Thursday, 10 May 2012

Boiling Reef

At the end of April, I took my Grade 9 class on their West Coast sailing trip to British Columbia's Gulf Islands.  Like last year, I thought it would be interesting for you if I featured a few of the birds and birding hotspots that we saw during the trip.  Once again the students were unsurprisingly bemused by my birdwatching but I think I made a few connections.  At least two or three students were getting very good at identifying seabirds by the end of the trip and were doing so without any prompting from me.  We also found a beautiful Townsend's Warbler which hung around on a low branch long enough for one teenager to say "OK, I guess that's pretty cool looking"!  Progress?

The warbler was on Tumbo Island, part of the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve, just a short distance from Boiling Reef where we went to look for sea lions, porpoises, and a diverse collection of seabirds.  As you can see from the map below, the reef sits right at the convergence of currents where the tides empty and fill the Strait of Georgia.  This twice daily flow stirs up nutrients creating a rich feeding ground for all types of marine life.

View Boiling Reef Location in a larger map

The currents were in full flow when we were there, creating surging whitewater between the lighthouse on the point of Saturna Island and the reef, which was covered in Stellar's Sealions.  The loud and smelly marine mammals were certainly the most obvious life to be seen but porpoises were busy feeding between hundreds of bobbing seabirds.  Among the birds, alcids were probably the most common group of species.  These are sometimes described as the penguins of the north, swimming underwater with powerful wing strokes to propel them along in pursuit of prey, and I managed to get half-decent shots of three species during the trip (some not taken right at the above location - click images to enlarge)
Pigeon Guillemot, Cepphus columba, after a successful hunt
Common Murre, Uria aalge, this is a first year plumage bird (according to Mr. Sibley!)
Rhinoceros Auklet, Cerorhinca monocerata, - most of the alcids would dive as the boat approached and surface hundreds of metres away so it was nice to see a few in flight showing off their plumage
Alcids may have provided the diversity but it was the gulls that provided the numbers, specifically thousands of Bonaparte's Gulls rafting up and flying around in huge flocks as they prepared for their spring migration.  A little further to the north, in Active Pass, we sailed through a single tightly grouped flock which had, at a very conservative guess, 5000-7000 individuals.
It's nice to have friends - one of these Bonaparte's Gulls has lost a contact lens! (Actually they are feeding on small organisms on the surface of the water that have been stirred up by the current, which is more scientific but less funny.)
There were also some life birds to be had in the area as well.  Among the many sea ducks were White-winged Scoter, a new species for me, along with Surf Scoter.  Perhaps most exciting were Long-tailed Ducks which felt like a life bird as my previous "tick" had been long range scope views of a female in winter plumage on Glenmore Reservoir.
Oh, that's why they call it a Long-tailed Duck!
So those are some highlights of the impressive diversity of nearshore seabirds that we saw on our trip.  I'll follow-up with some passerines and more familiar landbirds in the coming weeks.

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