Posted by: Anne Murray | May 14, 2012

Nature watching in the Gulf Islands

The beautiful southern Gulf Islands are just a ferry ride away from the big city lights of Vancouver and Richmond, yet they feel more remote than many distant parts of British Columbia.  The logistics of getting there can be challenging for those who do not regularly travel the ferries, not least working out routes and times. For the more remote Gulf Islands, such as Saturna, the trip from the Tsawwassen terminal on the mainland, generally takes between 2 and 3 hours, involving a change of ferry at Mayne Island.  The islands lie southwest of the lower mainland and are sheltered by the mountains of Vancouver Island.  Their climate is mild enough for growing grapes, and their sunny, rocky bluffs have Douglas-firs, Garry oaks and arbutus (madrone) trees, a scarce ecosystem in the Georgia Strait.  The Southern Gulf Islands National Park has significant holdings on many of the islands, with opportunities for walking and nature viewing.  Other ownership is mostly First Nations land or private residential and recreational properties.  Although the waters surrounding the islands are planned to be a designated marine conservation area, major channels are used as shipping routes.  Some ships waiting to head into DeltaPort and other terminals sometimes moor in sheltered Plumper Sound (photo above).

The islands are all hilly, so cycling or hiking on the narrow, winding roads can be pretty tiring, though the views and wildlife are rewarding.  Forested hillsides of dense Douglas-fir and western red cedar suddenly part to give glimpses of shining blue ocean, or distant snow-capped mountains.  Mount Baker, a 10,000 ft dormant volcano, rises as a snowy cone to the southeast, and to the south is the long line of the Olympic Mountains in Washington. Westward are the peaks of Vancouver Island, still snow-clad in May, and to the north are the coastal mountains, from West Vancouver, through Whistler and northward through BC.

The woods have small and very tame Columbian Black-tailed Deer, encountered with regularity around blind bends. The narrow valleys are thick with sword ferns, vanilla leaf and nettles.  Birds are numerous in summer, including the ubiquitous Turkey Vultures, breeding Bald Eagles, and numerous warblers, finches, flycatchers and vireos in greater diversity and abundance than many other areas of BC.  Some birds are absent – Black-capped Chickadees, common on the mainland, are replaced by Chestnut-backed Chickadees, while Northwestern Crows are scarce, their place taken by Common Ravens, an iconic bird for the First Nations along the coast.  A paddle along the shore reveals waterbirds such as the Pigeon Guillemot, Common Loon and Pelagic Cormorant.  River otters are regularly seen playing on the rocks or catching fish in the water, and in the wider straits bordering some of the islands, there is always the chance of whales, porpoises and sea lions.

This week we found coral root (pictured above), calypso orchids and chocolate lilies in their favoured places. Many wild flowers grow on the islands, although some species have been lost to the grazing of deer and to feral goats on Saturna.

Above: a young river otter explores the rocks

For the naturalist prepared to search diligently for small wildlife, there are red-legged frogs breeding in the streams, rough-skinned newts  in shallow ponds, and sometimes garter snakes and northern alligator lizards  basking on rocky outcrops.

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