Category Archives: Travel

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.

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

The Sound of a Water Drop

water drop (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
A water drop (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

A water drop sounds like this  …

… but that noise was made by a bird. (named at the end of the recording: XC148304 by Gary Stiles.)

It’s my favorite bird sound from Panama, made by a black-bellied wren (Pheugopedius fasciatoventris).

In his preferred habitat the wren is hard to see.  Mostly black and brown, his white throat looks like a splash of sunlight from below.

Black-bellied wren, Panama (photo by Fransceso Veronesi from Wikimedia Commons)
Black-bellied wren, Panama (photo by Fransceso Veronesi from Wikimedia Commons)

But he’s easy to hear. When he really gets going he doesn’t sound like a water drop at all.  This long melodious song (xeno-canto XC15653) was recorded by Don Jones on Semaphore Hill Road, the road to Canopy Tower.

 

The “water drop” is just a tiny snatch of song.

 

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the images to see the originals. recordings downloaded from Xeno Canto; links provided to the originals)

Tanagers Galore!

Crimson-backed tanager (photo by Francesco Veronesi via Wikimedia Commons)
Crimson-backed tanager (photo by Francesco Veronesi via Wikimedia Commons)

Before I left for Panama I wondered, Would I see any new tanagers there?  I’d been to Costa Rica all the way to the Panama border so surely every tanager would be the same.  Not so!

60% of all tanagers (Thraupidae) live in South America.  Some of the southern birds have seeped into eastern Panama because it borders Colombia.  Those that prefer South America don’t make it to Costa Rica because the topography and habitat change in western Panama.  Eight of my 97 Life Birds in Panama were tanagers.

Here are just a few of the most colorful tanagers we saw last week.   Some of them occur in Costa Rica and one of them, the bay-headed tanager, was a Life Bird for me last year.

The crimson backed tanager (Ramphocelus dimidiatus), at top, shows a flash of red from below.  His beak stands out because the lower mandible is bright blue-white.  He reminds me of Costa Rica’s Cherrie’s tanager.

In Cerro Azul we saw lots of shining honeycreepers (Cyanerpes lucidus) at the hummingbird feeders.  Check out those bright yellow legs!

Shining honeycreeper (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Shining honeycreeper (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

 

Gray-headed tanagers (Eucometis penicillata) are even prettier than this.  Their backs are the color of green olives.

Gray-headed tanagers in Columbia (photo by Julian Londono from Wikimedia Commons)
Gray-headed tanagers in Columbia (photo by Julian Londono from Wikimedia Commons)

 

Bay-headed tanagers (Tangara gyrola) are as colorful as painted buntings. I first saw this bird in Costa Rica but he’s worth a second look.

Bay-headed tanager (photo by Dominic Sherony via Wikimedia Commons)
Bay-headed tanager (photo by Dominic Sherony via Wikimedia Commons)

 

This flame-rumped tanager’s (Ramphocelus flammigerus) yellow color is a regional characteristic in Panama.  He used to be called the lemon-rumped tanager for obvious reasons but he was lumped with flame-rumped tanagers because they interbreed. His Colombian relatives have bright orange-red rumps.

Lemon-rumped tanager (photo by Francesco Veronesi via Wikimedia Commons)
Lemon-rumped tanager (photo by Francesco Veronesi via Wikimedia Commons)

 

And finally, the white-shouldered tanager (Tachyphonus luctuosus) resembles a red-winged blackbird but his beak shows us he’s not in the blackbird family.

White-shouldered tanager (photo by Francesco Veronesi via Wikimedia Commons)
White-shouldered tanager (photo by Francesco Veronesi via Wikimedia Commons)

In Panama there are tanagers galore!

 

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