Basques, Vikings, and Newfoundland Veeries

DSC04241We made a brief respite in Mary’s Harbour, yet another small fishing village on the eastern shore of Labrador, and celebrated Canada Day (July 1) with a delicious Snow Crab feast. Our surveys there proved fruitless once again (at least for Gray-cheeks), and within a couple days we continued south to Red Bay. It was here that – finally! – DSC04229we located a population of Gray-cheeks in a foggy mountain pass and set up our nets. We captured several more birds for our study, and also conducted more surveys of the vegetation, which consisted mostly of stunted Spruce and Balsam Fir trees that barely reached waist height; a landscape in which we literally waded through the “forest,” feeling very much like giants from a fairy tale, surrounded by fog and mist.

DSC04257DSC04267The village of Red Bay was also fascinating. A couple decades ago, it was discovered that this sheltered bay was a 16th and 17th century Basque whaling port. Each year, hundreds of men would sail from the Basque country of northern Spain to the coast of Labrador to hunt whales and process them into oil, for eventual shipment back to Europe. Red Bay, once an obscure fishing village, is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and boasts an impressive archaeological legacy from an otherwise poorly-known period of American history. The beaches are littered with clay tablets, once roof tiles from the whaling structures, and a whaling vessel was excavated from the bottom of the bay several years ago. We toured the interpretive center and museum, and ate our fill of seafood at a local restaurant. Morale was high having finally found success again in our search for the elusive Gray-cheeked Thrush. From camp, we encountered Willow Ptarmigan (Lagopus lagopus), and saw a huge pod of large whales in the distance, surfacing and blowing plumes of water skyward as they swam amidst the icebergs. We camped there for three nights, and by the time we began driving south again, to catch the ferry back to Newfoundland, our long Gray-cheek slump was over and we were in high spirits.

DSC04390Our next destination was the northern peninsula of Newfoundland, where the Vikings landed ~1000 years ago and set up a temporary settlement for a period of ~10 years. Now known as L’Anse aux Meadows, the site is the only confirmed Nordic settlement in the New World, and the likely location of Leif Erikson’s “Vinland” landing, as told in the Viking Sagas. (The name is the result of yet another poor Anglicization; the word “Meadows” replaced “Medusas,” which had referred to the large numbers of jellyfish encountered in the waters offshore.) Our search for Gray-cheeks in this area was also fruitful, and we acquired blood samples from several more birds. During one set of surveys, Rinchen and I reached the northern terminus of the International Appalachian Trail, a lookout from which Captain James Cook surveyed Noddy Bay in 1763. We also visited Burnt Cape and Norman Cape, where rare endemic plants grow on wind-swept bluffs; the gravel being naturally sorted into strange “frost polygons” by the freeze-thaw process. Epic views of the Strait of Belle Isle provided a backdrop to massive limestone cliffs, into which sea caves and tidal basins had been carved from the rock over millennia.

DSC04318Next, we drove south to the Port au Port peninsula for more surveys. Along the way, we visited Port aux Choix on the western coastline of the north peninsula, an archaeological site that was an ancient burial ground for four different indigenous cultures. Among these, the largest Archaic Maritime burial ground ever found is located here. Five thousand years ago, sea level was higher than today and the site of the burial ground was an island. Archaic Maritime people would bring their dead to the island for burial between 4400 and 3300 years ago, but there is no evidence that they ever had a permanent settlement at Port aux Choix (indeed, no evidence for permanent settlement of this culture exists anywhere – they were apparently a truly nomadic culture).

Pine Grosbeak (Pinicola enucleator)

Pine Grosbeak (Pinicola enucleator)

A total of 117 skeletons were found in 56 graves at the site, and many were adorned with decorative amulets and other objects. One group of 10 graves included 238 bills of Great Auks (Pinguinus impennis), a species now extinct, and a brooch pin shaped like that bird. Other graves boasted bird-bone whistles, harpoon points shaped from Walrus tusks and slate; and nearly all of the graves were sprinkled with red ochre before the pits were filled in with earth and marked with large stone slabs.

DSC04458At Port au Port, we found no Gray-cheeks, so after completing some vegetation surveys we drove even further south to the Table Mountains to search for Veeries (Catharus fuscescens, a close cousin of the Gray-cheeked Thrush and species dear to my heart). Ever since I began an intensive study of the Veery mating system in Delaware (see my MS Thesis), I have wanted to come to the Table Mountains to search for the species in Newfoundland – thus, this trip was a special occasion for me, and I was rewarded when we caught 3 birds on the Starlight Trail, and I had an opportunity to observe some behavior and make audio recordings.

A male Veery (Catharus fuscescens) in the Table Mountains, NL

A male Veery (Catharus fuscescens) in the Table Mountains, NL

Two of our captures were males, and the third a female with an egg ready to lay! We banded and bled the three Veeries, and also captured a Swainson’s Thrush (Catharus ustulatus). This is the first place that I have observed these two closely related species breeding at the same site. Although Marshall (2000) reported finding Gray-cheeks in syntopy with Veeries and Swainson’s Thrushes at Table Mountain, just south of our location, we did not locate the former species at Starlight Trail (although they may have been at higher elevation than our net location) and Alyssa did not detect them at Marshall’s location when she visited there last year.


Swainson’s Thrush (Catharus ustulatus) at the Starlight Trail, Table Mountains, NL

And thus, our field season was concluded. We drove back to Corner Brook to clean out the rental vehicles and make an inventory of our supplies, and then we parted ways with Alyssa. That night, Rinchen, Lucy, and I took the overnight ferry from Newfoundland to Nova Scotia, and then drove up to Rinchen’s home in Cape Breton, where we stayed the following night and bid him adieu. Lucy and I then drove across Cape Breton island to the Fortress of Louisbourg, where we visited the incredible reconstruction of the colonial fort and town there, where the English and French battled for control of the maritimes during the mid-18th century, and then on to Halifax, where she boarded a plane to return to Montreal. Those last few days were amazing but bittersweet, as we all knew that soon we would have to part with each other, having become close friends during our travels in Newfoundland and Labrador, and return to our separate lives in distant locations. But I have no doubt that we will see each other once again, as we continue our respective journeys through life – exponentially richer for having spent these precious weeks together on the road and sea.

Gray-cheeked Thrush (Catharus minimus) from the north peninsula of Newfoundland

Gray-cheeked Thrush (Catharus minimus) from the north peninsula of Newfoundland

Categories: American History, Evolution, Exploration, Natural History, Ornithology

1 comment

  1. Great stories and stunning photos of a northern world. Get home safely.

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