Inland cliffs and bluffs form a tiny part of the mosaic of ecosystems in the landscape of southern Vancouver Island. Still, they are important components as they provide structural diversity and provide a niche for specialized plants and animals that have adapted to life in a harsh environment. Around the Victoria area, these cliffs and bluffs are most often formed of bedrock, although some may also be partly formed of glacial till. The rocks extrude from the surrounding environment, which may be composed of any of the other inland ecosystems, such as coastal Douglas fir forest, coastal western hemlock forest, wetlandsstreams and riparian zones.

inland cliffs 1  220x136 hhWhat lives on inland cliffs and bluffs?

Between bedrock outcroppings, soil is slow to form, as the rock is gradually weathered and bits of organic matter are blown in or deposited by animals. These areas are exposed to the elements of sun, wind, rain and snow. The more exposed and rocky areas may support only moss and lichens, while hardy perennials, shrubs and trees take root in the pockets of deeper soil. Some of the plants that can be found on inland cliffs and bluffs include:
  • Mosses such as black rock moss (Andreaea rupestris), awned haircap moss (Polytrichum piliferum), apple moss (Bartramia pomiformis), hairy screw moss (Tortula ruralis), bottle moss (Amphidium lapponicum), common beard moss (Schistidium apocarpum) and hoary rock moss (Racomitirum lanuginosum)
  • Lichens (which are not in fact plants, rather an association between an alga and a fungus) such as punctured rocktripe (Umbilicaria torrefacta), seaside kidney (Nephroma laevigatum), questionable rock-frog (Xanthoparmelia cumberlandia), and bull’s eye (Placopsis gelida)
  • Herbaceous plants such as stonecrop (Sedum spp.), nodding onion (Allium cernuum), satin flower (Sisyrinchium douglasii), desert rock purslane (Calandrinia ciliata), Columbia lewisia (Lewisia columbiana), villous cinquefoil (Potentilla villosa), small-flowered willowherb (Epilobium minutum), spreading phlox (Phlox diffusa), Davidson’s penstemon (Penstemon davidsonii), yarrow (Achillea millefolium), pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea), shootingstar (Dodecatheon spp.), plus other Garry oak meadow species and many types of grasses
  • Shrubs such as hairy manzanita (Arctostaphylos columbiana), kinnikinnick (Acrtostaphylos uva-ursi), common snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus) and mock orange (Philadelphus lewisii)
  • Trees(often stunted) such as arbutus (Arbutus menziesii), shore pine (Pinus contorta var. contorta), western white pine (Pinus monticola), Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), and Garry oak (Quercus garryana)
inland cliffs 2  166x268 tall

Sea blush with camas in the background

Inland cliffs and bluffs are relatively inhospitable environments, therefore have less diversity of plant and animal species compared to more sheltered and moist environments. Nevertheless, some species rely on them for survival. The rare sharp-tailed snake (Contia tenuis) is one example. This snake is small (adults are 20 to 30 cm long and the thickness of a pencil) and harmless, like all snakes on Vancouver Island. It requires south-facing rocky areas in Coastal Douglas-fir forest, particularly for nursery sites. The snake occurs here at the northern limit of its range, and is threatened by habitat loss and degradation. It is considered critically imperiled and is on the provincial Red List (the highest risk category). Several species of garter snakes (Thamnophis spp.), which are much more common than the sharp-tailed snake, may also be found in similar habitats. Other examples of wildlife that use inland cliffs and bluffs include:
  • Northern alligator lizard (Elgaria coerulea), the only native lizard that inhabits Vancouver Island. This 20-cm long lizard hibernates and basks among rocky outcroppings with good sun exposure.
  • Townsend’s big-eared bat (Corynorhinus townsendii), a Blue-Listed species, which roosts in caves. These small insect-eating bats bear only one young per year, and are very sensitive to human disturbance.
  • Peregrine falcons (Falco peregrinus ssp. pealei), which lay their eggs on rocky ledges, most often near the ocean, lakes or wetlands.
  • Turkey vultures (Cathartes aura), carrion-eating birds that nest in caves or crevices in cliffs and under boulders during the summer. Hundreds of birds (possibly the entire coastal population) can sometimes be seen near Victoria or Sooke when they congregate or “stage” here prior to heading south for the winter. They circle upwards on thermal air currents until attaining enough elevation to glide across the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
  • Golden eagles (Aquila chrysaetos), majestic flyers with wingspans of up to 2 metres, which nest on rock ledges and on bluffs, as well as in trees and caves.
  • Common ravens (Corvus corax), which nest on cliffs or in trees. These birds are legendary for their intelligence, adaptability, agile flight and their impressive repertoire of vocalizations.
  • Various species of mice, voles, shrews and squirrels live among or near cliffs and bluffs, while predators such as cougars and wolves may use these areas periodically as look-outs and for hunting. The Vancouver Island marmot, an endangered species, lives in high-elevation rocky areas in central Vancouver Island.

Why are inland cliffs and bluffs important?

As discussed above, inland cliffs and bluffs provide critical habitat for many birds, reptiles and mammals, some of which breed or nest only in these areas. They contribute to biodiversity by providing structural variety in the landscape, for example by providing various vertical levels of growing sites with diverse exposures. As rocky areas are usually drier, more exposed and higher in elevation compared to the surrounding landscape, they create opportunities for species that might not otherwise live in a particular area.

What threatens inland cliffs and bluffs?

Inland cliffs and bluffs are favoured for hiking and mountain biking, and residential and commercial building sites. Unfortunately, the plants and wildlife that live in these areas are in many cases highly sensitive to disturbance. Trampling by just a few people can scrape off mosses and soil that require decades or longer to become established, and startled birds and bats can abandon their nesting sites. Logging and urban development in the surrounding landscape can reduce prey and food availability for animals that live in these ecosystems.

Inland cliffs and bluffs can be, and in some cases have been, protected as park land. People can co-exist with the plants and wildlife in these areas if the impacts of recreational activities can be minimized with educational signage and designated trails.

Where can I visit inland cliffs and bluffs in the Victoria area?

Some examples of these ecosystems can be found in the following areas:

How can I help protect inland cliffs and bluffs?

  • Get to know these ecosystems, by hiking in one of the many regional parks listed above; spring is an excellent time to see many beautiful wildflowers.
  • Speak out for the protection of these sensitive areas, and help to educate others about their importance.
  • Stay on designated trails while hiking in these areas, to prevent trampling delicate plants and mosses.
  • Keep dogs under control (and on a leash where required) to keep them from chasing wildlife.

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Emergency Management of BC 1.800.663.3456
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