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Bruce Mactavish: Summer sounds and signs

A spotted sandpiper stands guard over its little young ones hiding in the grass.
A spotted sandpiper stands guard over its little young ones hiding in the grass. - Bruce Mactavish photo

Standing in the wet grass between two small hills at the end of Bear Cove Head in Witless Bay I was looking over a vast bed of puffins floating on the velvety smooth water from the rocky shoreline to as far as could be seen in the mist. The caplin were in. 

Hundreds of gulls and kittiwakes were resting on the rocks probably already satiated with caplin while more flew along the shoreline looking for seconds. It was a sea supersaturated with life. The puffins, prepared to travel 100 kilometres or more from the nesting colonies in search of food, had only to jump off the grassy slopes of Gull Island and fly for a minute or two to reach the rich feeding grounds by the shoreline. It was the gift of caplin they and other birds need to make a nesting season successful.

It was caplin weather. You could smell it. A sweet, slightly pungent aroma occupied the air.  It was a good smell. It means prosperity in the ocean.

The air was still but not silent. The cries of kittiwakes and gulls were constant. There was a continuous movement of gulls and kittiwakes in the air and puffins speeding low over the water.  There was a heavy mist in the air that sometimes turning into a light drizzle when the air could no longer hold the moisture. It was caplin weather. You could smell it. A sweet, slightly pungent aroma occupied the air.  It was a good smell. It means prosperity in the ocean.

Slight of wing and misdirection

As I took in the scene of countless birds in every direction over the water, I was vaguely conscious of some spotted sandpiper activity among the rocks in front of me. Being such a familiar sound, it becomes part of the background of summer along the coastline. That all changed when a spotted sandpiper walked purposely over the beach rocks toward me calling with a tone of increasing anxiety in its voice. Why it chose now and not 30 minutes earlier I do not know. I had not moved. Maybe its young were walking toward me unseen in the luxuriant grass. The sandpiper stopped brazenly close and looked me in the eye and began calling louder. It was saying, “Look at me and now. Follow me away from this area because I have little sandpipers nearby that I would rather you did not see.” 

“Well, sandpiper,” I said to myself, “I was here for a while minding my own business. There is lots of space out here on the point. You can go around me or just hang tight until I leave on my own will.”

The sandpiper was good about it and agreed. It went quietly, but not before providing me with great views that I could not resist pointing the camera at. While they may be a little high strung, spotted sandpipers are a welcome part of summer in all of Newfoundland and even all through Labrador. They never occur in flocks like other sandpipers, but they are probably the most numerous species of sandpiper in the province. 

I continued watching the puffins and noticed that even some murres were feeding only two metres from the shoreline. When I felt it was time to turn around and walk back I did so. The sandpiper had been watching all along. As soon as I moved it started calling again. It flew ahead of me on the ground calling as if to say, this way please, which lucky for the sandpiper was the way the narrow foot path lead through the grass. After a number of steps the sandpiper left me and flew back to the point where its treasures lay unseen in the grass. 

The grass was drenching wet from the drizzle and mist. I was glad for the rubber boots on my feet. 

The scent of roses was strong from a bush growing wild where a house probably once stood long ago. The smell of the grass was as refreshing as oxygen. How lush and green it was!

As I approached the lot where my car was parked I realized the caplin must be close to the beach according to the mass of kittiwakes circulating just off the beach. They dropped into the water with wings up. At least half of them came up with a wriggling caplin in their beaks. Those that missed got back in the gyro to take another pass. No one goes hungry today including the chicks back in the nests. The squealing kittiwakes were giddy with excitement. A man and his boy with a dip net and a bucket walked hopefully along the beach. The caplin were tantalizing close, but too far to reach. The boy picked up a few dead ones on the beach and threw them in his dad’s bucket.

It is summer on the Avalon. The spirit of the season is strong along the coast now.

Bruce Mactavish is an environmental consultant and avid birdwatcher. He can be reached at wingingitone@yahoo.ca

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