July 30th, 2016 – Off the Strait of Belle Isle

(Late Entry)
The Strait of Belle Isle is the channel that separates the northern tip of Newfoundland from the southern end of Labrador. It is a magical place, rich in plankton which draws fish, seabirds and whales in large numbers. I just finished a 3-week stint of counting seabirds from a Coast Guard research vessel off the east coast of Newfoundland and Labrador and I spent a couple of days in the area. It’s a great place to see Sooty Shearwaters; I’ve seen hundreds in the Strait itself. Great Shearwaters are also common but even more so a little further out to sea.

But this richness pales in light of descriptions made in earlier times. In the early 1900’s, Arthur Cleveland Bent published a series of books detailing the life histories of all North American birds – the Birds of North America is a more modern version of his pioneering initiative. He did most of the writing but, on occasion, had other experts pen the histories of particular species. I love the “old” writings: so much more descriptive (not the cold, formal detailing of modern scientific writing) and with a wide vocabulary.

CW Townsend did the write-up on the Greater Shearwater. “To the bird student who rarely ventures from the beaches or sheltered bays out onto the unprotected ocean a glimpse of a shearwater – the hag, or hagdon, or hagdown of sailors – is most unusual…..Graceful birds they are and well do they deserve their name, for on nimble wing they are ever on the alert to cut or shear the water in their search for food.”

I was particularly struck by this description:
“The largest number I ever saw was on a July day on the Labrador coast between Battle and Spear Harbors. The wind was strong on shore, bringing in wisps and clouds of fog from the numerous icebergs which beset the coast. At first our steamer disturbed from the water groups of fifty to a hundred shearwaters, but, as we pushed north, larger and larger flocks arose and flew outside until we had seen at least ten thousand (italics mine) of these splendid birds. The great flock extended for several miles along the rugged coast and with the exception of three sooty shearwaters all were the greater species.”

Battle Harbour is just north up the Labrador coast from the Strait of Belle Isle. I steamed through the general area 3 times on this trip. I saw very few Great Shearwaters. There were some around but nothing even approaching these numbers – mostly single birds coursing back and forth across the swell looking for a meal.

Further south I had seen Great Shearwaters in groups, especially when we ran 450 nautical miles East along the 47th parallel over the Flemish Cap and then north to a transect that would take us southwest into Bonavista Bay. I saw isolated groups of 30-50 birds on the water and once, when the ship was stopped to take water samples, a group of about 125 gathered around the ship (mistaking us for a fishing vessel). But at no time over the 3 weeks I was out did I ever see Great Shearwaters in the numbers described above. (And, interestingly, in the Strait of Belle Isle area the most common shearwater was the Sooty.)

Great (and Sooty) Shearwaters nest on islands in the far southern Atlantic. After nesting they head north to spend “the Winter” in the nutrient-rich waters of the north Atlantic. Traditionally they seek out schools of small fish (like capelin) and squid to sustain them and, especially, to fuel their moult. They arrive in eastern Canadian waters by May and usually have left by sometime in October. They range well up the Labrador coast and I have seen them as far north as the SE end of Baffin Island.

So, did I just miss them or are they not there anymore? I suspect the latter. Recent reports, including The State of the World’s Birds, suggest that, worldwide, seabird numbers have declined by 70% since the 1950’s. While I find these kinds of numbers suspect (because I don’t know what they’re based on – who was systematically counting in the 1950’s?), I don’t doubt that there has been a serious drop. Why? Well I guess you can run through the usual litany of suspects: overfishing of prey species, by-catch in the fishing industry (i.e., hooked on long-lines and drowned), chemical pollution, predators finding their way into their breeding areas (e.g, cats and rats brought by fishing/whaling vessels), changes in oceanic current flows and water temperatures due to global warming, ingestion of pieces of plastic floating in the oceans (and I saw some even though we were fairly far north). More likely it isn’t one of these causes but the cumulative effect of them all working together insidiously. What a shame. A single Great Shearwater playing in a 30-knot wind over the waves or riding the updraft of a long swell is a thing of beauty and awe. I can’t begin to imagine what ten thousand of them would be like.

Great Shearwater

Great Shearwater

Great Shearwater and Sooty Shearwater

Great Shearwater and Sooty Shearwater

Great Shearwater running on the surface to get enough speed for liftoff - they need to do this in calm conditions.

Great Shearwater running on the surface to get enough speed for liftoff – they need to do this in calm conditions.

March 27th, 2016 – Costa Rica – Ramblings

A Great Read: Early on in my stay at Cano Palma Research Station I went through their library looking for something to read. I came across an absolutely marvellous book by Archie Carr: The Windward Road. Archie Carr, born in Alabama in 1909, went on to become a herpetologist and ecologist at the University of Florida. He is probably best known for his pioneering conservation work on behalf of sea turtles. Through his efforts the decline in sea turtle numbers, through over exploitation and loss of habitat, was brought to the attention of the world. His work resulted in Costa Rica forming Tortuguero National Park in 1975 (the major nesting area for Green Turtles and a significant site for Leatherbacks). He was the founder and first scientific director of the Sea Turtle Conservancy.

But all that aside. The book is a gem. It presents Carr’s travels through the Caribbean in the 50’s as he investigates the plight of sea turtles. But it’s his writing that makes the book so worthwhile: his use of language to capture people and places and events. Reminds me almost of John Steinbeck but with an inlay of science.

Carr finished the book expressing his concern for the long-term outlook for sea turtles given what he was seeing in the 50’s. This was before the advent of marine plastic debris and the plundering of beaches as prime tourist real estate. A view of the Caribbean at this time is, alone, worth the read. I would say The Windward Road would be the sea turtles answer to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring…..only better (to me at least).

Just part of one kettle forming overhead.

Just part of one kettle forming overhead.  -G. Ludkin


Thermal Hopping: Right now (2:30 PM), as I write this, I can see 29 raptors through a little break in the vegetation at the back of the guest house we’re staying at in Turrialba. The larger ones – the ones that I can confidently identify – are Black and Turkey Vultures but the majority, the little specks way up there, I can put down only to buteos, species unknown.

Another part of the kettle. -G. Ludkin

Another part of the kettle. -G. Ludkin

But these are a small drop in the bucket. This morning Geoff and I walked the 4 km’s out of town to visit the CATIE headquarters. [CATIE is a Spanish acronym for Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Centre.] There was a light drizzle when we set out and the gray clouds stayed with us even when it stopped, probably a good thing as the high-flying birds would have been lost against a blue background. Although early in the day the raptors were on the move – it was hot enough for thermals to form and birds were taking full advantage of it. I started off seeing 2 large (200+) kettles. They were just dots, despite 8X binoculars, but all appeared to be hawks, not vultures. Finally one of the kettles disassembled and the birds began to stream speedily out of the tight spiral, in a northerly direction. The kettle behind this one then broke down and moved to where the first kettle had originally been and kettled again. And then another kettle came into view…..and then, in the far distance, another. At one point I could see 3 widely spaced spiralling groupings of hawks with birds moving between them, but only in the northerly direction. By the time I got to CATIE to do some passerine birding, I estimated that I had seen at least 2,000 raptors, most of them hawks. They were so high that the only birds I could identify were a few Red-tails and Broad-winged Hawks. The rest I would have to put down to: large buteos/small buteos and large/not so large accipiters.

A bit of a closer look. -G. Ludkin

A bit of a closer look. -G. Ludkin

We stayed at CATIE for 2 1/2 hours. On the way back birds were still kettling and streaming. Thousands of raptors will move through this area alone today. [Yesterday, I saw a similar migration as the bus from San Jose to Turrialba crossed the mountains in the Cartago area – huge kettles (500+ birds) riding the updrafts of the mountain ridge.]
By the way, if you get a chance to visit CATIE I would highly recommend it. The entry fee is only $10 (US) but it gives you access to a 45 hectare farm with a wide variety of plants and birds and plenty of trails to access it all. Open from 7:00 AM to 4:00 PM.


4:20 PM. I wrestled with the idea of closing my book; the already brooding sky was darkening making the page difficult to see. No…..but I’ll continue to keep an eye out for movement in the back garden. The Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds seem to have finished for the day but the Common Tody-flycatcher is still foraging, unwilling to knock off for the night on less than a full stomach. [It’s still going at 5:00!]

At one point I glanced up and in the opening in the shrubs through which I’d seen the raptors earlier I saw a swirling flock of swifts. I estimated that they numbered at least 150. Now swifts are notoriously difficult to ID at a distance; I know that. But, if pushed to come up with one I’d be pretty confident in saying they were Chimney Swifts. Too small to be any of the big ones and too big to be any of the small ones and with no white or contrasting gray. Chimney Swifts do not winter in Costa Rica but move through it – usually along the Caribbean coast but sometimes up to 1,000 m in elevation.

I could be wrong – I’d be the first to admit it – but if they were Chimney Swifts I can only imagine that this was a migrating flock looking for a place to roost for the night before continuing on tomorrow…..and some of them to Ruthven by late April/early May.


Halidmand Bird Observatory AGM – April 2nd at 9:30am

The Haldimand Bird Observatory’s AGM has been rescheduled for next Saturday (April 2). It will be held in Ruthven Park’s Drill Hall at 9:30 am.

We are looking forward to an engaging talk from Bruce Murphy from Hilliardton Marsh who will be speaking on his work with hummingbirds and owls. The meeting will also include updates from the banding labs at Rock Point and Ruthven regarding their activities over the last year, and we will be holding holding a 50/50 draw.
We hope you are able to join us!
2016 HBO AGM

March 24th – Costa Rica – 3,606 Kilometres

I like to play a little game with my GPS. I take it with me whenever I travel and when I get to my destination I turn it on. It strains for several minutes trying to locate a familiar satellite before giving up and asking whether I’m inside or under a roof. Coyly I indicate “No” at which point it asks if I’ve moved 100’s of kilometres since I last used it. Bazinga! (I indicate) And it goes on to plot my new location. I was curious this morning to find out how far, in a straight-line direction, I was from the Ruthven Banding Lab. 3,606 kilometres! It would be a lot further than that if migrants chose to go around the Gulf of Mexico rather than across it.

This got me musing on the phenomenon I’ve been seeing in the last few days of migrants heading north along the coast. Right here they can do that but what happens in the NE corner of Nicaraugua when the coast bends to due W? Birds then have a choice: go W and continue to follow the coast; fly NW over water to the Yucatan (and from there where?); or continue flying due N to Cuba and then up through Florida. There are advantages and disadvantages to all of these choices. Along the coast there are lots of predators which the migrant wouldn’t find over water (especially at night) but the water routes require good fat loads and favourable winds (there’s no place to rest!).

What got me going on this particular train of thought was the sighting early this morning of 13 Eastern Kingbirds that were moving along the coast but then suddenly knocked off for the day and dropped into some fruiting trees that Slaty-tailed Trogons were taking advantage of. Also, I spotted another Chestnut-sided Warbler foraging in the scrub – fattening up for the long haul? [Interestingly, I have seen 3 of these warblers in the past week – different individuals, 1 male and 2 females. In all cases they were in association with Lesser Greenlets, a bird that looks like a slightly larger Nashville Warbler and sounds like a slow-singing vireo. Two of these greenlets were putting the final touches on a nest – it was great fun to watch the one grab a strand of spiderweb and jump off his perch, hang and swing, before the web let go and he could take it off to the nest.]

These birds have a long way to go.


Haldimand Bird Observatory AGM cancelled and will be rescheduled

Just a quick announcement that the Haldimand Bird Observatory’s Annual General Meeting has been cancelled. Our speaker, Bruce Murphy, is unable to travel from northern Ontario due to hazardous weather conditions.

We will be rescheduling the meeting (to an alternate Saturday in April) and we will make an announcement regarding the new date and time as soon as it is arranged. Sorry for any inconvenience this may have caused.

March 21st, 2016 – Costa Rica – On the Move

First day of Spring! Hardly any difference down here in Costa Rica – hot and sticky…just like yesterday and the day before that and tomorrow. The discernible difference became recognizable in the birds that are around.

The beach in Tortuguero is made up of sand that is the ideal colour for Semipalmated and Spotted Sandpipers. The dark brown meshes perfectly with their backs and when hunkered down in the wrack they are virtually invisible. So shorebird counts are done at a leisurely pace so as not to miss anything. The beach here isn’t very wide, often only 10-20 meters wide, eaten away by the relentless surf and redeposited further along. Right next to the beach dense vegetation takes over. This is often a good place to see birds even if they aren’t shorebirds.

I’ve done a couple of shorebird counts now and they have generally been pretty unspectacular – 5 species in modest numbers: Whimbrel, Semipalmated Sandpipers, Spotted Sandpipers, Black-bellied Plovers and Sanderlings. So there’s lots of opportunity to take in any movement in or over the bordering vegetation.

Yesterday there was a “difference”. Swallow species were on the move, flying high but steadily north, paralleling the coast. Many I couldn’t ID accurately but I was able to pick out at least 10 Barn Swallows. ALL of these birds were moving north; NONE were flying in any other direction. These birds were on the move. And then, much to my surprise, I saw, in quick succession, 3 fairly tight flocks totalling 108 birds – Eastern Kingbirds! These surprised me for two reasons: 1/ they were in groups. In Ontario we are so used to them being strictly territorial and chasing both conspecifics and possible predators (crows, hawks) out of their areas. And here they were moving together in large groups. And 2/ the sun had been up for 2 hours by the time I saw them but they were definitely on the move. Like the swallows, they were high and following the coast, heading north. This was an example of “diurnal migration”. While swallows are known for this (as they can see to eat along the way) I was under the impression that birds like Kingbirds migrated nocturnally. It was actually exciting to see them on the move.

[Interestingly, a colleague down here, Luis Diaz, reported over 200 EAKI’s on November 21st heading south along the coast.]

After concluding the shorebird count we walk back to the boat that will take us to Cano Palma along a trail paralleling the beach. In the trees I saw at least 2 Baltimore Orioles and a Summer Tanager. The Orioles, at least, don’t winter in this area and had moved in very recently, possibly during the night.

So birds are on the move. I wonder how much longer it will be until those kingbirds (and orioles) show up in southern Ontario. I’m getting Zugunruhe (migratory restlessness) just watching them.


March 19 – Costa Rica – Mad Dogs And Englishmen…

We spent the hottest part of yesterday under the hot sun on the beach of San Francisco – a village north of Tortuguero in northeastern Costa Rica. I’d like to say we were tanning and surfing but we weren’t. We were picking up beach debris in a plot 25 m wide and about 100 m wide. It was the final stage in a study that encompassed a swath 100 m wide and begun a week ago. Our job was to gather all the human-generated garbage that was over 2.5 cm (1 in.) long. In one month this exercise will be repeated so that the researchers can see how much of it is replaced.

Plastic is a HUGE worldwide problem, both on land and in the sea. It is estimated that over 6 M metric tonnes of debris enter the sea every year; 80% of it originates on the land and blows or is washed into the ocean. Canadian beaches are “relatively” litter free. The degree and scope of the program comes home to you in places like coastal Costa Rica, away from the resorts. The beaches in the Tortuguero area are a prime example: plastic debris is everywhere and in large amounts.

To give you an idea, here’s a list of what I found when separating a bag of debris that was collected on the surface in just a very small part of the beach/study area:
Food wrappers – 33
Beverage bottles – 17
Bottle or container caps – 107
Cigarettes – 1
Plastic/nylon rope pieces 30 cm – 1
Cups – 3
Plastic utensils – 12
Straws/lollipop sticks – 43
Personal care products (eg, comb, toothbrush) – 2
Plastic toys – 5
Plastic pieces >2.5 cm – 717
Plastic pieces Rubber band – 1
Planed wood – 2
Shoe/shoe pieces – 5
Plastic clothes pins – 7
Foam/sponge pieces – 8
Umbrella handle – 1
Pull tabs (from juice tetrapaks) – 5
Syringe – 1
Mesh bag – 1

The study does NOT include plastic debris 1000m) from the northern part of the Labrador Sea.) But it’s the plastic floating in the sea that presents a huge problem: 111 out of 312 marine species of birds have been shown to have ingested plastic debris. The impact of this ingestion is yet to be clearly ascertained but the initial thinking is very negative. You can find Google pictures of skeletal juvenile seabirds with a pile of plastic where their innards used to be. It has been sow that polyethylene accumulates more organic contaminants than other plastics and that PCB’s can transfer from plastic to shearwater chicks.

Today I spent the afternoon in the shade with fellow volunteers sorting some of the (15+) bags we gathered yesterday. There’s a lot of plastic. But the really depressing part of this story is that this morning I went by the area that we cleared yesterday – I was doing a shorebird count. Sadly, a good-sized crop of new plastic had come in on the intervening tides. We’ll know the rate of this replenishment in a month’s time.

Geoff sorting debris into "categories".

Geoff sorting debris into “categories”.

Sorting beach debris

Sorting beach debris

The beach "looks" pristine but a closer look reveals a sick environment.

The beach “looks” pristine but a closer look reveals a sick environment.

An example of "small" pieces of plastic....still huge in comparison to micro-plastic debris.

An example of “small” pieces of plastic….still huge in comparison to micro-plastic debris.