Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Bird Watching!

2013_NL_F9_0763In a previous blog post I talked about heading out on the water with the Molly Bawn Whale and Puffin Tours. In this post, I am going to talk about all the wonderful seabirds that we saw on our tour.

Birds were the first thing I noticed as the Molly Bawn left the dock. Two types in particular, murres and puffins, really caught my attention because they are such excellent swimmers! It's hard to believe that a bird can swim as well as these guys can. Unfortunately, I couldn't take any photos of murres or puffins swimming. Maybe next summer I will get myself a little GoPro video camera and put it underwater to see if I can get something useful.

I asked the tour guide, Jeannine, about the birds' ability to swim so well.

Jeannine: They are perfectly adapted to go after fish under the water. They whiz around like little torpedoes and catch fish with their beaks, where they hold them until they swallow them or carry them back to their ever-hungry offspring. Being such strong swimmers also means that they are not limited to water that is near the surface, but can follow fish down to about 75 metres for puffins and 180 metres for murres.

While swimming seems to come naturally to them, flying seems to be a chore. Or at least getting airborne is a chore. Many of the birds I saw trying to take off could not get up in the air, but went on for many metres before giving up.

Jeannine: They look rather awkward when they fly or are trying to fly. That is the price they pay for being so well adapted for diving! Their wings, which are more shaped like flippers, are not big enough to allow them to soar or do slow-flight maneuvers like gulls. So of course this makes it much harder for them to get airborne. On top of the issue with their wings, if their bellies are too full of fish, they sometimes are not able to take off at all. That's why we see them skidding along the surface, until they seem to remember that diving is also an option!

Here is a common murre successfully getting off the water. Notice how it has to paddle with its feet in an effort to get up? Even after getting airborne, the murre stays low to the water. As with all of my blog post photos, click on any image and you will go to the photo on my Flickr page where you can see it in a higher resolution.

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Sometimes a murre gets just shy of take-off speed, and they run tiptoe across the water to help give them that extra little boost they need to get in the air.

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Puffins, those other fabulous swimming birds, seemed to have even more trouble flying than murres, and were more likely to have to "run" to get in the air.

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Puffins were also more likely to dive rather than take off. Perhaps they felt more threatened by the boat than the murres. This guy took a look left, then right, and then went down rather than up.

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Puffins are part of the culture of a diverse group of peoples, since they have habitats in Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Newfoundland and Labrador, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and Russia. Not surprisingly then, that I could not find a single collective noun to describe a group of puffins. I found references to a parliament, a raft, a loomery, a circus, and an improbability of puffins! What a hoot! I'm going to go with a circus of puffins, since puffins are sometimes called the "clowns of the sea" (because of their colouring) and because I thought puffins looked pretty comical when trying to fly,

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While there were many, many birds around the boat, they were really hard to photograph because of their speed, and because they kept changing directions. Finally, I saw a puffin running parallel to the boat which meant I was able to get a photo that gives you an idea of just how fast these birds are "running" during their take-off attempt. This puffin reminded me of the character The Roadrunner from the Bugs Bunny cartoon series.

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I can see why there was never a book about Jonathan Livingstone Puffin: I cannot say that puffins are graceful fliers. This one looked like it was about to do a belly-flop back into the sea.

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Like murres, puffins seem to prefer to stay close to the water when they fly. It's as if being too far from water is outside their comfort zone.

Jeannine: It's true. The best way for them to escape a gull attack is to dive. As I said earlier, both puffins and murres can go pretty deep and even if gulls were faster in the water (which they are not), the gulls could not follow them too far down.

All three gull species, and sometimes also shearwaters, steal fish from the auks (the puffins, the murres and a few other species) that nest in the reserve. Most gull attacks on puffins and murres are kleptoparasitical. This means they try to harass a smaller bird carrying fish, to the point where the smaller bird drops the fish. For the gull, this is sometimes easier than fishing themselves.

Gulls will sometimes wait near a puffin's burrow to catch an incoming puffin. They will hold the puffin until it drops some of the fish they are carrying. One time I observed a herring gull putting its head into a burrow that a puffin had just entered, drag the puffin back out by the tail feathers, and force him to give up his fish.

Some people call the puffin "the slave of the island", because puffins feed not only their own offspring, but almost everybody else as well!

The larger gulls also pose another threat: herring gulls are capable of capturing puffin chicks, mostly when they are too curious and move too close to the entrance of their burrow or when they fledge. I have seen them swallowing a whole puffin chick. The great black-backed gulls are also able to catch mature puffins, sometimes in flight.

Besides the gulls, the smaller birds also have to watch out for the bald eagles, who are always looking to grab their share of breeding-season-buffet. Not an easy life on the islands for smaller birds, and that certainly is one of the reasons why they can't wait to get away from there and back offshore as soon as the young ones have fledged.


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Here you can see a puffin skimming along just above the ocean, carrying a capelin back to feed to its young.

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Speaking of feeding, other species also feed on capelin. Here you can see a herring gull coming up with a snack.

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Unlike the murres and the puffins, the gulls have a much larger wingspan and can take off from a "standing" start. Look at how far back this guy's wings are. You can almost feel the power about to be unleashed in its down-stroke!

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And speaking of capelin, these little fish used to be very, very common when I was growing up. I would see people loading up their pickup trucks at the beach as the capelin were rolling in. They would use them as fertilizer for their gardens. Other people would be filling up pails with capelin, to dry out and eat. I asked Jeannine how the capelin were doing as a species here in Newfoundland.

Jeannine: The capelin, when their southward migration brings them onto our beaches to spawn, are what attracts most of our summer visitors: marine mammals, seabirds, cod, and even some humans. I must admit they are really nice to eat. Unfortunately, just like cod, they still have not fully recovered from their collapse in the early 1990's. Let's hope the best for both of them.

As we approached Great Island, part of the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, I was again reminded about how the Molly Bawn is a "just right"-sized boat. It was small enough allow us to go into Gill's Cove.

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I was amazed at how many birds were nesting there.

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Jeannine: There is 10 different species of birds on the island, with well over a million birds nesting there. I was lucky enough to do some research on one of the Witless Bay Reserve's islands this spring, and it is a wonderful place to be if you love birds!


A million birds is right! Sometimes it seems as if most of them are in the air!

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With that many birds, they occupy pretty much every part of the island.

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Even with so many birds around, there are still a few spots where an introverted bird can hang out, though, like this spotted sandpiper alone out on a rock.

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Jeannine: Spotted sandpipers are common shorebirds in Newfoundland, but they blend in very well with their environment and can be easily overlooked, just as they intend. They are always worried about predators and don't want to be seen, and it seems with you they succeeded. To the best of my knowledge they don't breed on Great Island, but all along the surrounding shores. One pair always breeds on the rocks just next to the gravel road leading to our dock, I meet them every morning on my way to work. On the island I see them only later in summer; they probably spend a bit of time there to feed before starting their migration back towards the southern United States and South America for the colder season.


Herring gulls are common, of course, on the reserve.

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Jeannine: their full name is American herring gull. They are very adaptive and can survive in many different environments, which makes them a very successful and abundant species. Their numbers are declining a bit at the moment, because there is less waste thrown into the ocean.


Bald Eagles tend to be on their own, not surprisingly, no matter if they are on top of the island...

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... in the air....

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... or chilling on a rock.

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Even immature eagles have enough street cred with the other birds to be given a wide space.

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Jeannine: A bald eagle's main food source is the fish they catch with their powerful talons. However, they would never ignore a good opportunity to catch prey. With so many nesting seabirds around the Witless Bay Reserve, it is a popular spot for them to hunt during their own breeding season. In Mobile Bay, there is a huge eagle's nest. The owners raise two or three offspring every season. Every year we see more of them around. Once we counted 12 eagles just in Gill's Cove! Their numbers have been reported to increase nearly throughout their full range. It is great to see them having such a huge comeback after their pesticide-related decline, but that also puts a lot of pressure on many seabird colonies, especially the murres'.

Many people would not recognize an eagle's call in nature because Hollywood prefers to use the red hawk's call rather than the eagles'. These raptors have a much more impressive call, so many commercials and movies have dubbed the eagle's call with a hawk scream. I guess it makes the eagle seem more majestic.

Eagles have a very peculiar courtship behaviour: male and female lock their talons together in flight and then whirl around in circles while free-falling to the ground where they separate last minute. This is called cartwheeling, and I sometimes see young eagles practicing that at Great Island. It is an impressive sight!



Great Island was the turn-around point for the tour. From here, we headed back to the Molly Bawn dock at Mobile.

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I have not written about all of the marine life we saw on our way to the island. In my next blog post I will write about these encounters, as well as the ones we had on our way back to shore.


Here is a list of links to all of the blog posts from my 2013 tour around Newfoundland:
Trout River and Gros Morne National Park
Cuckolds Cove to Carbonear
Signal Hill
Boat Tour!
Bird Watching!
Whale Watching!
Fogo Part 1: Getting There
Fogo Part 2: Walking Around
Fogo Part 3: The Fishery
Fogo Part 4: The Fogo Island Inn
Twillingate Part 1: Getting There
Twillingate Part 2: Wine, Music, and Whine
Twillingate Part 3: An Iceberg and a Lighthouse
Twillingate Part 4: Down to the Sea in Boats


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I recently selected my best photographs of Newfoundland and Labrador and hand-made them as fine art prints, which I sell from my website here.


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