Photo: Pacific Underwater: Seabirds in May

Tufted Puffin (Credit: Buzz Hoffman via Flickr)

By Panos Grames, Communications Specialist

As you read this, a cool Pacific breeze is blowing through the tufted hair grass that covers tiny Triangle Island, Northwest of Vancouver Island. Just below the grasses and the wind, hundreds of thousands of birds have just laid hundreds of thousands of eggs in hundreds of thousands of burrows.

If you are like most Canadians, you have never heard of the rhinoceros auklet, Cassin's auklet, common murre or tufted puffin, but these seabirds are an integral part of British Columbia's incredibly rich coastal water ecosystems. Triangle Island is part of the Scott Islands group, a globally significant home for seabirds.

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for puffrock.JPGThese birds have developed many parallel evolutionary strategies. Like penguins—their seabird cousins to the south—a mating seabird pair on Triangle Island lays just one egg in a year.

Both parents help to protect and incubate their egg, each taking a 24-hour shift while the other takes the day off to eat. They all share a long incubation period, with the rhinoceros auklet taking up to 45 days to hatch. (That's more than twice as long as a chicken.)

rhino auklet.JPG

Most of these birds have similar nest structures as well. If you were to reach down one of the long and narrow burrows of an auklet or puffin, it would be a tight fit for your hand. It's long enough that your outstretched arm wouldn't reach the bird nesting at the end. An inexperienced hand would likely hit an unwelcome surprise—the birds keep a "latrine" near the mouth of the burrow that has repelled many a researcher.

Although these burrows are great protection against predators like gulls and eagles (and invasive species introduced by humans), the remote location of the Scott Islands offers the greatest relief.

The common murre has developed a different strategy for its nest, laying its eggs directly on the cliff faces. But it's not just the island's remoteness that makes it a great nesting ground for these birds; it's the availability of food in the surrounding ocean.

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Ocean currents in the spring create upwellings that carry billions of tonnes of plankton toward the surface, feeding the billions of fish that feed the millions of birds. With all that available food, the birds wisely spend 90 per cent of their lives on the ocean, having adapted to the environment with the unimaginable ingenuity of the evolutionary process. Most of these birds are far better swimmers than they are fliers. The common murre has the uncommon ability to dive deeper than 100 metres to catch its prey.

Don't expect to visit Triangle Island anytime soon. It's an ecological reserve, so you need special permission to set foot there. But how much protection does that provide for birds that spend 90 per cent of their time on the water? The nesting habitat is well protected, but tankers are still allowed to ply the adjacent waters, and there are no special restrictions on fishing.

The federal government has proposed to make the Scott Islands a marine protected area but has shown little will to restrict any industrial activity in the surrounding waters.

On top of the threats from tankers and fishing, global climate change looms ominously over these seabirds. In 2005, fewer than one in 10 Cassin's auklets chicks survived. Scientists believe that climate change delayed the timing of the upwelling currents that start the cascade up the food web.

The seabirds huddled in their narrow burrows on this far-flung island can't hide from global warming any more than we can. But us humans, we can do something about it—we can reduce our carbon emissions; we can limit shipping lanes near the islands; and we can stop fishing in this biological hot spot. Let's do it. Now.

For more information on the Scott Islands candidate National Wildlife Area, contact the Environment Canada regional office:
Environment Canada — Pacific Yukon Region
Canadian Wildlife Service
Protected Areas & Stewardship
5421 Robertson Road
Delta, BC
V4K 3Y3
Toll Free: 1-800-668-6767 (in Canada only)

May 22, 2012

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