Discover more from Dispatches from the Flyway
Haida Gwaii, August 2022
An actual dispatch from a flyway!
Haida Gwaii is an archipelago in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of northwest British Columbia, Canada, and just south of the southeastern most part of Alaska. Sometimes referred to as “the Galapagos Islands of Canada,” mossy rainforests of Western Red Cedar and Sitka Spruce cover the land outlined by rocky coastlines. It’s a place teeming with life, and, most relevant for bird discussions, it sits along the Pacific Flyway—a major north-south route for migratory birds that runs from Alaska all the way to Patagonia.
As mentioned in my Bald Eagle post and worth mentioning again—Haida Gwaii is the ancestral home of the Haida Nation. The land is governed by the Haida Nation, and they are its stewards. It is important to be a respectful visitor if you do decide to go there, which I definitely recommend. You should go through their orientation guide prior to arrival, and tread lightly once you’re there knowing you are a visitor to the land.
My trip wasn’t explicitly for birding, but the almost immediate sight of two Bald Eagles soaring in the sky heralded many more bird encounters to come. I added a number of exciting “lifers” (a bird that a person has successfully sighted and identified for the first time in their life) like Sandhill Crane to my list, but most excitingly I felt I saw the flyway “in action” and the connection of environments and wildlife around the world.
Though I was almost 2,000 miles away from the Bay Area, many of the birds I saw on Haida Gwaii were the same as the ones I regularly see: ravens, Double-crested Cormorants, chestnut-backed chickadees, assorted gulls I can’t tell apart, etc. I went to Haida Gwaii partially to get away and be “alone” in a remote part of the world, and seeing familiar faces was comforting.
And there were some I only seasonally see around home like Townsend’s Warblers and Violet-Green Swallows. While I was bird watching in Delkatla Wildlife Sanctuary, the whimsical thought crossed my mind that maybe I’d seen this exact warbler before in Redwood Regional Park earlier in the year. Or maybe I’d see it again when it came to visit. Like seeing your high school friends when you’re all home from college for Christmas.
Migration is an incredible thing that I’m only just starting to learn about. Hundreds of thousands of birds, many of them the tiniest songbirds, make heroic journeys of thousands of miles. The Townsend’s Warbler is at max 5 inches long and 0.4 ounces in weight, yet it commutes annually from northern Canada to central America. This year, I ended up traveling to a few stops on the Pacific flyway myself, and I saw warblers in each place—catching them on their breaks in between stops and bearing witness to their trek.
The chart above was pulled from eBird Status and Trends Relative Abundance Map if you want to explore migration on your own. You also can use BirdCast to see how many birds are migrating right above your nose! Here’s Alameda county in mid-September:
I went on a tour of Gwaii Haanas National Park Preserve with Haida Style Expeditions. It was about an hour and half boat ride from Skidegate to get to the park. I couldn’t really come up with better words for my reflections than these: the ocean is big. We were in a tiny boat, the water was glass, and there were birds and wildlife everywhere. I felt very small and also very reverential.
I added some lifers here, too, like Common Murres, Ancient Murrelets, and Rhinoceros Auklets but it is very hard to ID (and photograph) seabirds from a distance on a fast boat… Fun fact about the Rhinoceros Auklet, my favorite of the sightings: “The Rhinoceros Auklet bred on the Farallon Islands off California in the early 1800s but vanished in the 1860s, then reappeared there in the early 1970s. The reason for this hiatus is not known.”
The focus of this newsletter is birds, but there was plenty of other wildlife to see, and we were particularly lucky on the boat ride to Gwaii Haanas. Couldn’t resist posting a few of my favorites here:
Four days felt like a long time at time of booking, but the time flew and I left wishing I had done a full week instead. I would love to go back, but to quote a Robert Frost poem that resonates more with me now than it did when I had to memorize it, “knowing how way leads to way” I can’t be sure I will.