August 18, 2010 – Feeding Frenzy!

Grand Manan Island, at the mouth of the Bay of Fundy, is a great place for birds. The 25-mile long island is separated from the mainland by an hour and a half ferry ride. Its north-south orientation makes it a natural flyway for landbirds heading down (or up) the coast. The Bay of Fundy is renowned as a stopover spot for shorebirds due to the richness of its exposed bottom and shorelines when the 25+ foot tides are out. The movement of the tides has another beneficial effect for birds (as well as sea mammals): the considerable flow of water moving in and out over underwater obstructions results in regular and predictable upwellings in which schools of fish and other sea creatures get pushed to the surface or close to it.

Today Marg and I headed out from Seal Cove with the Sea Watch Whale Watching Cruise. The boat, the captain (Peter Wilcox) and the mate (Durlan Ingersoll) were all featured recently on the Rick Mercer Report on CBC TV – Rick went lobster fishing with them (you can pull it up from the CBC archives). I especially like going out with Durlan because he is an expert on the identification of pelagic birds. Last year, he and I turned up a Long-tailed Jaeger at the end of August – only the 2nd confirmed sighting of this species in New Brunswick.

For the first couple of hours, the trip was pretty “ordinary” (if you call the sighting of Humpback, Finback and Minke Whales ordinary) with a smattering of seabirds: a few Razorbills, Atlantic Puffins, Wilson’s and Leach’s Storm-Petrels, Greater and Sooty Shearwaters, Red-necked Phalaropes, and Gannets about. For the most part these birds were just “cruising” – skimming the water looking for their next meal, all the while keeping an eye on their co-searchers hoping they luck into something they themselves could take advantage of too.

After a couple of hours Peter turned the boat to go deeper into the Bay in order to look for a Right Whale and a Sperm Whale that had been reported/seen there. No luck, so we headed back in. The wind was light and we had just a slight chop on gently swells.

Then, with no warning, it got interesting. A large dorsal fin broke the water and stayed on the surface. We edged closer to this fish and found a Basking Shark. Given the distance between dorsal fin and tail (which showed occasionally) and extrapolating on the basis that the fish was just as long from fin to nose, the animal had to have been at least 20 feet long. The giant fish (the first I’d ever seen) stayed with the boat, or vice versa, for over 10 minutes. When feeding they move through the water with their enormous mouths open filtering plankton.

Within a minute of leaving the shark, I saw another very large dorsal fin which I put down as another Basking Shark but, no, it was a Mola Mola or Ocean Sunfish. These are odd-shaped fish – open your hand, keep the fingers together, extend your thumb upwards and you will have it: the end of the middle finger is its nose; the raised thumb its large dorsal fin; and the wrist is its blunt tail end. This fish, which can grow up to a ton or more, swims flopping its dorsal into the water from side to side (a good way to tell it from a Basking Shark which holds its fin erect out of the water). This was another first for me. And then, within seconds of the fish sighting, a Manx Shearwater flew by – another first.

Looking ahead of the boat we could see a lot of activity: a school of Harbour Porpoises was tearing through the ocean. They were quickly joined by a huge flock of shearwaters (Greater and Sooty) dropping into the water and obviously were busy feeding. These were joined by Gannets, Storm-Petrels “dancing” on the surface, Red-necked (mostly) and Red Phalaropes, a few Atlantic Puffins and Common Terns and even a Common Murre. As if this wasn’t enough, a Humpback breached almost in the middle and continued to do so for another 20 minutes, well after the frenzy had moved on. We were soon in the middle of it and it was simply…..frenetic. Just so much action! It was hard to know what to look at – if you concentrated on this bird you would miss all these others……The whole melee took up the area of half a football field.

Durlan noted that the birds and whales were feeding on small herring. The thinking is that the porpoises, having found the school in an upwelling, “pushed” them close to the surface, trapping them there. This made them readily available to the birds which took quick advantage of this bonanza. It was a bad time to be a herring – you were getting decimated from above and below. [Interestingly there were no gulls in the scrum – Herring Gulls and Greater Black-backed Gulls are common along the coast but dwindled as we moved offshore and Kittiwakes, which are a pelagic gull, weren’t around yet.]

As quickly as the frenzy developed, it tailed off. The fish evidently got away from the surface only to reappear 300 m farther off. Soon the birds were shifting to the new site and we were left with some phalaropes and storm-petrels….and a regularly breaching Humpback Whale.

You would think that birds so far offshore could concentrate on feeding without fear of predation but this was not the case. Just after the frenzy we saw a Peregrine Falcon fly over already plucking a hapless (and probably heedless) phalarope.

August is a great time to experience the Bay of Fundy. Shorebirds of all species probably total in the millions (Durlan, who made it clear that he tends to err on the conservative side when estimating numbers, told me that he had seen 100,000 phalaropes on one day late last week!); pelagic birds abound (shearwaters and storm-petrels and, yes, phalaropes, are everywhere as soon as you get offshore); and I learned from a local bander that the Fall warbler migration “peaks” around August 18th. The only thing missing? Jaegers. Probably next week.

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