Conserving the red knot (Page 1 of 3)
Quebec’s Mingan archipelago is a pivotal migratory refuelling station for this highly endangered shorebird and a natural laboratory for the scientists trying to save it
By Andrew Westoll with photography by Robert Baronet
|An international tem of researchers catch red knots in Quebec’s Mingan Archipelago National Park Reserve. (Photo: Robert Baronet)|
|Locate the Mingan archipelago (Map: Steven Fick/Canadian Geographic)|
The warning to duck and hide is given just as we’re
finishing a pleasant picnic lunch. To the untrained ear, the
counsel lacks a certain gusto, but to my 10 lunchmates —
most of whom are professional ornithologists — these four
words are a call to action, a signal that the drama we’ve been
waiting for has finally begun.
“Yellowlegs on the roost.”
The warning is delivered by Allan Baker, senior curator of
ornithology and head of the department of natural history
at the Royal Ontario Museum. As Baker stomps over a
small rise and disappears from view, sandwiches are stowed,
binoculars are wiped and last-minute strategies are settled.
Two men, an Argentine and a French Canadian, pull on hip
waders, excited smiles spreading across their faces. Soon, the
whole team has decamped for their positions, leaving me and
Yann Troutet, an ecosystems scientist with Parks Canada,
to do as we’ve been told: keep ourselves hidden behind this
ridge of shattered limestone.
“These islands are rising out of the water,” says Troutet
quietly, continuing on from where he’d left off minutes
before. “We’re hiding behind an old seashore.”
We’d arrived this morning at low tide, leaping to shore
from the deck of a Parks Canada boat. As we ferried our
equipment from the bobbing vessel, our jovial captain,
Pierrot Vaillancourt, passed each of us an individually
wrapped hard candy. “For luck,” he told me. “With these
birds, nothing is guaranteed.”
|Watch Parks Canada’s efforts to save the piping plover in P.E.I. National Park|
For the next three hours, this globe-trotting team of bird
scientists had methodically set their trap. They’d lugged their
equipment up this barren beach, halfway to where Troutet
and I now sit. They’d unpacked a 100-square-metre net and
laid it in the sun to dry. Then they had dug a shallow trench
into the shale, followed by two deeper holes just behind it.
Once the net was dry, three team members had rolled it up
and carefully laid it along the trench.
Then, the firepower: a pair of 60-centimetre steel cannons,
resembling ordnance from the First World War, were packed
with gunpowder, wired together with a fuse and lowered
carefully into the holes. The cannons were loaded with iron
weights, which were attached to the front corners of the net, and the fuse was unspooled and walked up to a small copse
of bushes, where the detonator was prepared.
After that, we retired for lunch.
Troutet and I wait for the next signal. We crawl to the lip
of the ridge and peer down to the water’s edge, 800 metres
away. The tide is coming in, and crowds of shorebirds are
coming with it, tiptoeing through the shallows, feeding on
molluscs and snails, the fleeting bounty of the intertidal zone.
Somewhere to the west sit Baker and his long-time colleague,
Patricia González, who hails from the small town of
San Antonio Oeste in Patagonia, Argentina. Their spotting
scopes are fixed to the stretch of rocky beach directly in
front of the hidden cannon net. They’ve already got yellowlegged
sandpipers on the roost (in the catch zone), but these
scientists haven’t come all this way just to tag a few yellowlegs.
The hip-wading men are out of sight, walking both shorelines, funnelling our quarry toward us. Below, two
more team members crouch behind the bushes, one of them
with a two-way radio at his ear, the other with the detonator
in his hands.