Thousands of seabirds, mostly Northern Gannets, nesting, “kissing,” swooping and calling out, cuddled together on sea stacks above the pounding ocean. In full sunshine we were the only birders on the narrow, grassy viewing area, a clifftop metres away from the birds, for four hours—late afternoon and again early the next morning. Viewing can become so crowded that a sign reads, “Please Assure Everyone Has an Equal Opportunity to View the Seabirds!” We may have been the luckiest people this summer to visit Cape St. Mary’s Ecological Reserve in Newfoundland, the most accessible seabird colony in North America.
We were skeptical entering the almost-empty parking lot—there was so much fog you could barely see the interpretative centre right in front of us.
“This is a rare day—there’s only one day in twenty-one that you can see our building from the parking lot,” said Chris Mooney, the interpretive centre officer, a solid guy dressed in park ranger khakis who looked like he could wrestle a bear, his welcome genuine, his Newfoundland wit as natural as his smile. It was 5:30 on a Friday night when we arrived, closing time for Chris. “You’ll have great visibility out on Bird Rock. Just be careful getting there. In the 21 years I’ve been here no one has fallen over the cliffs so don’t be the first because I have a lot to do at home and won’t take kindly to rescuing you.”
Cape St. Mary’s is home to 70,000 seabirds, mostly Northern Gannets. It’s the largest colony of them in Newfoundland and the southernmost of the world’s 40 known gannet colonies. And one of the most accessible. (If you don’t count the 13 km potholed single-lane road east from the small town of St. Bride’s. “They paved it in 1993 and I’ve been fixing potholes ever since,” Chris says. “I have to drive it every day!”) A 1.4 km hiking trail through sub-Arctic tundra leads from the interpretation centre to a grassy outcrop on the cliff adjacent to Bird Rock.
Bird Rock is like an avian high-rise condo. Over 11,000 nesting pairs of gannets live in the penthouses, dumping their sewage onto the homes below. In addition to the gannets, there are more than 10,000 pairs of Common Murres, 10,000 pairs of Black-Legged Kittiwakes, 150 pairs of Razorbills (although we didn’t see any) and 60 pairs of black Guillemot Cormorants.
When male gannets find a suitable breeding spot, they attempt to attract a female. To show their availability females fly over the colony with their necks outstretched signalling they’re available for courtship. In return the males shake their heads in a similar way to when they’re guarding the nest but instead of stretching their wings, they stay closed. Gannets are monogamous, staying with the same bird over many years, if not their entire lives.
The couples produce one chick and take turns doting first on the egg and then the chick, fending off predators such as eagles, gulls and other gannets while their mate gathers food at sea, a daily scene from spring until late September. When the male arrives back at the nest, the two birds stand breast-to-breast with wings spread and bills extended vertically. They fence and scissor with their bills rapidly, calling loudly at the same time.
When ready to fledge, the chicks glide down into the sea and because they are so heavy, they are unable to return to the cliff. Their reserves of fat allow them to go two-to-three weeks without eating. The juveniles migrate as far as the Gulf of Mexico, returning to their birth area after two or three years. Immature birds stay on the edge of the colony and may attempt to build a nest but they don’t breed until they are four or five years old.
After the chicks have fledged the adults separate and spread out over a wide area, spending their winters alone, often 1600 kilometres away from their breeding colony.
After our second viewing, we returned to the Interpretive Centre to see the excellent exhibits and learn more from Chris.
His team had an immediate concern—the possible extent of avian bird flu. That Saturday a 73-year-old specialist from Boston was coming out and they were going to take blood samples. Chris had set the ropes so they could climb down the ledges. “Before we just took feces’ samples, shoved a tube up their arse,” said Chris. “A Northern Gannet colony in Britain was almost wiped-out after sick juveniles had returned from South Africa.”
It’s a very serious problem that we’ll address in a subsequent blog.
Gannet life in Newfoundland, Canada Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Conservation Media Program