Brant geese have come once again to the beaches of Parksville…
They spend their winters in the warm waters off the coast of Baja California. But each year in January and February, they set out on a great journey of thousands of miles: north to Alaska….then around the coast of Alaska and into the Canadian High Arctic. As they fly northward, they stay very close to the coastline—so that they can stop every now and then to feed on eelgrass and sea lettuce that grows in the intertidal areas.
Yet—even though they stop to eat—their energy stores are almost exhausted by the time that they reach the beaches of Parksville in late March. They need something more nutritious than eelgrass and sea lettuce to build up their strength so that they can continue on to the Arctic. And—in a beautifully orchestrated mystery—the Parksville beaches have a sumptuous banquet just waiting to replenish the weary travellers. As the Brants start arriving on the beaches, Pacific herring are arriving from the open ocean…and gathering in their spawning grounds that lie just off the beaches.
The herring come in huge, dense schools—sometimes several kilometers long. Once they reach the spawning grounds, each female releases up to 40,000 clear, sticky eggs. The eggs stick to everything; they stick to the eel grass…they stick to the sea lettuce…they stick to the kelp…they stick to the rocks…they stick to the shells…they stick to the barnacles. In fact, there’s so many eggs that they don’t all get a chance to stick before the waves and the tide wash them up on the beaches—sometimes forming masses of eggs a foot or more deep.
The herring eggs are rich in protein and fat…and that’s what the Brants come for. You can hear the hungry excitement in their voices long before you see them flying in. They come in small flocks, singing their hunger…They come in great flocks, singing their hunger. And as soon as they land, they begin to feast on the eggs. No matter what the weather, they feast. They feast while they’re walking….and they feast while they’re talking. They feast when they’re swimming in the water…and they feast when they’re standing on the beaches.
The Brants are joined at the feast by many other animals. Multitudes of gulls arrive…and are joined by diving ducks and oystercatchers and shorebirds—like dunlins and sandpipers and sanderlings. And the birds are joined by aboriginal people gathering the eggs in their tradition way. Even Gray whales may drop by to join in the feast.
This feast offers more than just eggs. When the eggs start to hatch in about 10-14 days, fish—like salmon, perch, and hake—are just waiting to start feeding on the larvae. And when schools of small juvenile herring come to the surface of the water, the gulls go out to feast upon them. And modern herring fishermen…and sea lions…and seals… all go out into deeper water to vie for their share of the adult herring. Eagles also come to feast on the herring…and sometimes even feast on the water birds who are feasting on the eggs…
Often as I witness this spectacle…this Mystery Play…I am struck by the immense sacrifice made by the herring in the service of Life itself. Only 4 of the 40,000 eggs that each female releases reaches adulthood. This means that the other 39,996 eggs come into Life to provide nourishment for other life forms…for the Brant geese and the gulls, and the dunlins and the sandpipers, and the salmon, the perch, and the hake, and the seals and the sea lions, and the whales…and—of course—the human beings.
After a few weeks of feasting, the Brant geese regain their lost body weight and strength. And then one day, they begin to rise into the sky to continue their journey to the Arctic—where their young will provide sustenance for hungry Arctic foxes…hungry herring gulls…and parasitic jaegers…all of whom have their own hungry young to feed.
So much life comes into existence to provide nourishment for other life forms…whose young then provide nourishment for still other life forms.