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 BrĂ¼nnich'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.