Monday, August 14, 2017

Burrowing Owl

Rare Owl Visits NB

Burrowing Owl
 A Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia) was sighted on Grand Manan about 2 weeks ago by a local birder.  I saw it on August 3.  It was perched on the rock breakwall at Castalia Marsh.  It has been there now for about 2 weeks.

The Burrowing Owl is very rare here.  Only one has been recorded in the past, being seen at Fort Beausejour on 21 and 26 June 1978 and later confirmed from feathers found at the site.  The normal range of this species is the grasslands of southern Alberta and Saskatchewan, western United States and its wintering grounds in southwestern US and Mexico.  There is also a permanent population in central and southern Florida.

So why/how is this bird here?  There are two subspecies of this owl.  The western subspecies is hypugaea and the Florida subspecies is floridana.  The subspecies have a slight difference in appearance and the one here is the western subspecies (hypugaea).  The western subspecies is lighter in colour with buffy-coloured spots and the Florida subspecies is darker with white spots.  The western population is larger so the probability of a bird arriving from the west is greater than one arriving from Florida.  Vagrants do sometimes appear in spring and fall in southern Ontario, southern Quebec, Maine and North Carolina.  So, having one arrive here is rare indeed.  Whether this bird actually flew here or arrived on a boat or a truck is up for speculation.

Burrowing Owl
The Burrowing Owl likes open areas where it perches on conspicuous dirt or rock piles, or posts.  It normally nests in ground squirrel burrows.  It is mostly nocturnal and preys on small mammals, insects and birds.  It is a beautiful little owl, 24 cm (9.5") tall.  It is different from our owls with its long yellow legs.  Its spotted appearance is immediately obvious.  It has deep yellow eyes and beak and its legs are a lighter yellow.  It was mostly sleeping when I saw it but if disturbed it will bob its head to get a better perspective on an intruder's distance away.  The fact that the female is smaller than the male makes it unique among owls.

The population numbers of this species is greatly reduced in the north mainly due to the extermination of its prime prey, prairie dogs.  It is also suseptible to pesticide use and habitat loss.  Declines continue due to the conversion of prairie to intensive agriculture.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Whale Watching in Newfoundland

Whales Up Close

Humpback Whales
Whale watching from St. Vincent's on the southern tip of the Avalon Peninsula in Newfoundland is a unique experience.  The whales are very close as you stand on the shore of beautiful St. Vincent's beach.  The bottom is obviously very deep immediately off the beach so that they can come right up to the beach.  We were there last week and the capelin were rollin in so the whales were feeding heavily.  It was a unique experience to have the whales 25 metres (75 ft) away from my camera lens and not be in a boat.  We were so close we could hear them breathing and smell their breath!

St. Vincent's Beach
St. Vincent's beach is a beautiful scene.  As you can see in the photo above, it was foggy when we were there.  I suspect that is a common occurrence.  It did not matter because the birds and whales were so close we could see very well.  There were about 30 people there watching along with us.  The birds were excitedly flying over the whales, grabbing whatever fish they missed as they lunged up, filling their gaping mouths; Black-legged Kittiwakes, Herring Gulls, Great Shearwaters.

Humpback Whales
There are three Humpback Whales in the photo above.  On the left you can see the blowholes of two. On the right the dorsal fin of another if visible.  There were only Humpback whales seen while we were there.  It was difficult to tell how many.  My guess is there were 6 or 8.

Because the capelin were there in large schools, it made easy feeding.  They appeared to dive deep and then come up with mouth open, their throats hugely swollen with water and fish.  At or above the surface I could see them closing their mouths around the fish and beginning to squeeze the water out through their baleen.  Awesome sight!

The Humpback Whale is a fin whale (member of the family Balaenopteridae) along with the Finback Whale, the Blue Whale, the Sei Whale and the Minke Whale.  These whales are characterized by a fin on the back, longitudinal grooves on the throat and chest, and long tapering pectoral flippers.  The Humpback in particular is characterized by its scalloped pectoral flippers, knobby protuberances on its head and lower jaws and its broad serrated flukes.  

The Humpback Whale is about 12 to 22 metres long (35 to 60 ft) and it weighs 25 to 45 tons.  Its pectoral flippers are 4-6 metres  (11-17 ft) long.  Its fluke (tail) is 5-8 metres (15-21 ft) wide.  They feed mainly close to shore on krill, small fish and squid.  Mating in the North Atlantic takes place in April.  They are very amorous and indulge in such antics as caressing one another with their flippers and rubbing one another with the knobby protuberances on their heads, jaws and flippers.  Gestation is about 10 months in the North Atlantic.  The young are born during the winter and measure 3 to 6 metres long (9-17 ft).  They weigh a whopping  1,100 to 1,800 Kg (2,500 to 4,000 pounds).  The mother suckles the baby for 5 to 10 months.  Females produce young every other year.  

Humpbacks are fun to watch because they are active at the surface.  They frequently 'lob-tail' (slap the surface with their flippers and tail).  They sometimes swim on their backs showing their white bellies.  And, of course, we all want to see them breach.  When doing this they jump straight up, completely out of the water and fall back usually on their side with a huge splash.  When out of the water the back is bent (or humped) hence its name.  

In the period up to the twentieth century the Humpback whales were hunted nearly to extinction.  For example, during the 1952-3 season the world catch was 3,322.  I am thankful we now have laws to prevent that!

Humpback Whales Feeding