Google Earth View of Shoal Harbour

(Kerry Finley reports that he has found a reason that hunting for Shoal Harbour’s) fabled eel-grass beds has been so hit and miss:

One of the latest Google Earth images from this past summer is one of the best resolutions yet. It shows that the patch we’ve been hitting is an isolated small spot in the northwest corner. See dark patch below. Not the long oval green patch which actually is quite interesting because it was not there a couple years ago and seems to have formed where a large tree became stranded and has been decaying ( it seems to have disappeared since the Nov – Dec storms). You can make out the more extensive band that parallels the sand flats headed to the east. This image from June 7 2015 shows a brighter green photo-bloom that somewhat obscures the edge of the well delineated eel-grass contour. (In order to find an eel-grass bed it) might be good to allow for a lower tide so that you can access the larger bed. 

Eel Grass beds

The Precious Smelt and Mr. Brandt’s Cormorant for Xmas

At sunset on January 2nd, I watched the resident male Kingfisher dive from the pier across the bay, then fly with his catch toward me and land on the boat ramp below. It was a relatively large fish and the Kingfisher spent a considerable time bashing it adeptly on the planks, until its prey went into death throes. After jostling it to get it ready for a head-first entry, it lost it and since the tide was out, it landed on the exposed beach.

It proved to be a Surf Smelt, 18 cm in length (dinner plate size), and it was evident that it was a male from the milt that it exuded. I wondered whether smelt referred to its odour which was strong, and noted in the field guide that the family name Osmeridae was derived from Greek for odorous.

Its species name ‘pretiosus’ means precious. Whoever bestowed that name must have beheld it closely, for they fairly mesmerize with their varied hues and silver sides, and the fluorescent emerald back that distinguishes the females. Precious, but too big for a Kingfisher.

Not much is known about their abundance in B.C. waters. At one time, beginning in the mid nineteenth century, they were the subject of a substantial commercial fishery for domestic consumption. This fishery peaked before the first World War, with a maximum tonnage over 200 taken in 1904. It is now subject largely to a recreational fishery in Burrard Inlet, and the summer spawning on the Washington and Oregon coasts provides an important food source for native people. It’s not known whether the Salish Sea is comprised of more than one stock but the occurrence of both summer and winter spawning populations suggests that there are genetic differences.

Despite its abundance in coastal waters in winter, it is seldom noticed, and their spawning beaches are not well known, or targeted by recreational fisheries. These winter spawning sites tend to be situated in protected bays with a freshwater input. Recent beach sampling by students from the University of Victoria have found evidence of spawning within Shoal Harbour Sanctuary.

It’s probably no coincidence that a large flock of Brandt’s Cormorant (150 +) along with Red-breasted Mergansers (45) entered the mouth of Roberts Bay on December 23rd as the moon approached fullness. A large pack of Brandt’s again entered the bay on Christmas Day in pursuit of prey but were thwarted by a holiday kayaker. Unlike other cormorants, Brandt’s hunt in dense packs so it is difficult to count them. They seldom enter the sanctuary and when they do it marks a special occasion because their behavior and fishing technique are so different from the resident Double-crested and Pelagic Cormorants. It takes a lot of forage fish to sustain a pack of hungry Brandt’s. After dispersing from their California-based breeding grounds, the species migrates north and its appearance and local abundance are dependent on the seasonal movements of schooling prey species like Herring, Sand Lance and the Surf Smelt.

Brandt’s Cormorants were first recorded nesting in B.C. in 1965 on and island off Long Beach. Their numbers peaked in 1970 at 150 pairs, and declined afterwards to none today. In winter, its centre of abundance is in the adjacent waters, including Sidney Channel Important Bird Area, reflecting its high productivity due to its oceanographic features, and aggregations of ‘forage fish’. Brandt’s Cormorants know where the action is, as do the Mergansers.

As we enter into this winter of a full blown El Nino, many species have drastically shifted their distributions, or starved, due to the oceanographic changes. Monitoring programs, such as the Coastal Waterbird Survey, can provide important insights into what is happening beneath the surface.

Kerry Finley,  January 5, 2016


The delta and outwash plain of Mermaid Creek supports a diverse plant community from Dune Grass to the Sea Asparagus beds that are occupied by overwintering prairie and boreal ducks. Chief among them is the American Wigeon, or Baldpate as it was once known, that is unique among freshwater dabbling ducks, in its voracious appetite for Sea Lettuce or Ulva. Large windrows of Sea Lettuce have been accumulating on beaches on the delta and around the end of Fifth Street, a popular viewing point, overlooking Roberts Bay.

The richness of the estuarine community is recycled through Ulva in several ways. Most notably through the digestive system of the Wigeon which explains the luxurious carpet of Sea Asparagus. Buts its the Dune Grass, which anchors the fine sands, that benefits by stranding the Ulva at the highest tide reach, and deriving abundant nutrients from its decomposition. ( Which is why the Town sometimes receives complaints about the sewery smell in the area when the plant recycling system is thrown out of whack). Another important avenue of recycling is through the amphipod – Beach Hopper community, which in turn supports Mallards that require more concentrated protein than Wigeons.

Even without maximum storm tides coinciding with strong Sou,easters in this El Nino winter, the kelp and flotsam been deposited on adjacent lawns. The rising ocean is now lapping over the pavement on Fifth on a regular basis, and the storm sewer outlet is blocked every winter from shifting sand. 

Sidney’s Emergency Measures document identifies this area of Roberts Bay to be highly susceptible to flooding from storm surges, as sea levels continue to rise. An integrated management plan, involving the Canadian Wildlife Service and the Town of Sidney, should consider this eventuality, and the importance of the delta to migratory birds, as a prime resting or roosting site, as well as a source of freshwater and nutrient filtering system.

American Wigeon, Mallards and Green-winged Teal resting on Mermaid Delta, 3 December, 2016

American Wigeon, Mallards and Green-winged Teal resting on Mermaid Delta, 3 December, 2016