Saturday, July 23, 2016

The Whales Are Back!

Diving whales
Each year along the shores of Newfoundland and Labrador, humpback whale sightings are few and far Mallotus villosus) is a vital part of the food web here, and it's responsible for nourishing not just the whales but the area's substantial seabird population, whose breeding season is timed to coincide with the caplin's spawning time. When the caplin arrive in their billions, so do the whales, intent on taking on close to a third of their body weight during the summer feeding season. When they're feeding, they concentrate completely on the task at hand until their principal food source arrives: the caplin (or capelin,

Humpback tail
On a recent trip out of Bay Bulls with Captain Wayne's Marine Excursions we spotted whales in just a few kilometres away from the shore -- a group that were actively feeding. We headed a little closer and stopped for a look. The whales were headed our way, staying at the surface briefly then diving to feed at depth. Several would surface at once, then dive within a few seconds of one another. As a result, there were ample opportunities for great ID shots of the tails' distinctive undersides. (See One Fluke at a Time, a post about humpback identification.)

Caplin after spawning
We spent nearly two hours observing at a respectful distance, on a near-perfect July day. When they neared the surface, the whales' white pectoral fins showed up, appearing green through the sea water. Proprietor Wayne Maloney's uncanny whale sense came through as always, and we were treated to a truly unforgettable experience.Here are a handful of images from our visit. What a day on the water!

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

It's a great year for icebergs!

Waterline of Bay Bulls iceberg
The past few years have been exceptional for iceberg watchers. Hundreds of bergs have made their way down the Labrador Current, drifting south along the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador. 2016, in particular, has seen an unusually high number of tabular, or flat, icebergs. This isn't actually good news, since it means that increased numbers of icebergs are calving from Greenland's glaciers, but it's brought some impressive viewing for those who are willing to travel for a look at the results. On a mid-June visit to Bay Bulls and the islands of the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve with Gatherall's Puffin and Whale Watch, we were treated to some beautiful views of a small berg grounded along the south side of the bay. Although it was overcast, enough sun broke through the clouds to create a beautiful shade of blue near the berg's waterline.

An impressive pinnacle berg near St. Anthony
Finding that June iceberg while exploring the Avalon Peninsula was serendipity; however, near St. Anthony there's a good chance of seeing bergs in July and sometimes even into August. A trip with Northland Discovery Boat Tours is the perfect -- and safe -- way of getting a closer look. On a late June trip we encountered two bergs, one sharply sculpted and the other tabular. There were several others in the distance, including a huge tabular berg that appeared to be close to a kilometre in length. If you're lucky, they'll even manage to net a bit of broken ice from one of the bergs and provide a taste of ice that's over 10,000 years old; it's compacted snow from long before Earth's industrial age, so it's about as pure as it gets!

Pinnacle berg coming into view

Large tabular berg

There's still plenty of time to view icebergs in 2016 -- for the latest in sightings, visit

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Cruising down the Saint Lawrence (Part 3) Cape Breton and St. Pierre

Skyline Trail, Cape Breton Highlands National Park
Cape Breton Island forms the most easterly portion of Nova Scotia -- connected to the mainland by a causeway completed in 1955. It's still a land apart by most measures, though, with a different way of looking at things and a spirit all its own. The passengers on the Ocean Endeavour got a taste of that spirit when we dropped anchor off the town of Cheticamp on the island's western side, near the border of Cape Breton Highlands National Park. Many people associate Cape Breton with Scottish culture, but Cheticamp is a bustling little port with a character that's a hundred percent Acadian, from the food to the music to the first language of most of its residents. The ancestors of today's population were forcibly expelled by the English starting in the year 1755 in what was known as Le Grand Dérangement, and those who have returned to Atlantic Canada did so because of their deep connection to the land. After being torn from their homeland, they endured years of exile in what is now the United States, gradually working their way back a few miles at a time, year by year, to what had been known as Île Royale but later came to be known as Cape Breton. When the Acadians returned, most found that the lands they'd once owned had been taken over by settlers of British descent; they found themselves relegated to marginal land with less value; Cheticamp was one of the places where the returning Acadians created a new home.

Our morning was spent hiking in the National Park, with groups doing both the Acadian Trail near the park entrance and the Skyline Trail on French Mountain; both groups were treated to beautiful scenery and escorted by Parks Canada interpreters. It was a perfect early-summer day, with blue skies and warm temperatures, and we were treated to glimpses of birds and wildlife on our way. Those of us on the Skyline Trail even enjoyed an opportunity to plant fir trees inside a moose exclosure, an area that is fenced to illustrate the difference between land that's grazed over by moose and land that's free from their grazing.

Planting trees, Cape Breton Highlands National Park
On returning to Cheticamp we were treated to a sampling of Acadian culture as we explored three of the town's main attractions: the Trois Pignons cultural centre with its impressive collection of the finely crafted hooked rugs associated with the area,  l'Eglise Saint Pierre (St. Peter's Church) which dominates the skyline for miles, and the Centre de la Mi-Carême, celebrating the tradition of revelry and merrymaking that broke with Lenten austerity, similar to Mardi Gras or Newfoundland's  mummering. We gathered at a local lounge for music and dancing before returning to the ship.

The next day we found ourselves in the midst of a post-tropical storm that made yesterday's sun and gentle breezes a distant memory. It was rough and windy, and after assessing conditions it was decided that we'd have to forego the planned stop in the Magdalen Islands and instead, the cruise staff  compiled an interesting and varied program of on-board presentations. The foul weather continued to follow us, so instead of a stop on the South Coast of Newfoundland the decision was made to press on to Saint Pierre and overnight there -- an unexpected treat!

Île aux Marins
Early arrival in Saint Pierre meant lots of time to hike the trails surrounding the town, or to visit l'Île aux Marins or Sailors' Island. Since we were docked directly across from the island, it was an easy trip by Zodiac. The following morning there was time for a sightseeing tour of Saint Pierre by bus, then some exploring on foot in the heart of the town to sample the wares at the local patisseries or pick up a bottle of French wine or a jar of fois gras before heading to the airport for our flight to St. John's. 

Adventure Canada's Mighty St. Lawrence cruise has been named by National Geographic as one of its “50 Tours of a Lifetime".

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Cruising down the Saint Lawrence (Part 2) Bonaventure Island and PEI

Gannets on Bonaventure Island
Continuing down the Saint Lawrence after a stop at Métis-sur-Mer, we arrived at Gaspé for a visit to Forillon National Park. There were options for walks of various lengths and degrees of difficulty, or time in the town for a walkabout; the National Park walks were through forested hills and there were wildlife sightings along the way, including a glimpse of a black bear, and there were lots of great photo opportunities. 
Ocean Endeavour through Percé Rock

From here it was on to Percé, where we boarded the Zodiacs for a closer look at the famous Percé rock and the northern gannet colony on Bonaventure Island. The island is roughly circular in shape and measures a little over four square kilometres, and is one of the world's most accessible bird sanctuaries. In addition to nearly 50,000 gannets, the island is also a nesting site for seabirds like common murres, black guillemots, razorbills and a few puffins.

Trying traditional quillwork, Lennox Island
Returning to the Ocean Endeavour, we set off for our next stop, Prince Edward Island. Sometimes called the Garden of the Gulf, the island was known as Epekwitk (translated as "Cradled on the Waves") to the Mi'kmaq people who lived here before the Europeans arrived. Two main options were offered for shore excursions from our stop in Summerside: a visit to the North Shore with its Anne of Green Gables history, from the books of L. M. Montgomery, and Prince Edward Island National Park; or a visit to the Lennox Island First Nation where we visited the local school and were greeted by elders of the community to learn about its history, then had an opportunity to observe traditional crafts like porcupine quillwork. There was time for a little exploring in Summerside when we returned to the dock, and a shuttle service that provided transportation to points of interest around town. Leaving Summerside, we were treated to an unusual view of the Confederation Bridge during dinner. 

Headed for the Confederation Bridge

 Adventure Canada's Mighty St. Lawrence cruise has been named by National Geographic as one of its “50 Tours of a Lifetime".

Next: on to Cape Breton Island.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Cruising down the Saint Lawrence (Part 1) The Saguenay and Reford Gardens

Leaving Quebec City
The first day of June dawned sunny and mild; a group of stalwart travellers set forth from the Fairmont Chateau Frontenac to explore the beautiful and historic city of Quebec, the only surviving walled city in North America north of Mexico. After some time for sightseeing on our own and a chance to try out one of many local restaurants, we were met by Adventure Canada staff for a transfer to the Ocean Endeavour. There our small group of 22 met the rest of the 179 passengers boarding for the nine-day Adventures Afloat program, Exploring the Mighty Gulf of Saint Lawrence.

There was time to get settled into our cabins before our lifeboat drill and orientation. We set off just after 6 p.m. in a light breeze, passing by Montmerency Falls and l'Île d'Orleans in beautiful evening light.

On the Saguenay
We travelled down the river through the night, then turned up the Saguenay Fjord to begin our first full day of sightseeing with a leisurely cruise back down to the confluence with the St. Lawrence. On the way, under clearing skies, we spotted a few of the area's famous beluga whales along the shore. At Tadoussac we tendered ashore to the community's floating dock in the ship's fleet of Zodiacs and made our way to the local church for a welcome ceremony complete with snacks, drinks and music along with a few words from the mayor. We worked our way back to the ship taking in several of the town's attractions - including the exceptional Marine Mammal Interpretation Centre - along the way.

It rained while we were in Tadoussac, cancelling the town's plan for a beach bonfire to celebrate our visit, but it didn't dampen our spirits. One of my favourite memories of the trip is of walking through the town on my way to the ship, with a huge smile on my face, happy to be where I was at that moment. I looked up to see a member of the Adventure Canada expedition team walking in the opposite direction, wearing the same delighted grin!

Dessert at Reford Gardens
The following day brought a visit to Reford Gardens, a beautifully tended collection of plantings. Once privately owned, then operated by the Province of Quebec, the site is now under the control of a foundation headed by Alexander Reford, who served as the tour guide for our Road Scholar group. After a walk through the gardens, this group enjoyed a superb lunch prepared by the foundation's chef, who explained each course as it was served, beginning with a "bloom spoon" - a collection of flower petals and berries presented in the bowl of a spoon, designed to be consumed as a single mouthful. What a remarkable burst of flavour! This was followed by an asparagus and tulip salad, a choice of Reford Gardens lamb or fresh turbot, and a tempting dessert that was flavoured with lemon geranium.

We returned to the ship to take in some of the excellent on-board programming.

Hotel Tadoussac

Adventure Canada's Mighty St. Lawrence cruise has been named by National Geographic as one of its “50 Tours of a Lifetime".

Next: continuing down the St. Lawrence bound for Gaspé.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Among the Tall Pines

Early rhododendrons

In Milton, Nova Scotia, just outside the town of Liverpool, there's a riverside park that is one of the area's natural treasures. Pine Grove Park was established by the Bowater Mersey Paper Company in 1987 to celebrate Queen's County being named as the Forestry Capital of Canada for that year. In the winter of 2012 it was turned over to the residents of the county.

Tall pines along the trail

With 1.6 km (one mile) of looping trails, a swimming beach, toilet facilities and a picnic area, it's a pleasant recreational park. In spring and early summer, though, the park is ablaze with blossoms: rhododendrons, azaleas, magnolias and other flowers are abundant and several woodland glade are perfect habitat for pink lady slipper orchids. Many of the flowering trees and shrubs were selected and donated by retired naval captain Richard Steele, an Order of Canada recipient known as "Captain Rhododendron".

Soft pink rhododendron blossoms

The Mersey River flows past Pine Grove Park, and provides nesting areas for teal and black duck. The winding trails make a marvelous place to break up a long drive with a peaceful walk through the tall pines. The park is just minutes from Nova Scotia Route 103 at Exit 19 and is well worth a stop if you're in the area.

Mersey River

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

It's puffin time again!

Puffin on Gull Island, Witless Bay
It's that time of year again -- the puffins and other seabirds have returned to their colonies around the coasts of Atlantic Canada and Maine. There are many places around the region to see these small, sturdy birds, but two locations stand out: the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve for sheer numbers, and the Puffin Island at Elliston for land-based observation.

The Witless Bay Ecological Reserve lies south of St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador. Witless Bay takes its name from an early family of settlers, the Whittles family; over the years the name has been corrupted to its present form. The four islands of the reserve lie just off the shore, from north to south they are Gull Island, Green Island, Great Island, and the fancifully named Peepee Island, whose name is said to be from the distinctive aroma that wafts from it in summer.

Typical "puffin weather" at Elliston
There are boat tours that allow for a closer approach to the islands; to protect the bird life, only those operators granted special permits are allowed to travel through the reserve. Bay Bulls is the primary starting point for these excursions, while operators can also be found in the town of Witless Bay and in Mobile, just to the south. All Witless Bay photos in this post are thanks to Captain Wayne's Marine Excursions of Bay Bulls. Other operators can be found here.

Puffins are true pelagics: they land on these rocky islands solely to mate and rear their young, spending the remainder of the year on the open sea. They burrow into the dirt of the island, or on rockier sites use narrow clefts in the rock for burrows. The pairs bond for life, returning to the same burrow year after year, although "divorces" are said to occur if one mate is a less-than-stellar provider. They're not the only seabirds that nest in the Reserve; there are also black-legged kittiwakes, common and thick-billed murres, black guillemots, and huge numbers of Leach's storm petrels among others.

Burrow entrance
Elliston, located on the Bonavista Peninsula, is the self-styled Root Cellar Capital of North America due to the large number of these storage structures that can be found there. Just outside the community is a headland accessed by a rocky trail that leads to a viewing point overlooking a small island that houses a breeding colony of puffins. The unusual thing about this spot is that when the weather and wind are right (often damp weather and a southeast wind) the puffins will land near the viewing area on the headland itself. This makes for some incredible up-close viewing experiences.

The puffins will be around until late August, with a few lingering into September, so there's plenty of opportunity for a good look during the summer months. Happy viewing!

Friday, May 06, 2016

Reflecting on Nature

While sorting through a few archived images for a project, I was struck with how many of them had one striking feature in common: reflections. Whether in sea water, glass or even wet pavement, this simple phenomenon has the power to captivate. I have to admit that I'm pretty much addicted to them. Sometimes the morning sun's low angle sets off a perfect combination of elements to create an unforgettable image.

Sometimes it's the evening light that does it, turning marsh grass to gold, deepening the colours of the blue-grey clouds and painting the granite rocks a stark white, like this scene in Atwood's Brook, NS.

Blue Rocks, Nova Scotia, is a picturesque spot at any time, but the touch of the early morning sun on the golden shades of autumn can make it even more beautiful.

Evening's soft rose tones on a winter day can create a Rorschach sunset around the inshore islands. This is another scene from Atwood's Brook, NS.

A few sanderlings scouting for food at the water's edge make for some striking reflections in the wet sand of Daniel's Head Beach, Cape Sable Island, NS.

Monday, May 02, 2016

Beer cans, balloons and bottles

Plastic bottles, coffee cups, Styrofoam and other plastics.
I often walk for recreation, for thinking, or sometimes just for the sake of walking. It's great exercise and it's carried out at a pace that allows for taking in all the sights and sounds of my surroundings: bird song, flowers in bloom, the whisper of the wind in the trees, small dramas like the remains of a crab at the waterline where it's become lunch for a marauding gull. It's far more interesting from my point of view to walk outdoors regardless of the weather than to walk on an indoor track or on a treadmill.

Yard sale leftovers.
One aspect of outdoor walking that's becoming almost universal, though, is the increasing amount of litter that's casually dropped -- or sometimes intentionally dumped in quantity -- beside the trail or into the ocean. I carry a reusable bag with me and often fill it completely in just two or three miles of walking. Coffee cups from Canada's best-known coffee shops, plastic bottles, aluminum cans, foam "clamshell" containers from fast food restaurants and miscellaneous trash fill the bag day after day -- and on one memorable occasion there was a car-load of leftovers from a yard sale, strewn on the ground for others to deal with.

Looks like I missed the party.
I honestly can't understand why anyone believes it's okay to just drop these things on the ground or in the water instead of disposing of them properly. I understand that some litter is inevitable; a plastic bag or a bit of paper gets caught by the wind and drifts quickly out of reach, ending up snagged high in a tree or far beyond reach. When the entire disposable wrappings of a fast-food lunch get dropped together in a heap, though, that's no accident. It's deliberate disregard for one's surroundings and for anyone else who happens along. In Atlantic Canada there's a spring cleanup of the roadsides that takes place sometime in April or May. Although disheartening, it's not unusual to see the first fast-food containers or coffee cups show up literally within minutes of the cleanup crew passing through.

Household items and lots of plastics.
There's another type of litter that's most often found on beaches -- the spent balloons that have marked an occasion then been discarded or have drifted away. Sometimes they're even released en masse by well-meaning people in organized "balloon release" events that are beautiful to watch only if you're not aware of how horribly destructive they can be to birds and animals. Sea turtles in particular tend to consume balloons and plastic bags since when these articles float in the water they bear a strong resemblance to the jellyfish on which the turtles feed. Check out this information from the group Balloons Blow to learn about the damage they can cause, and safe alternatives to balloon releases.

Thanks for dropping by, and thanks in advance for noticing and picking up litter. I know it's someone else's mess, but if we all do our part we can begin to make this a safer place for birds and animals, and for ourselves!

Monday, April 18, 2016

The Birds of the Open Sea

Newfoundland and Labrador is a prime location to see birds that normally make their home on the open sea -- the pelagics. The word is defined as "of or relating to the open sea" and in birding it refers to those species that spend most of the year on the open water and make their way to land only for the breeding season and to rear their young. They're fascinating, hardy birds and there are many varieties of them. Here are a few that can be found along the coastline of Canada's easternmost province:

Atlantic puffin
Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica)
Nicknamed the Clown of the Sea or the Sea Parrot, this member of the alcid family can be found in huge numbers around Newfoundland and Labrador. Not satisfied to host the largest colony of this seabird in North America, the province also boast the next five largest colonies as well! Puffins aren't great fliers, and are far more comfortable in the water than in the air or on land. Their most-favoured nesting sites are islands that are naturally protected from most land-based predators, although still have to contend with occasional forays by gulls, hawks and even eagles. Puffins dig burrows into the soft soil of the islands or nest in clefts in the rock. The best viewing areas for puffins are from the boat tours serving the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve just south of St. John's, and Elliston's Puffin Island on the Bonavista Peninsula where the puffin-watching is land-based. The image at right was taken on an evening cruise with Captain Wayne's Marine Excursions in Bay Bulls.

Razorbill (Alca torda)
These elegant-looking birds with their black tuxedos and pinstriped bills are also alcids. Like many other pelagics they are colonial, tending to nest in large groups. They are less common than puffins or murres in this region, but a trip to the islands of the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve in season is bound to bring a sighting or two. Auks like these mate for life, and each pair of adults produces only one egg per year; if that egg is lost another may be laid but in all likelihood won't be viable since the hatch is timed to coincide with the run of caplin (or capelin), a member of the smelt family that is the primary food source for most nesting seabirds along Newfoundland's coasts. When the breeding season is over, these birds head out to sea and spend the remainder of the year offshore, as far south as New Jersey and occasionally Virginia.

Common murre nesting colony
Common Murre (Uria aalge)
This abundant bird is penguin-like in appearance, its resemblance to those southern-hemisphere birds the result of convergent evolution, or the gradual evolving of similar features in unrelated species as a result of living in similar environments. Unlike penguins, though, most alcids are capable of flight -- the exception was the great auk, extinct since the mid-19th Century, which was once found here in huge numbers. British birders know this species as the common guillemot.

Thick-billed murre
Thick-billed Murre (Uria lomvia)
Known to British birders as Brünnich's guillemot, the thick-billed murre is distinguished from its common cousin by the white line along the side of the bill, which is slightly thicker than that of the common murre. Both species lay their eggs directly on the rocks instead of building nests, and the eggs are conical in shape so they roll in a tight circle -- a necessity when they are laid on narrow rock ledges high above the sea. Common and thick-billed murres are superb swimmers and divers, using their wings to "fly" through the water to depths of more than 100 metres. 

Juvenile black-legged kittiwakes
Black-legged Kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla)
The kittiwake is a pelagic gull that nests on rock ledges. Unlike the alcids, these birds may lay two or even three eggs. They are graceful and agile fliers, and their name comes from a phonetic rendering of their call. In Newfoundland they are sometimes referred to as the tickle-ace or tickle-ass, from their habit of flying close behind other birds and harassing them by nipping at their tail feathers as they carry prey, in an attempt to get them to drop it; this behaviour of stealing food from other birds is called kleptoparisitism

Northern fulmars
Northern Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis)
This handsome bird is found mostly in subarctic regions of the North Atlantic. While it looks like a gull it is related to both petrels and albatrosses, evidenced by the structure of its beak, which has evolved to help it remove salt from its system.  Its wingbeats are stiffer than those of a gull and it can be recognized by the way it glides, and by the dark spot in front of the eye. When threatened, the fulmar has a rather disconcerting habit of projectile vomiting on the intruder, a very effective deterrent indeed.

Northern gannet feeding young
Northern Gannet (Morus bassanus)
This member of the booby family nests in colonies of bare rock, building a nest from grasses, seaweed and found materials like netting twine. The adults mate for life and raise a single chick each year, remaining in the nesting area until late in the autumn. A prime viewing area for this graceful species is the Cape St. Mary's Ecological Reserve near St. Brides, where they nest on a remarkable sandstone seastack that is only about ten metres away from the viewing area, reached by a 1-km-long trail from a well-designed interpretation centre.

Greater shearwater
Greater Shearwater (Ardenna gravis, formerly Puffinus gravis)
While it breeds in distant Tristan da Cunha in the South Atlantic, the shearwater is a frequent summer visitor to the shores of Newfoundland, especially when a cold wind blows the fog in off the sea. Its name comes from the bird's gliding flight just above the water's surface. The darker sooty shearwater can also be found here, and there is a small breeding population of of about 350 Manx shearwaters (Puffinus puffinus) off the coast of the Burin Peninsula.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Hebron Will Aways be Home

Mission buildings at Hebron
In 1830, Moravian missionaries (German and Czech protestants) established an outpost on a remote section of the coast of Labrador (now Nunatsiavut). They planted a sizeable garden and constructed a large building that housed a church, a school, and a medical clinic, and they set up a settlement that became an important trading centre on the coast. An Inuit community grew up in the hills surrounding the mission. In 1959, without consultation with community members, the Moravians decided to close the mission, forcing the relocation of some 58 Inuit families who had been encouraged to settle here. It was a time of upheaval and sorrow that is remembered by the Inuit of Nunatsiavut to this day.

The main mission building
To visit Hebron is to step back briefly to that time, and to be haunted by the rugged beauty of the sheltered harbour and the embrace of the hills. The main mission building is under reconstruction, since the settlement was named a National Historic Site in the 1970s. Other abandoned buildings on the site have not fared as well, and are in various states of disrepair. I visited on a perfect summer day in 2015, with Adventure Canada. There was time to reflect on the history of the place and on the lives of those who made their homes here, and to visit to the buildings currently maintained by Parks Canada.

The hills surrounding the Hebron mission
In 2005, a formal apology was made on behalf of the province by Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Danny Williams; in the spirit of reconciliation, a monument on the site is inscribed with the apology in both English and Inuktitut, in combination with an acceptance of that apology. It reads, in part, "What happened at Nutak and Hebron serves as an example of the need for governments to respect and carefully consider the needs and aspirations of the people affected by their decisions."

Many of the buildings have fallen into disrepair
There were eight missions established on the coast; among them were Hopedale, Makkovik, Ramah (closed 1908), Nutak (closed in 1959), Zoar (abandoned 1899), and Okak (abandoned in 1919 as a result of an influenza pandemic). Hebron is a place of great scenic beauty, and even greater cultural significance. In the hearts of many residents of Nunatsiavut, it will always be Home.