Lessons from Travels: Maritime Canada Seabirds

by Carl Strang

In 2002 I drove to Newfoundland. To those who know their geography this seems a strange statement, as Newfoundland is an island. It’s possible, though, thanks to the ferries.

One of the ferries I rode. There was plenty of space in the hold for all the vehicles

One of the ferries I rode. There was plenty of space in the hold for all the vehicles

One advantage of this ferry ride is that it provides the opportunity to be far enough at sea to spot the true seabirds. These include the tube-noses, including the storm-petrels and shearwaters.

Wilson’s storm-petrel, which glides just above the water seeking little tidbits.

Wilson’s storm-petrel, which glides just above the water seeking little tidbits.

A greater shearwater, hastily taking wing as the ferry passes too close for comfort.

A greater shearwater, hastily taking wing as the ferry passes too close for comfort.

I was puzzled by flocks of what appeared to be shorebirds, occasionally landing on the water and not showing any concern about being so far at sea. Then I realized that they were red phalaropes, shorebirds indeed but swimming ones that spend the nonbreeding season on the ocean.

Closer to shore, other dynamics come into play. For instance there are the tides. During the drive to Newfoundland I camped at Fundy National Park in New Brunswick, and got a chance to see how dramatically low the tides there drop.

It looks like an optical illusion, but the water that appears so far away and so far below does indeed rise high enough to inundate the algae on these rocks.

It looks like an optical illusion, but the water that appears so far away and so far below does indeed rise high enough to inundate the algae on these rocks.

Some of the seabirds remain in the coastal proximity most of the time. Among these are great cormorants.

These are larger close relatives of our familiar double-crested cormorant.

These are larger close relatives of our familiar double-crested cormorant.

Of course, all the seabirds must come to shore to nest, and as this was the end of the breeding season, that was where many were easiest to see. A gallery follows.

Northern gannets tend their large, downy youngsters in the fog at the St. Mary’s Ecological Reserve.

Northern gannets tend their large, downy youngsters in the fog at the St. Mary’s Ecological Reserve.

Black-legged kittiwakes nest on the narrowest of the cliff ledges.

Black-legged kittiwakes nest on the narrowest of the cliff ledges.

Common murres also nest on the cliffs, which provide security from predators such as foxes.

Common murres also nest on the cliffs, which provide security from predators such as foxes.

An Atlantic puffin zips past like a blunt bullet.

An Atlantic puffin zips past like a blunt bullet.

The puffins nest in tunnels rather than on cliffs.

The puffins nest in tunnels rather than on cliffs.

Never in the history of northern Illinois has there been anything to match this menagerie of seabirds. The only time our area was maritime was in the Paleozoic era, when birds were still many millions of years in the future. Such experiences lend perspective, however, demonstrating how life can diversify to accommodate the range of ecological space available in the wide world.

Lessons from Travels: Caribou

by Carl Strang

Travel offers many comparisons to the home landscape. Sometimes you can go back in time. I felt that way during my trip to Newfoundland in 2002, when my first day’s drive brought me to a herd of caribou.

The irregular southeastern peninsula of this island province in Canada offers the rare opportunity to encounter caribou along a paved road.

The irregular southeastern peninsula of this island province in Canada offers the rare opportunity to encounter caribou along a paved road.

A curious calf detached itself from the group and approached my stopped car.

My clicking shutter sent him back to the herd.

My clicking shutter sent him back to the herd.

Thousands of years before paved roads, as the glacier retreated from northeast Illinois, caribou followed with the tundra and stunted early trees as they trailed the ice edge.

Lessons from Travels: Newfoundland Whales

by Carl Strang

My 2002 vacation trip was a driving tour of Newfoundland. It took three full days of driving to reach the ferry port, then a full day’s ferry trip, to reach that subarctic island. I left my sea kayak at home, but I knew there would be guided tour opportunities. One came at a bay on the eastern side. I spent much of the morning watching humpbacked whales feeding in the bay, and then joined an afternoon tour from Bay Bulls, the harbor town there.

Preparing to launch.

Fortunately I was able to take a single, which gave me more maneuverability and flexibility.

The shore provided a scenic backdrop as we set out.

Our guide was experienced and sensitive to the whales’ needs. He led us into a very slow approach, and kept us from getting too close.

This paddler backed off and the humpback was undisturbed.

Our whale gradually worked out of the harbor, leading us to the more open sea. The enormous animal, seen from water level and close enough to get a good sense of it, provided an indescribable expansion of my understanding of the range and potential of life and evolution.

Out into the north Atlantic.

Our departure from the sheltering bay was not at all frightening on that calm day. After all, the opposite horizon isn’t visible in the Great Lakes, either. In fact, it was more soothing than a Great Lakes paddle. The swells have a longer period, and hence a more slow and relaxing rise and fall.

Another less experienced guide arrived with another group, led them right up to the whale, and the cetacean immediately departed for good. We headed back to explore the coast.

Kittiwakes rested on the cliffs, having completed their nesting season.

There was even a small sea cave.

One of the advantages of kayaks is access to such tight places.

A few days later I took a seabird and whale tour on a large powered boat. The captain, knowing tourists expect to see a whale’s tail lifting, brought us too close for the whale’s comfort.

The kayak tour guide referred to this as waving bye-bye. The whale only lifts its tail like this when bothered, and departing via a deeper dive.

Appreciating the physicality of the ocean, and the immensity of a whale, requires direct experience as close to the water as possible. I advocate the kayak experience. Television, and even the powerboat trip, can’t provide this perspective.

Goodbye, Old Friend

by Carl Strang

My friends know that I’m a hopeless nature nerd. If you know me only through this blog, that has been evident enough. But I have my emotional side, and I can get sentimental about what to others might seem to be ridiculous things. The time has come to say goodbye to my old Saturn station wagon, and I’m sad about it. The car made a cameo appearance in the early days of this blog, when I described my pilgrimage  to trace the route of the Lake Michigan lobe of the latest continental glacier.

Watershed sign 2b

That was the last significant adventure the Saturn and I shared. It was not, however, the greatest. That trip would have to be my journey to Newfoundland in 2002. Newfoundland is, of course, an island province. The car made the crossing in the hold of a ferry much like this one.

Newfoundland ferry b

I drove all around Newfoundland. This photo of a caribou calf I took through the car’s window.

Caribou peekaboo b

In that car I went as far south as Mobile, Alabama, and as far west as the southwest corner of Kansas. I drove all around lakes Superior and Huron in 2004, scouting for good kayaking possibilities that set up my crossing of northern Georgian Bay in 2006. Here the car and kayak sit in the Ontario town of Killarney as I feast on the evening before starting that adventure.

04b Car in Killarney

Of course there were innumerable shorter trips. Here is my campsite at Wisconsin’s Wyalusing State Park, where I discovered a new northern range limit for the broad-winged tree cricket.

Wyalusing 4b

But, as my arthritis increasingly reminds me, all things wear out and ultimately must end. That car made it past 190,000 miles and 11 years, but was completely worn out and no longer reliable. I no longer could trust it for longer trips or for carrying my boats. At the end of May it broke down so significantly that I could not justify the cost of repairing it. So now I feel the sadness of saying goodbye to an old friend. Thank you, Saturn, for carrying me all those miles. And thank you, readers, for indulging me in this cathartic posting.

Merry Christmas!

by Carl Strang

 

A safe and happy Solstice season to you and yours.

 

 

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Caribou calf (New World reindeer equivalent and probable DuPage County resident 15,000 years ago), Newfoundland

Caribou calf (New World reindeer equivalent and probable DuPage County resident 15,000 years ago), Newfoundland

]

 

 

 

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