Seabirds At Risk


This time of year, the Scott Islands, a chain of 5 tiny islands just north of Vancouver Island, explodes into life as flocks of seabirds return to the grassy slopes and steep granite cliffs of these emerald isles.

Bare grey cliffs become a jiggling monochrome sea as dense breeding colonies of elegant common murres set up home, seeking safety in large numbers. 

The grassy slopes are flecked with colourful splashes of orange, red, black, white and gold, strung out like jewels on a necklace, as splendid tufted puffins and rhinoceros auklets dig their burrows into the vegetation keeping a respectful distance from their neighbours for a degree of privacy.

The islands most prized citizens, the Cassin’s auklets, are the least flashy of the residents. Hiding away in burrows amongst the puffins and other auklets half the world’s population of these birds breed here.

 

These birds know each other well as they will return to the same nesting site, with the same partner, for many years. Even if they have been in a relationship for years they begin the breeding season with elaborate bonding displays, which include beak tapping, strutting, and bowing, accompanied by a cacophony of calls from high-pitched whistles to deep-belly “honks”.

The pair will lay a single egg, which is carefully incubated and protected by both parents, taking shifts. After about a month and half the chick hatches, the chick stays in the nest for another month and a half until it replaces it’s fluffy down with waterproof feathers.

These birds all belong to the same family, called ‘auks’, (not the big, scary monsters from Lord of the Rings, they were ‘orcs’), these are small-ish birds with big bodies, big feet and short wings. Their distinctly un-aerodynamic bodies are not well suited for flight (and terrible for landings), but perfect for swimming and diving. This suits them just fine as it is in the water that they make their living, feeding on small fish like sandlance, or in the case of the very small Cassin’s auklet tiny larval crab and shrimp, plankton.

Auks are so well adapted to life in the water that they can dive more than 30m deep, close to the maximum depth for recreational scuba divers, on a single breath. They empty their lungs and even squeeze all the air out of their feathers to reduce their buoyancy.

Once the chick has fledged and summer nears its end, the birds begin to lose their colourful feathers, replacing them with a mottled coat, (tufted puffins even lose their blonde pigtails) before leaving the cliffs and heading off to feed at sea through the winter.

With that the Scott Islands becomes dormant, peaceful, grey and green. Waiting for its feathered residents to return next spring.

For many years the islands themselves have been protected, but the waters that the birds depend on for their food and to feed their chicks are not . . . yet. But you have the chance to get them protected! 

Between now and May 25th you can write a letter of feedback to Environment Canada telling them why we need protection for these islands, and their feathered inhabitants. It’s a short period of time, so visit our campaign page to learn more and write your letter today!  http://cpawsbc.org/campaigns/scott-islands