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Naturalists from qathet track abundance of wildlife on island

Unique climate and remote location a perfect place for nesting birds

For kayakers and boaters journeying around Desolation Sound and into the Strait of Georgia in the month of May or June, they may pass, without much notice, a small rocky island surrounded by seagulls. This semi-arid enclave sits in the middle of the Strait of Georgia between Vancouver, Hernando and Savary islands and happens to be one of 600 internationally recognized Important Bird Areas (IBA) in Canada. 

Important bird nesting ground

Accessible only by boat, Mitlenatch Island is a protected provincial nature park and every year, thousands of birds use it as a nesting ground and breeding colony. Surrounding the island is an abundance of sea lions, seals, fish and other marine life such as abalone and sea cucumbers.

Humpbacks and sea lions

On June 1, members of the Powell River-based group Malaspina Naturalists were lucky enough to venture forth on a converted fishing trawler called the Misty Isles to Mitlenatch Island. Leaving from the village of Lund in qathet Regional District, the group anchored its boat off the waters of the rocky island and took a zodiac to view the wildlife, walk through the flower meadow and visit with a naturalist. 

Calvin Smith, a participant on the recent field trip, said they were a bit delayed getting on shore due to humpback whale activity in the area. 

"As we approached Mitlenatch we circumnavigated the island, and as we were coming around the corner of one part of the island, two humpbacks came up, so we had to stop the motor," said Smith. "They came towards us, a mother and her calf, and got broadside between the boat and shore, then did a 180- [degree turn] and went backwards."

Well-known naturalist George Sirk was also on the boat with the group as a birding guide. Sirk is a co-founder of one of Canada’s first natural history tour companies specializing in bird and whale-watching expeditions. He has been visiting Mitlenatch for decades now. 

This was Smith's third trip to Mitlenatch and this time he said they saw turkey vultures flying and scavenging around.

"The naturalist said that when the gulls start to nest they get very territorial, and if a chick goes outside its territory it could get eaten or pecked to death," explained Smith. "There is a lot of predation happening."

Prickly pear cactus and meadow flowers

Other than watching cormorants, glaucous-winged gulls and other birds that may pass through, it's the unique plant and flower species that many people are fascinated by, he added.

"There's an interesting stand of trees on the island, and they're quite small, called trembling aspen, which is a bit unusual for this area," said Smith. "Another interesting thing we saw was a prickly pear cactus."

The cactus and other meadow flowers only bloom for a short period of time, so visiting Mitlenatch in May or June is ideal. Although people are allowed on the island, there are very strict rules of edict, including no dogs, keeping on the path and using a bird blind to view nesting wildlife.

Volunteer caretakers and stewards

Another special feature of the protected bird sanctuary is a partnership between BC Parks and the Mitlenatch Island Stewardship Team (MIST). MIST was formed in 2010 as a volunteer organization to support the park's mandate to provide protection for the island. 

According to, a large part of the organization's focus is to maintain the volunteer warden program, which is crucial for visitation and conservation of the island. Volunteer wardens/stewards are on the island in the spring and summer months and keep detailed records of bird behaviour, bird and animal visitation, and document plant and flower species they see. They also remove invasive plants and maintain the park signs, trails and buildings.

Janet May, who has a forestry background, has been spending time on Mitlenatch as a MIST volunteer since 2013. Her last stint was 2023, but she had to skip this year's venture.

Important food source for First Nations

"It's been a resource island for thousands of years for many First Nations, primarily during the springtime," said May. "Egg collection was one activity, as well as collecting Saskatoon berries, chocolate lilies and camus, which were used as food sources."

Traditional fishing weirs can still be seen during low tide in Camp Bay, which is where the main visitor area is located on Mitlenatch.

"I'm a plant person, but I am still learning about the area," said May. "One concern for flower lovers like myself is that the Saskatoon berry is encroaching on the meadow. This time of year the tiger lilies are growing, but many flowers are struggling to reach the sun under the Saskatoon berry."

May said that before the area was a park, First Nations would most likely have done controlled burns in order to keep the berry bushes at bay, and to let the flowers have space to grow in order to harvest them.

“As stewards on the island, one primary role we play is to educate the public who visit the island and discourage dogs, especially during the breeding season," said May. "The people who tend to sign up [as MIST volunteers] are pretty active people and nature geeks who want to be involved with something."

Many tasks to do

May said a volunteer's time spent on the island is not idle, and that there is quite a regimented to-do list. 

"There are various projects, such as observing times that flowers bloom and intertidal observations," added May. "It's a long-term project and would be interesting for those who study climate change."

Another never-ending task for stewards is cutting back invasive species, such as the Himalayan blackberry. 

"If we didn't do this the whole island would be covered," said May.

Most volunteers spend one week on the island doing bird counts and other observations. They sleep in a little cabin equipped with emergency supplies, communication and data tracking equipment.

"It's  a great week for making observations; you have nothing else to do but feed yourself, greet visitors and do a bird count three times a week," said May.  "We are on a migratory bird path, so at different times of year for example, you might see a wave of whimbrels land for the night and then leave in the morning."

When May first started more than 10 years ago,  no one carried an individual phone; only one emergency cellular device was on the island. 

“For the week you were excluded from your regular life,” said May, “which is actually quite a treat.”

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