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.

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