08 October 2010


(Colony of northern gannets at Cape Saint Mary's Ecological Reserve, Newfoundland. Photo by Bigg(g)er, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.)  

Cape Saint Mary's Ecological Reserve on the island of Newfoundland is one of my favorite places on Earth. 

Look at the monster continental shelf all around it. That's none other than the Grand Banks, the fishing grounds that fueled Europe for 500 years. 

Cape Saint Mary's lies on a point of land between fjords. In bird-world economics, that's like living between Costco and Home Depot.

(Photo by Johnath, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.) 

Only way bettah.

(Capelin spawned out on a beach in Newfoundland. Photo by Litehouseman, courtesy Flickr.) 

The birds are here for these waters' many piscivorous banquets, including the annual capelin feast: aka, the spawning run, known locally as the scull. This is the time each summer when capelin by the millions head up onto dry land to spawn.

More on that in a later post.

(Atlantic puffin with capelin off Newfoundland. Photo by Nilfanion, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.)

(A mated pair of northern gannets performing their courtship display, including fencing with their bills. Photo by naturepicsonline, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.)

Cape Saint Mary's is widely recognized as one of the most accessible seabird rookeries in the world, where you can see—from dry land and from as little as 30 feet awayspectacular aggregations of northern nesters:
  • 24,000 northern gannets
  • 20,000 black-legged kittiwakes
  • 20,000 common murres
  • 2,000 thick-billed murres
  • 200 razorbills
  • black guillemots
  • double-crested cormorants 
  • great cormorants
  • northern fulmars
(Northern gannet with nesting material. Photo by Andreas Trepte, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.)

(Razorbill, in similar nesting conditions to Cape Saint Mary's, in Westfjords, Iceland. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.)

(Black guillemot at Oban Harbour, Scotland. Photo by Kelson, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.)

Here's an excerpt about time I spent at Cape Saint Mary's. From DEEP BLUE HOME.
Filming from the bluffs, we are buffeted by the collective voice of the birds, as rough as the sea below and likewise rising, cresting, breaking into squawks, chuckles, squalls, trills, shouts. Dr. Charles W. Townsend, visiting the gannets in 1919, described their calls as "the sound of a thousand rattling looms in a great factory."
Thousands of long-winged, long-tailed birds are woven onto the wind, white crosses billowing on veils of fog. Heads down or cocked to the side, the gannets call to their mates below, sifting through the mayhem for familiar return calls, their personal homing beacons. When heard, the receiving bird retracts its wings, extends its legs, and drops—as light as a falling handkerchief that neatly folds itself upon landing.
The great looms of the gannets are joined by other calls: the breaking-glass kitt-ih-wake! of the kittiwakes; the purring and moaning of turrs—Newfoundland for murres; the grumpy growling of razorbills; the piping and hissing of guillemots; the strangled croaks of cormorants; the adenoidal cackling of fulmars. Add to these the high-pitched peeps of chicks, including those still in the egg, yet already talking to their parents (as with the murres), and you have a fully fledged United Nations of multispecies languages—as if all the tongues you heard on the New York City subway were not just of humans but also our relatives, gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans, gibbons, macaques, baboons, complete with their children in utero and ex utero... a loud, loquacious, repetitive, insistent, hurried, harried, and vital discourse.
We capture as many dramas as we can crowd onto our limited allotment of film, the courtships, the copulations, the pipping of eggs, the chicks diving into the gullets of their parents, the parents diving into the thrashing waters, the varieties of flight in all its aerodynamic design, stretched on the stop-motion of the wind. With long lenses we investigate the nests of diving birds on the cliffs below in search of interesting finds from the deep. To the north, off the coast of Labrador, fishermen report nests full of pocketknives, smoking pipes, hairpins, and ladies combs, salvaged by cormorants diving onto the wrecks of old trading vessels.

(Double-crested Cormorant in breeding plumage. Photo by Mike Baird, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.)


The video is of Cape gannetsclose relatives of northern gannetsfeeding on the sardine run off South Africa. I had the good fortune years ago to work with the first South African film crew to land this spectacle on celluloid.


Seeing that clip was so rudely edited in mid-action, here's another.


Older film footage, but really lovely. You can see the great buoyancy of these birds and the world of wind they inhabit.
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