The stars of Bras d’or Watch field day
In the Bras d'or Lake Biosphere Reserve
For the last three years in mid-july, we have gathered on the shores of the Bras d’or estuary to meet the non-human residents and monitor some aspects of their habitat. Exercises and activities at the Bras d'or Watch field day (see ad this page) are suitable for all ages, and naturalists and scientists at all sites will tell you about this ecosystem and its inhabitants. Most importantly, hundreds of pairs of your eyes can help us keep track of changes in the nearshore environment of our beloved Bras d’or!
Before Bras d’or watchers arrive, scientists take a set of basic water quality measurements, such as salinity, ph and temperature, at exactly the same time to compare habitat conditions among our sites. If you want to learn more about water chemistry, you can try out the equipment at the sites with a scientist to guide you.
During the event, you can help us look for and count invasive and resident crabs with an underwater viewing tube. If this appeals to you, bring waterproof footwear and (perhaps) a bathing suit. Those wanting to stay on dry land can seek out our bird and plant experts.
Each site will have something unique to offer. In Whycocomagh, we expect to see many northern pipefish, a fascinating creature that looks more like a miniature dragon than the other small fish it shares the Lake with. It actually looks a lot like a seahorse. Adults are about 100 to 200 cm long with a slender body and a long, tubelike snout which ends in a small, toothless mouth at the tip. The small mouth is used to feed on tiny marine animals by opening its mouth slightly, spitting water out with great force and then sucking in unsuspecting prey which are caught in the backdraft. Interestingly, the eggs are incubated by the males after the female lays eggs into the male’s brood pouches! With patience, you will be able to see these fascinating fish using one of the underwater viewing tubes or in the onsite touch tank! In Whycocomagh, we should also see sand shrimp (Mi’kmaq: sata’siw) swimming among the seagrasses and hope to have a return visit from a Merlin that was observed there in the past. These small falcons prey on other birds, typically catching them in midair during high-speed attacks; an exciting event for bird watchers!
The crew at Ben Eoin RV Park will have a beach seine (fishing net) to capture all of the nearshore creatures for closer examination. They are expecting to capture and examine eels (Mi’kmaq: katew), crabs (Mi’kmaq: nmijnike’j), flounder (Mi’kmaq: anakwe’j) and small fish (Mi’kmaq: nme’j) which will be held in the touch tanks for the session. This is the first seine sampling for this site, so we are not sure what creatures we will find. In the past, this site has been a good spot to observe and count the invasive green crabs using the underwater viewers. How many crabs will you be able to count in the underwater viewer? If crabs aren’t your thing, this site has also been a good spot for birders, with waterfowl in the barrachois pond and a pair of eagles nesting up the hill.
Ross Ferry Marine Park is a new site this year, so our touch tanks there will be full of surprises. We do know that this site has a healthy population of sticklebacks small, elongated fish that reach a maximum length of about 17 cm with a row of 2 to 16 spines on their back. Nova Scotia is home to five species of sticklebacks (three spine, four spine, nine spine, brook and black-spotted). In colour, they range from silver to a greenish brown, except during spawning when the male takes on their brilliant spawning colours. This usually involves red tints on fins and sometimes a blue body. In the Bras d’or estuary, spawning time is June and July, so you may be lucky and spot a male in its’ breeding colours during Bras d’or Watch field day. If you do, watch for a while and you may see the little guy aggressively defend his territory if another male happens to swim by. Sticklebacks are cousins of the northern pipefish, and they share an intriguing pattern of family responsibilities. The colourful males make a nest on the bottom and (in some species) they care for the young.
The pleasant little site at St. Peters is perfect for sitting down and listening to the balladeers singing a multitude of Bras d’or songs. The St. Peters crew are going to tell stories about the Bras d’or oyster which was once plentiful, but has succumbed to a parasitic disease. In the past, this site has yielded a variety of crabs, sticklebacks and northern pipefish for the touch tanks. Every year, the Bras d’or watchers have been scrutinized by the resident Great Blue Heron (in Mi’kmaq: tmkwaliknej), curious about the goings-on and about the residents swimming around the touch tank. This majestic resident always seems to hang around this site. It often stands motionless as it scans for prey, but may strike like lightning to grab a fish. In flight, look for this heron’s long trailing legs and tucked-in neck. The Great Blue Heron breeds in the Biosphere in groups of trees called a ‘heronry’. In winter, they head south to overwinter anywhere from southern Canada to northern South America.
So we hope to see you out during this year’s Bras d’or Watch field day! Follow us (Bras d’or Watch) on Facebook to get updates on our plans and on the fascinating residents that you are going to meet.
Dr. Annamarie Hatcher is a consulting ecologist and a board member of the Bras d’or Lake Biosphere Reserve Association (BLBRA). For more information about BLBTA, visit blbra.ca or check out our Facebook page. Information in this article was obtained from the Ecosystem Overview and Assessment Report for the Bras d’or Lakes, Nova Scotia by M. Parker, M. Westhead, P. Doherty and J. Naug (2007) (http://publications.gc.ca/ collections/collection_2014/mpo-dfo/fs97-4-2789-eng.pdf).
Author and Bras d’or Lake Biosphere Reserve Association board member Annamarie Hatcher successfully catches a tiny stickleback. Photo by Rod Beresford.