VIDEO: Climate reshapes life for tenacious gannets on Quebec isle

On Quebec’s Bonaventure Island, the ghosts of the past few years and the vast numbers of birds that now breed there tell the same story: tough life in a place of fairy-tale beauty.

You can see it from the infancy on tombstones of subsistence Islander families in the late 1700s to half a century ago when Bonaventure turned entirely to birds.

You can see this in the tenacious habitat of the more than 100,000 northern gannets, which dive into the sea in search of prey and soar back to their nests, for high-altitude plateaus or in the crevices of cliffs.

Nothing is easy for gannets. Not so in this age of warming oceans, competition with trawlers for fish, pollution, pressurized storms and outbreaks of bird flu.

Especially when these dangers are combined with a curious urge common to many seabirds to return each spring to the exact spot they left off the year before. The next nesting spot isn’t going to work for these lively heroines.

Worldwide, it is difficult or impossible to link any single mass die-off or breeding catastrophe of seabirds to global warming alone, because nature has its jarring rhythm of abundance and scarcity.

But decades of overwhelming evidence is unassailable: warming and rising sea levels, and climate change fueling erratic weather events Serious injury to seabirdsSince the mid-20th century, seabird populations have declined by 70 percent, according to researchers at the University of British Columbia.

For example, climate-related losses have hit albatrosses in the central Pacific, common gulls and puffins on the west coast of the United States, puffins off the coast of Maine, penguins in South Africa, and the endangered rose tern and brown tern near New England. gull. Pelicans on Disappearing Island in southeastern Louisiana.

The struggle of many seabird species takes place in the wilderness of the oceans far from humans. Yet those Bonaventure gannets are in full view as a gift to scientists and the public on the Quebec government’s Parc national de l’lle-Bonaventure-et-du-Rocher-Perce protected lands.

The Bonaventure gannet “shows a clumsy and funny little side on land that has nothing to do with what it looks like at sea,” said David Pelletier, a principal investigator for the Quebec study of birds.

At sea, gannets are graceful and powerful.

Using the air currents above the water, they fly effortlessly across the surface, dive almost straight down in search of fish, and pierce the surface at 100 kilometers (60 miles) per hour like many white missiles. Their black-tipped wings span 2 meters (6 feet) and are tucked tightly behind them.

When mackerel – the prey that gives them the most energy – or herring or other smaller fish are plentiful there, they dive heavily around the island.

This sight amazes the most experienced scientists every time. “It’s amazing,” said Magella Guillemette, a distinguished gannet researcher at the University of Quebec in Rimouski, describing a frantic feeding frenzy in the depths of the ocean seen from his boat.

Since the island is less than 3 kilometers (less than 2 miles) from Perth harbour, these Wendell birds are very accessible to biologists and tourists, who hike wildflower-filled trails in summer to observe the birds up close. Even before the entire colony appeared, the call of birds greeted hikers.

Unlike many other seabirds, gannets appear to be completely indifferent to humans. They look straight at you with porcelain blue eyes.

“We rarely get a chance to see wildlife like this,” said park service manager Marie-Dominique Nadeau-Girard. “They stay there, they don’t watch you, they live their life, and you just watch them and learn.”

Student researchers at Guillemette are busy studying birds every summer. They have installed leg straps and GPS systems for hundreds of people over the years. The amazing thing about gannets is that researchers can easily pick them up without worrying about disturbing their nests.

“You just catch the bird,” Guillemette said. “You weigh them, put some equipment on them and put it back in the nest and it just stays there.”


Eco Sentinel

All of this makes the Wende gannet an ideal sentinel for the health of the bay’s marine ecosystem, and the chattering storyteller of the planet. They form the second largest gannet colony in the world, and are more accessible than the largest gannets on the remote Isle of Bass in Scotland.

Colonial Quebec field experts, Canadian government biologists and seabird scientists around the world say there’s little doubt that global warming is reshaping the lives of northern gannets. Warmer sea temperatures drive their prey to cooler depths, distant waters, or both.

But the full impact of climate change has yet to be determined, and overfishing may be an even bigger danger.

Meanwhile, threats from fishing and warming are forcing the gannets away from their Wende nests to find food for the island’s chicks and themselves. In recent years, the distance the birds have traveled on a single fishing flight has more than doubled to an average of 500 kilometers (300 miles), Guillemette said, leaving a mate and a chick waiting days or longer before being fed by a hunter .

It may also fly off to feed if the nest mate is weakened by starvation, leaving the young to starve or wander from the nest and risk being killed by the adults. Like many seabirds, adult gannets are highly territorial and likely to kill anyone who invades their nesting areas; an Associated Press reporter witnessed two fatal attacks on juveniles the day before their winter migration.

Researchers have been able to draw a strong correlation between the supply of bay mackerel and the number of chicks produced. In 2012, when there was almost no mackerel, only 4 percent of nests produced chicks, a record low, Guillemette said attributed to unusually warm waters that year.

Since then, productivity has varied widely from year to year, while the average has remained low, says Jean-François Rail, a seabird biologist with the Canadian Wildlife Service, part of Environment and Climate Change Canada.

“Everything points in the direction of reducing the supply of mackerel and herring, which leads to lower reproductive success,” he said.

What is clear is that the birds now have to work harder to find food. Beginning in 2012, Guillemette researchers began equipping gannets with GPS devices in small boxes taped above their tails so they could track how far they flew, how deep they dived, and how deep they dived each day how many times.

In March, just as the spring fishing season began, Canada shut down commercial fishing for Atlantic mackerel and spring herring in the southern Gulf of the St. Lawrence, saying stocks had entered a “critical zone.” Early efforts to restore the population failed, in part because warmer waters depleted the tiny crustaceans that are the fish’s main food.

Mackerel is the star of the Gulf ecosystem, not just gannets. They are seen as commercial species and as bait for the lucrative lobster, crab and tuna fisheries. Grey seals in large numbers in the bay will gobble as many as they can. Amid all the competition for food, gannets have found ways to adapt, but at a cost.

This year, the Bonaventure colony also had to battle bird flu. Pollution rates were high in the spring but have subsided, Guillemette said. The situation in other Canadian colonies was much worse.


colonial life

In winter, northern gannets are solitary birds that range widely across the water — along the Atlantic coast from Maine to Florida, and some even in the Gulf of Mexico. But the mates reunite at their breeding grounds year after year for about 15 years, producing one chick each season.

They have a monogamous nature and complex mating styles. In Gannet, the beak pointed to the sky means it’s time to go foraging; the buddies tap their bills together, as in swordsmanship, to signify welcome home after the hunt.

You might think of them as lovebirds; alas, these sentinels are not sentimental.

“People are more romantic and think they’re loyal to their partner, but that’s not the case,” laughs Nadeau-Girard. “The gannet is loyal to his territory, his den.

“If the baby comes out of the nest, the parents won’t recognize him because…they recognize the nest, not the individual. Every time they meet, it’s like meeting for the first time.”

Nested only 80 cm (30 in) from center to center, these are large birds. In certain vantage points, the entire colony resembles a white carpet, endless, dotted with dark-feathered young birds, all against the backdrop of the sea and sky.

The birds arrive in April, lay their eggs in May and tend them until they hatch after more than 40 days. This is followed by three months of rearing the chicks. By the time they migrate south in late September or early October, the chicks are plump, weighing 1 kg (over 2 lb) more than their parents. The extra fat will sustain them at sea as they learn to fly and dive to fish.

Fat teenagers don’t have training wheels. Instead, many practice flapping their wings on the ground and then leaving the cliff, which is part flight and part thump.

If they survive, the journey down south will teach them grace and strength in the wings and deep.


mysterious landscape

From the town of Perce, the continental cliffs with their red-roofed houses, the commanding Rock of Perce and the Isle of Bonaventure form an iconic panorama that is also a mystical panorama for the people of the Gaspé Peninsula and tourists from all over the world .

As the boats bring visitors to the island, park employees round them up to explain the route and what they can and cannot do. Service is mainly in French. One day in September, multilingual Rudiger Spraul pulled English-speaking visitors aside to give them a drill.

Originally from Germany, he fell in love with the place and worked on the park in the summer and early fall until it closed last month after the gannets left for the winter. He looks out at the colony every day at a small food store where tourists can picnic and hopes they don’t get leeward from the day’s wind because the colony stinks.

“It gave me so much peace that I decided to stay here,” he said. “I’m actually an engineer. Now I’m selling sandwiches in the middle of nowhere.

“This island is such a beautiful little paradise. It’s like time stands still there. You go there and you see those old houses that haven’t been lived in for so many years, but you still get a sense of what it’s like, what it’s like difficult.”

Cod fishermen began to settle on the island in the late 18th century, and the population peaked at 172 in 1831. The last remaining family left in 1971, when the island was taken over by the government and became part of the park.

In all, about 250,000 birds inhabit this teardrop-shaped island, which is about 3 kilometers (less than 2 miles) long at its longest. Seals are often seen on the rocks and on the shore, and whales are a common sight. Foxes poked their heads out of the island’s bushes and occasionally caught a gannet on the outskirts of the colony.

They all make a living in an ever-changing ecosystem that tests the adaptability of creatures large and small.

“To me, the northern gannet is a resilient species, strong, capable of ‘opening a dime’… As we say in Quebec, ‘se tourner sur un 10 cents’,” says Cegep de’s Faculty researcher Pelletier said Rimouski, a public university.

How much and how fast must they turn as their habitats and our planet continue to warm? What fish are suitable for them in spring, and how far and how deep are they? The Sentinels of Bonaventure will be back next year to tell more stories.


Larson reported from Washington.


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AP climate and environment reporting is supported by several private foundations.Find out more about AP climate initiative here. The Associated Press is solely responsible for all content.

Calvin Woodward, Lynn Berry, Carolyn Kaster and Christina Larson, Associated Press

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