National Geographic : 1948 Jun
Sea Bird Cities Off Audubon's Labrador BY ARTHUR A. ALLEN Professor of Ornithology, Cornell University With Illustrations from Photographsby the Author F ROM vast reaches of the sea, bizarre birds congregate to breed on islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence south of the lonely Labrador Peninsula, which John James Audubon more than a century ago called "won derfully grand, wild-aye, and terrific." Those adjectives still apply, as we discovered on a trip for the National Geographic Society to photograph in color the sea birds the great naturalist painstakingly drew and painted. Often he worked 17 hours a day to draw details of color and form that cameras now catch in split seconds.* All traffic to the north shore of the Gulf is by boat in summer and dog sledge in winter, or by plane, since no roads reach into this wild region. Though actually a part of Quebec, it is still often called Labrador as it was in Audu bon's day (map, page 759). Kittiwake Homes on Sheer Cliffs Leaving our station wagon at Rimouski, Quebec, on the broad estuary of the St. Law rence River, Mrs. Allen and I boarded the steamship Matane I and arrived next morning at Seven Islands (Sept Iles), on this coast of storms. There we were met by Game Warden Ben Bijoud, who had instructions from Ottawa to take us to the bird sanctuary on Carrousel Island near by. Like everyone else on the coast, he went out of his way to be helpful. It was June and a new generation of birds was just emerging. On two of the vertical cliffs facing the sea we found 300 nesting kittiwake gulls. Kittiwakes derive their name from their three-syllable call. About the fishing banks they are among the most familiar birds, espe cially in winter. Then they often assemble in thousands and are known as "winter birds." They never venture inland, however, and are rare even about the harbors, where they are called "offshore gulls." Unlike most other species of gulls, the kitti wakes always select narrow shelves on sheer cliffs for their homes and build substantial nests of seaweed which will not blow off in the storms that so often batter the rocks below. Landing at the foot of the cliff in the light house keeper's boat, we rigged up a blind on a ledge about 20 feet from the nests. Luckily, the birds paid little attention to the blind. Soon after the boat disappeared, they came back, and I was able to observe them at close range. Their dark eyes gave them a much gentler expression than the pale-yellow eyes of other gulls on this coast, and their small black feet were likewise distinctive. Day-old youngsters, visible in some of the nests, were covered with fluffy pale-gray down without the dark spots that are so conspicu ous on most young gulls. My contemplation of the home life of these interesting visitors from the high seas was sud denly interrupted by a gust of wind that caused the blind to careen. In my efforts to hold it in place, I felt one foot slip from the ledge and had a momentary vision of camera, blind, and photographer plunging into the sea thirty feet below. It proved fortunate that we made photo graphs the first day, because thereafter we had high winds or fog which would have made the approach to the cliffs most dangerous. On Carrousel Island there was also a colony of some 1,100 herring gulls. A few great black backed gulls, or "saddlebacks," and a couple of hundred razor-billed auks and black guille mots were incubating their eggs in the numer ous fissures in the rocks. About 150 eider ducks were breeding on the island, and more than 300 double-crested cormorants could be seen nesting in the tops of the dead spruces on the highest part of the island. Miss the Boat and You Wait a Week From this lonely rock of whirring wings and raucous, haunting cries, we returned to Seven Islands to catch the steamship Sable Isle, scheduled to dock the next morning at 6 on its way to Harrington Harbour. * Dr. Allen, a pioneer in color photography of birds, is making a comprehensive series of color plates of the principal species in various sections of North America under a grant of funds from the National Geographic Society. One hundred and nineteen of his remarkable color photographs of birds have ap peared in previous issues of the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE as illustrations for the following articles: "Birds of Timberline and Tundra," September, 1946; "Sights and Sounds of the Winged World," June, 1945; "Touring for Birds with Microphone and Color Camera," June, 1944; "Birds on the Home Front," July, 1943; "Ambassadors of Good Will," June, 1942; and "Stalking Birds with a Color Camera," June, 1939, all by Arthur A. Allen. Dr. Allen's contributions to the NATIONALGEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE also include "Hunting with a Microphone the Voices of Vanish ing Birds," June, 1937.