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Island Aviary

By Josh Knights

Cabotage?

My mind raced, trying to unearth a definition to this word in a long-lost corner of my brain. I was talking to Canadian customs on my cell phone, sitting in a boat docked on the north side of Pelee Island, the largest island in Lake Erie, where we were to rendezvous with biologists from the Nature Conservancy of Canada. Our mission: help with an egret banding on little known Middle Sister Island, a 10-acre outcropping of rock on the Canadian side of Lake Erie. Good luck finding it on Google Maps.

We had planned for almost every eventuality, except a testy customs official who was accusing us of cabotage -- unlawfully transporting Canadian citizens between two Canadian ports. I was stymied, but Nancy, our boat captain and one of the Conservancy’s Ohio trustees, stepped in. With the patience and skill of a diplomat, she explained our purpose to the customs agent and got clearance to proceed.

Lake Erie’s islands are one of the world’s great treasures. With more than 32,000 islands in its waters, the Great Lakes contain the largest collection of freshwater islands in the world, according to a recent report by The Nature Conservancy and the Nature Conservancy of Canada. These islands are dynamic, undergoing many changes that threaten their flora and fauna. Some of these changes are natural processes, as we were to see on Middle Sister Island. Others, like climate change, are the result of human activity.

Middle Sister Island is a privately owned island that is relatively unknown compared to its larger sibling, West Sister Island, an 82-acre U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service wildlife refuge that is the largest heron and egret rookery in the U.S. Great Lakes. And it is about as remote as you can get in Lake Erie.

We approached the island from the east and circled it clockwise once. Middle Sister is uninhabited with no dock or buildings save for an automated light tower. We dropped anchor about 20 yards from the cobblestone shore, donned our swim wear, and carefully sealed our cameras, notepads and other equipment in dry bags for the short swim.

The island swarmed with cormorants and their nests. With no predators, these large diving waterbirds had claimed almost very inch (vertical as well as horizontal) of the island. Overpopulation had pushed the island’s fragile ecology out of balance and was slowly killing its covering of hackberry trees and other vegetation. In the decided minority were nesting herons and snowy egrets.

On shore, we met Dave and Chip, two representatives of the Canadian Wildlife Service who were already at work banding egrets. This is messy but rewarding work. Juvenile egrets are banded and tracked to better understand their nesting and habitat needs. In addition to keeping tabs on bird populations, conservation groups like The Nature Conservancy can use this information to plan new land acquisitions and undertake restoration projects to support this magnificent species, which is a becoming rare in Ohio.

I took a break to walk around the island, admiring the glacial grooves that had been scoured into the rock about 18,000 years ago. A red admiral butterfly, a true survivalist in the midst of so many birds, tailed me for part of my walk. When I returned to my colleagues, it was time to pack our gear and return to the boat for the voyage home.

Hopefully, we would have a friendlier customs agent.

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