In August and September young puffins, called pufflings, make their first flight from their nesting islands in Newfoundland. Guided by the light of the moon they head for the open ocean. Unfortunately, when it’s foggy or moonless they’re confused by outdoor lights and head inland where they become stranded and die.
Years ago Juergen and Elfie Schau of Germany noticed stranded pufflings near their summer home at Witless Bay, Newfoundland so they rescued them and returned them to the sea. Soon their neighbors joined them and in 2011 the project grew into the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society’s (CPAWS) annual Puffin and Petrel Patrol.
Travelers from around the world come to Witless Bay in late summer to help rescue baby puffins. The stranded birds are captured in small nets, placed in carriers, and released in the morning when the birds can see where they need to go — out to sea.
This phantom lives in freshwater wetlands from the Atlantic coast to the Rocky Mountains. Gliding on the shady edge of dense vegetation he usually goes unseen. It takes practice to notice a phantom crane fly.
I first learned about phantom crane flies (Bittacomorpha clavipes) in Newfoundland when our guide David Trently pointed one out. “There it is.”
I couldn’t see it. “Where is it? How big is it? What should I look for?” I was so frustrated! The bug was flying right in front of me but he was invisible.
The phantom landed and Bill Anderson took his picture. I followed Bill’s camera lens and found the fly. Aha!
When the phantom took off, I followed him with my eyes as he floated among the shadows. Here’s a video that shows what that’s like. (Note: If you don’t like snakes turn off the video before the 2:20 mark to avoid seeing one.)
Phantom crane flies can move like this because they’re very lightweight, their long legs are hollow, and their tarsomere (foot segments) are swollen and filled with air. They spread their legs to catch the breeze and barely flap their wings.
Their long crane-like legs make them phantoms in the air.
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)