Cape Breton for the birds

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One of Cape Breton’s Bird Islands protected to provide important sanctuary for migratory and nesting birds

By David Jala – Cape Breton Post

BLACK ROCK, N.S. — The Bird Islands may just be a Cape Breton treasure that’s hidden in plain sight.

A great cormorant spreads its wings in the classic pose. - DAVID JALA/CAPE BRETON POST PHOTO
A great cormorant spreads its wings in the classic pose. – DAVID JALA/CAPE BRETON POST PHOTO
The two islands, Hertford and Ciboux, are located off Cape Dauphin and are easily visible from both the east side of the Cabot Trail and the northern end of Boularderie Island.

“The Bird Islands are the most important bird habitat in Nova Scotia and we’re committed to ensuring they stay wild and remain pristine,” John Paterson, stewardship co-ordinator for the Nova Scotia Nature Trust, said Saturday during a boat trip near the islands.

The trust, a charitable group formed in 1994 to preserve ecologically threatened environments, chartered a vessel for a scientific survey of the islands.

Earlier this year, the group received Hertford Island from the Nova Scotia Bird Society as part of an overall contribution of seven islands and one coastal property, all of which are important bird habitats.

Captain Vince Van Schaick, a veteran skipper of one of the privately operated tour boats that visit the Bird Islands, said that when he’s not on his Puffin Express, he’s thinking about being on the specially designed touring vessel.

“This is one of the most beautiful parts of Cape Breton — it’s scenic and has a great abundance of life on display,” said Van Schaick.

But while the pair of rocky isles, made rugged by water and wind since time immemorial, is wild and captivating, it is not the most visited of Cape Breton’s many scenic attractions. In fact, it is forbidden to trespass, as the islands are a wildlife management Area as designated by the province in 2009.

Although the Bird Islands do not harbour any human population (the lighthouse on Ciboux was manned from 1863 until the 1900s), they are aptly named. They host the largest colony of great cormorants in North America, along with many other species, including Atlantic puffins, razorbills, black guillemots, double-breasted cormorants, black-legged kittiwakes, herring gulls, blue herons and bald eagles. And, of course, there are the more than 200 grey seals that seem to pay little heed to thousands of birds squawking and flying about.

While the islands are a birdwatcher’s delight and present never-ending photographic opportunities, they are also of great interest to researchers and conservationists.

Among those who joined Paterson on the tour was bird society president David Currie, who said the time was right to hand the island over to the trust.

“We just felt it was time to pass it along to the nature trust,” he said. “The trust has really grown and we felt it was better suited to take over stewardship of the island and protect them for perpetuity — we couldn’t be happier.”

Currie was one of eight society members who spent most of three-hour tour scoping out the wildlife, documenting the numbers per species per sector, and photographing the bird and aquatic life that presented itself to the lens.

He said the research will be studied to determine what the latest trends are when it comes to bird life on the islands. For example, many of the birders expressed concern over the large number of bald eagles present on the cliffs of the two islands.

Van Schaick, one of the most regular visitors to the Bird Islands, said that for the much-adored puffins, the eagles represent bad news.

“The puffins are being forced away from the islands because of the threat of the eagles,” he said, adding that he has also noticed changing trends on what species are visiting the islands at specific times.

Although Hertford, the nearer of the two islands to the Cape Breton coastline, is now in the hands of the Nova Scotia Nature Trust, its northern sister, Ciboux, remains the property of the provincial and federal governments.

The other properties donated by the Bird Society to the nature trust include Indian Island near Bridgewater, the four Bald Islands in the Tusket area, Peter’s Island near Brier Island, and a coastal property near Port Joli. Collectively, the donated properties support about 20 per cent of the province’s bird species and provide important habitat for migratory and nesting birds.

THE BIRD ISLANDS 

WHAT: Two rocky islands, Hertford and Ciboux, that provide sanctuary to many varieties of birds.

WHERE: Located off Cape Breton’s eastern coast near entrance to Bras d’Or Lake and St. Anns Bay.

WHY: Hertford Island recently donated by Nova Scotia Bird Society to Nova Scotia Nature Trust for future stewardship.

WHO: Great cormorants; Atlantic puffins, razorbills, black guillemots, double-breasted cormorants, black-legged kittiwakes, herring gulls, blue herons and bald eagles. And, of course, seals.

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