New Finds in Newfoundland

by Pat Leonard last modified 2007-09-25 13:03

Hanging off cliffs to record seabirds!

By Martha Fischer

In July, veteran recordist Geoffrey A. Keller and I went to Newfoundland primarily to obtain recordings of seabird colonies. We journeyed to one of the islands in the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve. The photo below was taken on the east side of Gull Island, where we were able to get within a few feet of Common Murres and Razorbills.

East side of Gull Island
Gull Island, Newfoundland. Photo by Peter Thomas, Canadian Wildlife Service

Geoff is well known for the thousands of recordings he has contributed to the Macaulay Library archive (and for his audio guides, including Bird Songs of Florida, Bird Songs of California, and Bird Songs of Southeastern Arizona and Sonora, Mexico.) Although we each did some work on our own, recording seabirds is definitely a two-person job!

Recordist Geoff Keller
Recordist Geoff Keller monitoring murres on the cliff beneath him. Photo by Peter Thomas, Canadian Wildlife Service

The challenge in getting good recordings of these birds was not in finding the birds—there were plenty of them—but getting close enough to individuals to record their voices over the din of thousands of other seabirds on the island, without scaring them away.

The best way to record Common Murres is to very slowly approach adult birds with eggs or chicks. Murres don't build nests, but lay and incubate their egg on very narrow ledges on cliffs. It's a precarious situation and a sudden move by the adult could send an egg or chick over the edge. By creeping slowly down the cliff (see photograph below) I was able to place a pair of microphones about two feet from several murre adults and chicks. Meanwhile, Geoff was at the top of the cliff feeding down audio cable and monitoring the signal coming into the digital recorder (see photo above).

A real cliff-hanger
Standing beside me is Dave Fifield, who guided us on Gull Island. The murres are perched in the whitewashed area of the cliff above us. Photo by Peter Thomas, Canadian Wildlife Service

To get the Razorbill recording we also had to do some cliff climbing. We were able to put microphones in a crevice where a chick was peeping. We crouched at the edge of the cliff, watching the readout on the recorder. After less than 10 minutes we heard an adult Razorbill rejoin the chick.

One of my favorite recordings is one Geoff made at Cape St. Mary's Ecological Reserve. He pointed his microphone and parabola at an American Pipit calling from the top of a fence post (see photo below). If you listen carefully to the recording, you’ll hear hear humpback whales breaching in the background!

Pipit on a Post
Geoff Keller recording a Pipit. Photo by Martha Fischer

In the weeks leading up to our visit to Cape St. Mary's, a top birder in Newfoundland told us that going there was like a religious experience. Afterward, Geoff declared it in the top five of all the spectacular spots where he has ever recorded.

Flock on a Rock
Gulls rock! Photo by Martha Fischer

We obtained the Northern Gannet recording by placing the microphones within one foot of a chick. We left the microphone in place and monitored the recording from about 30 feet away for about 20 minutes. The adult birds returned and cooperated by vocalizing loudly. We knew it was time to retrieve our gear when we heard the telltale sound of birds pecking at the covering of the microphone.

You can hear some of the expedition recordings from Newfoundland in the Sound Gallery.

Gull Gathering
Northern Gannets. Photo by Martha Fischer