A Northern Gannet soars, black wingtips setting off a bright white body and yellow head. Face down, it scans the sea surface far below looking for the schools of capelin that provide much of its sustenance. In the distance a school of dolphins breaks the surface alerting the birds to the presence of the fish. The gannets home in quickly on the potential bonanza and then, spotting their prey below, pack their wings in tight against their body as they plunge headfirst, like a missile, into the ocean eventually resurfacing with a fish. It’s a sight I never get tired of watching.
So it was very difficult today to watch the struggles of an adult gannet right next to a rocky shore, trying hard to maintain its balance in the wind and waves and keep its head above water. Only meters away, high and dry on the beach, lay the bodies of its kinsmen…dead.
Seabirds on Canada’s East coast have been hit by avian influenza -“flu”- and have been dying by the thousands…literally. Beaches around Newfoundland are strewn with the carcasses of dead – and dying – birds. Northern Gannets, Common Murres, Razorbills, Greater Black-backed Gulls, Black-legged Kittiwakes and probably many others; the above are just the ones I can attest to first-hand.
Seabirds tend to nest in large, compact colonies and this makes them highly susceptible to the spread of virulent diseases – not unlike the present human condition only for the birds there’s no vaccines, face masks, distancing requirements, or hospital recourse for badly infected. They simply die; some close to or on shore but most offshore. The bodies strewing the beaches are likely just the tip of the iceberg, so many are lost at sea. It’s difficult to predict what impact this will have on the various populations and on the ecology of the sea itself – seabirds play an important role in recycling nutrients back into the environment.
My understanding is that dead birds can be found in good numbers right around the island. I found large numbers on beaches of the Avalon Peninsula and in the northeast around Deadman’s Bay – the only two spots I searched. In both areas carcasses could be seen strung out along the beach at the high tide mark, as far as you could see. So the die-off is VERY significant….and concerning….and, in the end, sad.