Saturday, March 30, 2013

Recognizing the Value of Nature's Wonders

The Ecological Reserves at Witless Bay and Cape St. Mary's and Baccalieu Island are natural treasures on Newfoundland and Labrador's Avalon Peninsula. They're linked in more than geography, though; they're all under the oversight of the Parks and Natural Areas Division, Department of Environment and Conservation and they're very precious places indeed. They serve as nesting areas for a number of seabird species and among them they contain the world's largest and second-largest Leach's storm petrel breeding colonies along with North America's largest Atlantic puffin colony, and North America's most accessible northern gannet nesting area. Cape St. Mary's is the nesting site for roughly 70,000 nesting pairs of birds, the Witless Bay Reserve houses 620,000 pairs of Leach's storm petrels and 260,000 pairs of Atlantic puffins, while Baccalieu Island hosts an incredible 3,360,000 pairs of these petrels along with a diverse range of other seabirds.

These birds aren't here just for the scenery, although it's admittedly beautiful. They're here because the islands and coastal cliffs are composed of a variety of nesting options from earth for digging burrows to narrow rocky ledges. Their fecundity is immense; 3.36 million pairs of Leach's storm petrels, or over 6.7 million individual birds, at roughly 13 oz. (380 grams) per bird adds up to nearly 5.5 million pounds of petrels. That's not counting the year's hatch of nestlings! The nesting areas are situated near immediate sources of food, ranging from plankton and krill to massive schools of caplin; it takes a vast quantity of marine life to sustain this population, and the nesting season is linked to the arrival of these vital food sources; it's all part of the intricate balance of seabird life.

These reserves are special places that truly are among the world's wonders. They deserve protection, preservation, and recognition.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Birdwatching on the Rocks


The sweet piping call of the black guillemot isn't easy to hear, but it signals the presence of one of Newfoundland and Labrador's most delightful seabirds. "Black guillemot" is a rather formal name for this little bird, whose scientific name is Cepphus grylle. In Scotland it's affectionately known as a tystie, it's often referred to in Newfoundland as a sea pigeon, and these days it's sometimes jokingly called a Newfoundland strobe light because of its bright white wing patches and wing liner feathers, which appear and disappear in flight creating a strobe pattern. It's at the small end of the size scale for our summer seabirds, and it's more skittish than puffins or even murres, so it's a bit more difficult to photograph. Patience pays off, however, since its glossy black feathers are strikingly handsome and its feet are bright, crimson red -- bright enough to be seen through clear water when the bird is swimming or diving below the surface in pursuit of food. The real surprise, though, comes when the black guillemot opens its mouth: the gape, too, is right red! 

The birds breed on rocky shorelines, especially on isolated islands and outcrops along the Atlantic coasts of North America and Europe. Unlike most of our seabirds, they don't migrate far from their breeding areas; their plumage, though, goes from the black feathers of summer to mostly pale grey and white in winter. Puffins and gannets and murres might get more attention, but when you visit Newfoundland and Labrador, spare a few minutes to get to know the black guillemot!

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Hardy, Willing and Tough as Nails

There's exciting news from Newfoundland and Labrador for those who are familiar with the hardy breed known as the Newfoundland Pony: a census has been announced to record the number of these hard-working little horses that can be found in the province today.  The Newfoundland Pony Society has been gathering information for the past several months; it's believed that only about 400 Newfoundland ponies in North America today, with only about 250 available for breeding.

In the early 1970s, there were an estimated 12,000 members of this breed on the island; by the late 1980s the population had declined drastically to only about 100 animals. There were several factors at play: machinery was rapidly taking the place of draft animals for farm work, many municipalities had enacted laws that made it more difficult to keep livestock, especially using traditional "open range" grazing, and unwanted ponies were often sold, knowingly or unknowingly, to be used for meat, oftentimes for pet food.

The ponies are distinctive, small in stature, and sturdily built -- "all-purpose" animals that can be used for farming, riding, and hauling wood. Their characteristics, according to the Newfoundland Pony Society (a registered charity), include the following:
• good winter animal, all-around hardy
• structure can vary from fine-boned types to larger stocky types
• height can vary from 11.0 to 14.2 hands
• coat colour can be black, brown, chestnut, bay, dun, grey, roan and white (pink skin)
• coat is heavy and sometimes changes colour and character seasonally
• has a thick mane and tail – usually black
• has a low-set mane and tail
• has a short, broad head with small ears
• has flint hard hooves.

One development of the census appears to be that while the breed is still considered critically endangered, there are more ponies present in Newfoundland than had been previously thought; that's good news for those of us who are hoping for a comeback for this living, breathing part of Newfoundland and Labrador's cultural heritage!

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Oh, Bonavista!

Newfoundland and Labrador seems to have more than its fair share of beautiful little towns and villages, but one of the most striking is Bonavista. Located at the tip of the Bonavista Peninsula, less than two hours north of the Trans Canada Highway at Clarenville, the town sprawls over 31 square km (12 sq. mi.), much of it mixed residential and commercial. Its busy harbour, protected by a breakwater, is used not only by local fishing boats but by pleasure craft as well -- it's well sheltered, making for some wonderfully scenic reflections. Located at the edge of the harbour is Ryan Premises National Historic Site , a group of restored fish processing and storage buildings that provide an excellent look at the history of the town and the fishery that drove its economy. 
A short distance away at the tip of the cape lies the historic Cape Bonavista Lighthouse with its distinctive red and white paint pattern. From the cliffs here, it's possible to see feeding whales in summer, or observe nesting puffins at close range.
The rest of the Bonavista Peninsula is as welcoming and as scenic as the town itself -- places like Trinity, Port Rexton, Amherst Cove, Spillar's Cove, Keels, Red Cliff and Plate Cove are waiting to be explored!

Friday, March 22, 2013

One Fluke at a Time

When whale researchers take photos of humpback whale flukes, right whale callosity patterns or fin whale chevrons, they're not doing it just to have a beautiful image to hang on the wall.  They're looking for specific patterns that identify individual whales, in order to expand the knowledge base for these species. Humpback fluke patterns are unique to the individual whale, and are often compared to fingerprints since they remain the same throughout the whale's adult life, apart from the addition of new scars from barnacles, orca attacks or other such incidents.  Right whale callosities are the rough patches that appear on the right whale's face in the same areas where humans have facial hair: eyebrows, mustache, etc., and they, too, remain relatively stable, aiding in identification. The variations in the chevrons on fin whales' right sides are also usable for identification although that's a daunting task.

Identification by humpback fluke patterns, though, is the area that's seen the greatest concentration. Fluke patterns like the one above range from almost completely black through patchy variations to almost completely white; curiously, scars on white flukes appear black, while scars on black flukes appear white. These stark, graphic patterns can be compared to make positive ID of an individual whale regardless of its location. There are a number of organizations that pursue this identification work, and each of them is fortunate to count on dedicated and selfless volunteers whose passionate commitment to the whales drives them onward. A great example of such dedication is Gale McCullough of Maine (aka Flukematcher), a tireless advocate for the environment and marine mammals, who operates fluke-matching sites on Flickr and Facebook for comparing the images submitted by researchers, volunteers, whale enthusiasts and tourists up and down the east coast of North America. By scanning through hundreds of images by hand, Gale and other experts match flukes to find links between Newfoundland, the Gulf of Maine, Cape Cod, Bermuda, and the Dominican Republic as well as other locales.

Don't get me wrong, Gale's not the only such cataloguer who's working long hours to advance our knowledge, she's simply a dedicated and passionate person who devotes much time and energy to this very worthwhile study. She's a remarkable woman whose work contributes greatly to increasing what we know about humpback whales and their feeding, breeding and migration patterns, and she deserves our thanks. Happy birthday, Gale.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Vital Link

Around the shores of Newfoundland and Labrador, summer brings a remarkable surge of life; millions of seabirds build their nests, whales arrive to feed and put on collective tons of essential fat, and most of them rely, in whole or in part, on a single food source: the caplin (or capelin). This small forage fish, Mallotus villosus, is a member of the smelt family. They come in to follow the dense clouds of plankton found in coastal waters, and spawn on the sandy or fine-gravel beaches. Not only the whales and seabirds but squid, mackerel, seals and cod consume caplin at least to some degree.

The caplin roll in onto the beaches in vast schools, the females laying their eggs which are then fertilized by the males. There is a very high mortality rate at this phase of their lives -- nearly all the males die, while a small percentage of the females survive to spawn another year; the eggs remain on the beaches, looking like grains of golden sand, waiting for the next high cycle of tides to carry the young to sea. Traditionally, the dead or "spent" caplin were gathered by residents of coastal communities and dug into the soil as garden fertilizer. A comparatively small quantity were also harvested for eating fresh or for salting and drying.

Today, though, there is a commercial fishery for this vital link in the food web, despite opposition from those who believe that because of its vital role in the life cycle of so many species, the caplin should not be subject to commercial harvest. If you happen to be in Newfoundland when the caplin are spawning, the scene is definitely worth a side trip: whales feed offshore, birds dip beneath the surface to feed themselves and their young, and crowds of people head for the beach to cast a net, or simply to watch the spectacle.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Bringing Nature a Step Closer

In 1978, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador established the Salmonier Nature Park in an inland area less than an hour's drive from St. John's, initially as an environmental education centre. Over the years, though, its function has shifted somewhat; it's now an attraction for visitors to the area as well as a wildlife rehabilitation, research and environmental monitoring station. According to the province's Department of Environment and Conservation, Parks and Natural Areas Division, "The mission of Salmonier Nature Park is to provide exemplary learning opportunities and visitor experiences that connect people with the natural communities of Newfoundland and Labrador. These experiences must encourage a better understanding of and contribute to a sustainable future for people, wildlife and the environment on which they depend."

A boardwalk winds through the park, past enclosures that house a number of native wildlife species, some from the Island of Newfoundland and others that occur naturally only in the province's mainland portion, Labrador. The main focus of the park remains on environmental education, with school visits an important part of the park's mandate. It's an excellent place to get a closer look at some of Newfoundland and Labrador's native wildlife in a non-commercial setting, and an added attraction is the fact that the park's woodland location is home to many species of birds. Many of the animals on site come from the park's wildlife rehabilitation program; if possible, they will be returned to the wild.  If that is impossible, they become a permanent part of the park's on-site educational programming.

There is also a breeding program for the Newfoundland Pine Marten. The interpretation site, though, is only a small portion of the park, covering some 40 hectares (just under 100 acres). The entire park encompasses some 1415 hectares, or approximately 5.5 square miles, abutting on the Avalon Wilderness Reserve, and is home to 84 species of birds, 15 species of mammals and over 170 species of vascular plants. A walk along the boardwalk provides ideal viewing opportunities for many of these species, like the snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus), Canadian lynx (Lynx canadensis) and arctic fox (Vulpes lagopus) seen here, so it's an interesting stop for those with an interest in photography or birding.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Master Boatbuilder

If you happen into Trinity on a summer's day, you may just be treated to one of Newfoundland and Labrador's most beautiful sights: the schooner Leah Caroline as she slips into view, sails set to catch the wind. This beauty was built by Henry Vokey, a resident of Trinity and a boatbuilder since the 1950s. Henry grew up in the now-resettled community of Little Harbour, Trinity Bay; when he moved to Trinity he established Vokey's Shipyard, which produced over a thousand vessels from rodneys (small punts) to longliners using traditional methods, and at times employed up to forty people. With the shutdown of the shipyard in the 1990s, Henry continued building boats from the shed behind his home. In 1986, the schooner J & B was launched from the shipyard; it was operated as a tour boat for a number of years before being lost in a hurricane in 2007. Recently, Henry decided that it was time to build another schooner. The result is the beautiful and graceful Leah Caroline, launched in July of 2012. The day of the launch was a festive one in Trinity, drawing a large crowd despite the rainy weather. See a video of the launch, posted by Dale Gilbert Jarvis, Intangible Cultural Heritage Development Officer for the Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador, here.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Breaking Winter's Hold

Spring is gradually making its presence known on the Eastern Hyper-oceanic Barrens, as the snow begins to melt and the warmth of the sun reaches the earth beneath. What was once an unbroken expanse of white has become a mottled, patchy landscape where the deepest drifts remain but bare ground is showing through. Bird Rock is the spot where thousands of northern gannets (Morus bassanus) will soon be arriving to begin their nesting ritual; today it's completely bare, swept clean of nesting materials by winter's storms and gales. Ironically, it won't
be long before it's once again covered in white; this time, though, it will be the snowy white plumage of the gannets that provides the coverage. The gannets begin to arrive in mid-March, older birds returning to the nesting sites they've used in the past. The other birds that nest here will arrive soon as well; in fact, the first of the kittiwakes have already returned but are not nesting on the sheltered rocky ledges they prefer. The murres will soon be back, gathering on even narrower edges where they'll lay their conical eggs directly on the rock without benefit of a nest, and the razorbills will be seeking rocky niches for their eggs as well.
Today the Cape is silent apart from the sound of the breeze whispering through the low-growing grasses. Soon, though, the air will be filled with the cries of thousands of seabirds as they wheel above or plummet into the sea to feed in an electrifying display. The caplin will be coming into the beaches to spawn, and the whales will follow them close inshore as the summer progresses. The rich life-cycle of the Cape is at a low ebb now, but the tide is turning fast.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Celebrating the Links With Ireland

Newfoundland and Labrador's Avalon Peninsula is the site of the largest concentrated migration in the Irish diaspora; it's estimated that as many as 80% of Newfoundlanders have some Irish ancestry on at least one of their family trees. Much of the landscape is reminiscent of Ireland, and even the voices of the people echo the patterns of Irish speech. Some of the most Irish regions of this very Irish place are found on the southern half of the Avalon Peninsula, located in the southeast corner of the Island of Newfoundland. The most predominant dialect here stems from the southeast corner of Ireland: Counties Waterford, Wexford and Cork. It's not unusual to find communities that treasure and celebrate that Irish heritage through festivals, theatre and community concerts. In this most Irish corner of Newfoundland, I attended a St. Patrick's Day Concert that drew tight the Celtic knot of this link with every note that was performed. There were singers, dancers, instrumentalists and skits featuring local performers. Almost the entire community turned out -- the hall was packed with locals who joined in on the choruses of the songs and whose laughter made the rafters ring during the comedy skits. The schedule was packed with a full two dozen acts, most from within the community but a handful from places an hour or so away -- "just for variety" as the organizers explained. The concert was followed by a dance with a live band; admission to both concert and dance added up to $7 per person! The performers shown below are Kelsey Arsenault, Eta Nash and Eddy Lundrigan -- and no, Arsenault isn't an Irish name, but her mother is an O'Keefe!

Sunday, March 10, 2013

All Around the Circle

Among the many folk songs that belong to Newfoundland and Labrador, one of the best-known and most-loved is "All Around the Circle", collected and transcribed by two folklorists, Kenneth Peacock and Gerald S. Doyle. It probably originated in the late nineteenth century, but didn't become popular outside the province until it was popularized in the book Folk Songs of Canada by Edith Fowke and Richard Johnston in 1954. The three communities in the song, Fogo, Twillingate and Moreton's Harbour, were all fishing communities located on islands along Newfoundland's north-central coast.

To listen to the song performed by Newfoundland and Labrador band Ryan's Fancy, click here.

I's the b'y that builds the boat
And I's the b'y that sails her
I's the b'y that catches the fish
And brings 'em home to Liza.

Hip your partner Sally Thibault
Hip your partner Sally Brown
Fogo, Twillingate, Moreton's Harbour
All around the circle!

Sods and rinds to cover your flake
Cake and tea for supper
Codfish in the spring of the year
Fried in maggoty butter

I don't want your maggoty fish
That's no good for winter
I can buy as good as that
Down in Bonavista

I took Liza to a dance
Fast as she could travel
Every step that Liza took
Was up to her knees in gravel

Susan White, she's out of sight
Her petticoat wants a border
Old Sam Oliver in the dark
He kissed her in the corner.

Friday, March 08, 2013

The Reason for All that Red

One of the striking features of the Atlantic Canadian landscape is the abundance of red buildings, especially barns, outbuildings and sheds, in the vernacular architecture. There's an excellent reason for this, deeply rooted in the heritage of the region: because of the huge deposits of iron in the area, the iron oxides used for this handsome range of colours occur naturally here. It's ochre (or ocher), which has been used as a pigment for thousands of years.

 Technically, ochre is defined as "any of various natural earths containing ferric oxide, silica, and alumina: used as yellow or red pigments" and the yellow shades show up, too, but it's definitely the reds that dominate. Place-names all over the region reflect this; it's easy to find places called Ochre Pit Cove or Ochre Hill, and there are also place-names that refer to red, signalling the rusty tones that oxidizing iron can give the soil. The naturally-occurring pigment, sometimes treated by burning, was mixed with linseed oil in many places, but here in Atlantic Canada it was almost universally mixed with ingredients that were much more readily available locally: seal oil or fish liver oil. Oral tradition has it that the brighter reds were obtained with seal oil, while fish oils gave a darker, reddish-brown tone.

Use of red ochre in Newfoundland, though, goes back to a time long before the first Europeans arrived; the island's native population, the Beothuks, gathered ochre and used it to paint canoes and other artifacts and even their bodies. The Beothuk culture, ancestrally related to the Mi'kmaq, emerged around AD 1500, ending in 1829 with the death of the last surviving Beothuk, Shanawdithit.

Today, the red paint used often comes from commercial pigments, but the resulting look is very much a part of local tradition and culture.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

The Horses of Cape Bonavista

Until relatively recently, common grazing ground was found in most of the small communities of Newfoundland and Labrador. Horses and ponies, sheep, goats in in some cases cattle all grazed on community pastureland, ranging at will. If fences were constructed, they served not to keep animals in, but to keep them out of the immediate areas around the houses or vegetable gardens. Today, with less reliance on family farms and fewer people following a traditional rural lifestyle, that community pastureland is fast disappearing. There are a handful of communities, about thirty, where the practice continues and Bonavista is one of them. The community pasture is located on a small peninsula or cape, and a public road leading to the Dungeon Provincial Park runs through the middle of it. The area is fenced, and at the points where the road goes through these fences, cattle grids have been installed. Cattle, sheep and horses all graze here: the curious horses sometimes approaching people who stop for a photo -- like these three.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Iceberg Season Drifts Into View

April, May and June are prime iceberg-watching season in Newfoundland and Labrador,since this is the time of year when these northern giants drift south on the Labrador current after spending the winter frozen into the sea ice.  They'll gradually break free as the ice begins to break up, and move with the current to the shores of Labrador and then the island of Newfoundland. Their pace is slow and stately, befitting to the offspring of glaciers, and like most youngsters they move much more quickly than their parents. They move at the speed of the current, getting the occasional boost from favourable breezes if the berg is tall enough to act as a sail. They come in all shapes and sizes, from growlers the size of a cottage to massive,
floating islands of ice like those that calved from Greenland's Petermann Glacier in 2010 and 2012. They heave into view in the distance and inch to the south each day, but changes in wind direction can play tricks: one berg that had grounded on the south side of Bay Bulls (near St. John's) last spring suddenly freed itself drifted out of sight to the north before abruptly changing direction and moving south, ending up in Ferryland by the next morning. Bergs are often at their most spectacular as they begin to break up; the centre of gravity shifts as a result of erosion from sun, wind and water, and suddenly the massive weight of the berg can no longer support itself and a huge section will crack off, or the entire berg will roll and chunks of ice will fly in arcs to the water. It's important to treat these ice giants with respect, but they can certainly provide some wonderful viewing opportunities.

Saturday, March 02, 2013


At some point during Newfoundland and Labrador's summer whale watching season, usually late July or August, the word goes out that killer whales, or orcas (Orcinus orca), have been sighted in one of the province's many bays. The call goes out all along the shore -- these big predators are fascinating and exciting to watch. These are transient pods, meat-eaters, and they're on the hunt, often for minke whales. Unlike resident orca pods, these transient pods are dedicated hunters of mammals. Their feeding habits are so ingrained and so markedly different from those of resident pods, that there's actually a move to recognize similar transient whales in the North Pacific as having developed into a separate species, Biggs Killer Whales, named in honour of researcher Micheal Biggs.

Although visits from these whales are relatively rare, they occur regularly enough that they have afforded some opportunity for research and identification. Photographs of the whales' dorsal fins, the pale "saddle" patches on their backs, and their other distinctive markings have shown us that there are at least four distinct groups or pods, designated A through D by observers. While they are most often observed around the coast of the Northern Peninsula and Labrador, they make occasional forays around the entire coast of Newfoundland in search of a likely-looking food source. In the August of 2011, several attacks on prey species were documented around the Avalon Peninsula and there are numerous photographs and video recordings of their kills; the pod involved was D pod, identified by the V-notched dorsal of its lead female and the crinkled, forward-raked dorsal of the pod's largest male.

Orcas are no newcomers to the shores of Newfoundland, as illustrated by the carved-bone orca effigies found at Port au Choix National Historic Site, where evidence of settlement spans some 4000 years. They're still fascinating to residents and visitors alike.