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!

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