In search of Black Oystercatchers
The biodiverse uniqueness of Vancouver Island is world renowned. And adventure is afoot this January day for my wife Christine, Rosie our wonderful Aussi Shepherd, & I. We’ll do some birding and beach combing this afternoon, and drive from our Port Hardy home to a coastal location known for an abundance of shore life, and for an old abandoned coal mine…. The Kwakiutl first peoples call the site “Suquash”. It is about thirteen miles southeast along the coast from our small community.
Vancouver Island has 3400 km of inspiring coastline, home to thousands of species of marine invertebrates, dozens of different marine mammals, and over 300 species of flying visitors: resident & migratory seabirds, shorebirds, and coastal waterfowl. Suquash beaches provide a stop over for some.
Suquash means “the place where seal meat is cut into strips.” Kwakiutl peoples from up the coast and elsewhere historically hunted seals and brought them to Suquash shores to clean and prepare the meat. Imagine the activity and cultural history in days gone by. As we prepared to leave my mind’s eye saw a vision of a group of long ago dugout canoes drug up on shore… I heard the laughter of families gathered around a campfire, helping with the seal catch. I saw excitement in the listener’s eyes as hunters tell stories of the day’s seal hunt…. Giving thanks as meats are prepared and skins, sinews, and blubber cared for as they had been taught by their elders, and elder’s elders from the beginning…. Generations of families harvesting in a sustainable partnership with the land.
However only wildlife and the memory of souls live there now. Nature has taken over, giving to the fortunate a treasure chest of rich marine wilderness lore, rain forest habitat, and indigenous history.
We loaded our backpacks with hiking essentials, including water, snacks, small first aid kit, camera supplies, binoculars, thermos, fire-starter. Then set out around noon. A vehicle with good tires and high clearance is advisable when traveling logging roads. Excitement was in the air imagining the shore life we would see.
There was little traffic as we traveled down Highway 19 ten or so miles, then turned left onto a gravel logging road finding our way over a couple of miles to the Suquash pullout area. From there shoreline access was an easy 10 minute walk through an amazing living renewed forest of Hemlock, Cedar, Spruce conifer trees decorated in a carpet of sword ferns, lichen, hanging moss, and salal bushes. Nature has reclaimed her beauty from prior coal operations, giving a new habitat to a multitude of wildlife… deer, bear, wolves, owls and more.
Old mining remnants, now moss covered, are still visible a short distance away; and Rosie in her glory running ahead through coaling artifacts. Suquash coal came to colonial attention early 1800’s. Kwakiutl first peoples were the first miners in BC. They dug Suquash coal by hand trading the black rock to British steamers and others. Then thereabouts 1849 the Hudsons Bay Company and Robert Dunsmuir got involved and began formal commercial tunnel operations for a few years…. Apparently a deep shaft was constructed that stretches out under the shore reaching halfway to Malcolm Island! Ultimately after a few starts and stops the mine closed its doors for good around 1922. The miner’s community of about 20 houses has long since vanished except various cement foundations, and remnants of stone fireplaces built for the mining foreman’s house.
Transition from the forest to seashore a breathtaking encounter with natural wildlife inhabitants, old history, large & small trees, and then a sea bird welcoming by hundreds of shorebirds chattering…. an exciting chorus to the stunning view: A huge tidal flat to explore. The tide was out exposing an eminence variety of pools, barnacles, snails, mussels, seaweed, limpets, so many different kinds of rock clinging & crawling marine life. One can also see coal seam outcroppings here and there, in beach foundation bedrock.
In any weather wild natural seashores are a spectacular sight, but today was especially good for our mission: weather cool, wind calm, & a comfortable sun with passing fluffy clouds. This afternoon was perfectly camera ready for foraging amongst seashells, tidal pools, shore logs, to capture wildlife in their natural habitat.
We hadn’t gone far, perhaps a few hundred yards when we suddenly heard what we came to find. Their distinctive whistle kee, kee, kee and the hunt was on… Amongst the basketful of eagle calls, raven cackles, and seagull cries came the distinctive call of the Black Oystercatcher piercing through the air, clearly from the water’s edge. We crouched down, took out field glasses, and confirmed a “parcel” of these black beauties. What a grand prize …. their amazing orange red eyes & beaks drawing our attention as we slowly inched closer to capture the shots below. Success!
Oystercatchers, a medium sized marine bird, are year-around shore residents here at Suquash… Lots of unspoiled and prime all year foraging in this wilderness setting to keep them healthy. When disturbed Oystercatchers will in unison fly & shy away, chattering as they go.
The Black Oystercatcher is a resident species of most coastal habitats from Alaska, western Canadian shores and extending down to northwestern Mexico. There numbers appear stable at around 11,000 birds. These fine non swimmers make a nest of pebbles and shells on shores and live to the ripe old age of about 15 years. Interestingly they rarely eat oysters! Rather the black “oystercatcher” eats a variety of invertebrate marine life and other shellfish that includes mussels, whelks and limpets…. but only a rare oyster. They look for open shellfish and disable it by stabbing their strong red beak into the muscle that holds the shells together, giving access to choice energy rich fixings.
The hours melted away, wholly entertained by this amazing marine environment. And now the sun was setting so mission accomplished we sauntered back when a piercing warning screech issued forth from a cavity under a large mussel and barnacle encrusted boulder. Rosie was excited cautiously darting in crouched to see what was making this strange sound. What she saw is pictured below. Another rare prize: a Coastal mink….. You don’t see or hear this everyday, minks are expert at scurrying away unheard and unseen. This one sought the safety of a rock hideout from our trespass. They are very territorial choosing “their” tidal pool turf… we had obviously gotten too close. Lucky day for us!
Now back to the pleasures of planning our next adventure.
© Gordon Patterson