Tuesday, May 17, 2016

It's puffin time again!

Puffin on Gull Island, Witless Bay
It's that time of year again -- the puffins and other seabirds have returned to their colonies around the coasts of Atlantic Canada and Maine. There are many places around the region to see these small, sturdy birds, but two locations stand out: the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve for sheer numbers, and the Puffin Island at Elliston for land-based observation.

The Witless Bay Ecological Reserve lies south of St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador. Witless Bay takes its name from an early family of settlers, the Whittles family; over the years the name has been corrupted to its present form. The four islands of the reserve lie just off the shore, from north to south they are Gull Island, Green Island, Great Island, and the fancifully named Peepee Island, whose name is said to be from the distinctive aroma that wafts from it in summer.

Typical "puffin weather" at Elliston
There are boat tours that allow for a closer approach to the islands; to protect the bird life, only those operators granted special permits are allowed to travel through the reserve. Bay Bulls is the primary starting point for these excursions, while operators can also be found in the town of Witless Bay and in Mobile, just to the south. All Witless Bay photos in this post are thanks to Captain Wayne's Marine Excursions of Bay Bulls. Other operators can be found here.

Puffins are true pelagics: they land on these rocky islands solely to mate and rear their young, spending the remainder of the year on the open sea. They burrow into the dirt of the island, or on rockier sites use narrow clefts in the rock for burrows. The pairs bond for life, returning to the same burrow year after year, although "divorces" are said to occur if one mate is a less-than-stellar provider. They're not the only seabirds that nest in the Reserve; there are also black-legged kittiwakes, common and thick-billed murres, black guillemots, and huge numbers of Leach's storm petrels among others.

Burrow entrance
Elliston, located on the Bonavista Peninsula, is the self-styled Root Cellar Capital of North America due to the large number of these storage structures that can be found there. Just outside the community is a headland accessed by a rocky trail that leads to a viewing point overlooking a small island that houses a breeding colony of puffins. The unusual thing about this spot is that when the weather and wind are right (often damp weather and a southeast wind) the puffins will land near the viewing area on the headland itself. This makes for some incredible up-close viewing experiences.

The puffins will be around until late August, with a few lingering into September, so there's plenty of opportunity for a good look during the summer months. Happy viewing!

Friday, May 06, 2016

Reflecting on Nature

While sorting through a few archived images for a project, I was struck with how many of them had one striking feature in common: reflections. Whether in sea water, glass or even wet pavement, this simple phenomenon has the power to captivate. I have to admit that I'm pretty much addicted to them. Sometimes the morning sun's low angle sets off a perfect combination of elements to create an unforgettable image.

Sometimes it's the evening light that does it, turning marsh grass to gold, deepening the colours of the blue-grey clouds and painting the granite rocks a stark white, like this scene in Atwood's Brook, NS.

Blue Rocks, Nova Scotia, is a picturesque spot at any time, but the touch of the early morning sun on the golden shades of autumn can make it even more beautiful.

Evening's soft rose tones on a winter day can create a Rorschach sunset around the inshore islands. This is another scene from Atwood's Brook, NS.

A few sanderlings scouting for food at the water's edge make for some striking reflections in the wet sand of Daniel's Head Beach, Cape Sable Island, NS.

Monday, May 02, 2016

Beer cans, balloons and bottles

Plastic bottles, coffee cups, Styrofoam and other plastics.
I often walk for recreation, for thinking, or sometimes just for the sake of walking. It's great exercise and it's carried out at a pace that allows for taking in all the sights and sounds of my surroundings: bird song, flowers in bloom, the whisper of the wind in the trees, small dramas like the remains of a crab at the waterline where it's become lunch for a marauding gull. It's far more interesting from my point of view to walk outdoors regardless of the weather than to walk on an indoor track or on a treadmill.

Yard sale leftovers.
One aspect of outdoor walking that's becoming almost universal, though, is the increasing amount of litter that's casually dropped -- or sometimes intentionally dumped in quantity -- beside the trail or into the ocean. I carry a reusable bag with me and often fill it completely in just two or three miles of walking. Coffee cups from Canada's best-known coffee shops, plastic bottles, aluminum cans, foam "clamshell" containers from fast food restaurants and miscellaneous trash fill the bag day after day -- and on one memorable occasion there was a car-load of leftovers from a yard sale, strewn on the ground for others to deal with.

Looks like I missed the party.
I honestly can't understand why anyone believes it's okay to just drop these things on the ground or in the water instead of disposing of them properly. I understand that some litter is inevitable; a plastic bag or a bit of paper gets caught by the wind and drifts quickly out of reach, ending up snagged high in a tree or far beyond reach. When the entire disposable wrappings of a fast-food lunch get dropped together in a heap, though, that's no accident. It's deliberate disregard for one's surroundings and for anyone else who happens along. In Atlantic Canada there's a spring cleanup of the roadsides that takes place sometime in April or May. Although disheartening, it's not unusual to see the first fast-food containers or coffee cups show up literally within minutes of the cleanup crew passing through.

Household items and lots of plastics.
There's another type of litter that's most often found on beaches -- the spent balloons that have marked an occasion then been discarded or have drifted away. Sometimes they're even released en masse by well-meaning people in organized "balloon release" events that are beautiful to watch only if you're not aware of how horribly destructive they can be to birds and animals. Sea turtles in particular tend to consume balloons and plastic bags since when these articles float in the water they bear a strong resemblance to the jellyfish on which the turtles feed. Check out this information from the group Balloons Blow to learn about the damage they can cause, and safe alternatives to balloon releases.

Thanks for dropping by, and thanks in advance for noticing and picking up litter. I know it's someone else's mess, but if we all do our part we can begin to make this a safer place for birds and animals, and for ourselves!

Monday, April 18, 2016

The Birds of the Open Sea

Newfoundland and Labrador is a prime location to see birds that normally make their home on the open sea -- the pelagics. The word is defined as "of or relating to the open sea" and in birding it refers to those species that spend most of the year on the open water and make their way to land only for the breeding season and to rear their young. They're fascinating, hardy birds and there are many varieties of them. Here are a few that can be found along the coastline of Canada's easternmost province:

Atlantic puffin
Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica)
Nicknamed the Clown of the Sea or the Sea Parrot, this member of the alcid family can be found in huge numbers around Newfoundland and Labrador. Not satisfied to host the largest colony of this seabird in North America, the province also boast the next five largest colonies as well! Puffins aren't great fliers, and are far more comfortable in the water than in the air or on land. Their most-favoured nesting sites are islands that are naturally protected from most land-based predators, although still have to contend with occasional forays by gulls, hawks and even eagles. Puffins dig burrows into the soft soil of the islands or nest in clefts in the rock. The best viewing areas for puffins are from the boat tours serving the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve just south of St. John's, and Elliston's Puffin Island on the Bonavista Peninsula where the puffin-watching is land-based. The image at right was taken on an evening cruise with Captain Wayne's Marine Excursions in Bay Bulls.

Razorbill (Alca torda)
These elegant-looking birds with their black tuxedos and pinstriped bills are also alcids. Like many other pelagics they are colonial, tending to nest in large groups. They are less common than puffins or murres in this region, but a trip to the islands of the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve in season is bound to bring a sighting or two. Auks like these mate for life, and each pair of adults produces only one egg per year; if that egg is lost another may be laid but in all likelihood won't be viable since the hatch is timed to coincide with the run of caplin (or capelin), a member of the smelt family that is the primary food source for most nesting seabirds along Newfoundland's coasts. When the breeding season is over, these birds head out to sea and spend the remainder of the year offshore, as far south as New Jersey and occasionally Virginia.

Common murre nesting colony
Common Murre (Uria aalge)
This abundant bird is penguin-like in appearance, its resemblance to those southern-hemisphere birds the result of convergent evolution, or the gradual evolving of similar features in unrelated species as a result of living in similar environments. Unlike penguins, though, most alcids are capable of flight -- the exception was the great auk, extinct since the mid-19th Century, which was once found here in huge numbers. British birders know this species as the common guillemot.

Thick-billed murre
Thick-billed Murre (Uria lomvia)
Known to British birders as BrĂ¼nnich's guillemot, the thick-billed murre is distinguished from its common cousin by the white line along the side of the bill, which is slightly thicker than that of the common murre. Both species lay their eggs directly on the rocks instead of building nests, and the eggs are conical in shape so they roll in a tight circle -- a necessity when they are laid on narrow rock ledges high above the sea. Common and thick-billed murres are superb swimmers and divers, using their wings to "fly" through the water to depths of more than 100 metres. 

Juvenile black-legged kittiwakes
Black-legged Kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla)
The kittiwake is a pelagic gull that nests on rock ledges. Unlike the alcids, these birds may lay two or even three eggs. They are graceful and agile fliers, and their name comes from a phonetic rendering of their call. In Newfoundland they are sometimes referred to as the tickle-ace or tickle-ass, from their habit of flying close behind other birds and harassing them by nipping at their tail feathers as they carry prey, in an attempt to get them to drop it; this behaviour of stealing food from other birds is called kleptoparisitism

Northern fulmars
Northern Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis)
This handsome bird is found mostly in subarctic regions of the North Atlantic. While it looks like a gull it is related to both petrels and albatrosses, evidenced by the structure of its beak, which has evolved to help it remove salt from its system.  Its wingbeats are stiffer than those of a gull and it can be recognized by the way it glides, and by the dark spot in front of the eye. When threatened, the fulmar has a rather disconcerting habit of projectile vomiting on the intruder, a very effective deterrent indeed.

Northern gannet feeding young
Northern Gannet (Morus bassanus)
This member of the booby family nests in colonies of bare rock, building a nest from grasses, seaweed and found materials like netting twine. The adults mate for life and raise a single chick each year, remaining in the nesting area until late in the autumn. A prime viewing area for this graceful species is the Cape St. Mary's Ecological Reserve near St. Brides, where they nest on a remarkable sandstone seastack that is only about ten metres away from the viewing area, reached by a 1-km-long trail from a well-designed interpretation centre.

Greater shearwater
Greater Shearwater (Ardenna gravis, formerly Puffinus gravis)
While it breeds in distant Tristan da Cunha in the South Atlantic, the shearwater is a frequent summer visitor to the shores of Newfoundland, especially when a cold wind blows the fog in off the sea. Its name comes from the bird's gliding flight just above the water's surface. The darker sooty shearwater can also be found here, and there is a small breeding population of of about 350 Manx shearwaters (Puffinus puffinus) off the coast of the Burin Peninsula.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Hebron Will Aways be Home

Mission buildings at Hebron
In 1830, Moravian missionaries (German and Czech protestants) established an outpost on a remote section of the coast of Labrador (now Nunatsiavut). They planted a sizeable garden and constructed a large building that housed a church, a school, and a medical clinic, and they set up a settlement that became an important trading centre on the coast. An Inuit community grew up in the hills surrounding the mission. In 1959, without consultation with community members, the Moravians decided to close the mission, forcing the relocation of some 58 Inuit families who had been encouraged to settle here. It was a time of upheaval and sorrow that is remembered by the Inuit of Nunatsiavut to this day.

The main mission building
To visit Hebron is to step back briefly to that time, and to be haunted by the rugged beauty of the sheltered harbour and the embrace of the hills. The main mission building is under reconstruction, since the settlement was named a National Historic Site in the 1970s. Other abandoned buildings on the site have not fared as well, and are in various states of disrepair. I visited on a perfect summer day in 2015, with Adventure Canada. There was time to reflect on the history of the place and on the lives of those who made their homes here, and to visit to the buildings currently maintained by Parks Canada.

The hills surrounding the Hebron mission
In 2005, a formal apology was made on behalf of the province by Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Danny Williams; in the spirit of reconciliation, a monument on the site is inscribed with the apology in both English and Inuktitut, in combination with an acceptance of that apology. It reads, in part, "What happened at Nutak and Hebron serves as an example of the need for governments to respect and carefully consider the needs and aspirations of the people affected by their decisions."

Many of the buildings have fallen into disrepair
There were eight missions established on the coast; among them were Hopedale, Makkovik, Ramah (closed 1908), Nutak (closed in 1959), Zoar (abandoned 1899), and Okak (abandoned in 1919 as a result of an influenza pandemic). Hebron is a place of great scenic beauty, and even greater cultural significance. In the hearts of many residents of Nunatsiavut, it will always be Home.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

St. Anthony -- In the Footsteps of Grenfell

St. Anthony Sunrise
Travel down the Great Northern Peninsula (yes, north is "down" here) and you'll find yourself in St. Anthony, the outpost at the end of the road. To be truthful, the road has only been here for sixty years or so; like many small towns around the coast of Newfoundland, this port was once served only by water, as a stop on the coastal boats that plied the island's shores. This community of roughly 2500 people serves as a supply centre for the surrounding area, so there are grocery stores, hotels, restaurants and many other services, but it's St. Anthony's history that makes it remarkable.

Sun Porch, Grenfell House
In 1892, a young and determined doctor arrived here from England; this was then an English colony, and the Royal National Mission to Deep Sea Fishermen carried out visits to bring medical care to the people of northern Newfoundland and the Labrador coast, and Dr. Wilfred Grenfell was here to do what he could for his fellow man. He was ahead of his time in realizing that social conditions, nutrition and physical activity were all part of overall health, and he went on to form an organization to raise funds to provide health services in the region. His legacy lives on the present-day health care system serving St. Anthony and the remote coastal communities of Labrador. The International Grenfell Association's headquarters were in St. Anthony and it was here that Grenfell made his home. One of my own favourite aspects of his house is the warm and welcoming sun room that wraps around it.

The View from Tea House Hill
Today, the Grenfell Historic Properties provide an opportunity to learn about this remarkable man through the Grenfell Interpretation Centre, the restored house, and the Tea House Hill Trail which provides wonderful views of the surrounding area. From the Grenfell Dock, Northland Discovery Boat Tours provide whale-watching and iceberg-viewing opportunities with expert interpretation. This area boasts one of the longest iceberg seasons in Newfoundland and Labrador, as well as frequent sightings of humpback whales and dolphins and even occasional pods of killer whales!

Iceberg Near St. Anthony
St. Anthony's harbour is a busy one, with a fleet of fishing boats, processing plants, and a large wharf that accommodates vessels carrying freight. Several times a summer, small expedition cruise ships visit to take in the sights in the area.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Walking on the Moon -- Newfoundland's Tablelands

Last winter's snow
Gros Morne National Park is a wonderland for geologists and hikers alike. One of its best-known features is a range of flat-topped hills beside Route 431 just outside the town of Woody Point -- a spot known as the Tablelands. The rusty orange tone of the hills comes from the peridotite that is their main component; when it's freshly exposed, this rock is a dark grey-green, but with oxidation it takes on a mellow golden tone. This rock is part of an exposed section of the earth's mantle; further metamorphic activity turns it into a rock called serpentinite, examples of which can be widely found here.

Gros Morne's Tablelands
Earth's mantle? That's right -- this is a section of rock that was once deep below the earth's surface, formed roughly 1.2 billion years ago. The process of continental drift several hundred million years ago forced this mantle rock upward, and subsequent erosion has given the hills their present form. They remain barren because the peridotite is low in life-sustaining nutrients and contains toxic concentrations of heavy metals. What vegetation that is found here is mostly along an old roadbed, on rock that was brought in for the purpose of road building. A well-maintained trail follows this roadbed, crossing Winterhouse Brook, which flows out into Bonne Bay just outside Woody Point.

Round-leaved sundew (Drosera rotundifolia)
A walk along this trail reveals a surprising number of small, hardy plants that have developed the survival tactics necessary for such a forbidding environment. Many of them, like pitcher plants, butterwart, and the round-leafed sundew shown at left are insectivorous; instead of obtaining all their nutrients from the soil, they attract insects and through a variety of processes absorb the life-giving substances they need from the insects themselves or from their droppings. It's not an easy life, to say the least.

Winterhouse Brook
Continue along the trail as far as Winterhouse Brook (right), where snowmelt and run-off from the tops of the Tablelands form a swift-running stream. This area has a challenging winter climate, and a heavy snow load on the upper slopes often persists into late summer. If you think this place looks strange and otherworldly you're not alone. In fact, the landscape here is so forbidding that NASA has sent research teams here to investigate the area's similarity to the surface of Mars. On a beautiful summer day, though, it's a beautiful and fascinating little corner of Earth, and well worth a side trip. Woody Point is located on Newfoundland and Labrador Route 431, about 70 km from the town of Deer Lake. It has a motel, bed and breakfast accommodations and campgrounds nearby, and there are shops, restaurants and other services, and is roughly an hour away from Rocky Harbour. Parks Canada's Discovery Centre has high-quality informative displays, park information and a gift shop.

Woody Point and the Tablelands