Gros Morne and the Journey to Labrador

DSC04040At long last, this week we crossed the Strait of Belle Isle and arrived on the shores of Labrador. But first, we made a pit stop at Gros Morne National Park, to visit with a Canadian biologist named Darroch Whitaker, who has been studying Gray-cheeked Thrushes (Catharus minimus) and their habitat associations in Newfoundland for several years. He was incredibly hospitable, and even offered us some delicious craft beers from eastern Canada and a dinner of homemade moose burgers (yes, you read that right). Moose (Alces alces) are not native to Newfoundland, and actually cause quite a bit of ecological mayhem by overgrazing young spruce and balsam fir trees, preventing forest regeneration. Hunting enables the Newfoundlanders to manage the population while simultaneously filling their bellies with delicious food year-round (much like White-tailed Deer in Pennsylvania).

Common Redpoll (Acanthis flammea), captured in Labrador.

Common Redpoll (Acanthis flammea), captured in Labrador.

Darroch also filled our heads with lots of knowledge about the local flora and fauna, as well as pertinent conservation challenges facing Newfoundland and the maritimes. He is quite the explorer himself, including yearly work expeditions to the Torngat Mountains of northern Labrador. On our way north, we stopped for a short hike at Western Brook Pond, an epic glacially carved fjord that was cut off from the sea and flushed of its salt water. The mountains are carved from the northern section of the Appalachian range, which once formed the spine of the supercontinent Pangaea, and today the geological history of the Earth is on display in its massive cliffs that rise 600 m from the lake surface.DSC03995

Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca), caught in Labrador.

Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca), caught in Labrador.

The elfin forest that surrounds the lake was abuzz with a unique assemblage of bird life, including Mourning (Geothlypis philadelphia), Wilson’s (Cardellina pusilla), and Tennessee Warblers (Cardellina pusilla), and the sweet sounds of Swainson’s Thrush (Catharus ustulatus) rang through the stunted spruce trees.

We crossed the Strait of Belle Isle on a ferry, and traveled north to our first camp at Pinware Provincial Park. From here, we began our task of searching for, capturing, banding, and bleeding Gray-cheeked Thrushes for our project (see previous two posts).

Gray-cheeked Thrush, captured in Labrador.

Gray-cheeked Thrush, captured in Labrador.

Over three days, we collected blood samples from 6 birds (including one that had been banded by Alyssa two years ago; constituting evidence of breeding site fidelity in this species for which few data are available!) and conducted a number of point count (birds) and vegetation surveys. We have been rising at 0400, and then returning to the field in the evening when the birds are once again active, staying out until about 2200 (daylight lasts much longer this far north!) Temperatures have also been very low, near freezing on most mornings, which has made field work challenging, but at least the black flies and mosquitos have been held at bay. In any case, we live for this type of thing!


The oldest burial site in the New World, at L’Anse Amour.

We visited L’Anse Amour, the site of the earliest human burial ground in the New World, where a child was buried approximately 7500 years ago, its body covered in red ochre and wrapped in birch bark. Among other ceremonial objects, the body was discovered with the tusk of a walrus (Odobenus rosmarus) and a bone flute. DSC04064The child was a member of the Archaic Maritime people, who lived in this region between 9000 and 3500 years ago. Just down the road is the historic L’Anse Amour lighthouse, the tallest in Atlantic Canada. We have also seen Humpack Whales and icebergs!

Categories: Exploration, Natural History, Ornithology

1 comment

  1. Matt, this is so great. Keep the updates coming as opportunities permit. Stay warm.

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