Senior Captain Orval Bouchard congratulates islanders Margo Hearne and Peter Hamel aboard the Northern Expedition for their 300th day sailing to identify birds in the Hecate Strait. (Submitted)

On the Wing: Sailing the seas together

By Margo Hearne

Three hundred and counting. That is the number of day trips we’ve taken on the “car-carrying passenger ships” between here and Prince Rupert to record birds. Tuesday was the day and it was calm as a millpond. Visibility was perfect, not a cloud in the sky and (almost) not a bird in the place.

Where are all the shearwaters? September is usually the big month when those rare Chilean Pink-footed Shearwaters join their New Zealand cousins the Sootys as they skim and glide over the waves. We haven’t seen any this year so far. Pink-footeds are on the endangered species list; their habitat is under threat and their numbers are low. They usually arrive in Hecate Strait in between late August and early September.

We did see a dramatic Pomarine Jaeger, that swift, falcon-like chaser that swerved and dipped after kittiwakes and other gulls to try and make them drop what they had so the jaeger could have it. There were one or two whales around and they seemed to attract, not just the ship passengers’ attention, but the gulls’ attention as well. They move into the whales’ arena and feed on whatever the leviathans disturb, mostly tiny amphipods, those shrimp-like sea bugs. They are tasty as anything, especially if there is not much else to eat. And there mustn’t be, because if there were the Strait would be full of birds.

As we approached Edye Pass on the way into Chatham Sound, thousands of Common Murres appeared. They had swum all the way down from the Alaskan islands where they nest and, as the young take to the water almost immediately, families had gathered in large rafts and followed the currents. They nest in large, noisy colonies and so far their numbers appear stable. Many spend the winter in Skidegate Inlet, or have done in the past, and they often do a “wing wave” at boats going by. They are black-and-white birds that sit low to the water. Common Murres only lay one egg so they are vulnerable to oil spills. The Exxon Valdez spill caused an estimated mortality of 185,000 birds. There are not yet endangered, and nest in Southeast Alaska, the Gulf of Alaska, and out on the Aleutian Islands. Sometimes rafts of up to 250,000 are seen, but we never see anything like those numbers here.

A few dainty Fork-tailed Storm-petrels skimmed by. They were hard to see; they are almost the same colour as the elements, a kind of foggy, drifting grey. They always fly very low to the water, and one wonders if one is dreaming a bird or seeing one. Take the binoculars off them for a second and they disappear.

Such is birding from the ferry: sometimes dreamlike, sometimes sharp as a shearwater’s soar, and after 300 trips one would one think it had all been seen there was no need to go to sea again. But next time an albatross might appear, or a Murphy’s Petrel, and we know if we are not out there checking the waves we might miss them. And anyway, how would the crew get along without us!

Thanks to everyone for getting into the spirit of the moment and signing Peter’s journal to mark his big milestone as we all sail the seas together.

On the Wing

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