Fighter pilot, Royal Navy 1945, Hydrographer Iraq 1947-52 India 1952-53, Canadian Hydrographic Arctic explorer 1953-1960, Writer-producer Canadian National Film Board 1961-72, Freelance journalist, audio-visual producer 1972-2009, National Press Club of Canada 1961 - 2006

Friday, May 29, 2009

The Impolite Murres of Digges Islands

The Impolite Murres of Digges Islands

In 1954, I was aboard the MV Theron, a tough little steel, Norwegian-built sealing vessel, strengthened for work in ice and chartered by the Canadian Hydrographic Service to survey offshore areas of the Labrador Coast and the, at that time, unmapped area of Rankin Inlet, Hudson Bay.

Close to the south shore where the western end of Hudson Strait, becomes Hudson Bay, are the Digges Islands. Steeply cliffed on all sides, these islands are home to a proliferation of Thick-Billed Murres.

At the time of our vessel’s visit thousands upon thousands of the birds ranged along the miles of bare cliff ledges where they were nesting.

The high-walled islands themselves were imposing enough but with a myriad murres making a cacophony of sound, and their constant swooping down and back up from the water, the tens of thousands of seabirds was an awesome sight.

Armed with a camera, I climbed cautiously up the rock face to eventually arrive eyeball-to-eyeball with a dozen birds. The murres make no nest but just lay their single egg on the crowded flat rock ledges. To ward off my intrusion they ganged up together in a concerted defensive stratagem of a repulsive nature. As I stood on a narrow lower ledge my head was level with their nesting ledge. At once they formed a defensive circle around their eggs as did old-time pioneer wagons to repel an Indian or Zulu attack. Or rather, perhaps, more similarly, like a herd of musk-oxen in their shoulder-to-shoulder defensive ring.

But with one important difference. Instead of facing outwards to the enemy like musk-oxen, the murres faced inwards and presented their cocked rear ends. Cocked rear ends with the crucial tail feathers somehow laid back and open. This threatening gesture reminded me of the Persian gunboat that had pointed its guns at me each morning three years previously —but again with an important difference. The murres actually fired their weaponry. From a distance of only three feet in a low and flat trajectory. Another difference was that instead of the defenders remaining stationary and the attackers circling around them, the roles were reversed. I, the interloper, had to remain immobile while the defenders shuffled around so that each in turn could face, or rather about-face, me in order to aim their rear ends directly at the enemy—and fire. For me there was no stepping back out of range. My ledge was only a couple of feet wide and four feet long and there was a long drop down to the water below. All I could do was cover my head with my parka hood as best I could, put on my sunglasses, and plan my perilous retreat.

The onslaught continued for many long minutes because as each murre in turn loosed off its salvo it kept its place in the circle and somehow, while shuffling sideways, managed to reload so that, upon completing a full circle and its turn on the firing line was come again, it was also ready to discharge another fishy projectile. But, after several rotations of the defensive circle I noticed that strain as they might their firepower was fast weakening and becoming more and more just a symbolic gesture. Then having taken some photographs I carefully climbed down from the now very slippery ledge, wondering how best I could clean my soiled parka and camera. It was a difficult task. For a day or two as the Theron sailed across the north end of Hudson Bay, I was perforce to become a man who somehow stood apart from the common throng.

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