Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Little Birds

Most of us are impressed by the sight of a bald eagle in flight or a great blue heron keenly focussed on his prey, but the little birds we oft times ignore. Some are drab, all are small, and most seem hard to identify. But around the BC coast, the little birds assure us that the ecosystem is working. Food is eaten, mating accomplished, and eggs laid. Always a lover of finches and chickadees, I was able to widen my small bird repertoire this summer by learning about a few new (to me) species.

Steller's Jay

I photographed this charmer after a rain shower about 60 miles north of Vancouver Island. These bold mimics of the evergreen forest can imitate several other species; as well as, mechanical objects, and are known for stealing eggs from other birds' nests. They were named after Georg Steller, a naturalist on a Russian explorer's ship who "discovered" them on an Alaskan island in 1741. This crazy-crested predator was likely hunting peanuts.

Black Oystercatcher

The Black Oystercatcher was an entirely new species for me. As per their name, these large obvious birds love to probe for molluscs. I'd often hear them through the night waves chattering like squeaky toys. But what I love most about them is their sharp amber eyes and long orange beaks.

I'm still not absolutely sure if I've correctly identified these plump sandpiper-like birds as surfbirds, as there are several different species that frequent the BC coast. Yellow legs, white rumps, stripey wings that appear in flight--if anyone knows for certain, please comment.

Storm Petrel
Finally, a friend of mine just found two of these sweet birds stranded, on two separate occasions. The fork-tailed storm petrel is a beautiful pelagic seabird who cannot take off from land as its body is designed uniquely for the sea--but sometimes, they get blown off course in high winds or lost in the fog. How vulnerable. Imagine if no one was around to pick her up and take her back to the water?

Storm petrels use their keen sense of smell to locate small fish and crustaceans at sea. They hold a supply of oil in their stomach which can be used to feed their chick or discourage predators. In bad weather, the chick may be left without food for several days, during which time, it goes into a state of torpor and stops growing. Luckily growth resumes again when the parents return to brood.

Just looking for photographs of the storm petrel in flight, I ran across this webpage with gorgeous bird photography by Mike Yip. 

Birds are part of us, even the little birds.

New Word of the Day: pelagic
Meaning? relating to the open sea
Origin: mid 17th century, via Latin from the Greek pelagikos, from pelagios "of the sea"
Used in a sentence: Like the shorebirds, I am pelagic.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Sky Gazer and Cloud Gatherer

Clouds have always fascinated me. I can remember learning their names--Cirrus, Cumulous, Stratus, Nimbo-Stratus--in elementary school, and later lying on my back in our orchard watching Joni Mitchell's “folds and folds of angelhair” drift by.  Standing on a rock in the ocean, the celestial dome spreads in all directions; each one often revealing very different types of clouds.

Last Thursday, when a thunderstorm rampaged through the Lower Mainland, I watched the backside, where the sky to the northeast bubbled with Mammatus.

Derived from the Latin mammalis meaning “having breasts” -- Mammatus are pouches of heavily saturated air that often hang from the underside of a storm’s anvil cloud. Staring at this cloud mass, I became mesmerized by what I discerned as the face of a god.

If you look carefully just above and to the left of the light, you can see a visage that looks very much like Zeus. Replete with  wild hair and beard, he seems to have descended in a rush of wind from the heavens. Compare the features in Mammatus to the features on these Greek sculptures of Zeus and you’ll see what I mean.

Zeus 2nd Century AD from The British Museum
Jupiter from The Musee du Louvre

Zeus, the Grecian Sky King and Weather God, was said to wield thunder and lightening, carry a royal sceptre, and cavort with his sacred golden eagle, a creature symbolic of strength, courage, and justice. Indeed, from his castle atop Mount Olympus, Zeus/Deus, the father-god, presided over law and justice. Fathering many heroes through his escapades with both goddesses and mortal women, Homer dubbed him "cloud-gatherer". The mythology of Zeus is not lost on us in this century who still revel in the Olympic Games, created by his Olympians.

Later, below Mammatus, the sky severed and cracked to reveal a pale blue fissure like a portal to another world. 

I have become a sky gazer, discovering passion--joy and sometimes chaos--in the natural beauty of the celestial dome. Later still, on the same night Mammatus appeared, the sky to the west appeared like this:

There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:
There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toil'd, and wrought, and thought with me—
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads—you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.

... from Tennyson's "Ulysses" -- 1842

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

A Few Words on Seals and Sealing

My grandmother owned a full length shiny black sealskin coat. I know this because it was passed down to me in the 70’s. Luxuriously soft and silky, I wore it for awhile during my hippie days, and don’t remember now, how I felt then, about the fact that the pelts were stripped from the body of some beautiful marine mammals, perhaps while they were still alive. I was a most unenlightened hippie. 

I didn't know, for example, that most of the world’s seal hunting occurs here in Canada (northwest Atlantic region) and involves the Harp Seal

Note: this is an intensively complex controversial subject that involves many players.

Hunting is regulated by DFO, The Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans, who set quotas based on their studies of the seal population, and enforce “Seal Protection Regulations” to ensure humane killing and reduce competitive slaughter. DFO conducts studies and works hard to protect the species. They post a Q&A page here.

Harp seals can be commercially hunted once they are 12-14 days old--at this point they molt their downy white newborn fur and are abandoned by their mothers. The killing of whitecoats and bluebacks (newborns) has been banned since 1987. Most sealing is done on The Front, the ice flows east of Newfoundland, during March and April (though the season is open from mid-November to mid-May). According to Liberation BC the total allowable catch for 2012 was 400,000. 

Kill methods are also regulated by DFO--seals can only be dispatched using high-powered rifles, shotguns firing slugs, clubs or hakapiks--a heavy club with hammer head and metal hook on the end.  As brutal as this sounds, the hakapik (a Norwegian harvesting weapon) seems the most humane method as the seal’s skull is crushed with a quick blow to the forehead. This means the seal is not bled or skinned alive. Hunters are supposed to render the animal unconscious, check that it is dead, and then cut the main artery to bleed the seal out--it's meant to be quick.

Think about how the meat in grocery stores arrives there and compare. And, for the Canadian Sealers Association side of the issue see Myths and Realities.

To further complicate matters, global warming is now threatening the harp seal population. Females come out of the water to give birth on the ice floes in late winter, but warmer temperatures are causing the ice to break up before the pups even learn to swim. Many drown. In fact, in 2007, one government study posted a 100% mortality rate on newborns. And in 2011, a year in which 70,000 seals were harvested, the mortality rate was 80%. DFO must take all of this into consideration when they set their quotas.

And, as always, times are changing. Demand for Canada’s harvested pelts has diminished since the European Union (EU) banned importation of seal products in 2009, and to date, 34 countries have banned importation of seal hunt products not created by Indigenous Peoples. Liberation BC

Harbour Seals

These lovely creatures--Harbour Seals--are not commercially hunted. Since 1970, they’ve been protected under the Federal Fisheries Act, along with northern elephant seals, and Steller and California sea lions, so their population is steadily increasing.

Pinnipeds are acrobatic in the water, but movement on land is difficult--they wriggle over the rocks like giant slugs. In the photo below, you can see scars, likely the result of dragging the weighty body over sharp rocks. A party of them haulout on the rocks during low tide. There are sometimes kerfuffles over personal space if someone gets too close, and I am almost certain they post a sentry. One always appears to be looking up at the land, and when I reach a certain point, he or she squooshes into the water, an act which inspires a chaos of squooshing and splashing, as the entire party takes cover. Then I am all apologies for having disturbed their slumber. Ironically, their enemy here is not man, but Orcinus Orca, the killer whale, who often hunts them in the early morning hours.

I am so grateful to have had this time to share this rock with these Harbour Seals. They are beautiful creatures, so vital and curious, and I will miss them when I'm gone, but take comfort in the fact that they will remain.

I have no idea whatever happened to my grandmother's coat, and though I see the many sides of sealing, personally, the only seal hunting I will ever do is with my camera. 

Sunday, September 1, 2013

My Shipping News

Vessels abound this Labour Day Weekend in the blue waters between Gabriola Island and the Sunshine Coast. It is bare foot tank top hot, the air calm, the sea rippled, the hazy sky sprayed in low white clouds. Definitely gorgeous. But also definitely dangerous. The combination of motion, sunlight, wind, waves and sound on water can impair a boater’s judgement. 

I’m creating my own little "Shipping News", watching the sailboats drift by soundlessly, the fisher folk relax into their lines, kayakers slip amongst the seals, while the ferries cruise businesslike up Fairway Channel towards Nanaimo. No PWCs here, no water-skiiers flanking souped-up power boats. This is a sensible stretch of water. Of course, I don’t have the inside story--I’m only a casual observer. I'm no Quoyle gathering stories for the Gammybird.

Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News is high on my list of all-time favourite books. Not sure if it’s the locale, the coastal village of Killick-Claw in Newfoundland, or Quoyle himself, an antihero whose struggle with life and love drives the story. Certainly the mythologizing of such things as sailor’s knots intrigues me. Annie Proulx acknowledged that “without the inspiration of Clifford W. Ashley's wonderful 1944 work, The Ashley Book of Knots, which I had the good fortune to find at a yard sale for a quarter, this book would have remained just a thread of an idea."

But, more than likely it’s in the writing itself, the words, the images, the details: the headlines buddy Billy Pretty creates as he struggles to teach Quoyle to write news copy; the justice in the Aunt’s quiet revenge, the creepiness of the House at Quoyle’s Point which has a mind all its own.

Ah, now I’m going to have to read this book yet again--just thinking about it makes me feel good.

Happy Holiday from Entrance Island

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