November 24 2017 – It’s wet and windy; the nature of winter on Haida Gwaii. The Christmas Bird Count dates are being finalised and craft fairs are underway. It can be a cheery time as human activities help to lighten the dark. Friends share stories, share food, share time. Wild creatures also hang out together. After waterfowl pairs spend the nesting season in relative isolation they flock together and fly to sheltered places where water doesn’t freeze.
At one time, humans were more nomadic and followed the birds. They told us when to plant, when to harvest and when to move on. They still tell us today. Climate change is affecting everything and the permafrost is melting faster than predicted. There have been small, subtle changes over time, but floods are more intense and summer fires in the interior affected bird migration. For instance, we get the occasional Red Knot migrating through here; it’s a lovely, medium-sized red shorebird with a short bill. But this year when the fires were burning, hundreds of knots landed in the wetlands, driven by changes in air pressure and the danger the fires posed.
Red Knots on the Wing (P. Hamel)
According to a recent study by the University of Edinburgh “birds are reaching their summer breeding grounds on average about one day earlier per degree of increasing global temperature. The main reason birds take flight is because of changing seasonal temperatures and food availability.
“The time they reach their summer breeding grounds is significant,” the report continues. “Because arriving at the wrong time, even by a few days, may cause them to miss out on vital resources such as food and nesting places. This in turn affects the timing of offspring hatching and their chances of survival…long-distance migrants, which are shown to be less responsive to rising temperatures, may suffer most as other birds gain advantage by arriving at breeding grounds ahead of them.”
The University of Edinburgh researchers examined records of migrating bird species dating back almost 300 years and drew upon records from amateur enthusiasts and scientists, including notes from 19th-century American naturalist Henry David Thoreau. So the birds are telling us that things are definitely changing and what are we going to do? As Ghandhi said “whatever you do will be insignificant. It is very important that you do it.” We can do small things like not letting our vehicles idle while waiting and recycling plastic packaging. The Haida* word “Yakguudang” says it all. It means “Respect for Living Things.”
December 1 2017 – Things are gearing up for the Christmas Bird Counts; the days go by so fast. It’s amazing how quickly the long days and short nights of summer are forgotten. We are now deep into December and birds are back at the feeder. The shoreline of Delkatla Wildlife Sanctuary is lined with ducks and the eagles are hovering. So are other raptors, although the speedy little Sharp-shinned Hawk doesn’t hover long. It’s more inclined to take short, sharp dives into a flock of feeding birds and dash off with a junco in its talons.
‘Sharpies’ are one of the more common birds of prey here in winter. They presumably nest here and could well be an island endemic, however it’s the big, dramatic Northern Goshawks that gets all the attention and every effort is underway to protect their nesting territories. Goshawks are lovely, sharp, dramatic birds and when one landed in the trees overhead recently it took a few minutes to identify it in the dense twiggy spruce. Its appearance was sudden and quite alarming to the ducks out in the water as waterfowl are one of the bird’s main prey.
Northern Goshawk overhead (M. Hearne)
A friend recently sent a photo of an active goshawk’s nest containing an adult and two young birds. The photo was so good that it made Delkatla Sanctuary Society’s Annual Tide Calendar for 2018. Other selections included the magpie that has been around most of the summer, a photo of both a Horned and Tufted Puffin together on a ledge and two of the special Sandhill Cranes that live here in summer. It also featured the first island records of an Eastern Phoebe and a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, the latter taken at Rose Harbour. Society President Peter Hamel most sincerely thanks all the photographers who were willing to share their photos this time around.
Sharp-shinned Hawk (M. Hearne)
Meanwhile, back to birds. Goshawks need large forest tracts to survive and there is a real fear that the islands’ forests are disappearing with the help of BC Timber Sales. Many find this devastation completely unacceptable. The Cloudberry Action Network has been trying to bring public attention to BC Timber Sales continuing to engineer more cut-blocks south of Masset and around Nadu Road. A Forest Stewardship Plan slated for approval in January shows that the amount of logging proposed in this area is totally disproportionate to the area it represents in the “timber harvesting land base.” The government continues to give away our forests.
As the forest goes, so goes the nesting birds, including Northern Goshawks, Red-tailed Hawks, Sharp-shinned Hawks and Saw-whet Owls. Also all the songbirds associated with old-growth forests. Actually the tree species as well. Are we seeing the end of Yellow Cedar? Red Cedar? Pacific Yew? Perhaps the goshawk can help. The Council of the Haida Nation at their recent House of Assembly unanimously endorsed a resolution to develop an Islands-based recovery strategy to ensure this unique forest species survives. And in even bigger news, the House voted to make stads k’un, the Goshawk the national bird of Haida Gwaii.
December 8 2017 – The wind is in the willows and the birds are at the feeder. Green-winged Teal line up along the water’s edge as we prepare for the Christmas Bird Counts (CBC). How many teal are there? Around a thousand, give or take, although the bird count organizers like us to be a bit more accurate. They like us to be accurate about a lot of things, including descriptions of all the rare birds that we see here. Why? Because they don’t always believe that we see what we see. Sometimes we ourselves don’t believe that we see what we are seeing especially that amazingly rare bird that shouldn’t be here, doesn’t nest here and how did it get here anyway?
Rare birds come in on the winds that blow. The lovely little Mountain Bluebird that appeared this fall and sallied forth from the top of a tallish spruce originally looked like a leaf. Those leaves had fooled us before, the stragglers that refuse to fall until a gust of wind takes it. Spruce trees don’t have leaves however, they have needles, and it was a bluebird, as pretty as a painting. It had probably arrived with the northeasters that had earlier blown across Hecate Strait. We are also on a fairly direct line from the Alaskan Panhandle and birds of the west coast have a proclivity to follow the coastline and here we are.
Black-bellied plovers on the rocks
In a rising tide, on a strip of rock quickly becoming a small island, a flock of Black-bellied Plovers rested. They were lovely. They clumped together for as long as they could, then one by one they drifted up and landed further up the beach. The tide continued its slow rise until there were no rocks left. The birds gathered in a flock and flew west. We hadn’t seen the plovers on that beach for quite a while but with the big Spring tides this past week they had ready access to an offshore reef where intertidal invertebrates lived. And, as an aside, if we are going to give a gender to the big tides I think it should be “Queen”; both the sea and moon are feminine in many languages.