It’s been one week since we packed up our place in Ladysmith and headed north to Quadra Island. Located in the Strait of Georgia, Quadra is the southernmost of the Discovery Islands, and home to about 2,500 year-round residents (that’s an average density of 20 people per square mile). The island comes equipped with mountains, lakes, log-studded coasts, dozens of miles of hiking trails, wolves, deer, mountain lions, and stunning vistas everywhere you turn. It was the wild nature of the island that first attracted us to it, and so far it has not disappointed. This post will be a fairly short introduction to the island, and some of its inhabitants.
To get here from Vancouver Island, we hopped a ferry in Campbell River and journeyed across the narrow Discovery Passage to Quathiaski Cove on Quadra. We then drove the short distance across the southern neck of the island to our new home. Our cottage is on the southeast portion of the island and is perched on the somewhat elevated plateau overlooking the water. Although we’re tucked into the forest, we can still see the ocean, Cortes Island, and the mainland’s snow-capped Coast Mountains. And the sunrises. Almost every morning I awake to a different flavor of sunrise. On relatively clear mornings we get “the Midas touch,” when the sun peers over the mountains and turns everything a golden hue. There’s “the classic” which occurs when cumulus clouds hang lazily on the mountains and turn into pink, yellow, and orange-dipped balls of cotton candy. One morning I looked out to an astonishing spectacle (we’ll call it “the holy cr*p!”); bands of stratus clouds had been converted into wide tangerine and yellow rivers extending north and south as far as I could see. And then there’s always "the Pacific Northwest special” when there is no sunrise because we’re socked in with clouds.
We share these sunrises with a handful of Columbian black-tailed deer. There appear to be anywhere from 3 to 6 of these deer in our neighborhood, and they typically emerge from the forest in mid-morning and late afternoon. They follow well-worn paths into and out of the woods, and visit us to graze on the short grasses and other plants at the margins of the yard. They are wary of me, but don’t seem overly concerned when I’m nearby; I suspect they have learned that the people in this area are generally just interested in watching them. But these deer have good reason to remain alert; we are in wolf and mountain lion territory, and while these predators are unlikely to make an appearance in our yard, they do hunt in the tracts of forest that surround us. I, of course, would be thrilled if they showed up at our cottage, but our best chances of seeing them are in the northern, more rugged parts of the island.
The wolves of the Pacific Northwest have broadened their diets to include foods from the intertidal zone, and some of the best wolf-viewing opportunities are when low tides coincide with the early morning or late evening hours. During these times, the wolves can be found nosing around the exposed tide-pools, flipping rocks, and searching for edible morsels. Morsels like the purple shore crab.
Purple shore crabs are commonly found under rocks in the intertidal, and during a recent low tide, I spent some time exploring the exposed shoreline near our place. In addition to crabs (green shore crabs, hermit crabs, and a lone kelp crab, along with the purples) I found a dozen or so nudibranchs, or sea slugs. The species I found (and pictured here) are called Monterey Sea Lemons (or False Sea Lemons) and they specialize on sponges. Nudibranchs (which translates to “naked gills”) are close relatives of snails, but have lost their protective shells. Some species of nudibranch eat sea anemones and steal the anemone’s stinging nematocyst defenses (essentially cells that shoot a venom-tipped harpoon when triggered). They are then able to transfer these stinging cells into special tentacle-like projections on their back and use them to defend against their own predators. Talk about taking full advantage of a resource. Our Monterey Sea Lemons don’t do that; rather, they produce a distasteful chemical substance that discourages predators. The bright yellow warning color (“aposematic” coloration) is derived from carotenoid pigments the sea slug acquires from the sponges it eats. Not quite as cool as stealing your prey’s defenses, but pretty neat nonetheless.
Another abundant island inhabitant is the bald eagle. We have a resident pair along the shoreline near the cottage, and they are very active. The breeding season has begun and this duo is constantly on the look-out for food. And while there aren’t river otters to steal from on our beach, the eagles keep a close eye on the activities of the other birds. In particular, they watch the activities of the glaucous-winged gulls. Devotees of the blog will recall the glaucous-winged gulls’ penchant for sea stars (Feb 21-Snowbirds on the Beach), but these birds will eat just about anything they can fit down their gullets. If a gull finds something that the eagles like the look of, like a fish or bit of carrion, the eagles will launch from their perch, and attempt to steal the item. The gull’s first choice is to rapidly gulp down whatever it has found, but it the food is too big, the gull typically drops it, and, along with all the other birds in the vicinity, high-tails it out of there. One of the eagles then plucks the food item from the water or the rocks, and enjoys the fruits of the gull’s labor.
The local eagles are also more than happy to take advantage of free food, even if it has passed its expiration date. During an exploration of the southeast point of the island (Francisco Point), we happened upon a Steller sea lion carcass that had washed up on the beach. The carcass was clearly a few weeks old, and had been mostly stripped of its meat. But there were still bald eagles and common ravens jostling for access to the remaining bits of tissue stuck to the bones. The birds were wary and wouldn’t let us approach more than 50 meters or so before they would retreat to the trees.
The next morning, I returned to the carcass before sunrise, hoping to hide myself before the eagles appeared so that I could get some good shots of them feeding. Unfortunately, the eagles arrived even earlier than me, and my attempts at camouflaging myself failed. It’s hard to remain unnoticed by an animal that can spot a six inch fish in the water from hundreds of meters away. I packed up and left the dozen or so eagles that were patiently waiting for me to vacate the area. Next time, I’ll have to try getting there while it’s still dark.
Next post: TDB!
About the author:
Loren grew up in the wilds of Boston, Massachusetts, and honed his natural history skills in the urban backyard. He attended Cornell University for his undergraduate degree in Natural Resources, and received his PhD in Ecology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has traveled extensively, and in the past few years has developed an affliction for wildlife photography.