After five days of being blown around by 100 kph winds, stung by horizontal sleet and lashed by rain, I have a new appreciation for the residents of Masset, a small fishing town on the north coast of Graham Island, part of the Haida Gwaii archipelago. Winter is not for wimps. Catching a bad cold the second day of my visit didn’t help, and I spent rather too much time huddled in my cosy room at Englehard’s Oceanview Lodge or round the corner at Margo Hearne and Peter Hamel’s kitchen table. Margo and Pete are experienced birders who have lived in Masset for years, are Directors of the Delkatla Wildlife Sanctuary and along with Martin Williams are the driving force behind the Nature Centre. I was in Masset to check out some of the Important Bird Areas (IBAs) on Graham Island for BC Nature but it was rather too early in the season to do more than a brief initial review. Lawn Point IBA, renowned for migrating waterfowl and shorebirds, is an area of shoreline busy eroding into the sea, eaten away by the winds and waves coming straight off Hecate Strait. The rain was mixed with snow the day we visited, and a Bald Eagle sat huddled dejectedly by the road, exhausted by the strong winds of the previous night. Talk at the coffee shop was all about how the Moon over Naikoon bakery had burned to the ground the night before – the fire probably started with a wood stove out of control and despite pouring rain once started was impossible to extinguish.
Peering through telescopes, we could just about spot Common Goldeneyes, loons and grebes bobbing amid the waves, while a few Pelagic Cormorants flew low over the water. In good conditions, up to 16,000 goldeneye have been recorded here, whales go past on migration and the shallow inshore waters are a spring gathering place for Harlequin Duck.
Peter and Margo watching birds at Lawn Point IBA
Skidegate Inlet IBA encompasses the inlet between Graham and Moresby Islands and the estuary of the Honna River. Peter, Margo and I headed to this quiet estuary as the tide receded and the sleet descended. A flock of shorebirds attracted our attention and we walked slowly towards them over the shell and stone strewn mudflats. Dunlin and Black Turnstones were feeding busily near the tideline, well-camouflaged in the grey-brown landscape. Estuarine landscapes are relatively scarce along BC’s rocky coast, and these places are very important feeding areas for shorebirds and dabbling ducks and vital stopovers on the Pacific Flyway migration corridor. Near Skidegate, 5 spectacular Black Oystercatchers, were probing for shellfish on the rocks and Great Blue Herons waited patiently for fish in the shallows.
The sun came out for the last of the IBAs that we visited: McIntyre Beach and Rose Spit IBA. The beautiful shoreline, long, sandy and fringed with conifers and driftwood, stretched for miles before us. Across the water lay the snow-capped mountains of Alaska. Sanderling fed on the wet sand and local people drove slowly up the beach looking for shellfish (there is no road beyond Tow Hill). Surf Scoter, Harlequin Duck, and Long-tailed Ducks swam in the surf, and Glaucous-winged Gulls sailed overhead. In a month or two, when migration begins, the birds will be augmented by many tens of thousands more. This Important Bird Area is one of the premier sites on the whole of the Pacific Northwest coast for migrating waterfowl and shorebirds, and an exciting spot to watch for seabirds, such as petrels and shearwaters. The shallow waters of Dogfish Banks surround the sandy spit, providing rich feeding grounds for the birds, as well as for whales, seals and other marine mammals, as well as many invertebrates. Dogfish Banks is also the proposed site of the giant NaiKun wind farm, the first offshore wind facility proposed for western North America, and a huge experiment, for which there can be no guarantees of environmental safety or mitigation. It is a proposal that does not meet favour with at least some of the local Haida and other residents in Masset, who rightly fear for the effect it will have on the wildlife and local ecosystems.