Storm creates seabirding extravaganza at Holyrood

Bruce Mactavish
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The rain poured all night like it did all the day before. Sometime before dawn, with one eye opened, I noticed the shadows of leaves dancing violently on the bedroom wall meaning the wind had changed to strong northeast like predicted.

A flock of red phalaropes battles against a gale of wind to get out of Holyrood harbour. — Photo by Bruce Mactavish/Special to The Telegram

Yes! Yes! I said to myself.

 I had breakfast in the dark and then hydroplaned my car down the TCH to the Holyrood turnoff, arriving at dawn.

A kilometre before the town of Holyrood I started seeing dark, narrow-winged birds flying over the woods. These were seabirds called Leach’s storm-petrels. This was the kind of sign I was looking for.

It meant that storm driven seabirds were bottled up in Conception Bay. During a northeast storm Holyrood harbour located at the very bottom of the bay acts like the cod end of a fishing trawl by concentrating wind-blown seabirds.  

I drove up the east side of the cove past the marina and pulled the car off the road behind the shelter of a clump of spruce trees.

It was immediately obvious that what I came to see was going to be seen and in spades.

The cove was chaotic with the forms of moving birds. There were so many birds I spent the first half hour fumbling between scanning the scene with binoculars, trying to document the moment with a camera and trying to alert fellow birders via phone, email and texting.

I had to take a deep breath and calm down to soak in the moment.

The wind was blowing the tops of the waves. Sheets of rain were drifting by. It was a true gale.

The surface of Holyrood harbour was a collage of seabirds.

Dancing dark-winged Leach’s storm-petrels covered the harbour.

Streams of sparkling silvery-gray phalaropes raced through the storm-petrels back toward the open sea.

Companies of jaegers were rafting in the centre of the harbour.

Small flocks of kittiwakes zigzagged through the crowd.

It was the jaegers that became my focus.

Jaegers are raptors of the sea. They prey on other seabirds harassing them until they disgorge the contents of their stomachs. Jaegers are attractive and powerful birds, but the wind had even them trapped in Holyrood harbour. At sea, they are always uncommon. Seeing scores and scores of them at one time was an exceptional event.

While scoping a flock of jaegers, a small dark gull with a snow white triangle in each wing crossed my field of view.

It was a Sabine’s Gull, a truly rare gem from the Newfoundland offshore.

Autumn storms like this spell the end for many young Leach’s storm-petrels as they make the mistake of heading inland to escape the relentless pressure of the wind.

Here they crash into overhead wires and trees. They land on the shiny wet surfaces of roads and end up in people’s back yards.

They are seabirds totally out of their element when on land. Their weak legs are not strong enough to launch themselves from solid ground back into the air. Most of their landings are fatal. Some of the lucky ones are rescued by people who discover these odd, dark, robin-sized birds. Once dried off in a cardboard box lined with paper towels, they can be set free again by the saltwater. Best to do it under the cover of darkness for a gull might notice it and take chase. Storm-petrels are used to flying under the cover of darkness.

I enjoyed the seabird extravaganza from the comfort of the car. I had great views of many jaegers, countless storm-petrels and throngs of phalaropes through my telescope and binoculars. I estimated there were 20,000 storm-petrels present in Holyrood harbour at a single moment.

At one time 250 jaegers were in the air with a conservative estimate of 400 during the morning.

The streams of red phalaropes totalled over 2,000 individuals.

This summer I spent a total of 10 weeks at sea off Newfoundland and Labrador working as an environmental observer on seismic vessels. I spent at least eight hours a day on watch looking out the windows.

But I saw more Leach’s storm-petrels, red phalaropes, pomarine and parasitic jaegers in a few hours at Holyrood than all that time at sea.

 It was that kind of morning. It was an exhilarating experience.

By early afternoon, Holyrood harbour was returning to normal as the winds died down and the rain let up allowing the seabirds to get back out to the open sea. It was a red letter day for sea birding.

Bruce Mactavish is an environmental

consultant and avid birdwatcher. He can be reached at, or by phone at 722-0088.

Geographic location: Holyrood, Conception Bay, Newfoundland and Labrador

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