Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Great Auk

Part Three

The Greak Auk was flightless.  It was very awkward on land, walking in an upright manner and straight ahead.  It did not seem to be able to change its path sideways.  It was ‘stupid and tame’ according to the early explorers.  All these traits made it vulnerable to exploitation.  

As seen in the attached photos, it was a striking bird with the basic black on the back and white on the breast of many species of sea birds.  In alternate plumage it sported large white ellipses above and in front of the eyes.  In summer its dark plumage was actually a dark brown in places with narrow white tips on the secondary wing feathers.  The throat and chin were dark. The bill was large (11 cm long/4.3 in) and had 6 to 12 vertical grooves on both mandibles, with more on the upper mandible.  This was a large, laterally compressed beak which it used as a ‘formidable dagger’ to those who were trying to capture it.  It slashed at would-be captors with great skill.  The Great Auk’s eyes were a dark chestnut brown and the mouth lining was a bright orange-yellow.  In basic plumage the white patches in front of the eyes changed to a white line and the dark throat became white.  It weighed 4-5 Kg (11 lb.), was 75-85 cm long (30-33 in.) with males being larger than females.  The wings were only 15 cm long (6 in.)  The feet were large, webbed and powerful.  

The birds nested on rocky islands well away from the mainland (and predators).  Because they were flightless they needed terrain where they could swim or propel themselves out of the water onto fairly shallow rocks where they could then walk above the tide line to suitable nesting sites.  This made only some islands useful for breeding where they nested in large, dense colonies.  A single egg was laid on bare rock and it is believed both adults shared the incubation, done in a standing position.  Incubation took about 6 weeks and the young left the nest at about 2-3 weeks of age.  We have many reports of their swimming while carrying their young on their backs.  Presumably they did not return to the nest after fledging and the young were carried, fed and protected for the rest of the summer.

The egg was a pale buff-olive colour with variable brown and black mottling and spotting.  It was about 12 cm (4.5 in) long and more elongated in shape than a hen’s egg with a pointed end.  Their diet was mainly fish but they also ate crustaceans.  They fed on menhaden, shad, capelin, stickleback and striped bass.  Off Greenland they fed on sculpins and lumpsuckers.  

Great Auk Egg (top centre) with Razorbill and Guillemot Eggs

This amazing species was a terrific swimmer.  Its body was well insulated with fat stores and it was streamlined for effective swimming.  On its migration it swam up to 60 Km/35 miles a day, moving from breeding grounds (which were sometimes as far away as Iceland) to Cape Cod.  It would dive to great depths and remain under water for at least 15 minutes.  It was such a good swimmer few marine predators could catch it.  It had a large gape and swallowed its prey whole.  It used its wings underwater to propel and steer its path.  When migrating they swam in great flotillas.  It swam with its head up and its neck pulled in and back.  When trouble appeared on the surface, they submerged and swam great distances under water.  

Friday, March 27, 2015

Great Auk (Pinguinus impennis)

Part 2

Great Auk by John James Audubon 1836
The Great Auk once had a wide distribution.  We have this information from the historical records of early explorers to North America, from bones, literature, cave paintings, etc.  Their preferred habitat was the cold waters of the North Atlantic.  The only time they came to land was to nest.  They spent the rest of the year at sea.  They usually remained near the coast but were known to swim as far as 550 km away from land.  They were usually where food was abundant.  They were known to inhabit the waters off Canada, the United States, Norway, Greenland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Ireland, Great Britain, France, and northern Spain.  Six breeding colonies that are documented include: Papa Westray in the Orkney Islands, St. Kilda Island (Scotland), Grimsey Island and Eldey Island (Iceland), Funk Island off Newfoundland, and the Bird Rocks in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.  There are records suggesting that they bred off Cape Cod (Massachusetts).  The largest known breeding colony in the 1800s was on Funk Island.

DNA studies have placed the Great Auk in the Alcid family.  It was the only modern species in the genus Pinguinus.  Its closest relatives today are the Razorbill and the Dovekie.  It was originally placed in the genus Alca (in 1791) but most taxonomists today agree with its being a separate genus.  It was one of 4400 species described by Linnaeus who called it Alca impennis.  There was another species of flightless bird in the genus Pinguinus in the Early Pliocene which lived in the western Atlantic region but it died out.  

The Great Auk was the original penguin.  It was the first known flightless, penguin-shaped bird.  The penguins of the Southern Hemisphere were unknown at this time.  In fact, the southern penguins were named after the Great Auk, even though they are not related.  It is interesting to consider how the name evolved.  

Firstly, the name, Pinguinus, is from early Spanish and Portuguese names for the species.  The impennis is from Latin meaning ‘lack of flight feathers’ or ‘pennae’.  The word ‘penguin’ first appeared in the 16th century as a synonym for great auk.  The Welsh word ‘pen gwyn’ meant ‘white head’ but this origin is debated.  It also might have meant ‘pen-winged’ after its pinioned wings. 

Each of the early cultures had its own name for the great auk.  The Basques called it ‘arponaz’ meaning ‘spearbill’.  The French named it ‘apponatz’.  The Norse and Icelanders called it “geirfugl’ also meaning ‘spearbill’.  This led to the English name, ‘garefowl’ or ‘gairfowl’.  The Inuit called it ‘isarukitsok’ meaning ‘little wing’.  In historical records and literature from the 17th and 18th centuries it was called ‘geirfugl’, ‘garefowl’, penguin, or ‘great auk’.  

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Great Auk (Pinguinus impennis)

Part One

Great Auk by John Gould

On Fogo Island off Newfoundland’s north coast stands a 2 metre-high cast bronze statue to a famous bird, the Great Auk.  It is facing east in the direction of Funk Island where the Great Auk once bred by the hundreds of thousands.  The statue was sculpted by Todd McGrain as part of a series honouring extinct birds.

Any story about the Great Auk very much involves Atlantic Canada where they once thrived in the millions.  Huge numbers plied our waters and nested on our rocky marine islands.  I say plied because these were flightless, penguin-like birds.  In fact, they were the original penguins.  They swam in huge flotillas in our waters where they fed on fish and crustaceans.  In recent times (1600s to 1800s) eight places were known where large numbers nested each year.  Many of these were in Atlantic Canada:  off the northern coast of Labrador, on Funk Island, NL and on at least 2 other islands off Newfoundland, on the Magdalen Islands, possibly off Cape Breton, and farther south in Massachusetts Bay. They also nested off Greenland, Iceland, northern Ireland, Northern Scotland and Norway.  During spring and fall migrations they swam in our waters, through the Strait of Belle Isle, the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Cabot Strait, along the north shore of Newfoundland, around Cape Breton and down the Nova Scotia shore.  These birds were great distance travellers.  

The Great Auk has been presumed extinct since 1844 when the last 2 birds were slaughtered on Eldey Island, Iceland.  However, there was an accepted sighting of one individual on the Grand Banks off Newfoundland in 1852.  They were officially declared extinct in 1860.  Since then there has been nothing but a silent, dark void even though there was much searching in the late 1800s.  Extinction!  What a sick concept.

What remains of this beautiful bird?  For our being part of North America where it was so populous, we do not have much.  Unfortunately most specimens went to zealous European collectors in the 1800s and early 1900s.  The New Brunswick Museum has a few bones collected from Funk Island.  The same is true of the NS Museum in Halifax.  They also have a block of peat which contains the remains of at least one specimen.  I could not find any evidence of remains in Newfoundland museums.  However, there are many Great Auk bones remaining in Newfoundland from the great slaughter that went on there.

The only worldly remains today of the Great Auk are 78 mounted specimens, 24 complete skeletons, 2 collections of preserved viscera, and around 75 eggs.  Fifteen of these mounted specimens are now in Great Britain, which is the largest collection of any country.  Other specimens are in Iceland, Belgium, Germany, and Los Angeles, USA.  Thousands of bones have been collected from former breeding colonies and from Neolithic middens.  Great Auk mounted specimens and eggs are so precious they all have identifying numbers which are catalogued.  

Great Auk Mounted Specimen and Egg; Kelvingrove, Glasgow

Friday, March 13, 2015

River Otter

River Otter
On one of my recent woodland hikes I came across otter tracks and slides.  How lucky we are to live in a province where there is rich habitat for such beautiful animals.

The Otter (Lutra canadensis) is a member of the Mustelidae family.  Here in New Brunswick it has several Mustelid 'cousins'.  These include the short-tailed weasel, the long-tailed weasel, the mink, the marten, and the fisher.  

The otter is equally at home on land or in the water.  It is well adapted to its aquatic habitat.  It has a very streamlined body, small ears and rounded face, short legs with large, webbed feet and a long, rudder-like tail.  The fur is very fine and dense so it sheds water well.  It propels itself with its very powerful tail and by undulating its body.  It also uses its feet and legs.

The coat is a dark brown colour but appears black when wet.  They are about 120 cm long (4 ft) and weigh 5-13 Kg (10-30 lbs.)  They live in dens in river banks and slide down the bank to the water below.  This is especially evident in winter.  See the heavily used slide area below.  The den is likely above this area.

Otter Slide

 The otter's diet includes mainly fish, but also crayfish and other invertebrates, turtles, amphibians, snakes, and other vertebrates such as waterfowl, muskrats and other rodents.  In summer it also eats some vegetation.

Most kits are born in March or April, with an average litter size of 2 or 3.  They emerge from the den at about 2 to 3 months of age.  They do not know how to swim at first and are taught by their mother who pushes them in the water and begins giving them swimming lessons.

On land they ambulate by mainly bounding in an undulating movement.  When moving quickly the tracks are in a 2 and 2 pattern about 33 cm (13 inches) apart.  See below.  These tracks were about 12 to 14 inches apart.

Presumed Otter Tracks

Otter Tracks
 The otter's fur is very dense.  This makes it highly sought after by trappers.  There is an active fur industry in New Brunswick.  This is fuelled by market prices for fur.  There is a 15-week trapping season and in 2013 to 2014, 745 otters were trapped.  Each pelt brought $64.05 (down from $115.17 the year before) with a total value for the province of $48,100.08 (down from $85,571 the year before).  The highest numbers of otters were taken from York and Charlotte counties.  A Fur Harvester's Licence costs $54 and the season this past year was from Oct. 18 to Jan. 31.

Otters are playful animals.  It is a real joy to be canoeing or hiking along one of our streams and come upon a group of otters 'playing'.  They like to play hide-and-go-seek with canoeists and are often seen frolicking up and down their mud slides, pushing and jostling one another like a group of children.  They are one of nature's delights.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Devil's Oven

This extremely cold winter has provided ideal conditions for winter beauty if we take the time and opportunity to look.  On Thursday several of us visited Devil's Oven on Newcastle Creek near Minto, NB.  We snowshoed about 1 km. down the creek bed to the Devil's Oven.  Along the way were several ice formations that were very beautiful.  The ice has been formed from seeping water from the rocky bluff along the stream.  The water has seeped through the soil under the softwood forest above and has frozen as it dripped down off the rocks to the river bed below.

The formations and colours are magnificent.  One can see blues, greens, pinks, mauves, yellows and ochres in the ice.  The large 'icicles' are high, up to 10 metres.  

Devil's Oven was our destination.  Along with the beautiful ice formations, there are also two interesting caves.  These are eroded from the sedimentary rock wall along the side of the stream and are large enough to walk into.  In some cases we were able to get in behind the ice.  One cave is quite large, and gives one mental images of primitive mankind as you stand there and look around, sheltered by the rock above.

Cave at Devil's Oven
Devil's Oven
Along the route we were treated to the natural beauty of open water on the stream itself.  The snow has made interesting patterns as it tumbles into the fast-moving stream.

Our adventure was enjoyable.  Fresh air and exercise in our beautiful New Brunswick landscape is a good way to spend a March Break afternoon.  Hot dogs and hot chocolate tasted superb after the long hike.