WHIDBEY BIRDING | Haida Gwaii guillemots are frequent ferry riders

Last month I fulfilled a lifelong dream to visit the Queen Charlotte Islands, also called Haida Gwaii. Cast about 70 miles off British Columbia’s coast and tucked up under Alaska, Haida Gwaii is the ancestral home to the Haida Nation, as well as numerous birds and marine mammals.

Six of us kayakers flew from Vancouver airport to Sand Spit situated on the east side of Haida Gwaii, about midway up the archipelago.

First we toured the north island, dropping in on Haida wood carvers and silver jewelry makers in Old Masset. Then we returned to the main south island and met up with Jo, our vivacious, veteran kayaking guide and owner of Green Coast Kayaking.

We headed south in a rainstorm, but by noon the following day the clouds departed for the horizon and disappeared for the remainder of our eight-day paddle. We missed the heat wave here on Whidbey and gloried in the warmest weather Haida Gwaii has seen in decades.

We paddled, camped, cooked over an open fire, swam in the frigid Pacific and explored some of the most pristine waters and unpopulated lands I’ve ever experienced.

During one of the lowest tides of the summer, we examined sea stars, bat stars, anemones, sea urchins, turban snails and many species of kelp (my favorite being the feather boa) in the natural underwater aquarium of Barnaby Narrows, considered to have one of the most concentrated mass of marine life anywhere.

Above water we searched for the threatened Marbled Murrelets, a sweet little brownish seabird with a short upturned beak. We also found its uncommon cousin, the Ancient Murrelet, similar sized with black and white markings.

Onshore we visited old Haida villages—Tanu, Skedans and Hot Springs—now deserted except for Haida caretakers. Under the spell of the Haida Watchmen’s explanations and stories, moss-draped logs became old downed totems. Notched stumps became mortuary poles, their mortuary boxes and the bones they held having returned to the earth or been carried off by artifact thieves decades ago. Giant pick-up sticks became beams of ancient houses.

Each day as we paddled through islands, across straits or along the shore, I kept an eye out for Pigeon Guillemots, the black and white seabirds with bright red feet. It was by far the most common bird species we saw, and on occasion I watched adult guillemots carrying food to their young, hidden in rocky burrows.

I’m particularly interested in Pigeon Guillemots, since I coordinate volunteers from Whidbey Audubon who are monitoring local populations of that species for the annual summer survey sponsored by Whidbey Audubon and the Island County Marine Resources Committee. This year we are monitoring 23 colonies, the breeding homes for the nearly 1,000 guillemots that breed and raise their young on Whidbey.

On Whidbey, I have never observed guillemot breeding behavior as unusual as I was to discover on Haida Gwaii. The principal islands of that archipelago are divided in half by a long, east-west inlet, and one small ferry carries a handful of cars and trucks across the inlet between the major islands.

There is no ferry dock, such as we are used to here on Whidbey. Cars drive down a paved boat ramp and bump up onto a metal ramp lowered from either end of the ferry.

As the ferry started off from the southern shore for its half-hour crossing, one of our paddling friends noticed four guillemots sitting on the ferry’s metal ramp. He asked a crew member about the birds.

“They’re kind of like mascots,” the crew responded. “Once we lift the ramp, they fly in underneath. Got their nests in there.”

I was incredulous when I heard this. But later, Jo confirmed it.

Each summer for the past four years, guillemots have laid their eggs and raised their young on the ferry, riding it back and forth. They dive underwater to catch fish, grasp the prey in their beaks and fly back to the moving ferry to deliver the fish to their young.

I’m still puzzled as to why with hundreds of miles of rugged, rocky coastline, these gregarious guillemots choose to nest on the one ferry in all of Haida Gwaii.

This morning I was back surveying our Whidbey guillemots. Many of the young birds have already fledged from their burrows high on the bluff. When the young are ready to leave the burrow, they must tumble down the steep bluff, maneuver their way over and around drift logs, and wobble across the beach before finding the safety of open water.

In contrast, those young Haida Gwaii guillemots simply hop off the ferry and plop onto the water.

Frances Wood is the author of “Brushed by Feathers: A Year of Birdwatching in the West.” To check out her brand new Web site, click here.

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