On the Wing: A brief history of history

An American Robin. (Margo Hearne/Haida Gwaii Observer)

An American Robin. (Margo Hearne/Haida Gwaii Observer)

By Margo Hearne

Brant numbers are increasing and shorebirds continue to rise in a closed circle, moving down the beach with the falling tide. It’s a busy time out there in bird land. Robins are moving through and the Varied Thrushes sing bright and early.

Thrushes are one of the earliest nesters on island, sometimes setting up territory in late February. No doubt some of the ones we are hearing right now are moving north, but many will stay to raise their young. They are secretive, solitary and beautiful, and their orange and black plumage is perfect camouflage in their dark forest home. They don’t occur on the other side of the Rocky Mountains, but are a distinctly B.C. bird.

There are reports from the interior of B.C. that swans are moving through the mountain passes. Recent travellers reported seeing the swans in small lakes and ponds where they had landed to recharge their batteries and wait out the weather. They were also seen here in small numbers, a little lost in a storm. They still had a way to go before finding their nesting grounds in the Arctic. There are reports of swans possibly nesting here in the lowlands but it hasn’t been established for sure, which brings up an interesting piece of history.

Canon John Henry Keen arrived in Masset in 1890. He learned how to speak the Haida language and, together with Mary Ridley and Chief Edenshaw’s son Henry, they wrote a Grammar of the Haida Language and translated several Bible stories into Haida. As a natural historian, he also spent a great deal of time outdoors and was the first to write a paper on the mammals of the Queen Charlotte Islands, as they were then known.

In 1891 he compiled the first bird list of the islands in both Haida and English and documented the first Sharp-tailed Sandpiper for Canada, which he had collected in Masset. In the seven years he lived here he saw no trace of deer and felt safe concluding that none existed. When a Dawson’s Caribou was discovered around 1906, he observed, “How extraordinary was the discovery of Dawson’s Rangifer on the Q.C. Islands. I had for years so stoutly denied the existence of deer there that the discovery brought me great personal humiliation. It has taught me how dangerous negations are in the realm of science.”

So, even though there is no definitive proof that swans nest on island, Keen’s comments remind us not to take anything for granted and always remain open to new discoveries. He also recommended taking long walks.

“Know something about that marvellous world that lies between the tide-marks,” he wrote. “And make yourself acquainted with the flowers of the locality until, before long, the knowledge you will have acquired will quite transform the walk you once found so dull. At every step you will recognize the face of familiar friends, each with its own wonderful history, while you will be ever on the alert for fresh acquaintances.”

Happy Spring.

On the Wing