By Roy L Hales
George Sirk’s newest radio program comes from a lifelong passion. He became a specialist in “tropical ecology, in places such as Australia, Papua New Guinea and tropical America,” and later an expedition leader in the Canadian Arctic. He first brought this to the airwaves for CFUV in Victoria. George also produced seven minute clips on the Arctic for CBC’s Morning Show, before Prime Minister Harper cut back on funding. He returned to Cortes Island in 2016 and on February 1 became CKTZ’s newest talk show host. In this morning’s interview, I ask George Sirk about becoming Nature Boy.
(Click here to access Podcasts of “Nature Boy” on Cortes Community Radio, CKTZ 89.5 FM) or listen live Wednesday’s 2-3:30 PM.)
Becoming Nature Boy
He traces his passion for studying nature back to his brother’s collections of frog and salamanders. George has been addicted to bird watching ever since he was a 14-year-old student in Vancouver. His career as a naturalist began when the Parks Branch hired him to work on Mitlenatch Island in 1969.
“I’ve been working off and on as a naturalist guide ever since … I’m just swept up by nature. I never stopped admiring nature, looking at it, pondering it and then of course identifying species … It is fun to know what I have seen,” he said.
“I never stop learning. I see a robin, or I’ve seen a Varied Thrush today and I’ve seen one a thousand times. but todays Varied Thrush will teach me something I’ve never noticed before about it. Maybe the way it cocks its head … Every time you see a raven fly over, I go , ‘okay look at the way it did that.’”
Mitlenatch’s Glacous-winged Gulls
The Glaucous-winged Gull colony on Mitlenatch has property regulations reminiscent of a human metropolis.
“It is a very organized city. It is a metropolis. They are all there on their territories. They have marked off the boundaries for each piece of property to the blade of grass, to the rock, and the next door neighbour knows where the boundary is. If one gull steps over that boundary the other gull, the next-door neighbour, he will yell … [The offender] will step back. They established these boundaries so they can raise their young.”
George understands twelve gull calls, including the alarm they give when there is an eagle coming.
“It’s funny to see an eagle being chased by gulls, but they want to get out of there. Eagles work on stealth and also going for the weak ones.”
“One bird that you often see crossing from Quadra Island to Campbell River especially in the fall, are black and white ones. They look like flying cigars. They are the size of a crow, but the wings are much more pointed. Those are the Murres. They are like the Marbled Murrelet, the puffins and the auklets. Those birds all fly through the water. So when they dive, their wings actually come out and they beat their wings through the water and obtain great depths, 200 feet and even further,” he said.
Colonies on the Cliff
“Well they nest on steep cliffs, like where I worked in the Arctic. You can have a colony of 200,000 of these birds. Now because they are stiff winged, they can’t be landing on rounded rocks. They land right up on the cliff edge. There will be a six inch shelf and the male will land there. The female will land right next to him and it will be, lets say, 700 feet straight down. Right next to them, within pecking distance on both sides, are the neighbours – one each side of this little shelf. You’ll have hundreds of birds stretched out along these little shelves.”
They lay cone-shaped eggs, which roll in a circle and so are much less liable to roll off the edge.”
“The more cone-shaped [the egg] is, the tighter it turns.”
“When the baby gets to about the size of a hot dog bun, it leaves the nest because it can swim now. The father goes down to the water at the base of the cliff. The water’s edge is maybe 100 yards offshore. The father basically yells up, “Jump! jump! jump!” Well the young has learned what the father sounds like, what the mother sounds like and the reverse is true. The father knows exactly what the young sounds like – but we are talking a colony with 200,000 pairs of birds!”
“They all look exactly the same to us and you would think the sound is the same, but when I used my recorder when I was in the Arctic … There would be 50 fathers floating around me in the zodiac and they are yelling up at the cliff, “jump. jump, jump” and each one of them had his own dialect. There were nuances of differences of that quack … all variations of it.”
So the fathers found their offspring and then sail off into the Atlantic for the next three to four months.
What’s Special About Mitlenatch Island
“Mitlenatch is the largest seabird colony in the Georgia Strait, or the Salish Sea. In its hay-day, while we still had giant garbage dumps. The gulls did very well. There was 3,000 pairs of gulls. There was 550 pairs of pelagic cormorants on the steep cliffs. Now we have Double -Crested Cormorants, I don’t know if there are 20 or 50 pairs of them. Then you have 200 to 250 pairs of Pigeon Guillemots and they are like a murre, except they are black and white (people often see that their feet are red, mouths are bright red). They nest on Mitlenatch underneath the boulders. You’ve got maybe 10 pairs of Oystercatchers. And they are all on 88 acre … We are almost at 4,000 pairs of birds in 88 acres. So the whole island is covered in sea birds – except for the main valley where the grassy meadow is.”
This Part Of The Salish Sea
The natives called Mitlenach something like “mah-kwee-lay-lah” which means “appears close, but seems to move away as you approach it”. It also had another name, One of the First Nation’s names for Mitlenach was “calm waters all around’ or the meeting of the tides.
“This is what happens here in our area of Cortes, Mitlenach, Quadra, Hernando and Savary. The tides that come around the top end of Vancouver Island and the tides that come around the south end of Vancouver Island basically meet here. So you have a lot of currents swirling around. What comes through the Discover Channel and off of Quadra. Mitlenach is very deep water so you have a lot of upwelling, a lot of food, a lot of intertidal. So lots of clams for everyone to eat. It is a bountiful area here.
“These reefs that are off Quadra, Marina, Cortes, Hernando and so forth … All these huge reefs that go out a mile offshore, they should all be Marine Protected Areas ( MPA’s) … They are unique on the Western Coast of Canada. There are no other reefs like it … You go down too the Southern Gulf Islands, they don’t have them. You go up to Alaska, they don’t have them …. and those shallow waters are gigantic nurseries for all kinds of fish and gastropods and all the kelp and you have your herring ”
These are the most northerly of the islands that benefit from Vancouver Island’s rain shadow. So we have a milder climate with arbutus trees. The southern half of Cortes tends to be warmer because it juts out into the ocean and you can grow tomatoes. Very little rain falls on Mitlenach, which has cactus. Lizards (still) live another twenty miles to the north.
Unlike Campbell River, where the current races through, the waters around Cortes tend to “just slosh around.” In Pendrell Sound, the ocean’s temperature goes over 28 degrees celsius every summer.
Some Local Bird Population Changes
Aside from more rainfall in the winter and “bigger droughts in the summer,” George cannot ascribe most of the recent changes he has seen to climate change.
There are less gulls, because we cleaned up our garbage dumps.
When he first came to Cortes, in 1973, it seemed like “everybody had a barn swallow nesting above their door.” There were “probably 100 – 200 pairs on the island. Now we are down to two [or] three.”
“Bad things happen when they have to leave here. They go down south, maybe its the aerial spraying in some of the Central American countries. I know there was terrible aerial spraying in California as well, back in the 70s and 80s. I don’t think they are doing that anymore, but when you are spraying an entire field and you have swallows flying through – they are done.”
The Barn Swallows migration goes south to Argentina and there just aren’t many coming back in recent years.
There are no records of House Wrens prior to their arrival on Mitlenach during 1971. By 1980 they were on Cortes and now 4 or 5 pairs arrive every summer.
The Big Climate Changes
The big climate changes are occurring at the poles and near the equator.
“In Costa Rica, for instance, they are getting way more rain than they used to. They are supposed to be in the dry season, in January and February, and it just hasn’t arrived.”
(There is much more in the podcast at the top of this page, including George’s description of his life on Corte Island.)
As you will hear in the podcast below, there was still multi-year ice in the Arctic when George started introducing tourists to the region in 2005. Now the ice melts away by September.
” … Forget about the ice, how about all that frozen rock. There are places in the high arctic where it is frozen for a thousand feet. Can you imagine that Roy? All the ground that you stand on, for a thousand feet down, the rock is below zero: frozen solid. And most of the Arctic above Hudson’s Bay and all of that is all permafrost. But permafrost isn’t just this layer on the top, we make it look like a kind of frost – no, it is perma-ROCK. When that rock melts we are talking about a HUGE climate change …”
All photos courtesy George Sirk, unless stated otherwise.