Bald eagle

The chance to see a bald eagle like this one, perched on a fence beside Kelowna's dump, has long drawn birders to the landfill. But birders have been barred during the COVID-19 pandemic from pursuing their hobby at the dump on public health grounds.

Birdwatching at the Kelowna dump has been an unlikely casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Birders are barred on public health grounds from entering the landfill to watch the diverse array of creatures that make use of the site.

But they hope the prohibition won't become permanent and that they'll eventually regain access to the dump to pursue their hobby.

"We've been expecting for a long time that they'll just lock birders out anyway," Chris Charlesworth, a long-time Kelowna birder who runs his own birdwatching tour company, said Friday.

"We really don't know if, once Covid dies down, they'll let birders back in, but I guess we'll see," Charlesworth said. "We are eager to get back in there because it's been a very productive birding site."

Half a dozen species of gulls, and large numbers of bald eagles, blackbirds, starlings, American avocets, and other waterfowl are routinely spotted at the dump and its associated wetlands, says Charlesworth, who regularly organizes the annual Christmas bird count in Kelowna.

"The gulls like to eat the garbage and the eagles like to eat some of the garbage and some of the gulls," said Charlesworth, adding other bird species are drawn by the dump's nutrient-rich soils and many insects.

Although active landfilling operations have shifted to the west half of the site and are now more visible from Glenmore Road, Charlesworth doesn't believe there are any more birds than usual at the dump: "The numbers seem pretty stable to me."

Previously, birders who wanted to pursue their hobby at the dump had to wait at the main gate with other drivers, go into the administration office, sign a waiver, don a high-visibility vest, and agree to remain in a certain area.

But such provisions, which required some interaction between the birders and the landfill staff, have been deemed non-essential during the pandemic.

Landfill manager Scott Hoekstra coudn't say if birders will eventually be allowed back into the dump. "We haven't figured that out yet," he said.

"It's incredibly rare for landfills to allow birders in," he said. "And we have had operational issues that have presented some challenges here. Even when we give them a map and show them where to go, they sometimes drift off somewhere else."

Some birders now try to keep an eye on dump activity by using telescopes from nearby John Hindle Drive, Charlesworth said, but the view isn't great.

"Before the pandemic, we were kind of lucky, really, because there's not a lot of landfills that do let in birders," Charlesworth acknowledged.

"We just hope we can get back into the Kelowna one eventually," he said. "It is a landfill, so maybe not the most pleasant place to sit and watch birds. But you do see a lot of them."