Fish for Sunday brunch

Bruce Mactavish
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A gannet pops up to the surface with a large herring that it hurries down its throat whole before another bird has a chance to steal it. These two photographs were taken within the space of one second. — Photos by Bruce Mctavish/Special to The Telegram

Land-based watching of seabirds on the Avalon Peninsula is still good, but not for much longer as the local nesters start heading back out to sea with their young.

The caplin which the birds feed on have mostly finished their near shore spawning cycle. On Sunday morning past, I went to Cape Spear to see how the seabirds were doing.

Flocks of puffins and murres were still flying by carrying small fish in their bills. After examining the photographs, I could identify some of the fish as sand lance and some as caplin. There were rows of tiny fish in the bills of some puffins.

Maybe these were small sand lance or even some other kind of fish.

The birds were carrying the fish south toward the Witless Bay seabird nesting islands.

The brown fluffy young puffins snug and safe within the burrows, were awaiting their Sunday breakfast. It will be September before they are big enough to venture out from the safety of the burrows.

At this time of year, the great black-backed gulls are patrolling the puffin islands seeking young puffins that come too close to the burrow entrance.

These gulls, the biggest in the world, are capable of swallowing the puffin chicks whole.

The murres are feeding chicks on the cliffs. The chicks are already leaving the islands now and will all be gone by mid-August. Under the cover of dusk, the flightless chicks jump off the cliffs down to the water.

Incredibly, they find a parent murre by recognizing the individual calls. The parent swims out to sea with the youngster in tow. It will be weeks before they are able to fly. During this time, the chick will learn how to live at sea and may not see land again for a year or two.

Kittiwakes were flying hurriedly by the Cape Spear shoreline. They were probably carrying food for their chicks in their gullets, which they will regurgitate for the always eager-to-eat youngsters waiting on the cliff nest.

I was surprised not to see any juveniles flying yet. By mid-August, most kittiwakes will have gone back out to sea until next spring.

Gannets were patrolling close to shore. I was positioned near the edge of the rocks, yet still safely above the maximum limit for waves on this nearly windless morning. Gannets were diving only a few metres off the shoreline.

The sound of them shooting into the water with such velocity was astonishing. It seemed a miracle the birds survive the impact. Gannets instinctively swallow the fish before reaching the surface to ensure they do not have to battle a gull waiting to steal their dinner.

I assumed they were diving for caplin, but one gannet came up manipulating a big fish. Even before I had time to think, the fish was swallowed.

However, I had been ready with my camera. I checked the pictures on the LCD screen on the back of the camera and was surprised to see the fish was a big fat herring.

This is a favourite food of the gannet when available. Such a fish would keep a big gannet fueled up for a day or so, but it was probably destined to be a full course meal for a chick back at the closest gannet colony on Baccalieu Island.

Farther offshore, great shearwaters were milling about. These are the real caplin birds of summer.

They are capable of feeding at night when small fish like caplin are more likely to come near the surface.

Shearwaters are shallow divers but at least they get to keep everything they catch. They are not nesting at this time of year, so have no young beaks to fill. It will be January before they are feeding young again where they nest on islands in the Southern Hemisphere.

Other fish eaters off Cape Spear on this Sunday morning were herring gulls. A number of chocolate brown young of the year were about.

Gulls were collecting around a couple of small boats full of people trying their luck at the food fishery. Nothing is so good as fish guts for Sunday brunch if you are a herring gull.

A few minke whales surfacd swiftly now and then. Perhaps they were hunting herring like the gannets. Common terns dipped for small fish and other items near the shore.

All and all it was just another fine summer morning at Cape Spear, one of the great places that we have on our doorstep.


Bruce Mactavish is an environmental consultant and avid birdwatcher. He can be reached at, or by phone at 722-0088.

Geographic location: Witless Bay, Baccalieu Island

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