News & Resources

Western sandpipers return to Roberts Bank this spring

June 3, 2020 10:53 pm

Every spring, birders flock to Roberts Bank to see the tens of thousands of western sandpipers that stop by the area during their northward journey from Peru to Alaska. Observing this part of the migration is an incomparable experience to anything you might see elsewhere.

Western sandpipers stop several times during their journey north. They use these stopover sites, like the one at Roberts Bank, to rest and refuel. During their visit, western sandpipers and other shorebirds eat marine invertebrates like crustaceans, small clams, and snails, as well as biofilm—a thin, dense, slimy layer of predominately organic substances that coats most intertidal mudflats, including the Fraser River estuary.

Biofilm is one of the ecosystem components that drives the high productivity of Roberts Bank. Knowledge about biofilm, and how it contributes to the western sandpiper’s diet, is relatively new to the scientific community.

Early in the planning stages of the Roberts Bank Terminal 2 project, we kicked off a comprehensive environmental study program to better understand the relationship of biofilm to the western sandpiper, and minimize any potential environmental effects of the project.

We recognize the importance and value of this food source to sandpipers, and we’ve taken a number of steps to protect biofilm and sandpipers at Roberts Bank and reduce the potential adverse effects from the project. We anticipate a direct loss of less than 0.1% of biofilm in the local assessment area encompassed by Roberts Bank due to the project footprint.

Here are some examples of what we’re doing:

  • Placing the terminal in deep waters and minimizing the width of the causeway to avoid sensitive intertidal habitat, including habitats that support biofilm
  • Undertaking comprehensive technical studies, designed and led by experts, to understand the potential effects of the project on shorebirds and their prey. Since 2012, we’ve conducted 20 studies on western sandpiper and biofilm, including three years of additional study since the submission of the environmental impact statement in 2015.
  • Proposing a follow-up program to monitor any potential changes in the quality and quantity of biofilm and other western sandpiper prey because of the project

We acknowledge the concerns brought forward by public and federal agencies and are committed to mitigating any adverse change that could occur as a result of the project.

In the Federal Review Panel Report, the independent review panel concluded that the project would not have an adverse effect on biofilm productivity. However, the panel did not have enough information with respect to fatty acid production in biofilm to conclude with reasonable confidence a potential effect on the western sandpiper. In their report, the review panel made recommendations to increase the knowledge of biofilm and factors affecting fatty acid production in biofilm.

We will work with government, Indigenous groups and other stakeholders to implement these very important recommendations, should they be made into conditions, to ensure the protection of western sandpipers and shorebirds at Roberts Bank.

Meet the experts

Since 2012, we have been engaging government scientists, academics, technical experts, and a technical advisory group on the topic of western sandpipers and biofilm to help us understand how the Roberts Bank Terminal 2 Project could affect shorebirds.

Dr. Ron Ydenberg, biological sciences professor at Simon Fraser University and Jay Rourke, registered professional biologist, are part of a team which has conducted over 20 studies on biofilm and shorebirds over the past eight years.

These internationally renowned biofilm experts have contributed to the development of a wealth of knowledge, and we are working with them to share it with other scientists.

This year, we are supporting the development of a biofilm habitat construction manual which will be a first-of-its-kind. This guidance document will help explain how to restore, enhance, and create biofilm in environments where it can support wildlife.

Interesting facts about the western sandpiper

  • Breeding adults have reddish brown and gold markings on the head and wings
  • Approximately 3.5 million western sandpipers can be found in North America, making it one of the most abundant shorebird species
  • The Fraser River Estuary is one of several important migratory stopover sites
  • Roberts Bank supports approximately 600,000 birds (17% of the global western sandpiper population) during a typical northward migration
  • Biofilm accounts for 30-65% of the sandpiper’s diet during migration, with crustaceans, small clams, marine worms, and snails making up the remainder


Learn more


Environmental assessment materials


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