in Canada. Greater Victoria is home to the three first Migratory Bird Sanctuaries in Pacific Canada. There are at least 92 Migratory Bird Sanctuaries in Canada. The three local sanctuaries include; Victoria Harbour MBS - Oct. 27, 1923, Shoal Harbour MBS - Ap. 10, 1931 and Esquimalt Lagoon MBS - Dec. 12, 1931, which are all located within the Greater Victoria Region. All three sanctuaries were created to control hunting, which now all harbour valued and valuable urban wildlife. Hence their designation as NatureHoods by Nature Canada in 2015, for their remarkable urban wildlife. Most people are unaware that much of the coastal waters in Greater Victoria are designated Migratory Bird Sanctuaries.

   Black Oystercatcher,  common year-round

Black Oystercatcher,  common year-round


This urban sanctuary - the first MBS in Pacific Canada - was established on October 27, 1923 to curb hunting, the market hunting of Brant in particular. It includes 1840 hectares of marine and estuarine waters,  including the estuaries of the Colquitz River and Craigflower Creek,  Portage Inlet, the Gorge Waterway, the Selkirk Water,  all of Victoria  Harbour and coastal waters of the Salish Sea from Macaulay Pt to Ogden Pt,  Brotchie Ledge, Clover Pt, Harling Pt, Gonzales Pt and Ten Mile Pt, including the Trial Islands, Oak Bay and Cadboro Bay. It also includes or is next to three provincial Ecological Reserves, three Rockfish Conservation Areas and one IBA site: Chain Islets & Great Chain Island Important Bird Area.

The Matson Conservation Area,  also found within this sanctuary, is a 2.4 acre property that contains Victoria Harbour's last patch of endangered Garry Oak ecosystem and is owned and managed by the Habitat Acquisition Trust. HAT's conservation strategy for the property is informed by an active management plan, which includes invasive species control, native plantings, and community education. For more information on the Matson Conversation Area please visit the HAT Website.

Habitats within the sanctuary include shallow and fast-moving tidal waters, kelp forests, eelgrass and surfgrass meadows, mud flats, tidal marshes, the estuaries of several small creeks, shellfish beds, fish and krill nurseries, sand and pebble beaches, rocky shores and several islands with maritime meadows and dwarf Garry oaks. The sanctuary provides important habitat for all kinds of wildlife,  including rare and endangered plants of the Garry oak associated ecosystems (Macoun’s meadowfoam, Victoria’s Owl-clover), Olympia Oysters (Species of Special Concern), Northern Abalone and Southern Resident Orcas (endangered). 

While bird numbers are relatively low compared to the past, wildlife diversity in our region is remarkably high for an urban area. Extensive loss of riparian and shoreline habitat, especially large trees and snags, as a result of urban development contributes to low bird numbers. Contamination from urban runoff remains a concern, however, recent environmental cleanups have improved water quality. This has led to a resurgence in recreational uses including dog-walking, paddling sports, swimming, and anchored boats. These increased uses in the sanctuary are of concern to many in the community with a desire to protect birds and their habitat. 

The recovery of Pacific Herring in the Salish Sea in general and in Greater Victoria in particular, could bring back of lot of birds and other wildlife. Interestingly, the sanctuary lies in traditional Lekwungen - Songhees and Esquimalt First Nations - territory: “the place to smoke herring”. 

Several species of auks (e.g. Common Murre, Marbled Murrelet, Rhinoceros Auklet, Pigeon Guillemot, Ancient Murrelet), four species of whales, four species of seals and 2 species of otters have been confirmed in the sanctuary. Several colonies of Western Purple Martins are now fuelling the return of this species. Coho Salmon have returned in significant numbers to the Colquitz River and Craigflower Creek. Rare plants are reappearing on the Trial Islands as a result of a decade of intense removal of invasive plants. Wintering shorebirds, ducks, auks, gulls, grebes and loons are particularly interesting, so are summering Heermann’s Gulls.

Deindustrialization of Victoria Harbour, cleanups, ecological restoration and rewildling of several sites are creating conditions not seen in half a century. 

   Bufflehead, drake, possibly the most common wintering duck in Greater Victoria

Bufflehead, drake, possibly the most common wintering duck in Greater Victoria


This sanctuary was established on April 10, 1931 and includes 144 hectares of sheltered bays and extensive intertidal mudflats in North Saanich and Sidney. It is contiguous with the internationally-recognized Sidney Channel Important Bird Area. The shoreline is a mix of rocky outcrops and beaches of sand, gravel and silt and the upland areas support remnants of the Coastal Douglas Fir ecosystem, including the associated Garry oak and Arbutus. Portions of the sanctuary contain mud flats that are exposed at low tide and support a productive marine fauna and flora including clams, worms, sea lettuce and eelgrass.

Although the sanctuary is now surrounded by dense urban development and includes many marinas, the ecosystem still supports a rich diversity of seabirds, shorebirds and waterfowl during migration and through winter. Over forty species of marine birds are regularly seen here, as well as more than forty species of passerine (perching) birds in the uplands, many not found elsewhere in Canada. The BC Species at Risk-listed (Special Concern) Pacific Great Blue Heron is frequently seen here in large numbers feeding in the shallow mudflat areas. 

The proliferation of marinas and long-term anchored boats within the MBS and the associated contamination has raised concerns over their impact on marine birds and their habitat. Ongoing development pressure, urban runoff, land clearing and tree removal on the lands adjacent to the sanctuary are also of concern.

   Pacific Great Blue Heron - a common year-round resident; listed as a species of special concern under the Species at Risk Act.

Pacific Great Blue Heron - a common year-round resident; listed as a species of special concern under the Species at Risk Act.


Esquimalt Lagoon is located just west of Esquimalt Harbour in Colwood. The Esquimalt Lagoon MBS was established on December 12, 1931. This 134 hectare MBS includes tidal waters from the bridge on Ocean Blvd, to Coburg Peninsula west to the toe of the lagoon and includes 100m of the surrounding land. The shallow tidal waters of the lagoon support thousands of waterfowl from October through May, making this one of the top birding spots in the region. The lagoon harbours rich feeding grounds and a sheltered place to rest for birds on their long migrations up and down the Pacific coast. 

The lagoon becomes critically important for waterfowl, particularly for those wintering inland, during periods of cold weather when freshwater lakes and ponds freeze. Mudflats, eelgrass and estuary fringe marsh habitats provide excellent foraging and nesting habitats for resident and migratory birds. Two gravel-bar islands and a rocky outcrop near the entrance are important resting areas for waterfowl. Gulls and herons are often seen feeding here in large numbers.

While there remains excellent bird habitat within the sanctuary, disturbance of birds from off-leash dogs, boaters and people; habitat loss due to urban development pressure, erosion and park use, and contamination entering the lagoon from failing septic systems and road run-off remain a concern. In 2008, the City of Colwood established a dogs-on-leash bylaw to comply with federal MBS regulations and established an appropriate off-leash area west of the public washrooms. In 2009, concerned groups worked with boaters and government agencies to establish Wildlife Refuge Areas to provide “disturbance-free” areas for the birds to feed and rest.

MBS Maps

Shoal Harbour MBS Map.png
Esquimalt Lagoon MBS Map.png
  Location of Matson Conservation Area within Victoria Harbour MBS    

Location of Matson Conservation Area within Victoria Harbour MBS



Remarkable wildlife can be seen in our Migratory Bird Sanctuaries and has been documented on several occasions on local and national news outlets. Follow the links below for many news worthy stories that have been captured over the years!

RARE BIRD ALERT- Laughing Gull in Sidney








This initiative is made possible by the Community Fund for Canada’s 150th, a collaboration between the Victoria Foundation, the Government of Canada, and extraordinary leaders from coast to coast to coast. 


Cette initiative est rendue possible grâce au Fonds communautaire pour le 150e anniversaire du Canada, qui est une collaboration entre le Victoria Foundation, les fondations communautaires canadiennes, le gouvernement du Canada et des leaders extraordinaires de l’Atlantique au Pacifique à l’Arctique.