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Signs going up at Fitzsimmons Delta

Birders concerned that unleashed dogs are disturbing mating birds

The Resort Municipality of Whistler's Environmental Services team installed the first sign at the Fitzsimmons Delta area on Tuesday, urging dog owners to keep their pets on a leash and to keep away from nesting birds and bird habitat.

The municipal parks department will be following up soon with new fencing to block off the most sensitive areas.

The signs and fencing are the result of concerns raised by local birders and naturalists that unleashed dogs are disturbing natural breeding and nesting areas for various ducks and shorebirds that congregate in the Fitzsimmons Delta area on Green Lake.

In September 2010, council approved a plan that would essentially create a bird sanctuary in the delta, encouraging people to stay on the trail and marking areas as off-limits. The plan does allow people to continue to use the fan area and dogs are welcome as long as they abide by the signs and fencing.

The sign includes a map of the delta, as well as interpretive information on the different species that can be found in the area and their nesting habitats.

The sign couldn't come fast enough for local birder Karl Ricker. Just last week he was cataloguing species breeding in the area when an off-leash dog disturbed it.

"There were 200 ducks and about 50 shorebirds on the edge of the delta that were huddled together in the wind when a guy with a bike and a huge dog came out, and the whole lot took off in sheer terror," said Ricker.

Ricker identifies bird species and counts numbers in Whistler, looking for trends both good and bad in the decades of accumulated data. Although the delta is a popular place for dog walkers, it's also some of the best habitat for ducks and shorebirds in the area.

Ricker said he was told last week that signs and fencing might be put in place in the more critical areas, but was disappointed that they weren't installed sooner. Although it's still cool, breeding season has already begun and birds are migrating north once again. He is concerned that the signs and fences may be too late for some birds, which will have moved on.

He was also bird watching on a local golf course recently when he observed another unleashed dog chasing geese and other birds in golf course ponds. The courses are still closed to the public and in the meantime migrating birds use the ponds.

He'd like to see more awareness on the part of owners and suggests that dogs stay on leashes in areas where they might come into conflict with birds and other animals.

While Ricker understands that owners like their dogs to run free, he pointed out that there are a lot of places where that is allowed that aren't in bird habitat, including municipal dog beaches. At the very least he believes that owners should rein in dogs that are actively harassing wildlife.

"Unless they're on a leash there's no way the dogs are going to leave (the birds) alone," said Ricker.

As well as birds, the Fitzsimmons Delta is used by beavers, otters and fish species like rainbow and bull trout.