Nova Scotia

Bon Portage Island a draw for university students studying birds

University students visited Bon Portage Island to study the Leach's storm petrel, a black bird that spends all its time at sea, except during the breeding season.

Island owned by Acadia University and the Nova Scotia Nature Trust, students study birds

Bon Portage Island is home to many birds, a lighthouse, ship wrecks and whale bones. (Colleen Jones/CBC)

Bon Portage Island sits off of Shag Harbour, N.S. Its trees are covered with lichen and old green moss carpets the forest floor.

There's a lighthouse at one end and peeking out on the rocky shore are the rusty remains of the SS Express, shipwrecked years ago.

The island, also known as Outer Island, is owned by Acadia University and protected by the Nova Scotia Nature Trust.

Acadia's field biology research station is here. Students come and study many of the island's birds.

Rielle Hoeg is a graduate student at Acadia University who researches on Bon Portage Island at the field biology research station. She is holding a Leach's storm petrel. (Colleen Jones/CBC)

Rielle Hoeg is a graduate student and studies the Leach's storm petrel. It's a black bird that spends all its time at sea, except during the breeding season.

That's where Bon Portage Island comes in.

The island is the largest breeding colony for the petrel with around 40,000 pairs burrowing the one egg a year they lay.

"Each bird comes back from May to September and they lay one egg in the burrows," Hoeg said as she showed one of the burrows that are usually under tree stumps or small mounds. "They incubate for 48 days and then they hatch into a fluffy grey chick."

Leach's storm petrel lay one egg a year and the birds take turns sitting on it for the 48 days before it hatches. (Colleen Jones/CBC)

Hoeg's main area of research is the declining petrel population. "We are looking at predation in the petrels," Hoeg said.

In other words, she wants to know what's killing the petrels.

To figure that out she combs the island looking for gull regurgitation or owl pellets. There she finds the evidence.

"They eat a petrel and they regurgitate the bones," Hoeg said. "I count all the dead things that are eaten by the colony of herring gulls or great black-backed gulls. So part of my study is what is eating the petrels and how many are being eaten at each colony."

The research is ongoing. There are many components to figure out the root of the predation.

The rusty remains of the SS Express off Bon Portage Island. (Colleen Jones/CBC)

On the weekend, the nature trust was on the island with 16 volunteers fixing the swampy trails. They shovelled beach rocks to place on the trail.

Darrel Swaine, from Clyde River, sawed boards for a small bridge.

"The paths are muddy," Swaine said. "We are building a boardwalk or you'd be knee deep in mud otherwise."

The nature trust and Acadia want to make sure the island stays raw and natural.

"This island is important because of the breeding bird colonies and it's on an important migratory route," said Jessica Bradford, the conservation project co-ordinator.

"In addition to the petrels who breed here, there are migratory warblers and vagrant birds who come here. We want to make sure it stays in its natural state and that the research and education can continue."

Bon Portage Island, while not often visited, was famous because of a book that was required reading in many Nova Scotia schools. (Colleen Jones/CBC)

A book written by Evelyn Richardson called We Keep A Light captures the magic of a period in time when she and her family lived here as the lighthouse keepers.

It's a book that was read by thousands of Nova Scotian school children in the 1960s and 70s.

It is a magical place often described as an enchanted forest, although spruce budworm and a fire have taken their toll.

Still the beauty remains and for the birds who call it home, it's vital.

About the Author

World champion curler Colleen Jones has been reporting with CBC News for nearly three decades. Follow her on Twitter @cbccolleenjones.

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