Category Archives: Water and Shore

Non-Stop 2,500 Miles

Whimbrel at Galapagos, Ecuador (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Whimbrel at Galapagos, Ecuador (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Every fall this bird performs an amazing feat of physical endurance.  It flies non-stop over the ocean for 2,500 miles.

The whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus) is a long distance migrant that occurs on every continent except Antarctica because it breeds in the far north and winters in the southern hemisphere.

Whimbrel range map (BirdLife International via Wikimedia Commons)
Whimbrel range map (BirdLife International via Wikimedia Commons)

Most North American whimbrels spend the winter in coastal South America.  To get there, some travel the western route down the Pacific Ocean to Columbia, Ecuador, Peru and Chile.

Others take an eastern route, flying across northern Canada in mid-July to spend two weeks fattening up on the shores of the U.S. and Canada. Then they launch over the Atlantic and fly non-stop to Venezuela, the Guianas and Brazil.  What’s the air distance from Cape Cod to Venezuela?  2,500 miles.

We didn’t know the whimbrels’ route until the Center for Conservation Biology began satellite tagging them in 2008.  In August 2012 they made an astonishing discovery.  Three of their 20 satellite tagged whimbrels made a wide arc over the Atlantic, far out to sea, before heading for the coast of Brazil.  One of them (red line) traveled 4,355 miles non-stop before touching down. At 30 miles per hour, the trip took six days. Read more at the Center for Conservation Biology website.

Whimbrels' transoceanic flights from Mackenzie Delta to South America (map from Center for Conservation Biology, August 2012)
Whimbrels’ transoceanic flights from Mackenzie Delta to South America (map from Center for Conservation Biology, August 2012)

By now whimbrels have been on the move for several weeks.  When you see one you’ll know why he’s eating so much.  He has a big trip ahead of him.

(photo and map of the whimbrel’s range from Wikimedia Commons. Migration routes map from Center for Conservation Biology.  Click on the captions to see the originals.)

Fall Migration Has Begun

Bonaparte's gull and American avocets at Conneaut Harbor, late July 2013 (photo by Steve Gosser)
Bonaparte’s gull and American avocets at Conneaut Harbor, late July 2013 (photo by Steve Gosser)

Late July doesn’t look or feel like autumn but fall migration has already begun.

Shorebirds are some of the earliest species to start their journey south.  Last weekend brought a good assortment to Gull Point at Presque Isle State Park in Erie, PA.   Here are a few of the migrants we would have seen if we’d been there.

American Avocets (Recurvirostra americana), above, raise only one brood per year and will leave the breeding grounds immediately if their nest fails.   Avocets are always a treat in Pennsylvania because they breed far west of here and could easily bypass us if they wanted to.  Instead, some fly to the east coast before moving south.  Steve Gosser found a pair hanging out at Conneaut, Ohio in July 2013.  (The bird with the black head is a Bonaparte’s gull. He’s also migrating.)

Sanderlings (Calidris alba), below, nest on the tundra in high arctic Canada, mostly north of the Arctic Circle.  These small birds have one shot at breeding so if it doesn’t work they form flocks with other failed breeders in late June and move south in July.

Sanderling on sand, July 2013 (photo by Steve Gosser)
Sanderling on the sand, July 2013 (photo by Steve Gosser)

 

Short-billed dowitchers (Limnodromus griseus) breed from Hudson Bay to western Labrador and in northern Manitoba and Alberta.  Failed breeders leave the breeding grounds in late June while successful females depart in early July followed by males later in the month.  Juveniles leave in August. Once they start passing through we’ll see short-billed dowitchers in Pennsylvania for several weeks.

Short-billed dowitchers, July 2013 (photo by Steve Gosser)
Short-billed dowitchers, July 2013 (photo by Steve Gosser)

 

The lesser yellowlegs’ (Tringa flavipes) lifestyle dictates when each family member leaves the breeding grounds (Alaska to Hudson Bay) for their winter home (primarily in Suriname).  Successful females head south in June as soon as their eggs hatch and the young walk off the nest.  The males protect their chicks until they fly then head south, too.  The juveniles form flocks and fend for themselves until they decide to leave.

Lesser yellowlegs, July 2013 (photo by Steve Gosser)
Lesser yellowlegs, July 2013 (photo by Steve Gosser)

 

Visit Lake Erie’s shore for a good look at shorebirds.  The best places close to Pittsburgh are the harbor area at Conneaut, Ohio or Gull Point at Presque Isle State Park in Erie, PA.

 

(photos by Steve Gosser)

p.s. Here’s the complete shorebird list from Gull Point on July 21-22, 2018, gathered from eBird:

  • American Avocet
  • Semipalmated Plover
  • Piping Plover (local breeder, two nests)
  • Killdeer
  • Whimbrel
  • Ruddy Turnstone
  • Redknot
  • Stilt Sandpiper
  • Sanderling
  • Dunlin
  • Least Sandpiper
  • Pectoral Sandpiper
  • Semipalmated Sandpiper
  • Short-billed Dowitcher
  • Spotted Sandpiper
  • Greater Yellowlegs
  • Lesser Yellowlegs

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)

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.

 

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.

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.