The Capelin Are Rolling!

Capelin rolling in on the waves at Witless Bay, NL, 10 July 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)
Capelin rolling on the waves at Witless Bay, NL, 10 July 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)

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 waves are full of capelin at Witless Bay, 10 July 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)
The waves are full of capelin at Witless Bay, 10 July 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)

The fish flip-flop in shallow water as the females lay eggs and the males distribute sperm.

Capelin spawning at Witless Bay, 10 July 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)
Capelin spawning at Witless Bay, 10 July 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)

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.

The rocky sand is full of capelin eggs, Witless Bay, 10 July 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)
The rocky sand is full of capelin eggs, Witless Bay, 10 July 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)

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.

Capelin on shore after high tide, Witless Bay, 10 July 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)
Capelin on shore after high tide, Witless Bay, 10 July 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)

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.

Atlantic puffin bringing home food for its chick (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Atlantic puffin bringing home food for its chick (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

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)

You’ll Want Him On The Boat

Newfoundland ready for a water rescue (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Newfoundland ready for a water rescue (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Gentle, loyal, strong and intelligent Newfoundland dogs love to swim.

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.

Sea rescue "handholding" exercise performed by a Newfoundland dog at the port of Ploumanach, France (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Sea rescue “handholding” exercise performed by a Newfoundland dog at the port of Ploumanach, France (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Even untrained Newfoundlands will leap to aid people in distress in the water.  Wikipedia recounts this example:

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.

Statue honoring Newfoundland and Labrador retriever dogs, Signal Hill, St. John's, NL (photo by Kate St. John)
Statue honoring Newfoundland and Labrador retriever dogs, Signal Hill, St. John’s, NL (photo by Kate St. John)

(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)

Trip is over. I’m back home in Pittsburgh.

 

The Flower of Newfoundland

Pitcher plant flower at Markleysburg Bog (photo by Dianne Machesney)
Pitcher plant flower at Markleysburg Bog, PA (photo by Dianne Machesney)

Just as we have State Flowers in the U.S., there are official flowers for each of the provinces of Canada.  The Flower Emblem of Newfoundland & Labrador is the purple pitcher plant (Sarracenia purpurea).

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.

Pitchers of a pitcher plant at the Bruce Peninsula, Ontario (photo by Dianne Machesney)
Pitchers of a pitcher plant at the Bruce Peninsula, Ontario (photo by Dianne Machesney)

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.

Pitcher plants at the Bruce Peninsula, Ontario (photo by Dianne Machesney)
Pitcher plants at the Bruce Peninsula, Ontario (photo by Dianne Machesney)

 

You’ll find them in bogs across Canada and as far south as Florida.  Dianne Machesney photographed these in Pennsylvania and Ontario.

Range map of Sarracenia purpurea (image from Wikimedia Commons)
Range map of Sarracenia purpurea (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Visit Spruce Flats Bog to see them in the Laurel Highlands.

 

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

 

Under Cover of Night

On a birding trip to Newfoundland:

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.

graphic of IUCN Threat Assessment Categories
graphic of IUCN Threat Assessment Categories

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)

Day 6, July 13: Terra Nova National Park

A Seabird Returned From Extinction

Bermuda petrel (cropped from Crossley ID Guide for Eastern Birds via Wikimedia Commons)
Bermuda petrel (from Crossley ID Guide for Eastern Birds via Wikimedia Commons)

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.

On Throw Back Thursday, read about the recovery of the Bermuda petrel in this 2010 article, Rare Bird: rediscovering the Cahow.

 

(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.

Songbirds in Newfoundland

A pair of Canada Jays in Canada (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
A pair of Canada Jays in Canada (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

On a birding trip in Newfoundland:

Though my focus is on seabirds in Newfoundland, here are three beautiful songbirds that I never see in Pennsylvania.  They were Life Birds for me at Sax Zim Bog, Minnesota.

Canada jay (Perisoreus canadensis):

Meet the Canada jay. After more than 60 years as the “gray jay,” the Canada jay officially goes back to his original name this month. If all goes well, he’ll also become the National Bird of Canada.

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).

Professor David Bird, one of the Canada jay’s supporters, vows to walk across Canada and collect a million signatures for National Bird status if he has to.  Good luck, Canada jay!

 

Boreal chickadee (Poecile hudsonicus):

Boreal chickadee (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Boreal chickadee (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

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):

 

 

Pine grosbeak (Pinicola enucleator):

Male pine grosbeak in Quebec (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Male pine grosbeak in Quebec (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Female pine grosbeak in Quebec (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Female pine grosbeak in Quebec (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

 

 

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the images to see the originals)

Day 4, 11 July 2018: Cape Race and St. Shott’s

Millions Of Nesting Birds

Black-legged kittiwakes nesting on Gull Island, Witless Bay, NL (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Black-legged kittiwakes nesting on Gull Island, Witless Bay, NL (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

On a birding trip to Newfoundland, “The Rock”

35 million seabirds nest in the province of Newfoundland & Labrador.  On The Rock alone there are 7 million Leach’s storm-petrels, half a million Atlantic puffins and perhaps a million others.  Here are two species that breed in Atlantic Canada but not as far south as the U.S. east coast.

Black-legged kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla):

These small pelagic members of the gull family range across the northern oceans.  In Europe they’re just called “kittiwakes” because they’re the only species, but North America has red-legged kittiwakes (Rissa brevirostris) on Alaska’s Pribilof Islands so we make a distinction.

Black-legged kittiwakes nest in noisy colonies on sheer cliffs, shown above and below. The young certainly don’t walk off the nest!

Gulls and black-legged kittiwakes nesting on Cape Pine cliffs, Newfoundland (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Gulls and black-legged kittiwakes nesting on Cape Pine cliffs, Newfoundland (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

At the colonies, the birds say their names over and over: “kit-ti-waake, kit-ti-wa-aake” (Xeno Canto XC118116 recording by Magnus Bergsson in Iceland)

Black-legged kittiwakes are well studied because it’s easy to see their nests and monitor their success.  Sometimes they even nest on man-made structures instead of cliffs.

Their global population is now 14.6 to 15.7 million birds but they are declining across Europe at the rate of more than 40% over three generations.  The IUCN has listed them as globally Vulnerable to extinction.

 

Common murre (Uria aalge):

Common murre adults and chick (photo by Dick Daniels via Wikimedia Commons)
Common murre adults and chick (photo by Dick Daniels via Wikimedia Commons)

Murres resemble penguins but they’re not. They are auks, related to the extinct great auk (Pinguinus impennis) who’s memorialized by a statue on Newfoundland’s Fogo Island.

Murres never build nests. The female lays one egg in a slight depression on bare rock and the parents incubate for about 30 days. In large colonies the adults stand tightly packed, so close that they’re almost shoulder to shoulder.

Murre colony on Gull Island, Witless Bay, NL (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Murre colony on Gull Island, Witless Bay, NL (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Murre eggs are unusually pointy at one end. They roll in a circle and not off the cliff.

Murre egg at Museum Wiesbaden (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Murre egg at Museum Wiesbaden (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

When murre chicks are 20 days old they leave the nest. Though they cannot fly they flutter off the cliff and down to the sea.

Common and thick-billed murres (Uria lomvia) both nest on Newfoundland and they look very similar.  Will I ever be able to tell them apart?

 

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the images to see the originals. audio from Xeno Canto; see caption for link to the original)

Day 3, July 10: Morning at La Manche Trail, afternoon to Trepassey

I Want To See Puffins

Atlantic puffins (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Atlantic puffins (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

On a birding trip to Newfoundland:

I want to see puffins.

Newfoundland is the best place to see puffins in North America.  In late spring and summer more than 260,000 pairs — half a million birds! — nest at Witless Bay Ecological Reserve.  No wonder the Atlantic puffin is a provincial symbol of Newfoundland & Labrador.

Atlantic puffins (Fratercula arctica) are one of three puffin species but the only ones in the Atlantic Ocean.  Ranging from The Gulf of Maine to the Barents Sea at Murmansk, Russia, their largest nesting colony is in Iceland at 3-4 million pairs.

Puffins are so pelagic that they only come to land when they nest.  The rest of the time they live far out at sea, often alone, for 20 to 30 years, reaching sexual maturity at age 4-5.

Atlantic puffin in flight in light fog (photo by Henning Allmers via Wikimedia Commons)
Atlantic puffin in flight in light fog (photo by Henning Allmers via Wikimedia Commons)

In late spring the puffins come back to Newfoundland, all duded up with bright beaks, pale faces and orange-red legs.  Each pair claims and refurbishes its nest burrow and courts by slapping bills side to side (see video below). The female lays a single egg and both parents incubate for 40-45 days.

When the chick hatches the frenzy begins.  The parents fly out to sea and bring home 10 or more fish at a time, carefully stacked in their bills.  When the chick fledges, about 40 days old, he leaves the burrow at night and jumps into the sea.

Atlantic puffin brining home food for its chick (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Atlantic puffin bringing home food for its chick (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Fish are key to the puffins’ survival but many fish populations have crashed in the North Atlantic — and so have puffins.  Their largest nesting populations have declined rapidly with complete breeding failure every year in southern Iceland since 2003. In 2015 the IUCN listed them as Vulnerable to extinction.  Puffins are starving in the eastern North Atlantic.  In Iceland, where people eat puffins, the hunt had to be down-scaled considerably.

In Newfoundland, Atlantic puffins are well protected.  Scientists are the only ones allowed on the nesting islands.  The rest of us see puffins from the boat.  Here’s what it’s like.

Half a million really cute(!) birds.

 

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original. Video from Newfoundland & Labrador tourism)

Day 2, July 9: Morning at Cape Spear. Afternoon at Witless Bay on seabird/whale boat trip.

Mostly Off The Grid

Beginning Sunday 8 July 2018 through Saturday 14 July 2018, I’ll be birding in Newfoundland and out of cellphone range during the day. I’ll still be posting daily articles at Outside My Window but I won’t be able to respond to your comments until I’m back on the grid in the evenings.

Follow my posts about Newfoundland beginning with this one: Gone Birding at St. John’s

(This map of Canada is from Wikimedia Commons. Newfoundland is highlighted in red.)

Gone Birding at St. John’s

Atlantic puffin in flight (photo by Jörg Hempel via Wikimedia Commons)
Atlantic puffin in flight (photo by Jörg Hempel via Wikimedia Commons)

On a birding trip to Newfoundland

8 July 2018: Today my friend Ramona Sahni and I are flying to Newfoundland to join a 7-day Partnership for International Birding tour guided by David Trently.  The trip was my idea for a number of reasons.

  1. I really need to see a puffin. Lots of puffins.  Years ago I saw a distant puffin profile from a whale watch boat in Maine but that’s not really seeing one.
  2. The largest breeding colony of puffins in the western Atlantic is at Witless Bay Ecological Reserve just outside St. John’s, Newfoundland.
  3. St. John’s and I share a name.  I have to go there.

St. John’s is the capital and largest city in the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador (NL).  The province is highlighted in red below.  Labrador, on the continent, borders Quebec. Newfoundland is the large triangular island beyond the mouth of the St. Lawrence River.  Canadians pronounce it “new-fun-LAND” (rhymes with “understand”).  It’s nickname is The Rock.

Map of Canadian Provinces (image from Wikimedia Commons)
Map of Canadian Provinces (image from Wikimedia Commons)

St. John’s itself is only five air-miles from the easternmost point in North America.  Because of this location Newfoundland has its very own time zone 1.5 hours ahead of Pittsburgh. When it’s 7am in Pittsburgh it’s 8:30am in St. John’s.

Newfoundland is as big as Virginia — more than 42,000 sq mi — so we’ll only have time to explore the eastern side.  The Google map below pinpoints the places we’ll visit including Witless Bay, Trepassey, St. Vincent’s Beach, Cape St. Mary’s Ecological Reserve and Terra Nova National Park.  Zoom the map to see more.

Like all northern places there are fewer bird species but thousands of individuals.  Our Expected Birds checklist contains 83 species(*) but we’ll probably see more than a million birds because the seabird colonies are so densely populated.

260,000 pairs of Atlantic puffins (Fratercula arctica) nest on the islands of Witless Bay.  I’ve come to the right place. I can hardly wait!

 

(puffin photo and Canadian provinces map from Wikimedia Commons; click on the images to see the originals. Newfoundland map embedded from Google maps)

(*) The complete checklist, including rarities, is 180 species.
Day 1, July 8: Arrive at St. John’s, Newfoundland