On quiet sailing days, I often hear these birds before I see them. High-pitched twittering like chickadees, wrens or other forest birds, they seem to be yammering on just to keep in contact with each other as they dive for fish and small invertebrates. Guillemots are about a foot long, have red mouths and feet, white wing patches. They’re unlike any other oceanic bird in the Salish Sea – and there are many of them in some areas, fewer in others. Here’s why. They are classic examples of a top predator showing how environmentally healthy an area is because they don’t migrate or move about much. A group of guillemots meandering about just offshore show there are two things going on: there are enough small fish and other seafloor critters in a healthy nearshore environment – and active feeder bluffs without a lot of nearby shoreline armoring like boulders or cement walls. You see, the guillemots nest in burrows they dig out of the exposed seaside bluffs, and exposed bluffs quickly become vegetated without the ocean waves constantly eating away at the bottom. Put a rock wall between the waves and bluff and all this ‘eating’ stops. This is an important component of a healthy Salish Sea. These cliffs are not just homes for guillemots, but eroding bluffs provide fresh sediment for everything from shellfish to forage fish, eel grass beds and more. Trees fall into the water and provide safe haven for juvenile salmon and herring. When you see a guillemot, look at the shoreline and count how many exposed bluffs you see. Do you see healthy shorelines or expensive homes, roads or railroad tracks?
Larry Eifert paints and writes about wild places. His work is in many national parks across America – and at larryeifert.com.