Saturday, May 28, 2016

Haulout

Always carry a spare. My camera took one look at the big sea lions hauled out on the rocks at Mitlenatch Island, and called it a day. But the little Sony was in my pocket, ready to take on the challenge.

Steller's sea lions. And a pair of California sea lions on the far left, bawling.

Two groups of Steller's sea lions

As we passed the first seals, far ahead we could see a group of sea lions sleeping on a rock just offshore. The rock was mostly underwater. And the tide was coming in fast. By the time we'd come parallel with the group, the lions were mostly underwater, too. But they just lay there, still sleeping, as the water rose over them. Only flippers and a few noses were visible, moving lazily if at all.

California sea lions on the last rock.

Three species of pinnipeds, (from Latin pinna "fin" and pes, pedis "foot") (Wikipedia), generally known as seals, were milling about or sleeping on the rocks and in the water below Mitlenatch.

The harbour seals are "true" seals, meaning they have no external ears, and small flippers. They grow to about 150 kilos. A group of these were sunning themselves near Camp Bay.

Sea lions are larger and have external ear flaps. Their flippers are large enough to support their weight on land, and the rear flippers rotate forward to serve as legs. The "true" seals' hind flippers are good in water, but useless on land.

Steller's sea lions are the largest of the eared seals, with males growing up to 10 feet long and weighing up to 1120 kilos, more than my car. (A Yaris)

The California sea lion is smaller, reaching to 8 feet long, and up to 350 kilos. The males have a protruding crest on their forehead, visible even at a distance.

California sea lion, male. Note the size of the flippers, and the rotation of the hind ones.

Males are much bigger than the females, up to 3 times their size.

Comparative sizes, male, female, and pup. Steller's sea lion. Wikipedia photo, by Eliezg

California sea lions bark and growl and roar; Steller's roar, grunt and groan. Their combined voices, heard over water, are an experience not to be forgotten. I took a too-short video from the bouncing dinghy, with a few seconds of the Steller's chorus.



Voices start at 0:28.

(9th in a series of 9 Mitlenatch Island posts. #1#2#3#4#5#6#7, #8.)

Friday, May 27, 2016

Rock face punctuation

The southern coast of Mitlenatch Island is all high basaltic cliffs, streaked white by cormorant guano, painted along the upper edges with a yellow lichen that feeds on the guano. Along the top and sheer sides of the rock walls, hundreds of cormorants make their nests. From our viewpoint, down in the dinghy at a good 50 metres offshore, they seemed like punctuation marks; exclamation points emphasizing the verticalness of the rock face.

Distant view

We came in closer. The cormorants are still mere specks.

Pelagic cormorants, some with nests.

The pelagic cormorants are the smaller of the two cormorants we saw. They are a glossy black, sometimes iridescent when the light is right. In breeding plumage (like now) they have a small red patch on the throat, and two small feather crests on the head, hard to see at this distance. Breeding adults also have a large white flank patch, and these are visible, even in these small photos.

The nests here are visible as yellowish brown spots beneath some of the cormorants.

Zoomed and cropped photo. Besides the obvious nesting site, look more closely at the sheer walls. These birds nest on bumps that seem only big enough to hold their feet.

Moving on down the coast. Pelagics crowded together in the centre. On the top of the hill to the left, double-crested cormorants have their nests.

More pelagics. The white patches are visible, and with the photo at full size, a bit of the iridescence is apparent.

Skimpy nests. It's a wonder the eggs don't roll off with the merest gust of wind. But the chicks here are at least safe from predators.

Here, the only cormorants with nests are the couple of pairs part way down the cliff face, on tiny ledges. (Click for full size view.) The ones on top are nestless. On the left three juveniles are a lighter colour.

Double-crested cormorants, with their much bigger nests.

The double-crested cormorant is a larger bird than the pelagic. They are a dull black, but have a large orange or yellow throat patch, visible even from this distance without a zoom lens. In breeding season, they develop a double feather crest, larger than that of the pelagics. In this photo (click) I can see it, barely, on three or maybe four of them.

Pelagics again. A few red patches visible.

As we left the cormorants behind on our circuit of the island, we came upon the sea lions. Next.

(8th in a series of 9 Mitlenatch Island posts. #1, #2, #3, #4. #5. #6, #7.)

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Advance scouts

We were in the dinghy, going around Mitlenatch Island to see the sea lions, but a couple of them were impatient and came to see us first.

Steller's sea lions. No, he isn't hoping to eat us; it just looks as if his mouth were open. It's the shadow under his chin, and just a hint of teeth showing.

These are the largest of the sea lions. The males can weigh over 2000 pounds, although the average for a mature male is about 1200 lb. Females are about half that.

Our little harbour seal is a "true" seal; it has no external ears. The sea lions are "eared seals",  or otarids.

They've looked us over, and they're going on their way. We're boring.

Zooming in to see the cute little ears.

(7th in a series of 9 Mitlenatch Island posts. #1#2#3#4#5#6#7, #8)

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Over the hill

On the back side of the information kiosk on Mitlenatch Island, there were the animals we could hope to see.

Birds, mammals, intertidals, and a snake. Needs its own heading, doesn't it?

Over the top of the hill, we came to the caretakers' cabin. It's a ramshackle, half old lumber, half driftwood, half green walled home away from home. There's a rustic kitchen/storeroom/shower with a half roof, loose plank floor and rough wood shelves. There's an office/study/cold weather room, and a low-ceilinged bedroom. A brisk walk away, there's an open-air outhouse (private, if roofless), and a plastic john for rainy days.

From April to September, two people stay here, a week at a time, to watch for too-enthusiastic visitors and record the changes as the season rolls on. I hear there's a waiting list.

Old moon snail shell, on a tray of dried bones and cracked shells at the gate to the cabin.

One of this week's caretakers, Peggy, met us on the trail and filled us in on the latest news. The gulls on the north cliff were ready to lay their eggs; they should be starting the next day, and the eggs would be hatching in four weeks. On the cliffs over the water, they'd be a bit later. There was a dead seal (I think: my memory fails me here) down below the cabin, slightly nibbled on. She hoped to get permission to study it. And had we seen the tiger lily? (I hadn't; too busy taking photos of something else.)

Showing us the find. 

Camp Bay, from the caretaker's hill. That's the other half of our group in the dinghy, Dave the caretaker on the shore, and Peggy behind him in a blue jacket.

And then we were heading back across the hill to meet the dinghy and trade places with the seal watchers. But first, I had to climb down to a tide pool, take a few fast photos before I scrambled back up the rocks and ran to catch up with the group at the far shore.

The tide was almost in; I didn't see "cucumbers as big as my arm" as per the information kiosk. There were tiny snails, a few small hermits, limpet shells, and hiding in the cracks, a couple of crabs. And three orange-striped green anemones, Diadumene lineata. Made my day; I hadn't seen one of these since Boundary Bay days. The largest one is just below the rock, centre right edge.

I caught up to the group, out of breath, just as the dinghy came in. We boarded, Mike turned her around, and we puttered out to see cormorants and sea lions.

Tomorrow; the sea monsters, finally.

(6th in a series of 9 Mitlenatch Island posts. #1#2#3#4#5#6#7#8)

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Almost, but not quite

Lying between the shady coastal rain-forest environments of the Sunshine Coast and Vancouver Island, stony, dry, sunny Mitlenatch Island is an oddity. Some of the plants I saw were old favourites, like the salal or the stonecrop, but many were like, but not quite like, the ones I'm familiar with just a few kilometres across the water, nor, with the exception of the prickly pear, were they like the dry country plants of the Chilcotin. I kept asking our patient guide, Christine, "What's this? And this?"

On the government list of rare plants of BC, 8 are found on Mitlenatch Island. Three of these are aquatics, two unusual clovers (tomcat clover, white-tipped clover). There's Carolina foxtail grass, a subspecies of California broomrape that parasitizes gumweed, and Gardner's yampah, in the carrot family. I don't think I saw any of these, but next time I'll come prepared, knowing what to look for.

In spite of the pictures on the information kiosk and local websites, a few of the plants I saw on Mitlenatch Island were hard to identify. I need help with these:

It looks like one of the carrot family, Apiaceae, but is missing the fringe at the top of the stem. I should recognize it, but I don't.

The information board shows the orchid, Ladies tresses. This is similar, but the florets don't seem to be arranged in a spiral. Another orchid, maybe?

Update: this could be Piperia elegans, the hillside rein orchid. Also present on Mitlenatch.

Christine identified this for me. Indian celery, Lomatium nudicaule. Aka Indian consumption plant.

Hooker's onion. The three petals and the flower sheath make this easy to identify. Likes dry places.

At least this was easy; common plantain. Grows anywhere. But what is that beautiful, feathery grass behind it?

A volunteer in the bottom corner of a failed photo of something else. Saskatoon (serviceberry) flowers, past their sell-by date. The fresh flowers are white, the berries a deep purple-blue, and often delicious, depending, I think, on the soil the shrub grows in.


(5th in a series of 9 Mitlenatch Island posts. #1#2#3#4#5#6#7#8)

Monday, May 23, 2016

Rock garden

In the late 1800s, a local sheep herder rowed his stock over to Mitlenatch Island every spring. The island is small, with an area of 35 hectares (one third of a square kilometre), mostly bare rock, reached only by water. It's 13 kilometres from Manson's Landing on Cortes Island; imagine ferrying a herd of sheep and a few calves over this stretch in a rowboat!

In the fall, the sheep, now fatter, were rowed back to Cortes, or over to Comox (30 km) to be sold. The cows, too large for the rowboats now, had to be butchered on the island.

The effort was worth it; back on Cortes, wolves had decimated Mike Manson's herd. There are no wolves on Mitlenatch, no cougars, no coyotes. The herds thrived.

Mitlenatch Island. Google map with colour enhanced and background replaced for visibility.

The sheep and cattle are long gone, but the grasses they browsed on remain. A few trees have recently taken root, and Saskatoon berry bushes and wild roses grow in crevices, but the rest of the vegetation is low and small, suited to thin soil and dry weather.

View over Camp Bay, on the Northeast end of the island.

The park receives less than 75 cm (30 inches) of rain each year – about half the Campbell River average. Rain-bearing clouds pass eastward from the Pacific Ocean and drop much of their moisture on Vancouver Island. As they descend across the Strait of Georgia, they warm and pick up new moisture, which will be dropped on the Coast Mountains of mainland British Columbia. (BC Gov. brochure)

An information kiosk above Northwest Bay shows some of the plants we could expect to find here.

Of these, I saw only the blue camas. Someone else saw the tiger lily, but I missed it.

I saw all of these, except the harebells and the brodiaea.

Blue camas chocolate lily, gone to seed.

Death camas.

The blue camas is edible, and was an important food crop for BC's native peoples. The death camas is extremely poisonous. In the spring, while they are flowering, they are easily distinguished; once they've gone to seed, they're almost identical.

Though the bulbs were traditionally gathered after the flowers had withered, weeding was done during flowering. The primary objective was to remove death camas (Zygadenus venenosus), which often grows mixed with blue camas. (North American Native Plant Society)

Most of the blues were already forming seeds last week on Mitlenatch; the whites, or death camas, were still flowering.

Above our heads (we had to stay on the trail) clumps of prickly pear cling to the rocks. The pimples on the rock are lichens.

Stonecrop, Sedum acre

Fence detail, with stonecrop

Typical mix; stonecrop, Hooker's onion, grass, lichen, gumweed (not flowering yet), and the woolly sunflower. Plants that grow both here and in Campbell River, like the gumweed, are generally smaller here.

Salal flowers. These generally like a wetter climate, but this one was growing in a deep crack between the rocks.

More plants tomorrow.

(4th in a series of 9 Mitlenatch Island posts. #1#2#3#4#5#6#7#8)

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Life of the party

The bird blind on Mitlenatch Island looks down over a rocky cliff painted white with gull guano. There's a plank bench big enough for 4 people, and a plank (the same one?) removed from the wall, leaving a gap to peer through. The gulls don't seem to notice us, only a few feet away, and go about their important business unperturbed.

One of the gulls on the nearest rock was showing off, repeatedly opening his mouth wide as if to screech, but soundlessly, unless his call was beyond human ears' reach. The others didn't seem too impressed.

Our guide explained that this is courtship behaviour. I Googled it and found no more info, so I'll have to translate the proceedings as best I can.

"Check out my tonsils!"

"Good one, eh?"

"He actually thinks he's funny," says gull 2.

"Hee, hee, hee! Chortle!"

Face palms, gull style. At least the clown is happy. And silent.

Far below us, in the water, seals were swimming, birds were diving. We left the blind and went on down the trail.


(3rd in a series of 9 Mitlenatch Island posts. #1#2#3#4#5#6#7#8)


Saturday, May 21, 2016

Mostly rocks

Where to start, where to start? At the beginning, of course!

The day trip to Mitlenatch Island started with an early morning ferry from Campbell River to Quadra Island, then a dash across the island to catch the ferry to Cortes Island, with bare minutes to spare to find parking. (Nerve-racking! Next time, I'll take the earlier early morning ferry.) On Cortes, our contact met me and another passenger at the ferry landing and drove us across this island to meet the Misty Isles crew and the rest of the group. Total time, two hours.

Sign just outside the narrow exit from Cortes Bay. Too Canadian!

Just rocks. Salt water marks distinct levels on these rock faces; the green and grey, seaweed-and-barnacle line where the tide covers the rock every day, then a gap and the dark line where salt splash feeds black crust lichens. Above that, a bare zone, where the occasional storm keeps land vegetation from settling in. Then the forest, above that.

Surf scoters, I think.

It's about an hour's passage from Cortes Bay to Mitlenatch Island. We spent it learning about the island and the currents around it, reading maps, watching for birds, listening to stories; our host and pilot, Mike Moore, has oodles of them! Then, lunch; pizza baked in the little ship's oven, salad and coffee.

Harlequin ducks on the shore, Mitlenatch Island. A couple of gulls, and two oyster-catchers, one doing his yoga routine.

And then we were there, easing into harbour, anchoring, heading for the beach in the inflatable dinghy.

On the shore, we divided up; five people went off in the dinghy to look at sea lions and cormorants; the rest of us hiked up the island to the bird blind.

Visitors to the island stay on the paths. The rest is left to birds, beasts, rocks, and mostly small plants. The pink flowers under the rock face are wild roses. Also look for Hooker's onions, on the rock itself. 

Grassy hill. With gull poop marking the top of the rock, like a sprinkling of snow.

Tiny blue-eyed grass, growing in a shady corner.

View from the bird blind.

Tomorrow, gulls doing gull things.

(2nd in a series of 9 Mitlenatch Island posts. #1#2#3#4#5#6#7#8)