PERCE, Quebec (AP) — On Quebec’s Bonaventure Island, ghosts of human settlements from years past and an unusual number of birds here tell the same story: hard lives lived in a land of fairytale beauty.
You see it from the graceful ages on the family tombstones of moneyed islanders from the late 1700s until half a century ago when Bonaventure went all bird.
You see it from a robust colony of more than 100,000 northern gannets, which dive into the sea to hunt, return to their nests, and fight for their territory on a plateau or high ground above the water, with at least havoc, sometimes to death. on the ledges of rocks.
Nothing is easy for Gannets. Not in a time of warming seas, competition from trawlers for fish, pollution, strong storms and the onset of bird flu.
This is especially so when these threats are combined with a curious compulsion shared by many seabirds to return each spring to the exact spot they left the year before. The next nesting place for these soulful divas just won’t do.
It remains difficult or impossible to attribute worldwide seabird mass extinctions or breeding catastrophes solely to global warming, as nature has its own jarring rhythms of abundance and deprivation.
But overwhelming evidence has been elusive for decades: Warming and rising seas and erratic weather events caused by a changing climate are wreaking havoc on seabirds. Seabird populations have declined by 70% since the mid-20th century, researchers at the University of British Columbia report.
Climate-related losses have affected, for example, albatrosses in the central Pacific, common murres and Cassin’s auklets on the West Coast of the United States, puffins on the coast of Maine, penguins in South Africa, the endangered roseate tern off the coast of New England, and the endangered brown pelican. Islands southeast of Louisiana.
The struggle of many seabird species takes place in marine deserts far from humans. However, Bonaventure’s gannets play openly in the protected areas of the Quebec government’s Parc National de l’lle-Bonaventure-et-du-Rocher-Perce as a gift to scientists and the public.
Bonaventure gannets “show an awkward and funny little side on land that has nothing to do with what they are at sea,” said David Pelletier, a leading Quebec bird researcher.
In the sea, gannets are magnificent in their grace and strength.
Using air currents at the water’s edge, they soar effortlessly over the sea and dive almost straight down to hunt for fish, piercing the surface at 100 kilometers (60 mph) like many white rockets. Their 2 meter (6 ft) wide black-tipped wings are firmly attached to their backs.
When mackerel – their most energetic prey – or herring or other small fish are plentiful, they dive in large numbers near the island.
This is a sight that amazes even the most experienced scientists every time. “It’s beautiful,” said Magella Guillemette, a prominent gannet researcher at the University of Quebec in Rimouski, as she described watching the feeding frenzy in the thick of the small boat.
Less than 3 kilometers (2 miles) from Port Perce, this Bonaventure aviary is great for biologists and visitors who hike the wildflower-thick trails in summer to see the birds up close. The chirping of birds greets travelers before a full colony comes into view.
Gannets, unlike many other seabirds, seem completely indifferent to humans. They look right at you with their porcelain blue eyes.
“We rarely have the opportunity to see such wild animals,” said Marie-Dominique Nadeau-Girard, the park’s services manager. “And they stay there, they don’t look at you, they live their lives, and you just watch them and learn.”
Guillemette’s student researchers spend every summer studying birds. Over the years, they have worn hundreds of ankle bands and GPS systems.
What’s remarkable about gannets is that researchers can simply pick them up without fear of disturbing their nests.
“You catch that bird,” said Guillemette. “You pull them, put some devices on them, and then you put it back in the slot and it just stays there.”
All of this makes Bonaventure gannets ideal watchdogs for the health of the bay’s marine ecosystem and the planet’s scintillating storytellers. They form the second largest gannet colony in the world, and are easily surpassed by the largest on Scotland’s remote Bass Island.
Quebec’s local colonization experts, Canadian government biologists and seabird scientists say there’s no doubt global warming is reshaping the lives of northern gannets. Warmer sea temperatures drive their prey to colder depths, distant waters, or both.
But the full impact of climate change is yet to be determined, and overfishing may pose an even greater threat.
In tandem, fishing and warming threats are forcing gannets to move away from Bonaventure nests in search of food for their island chicks and themselves. The distance the birds fly on a fishing trip has more than doubled in recent years to an average of 500 kilometers (300 miles), Quillemette said, and a pair and its chicks wait several days or more to be fed by a hunter.
If the nest mate is too weak from starvation, she may also fly for food, leaving her young to starve or wander from the nest and be killed by the adults. Like many seabirds, adult gannets are highly territorial and may kill any intruders on their nesting grounds; AP journalists witnessed two such deadly attacks on young people the day before the winter migration.
Researchers have been able to establish a strong correlation between the supply of mackerel in the bay and the number of chicks produced. In 2012, when there were almost no mackerel, only 4% of the nests produced chicks, Guillemette said, noting that the record low was associated with unusually warm waters that year.
Since then, yields have been highly variable from year to year, and have remained low on average, said Jean-Francois Rayle, a seabird biologist with the Canadian Wildlife Service, Canada’s Environment and Climate Change Agency.
“Everything points to a decline in mackerel and herring, which leads to lower breeding success,” he said.
What is clear is that birds now have to work harder to find food. Starting in 2012, Guillemette’s researchers began fitting gannets with GPS devices in small boxes taped over their tails, allowing them to track how far they flew, how deep they dived, and how many dives they made each day.
In March, as the spring fishing season opened, Canada closed commercial fisheries for Atlantic mackerel and spring herring in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence, saying stocks had entered a “critical zone.” Previous efforts to restore stocks have failed because warmer waters have depleted microscopic crustaceans, the fish’s main food.
Mackerel is the star of the gulf ecosystem, not just for gannets. They are valued as a commercial species as well as bait for profitable lobster, crab and tuna fisheries. The gulf’s abundant gray seals gobble up as much as they can get. With all the competition for food, gannets have found ways to adapt, but at a cost.
This year, the Bonaventure colony also had to fight bird flu. The contamination rate was high in the spring, Guillemette said, but has faded. The situation was worse in other colonies in Canada.
In winter, northern gannets are solitary birds that are widespread on the water—along the Atlantic coast from Maine to Florida, and some even in the Gulf of Mexico. But pairs reunite at their breeding grounds every year for 15 years or more, producing one chick each season.
They have a monogamous nature and the perfect means of communication for mating with a mate. When talking to a gannet, it turns its beak to the sky to signal that it is time to forage; comrades welcome home after the hunt, as if fighting with swords.
You might think they are lovebirds; alas, these guards are not sentimental.
“People are more romantic and think they’re committed to their partners, but they’re not,” says Nadeau-Girard with a laugh. “The gannet is loyal to its territory and its nest.
“If the baby leaves the nest, the parents won’t recognize it because … they don’t know the individual, they know the nest. Every time they see each other, it is as if they are meeting for the first time.”
The nests are only 80 centimeters (30 inches) apart, center to center, and these are large birds. At certain vantage points, the colony appears as a carpet of white as far as the eye can see, dotted with dark-feathered young, all against a backdrop of sea and sky.
The birds arrive in April, lay eggs in May and are cared for until they hatch after 40 days. Then the chicks are raised for three months. By the time they migrate south in late September or early October, the young are quite plump, weighing more than 1 kilogram (over 2 pounds) more than their parents. The extra oil will keep them afloat as they learn to fly and fish.
No training wheels for portly teenagers. Instead, lots of practice flapping their wings to the ground, followed by a part-cliff, part-plop off the cliffs.
If they survive this, the journey south will teach them grace and strength on the wing and deep.
From the town of Perce, the mainland cliffs with their red-roofed houses, the commanding Perce Rock and the Bonaventure Islands create a mystical panorama for the people of the Gaspé Peninsula and travelers from all over the world.
When the boats bring visitors to the island, park staff close them to explain the roads and what they can and cannot do. Services are mainly in French. One day in September, the multilingual Rudiger Spraul took the English-speaking visitors aside to practice.
He came from Germany, fell in love with the place and spent the summer and early fall working at the park until it closed last month after the gannets went into winter. Every day, he watched the colony from a small food operation, where guests can picnic and the colony can stink.
“It gave me so much peace that I decided to stay here,” he said. “I’m actually an engineer. Now I sell sandwiches in this lonely place.
“The island is a beautiful little paradise. It’s like time stops there. You go there, you see that there are old houses, there are no people who have lived there for so many years, but still, what kind of impression is created there, how hard it was.”
The island was settled by fishermen in the late 18th century and reached its peak population of 172 in 1831. The last remaining families left in 1971 when it was taken over by the government to become part of the park.
In total, the teardrop island, the longest of which is about 3 kilometers (less than 2 miles), is home to about 250,000 birds. seals frequent the rocks and shore and whales are a common sight. Foxes poke through the island bushes and occasionally hunt gannets on the periphery of the colony.
They all try to make a living in a changing ecosystem that tests the adaptability of creatures large and small.
Pelletier, a teacher-researcher, said: “The northern gannet is, to me, robust, robust, capable of ‘turning a dime’ … as we say in Quebec, ‘se tourner sur un 10 cents.’ Cegep de Rimouski is a public college.
How much and how fast should they rotate as habitats and our planet continue to warm? What fish will be there for them in the spring and how far and how deep will they be? Bonaventure’s keepers will return next year to tell more of this tale.
Larson reported from Washington.
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