Mother Carey’s Chicks

For a place that boasts the world’s largest colonies of Leach’s Storm-Petrels, it is surprising how rarely most Newfoundland birders get to enjoy them. More than 3 million pairs (yes – pairs!) are estimated to breed on Baccalieu Island at the northern tip of the Avalon Peninsula and 600,000+ pairs in the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve alone! However, Leach’s Storm-Petrels spend the daylight hours far out to sea, feeding on plankton and small fish. Storm-petrels themselves are perfect meals for larger predatory birds like gulls, so they prefer the extra safety that comes with staying far away from land. Only at night, under the cover of darkness, do these robin-sized seabirds come back to their island abode and sneak into the safety of their underground burrows.

The best times to catch a glimpse of these mysterious birds are during strong onshore winds, when some get blown closer to shore than they would usually bother coming. Occasionally, during a really good windstorm, large numbers get driven onto shore or into large bays. Late last week, a night of northerly gales did just that – and I headed out the next morning to check for seabirds at bottom of Conception Bay. Arriving at Holyrood, I immediately saw dozens of Leach’s Storm-Petrels flying around offshore, mostly into the wind (which by this point had lessened a bit, with gusts of ~70km/h). Setting up my scope, I began to see hundreds of them coursing over the water further out in the bay. Although these winds sometimes bring in other seabirds such as jaegers and shearwaters, I saw nothing else unusual in my two hours of scanning. But it was still an awesome chance to watch, learn and appreciate the enigmatic little Storm-petrel.

I managed to find one place where Leach's Storm-Petrels were filing by occasionally within camera range, but bright sunshine and strong winds made photography difficult.

I managed to find one place where Leach’s Storm-Petrels were filing by occasionally within camera range, but bright sunshine and strong winds made photography difficult.

The bright sun and strong shadows ruined would otherwise have been a great photo opportunity.

The bright sun and strong shadows ruined would otherwise have been a great photo opportunity.

Thousands of Lach's Storm Petrels fluttered over Conception Bay, driven there by the strong wrap-around winds from Tropical Storm Cristobal (August 29).

This photo was taken at the same location two years ago, during strong wrap-around winds from Tropical Storm Cristobal (August 29, 2014). Winds like these make for interesting birding in September and October.

Leach’s Storm-Petrels are more familiar to fishermen and sailors who also spend much of their lives on the open ocean, and are known by many as “Mother Carey’s chicks”. I have always wondered the origins of this colourful name, which seemed nearly as mysterious as the birds themselves. I recently saw an intriguing old drawing of a witch flying on a broomstick, surrounded by storm petrels and overlooking a sailing ship in a raging storm. It turns out that, according to some folklore, Mother Carey is a name attributed to an old hag that brings about cruel and dangerous seas. Some even claim she is the wife of “Davy Jones”, the mythological figure who is blamed for causing shipwrecks and claiming the bodies of drowned sailors. It is no surprise, then, that such an otherwise innocent-sounding name has been given to a seabird that is often associated with stormy winds and weather.

mother_carey_and_her_chickens_by_j_g_keulemans_1877

“Mother Carey and Her Chickens” (JG Keulemans, 1877)

Leach’s Storm-Petrels are also well known for getting stranded on land at this time of year. With millions of young birds fledging for the first time, and parents following suit to abandon their burrows until next year, there are lots of opportunity for mishaps. Storm-Petrels can get disoriented by the bright, artificial lights that are so common around our communities – especially on damp, foggy nights when visibility is limited. Like many seabirds, Storm-Petrels are unable to take flight from flat land (they usually launch off their sloped burrow entrance), and are easily stranded if they land. If you find one, gently pick it up, place it in a dark ventilated space (a small box works well) and release it over the water that evening. Doing so after sunset is best, since there is far less chance it will get predated on by larger birds.

We rescued this Leach's Storm-Petrel after finding it stranded at the base of Cape Race lighthouse on September 25. Although stranded birds may "appear" injured as they sit motionless or sometime flop around on the ground, in most cases they are healthy and simply cannot take off from land. We released this one over the water at nearby Cripple Cove.

We rescued this Leach’s Storm-Petrel after finding it stranded at the base of Cape Race lighthouse on September 25. Although stranded birds may “appear” injured as they sit motionless or sometime flop around on the ground, in most cases they are healthy and simply cannot take off from land. We released this one over the water at nearby Cripple Cove.

lhsp_jc_sept252016_2749

Advertisements

Making the Best of a Wet August

GratesCove_coast_6716

There’s an old adage in St. John’s that summer ends after Regatta Day (the famous rowing races held here on the first Wednesday of August). While that hasn’t really been my experience, this year it held true. Very true. While July was one of the hottest (and driest) months on record for the city, August turned out to be among the wettest and coolest! The rain started on Regatta Day (Aug 6) and hardly let up for the next few weeks. Temperatures rarely climbed out of the teens and sometimes dipped down to single digits, and there were only 5 days without rain the entire month!

But what odds? A little rain, drizzle & fog hasn’t stopped me from enjoying life before, and neither would it now. I started the month by spending some quality time with my father and two little girls (while all the women in our family were traveling in Ireland!), including a few days in Grates Cove, a visit to beautiful Cape Spear and lots of other fun. In fact, those first few days of August were the hottest days of summer, with temps in the mid-thirties!

CapeSpear_EmmaLeslie_6030 CapeSpear_EmmaLeslie_6059On August 5, I headed off to start my last tour of the season — a Wildland’s “Newfoundland Adventure” Tour that had just one guest, a Canadian currently living abroad in Holland and making her first foray to Newfoundland. It was a great week as we enjoyed amazing scenery, tons of whales, historical walks, and even a close-up moose … all while dodging the fog and rain that had begun its big invasion!

Beautiful flowers, such as these White-fringed (left) and Ragged-fringed (right) Orchids were blooming in roadside bogs during our drives.

Beautiful flowers, such as these White-fringed (left) and Ragged-fringed (right) Orchids were blooming in roadside bogs during our drives.

We encountered a Snowy Owl sitting on the barrens near St. Shott's - an unusual sighting here in mid-summer but one of several known to have lingered after last fall's big invasion.

We encountered a Snowy Owl sitting on the barrens near St. Shott’s – an unusual sighting here in mid-summer but one of several known to have lingered after last fall’s big invasion.

We encountered our first fog at Cape St. Mary's, although it moved off during the morning to reveal a beautiful day.

We encountered our first fog at Cape St. Mary’s, although it moved off during the morning to reveal a beautiful day.

Subalpine flowers, like these Diapensia lapponica, grow on the sub-arctic tundra of Cape St. Mary's.

Subalpine flowers, like these Diapensia lapponica, grow on the sub-arctic tundra of Cape St. Mary’s.

Small Purple-fringed Orchids were also in bloom at Cape St. Mary's - often hiding amongst patches of longer grass.

Small Purple-fringed Orchids were also in bloom at Cape St. Mary’s – often hiding amongst patches of longer grass.

A young bull moose graced us by allowing us to get quite close, although he seemed reluctant to share his lunch ;)

A young bull moose graced us by allowing us to get quite close, although he seemed reluctant to share his lunch 😉

The other moose we enjoyed during the tour was on our plates -- this burger served with delicious partridgeberry ketchup at the Bonavista Social Club.

The other moose we enjoyed during the tour was on our plates — this burger served with delicious partridgeberry ketchup at the Bonavista Social Club.

Icebergs in August are pretty unusual, but this has been an exceptional year. This one in Bonavista Bay was the last one I'll see this year.

Icebergs in August are pretty unusual, but this has been an exceptional year. This one in Bonavista Bay was the last one I’ll see this year.

Whales were plentiful in Trinity Bay, and we enjoyed close encounters with twenty or more Humpbacks during our two zodiac trips with Sea of Whale Adventures.

Whales were plentiful in Trinity Bay, and we enjoyed close encounters with twenty or more Humpbacks during our two zodiac trips with Sea of Whale Adventures.

Although most were busy gorging on the schools of caplin, a few enetertained us with some beautiful breaches. This one in front of the historic town of Trinity!

Although most were busy gorging on the schools of capelin, a few entertained us with some beautiful breaches. This one in front of the historic town of Trinity!

HumpbackTail_6444

The last day of the tour was spent exploring the beautiful and historic sites of St. John's, North Americas oldest city.

The last day of the tour was spent exploring the beautiful and historic sites of St. John’s, North Americas oldest city.

The rest of the month was family-time – much of it spent hanging out together in Grates Cove. We are fortunate that my wife’s family has an old home there, at the northern tip of the Avalon Peninsula, where we can get back to basics and connect a little with nature, history and each other.

The ruggedness of the sea, coast and barrens at Grates Cove are always a treat. We're fortunate to be able to spend so much time there.

The ruggedness of the sea, coast and barrens at Grates Cove are always a treat. We’re fortunate to be able to spend so much time there.

It was nice to see the first Partridgeberries turning red on the barrens, although it was the blueberries that got most of our attention in August.

It was nice to see the first Partridgeberries turning red on the barrens, although it was the blueberries that got most of our attention in August.

It was interesting come upon some Burying Beetles (Nicrophorus sp) at work alongside one of my favourite walking trails.

It was interesting to come upon some Burying Beetles (Nicrophorus sp) at work alongside one of my favourite walking trails.

The last of our orchids to flower, Hooded Ladies Tresses, were popping into bloom in mid-August.

The last of our orchids to flower, Hooded Ladies Tresses, were popping into bloom in mid-August.

More abundant, but less splendid, was Gall of the Earth - an odd flower that looks sickly even when its in full bloom!

More abundant, but less splendid, was Gall of the Earth – an odd flower that looks sickly even when its in full bloom!

We also visited the Mini Aquarium at Petty Harbour. Although the girls have been there twice with their aunt (my sister), it was my first time … and it was fun. I’ll include some more photos and details in another post …MiniAquarium_Emma_6933 MiniAquarium_Leslie_6935Finally, August ended with more rain as Tropical Storm Cristobal passed south of Newfoundland. More importantly, the wrap-around winds produced by this storm came from the northeast, blowing thousands of Leach’s Storm Petrels into the bottom of Conception Bay. I arrived at Holyrood late in the day, finding the bay alive with fluttering petrels, and a steady stream of them buzzing by at close range as the blasting winds forced them right in over the beach and road. (I’ll do a separate post on this event soon!)

Thousands of Lach's Storm Petrels fluttered over Conception Bay, driven there by the strong wrap-around winds from Tropical Storm Cristobal (August 29).

Thousands of Leach’s Storm Petrels fluttered over Conception Bay, driven there by the strong wrap-around winds from Tropical Storm Cristobal (August 29).