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Northern gannets nest in Gaspé. (Cinda Chavich)
Northern gannets nest in Gaspé. (Cinda Chavich)

Oil spill

Will the gannets in the oil-drenched Gulf return? Add to ...

The sight of 120,000 northern gannets, nesting noisily on a rocky island in Quebec's Gaspé region, is spectacular - but this year, it's a wildlife watching experience tinged with tragedy.

"It breaks my heart to probably know that this year is the best year to see the colony," says Carole Couet of Parks Quebec, her commanding voice cracking as she describes the future facing the largest and most accessible gannetry in the world.

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"We do not know what will happen when our birds go south. In the next two or three years we will see - but we know they will go in those waters."

Couet is speaking of the Gulf of Mexico, where crude continues to spew from a leaking off-shore oil well. This is where the thousands of gannets that mate in Canada each summer will return in October to spend the winter, and no one knows for sure just what that will mean for future populations.

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A young northern gannet was one of the first oily birds pulled from the slick near Louisiana, and experts fear thousands more may perish as a result of the disaster, either by consuming or being consumed by the toxic waters.

But for now, the big birds are safe and sound - soaring, squawking and procreating on this isolated island at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River, just off the eastern tip of the rugged Gaspé Peninsula.

We've arrived at the l'Île-Bonaventure-et-du-Rocher-Percé National Park on one of the tour boats that ferry passengers past the red face of Percé Rock to nearby Bonaventure Island every 20 minutes each day. Wheeling above us, as we round the steep cliffs, are thousands of graceful white gannets, their black-tipped wings catching the ocean updrafts as they scan the waters for fish and sea plants, while their mates protect their nests, tucked into the rock walls and massed like a snowbank across a windswept slope.

When the boat docks, we follow Couet into one of the historic red and white buildings that dot the shoreline for quick lesson in gannet behaviour before heading down the hiking trail to the colony. It's a pleasant 45-minute walk through the forest to the blustery point, where 60,000 nesting pairs each guard a single egg beneath their rubbery webbed feet.

You can hear the cacophony before you actually see the mass of bobbing birds, and it's a stunning sight to behold.

Gannets are beautiful creatures - pristine white plumage with a blush of saffron across their heads during mating season, and startlingly icy blue eyes, framed by graphic black lines that might have been painted by a creative makeup artist.

The colony is literally behind a rope barrier where the thousands of nesting birds are nearly close enough to touch. Observers, with binoculars and cameras with telephoto lenses, watch and snap from a grassy slope or from wooden platforms perched above the neatly spaced nests.

It's like a bird's-eye view of any crowded community - thousands of couples squabbling and making up, neighbours jostling for space, commuters leaving and returning home in a steady stream. Gannets, while elegant in flight, are comically clumsy as they take off and land from the crowded slope and we watch as they somersault from the sky.

Each of the 60,000 nests here is a mere 60 centimetres away from its neighbour, so territorial disputes erupt continuously as birds fly in with their long beaks laden with seaweed and other nesting materials, or inadvertently stray across territorial lines.

These big seabirds mate for life - though they don't actually recognize their mates, Couet says. Gannets are fiercely territorial, and both male and female return to the same nest each year, a shallow mound of seaweed and feathers, where the birds take turns incubating a solitary blue-green egg.

Couples engage in a kind of bill-to-bill swordplay when they meet, and we watch them stretch their long necks skyward, crossing their pale blue bills in an elegant greeting.

The gannets migrate north to their nesting grounds during the first three weeks of April, so it appears that most adults arrived at Bonaventure Island before the April 20 blowout of the BP well in waters off Louisiana.

But juveniles remain in the Gulf region for the first three or four years of their lives, and while it's unknown exactly where the birds stay while at sea, researchers estimate that up to 15,000 juvenile gannets may now be trapped in the oily waters.

"We know the young ones, two or three years old, are still around the Gulf of Mexico," says Bonaventure Island park warden Marie-Lou Beaudin. "It's hard to tell what will happen - this is our first experience with this kind of disaster."

The good news is that the expected returnees arrived safely.

"The adult birds had already returned before the oil spill and any that made it were not affected by oil," says Kim Mawhinney, manager of population conservation for the Canadian Wildlife Service. "Environment Canada has been closely tracking the situation."

In 2007, 25 birds were fitted with GPS transmitters to follow their southern migrations, and researchers learned that the birds wintered all along the southeastern U.S. coast, from the Carolinas to the Gulf. Environment Canada is "closely monitoring the situation and tracking the spill drift trajectory," but when the adult gannets now nesting in Canada fly south in October, they may encounter oil.

"Adults will return to their wintering grounds and if there is oil on the water, they are vulnerable to being oiled," Mawhinney says. "The timing of the cleanup is critical."

Meanwhile, Catherine Ayotte, a student from nearby University of Quebec in Rimouski, is spending her summer at the Bonaventure Island colony, part of a three-year study of gannet nesting and chick mortality.

"We come here each day to see if there is an egg or a chick," says Ayotte, who is watching 150 different nests.

Last year, cold weather resulted in fewer eggs and higher mortality than normal, though this year she's already counted eggs in 80 per cent of the nests she is watching. She says she may also attempt to band some birds this year and do blood tests to see how the oil contamination is impacting the birds' health.

"All of the food is toxic now, so we don't know what the birds will do," she says. "We will see the results of this next year and in years to come."

Other migrating wildlife - from sea and shore birds to whales - will also be impacted when they leave Canadian waters for winter ranges in the fall.

At least for this summer, it's wildlife watching as usual on the St. Lawrence.

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IF YOU GO

Fly to Gaspé from Quebec City on Air Canada, or travel directly to Percé on VIA Rail's Chaleur, an overnight train from Montreal to the Gaspé. It's a 1,090-kilometre drive from Montreal.

BIRD WATCHING Three companies run regular boat tours to Bonaventure Island, including viewing of Percé Rock, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Entrance to Parc national du Québec is $3.50 and the boat ride is $25. Allow four hours for the easy 1.5-hour (return) hike to the bird colony and for bird watching. www.infogaspesie.com

WHERE TO STAY AND DINE

Le Mirage A nicely renovated hotel/motel on the hillside overlooking the town of Percé and the spectacular Percé Rock. $118 in the off-season. 288 Route 132 Ouest, Percé; 1-800-463-9011; www.hotellemirageperce.com

William Wakeham Inn Ask for the Queen's room and enjoy some of the finest dining in the region. Rooms from $89, or $139 per person including multi-course dinner and breakfast. 186 de la reine, Gaspé; 418-368-5537; www.maisonwakeham.ca

La Petite Églize Visit friendly Claudine Roy at Brise Bise Restaurant for lunch or drinks, and check out her entertainment space, La Petite Églize, in a converted church featuring performances by local Gaspésie and Québécois musicians. www.brisebise.ca; www.eglize.qc.ca

For more: www.quebecmaritime.qc.ca/en

C.C.

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