B.C.’s first breeding bird atlas is now online, thanks in part to five years of volunteer surveys by Haida Gwaii birders.
Anyone who visits birdartlas.bc.ca will quickly find photos, descriptions, maps, and population counts for the 320 bird species that raise young in B.C., including several with special links to Haida Gwaii.
“It’s quite a breakthrough, really,” says Margo Hearne, a long-time Masset birder best known for her work to restore tidal waters to the Delkatla Wildlife Sanctuary.
Hearne was one of over a dozen local volunteers who took part in atlas surveys, a list that included Langara Island lighthouse keepers and visiting naturalists working from sailboats in Gwaii Haanas.
Speaking at the Delkatla Nature Centre, where she and a friend were setting up a new display, Hearne said the most exciting part of the atlas surveys was discovering new nesting sites, and seeing that birds are still raising young in known ones.
“We loved the place up on White Creek in the muskeg meadows,” she said, recalling how she and her husband Peter Hamel found sandhill cranes, red-throated loons, and sooty grouse with nests or chicks by the bog lakes.
For two days, Hearne and Hamel also got to explore the islets and small estuaries along Masset Inlet from Oliver Bell’s boat.
“We saw bears grazing on the side of the river, in the green swath,” she said.
“We saw nesting barrow’s goldeneyes with young, and on the islets there were oystercatcher chicks—it was just a fabulous experience to find them.”
The last time anyone surveyed nesting birds along Masset Inlet was 25 years ago, Hearne said, plenty of time for logging or invasive rats and raccoons to hurt their numbers.
“The fact these oyster catchers still had chicks there was quite marvellous,” she said.
Already, dozens of researchers have used data from the Breeding Birds of British Columbia—it includes some 630,000 records from 1,300 volunteers.
But Hearne hopes the biggest impact of the atlas is on habitat conservation.
“Once you know where the birds are nesting, you have to be conscious when you’re doing any work,” she said, noting that birds are easily disturbed when nesting, especially after they have invested more than a few days incubating their eggs.
“They’re like all of us—they don’t like things to alter, because it’s seen as a threat.”
The atlas is also unique, said Hearne, because unlike most conservation research, it was not done for industry.
“This is done, I think, from a purely research and education perspective—just to find out what’s there,” she said.
Even after more than 30 years of birding here—a hobby she started while working as a fisher—Hearne said she has only scratched the surface.
“You never give up with birds,” she said. “You’re always learning, discovering new nesting sites, confirming new nesting species.”
“To walk the whole west coast and explore it, I mean, it takes a lifetime.”