View From the Cabin Door

A Mitlenatch Mystery

There was a small, rocky island in the distance—Mitlenatch Island—and I kept my eye on it as we left Pacific Playgrounds in Charley Vaughan’s boat. The day looked promising, sunny and calm, but it was chilly out on the water and I huddled into my coat. Pulling into Northwest Bay, I watched gulls and pigeon [...]

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Courtenay River Estuary

Exploring the Courtenay River Estuary

A strong wind had kicked up, and it was spitting rain as I stepped out into the open flats of estuary, through a lush meadow of knee-deep sedges and swathes of yellow, blue and red wildflowers. I walked slowly—I could hardly see my feet beneath the thick vegetation, and there were hidden channels, dips and [...]

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A Mitlenatch Mystery

There was a small, rocky island in the distance—Mitlenatch Island—and I kept my eye on it as we left Pacific Playgrounds in Charley Vaughan’s boat. The day looked promising, sunny and calm, but it was chilly out on the water and I huddled into my coat. Pulling into Northwest Bay, I watched gulls and pigeon guillemots wheeling over the rocky bluffs. I could already hear the familiar cacophony of the birds—which was expected since Mitlenatch has the largest seabird colony in the Strait of Georgia.

My mother Betty and Charley’s wife Mandy were waiting for me onshore like a couple of castaways. They had already been on the island for five days and I would be joining them for the last two. I thanked Charley and give him a push off—he was going fishing for the day.

Cabin on Mitlenatch Island

Cabin on Mitlenatch Island

Lugging my gear, we walked across the island through a grassy meadow to the cabin at Camp Bay. The weathered grey cabin, nestled into the rocks had not changed much since my last visit ten years ago. As we made coffee in the outdoor pebble-floored kitchen, Betty and Mandy told me that there had been more than enough to keep them busy during their stint as volunteer wardens for the island.

MIST (Mitlenatch Island Stewardship Team) runs the volunteer program for the island from spring through fall. The volunteers, who each stay for a week, have many duties, including keeping track of visitors and giving out maps and information, making sure people stay on the designated trails and away from nesting areas, and recording bird sightings. Volunteers also maintain the trails and outhouses, and there are sometimes special work parties to remove invasive plants such as himalayan blackberry.

The 36-hectare island was designated as a provincial park in 1961, after it was purchased from the Manson family estate. The park boundary also extends 300 metres offshore and no marine harvesting or fishing is permitted within this zone.

After coffee I went down to the beach to explore. A family of ravens with three young was causing quite a ruckus; their bills were red with gore from eating the breast of a gull. Trying to put the gruesome image out of my mind, I continued along the beach.

Western Terrestrial Garter Snake

Western Terrestrial Garter Snake

I was looking at a small plant in a crevice when I noticed that a huge snake, fat and at least two feet long, had slithered out onto the rocks. It flicked its tongue at me menacingly but I knew that this snake, the western terrestrial garter, was harmless to humans. The western terrestrial can swim and often goes after small fish in tidepools. It eats small mammals too, and is the only snake in our area that will wrap itself around its prey.

On my way back to the cabin, I had to pass the gory raven’s feast again. I noticed that the gull was headless. Could the ravens really have killed and decapitated it? With their bloody bills and gleaming black feathers the ravens certainly look guilty, but I wondered if there was another explanation. Musing over this murder-mystery, I walked on to the cabin.

Glaucous-winged Gull

Glaucous-winged Gull

After lunch I walked the island’s trails. Most of the island is off-limits, occupied by about 1000 pairs of glaucous-winged gulls as well as nesting pelagic and double-crested cormorants, pigeon guillemots and black oystercatchers. These birds are highly sensitive to human intruders, and if they are disturbed from their nests predators will quickly move in to steal the eggs.

In the meadow I stopped to look at orange tiger lilies and blue-eyed grass, a type of wild iris. Going uphill towards the gull blind there were clumps of wooly sunflower and pink Hooker’s onion mixed with grasses dried blond by the sun. Being in a rain shadow, Mitlenatch receives much less precipitation than eastern Vancouver Island. In the summer, it becomes desert-like, and many interesting plants grow in this microclimate, including the prickly-pear cactus.

I settled onto the bench at the gull blind, taking time to watch the gulls and enjoy a peaceful view of Hernando Island. The gulls stayed close to their grassy nests, defending their spots. Their vocalizations were amazingly varied: there was a sort of cha-cha-cha three-note laugh, but also a mournful, tender cooing. When alarmed, there was a series of mewling higher-pitched calls, what my bird book calls a “keow.” On Mitlenatch the gulls “talk” all day and all night; at times they sound strangely human and more than once I’ve turned my head, spooked into thinking I heard human voices.

Typically, gulls are viewed as “garbage birds” that will happily gobble up moldy bread and putrid meat-scraps and then poop on everything. The fact that they hang out at the garbage dump doesn’t help their reputation. But if the gull is a garbage bird we are the ones who have made it so. Here at their breeding grounds the gulls look pure and noble, their white feathers impeccably clean. Looking close-up through my binoculars, I couldn’t help thinking how beautiful they were.

Glaucous-winged Gull Egg

Glaucous-winged Gull Egg

Looping back down to the cabin, I found a broken gull egg in the grass. It was a pale grey-green, mottled with smudgy brown spots and much bigger than a chicken egg. I took it in my hand for a moment, feeling its lightness and fragility. Everything is after these eggs—the crows, ravens, snakes and eagles. The gulls have a tough go of it, to breed successfully here. Things are getting harder too; the breeding population on Mitlenatch has fallen from 3000 to just 1000 pairs. Gently I placed the broken egg back into the grass, aware that gulls, like all creatures, are vulnerable.

In the evening, after dinner, we went into the cabin to warm-up by the wood stove. It wasn’t dark yet but the mice were starting to rustle. The cabin has always been mice-ridden and most volunteers opt to sleep in a large, heavy-duty tent that is set up for the duration of the volunteer season.

Sipping tea by the wood stove, conversation returned to the drama of the morning: the ravens and the headless gull. Mandy told me that a few days earlier she found the head of a rhinoceros auklet (a small seabird) at Well Bay, just around the corner from the cabin.“What’s going on with the beheaded birds?” I asked, and my mother, who likes to watch Poirot, seemed especially intrigued. We checked our books, but couldn’t concur. Did a bald eagle do it, or a river otter? It remained a mystery; more research was needed.

View From the Cabin Door

View From the Cabin Door

The next morning, there was a good low tide so we walked to Northwest Bay to check out marine life along the rocky shore. We found an assortment of sea stars, anemones and seaweeds. At the edge of the water there were many large spiky red sea urchins. One had been recently hollowed out, its spines still moving. A few contented looking gulls loitered nearby, and I suspected they had urchin for breakfast. Everything has to eat on this island, including the gulls.

On the way back I thought about all of the signs of mortality I’d witnessed during my visit; the headless gull, the broken gull’s egg, the hollowed out urchin. Despite these signs of death the island is full of life, and the creatures are all deeply connected—they need and depend on each other for survival. The island has its own cyclic rhythms of life: plants bloom and set seed, tides go in and out, creatures eat and are eaten. In my brief visit, I glimpsed these patterns of existence, but I sensed that it would take much longer, months or years, to gain a fuller understanding of this special place.

I helped Betty and Mandy pack up and clean up for the next volunteer crew. Our water taxi arrived right on time and I watched the rocky shores of the island become distant again as we were whisked back to Campbell River.

Mitlenatch Island is situated in Georgia Strait about four kilometres south of Cortez Island. The island receives about 3000 visitors each year. For more information and a map, visit bcparks.ca to download a brochure.