SpruceRoots Magazine - May 2000


Real Life Research: Flying in to Limestone

by Brigid Cumming

I left for Limestone on a bright April morning. Sea and mountains sparkled as our small floatplane headed south. I've been on the board of the Laskeek Bay Conservation Society (LBCS) since December 1998, but this would be my first experience volunteering at the Field Research Station on East Limestone Island (ELI) in Laskeek Bay.

We landed at Thurston Harbour about 20 minutes later and Camp Director Janet Gray met the plane in the Alcidae, LBCS' new aluminium skiff. With the ease of experience, Mark (our pilot) and Janet juggled two passengers, incoming mail and freight into the skiff, and loaded outbound freight, mail and three new passengers onto the plane. Betsy Cardell and I wriggled into floater suits, then the Alcidae moved off, hugging the shoreline. The plane taxied into position, sped down the inlet and hurled itself skyward. We watched it dwindle into the distance, then headed for ELI.

Janet identified the islands around us, giving a sense of where we were, and pointed out seabirds. They looked like identical tiny specks to me, but Janet readily picked out white-winged scoters, black oystercatchers and glaucous-winged gulls. Betsy and I joked about our impromptu salt-water facials as we cut across Laskeek Bay, predicting by the end of the week we'd be beautiful.

ELI is 48 hectares of steep-sloped, forested limestone with one welcoming pebbled landing spot, Boat Cove. We unloaded there, then walked the mooring line down the beach to station the boat out by its float. There are crabapple at Boat Cove with clutching moss-covered branches and alder with long twisted limbs that lay close to the ground. Days later, LBCS director Charlotte Husband explained they are a Sitka alder sub-species, Alnus sinuata. sinuata found on the north BC coast and Alaska. She also pointed out a cleared area where a house may have stood, looking over to Skedans. There are culturally modified trees nearby.

Our destination was the cabin, a 0.6 km hike along the main trail. It's "uphill both ways," with slippery tree roots punctuating the twisting ascent then descent back to the water's edge at Cabin Cove. The island is crisscrossed with well-built and maintained trails: Main, North Cove, Ridge, Valley, Look-out, C- and S-plots, and Biffy. They are part of an overall policy to minimize human impact on the islands. Having no bump of direction, I am very grateful for this policy which minimizes my odds of getting lost.

The cabin was extended last year. It's still pretty small, a compact cooking, eating, working and storage space. We sleep in tents pitched on nearby tent platforms, sheltered under tarps. The tarps are bright blue, and all week my eye was drawn to improbable cobalt flashes while moving through the surrounding forest.

The cabin table and its benches are built on a raised platform, one storage tote high. This long step up (and down!) gives us a great view over the seedling spruce, down the shelving rock beach, right out to Low Island and to Hecate Strait beyond. There is a gathering ground in front of Low Island, a marine staging area where ancient murrelets and other seabirds congregate. Each evening, unless it is stormy, we take the spotting scopes down to the beach-front bench by the woodshed and count them.

My introduction to research waits until after Betsy and I have unloaded our gear and enjoyed an expresso. (I packed coffee and my stove-top expresso-maker to camp, much to everyone's amusement.) Refreshed, and with our stuff and the week's groceries neatly stowed away, Betsy, Janet and I are off to do burrows along with another volunteer, Dave Ingram.

Dave is an experienced volunteer, with two previous stays on ELI in 1995 and 1997. He's drawn maps to the burrow plots. I clutch the c-plot map, which indicates rising and falling ground, fallen trees and other landmarks as well as burrow locations. The burrows are just that - holes in the damp dirt of the forest floor where the ancient murrelets nest. They lay two eggs a week apart and begin incubation after the second egg is laid.

All of the marked burrows in "C" and "S" plots have housed eggs at some point over the past ten years, with about half occupied in any given year. One of our tasks is to locate new active nests within the plot areas. Over the next few days we become practised grubbers, eagerly stuffing our clenched fists and arms into promising spaces hoping to find evidence of occupation. Betsy proves extremely adept at this. Despite not finding an egg, proof positive of an active burrow, she locates several good prospects. We mark their entries with twigs which visiting murrelets will knock over.

Winding our way along the C-plot trail is a strange experience. I am both engrossed in my new-found work, and also waking up to the natural world around me. I find myself switching between roles, working and spectating. All four of us are busy finding burrows, noting if they've been visited overnight or not. If they've been visited, has an egg been laid? Access hatches are opened to check the nest-cup. Active burrows with eggs have a temperature probe already installed, its long tail wound up a stick and covered by a rusty tin can. The tin is lifted up to reveal a probe-end, which is plugged into the portable, battery powered thermometer and daily temperatures taken. Great excitement if a burrow is over 12°C; then it's being incubated.

On the other hand, there is the setting, which is truly beautiful and which I find myself stopping and staring at. We steadily make our way from the very edge of the rocky bluffs overlooking Cabin Cove uphill through the forest, checking burrows all the way to the peak of the ridge behind the cabin. There are no man-made noises, except for our own or the occasional plane flying overhead. Birds sing and twitter, squirrels scold and in the distance a male grouse calls, a steady boomp-boomp-boomp like a rubber ball falling down stairs. The surf pounds and the trees move with the wind. There is a tremendous sense of aliveness, an enormous vitality that has its own rhythms.

But, it is not necessarily restful. Ancient Murrelets (usually abbreviated AnMu) are nocturnal, and I am sleeping on the very edge of the colony. It is surprisingly noisy, although it is a joyful noise. AnMu are ungainly flyers and tend to crash-land. They call and congregate all night, sounding at times like scolding couples. Betsy and I imagine elaborate debates as birds inspect burrows. We presume they are quite choosy, since each day we find lots of knocked-down twigs, yet over the entire 10-days we were there, only two eggs.

The murrelets go back out to sea at about 4 a.m., which is when the eagles wake and begin hunting. Every day we find grim evidence of predation: wings ripped off, feather piles. Janet has a growing collection of tiny humerus bones, pragmatically obtaining useful data from these pitiful remains.

At 5 a.m. the grouse goes off, and then a rising chorus of Townsend's Warblers, thrushes, robins, winter wrens and others builds. In the distance I hear Black Oyster Catchers, shrieking bloy, bloy, bloy as they swoop low over the rocks and surf. Learning to identify these few bird calls was a particular delight for me. We spent an animated morning at the cabin, plugging Janet's portable computer into an adapter hooked to the 12-volt battery and running through a songbird CD, and then the rest of the week 'tuning in' to hear them.

An inspection of Cassin's Tower and squirrel and marine-mammal surveys rounded out my week's work. I didn't hear very many squirrels while walking the trails, but was delighted to see, while squinting fiercely through my spotting scope, humpback whales out between Reef and Low Islands. "Oh, they blew kisses and called my name," I blithely added to Dave's more conventional account of what the whales were doing. Either travelling or feeding, perhaps both; perhaps two adults, definitely one, and a calf. Dave also spotted and counted sea-lions on the Skedans Islands, making ours a productive watch. We hurried back to the cabin and spotted the same whales from the beach. As we sat there laughing and whooping we spotted blows, tails and heads briefly emerge from the sea.

The schedule is not usually so light, mid- to late-April is a quiet lull between adult banding and chick banding. We also had unusually poor weather, which made sea surveys impossible. A 7-day storm cycle set in Monday, with South and South-East gales and storms blowing in every few hours. The midday Monday floatplane that brought Charlotte Husband in, circled twice before landing. Dave Ingram was the lone out-bound passenger for a very rough take-off from the sheltered waters behind neighbouring West Limestone Island. Return home for Betsy, me and Janet was delayed from Friday to Monday, when the swell finally came down enough that the plane could land again. Apparently this set a record; 75% to 80% of the time the plane leaves as scheduled on Friday, or later that day. Only four flights were delayed to Saturday during last year's season, and none beyond that.

I found the raw fury of the storms unsettling, particularly at night, although my tent proved very securely anchored. There are a lot of large trees and tree-limbs fallen on the forest floor on ELI. I dozed uneasily, surf hammering the beach below and the trees around me groaning and creaking as the wind screamed in across Hecate Strait.

Every day, some time was devoted to camp chores. We all took turns cooking dinner, sweeping, bringing in wood and water, washing dishes and writing the daily log. Food became a real focus, and communal living a genuine pleasure. Excursions to the biffy (perched over a steep-sided rock gully with strong tidal action) provoked amused inquiries whether the wind was 'pert' or not ... or if the biffy was now a bidet. It rained so much the path there flooded out, a damp discovery I made late one night.

We gossiped and played cards by candlelight most evenings. Murrelets are attracted to light, so once it was dusk, the black-out curtains came down and the boards went up over the main window. One evening, Betsy showed us how to batik with materials we had on hand: curry, turmeric and tea for dyes, wax and oil for resist and paper support. We dug out pencils, paper, pastels and a child's paintbox and sketched. Janet had a copy of Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, and Betsy gave tips and constant encouragement about art being therapy.
In between storms, when it was merely wet and windy out, we erected funnels down the slopes of North Cove. Large stakes supported sections of plastic sheeting, pinned together with sharp cedar splints and weighted down with rocks, fallen branches and duff. At night, the hatching chicks are guided by instinct and encouraged by adult crooning to make their way down to the water. Funnelling the chicks descent so they emerge at fixed stations along the water's edge permits data-gathering and banding by the small crew of volunteers and staff. Forty percent of the area of the colony is edged with funnels.

Work and general improvement projects abounded. Janet and Betsy covered slippery boards spanning soft ground on the main trail with netting, then made an outdoor shower-stall frame. Dave and I finished nailing together the biffy handrail. I built wood and gravel steps down to the beach by the woodshed. Betsy carried out trail repairs in C-plot. We were the busy centre of our own little universe.
I found myself increasingly aware of the natural world around me as the days passed. More familiar with the trails, I spent time looking for animals and taking photographs. I didn't get pictures, but caught a glimpse of a smooth-furred otter while looking down Ridge Trail at one of the wildlife trees.

A deer meandered right past the cabin one afternoon while I was drinking tea. It stopped, vacuumed up a spruce seedling in one rapid pull (the way kids slurp spaghetti) and then ambled up Ridge trail. I saw two more deer among the crabapples over by Boat Cove, less than ten feet from me. We looked at each other for a long minute or two before the deer took alarm.

By Monday, 10 days after I arrived, I was happy to head home, my senses filled to capacity with the sights and sounds of ELI. Today, two weeks later, looking at my photos, I realise I want to go back. Maybe for banding next year. ·

SpruceRoots Magazine - May 2000


More story notes ...

Squirrel surveys proved to be good exercise: all the trails are walked, ideally within a couple of hours, and walkers listen for 'Queen Charlotte Islands rattlesnakes'. We split up into pairs for two surveys during our stay. As every 50 metre check-point is passed, number of squirrels heard and estimated distance (more or less than 20 metres to the listener) is recorded.

Cassin's Tower is a rocky promotary at the far end of Ridge Trail. Cassin's Auklets nest there, and normally the nests are checked for occupancy and other relevant data. This year, a brand-new eagle's nest in the tree capping Cassin's Tower means the Tower is off-limits.

Yet another reason to tread cautiously on the trails: tiny purple Calypso Orchids were popping up literally everywhere. The largest single display I saw was seven lined up like nodding bells along the Biffy path.

Another nocturnal counterpart to the Ancient Murrelets was the Northern Saw-Whet Owl. I didn't see any of these diminutive creatures, just heard their soft, steady hooting. "Like back-up beeps," Dave explained, ,reaching for a mechanical analogy.

One evening ritual we never missed was going through the wildlife lists establishing which birds and animals had been seen or heard during the day. An incredible volume of raw data collection was seamlessly fitted into the day's activities and entered into the big black binder in the cabin.

The original Limestone Log is a battered, blue-covered journal kept in the cabin on ELI. It's actually the "Limestone Island Visitor Log", and everyone is encouraged to summarize their stay in its pages. It makes interesting reading. The first entry (March 22-25 1990) describes the cabin's construction by a party of 12: Charlotte, Terry, Lenard and Alana Husband; Joelle Fournier, Chris Bowman, Joline Martin, Colin French, Keith Moore, Jack and Caleb Richardson and Tony Gaston.

Laskeek Bay is just north of the Gwaii Haanas park boundary, just south of Louise Island. It's roughly two-thirds the way down the east coast of the Haida Gwaii archipelago. ELI is one of several islands dotting the bay.