Photo Credit: Laskeek Bay Conservation Society


👤Dave Quinn 🕔Nov 06, 2017

Seen from the water, this island is like many of Haida Gwaii’s over 300 islands and islets. Its craggy foreshore gives way to wind-sculpted hemlock and cedar, which in turn protects a stunning core of wild coastal old-growth giants in the sheltered heart of the island. A study in contrasts, on these islands the soft verdant rainforest moss begins where cold igneous rock ends, and the heartless black-blue of the Pacific yearns to swallow the rich rotting red trunks of 1000-year-old trees returning to the forest floor.

The island has secrets, however. Secrets that are quiet through the day, and come spectacularly alive in one of nature’s true spectacles at night.

Our plan is to spend the night on this island with seabird researchers, to experience what happens here at night. The only hints of what’s to come are a not-too-subtle fishy smell around the entire coastline, and small, pathetic piles of feathers sprinkled across the entire rainforest floor of the island’s interior, like some nocturnal trolls have been pillow-fighting the spring nights away. A shocking number of dead eagles dot the island, crumpled talon-and-beak emperors returning to the mossy earth.

We reached the island via a difficult, rock-strewn channel. Only navigable by kayak above three-quarter tide, timing is everything with the Hecate Strait swell and wind-chop joining forces with the jagged rocks below to make us earn our landing. Our tents are set in a clearing. The rules: no lights, no fires, no tent guy lines, no gear left lying around.

As dusk approaches, a perceptible change comes over the wild coast tribe around us. In the distance, rafts of small seabirds begin to gather, lines of black dots on a shimmering mercury sea. A patrol line of seals arrives, their shiny heads moving back and forth like an armada of tiny fishing vessels just offshore. A steady line of bald eagles wings from the larger islands out to the smaller islets, taking up posts in the broken, grey tops of snags around the islet’s perimeter. Even to the most dulled human senses, it is clear that something is about to happen.

Just before dark we head to another small clearing created by the introduced deer who keep the islands tended to a park-like undergrowth. The island is silent but for the squeaky laundry line imperatives of the eagles and the constant background wavewash concerto.

Finally, after a long spring dusk, darkness.

We wait, ears straining.

Suddenly, a whirring, wing-whistle sound careens through the forest from the direction of the sea, ending with a soft thump on the mossy forest floor. Then another. And another.

The air is now filled with whirring from every direction. Soft thumps like cats falling from the sky fill the forest around us. And then the birds start calling, and the entire world comes alive with sawing noises, crrr-crrrs, squawks, and a cacophony of sounds to thrill the soul of a wilderness lover. Soft, silent shapes bounce along the forest floor, rolling inexorably towards the water like black and white bouncy balls on long legs. These are chicks! Most are less than two days old. Quiet cheeps rise up from their epic journey to the sea from their nest burrows far inland.

Suddenly, the rushing whoosh and whap of large birds flying madly through the forest, as a squadron of eagles dives in after the prey. Unbelievably, these huge predators fly headlong into the forest after the seabirds, bouncing off branches and trees just as their prey do. This is the source of the dead raptors, as this tasty, abundant prey comes with a high risk of broken wings and necks.

Here be birds

The prey is abundant, indeed. On that dark island, literally tens of thousands of pairs of pelagic seabirds, birds whose entire lives are spent on the ocean but for the imperative to find a dry spot to lay their eggs, crowd that spring night.

The outer coast’s fishy smell is from the fish-oil-drenched Wilson’s and Leach’s storm petrels, rhinoceros and Cassin’s auklets, and shearwaters who make their nests under rocks and roots around the outer shore. These all incubate and hatch their young on land, the parents swapping feeding sessions, returning for the nightly trade-off with bellies full of herring and other small fish to feed their young until they are old enough to leave the nest and safely navigate the high seas. The unwise choice to walk the island perimeter at night with a headlamp on would result in surprising these birds, who are drawn to light. The unfortunate result of surprising a petrel is that the petrel promptly vomits the entire contents of its stomach—partly digested fish and oil—all over the source of the surprise. Both the victim and the bird suffer unpleasant consequences.

The real stars of the nocturnal show here are the murrelets. Marbled murrelets are famous as the poster children of old-growth forest protection efforts. Making their nests high in the mossy branches of old-growth trees, these birds are known to fly clear across Vancouver Island and Haida Gwaii from their wild West Coast feeding grounds to reach the sheltered, towering old-growth forests they need to build their nests.

But the miracles here on the ground are the ancient murrelets, named for their grizzled white feathers sprinkled like salt on a black pepper background. These birds, which only breed in Canada on Haida Gwaii’s offshore islands, spend their entire lives at sea, feeding far offshore. Like all members of the Alcidae (auk) family, these birds are designed more for life at sea than on land. They are solid little birds, with stout bodies and wings suited more to underwater flight in pursuit of prey than to their football-like trajectory in the air. They can fly straight and fast, but turning is not their forte. These 200 to 250 gram birds lay eggs that weigh up to 45 grams, over 20 percent of their body weight. The first egg is laid in the nest burrow in early April, and left behind as the female returns to sea to feed and grow another 45-gram egg, which she lays in the same burrow six to seven days later. The first miracle: egg number one is left cold for a week then somehow magically comes back to life with incubation. Both eggs are then incubated alternately by the female and male, with one adult feeding offshore during the day, and returning to swap roles after dark. Chicks hatch a month later, two to three days apart. Miracle number two: chicks are born with adult-sized legs, which allows them to leave the burrow soon after they emerge from the egg. After dark, the parents call the chicks out of the burrow with calls that bond the family. The adults then fly out to sea, leaving the gangly chicks to stumble, bumble, roll, fall, and run up to a kilometre through rugged rainforest to the coast. The chicks orient to star- and moon-light coming in through the trees at the coastline, downhill angles, and to the sound of the surf to reach their watery home. If they make it past the eagles, these tiny superstars reach the sea, where they must thread a gauntlet of hungry seals and fish waiting to gobble them up like popcorn, to somehow find their parents among tens of thousands of other birds bobbing around in the stormy Hecate Strait. Straight-up marine miracle. If they survive and rendezvous with their parents, by dawn the family has swum together up to five nautical miles offshore, where the chicks begin their pelagic life.

Colony conservation

Seabird colonies on over 200 islands and islets of the archipelago support over 1.5 million breeding seabirds each spring. Rankine Island, alone, an 800-metre-wide treed island off the east coast of Moresby Island, supports over 25,000 Cassin’s auklets, a similar number of ancient murrelets, and 14,000 storm petrels. A micro-archipelago made up of Bolkus, George, Skincuttle, East Copper and a handful of smaller islets just north of Rankine supports over 60,000 pairs of breeding auklets, murrelets, storm petrels, and shearwaters. Together with non-breeding birds and chicks this 75-hectare island hosts a nightly party for well over 200,000 individual birds on any busy spring night.

Sadly, many of these nocturnal marvels of nature have fallen silent in recent decades. Introduced predators are the main culprit. Rats brought in with logging camps and ships, and raccoons introduced in the early 1900s for a fur-trapping industry find the burrowing seabirds easy prey.  On Langara Island, which was likely once the most important seabird colony in the entire Haida Gwaii archipelago, a nesting colony of over 200,000 pairs of ancient murrelets was reduced to less than 15,000 pairs after black rats were introduced in the mid-1900s, and Norway rats appeared in 1981. At the same time five other species of seabird were completely wiped out. While rats and raccoons pose the main threat to burrow-nesting seabird colonies, human development also poses a threat. On Langara Island, a sport fishing lodge was built on the site of an important nesting colony, and noise and light pollution from other lodges also poses problems. The elephant in the ocean is the ever-present threat of an oil spill.

Ironically, a rat eradication project on Langara Island using rat poisoning techniques developed in New Zealand has been funded from the Nestucca Environmental Recovery Trust Fund, the result of a lawsuit after the Nestucca oil spill killed 50,000 wintering seabirds off Vancouver Island in the late 1980s. Seabird numbers are slowly rising on Langara, but are still just a fraction of what they once were, before the rats arrived.

The Haida have always known the secrets of the sea bird islands. Songs celebrated the return of SGin Xaana, the night birds, every spring. Adults were harvested using large fires along the coast to attract and distract the birds, and both eggs and adults were dug out of burrows.

Many in Haida Gwaii have always thought Laskeek Bay should have been included inside the island’s Gwaii Hanaas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Area. Located just north of the reserve’s northern boundary, Laskeek Bay is biological treasure whose waters teem with marine life, and whose islands and islets are important seabird nesting sites. The Laskeek Bay Conservation Society was formed in 1990 to continue Canadian Wildlife Service researcher Dr. Tony Gaston’s long-term seabird studies in the region. In addition to taking local school groups to its research basecamp on Limestone Island in the bay, the Society accepts volunteers to stay on-site and assist with their seabird and other marine life studies, which, 28 years in, are now some of the longest-running marine-life research programs.

These magical islands are best avoided completely during the April to June breeding seasons, as any light, noise, or human activity has negative impacts on the breeding birds. Volunteering with Laskeek Bay Conservation Society is the best way to experience first-hand the magic of the night birds.