Last week in Newfoundland our birding tour witnessed an amazing bird interaction when a merlin attacked a big black corvid in the air. It happened so fast that we had to think hard about the birds’ identities.
Yes the attacker was a merlin — a small, streaky dark, very fast falcon that made this sound as it attacked. (Xeno-canto XC332445: alarm calls of merlin pair recorded by Pritam Baruah in Churchill, MB, August 2016)
But was the big black bird a crow or a raven?
Fellow traveler Trina Anderson captured the action with her camera. Before we saw her photos we could only identify the corvid by size and behavior. We decided “raven” based on the relative size of the two birds and the behavior of the raven.
Merlins are 2/3 the size of a crow but less than half the size of a raven. Overhead the merlin was tiny compared to the bird it attacked, so it had to be a raven. Trina’s photos show the size difference.
The black bird barely flapped during the interaction and it flipped upside down in flight (see the last photo). Crows flap hard when they’re under attack and they don’t fly upside down.
During the fight it was hard to see the diagnostic field mark — the tail — but Trina’s next photo shows the corvid has a wedge-shaped tail. That means “raven.”
It’s hard to tell ravens from crows unless you have some practice. Get tips on how to tell them apart in this 3 minute video from The Raven Diaries: Ravens vs Crows, they’re different!
Bird Rock is one of many cliffs at Cape St. Mary’s but it’s unique because it’s separated from the mainland by a deep chasm only a few feet from the trail’s end. The birds are safe from land-based predators yet we could see them easily.
The main attractions are 24,000 northern gannets (Morus bassanus) who spend their lives on the ocean but return to Cape St. Mary’s every spring to breed with the same mate at the same nest. Almost as large as bald eagles, their wingspan is 5.75 feet but they don’t weigh as much. I love them for their size, sleek beauty, and their ability to plunge-dive at 50 mph to catch fish in the sea.
From the Visitors Centre we walked the trail across the barrens to get to the viewing area.
Pretty soon we could see the nesting cliffs. The white areas are all gannets.
Near the trail’s end, Bird Rock is in the foreground.
Here’s what we saw when we got there. This 2011 video below (not my own) captures the sights and sounds of the colony. The only thing you’re missing is the fishy smell of guano. It was filmed when most of the birds were still courting, wagging their heads and touching bills. When we visited last week they were further along. Some chicks had already hatched.
The gannets hunt far and wide for fish to feed their chicks. Just around the corner from Cape St. Mary’s in Placentia Bay there are loads of fish near Saint Bride’s. This YouTube video from 2017 (not my own) shows what I love most about gannets. They dive straight down to the sea!
p.s. The white spouts aren’t whales. They’re the splash-back from the gannets’ precision dives.
(first photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original. videos from YouTube. All other photos by Kate St. John.)
What happens when a hurricane hits Newfoundland? I found out last week when Hurricane Chris came to eastern Newfoundland while I was there on a birding trip.
The cold waters of the North Atlantic usually take the fangs out of hurricanes before they hit Atlantic Canada and so it was with Hurricane Chris. Before the storm we asked some Newfoundlanders about it and they said it wouldn’t be bad. “We won’t even take in the lawn furniture for this one.”
By Thursday morning, 12 July 2018, Chris was downgraded from hurricane strength to a post-tropical cyclone — from winds greater than 74 mph (119 kph) to winds less than 40 mph (64 kph).
Nonetheless, it was forecast to hit Cape Race around 8pm on Thursday with sustained winds of 35 mph (56 kph) while dumping 3-4 inches of rain (75-100 mm) near Terra Nova National Park. The map below shows both locations with purple pins: “Cape Race, Day 4” on the south shore and “Terra Nova, Day 6” in the north.
Our birding schedule meshed perfectly with the hurricane’s timing. We left Trepassey near Cape Race on Thursday morning and were sleeping in Clarenville by the time bad weather hit the Avalon Peninsula Thursday night.
Along the way we experienced the calm before the storm — hot and windless. On the Maine coast I’ve heard this called The Hurricane’s Breath because it is so unusual.
When the post-tropical cyclone crossed Cape Race Thursday night its maximum sustained winds were 40 miles per hour (67 km/h) with gusts up to 54 mph (87 km/h). Meanwhile about 3 inches (76 mm) of rain fell near Terra Nova.
Posted by Chris Mooney from the town of Branch, 7/12/2018 at 9:02pm. (Click the speaker icon to turn on the sound.)
… and posted at 9:24pm
Chris remarked that salt spray had already coated his windows so much that he couldn’t see out of them.
And what about the nesting birds on the rock? “We’ll lose a few chicks for sure.”
Fortunately the remnant of Hurricane Chris was a relatively mild storm. When a real hurricane hits Newfoundland it’s devastating. Click here to read about Hurricane Igor in September 2010, the strongest hurricane ever to hit the island.
Last Tuesday morning, 10 July 2018, I took a walk before breakfast at Witless Bay, Newfoundland to take in the scenery and watch the birds. When I stopped by the shore I never noticed the amazing spectacle at my feet. It was high tide and the waves were full of fish.
As I stood gazing out to sea, a local man pulled up in a jeep to see what I was looking at. He got out of the jeep and looked at the waves. “It’s good to see the capelin,” he said.
I didn’t understand what he was saying. “Pardon me?”
“Do you know about the capelin?”
“No,” I said. So he explained.
Capelin (Mallotus villosus) are small fish in the smelt family that form dense schools as they feed on plankton and krill. Their numbers attract the attention of everything that eats them — seabirds, mackerel and cod — and the whales that eat what capelin eat.
In Newfoundland the capelin come ashore every year in July but the exact date varies. People wait and watch for the spectacle to begin. Wikipedia explains:
Capelin spawn on sand and gravel bottoms or sandy beaches at the age of 2–6 years, and have an extremely high mortality rate on the beaches after spawning, for males close to 100%.
The fish flip-flop in shallow water as the females lay eggs and the males distribute sperm.
The number of capelin eggs is incredible. All the white spheres among these stones are capelin eggs, not grains of sand! The eggs can be food for shorebirds.
Some of the capelin don’t make it back to sea and are stranded, dying on shore. This provides on-shore food for scavengers including bald eagles, crows and foxes.
The waves are full of fish, but so is the sea. Here’s my video of the capelin-filled waves with black-legged kittiwakes flocking and diving on them before the capelin can reach shore.
Who else eats capelin? Half a million Atlantic puffins that nest at the Witless Bay puffin colony. Though this bird was photographed at the Faroe Islands, it shows how puffins can carry 8-10 capelin-sized fish in their beaks.
July 10 was the first morning the capelin had come back to Witless Bay and word of their arrival spread quickly. When our birding group came down after breakfast many villagers were already there. Some came to watch the capelin roll. Others brought buckets to collect fish to fertilize in their gardens. Some eat capelin, some don’t.
Come down to the bay. The capelin are rolling!
(Puffin photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original. All other photos and videos by Kate St. John)
For centuries Newfoundlands have been bred on the island to be fishermen’s working dogs — performing water rescues, hauling fishing nets, and pulling carts. Weighing up to 150 pounds, they are big.
Their double thick fur, muscular build, webbed feet and great swimming ability make them especially valuable for water rescue. In fact they’re so good at it that they’re entered into sea rescue competitions. The dog in the photo below is doing a “handholding” exercise in France, swimming the man to safety by holding his hand.
In 1995, a 10-month-old Newfoundland named Boo saved a hearing-impaired man from drowning in the Yuba River in Northern California. The man fell into the river while dredging for gold. Boo noticed the struggling man as he and his owner were walking along the river. The Newfoundland instinctively dove into the river, took the drowning man by the arm, and brought him to safety. According to Janice Anderson, the Newfoundland’s breeder, Boo had received no formal training in water rescue.
Newfoundlands have a Pittsburgh connection: In the summer of 1803 Meriwether Lewis was in Pittsburgh waiting for his boats to be completed so he could start his journey down the Ohio to meet up with William Clark (in Indiana) and begin the Lewis and Clark expedition. While he was here Lewis purchased a Newfoundland dog named Seaman for $20. Seaman was the only animal to complete the trip to the Pacific coast and back. (Read more about Seaman here.)
Today Newfoundlands are also kept inland as pets but on the island you can sometimes find them at work on the water. And no wonder. If you lived in a place where the cold ocean can kill a man in less than hour, you’d want this dog on the boat.
p.s. Newfoundlands and Labrador retrievers are related. Both were bred in the province for which they are named. They’re honored by this statue on Signal Hill in St. John’s, NL.
(photo of dog statue in St. John’s by Kate St. John. All other photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the images to see the originals)
Sarracenia purpurea is a carnivorous wetland plant whose leaves collect rainwater because they’re shaped like pitchers. The plant gets its nutrients from digested insects and spiders that drown in the water, unable to escape the leaves’ downward-facing hairs. Only about 1% of the insects that visit the pitchers become victims but it’s enough to sustain the plant.
The prey is not digested by the plant but by larvae of two specialist insects that live in the pitchers’ rainwater: the pitcher plant mosquito (Wyeomyia smithii), which doesn’t bite us(*), and the pitcher plant midge (Metriocnemus knabi). The nutrients the larvae leave in the water nourish the plant.
Purple pitcher plants tend to grow clumps. When in bloom they stand 8-20 inches tall.
You’ll find them in bogs across Canada and as far south as Florida. Dianne Machesney photographed these in Pennsylvania and Ontario.
p.s. (*) About the pitcher plant mosquito: According to Wikipedia, Wyeomyia smithii neither bites nor approaches humans or livestock. However there are some populations in the Apalachicola National Forest (Florida) that have been observed taking blood meals after laying an initial egg batch. It is the only known mosquito to have both obligatory biting and non-biting populations in the same species.
(photos by Dianne Machesney, range map from Wikimedia Commons; click on the map image to see the original)
End of my birding trip to Newfoundland: Day 7, July 14, fly home
Here’s a bird that’s hard to see in Newfoundland even though 3 million pairs of them nest on Baccalieu Island and another 620,000 pairs at Witless Bay.
Leach’s storm-petrel (Oceanodroma leucorhoa) spends its life at sea and only returns to land under cover of darkness to nest in well-concealed burrows and rock crevices. Because of this I probably won’t see one. Our tour isn’t making a pelagic trip.
Even so, I’ve learned some amazing things about this bird, illustrated in three videos.
Leach’s storm-petrels eat plankton and lanternfish from the ocean surface, flying and feeding in conditions that would make us seasick. In the video above, notice that the bird sometimes puts its feet down and walks on water.
The birds also feed at night because they see lanternfish glowing in the dark! Learn about lanternfish below.
Unfortunately, the storm-petrel’s attraction to night lights is its undoing near human light sources.
Though Leach’s storm-petrels don’t nest on Bermuda, one made itself at home for a while in the burrow monitored by the Bermuda petrel Cahow Cam. This is probably what it looks like when a Leach’s storm-petrel is at its nest.
Leach’s storm-petrels live a long time for their size — 20 to 36 years. They don’t breed until they are four years old and then produce only one egg per year. For a very long time this lifestyle was enough to sustain the population and the bird was considered safe from threat of extinction.
Then in 2016 Leach’s storm-petrel suddenly jumped from Least Concern to Vulnerable, from green to yellow in the IUCN Red List chart below. Click here to read why.
Knowing that Leach’s storm-petrel could disappear makes it even more desirable to see one.
Since Newfoundland hosts almost half of the world’s population of nesting Leach’s storm-petrels (3.62+ million pairs), I stand a good chance of seeing one … if I could see at night.
UPDATE, now that I’m here: Yesterday as Hurricane Chris approached Newfoundland we drove from the southern shore of the Avalon Peninsula, where it was due to hit, to Clarenville. Along the way we stopped at St. Vincent’s Beach where we saw a lot of bird activity. As we were driving away one of our group saw a flock of birds on the calm inlet water. 128 Leach’s storm-petrels! Woo hoo! Life bird for everyone! What a great look at a seabird and we weren’t on a bouncing boat!
(videos from YouTube; click on the videos to see the originals. chart of IUCN threat assessment categories from iucn.org)
As I mentioned earlier this week, my big reason for visiting Newfoundland is to see nesting seabirds, some of whom are threatened with extinction. The plight of seabirds is a sad story but there are bright spots. Here’s a seabird that came back from extinction.
Petrels are a group of tube-nosed pelagic birds who spend their lives far at sea and only come to land under cover of darkness to visit their hidden nests. We only know they’re on land if they make noise at night.
Back in 1612 people knew about the Bermuda petrel (Pterodroma cahow) because it made a loud “cahow” sound inside its nest burrow. But the settlers were hungry so they ate all the cahows. After that, the Bermuda petrel was thought to be extinct for over 300 years.
When it was rediscovered in 1951 only 36 remained on earth. Now, almost 70 years later, there are 250 individuals thanks to the efforts of a very inspired man: David Wingate.
(image from the Crossley ID Guide to Eastern Birds via Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the uncropped original)
Day 5, July 12: HURRICANE CHRIS crosses the Avalon Peninsula, Newfoundland this evening as a post-tropical storm. We went to St. Vincent’s Beach and Cape St. Mary’s on Wednesday while the weather was still good instead of going there today. This morning we are driving away from Trepassey before the storm hits nearby Cape Race this evening. Winds here will reach 56 mph. We will be in Clarenville by then.
This friendly, intrepid and intelligent bird is the size of an American robin — but much smarter. He won the Royal Canadian Geographical Society’s contest for National Bird but the Canadian government is reluctant to name a national bird, though they have a National Tree (the sugar maple).
More colorful than his black-capped and Carolina cousins the boreal chickadee lives only in the boreal forests of Canada and a few bordering areas of the U.S. He’s such a spruce forest specialist that he caches only spruce seeds.
Don’t expect to hear him sing. Unlike his southern cousins, he doesn’t have a whistled song. Here’s the closest he comes to it (Xeno Canto XC46492 by Andrew Spencer at Boot Cove Trail near Lubec, Maine):
The pine grosbeak lives in subarctic and boreal habitats in North America, Scandinavia and Siberia. I could have seen one in Finland last year if I’d been in the right place.
Pine grosbeaks have such a wide range that their voices vary geographically. The best Xeno Canto recordings are from Scandinavia and Alaska but Newfoundland’s sound different.
Pine grosbeaks feed their nestlings insects but otherwise eat buds, seeds and fruit. Their Latin scientific name describes them well: Pinicola (pine tree dweller) enucleator (removes the kernel (nucleus)).
The females are orange-ish instead of rosy.
(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the images to see the originals)