Program puts kids in touch with science

  • Jun. 3, 2004 1:00 p.m.

There’s no better way for kids to learn what scientific research is all about than getting out and collecting data, and that’s what Project Limestone-the Laskeek Bay Conservation Society’s education program-encourages islands students to do, Heidi Bevington writes from Limestone Island.
During a recent trip to East Limestone Island, my son Graham and I had a chance to discover the joys and discomforts of real life field research when we traveled to the research station to spend the night capturing ancient murrelet chicks.
Ten students and five adults from the Living and Learning School traveled to Vertical Point on Louise Island May 23. We spent our first afternoon and evening preparing our base camp. Next day, the first group of five students and four adults travelled to East Limestone for an afternoon orientation by bird researcher Ceitlynn Epners. We learned about the research and our role in it, and also got a chance to see the terrain during daylight to help us travel safely later that night.
After returning to Vertical Point for dinner-and a couple of cups of coffee for me-we boated back to the island for the night. After setting up a basic shelter of tarpaulins, we trekked from our campsite to the ancient murrelet hatching grounds where we were to be stationed for three and a half hours waiting in the dark to capture ancient murrelet chicks and carry them to the station where Ms Epners would weigh and band them.
In order to capture the chicks without harming them, the research team creates a network of plastic fences that wind throughout the hatching grounds. The chicks are naturally drawn to the bright reflection of the moon on the water. The clear plastic also reflects moonlight, and the chicks are attracted to it. They bump their way along the plastic fence to a point where two fences meet and a volunteer is waiting to capture them. After they are weighed and banded, the chicks are released close to their point of capture. The whole procedure takes about 10 to 15 minutes.
By 11 pm we were at our stations, sitting in the dark, (light must be kept to a minimum as it confuses the birds) waiting to hear the rustle of an ancient murrelet chick making its way through the woods towards the sea. By the time we heard a chick, about an hour and a half later, Graham was asleep on the ground. Our bird banding partners, Bill and John Broadhead, shook Graham awake, while I gently captured the chick and slipped it into a small cloth bag for transport. It took a few attempts-ancient murrelet chicks are very wriggly!
At the shelter, Graham and I watched as Ms Epners weighted the bird in its bag, and then gently pulled it out to slip a band on its leg. The birds are tiny balls of gray fluff with legs as long as their bodies.
Now wide awake with excitement, Graham carefully carried the bird back to where we had captured it, turned off his flashlight, and released the chick at the high tide line. In the dark, we couldn’t see the bird make the last leg of its trek, but we heard the tiny ‘clink’ of the bird’s band hitting the rocks as it made its way to the sea.
“Letting the bird go and listening to the little bird clink, clink down to the beach was neat,” says Graham. “I think it was a really great experience camping at Vertical Point, and I’d love to go again.”
School groups from Queen Charlotte Secondary and GM Dawson also travel to East Limestone to help with the research. Including school students in the research program is an important part of the society’s mandate.
“Getting local kids out there is incredibly important to get them invested in the islands and valuing the natural world,” says society administrator Greg Martin.
The ancient murrelet research began with a six-year study by Dr. Tony Gaston, funded by the Canadian Wildlife Service of Environment Canada, says Mr. Martin. Very little was known about ancient murrelets before this work, but the species is a good indicator species of ocean health because it feeds on krill and other small sea life.
“If the ocean’s not healthy, they’re not healthy,” says Mr. Martin.
In addition, because they come ashore to breed, they also rely on a healthy forest ecosystem, he says.
The birds begin their lives as hatchlings in the burrows where they nest. At two to three days old, the parents imprint the chicks, which are born in pairs, with a song, and then fly to the sea and begin calling. The chicks, born flightless and diveless, must walk through rough terrain to the sea where they rejoin their parents and swim quickly out to sea in the dark to escape predators like ravens, eagles and peregrines, Mr. Martin says.
As juveniles, the ancient murrelets return to land to hang out while the breeding pairs hatch the next year’s chicks. Finally, as breeding pairs the birds return and the cycle continues.
As well as ancient murrelet research, the Laskeek Bay Conservation Society has been involved in other research projects including introduced species, sea bird population and sea mammal monitoring, and plant inventories.
Normally, the field season is about 14 weeks, but this year, the season had to be cut back due to a shortage of money. Every year, the society spends considerable time and effort seeking money to pay for the research. For every ten funding applications he fills out, Mr. Martin says he gets a positive answer to two on average. And in the last few years, less and less money seems to be available.
The society formed with the goal of collecting data for 25 years because scientists consider this a meaningful data set, says Mr. Martin. Now completing its 14th year of research, the society has enough money to get through this field season, but not enough to make it to the end of the year, and it remains to be seen if it will be able to meet its goal.