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Saving the Ancient Murrelet of Haida Gwaii

Ancient Murrelet
An Ancient Murrelet swims on the surface of the blue Pacific. Photo by Glenn Bartley

The trail up Tow Hill, an isolated volcanic plug that rises to an elevation of 125 meters (410 feet) on Graham Island of the Haida Gwaii archipelago in western Canada, is steeped in the dark green of a coastal rainforest. Moss-covered trees and roots weave around the mountainous side of Tow Hill like arthritic hands, and in that dark are the chirps of unseen birds.

The hike to the top of the hill is a 45-minute climb that leads to the Blow Hole, a unique coastal formation that shoots sprays of surf up into the air, but it is the thick downy ground cover in all shades of green that interests our group.

Deep beneath the swirling roots and rocky soil are nests of the Ancient Murrelet, a rarely seen seabird that makes this North Pacific archipelago its nesting site. A murrelet’s ebony head and virgin white neck are oddly hard to spot in the slate gray sea around Haida Gwaii’s islands, but the species is one of the most coveted of the migratory birds that visit the area.

Haida Gwaii
Tow (Taaw) Hill, a volcanic plug remnant, perches on the north shore of Graham Island, in Naikoon Provincial Park, in the Haida Gwaii archipelago. The islands are home to about 1.5 million breeding seabirds. Photo by Chase Clausen/Shutterstock

Ancient Murrelets nest in colonies along North Pacific islands from the Yellow Sea in China to the Aleutians and Haida Gwaii. Pairs don’t nest in the craggy rocks or along the shores but in burrows excavated in soil among tree roots, under logs, and in rock crevices. 

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On many of the islands on which murrelets breed, their nests are in danger year after year. Non-native species of deer brought to the Haida Gwaii islands many decades ago eat the protective underbrush that the murrelets use and stomp on the delicate burrows. Rats that jumped ship throughout centuries of trading and invasion have run rampant throughout the islands, eating eggs and chicks and generally destroying the natural ecology of the archipelago. And in the 1940s, raccoons were deliberately released on Graham Island to enhance the local fur trade, and since then, they have spread to smaller islands where seabirds breed. The masked mammals can kill adults and chicks and have been implicated in murrelet declines on several islands. 

While a large eradication program of rats was successful on one of the islands of Haida Gwaii, the rats continue to affect murrelets and other seabirds of Haida Gwaii. Biologists are working to clear the rest of the islands of rats and non-native deer species that threaten nesting sites. Raccoons have been controlled on certain islands over the last few decades, but a 2018 management plan for the Ancient Murrelet in Canada noted that procyonids pose an ongoing threat. “Half of the colonies in the Haida Gwaii archipelago are vulnerable to raccoon invasion because of raccoons’ propensity to swim between islands,” it notes.

It’s the rats that are the most persistent problem. “As soon as you let rats on an island, any island, it’s like letting a weasel in the henhouse,” says naturalist Phred Collins, our guide on the hike to the Blow Hole (and host of the podcast Wilderness Walks). “Ancient Murrelets burrow into the forest floor in usually the western hemlock zones. Rats can zip down those tunnels and feed on the eggs and chicks. A murrelet has no idea how to defend itself. It will just sit there and let a rat kill it.”

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Predation by rats and raccoons, Collins says, has caused significant declines to breeding populations of Ancient Murrelets and other seabirds. Declines of up to 23 percent of breeding murrelets were recorded in the 1980s and ’90s. During that period, rats were blamed for declines or extirpations on seven Haida Gwaii islands, while raccoons accounted for losses on three other islands. 

Ancient Murrelet nest tree
Ancient Murrelet builds its nests in burrows among tree trunks, roots, and similar crevices. Photo by Carey Bergman/Parks Canada

‘Galápagos of the North’

The Haida Gwaii archipelago is often called the “Galápagos of the North.” Because of its relative isolation, it holds a rare biological treasure of bird subspecies that includes the Haida Gwaii Northern Goshawk as well as unique forms of Hairy Woodpecker, Steller’s Jay, Northern Saw-whet Owl, and Pine Grosbeak. In addition, the islands are within the range of a Pacific Coast subspecies of Peregrine Falcon known as Peale’s Peregrine Falcon.

Ancient Murrelet (SGin Xaana, or “night bird,” in the Haida language) is one of 12 seabird species that breed on the islands. Others include Cassin’s and Rhinoceros Auklets, Pigeon Guillemot, Leach’s and Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels, and Black Oystercatcher. All told, around 1.5 million seabirds nests here in spring and summer. Since 2004, Ancient Murrelet has been listed as a species of special concern under Canada’s Species at Risk Act. Indeed, about half of the world’s Ancient Murrelet population, approximately 256,000 pairs, nests on 31 Haida Gwaii islands. (Alaska is home to about 200,000 pairs, and another 40,000 individuals breed in Russia, Japan, and China.) 

Unique subspecies of six land mammals occur on Haida Gwaii as well, including dusky shrew, pine marten, and black bears that have larger jaws and teeth than their mainland cousins. 

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While hiking along the mountainous trails on Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Graham Island in the Haida Gwaii, I looked for Ancient Murrelets but never saw them. Collins led our group into the gloaming of the forest and stopped to show where murrelets burrow into the earth.

Parent birds incubate eggs in shifts lasting an average of three days, and to avoid predators, they come and go under the cover of darkness. When one adult arrives to take over, it does so two to four hours after dark, and its mate departs a few hours later, about 90 minutes before sunrise. When the chicks hatch, the adults do not feed them in the burrow. One to three days after hatching, the parent murrelets call their chicks from outside the burrow, and they make a mad dash to the sea. Along the run, the chicks face danger from predators like goshawks and eagles. They can be snapped up by other predators at sea, but those that make it safely to their families swim out into the ocean in the dead of night. 

The journey isn’t a short one for the fledgling chicks. On average, a family of Ancient Murrelets will swim up to 30 miles for at least 12 hours. The Ancient Murrelet spends less time on land than any other bird species in the world. “We have one of the largest breeding sites in the world, which makes our islands very important to this species,” says Collins.

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The Ancient Murrelet, like most pelagic seabirds, is not adapted to the threat of predators like rats or other mammals. While in the ocean, they are graceful fliers in water, diving hundreds of feet, but on land and in air, they are more like clumsy penguins.

Ancient Murrelets run across the water to take flight. Photo by Carey Bergman/Parks Canada
Ancient Murrelets run across the water to take flight. Photo by Carey Bergman/Parks Canada

In 2014, researchers put geolocators on murrelets at four Haida Gwaii colonies to track their movements throughout the year. All the birds first traveled to the Bering Sea, where they underwent a post-breeding molt. Around one-third then returned to overwinter on the British Columbia coast, while the rest migrated to overwinter in waters along the northern coast of Asia. In winter, Ancient Murrelets also are found as far south as the coast of Baja California. It’s unclear why their wintering locations vary so much.

We flew in a small seaplane over the 138 islands that make up Haida Gwaii, and the beauty of the landscape takes your breath away. It’s a wild and rugged place. The southern third or so of the archipelago is protected in the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, National Marine Conservation Area Reserve, and Haida Heritage Site. From the seaplane’s window on our way to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of S’Gang Gwaay, however, the scars from logging were visible: Bald patches of land dot the otherwise crayon green of the numerous islands.

Fewer than 3,000 visitors come to the park reserve annually due to its remoteness and the fact that it’s one of the most protected areas on earth. The most famous site in Haida Gwaii is S’Gang Gwaay, where mortuary and standing poles dating from the late 1800s remain, making it the largest collection of North American monumental poles still in their original location.

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In 2009, the Haida Nation and Canadian government teamed up on restoration projects to protect the island ecosystem and Haida way of life. The Haida people have called this land home for what is believed to be more than 12,000 years, and until the 18th century, more than 30,000 Haida people lived here off the land and the ocean. Like with most Indigenous tribes in the Americas, disease and conflict ravaged the Haida and their home. Nearly 90 percent of the Haida people were killed by smallpox and other diseases, and by 1911, only 589 native Haida remained on the islands. Today, the community numbers around 4,800 in Canada and about 6,000 in Alaska. 

Haida Gwaii’s southern islands became a national park preserve in 1988, thanks to an agreement signed by the Haida and the Canadian government. While the two parties haven’t settled on who owns the land, a 1993 accord said that they both would work to co-manage its protection. In 2010, the Gwaii Haanas National Marine Conservation Area Reserve and Haida Heritage Site were formed, further safeguarding the area.

Naikoon Provincial Park
Mossy logs hang over a path in the rainforest in Naikoon Provincial Park. The Haida Gwaii islands are home to unique subspecies or populations of several bird and land mammal species. Photo by dorinser/Shutterstock

Only 12 visitors at a time are allowed on the sacred S’Gang Gwaay site, which park employees called “watchmen” look after. The invasive species, however, follow no such rule.

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“The Norway rat is the most widely distributed animal in the world,” says Collins. “It’s also well adapted to new environments. The original rats brought to the Haida Gwaii islands were black rats. They can also get into the trees and eat the eggs and chicks of terrestrial songbirds.”

With its towering mountains, temperate rainforests, and long, endless beaches, the land itself is believed to be about 14,000 years old, but clear-cut logging has altered nearly 50 percent of the habitat.

Logging damage to the forests made it an ideal home for the Sitka black-tailed deer that settlers brought over to use as a food source.

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In the late 1990s, Collins was part of a rat-eradication project on the 33-square-kilometer Gwaii Haanas National Reserve. In collaboration with the Canadian government and the Haida people, bait stations with short-toxicity bait were placed every 100 square meters on the island. In all, 3,500 bait stations were used, and 65 Haida workers were on site to coordinate the six-week operation.

And they were successful.

“Something like this had never been done before successfully in an area that size,” says Collins. But rats are adaptive. As soon as the black rats disappeared, the brown and Norway rats moved in.

Ancient Murrelet
Russians gave the Ancient Murrelet its common name because the white feathers on its head and nape suggested the graying hair of old age. Photo by Ian Jones/Parks Canada

Night birds return

The battle against rats continues today.

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In 2009, Parks Canada and the Haida Nation teamed up for S’Gin Xaana Sdiihltl’lxa: Night Birds Returning, a project that aims to restore nesting seabird populations within the reserve by eradicating rats from four of the 16 Gwaii Haanas islands with known infestations. The islands — Bischof, Arichika, Murchison, and Faraday — were chosen due to their distance from the other islands and the ease with which rats could swim over.

They are also crucial Ancient Murrelet sites. 

“Gwaii Haanas is a very important place for both global seabird populations and living Haida cultural practices,” says Tyler Peet, resource conservation manager for Parks Canada. “Because of this, invasive, introduced species such as rats pose a huge threat to both culture and ecosystems in the bounds of the park reserve.” 

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Rat eradication began on Haida Gwaii in 1997, when the rodents were killed on Langara Island, located in the north end of the archipelago. It has remained rat-free as of the last biosecurity inspection in 2019. 

Ancient Murrelet burrows are easy for invasive rats to raid, so government agencies and nonprofits work to rid the Haida Gwaii islands of the rodents. That includes dropping rodenticide by helicopter (far left) onto islands. Photo by C. Gill/Parks Canada
Ancient Murrelet burrows are easy for invasive rats to raid, so government agencies and nonprofits work to rid the Haida Gwaii islands of the rodents. That includes dropping rodenticide by helicopter onto islands. Photo by C. Gill/Parks Canada

Other eradications followed on small, critical seabird islands within Gwaii Haanas using techniques employed on Langara. St. James Island was eradicated in 1998 and remains rat-free as of the last check in 2017. 

Parks Canada and the Haida Nation collaborated with Coastal Conservation and Island Conservation on the project, which also drew on technical expertise from eradication experts in New Zealand and Mexico.

“As recognized leaders in conservation, Parks Canada and the Haida Nation are committed to protecting and restoring seabird habitat in Gwaii Haanas — home to a significant proportion of the millions of nesting seabirds on Haida Gwaii,” Peet says. “This project aimed to correct an imbalance and allow seabirds and other native species to re-establish their populations and to thrive in intact ecosystems.”

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Over the last 10 years, rats have been eradicated on certain islands only to have them return a short time later. But when the work is successful, the seabirds respond. In 2015, for example, after an aerial eradication on two islands, Parks Canada’s acoustic monitoring units detected a 6 percent increase in Ancient Murrelet calls.

Recently, after rats turned up on islands that are close to one another, managers developed genetic testing of the rodents in a program known as RapidRat. It has produced faster identification of the source of new populations, leading to quicker management responses and better protection for seabird populations. Future fieldwork and research will include collecting genetic data to understand how rats move between islands.

An Ancient Murrelet swims off the Canadian coast.
An Ancient Murrelet swims off the Canadian coast. The bird is listed as a species of special concern in Canada. About half of the world population breeds in Haida Gwaii. Photo by Carey Bergman/Parks Canada

“The ongoing focus of the Gwaii Haanas biosecurity plan is to prevent the movement of invasive species among islands and particularly to prevent new invasive species going to islands that don’t currently have them,” says Darlene Small, a Parks Canada spokesperson. “It is focused on prevention and detection primarily and also on response when invasive species are detected in protected, priority islands.”

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One spot that was declared rat-free in 2015 and remains so is a shoal called Arichika Island. Signs of ecological recovery have become evident, including increased numbers of nests and increased successful chick-rearing by Black Oystercatchers, a species that acts as a sentinel for changes in coastal ecosystem health, Peet says. Anecdotal evidence from Parks Canada team members suggests that another ecological indicator, shore crabs, also are responding well.

Here’s hoping for more good news for Haida Gwaii, its seabirds, and ecosystem in the coming years. 

Don’t contribute to the problem

“Anyone planning a trip to Gwaii Haanas can help prevent rats from being introduced to more islands,” says Tyler Peet, resource conservation manager for Parks Canada.

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Free rat-proofing kits are also available at Gwaii Haanas orientations or from the Gwaii Haanas office. “Parks Canada and its partners are also currently working on an information package for visiting naturalists to help with our invasive species detection efforts. In the meantime, we are encouraging visitors to log any introduced species sightings on iNaturalist and/or report any rat sightings to the Gwaii Haanas office,” Peet adds.

Also, a guide for vessel owners who may travel to Haida Gwaii is available from Birds Canada.

The goshawks of Haida Gwaii 

Murrelets aren’t the only special birds that call the Haida Gwaii islands home. A small population of the Northern Goshawk is the last remnant of a highly distinct genetic cluster of the birds, according to a 2018 genomic analysis by University of British Columbia researchers. Only about 50 remain, based on the latest count.

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Kenneth Askelson, a researcher with the UBC Department of Zoology and Biodiversity Research Centre, co-led a genomic study in 2019 that showed that Haida Gwaii’s goshawks were the last remnants of a highly distinct genetic cluster of the birds.

They stand out from their neighbors along the northern British Columbia coast. Their plumage is darker than coastal or inland goshawks, and genomically, they’re one of a kind.

“In the 1940s, an ornithologist named Percy Algernon Taverner described this unique subspecies based on specimens in a museum. The individual birds are darker in plumage,” Askelson says. “They noticed that the coastal subspecies was in decline, but it was unclear what the range was and how different they were genetically.”

Askelson’s team estimated that the unique population of birds might have evolved on Haida Gwaii for 20,000 years. 

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“The Haida Gwaii islands are a unique biogeographic area,” Askelson says. The study, he adds, is “important for conservation, so the government can be able to diagnose conservation planning.”

This article first appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of BirdWatching Magazine

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Heide Brandes

Heide Brandes is an award-winning journalist and storyteller based in Oklahoma. She covers travel, conservation, culture, history, and more.

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