Ecological Almanac is a tag name for articles that have been published in the local newspaper, the Queen Charlotte Islands Observer either as submissions or inserts. Their purpose is to focus attention on current happenings in the mosaic ocean life around the Islands. Please find these articles with links to text for reading on the website or for download.


Spring Birding
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by Margo Hearne, published in the QCI Observer in May 2002

What are all those Brown Geese?

They’re the talk of the town, those wonderful, wild geese that settled on Haida Gwaii at the end of April. They landed in fields, airports, golf courses and lawns; anywhere they could get a bite to eat and a bit of shelter from the strong northwesterlies that have blown over us since mid-April. On their way to the nesting grounds in the Yukon River Delta, the geese were held here by strong head-winds. They are Greater White-fronted Geese, Anser albifrons, and the number seen here in late April and early May is the largest known flock size ever to appear in spring in British Columbia.

Upwards of 7,000 geese were counted, 5,000 in Delkatla Wildlife Sanctuary alone. It’s a phenomenon. A friend in Tlell told me that she had “just sat down outside for a cup of coffee and suddenly had the strange feeling that she was not alone”. When she turned, she saw upwards of 300 White-fronts in the field behind her. ‘They landed so silently,” she laughed. “And suddenly, just as silently, took off again. How do they do that?”

A group of birders from the Vancouver Natural History Society, here on a birding trip, made these geese their motif, seeing not only geese but shadows of geese that drifted down outside as they sat inside on one of their short breaks. One evening such a huge flock landed in Delkatla that we had to rush off to find someone to share the adventure. The birds seemed to pour down from the sky and, restless as the wind themselves, take wing again.

So where have they come from and where are they going? According to the book ‘Birds of British Columbia’ by Campbell and others, the Greater White-fronted Geese migrate along the Offshore Pacific flyway winter in the Central Valley of California and nest in the Yukon River Delta. They feed on fresh grass shoots, bulbs and roots; and like a bit of freshwater around. They’re mighty hungry and unless given a chance to feed, many could die on the northern nesting grounds, unable to withstand the toll of a cold migration and the rigours of the nesting season. It’s a wild, uncertain life they have, and long may they fly.

One afternoon the last week of April, we stood in a field in Tlell and watched the migration of birds offshore for hours. Dabbling and diving ducks, brant, loons,
black-legged Kittiwakes, grebes, jaegers; you name it, it passed by.

Hecate Strait and Dixon Entrance are still undiscovered country when it comes to migratory birds. Other than some limited aerial surveys in the 70’s, no recent surveys have been done on the millions of birds migrating north along the offshore Pacific Flyway. The shallow seas east and north of Haida Gwaii are a mecca for migrants. Upwellings along the Dogshead Shoal, running seas at Rose Spit and Sandspit, and the trench between the islands and the mainland attract birds by the million.

Why? Well, when you have a relatively sheltered, shallow body of water between two landforms, living things thrive. Euphausids, those tiny shrimp-like creatures that are eaten by everything from herring to whales, abound in the shallows, sandlance skitter along, and herring and halibut follow in their wake. And, of course, birds, described by fishermen as ‘feed’ for they mark the spot where fish can be found.

If there’s feed, there’s fish; if there’s fish, there’s shrimp; if there’s shrimp, there are whales; if there are whales, there’s feed. It’s called the ‘food chain’. All this must be considered by human developments such as offshore oil and gas and offshore windfarms.

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The Gray whales are back again! – From Mexico to Alaska
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by Julie Towers, published in the QCI Observer in May 2002

Whoosh! The blow of a gray whale grabs our attention. Five people on the sailboat swivel our heads in time to see a bumpy, barnacle-encrusted back as the whale dives. Momentarily forgotten are the nearby sea ducks, seals and sea lions. The size and mystery of whales dominate again.

Watching gray whales at Second Beach last year was a personal highlight after moving to the Islands. I discovered a great book at the local library entitled Gray Whales, Wandering Giants written by Robert Busch. Their feeding behaviour is amazing. Did you know that the whales are “right-mouthed?”

When gray whales dive, they roll onto their side and push their heads into the bottom sediment. Scars, scraped barnacles and worn baleen plates on the right side of their mouths reflect this habit. When a whale pushes into the seabed, its’ two to five throat grooves expand and the huge tongue (up to 1300 kg!) pulls back to create suction. Mud, water and food flow into the mouth. The tongue pushes most of the dirt and water out through the baleen plates, while the food is trapped. Made of keratin like your fingernails, the 160 pairs of baleen plates are solid at the top and toothbrush-bristled at the bottom.

How much food can an 11 m long, 30 tonne whale filter? Between 400 to 1300 kilograms a day! Gray whales eat a variety of marine organisms including shrimp, tube-dwelling worms, clams, snails, and spawning squid. Important foods in spring are crab larvae, krill, and herring roe. Apparently, the whales will scrape small crustaceans off kelp and eelgrass. Many whale stomachs have contained plants, leading to the belief that they eat marine plants to scour their intestines, just as dogs eat grass.

Gray whales can reach marine plants and animals in water less than three metres in depth. Their huge horizontal tail flukes are estimated to be equivalent in power to a 500 horsepower engine. Powerful tail flukes and streamlined bodies help push them into shallow water to feed, or along coastal waters on their 6000 kilometre annual migration from California to Alaska.

Another neat adaptation for the marine environment is the gray whale’s oxygen storing capacity. Gray whales have a 130 kg heart, two to three times more blood per unit of body weight than humans, and an iron-based protein in their muscle tissue that allows storage of 41 percent of their oxygen (compared to 13 percent in humans). Their lungs weigh 300 kilograms, have more air cells, and two layers of capillaries to increase air exchange. With each breath from its double blowhole, a gray whale expels 80-90 percent of its oxygen-depleted air, compared to 15 percent for humans.

On deep dives, up to 120 m in depth, a gray whale can stay underwater for up to 25 minutes. Luckily for whale-watchers, the gray normally dives less than 30 metres and surfaces after three to five minutes. So on the second weekend in April, five of us on a sailboat are treated to sightings of two gray whales repeatedly surfacing, blowing, and flashing their gray and white barnacle-covered heads and backs. As I write this article, I am already planning to head over to Skidegate near high tide to watch for more whales. I may even drop over at low tide to look for grooves in the mud flats where the whales shoved their “right-mouthed” heads. See you there!

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Black oystercatcher – Sgaadang.a
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by Charlotte Tarver, published in the QCI Observer in June 2002

One of the more familiar birds along the rocky shorelines of Haida Gwaii is ‘Sgaadang.a’ or Black Oystercatcher. It is an unremarkable long-legged and blackish-brown shorebird – except for a long, orange-red bill, and loud, raucous calls. One might pass them by and not realize how important a role Black Oystercatchers play in our local systems. Oystercatchers live on land at the shore’s edge, yet are entirely dependent on the ocean for their food. Thus, they are a good indicator species of shoreline health.

Black Oystercatchers are year-round residents on Haida Gwaii/QCI. Their habitat includes rock headlands, rocky shorelines and sand/gravel beaches with lots of tidal and wave action. In spring and summer, they can be found on small islands or rocks, where they nest and raise their young. In winter, they congregate in large flocks of 20 to 100 to feed in protected inlets. A Christmas bird count in Naden Harbour once recorded a flock of 150 birds.

Despite their name, oystercatchers feed mostly on mussels and limpets. They rely on the immense mussel beds and abundant populations of limpets and crustaceans found here. These prey species in turn rely on the high quality, plankton-rich waters of the Islands, and are also an indication of a healthy marine environment

Black Oystercatchers are fascinating to watch. They run with short quick steps, side-by-side, then rotate in place or make a 180-degree turn and give dramatic leaps. With head and bill downward, neck and shoulders hunched, they rush at each other, giving a rapid series of calls. These antics are performed when defending territories, luring intruders away from a nest site or when reuniting with a mate. Known to live over 16 years, pairs form long-lasting bonds and stay together for many years. They return to the same breeding and nesting sites year after year.

Another fascinating detail about Black Oystercatchers is their nest locations. They lay their eggs on the bare rock of a headland, just above the high-tide line, with only a few pieces of gravel or shell for nesting material. An optical illusion hides the egg as its mottled colour matches the surrounding habitat. Ravens fly back and forth over a nest site for long periods of time, searching for eggs they cannot find.

Natural predators of eggs and chicks are ravens, crows, eagles and other birds. When a predator approaches, adults give a single warning call and use decoy tactics. Chicks instantly flatten themselves against a rock, under tiny ledges or in small cracks. The colour of their downy feathers is almost a perfect match to surrounding rocks. Adults have few predators.

A 12-year study by local researchers includes banding chicks on nesting sites in Laskeek Bay. Bands on birds can reveal how long birds may live; if they return to nest in the same place each year; and where they go throughout the year. Bands include a black plastic band over a white plastic band on a left leg, with a metal band on a right leg. Metal bands have large numbers that can easily be read with binoculars. Birds banded in Laskeek Bay have been sighted elsewhere, such as Darwin Sound, Cumshewa Inlet and off Lyell Island.

What can cause Oystercatcher populations to drop? Oystercatchers no longer nest on small islands in inlets like Skidegate because of introduced raccoons and rats. Human disturbance can cause adult birds to desert their nest. Ocean pollution is another factor limiting populations. The ‘1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska killed 20 percent of adult Black Oystercatchers in the area. In heavily oiled shorelines, 39 percent of adults did not lay eggs, and many chicks that hatched did not survive.

Oystercatchers can be considered the “canaries in the coalmine” on the ocean’s edge. In other words, if the oystercatcher population in a given area drops, we should take note because major changes in the marine environment may be occurring.

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A Limestone Experience
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by Cole Murdaugh and Eryn Sinclair, published in the QCI Observer in July 2002

Humpback whales, porpoises, black bears, jellyfish, deer, woodpeckers, eagles, ancient murrelets. These are just a few of the creatures we encountered this year during our 'School in the Bush' journey. Each spring, the students of the Living and Learning School embark on a wilderness leadership, environmental science experience. This year we chose once again to visit Limestone Island and the ancient murrelet colony that is carefully monitored by volunteers and scientists associated with the Laskeek Bay Conservation Society.

One of the most powerful ways for children to become enthralled as caretakers and appreciaters of the natural world is for them to become immersed in it. When they have the opportunity to positively interact with nature and to learn to live lightly with the earth, they gain skills and wisdom that can last a lifetime.

This year, one student's keen interest caught the attention of staff at Limestone and he was invited to stay on as a volunteer. The following is a piece of writing by this student, reflecting some of what he learned and experienced:

My name’s Cole Murdaugh, age 12, and I volunteered as one of the younger volunteers on East Limestone Island (ELI.) A normal duration for a volunteer lasts about a week. For transportation reasons my time at ELI lasted six days.

During my time there, we were mainly studying the Ancient Murrelet bird colony. The Ancient Murrelet is a threatened bird living in only small colonies in Alaska, Russia, Japan and of course the Queen Charlotte Islands. The special thing about the Ancient Murrelet colony on Haida Gwaii is that we have over 70% of the world's Ancient Murrelet population.

To monitor the Ancient Murrelet population on ELI, researchers have set up plastic funnel fences going down a slope towards the ocean. Because of the Ancient Murrelet’s many predators, these birds move into action at night. Between 10:00 PM and 2:30 AM volunteers trekked to North Cove where the funnels were. Then we waited until a chick came stumbling down the funnel.

The way that this works is that the parents of the Ancient Murrelet chicks will teach their offspring their call and specific pitch. The parents then fly down to the ocean where they will wait and make their call for the chicks to follow. Then the chicks have to fend for themselves, stumbling out of their burrow and making their way down towards the light. At this pitch dark time of night, the reflection on the water is the strongest source of light around. If the chicks successfully make it into the ocean they will follow their parents call, hopefully meet up with them and move to safer water.

Let's get back to if you catch a chick in a funnel. First you will be given some bird bags to put the chicks in. While you're waiting at the bottom of the funnel, you will hear a little bit of rustling on the plastic. Next you turn on your light to see if there are any chicks. If so, you bend over and carefully put the chick in bag. Pull the bag tight so they don’t try and pop out! Then take the chick over to the banding shelter. This is where the banding, weighing, checking their webbed feet and all the data entry happens. Once all the data is recorded, you take them back to their home funnel, take them out on the beach and find a good slope for them to follow. Then turn off your light, open your bag and listen to the clinking band and the motoring feet in the water.

It is truly a unique experience! I am very thankful for the opportunity.

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Haida Gwaii/QCI map highlights
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Wildly Wonderful Rockfish
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by Lynn Lee, published in the QCI Observer in June 2003

A rockfish is not just a rockfish…there are reddish orange ones with yellow eyes, mottled black ones that school in hundreds, intricate navy and yellow ones, copper ones, yellow ones, green ones, blue ones and more! There are rockfish that live near the bottom in shallow kelp beds, rockfish that school in the water around kelp forests, and rockfish that live near the ocean bottom from the shallows to the continental shelf. All North Pacific rockfish belong to the genus Sebastes, from the Greek word for “magnificent”. Their smaller tropical cousins include delicate lionfish and the deadly stonefish.

Rockfish are long-lived, late maturing fish. Yelloweye have been aged up to 117 years. Quillback up to 76 years. opper up to 45 years. One rougheye, a deep water rockfish, was aged at 205 years, holding title as the oldest individual fish ever recorded – of course, it may have lived to a riper old age if not for being “sampled”. Some rockfish take 20 years or more to mature. As the breeding females get larger, they produce more and more young. When we think of fish, we generally think of them as laying fertilized eggs which then hatch – Sebastes are different. They bear live young. Free-swimming larvae released in early spring leave their birth place on a current and a prayer, hoping to avert hungry mouths and land on an appropriate place to live.

Rockfish have become recent celebrities in the saga of North Pacific fisheries. The debate arose south of us, where commercial and recreational fisheries have longer histories, and where shallower inshore rockfish are no longer as abundant as they used to be. Stories from the 1910s tell of expansive “pumpkin patches” – “garbage” yelloweye rockfish caught in the commercial lingcod fishery and left to die floating on the surface. The yelloweye was once considered the most abundant rockfish in the Strait of Georgia and now they are hard to come by.

South of the Canadian border, the situation is even more dire. Rockfish commonly sold as Pacific red snapper – yelloweye, canary and boccacio – are in danger of extinction and tough fishing restrictions are under consideration to ensure their survival. In Puget Sound, commercial rockfish fisheries were no longer viable by the ‘80s and officially ended in 1994. Recreational fishing continued. The size of rockfish caught steadily declined, as did the numbers of mature fish.

For conservation and other reasons, small marine sanctuaries were established in the San Juan Islands through the ‘80s and ‘90s. News from these sanctuaries is that they now contain the majority of mature rockfish and represent the home ranges for many. From there, larval rockfish can spread to seed properties nearby, although it may be decades before the implications are understood.

The good news is that we are not there yet. Although there are undoubtedly localized areas around Haida Gwaii that have seen a decline in rockfish populations due to fishing pressure, there are also areas that still seem to have healthy populations. Local longliners who have fished here for decades still fish some of the same areas they have for years. Scientists from Washington figure that BC conditions reflect where they were 20 years ago. So now is the time to give serious thought to the future of magnificant Sebastes and their neighbours of the underworld.

I have been fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to explore the underwater world around most of Haida Gwaii in my 9 years here. The sea surface around kelp beds still boils with feeding black rockfish schooling in the hundreds - their beady eyes staring at me when I intrude on their world. Juvenile tigers frolick in the shallows. Delicate chinas hover amongst kelp fronds. This I wish for generations to follow.

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