Marine Bird Research Takes Flight

Northern fulmar

A northern fulmar rests in Hecate Strait.

Seaside Times March 2010

By Chris Genovali, Executive Director, Raincoast Conservation Foundation

I was on my back on the aft deck of the research vessel.  My repose was involuntary as we plied the lumpy waters of Haida Gwaii’s west coast.  Not one prone to sea-sickness, I nevertheless felt like my head was virtually nailed down, a result of the interminable chop.

I had no option but to look skyward and there, to my amazement, were albatrosses, escorting us like some squawking air squadron.  For me, the albatross is the grizzly bear of marine birds in terms of its iconicity and, with a wingspan of over seven feet long, commanding physical presence.  After experiencing the exhilaration of seeing the largest marine bird on the coast

of British Columbia, subsequently reflected on the litany of human-caused hazards facing these majestic pelagics and other marine-bird species.

Marine birds are abundant, diverse and highly mobile predators and scavengers of the seas. For these and other reasons, marine birds are often used as indicators of ecosystem health and ecosystem change.

Raincoast has been working to fill basic knowledge gaps regarding seasonal and inter-annual marine bird distribution, density and seasonal shifts in community assemblages in the waters adjacent to the region known as the Great Bear Rainforest.  By repeatedly surveying marine waters, from Dixon Entrance to Queen Charlotte Strait and neighboring mainland inlets, Raincoast has documented over 70 species and amassed nearly 20,000 sightings of over 100,000 individual marine and other coastal birds.

Raincoast scientists continue to seek to identify areas important for marine birds and examine the potential for conflict with increasing industrial activity, like oil-tanker traffic.

Birds are generally the most abundant and conspicuous victims of oil-tanker accidents. Caroline Fox, Raincoast marine bird biologist and University of Victoria PhD student, states that previous scientific reviews indicate that “oil can affect birds in different ways, including plumage and egg oiling,ingestion, and indirectly though ecosystem changes.  It’s thought that the primary cause of mortality and stress in oiled birds is fouled plumage,which often results in hypothermia and increased metabolic rates.  Ingestion of relatively small amounts may cause a number of physiological changes or even death.”

Did You Know?

Standing out among the many birds observed by Raincoast was the exceedingly rare sighting of a lone, immature short-tailed albatross in the waters southeast of Haida Gwaii. Once numbering in the millions, this species was decimated by the demand for feathers and at one time was thought extinct.

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