Feature Article on Pam Birley,

From:  TheThunderbird.ca News, analysis and commentary by UBC Journalism students

B.C. wildlife webcam protects ecosystem, entertains daily British watcher

Visit Pamela Birley in her Leicester, England, home, and you’ll likely see sea lions hauling themselves onto Great Race Rock – an island in B.C., eight time zones away.

Surrounded by tidal races, open to wind and waves, and dwarfed by views of the Olympic Mountains, the treeless rock off the southern tip of Vancouver Island is a magnet for marine life in the area.

A young elephant seal saunters towards the sea.
Photo: Hanne-Marie Barlach Christensen

Birley, 86, has been watching the wildlife on Great Race Rock, the exposed peak of the seamount comprising the Race Rocks marine ecological reserve, for the past 14 years.

The webcams have performed a unique function since they were installed in 2000 by drawing in visitors from around the world and keeping the public from overwhelming the ecosystem. Birley is a daily watcher.

“It’s the variety of wildlife out there,” she said. “You’re never too sure what you’re going to see, and sometimes you see unusual things.”

Hotspot for biodiversity

Home to millions of plankton, thousands of nesting seabirds, and hundreds of sea lions, the reserve in the Strait of Juan de Fuca is rich in marine life. It’s this diversity that motivated Garry Fletcher, a marine biologist, to push for the area’s protection in the 1970s.

“It’s at the confluence of upwelling from deeper ocean and the fresh water spilling out of the Georgia Basin, so it creates a very unique ecosystem,” Fletcher said. “It’s a real hotspot of biodiversity.”

Fletcher’s efforts paid off. In 1980, the B.C. government designated Race Rocks and surrounding seamount as a provincial marine protected area. The federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans subsequently closed the reserve to commercial and ground fishing in 1991 and has designated it an area of interest, slated to become a marine protected area. Spanning 226 hectares, the reserve is managed under lease by the nearby college where Fletcher taught until retirement, Lester B. Pearson United World College of the Pacific.

However, most of those 226 hectares are submerged. Great Race Rock, at merely two hectares, is the only habitable part of the reserve.

Easily crossed on foot in less than 10 minutes, the island has no safe harbour and is cut off from Vancouver Island for days during spells of bad weather. For the island’s resident eco-guardian, Laas Parnell, the island’s size and isolation are impossible to ignore.

Originally from Haida Gwaii, Parnell has lived in isolated, coastal places most of her life. Yet Race Rocks stole her heart when she first visited during a marine-science class in 2011.

“I love it here,” she said of her home of the past year. “I’m not claustrophobic. I keep pretty busy, cooking, cleaning. I spend a lot of time just walking around.”

Still, the island’s tininess can be humbling.

“It reminds me that I’m the only one out there. Alone.” she said.

Light keepers lived on Race Rocks until the beacon was automated in 1997. Their houses, the jetty, and the lighthouse outbuildings remain to house the eco-guardian, researchers, and students. Photo: Hanne-Marie Barlach Christensen

It’s an aspect of the island Birley hadn’t noticed through the webcam.

“It surprised me how compact it was when we actually visited,” she said, reminiscing on the first time she set foot on the island in 2007. “I find it hard to get my bearings on the webcam in relation to what’s near what.”

“Parks end up getting loved to death sometimes”

It was the island’s size that motivated Fletcher to install the webcams. Covered in resting sea lions or seabird nests most of the year, the island can’t handle many visitors. He worried about the impact tourism could have had on the area.

The island is isolated during the winter months by gales and tidal races, but calm seas in the summer make it within easy reach for boats leaving Victoria and other harbours along southern Vancouver Island.

“It’s a bird colony and marine mammal haul-out area,” said Fletcher. “It was just too sensitive to have people coming and going in hordes. You would have every whale-watching boat stop there and disgorge its passengers. Parks end up getting loved to death sometimes.”

To prevent over-visitation, BC Parks mandates that visitors to the island must obtain an education or research permit.

Gulls depend on Great Race Rock as a nesting site and a place to rest.
Photo: Hanne-Marie Barlach Christensen

However, Fletcher wanted to make the reserve’s unique biodiversity and natural beauty publicly available. At the time, webcams offered a novel solution.

Webcams connect wildlife lovers

In 2000, most Canadians relied on dial-up internet, Mark Zuckerberg was 16, and YouTube wouldn’t exist for another five years. Broadcasting online, live from Race Rocks, was a moment Fletcher won’t forget.

“My best memory is when we achieved getting the first video signals off the island, back in 2000,” said Fletcher. “That was quite an accomplishment and represented participation and co-operation from a lot of players.”

For Birley, the introduction of webcams like the ones at Race Rocks were an opportunity to explore the world. She watches four cams daily, including Race Rocks.

“I don’t get out a great deal now,” she said. “But my life is full: I get out in the garden and I do a lot of knitting. I knit birds, just little standing shelf sitters. I can knit while I watch the webcams, so it’s productive.”

Birley’s best-selling knit bird: a peregrine falcon. Photo: Pamela Birley/Etsy

Birley’s knitted birds are popular: she’s sold hundreds in her Etsy shop to buyers far and wide.

Webcams have also fostered international friendships for Birley. Fletcher is one of her regular correspondents, and she’s made friends in Victoria and Seattle through webcams.

It is the animals, however, that keep Birley watching Race Rocks. She documents Race Rocks wildlife extensively through webcam screenshots and turns them into albums on Flickr.

Birley sees some animals regularly, like the gulls and sea lions, but her dedication to the webcam has paid off with an amazing sighting—a snowy owl.

“It was pouring rain, I had the camera on, and I was probably knitting,” she recalls.

“I looked up and thought I saw a funny looking seagull by the rock. I zoomed in and there it was: a snowy owl sitting there, just swivelling its head around from time to time. I’ve only ever seen the one, and that was quite exciting!”

Seeing a snowy owl was a highlight of Birley’s webcam sightings.
Photo: Pamela Birley/Race Rocks

Views From England

Today I received a nice note from Pam Birley, our devoted follower from Leicestershire  Great Britain who often captures great images with our remote cameras. She writes: “Couldn’t resist taking these pics today.   Spectacular views this morning at RR. ”

Note the nictitating membrane on the right

So I just went on camera 5 and found one of the eagles still in close range:

Guillemots are back

I just received this email from Pam Birley ” The Pigeon Guillemots are back !   They are even earlier this year.   It is usually February when I first see them.”     Thanks Pam for the observation from Leiscester England! Laas has also been out getting pictures of them.


It is also interesting to note that the elephant seal pup is doing very well this year. As Ecoguardian Laas Parnell has noted the one large male tends to keep the others on the island at bay. Hopefully this year the pup can survive once the mother leaves and it becomes a weaner. In most of the past years since pups first started being born on the island, aggressive males have led to a tragic end. I have requested BC Parks and DFO to produce a policy on what support can be offered in the event a pup is injured in the crucial period before it goes to the ocean after its month long weaning period. So far this has not been acted upon, so again this year it will be left up to chance, and hopefully the so-far protective bull will remain that way. The following pictures are from Camera1 at the top of the tower on Race Rocks.

Plectrophenax nivalis: Snow Bunting –The Race Rocks Taxonomy

Laas Parnell took these pictures of Snow Buntings on November 9, 2017. Pam Birley had been the only one to take pictures of them previously in 2005 and 2007 on the remote cameras at Race Rocks.

This is a very pale Snow Bunting . Snow Buntings are uncommon around Victoria and best seen in late fall-early winter, so any bunting in February is unusual. This is only the fourth Snow Bunting record for the Rocky Point Bird Observatory checklist. The last picture is a poor image through a blurry remote camera 5 housing,but the only one we have so far of a male snow bunting which was taken by Pam in March 2007.
Domain Eukarya
Kingdom Animalia
Phylum Chordata
Sub-Phylum Vertebrata
Class Aves
Order Passerifomes
Family Emberizidae
Genus Plectrophenax
Species nivalis
Common Name: Snow Bunting
Other Members of the Class Aves at Race Rocks.

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Images of Snow buntings by Laas Parnell–Ecoguardian at Race Rocks

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taxonomyiconReturn to the Race Rocks Taxonomy
and Image File
pearsonlogo2_f2The Race Rocks taxonomy is a collaborative venture originally started with the Biology and Environmental Systems students of Lester Pearson College UWC. It now also has contributions added by Faculty, Staff, Volunteers and Observers on the remote control webcams.
Garry Fletcher

Long term record for harbour seal at Race Rocks

Pam Birley sent this picture today that she took with the remote camera of Six-spot, a harbour seal she has photographed over a several year period. see previous post at http://www.racerocks.ca/6-spot-the-harbour-seal-observed-at-rr-since-2008/

Gale Force Winds and Peregrine Falcon


  • Visibility: 10 miles
  • Wind: 0-5 knots NW in the morning
  • By 11:10 up to 25 knots West
  • By 11:25 33 knots, 11:55 40 knots West
  • Post 12:00 steady at 30-35 knots West
  • Late afternoon into darkness 15-20 knots West
  • Sky: mix of sun and cloud
  • Water: 2′ chop


  • 4 elephant seals on Great Race.
  • They were very playful today.
  • Pam Birley spotted a Peregrine falcon with the webcam!
  • She took these 4 photos for us!


  • Back flushed the desalinator.
  • Ran the desalinator.
  • Uploaded June Seawater data to the website.


  • Did not see any boats in the reserve.

Spontaneous Whale Watching!


  • Visibility: 15+ miles
  • Mt. Baker visible at times today.
  • Wind: 10-15 knots West
  • Sky: clear and sunny!
  • Water: calm


  • We spied three eagles on Turbine Rock this morning.
  • 14 elephant seals on Great Race today, including both Chunk and Chuckles.
  • As Second Nature was departing Race Rocks sometime after 9:00, Kyle spied several whale watching boats following a pod of orcas outside the reserve.
  • I hopped aboard (sans camera) and we went off to join the fleet.
  • Over the next half hour or so, we watched 5 or 6 orcas as they repeatedly surfaced on their southerly course.
  • Christine (Guy’s wife) took several photographs; perhaps she will share them with us soon.
  • Pam Birley discovered a Black Oystercatcher nest today via webcam. That makes 3 known nests.
  • As Pam noted, it is “not a good spot to nest because the Otter likes to sunbathe in that spot on the rocks.”


  • I did some yellow paint touch up on the jetty.
  • Sprayed more algicide on the students’ house.
  • Shut-down the students’ house.


  • Second Nature arrived around 9:00, and properly departed around 10:00 after our unexpected whale watching trip!
  • Many eco-tours came by today.
  • A few of them appeared to be too close to the sea lions.


  • Kyle, Guy, Christine, and their daughter arrived at 9:00.
  • Guy and Christine were dropping off some gear for their upcoming shift.
  • Maya, Tazi, and Ali departed on Second Nature.

Tazi, Maya, Ali

Ali, Maya, Tazi, Mt. Baker

New Weaner on Great Race


  • Visibility: 15 miles
  • Wind: 10-15 knots E, later up to 48.6 knots W
  • 48 knots falls into the “storm” category. Only “violent storm” and “hurricane” are higher on the scale. The house is shuddering.
  • Water: 2′ chop, later at least 5′
  • Sky: overcast and some rain

Large waves 1


  • The mother elephant seal on Great Race was gone this morning, making the fourth pup a weaner. He is much smaller than the previous weaner was, and over on Middle Rock the mother is still with her pup, who was born approximately 8 days before, and is quite larger. All this makes me think the mother has left prematurely?
  • In the morning Chunk spent some time chasing the weaner, but he was too slow to catch him and he gave up, later heading over to Middle Rock.
  • Chuckles showed up on Great Race afterwards and has been watching the weaner.
  • At one point I found the weaner chewing on a wire cord underneath the big old yellow diesel tank by the Energy Building.
  • Today was the first day that I saw a great blue heron at Race Rocks! Not a first in general though, or for Race Rocks.
  • Pam Birley also noticed the heron and she took some photos with the webcam.


  • Stacked some firewood.


  • Heard one small DND blast at 10:30.

Rissa tridactyla: Black legged kittiwake

PB-Black-legged -Kittiwake2

Black-legged -Kittiwake, Rissa tridactyla In the Race Rocks Ecological Reserve

We received an e-mail today from Pam Birley of Leicester England with the photos of this Kittiwake she had taken using the remote controlled camera 5. This is a new photo record for Race Rocks Ecological Reserve.
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Charadriiformes
Family: Laridae
Genus: Rissa (Stephens, 1826)
Species: tridactyla
Rissa tridactyla
Other Members of the Class Aves at Race Rocks.

taxonomyiconReturn to the Race Rocks Taxonomy
and Image File
pearsonlogo2_f2The Race Rocks taxonomy is a collaborative venture originally started with the Biology and Environmental Systems students of Lester Pearson College UWC. It now also has contributions added by Faculty, Staff, Volunteers and Observers on the remote control webcams.


Gust, Swell and Rain

Ecological Happenings

  • Another wild weather day as RR. Gusts throughout the morning and afternoon, with showers and just moments of sunshine. Wind/gust warnings are still in effect until midnight.
  • Humpback whale spotted feeding towards Port Angeles.
  • Fresh propeller cuts spotted on a Sea Lion.
  • Animals continue to shift around the island and surrounding rocks, adjusting to the weather and moving away from the swell.
  • Number of geese on the island increased significantly from 13 to at least 48 today.
  • A necklaced Sea Lion spotted today near the dock.

Marine Vessels

  • Three tour boats
  • Two pleasure vessels


  • Camera 1 & 5 remote controls via RR website are not functioning – this is currently being troubleshooted.
  • High pressure hose requires a new pump. Attempts at rebuilding it have not been successful.
  • Electric fence repair attempts continue…..


  • No visitors today.