Situated along the Pacific Flyway, the beaches offer an opportunity for exceptional bird watching. Mergansers, mallards and other ducks reside in the park year-round, along with bald eagles, great blue herons, Brandt's and pelagic cormorants, common loons, and many other waterbirds.
Other seabirds are seasonal visitors, including the black turnstone, common goldeneye and horned grebe (winter), and rufous hummingbirds, western flycatchers, orange-crowned and Townsend's warblers, and marbled murrelet (summer). Many transients stop in the park on their way, north and south.
Whales and Other Wildlife
Bears, cougars and smaller mammals of the non-threatening kind, including bog animals., are foundf in the park and in nearby waters. Gray whales migrate along the beaches, moving north from mid-February on their journey to the Bering Sea and the Arctic Ocean. In late December, the grays are seen heading south to their breeding grounds in the lagoons of Baja California. Whale-watching excursions are available in Tofino and Ucluelet. While most whales are transients, as many as 40 to 50 great gray whales stay along the Vancouver island coast during the summer; a few regularly stay here year-round. The optimum time for whale watching is from late February to early June.
The waters off the park have been designated the Pacific Rim National Preserve. The increase in gray whale numbers over the past 50 years followed the near-decimation of the species. Vancouver Island had whaling stations, and as far back as the 18th century, commercial whalers, starting with the Russians, hunted the great gray along this part of the Pacific. But the height of the whaling industry was in the late 19th century. In only 18 years of whaling, the Pacific population of gray whales was almost annihilated. Today, the 18,000 or more eastern Pacific herd of whales proves the resilience of animal species. This is the largest population of gray whales remaining in the world. A small number of gray whales (180 total each year) are permitted to be caught by native peoples, mainly in Alaska and Siberia.
Intertidal and Green Zones
The intertidal zone, particularly west of the headlands, provides a rich exhibit of seashells (mussels, finger limpets, barnacles), sea worms, anemones, hermit crabs, and several species of small fish, including tidepool sculpins. At low tide, the shoreline is crawling with life, in and out of the rocky pools. Purple shore crabs drag their bodies across the sand, leaving "tire" marks. Plants including the sea sac and sea palm are found at the water's edge.
Behind the beaches and headlands lies a remarkable procession of green zones. With a growing season of nine months and snow rarely falling, you will not see remarkable changes in the color of the vegetation as the annual cycle progresses. However, the shades of green are varied within the six plant zones in the park. Considering that the average width of the park is about one mile, this shows a remarkable diversity in plant life.
Just above the pounding waves is the spruce fringe, populated by stunted Sitka spruce -- barely hanging on in the sandy soil and strong winds -- with salal underneath. The fall berries of this thick, wiry groundcover provided a staple food for the local Nootka Indians, and still are treasured by the park's hungry bears, although bears are infrequently seen along the shoreline. Behind the small, stunted Sitka spruce, taller stands of spruce grow, accompanied by the smaller Pacific crabapple.
Just in from the beaches are several fine bogs, irrigated by the 118 inches of rain which fall here each year. The bogs lie in lowland areas behind Long Beach. These are peat bogs, built up over hundreds of years, filled with spongy spaghnum moss. There are few trees in the boggy areas, although one tree, the shorepine (lodgepole pine) thrives in this stagnant, soaked environment. In such a wet area, this tree is exceptionally stunted, but sometimes reaches to your shoulders. Labrador tea is a resident, exhibiting white flowers during June and July. You'll also see bog laurel, which has pink clusters of flowers in the spring.
Several streams bring water from the eastern hills, flowing across the beaches and into the ocean. Red alder is the primary tree in this streamside zone, flanked by willows in a shrub shape. The unusual small tree with groups of large oval leaves is the cascara, Under the alders, salmonberry and thimbleberry grow, with pink and white flowers respectively, followed by delicious berries. The salmonberry is rounded, varying in color from yellow to red. The red thimbleberry is shaped like a thimble, like its relatives, the raspberry and blackberry. It has large maple-shaped leaves.
Inland, along the hills, is the typical Vancouver Island cedar-hemlock forest. The western red cedar has long been used by the Natives of the region for many purposes. Spruce is also found among the other conifers. There is so much rain here that the trunks of many of these trees are covered with moss.
Closer to the beaches are prime examples of the climax rain forest, old-growth trees including the amabilis fir, a member of the balsam family and considered to be a true fir. It is seen with the western yew, a smaller tree with thin bark, usually covered with moss. The understory is typical for the temperate rain forest: mainly salal, with false azalea and huckleberry, all three members of the heather family. Blueberry bushes also grow in this environment. You'll also see western white pine in smaller quantities within the park boundaries.
Much of the eastern property now included in the park was extensively logged before the park was created in the 1970s. While much of Vancouver Island is covered with Douglas-fir, there are few specimens in the park. Too much rain is the cause. Instead, the logged areas have been re-planted with Sitka spruce, red cedar and western hemlock, the trees which were previously logged. There are clear-cut swaths which still are covered with fireweed, waiting for the new forest to grow.
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