Category Archives: Travel

A Sound That Reminds Me of Home

Last March while birding along Panama’s Pipeline Road we heard a sound that reminded me of home. 

The bird was loud and its sound was tropical — not a Pennsylvania bird — but something about it seemed familiar.

Here’s what we heard:

Rufous piha (audio from Xeno Canto XC107022)

Our guide identified it as the rufous piha (Lipaugus unirufus) a member of the Cotinga family.

So why was his song familiar?  

I used to hear a similar sound in the Wetlands Room at the National Aviary. The sound is gone now — the bird passed away — but for many years his voice defined that room.

Screaming piha (audio from Xeno Canto, XC444908)

The screaming piha (Lipaugus vociferans) is a member of the Cotinga family native to the Amazon. The bird looks boring but his voice is not.

Screaming piha (photo by Dick Daniels via Wikimedia Commons)

It’s too bad he’s no longer with us at the National Aviary.  His voice from the Amazon reminds me of Pittsburgh.

(photo of rufous piha by Amy E. McAndrews on Flickr, Creative Commons license; photo of screaming piha from Wikimedia Commons; audio from Xeno Canto. Click on the captions to see the originals.)

The Inaccessible Rail

Inaccessible Island rail (photo by Brian Gratwicke via Wikimedia Commons)

If you’ve ever gone looking for rails, you know they are usually inaccessible. They live in tall dense marsh grass and won’t come out for anything except the sound of another rail — and then only in the breeding season.

But there is in fact a truly inaccessible rail.  The Inaccessible Island rail (Atlantisia rogersi) is the smallest flightless bird in the world, extremely rare, and vulnerable to extinction.  He lives only on Inaccessible Island.

He made news in October because he cannot fly yet new DNA studies show that his ancestors, related to black rails, did fly more than 2,300 miles from South America over the South Atlantic Ocean to Inaccessible Island.  They arrived 1.5 million years ago.

This was a surprise because the island, which is in the Tristan de Cunha archipelago, is closer to Africa than to South America as shown below. (Click on the map or its caption to explore it on Google Maps.)

Location of Inaccessible Island on the globe (screenshot from Google Maps)

The island is called Inaccessible because it is.  It’s almost impossible to land on the narrow beach — most attempts fail — and the cliffs are so steep that the top is inaccessible.

Panorama of Inaccessible Island (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The island’s walls dwarf the people exploring the beach, below. 

Inaccessible Island beach, people in the distance (photo by Brian Gratwicke via Wikimedia Commons) 

Fortunately this tour group got lucky. They were able to land and they found the rail. A member of the group, Brian Gratwicke, took these photos.

Read more about the origins of the Inaccessible Island Rail in this article from Researchgate.

(photos by Brian Gratwicke via Wikimedia Commons; map screenshot from Google maps; click on the captions to see the originals)

Scenes from Acadia, September 2018

  • The view from Seawall picnic shore, 23 Sept 2018

29 September 2018:

For more than 30 years my husband and I have traveled to Acadia National Park on Mt. Desert Island, Maine in early September.  This year we went later in the month to enjoy cooler weather and colorful leaves. The slideshow above includes scenes from our trip, September 18-26.

As you can see, fall color hasn’t peaked yet in Acadia. The best leaf-color will occur in early October.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Balsam Blue

Balsam cones, La Manche Trail, Newfoundland, July 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)
Balsam cones, La Manche Trail, Newfoundland, July 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)

Did you know that the immature cones on balsam firs are gray-blue?  I didn’t because …

I see balsam trees every year in Maine but I’m only there in September when the cones are ripe and brown and about to disintegrate to release their seeds.

Where I live in western Pennsylvania there are no balsam firs (range map below) but eastern hemlocks are common. Hemlocks have some traits that are similar to balsam firs, so …

Balsam fir range map (image from Wikimedia Commons)
Balsam fir range map (image from Wikimedia Commons)

… when I saw balsam firs (Abies balsamea) in Newfoundland I misidentified them at first.  🙁

The balsam’s lower/newer twigs have flat needles on flat-looking branches.  Eastern hemlocks do, too, so I called this a hemlock.  (wrong!)

Balsam fir, symmetrical flat lower branch (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Balsam fir, symmetrical flat lower branch (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Balsam needles have two white stripes on the underside.  So do eastern hemlocks so I said “hemlock” again. (wrong!)

However, the needles curled on the higher branches.  Hemlock needles never do that.

Morning dew on balsam fir needles (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Morning dew on balsam fir needles (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In the end, the cones are the easiest way to identify balsam firs. The cones stand straight up and in summer they’re balsam blue.

 

p.s. Here’s a website that describes how to identify pines, spruces, and firs: Conifer Confusion: An Identification Guide for Pine, Spruce and Fir Trees.  I wish it said more about hemlocks!

(balsam cone photo by Kate St. John. All other photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the images to see the originals)

Tamarack Rose

Tamarack cone in Newfoundland, July 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)
Tamarack cone in Newfoundland, July 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)

This month in Newfoundland I found a rose on the tamarack.

Tamaracks (Larix laricina) are North American larches whose name means “wood is good for fence posts” in Algonquin.

The “roses” are their immature cones. In summer the needles are green and the cones are red.

Tamarack branch with cones, Newfoundland, July 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)
Tamarack branch with cones, Newfoundland, July 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)

In autumn the needles turn yellow and fall off the tree.

Tamarack in autumn (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Tamarack in autumn (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

And the cones turn brown and dry out.  They persist on the tree all winter and are still present when the needles grow again in the spring.

Mature tamarack cones in spring with young foliage (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Mature tamarack cones in spring with young foliage (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

You have to look in the summer to see a tamarack rose.

 

(tamarack immature cone photos by Kate St. John. Yellow tamarack and mature cones photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the images to see the original)

What Is He Doing?

Canadian blowing up a fish (photo by Chris Colaianni)
Captain Ray with a fish (photo by Chris Colaianni)

On Throw Back Thursday:

Eight years ago Chris Colaianni went on a fishing trip in the Canadian Rockies and came back with this amazing story.

Their guide, Captain Ray, used a fish to attract a bird. But why does he have the fish in his mouth?  Click here to find out in this vintage article: WHAT Is He Doing?

 

(photo by Chris Colaianni)

Gannets Galore!

Northern gannet in flight, Cape St. Mary's, NL (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Northern gannet in flight, Cape St. Mary’s, NL (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

A week ago, on a Partnership for International Birding trip to Newfoundland, we visited Cape St. Mary’s Ecological Reserve during a rare fog-free moment.  Our goal was to see nesting seabirds up close at Bird Rock, one of the most accessible sites in the world.

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.

The landscape on the trail out to Bird Rock, 11 July 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)
The landscape on the trail out to Bird Rock, 11 July 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)

Pretty soon we could see the nesting cliffs. The white areas are all gannets.

Seabird nesting cliffs as seen on our walk out to Bird Rock at Cape St. Mary's, Newfoundland, 11 July 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)
Seabird nesting cliffs as seen on our walk out to Bird Rock at Cape St. Mary’s, Newfoundland, 11 July 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)

Near the trail’s end, Bird Rock is in the foreground.

Bird Rock and the cliff behind it are coated with birds, Cape St. Mary's, NL, 11 July 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)
Bird Rock and the cliff behind it are coated with birds, Cape St. Mary’s, NL, 11 July 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)

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!

Gannets galore!

 

 

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.)

Hurricane Chris In Newfoundland

Hurricane Chris at Branch, Newfoundland (screenshot from video by Chris Mooney)
Hurricane Chris at Branch, Newfoundland (screenshot from video by Chris Mooney)

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.

So what did it look like on the south coast of Newfoundland when the storm was at its peak?  Chris Mooney, a park interpretation technician at Cape St. Mary’s Ecological Reserve, took these videos from his home in Branch, NL on Thursday evening.

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.

 

(videos and screenshot by Chris Mooney via Facebook)

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.