The first fall to the water

Some species seem smart – like how some caterpillars can camouflage to look like their predators. Whereas with others, sometimes you may ask yourself “Why on earth would they do that?” but somehow the behaviour is inherited through generations (e.g. the Eastern hog-nosed snake playing dead to avoid predators in Amanda’s post).

When I first got to Haida Gwaii to start collecting samples for my field work, we had a couple of days to get settled before our boat left to take  us and our supplies to the remote Reef Island. We first visited the Laskeek Bay Conservation Society (LBCS)’s camp on East Limestone Island. LBCS monitors many species of birds, plants, mammals and marine mammals, including some that are endemic or only found in Haida Gwaii. Since we were staying a couple of nights there, I tried to help out with as many activities as I could, which in some cases involved staying up all night. If any of you know me, I am not much of a night owl but I was excited to help out the team and tried to keep my eyes open. (Side note: the Laskeek Bay Conservation Society is great for getting volunteers out to the island to help with the surveys).

One species in particular that has been studied intensively in Haida Gwaii is the ancient murrelet. About 50% of the world’s population of ancient murrelets breeds in Haida Gwaii and research has been conducted on these populations since 1990 (Laskeek Bay Conservation Society – check out their site for very cute pictures!!). One of the largest colonies in Haida Gwaii is on East Limestone Island.

To explain why I started this post talking about smart and maybe not so smart behaviour, I will need to tell you about  ancient murrelets’  ridiculous (if I do say so myself) strategy for fledging young. When the young are ready to fledge and leave the nest that is high up on cliffs or trees, they basically fall out of their nest and stumble towards the water, guided by light and sound to the ocean where they call for their parents. Their parents meet them at the water’s edge and they go out to sea together. I think it is ridiculous because this makes them very vulnerable to predators on their first journey to the sea (sort of like the sea turtles in Becky’s post).

The beach where we would let the chicks free.

A popular beach for ancient murrelet chicks to call to their parents.

LBCS monitors chicks that have fledged by setting up plastic funnels or “runways” on the forest floor. The staff and volunteers then have to monitor the funnels every 20 minutes to check for the presence of chicks. So here I was, fresh eyes for field work, and excited to be able to help with the rotations. To be honest, when I went out by myself in the complete darkness (thank goodness for my headlamp!), I was a bit scared. What if I ran into a bear? No, it wasn’t a very big island and they would know if there was a bear. What if I twisted my ankle on exposed roots? No, I had my trusty hiking boots on. What if I actually found chicks in the funnels? Now this was a legitimate thing to worry about as I had never held a chick before. But this was still early in the year for chicks to be fledging so the team trusted my abilities to monitor the funnels. I made it around the funnels with no problems and no chicks were found.

At 2 a.m., on my second trip around the funnels by myself, I was brushing past the funnels as usual when I gasped because I saw two round things bouncing around. I had found the first two chicks of the season! I was so excited to run back to tell the others about the chicks that I almost forgot to take them with me! Due to the chicks bouncing around in the plastic funnels scrambling to try to get to the water, it was difficult to put them in separate cloth bags to take back to the lodge. We took several measurements including their body weight and wing length to add to the long term dataset of ancient murrelets on this island. Once we took all the measurements, we carried the chicks down near to the water’s edge where we let them free. We stood back as we watched them waddle towards the glistening water under the moonlight and call to their parents to join them.

Although this strategy for fledging young doesn’t seem so smart, ancient murrelet chicks still continue, year after year, to fall out of their nest by themselves and waddle towards the unknown ocean – and it works!

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One thought on “The first fall to the water

  1. Pingback: Oh, the places we’ve gone and the places we’ll go | Dispatches from the Field

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