Tuesday, August 14, 2012

A Morning With the Seabirds

You'd definitely have to call it a busman's holiday: on the day following my last Newfoundland Adventure of the 2012 season, I drove to Bay Bulls for a trip with friends. We headed for Captain Wayne's Marine Excursions and boarded the Blackfish 1 for a visit to the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve and a look at the surrounding coastline. After a loop through Island Cove, a look at the sea stacks of Spoon Cove, and a visit to a beautiful sea cave, we struck out for Gull Island, nesting site for thousands of Atlantic puffins, kittiwakes, murres and storm petrels. Light fog was hanging over the area and sea conditions were excellent, with an ocean so calm that the hundreds of birds in the water cast perfect reflections. We travelled slowly alongside Gull Island, pausing to photograph the puffins outside their burrows on the grassy slopes and lounging on the rocks near the water's edge. These photogenic little birds seemed to be in a particularly cooperative mood, posing for us as we slipped past. Although the fledging season is here and many pufflings have already left their burrows, there were still plenty of adults to be seen. There were also many common murres, some
guarding chicks that had not yet fledged. The young birds are ready to leave the nest at about three weeks of age;; unable to fly, they tumble or glide down the cliffs to the water below. Once the chick has fledged, the male parent attends it closely for up two two months as the birds venture out to the open sea. Within about two weeks the young are able to fly. The female stays at the nesting site for an average of two weeks or slightly more. This is the time of year when the
dense concentration of murres on the island begins to thin out.

A little farther south on the island, an unusual sight awaited us: one of this year's black-legged kittiwake chicks exhibited a condition called isabellism, a dilution of melanin, the pigment that colours the bird's black feathers and legs. In isabellan birds, one of the two types of melanin, Eumelanin and Phaeomelanin, is missing, resulting in a bird that shows a pale tan colouration
in areas that are normally dark.

As we reached the southern end of Gull Island and headed for open water, we found that the fog and onshore wind had brought a large number of greater shearwaters, birds that are usually found far at sea. These birds nest in Tristan da Cunha, a remote group of volcanic islands in the South Atlantic. One of these curious birds swam up to the boat to investigate us, providing a great opportunity for a close-up shot. From our shearwater encounter, we headed north to view the area's beautiful coastline; more about that in a later post.

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