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Island magic tracks treasure of time

Volunteer wardens maintain data collection and offer warm welcome

To some, it is an oasis, to others, a place of too many restrictions. Mitlenatch Island is a seabird nesting haven, open to visitors who respect the land.

Visible between Savary and Hernando islands, Mitlenatch sports one cabin, a bird blind and a few interconnecting trails. It is a Class A provincial park with special status as a nature park and has international recognition as an Important Bird Area. For many years it has been a focus of research with biologists from leading universities conducting studies on plants, birds and the intertidal zone. The Mitlenatch volunteers now also add to research findings through citizen science initiatives.

Volunteer wardens from Powell River, Heather Harbord, Janet May and Claudia Boelcke, were on the island last week for their seven-day stint of guarding the island during nesting time. Sixty volunteers will spend time on Mitlenatch between April 1 and mid-September this year continuing research and collecting data, some of which started back in the 1960s.

“There are three of us sitting looking at this beautiful cove with the tide coming in,” described Harbord, at Camp Bay on the south side of the island, when talking to the Peak via cell phone. “In the cove there are 30 glaucous-winged gulls, 20 harlequin ducks and two seals. An hour ago we had two killer whales go by.”

The volunteers have a VHF radio in the cabin together with a computer. They can contact the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) to report infractions within the 300-metre marine protected zone that lies within the park and the large rockfish conservation area which extends beyond this zone and surrounds the island.

“By North West Bay was a large prawn float,” said Harbord. One of the volunteers went out to the float and recorded the numbers on it. “It was definitely within 100 metres of the island. We called that in to DFO.”

Peggy Sowden is volunteer coordinator for MIST (Mitlenatch Island Stewardship Team) and liaison to BC Parks. She schedules the volunteers throughout the season. She calls into the MIST volunteers from her home in Port Neville, a mainland inlet.

“I love to hear what they have seen,” she said. “But in my position as coordinator I try to make sure things are working and listen if they have any issues they want to talk about with regard to the public or injured wildlife.”

Sowden and another UBC student were stranded on Mitlenatch back in 1971 when they sailed a sabot, 10-foot craft, across the Strait of Georgia and the wind blew up. A BC park naturalist staying in the cabin provided the duo refuge there until the wind dropped. “It was my first taste of Mitlenatch,” she said.

Funding from the government dwindled and by 1982 BC park naturalists were no longer looking after the island. Volunteers have filled this role since that time. Sowden started back in 2000 while BC Parks ran the volunteer program and in 2009, when the program was going to be cut, she, with BC Parks, created the MIST program.

Parks maintains overall jurisdiction for the program, particularly safety. “Infrastructure, education, visitor services, equipment are primarily MIST's responsibilities,” she said. To have volunteers during the nesting season, the program ranges in cost from $2,000 to $3,000 per year. In previous years MIST has fundraised and replaced the interpretive sign, at a cost of $10,000. MIST volunteers have also rebuilt the bird blind and upgraded the cabin.

MIST volunteers collect data in four separate projects. eBird is a repository of bird sightings run by Cornell University’s lab of ornithology. Data involves counting and identifying birds.

An intertidal study is supported provincially and federally. This year will likely see reports on the sea star wasting syndrome.

The beach bird survey records carcasses washed up along the tide line. “There are a number of predators as well as diseases and oil contamination, all possible causes of death,” said Sowden.

The fourth study relates to plant phenology and is into its second year. It is what May found herself doing last week. “Growth has a green smell that greets you as soon as you get into the island,” she said. “This time I have been watching things bloom throughout the day.” There are 25 to 30 clumps of plants around the island that have been selected for observation. May has been recording which flower in which clump blooms when. “It makes you notice how quickly things change. It is minute by minute here.”

She has noticed a mechanism for seed dispersal used by various plants, especially the death camas. “You notice the flowers tend to be bunched, but once the seed pods develop the stalk elongates so the individual seed pods are separated more than the flowers were. And that is happening right now with the chocolate lilies.”

When Harbord’s group arrived on the island last week, they discovered one of the two dinghies used by volunteers was missing. Sowden thinks the white 10-foot Livingstone probably washed away during one of the recent storms as oars remain on the island, and has reported the disappearance to the Canadian Coast Guard. It could be another item of equipment MIST will be fundraising for this coming year.

This is the second year for Harbord’s group. Last year they were on the island in late June during an “eat or be eaten” time. The difference in timing was very obvious to Boelcke. This year, being earlier, love was in the air. “That was so beautiful, to see these gulls nibbling at each other and rubbing their necks together,” she said. “It was so peaceful, a completely different atmosphere.”

Other volunteers from Powell River also frequent the Island. Cheryl Rose and Syd Riley are regulars. "Syd has been 21 times and I will be doing my 15th stint in a few weeks," wrote Rose to the Peak. The first year the blackberry bash was done, Rose was stuck on the island an extra four days due to a storm. "It was mid-March and a very exciting storm with winds to 100 kilometres," she recalled. "It was one of my best weeks as I had always wanted to be there in a big storm. My week at Mitlenatch is the highlight of my summer."

The interpretive sign as well as the volunteer wardens, help visitors understand the “laws of the land” relating to both Mitlenatch and the surrounding waters. The island and its restrictions are also documented on BC Parks’ website. Members of the public are encouraged to visit when volunteers are on the island. No pets are allowed.

Anyone interested in volunteering can email Sowden at in December. “Everybody wants to come back and because the program works better with return volunteers there are usually only two to three weeks a year that come up for new volunteers.” Donations can be made to MIST via Ken Graham, 11565 – 84th Avenue, Delta, V4C 2L9, who will forward cheques written to Minister of Finance. In the memo on the cheque should be noted MIST. Tax receipts are issued for donations over $25.

“This is a fabulous place to be, it is a rest cure for the weary,” said May.

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