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The common murre and its island (part one)

Aerial photograph of Bonaventure Island
The common murre and its island (part one)

Are you familiar with the common murre? Not very well known to the general public, it’s nonetheless a highly important species of seabird in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and up and down the entire east coast of Canada. Outside the Biodôme, Île Bonaventure is the ideal site for observing it in its natural habitat. Provided you follow certain advice…

Auks and penguins

The common murre (generally and more simply called the murre) is part of the Alcidae, a little-known family of marine birds found in the cold waters of the northern hemisphere. Only certain species in this family merit the designation auk. (Certain similarities exist between the auk and the penguin families, but they have no common ancestor, and those resemblances are more the result of convergent evolution. Each family adapted to a similar environment and similar resources in the two hemispheres.)

Bonaventure Island, the best site for observing murres in Canada

The murre (Uria aalge) is not an easy-to-observe bird because it spends eight to nine months on the high seas. We can nevertheless get to see spectacular gatherings in breeding season, near the coastline. At that point, murres can be found in colonies of tens of thousands, either on island cliffs or on the rock terraces of islands far removed from the coasts. They often share their breeding ground with other seabirds, as is the case on Bonaventure Island (Île-Bonaventure-et-du Rocher-Percé National Park). This is incidentally the best murre observation site in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, or even in all of Canada. Beyond the fact that the site shelters the most important murre colony in the Gulf of St. Lawrence (over 30,000), it’s possible to see other species of seabirds that come and nest there by the thousand as well (razorbills and black-legged kittiwakes, but above all the 120,000 northern gannets). Moreover, the site is highly accessible by road, and national park facilities (shuttle boats, pathways and park naturalists) allow for the finest observation conditions.

Some advice for effective murre observation on Bonaventure Island

  • Avoid the direct shuttle and opt for the one that lets you make a tour around the island, since murres are difficult to see from the island itself. They all nest in the cliffs.
  • Make sure to get there early in the season (up to about the third week of July), because the chicks don’t spend more than three weeks in the nest.

A hurried departure

Murre chicks leave the nest when they’re just 250 grams (one-quarter their adult weight). Departure always takes place at dusk, and more or less all of them leave on the same evening to minimize gull predation (herring gulls and black-backed gulls). The phenomenon is always rather striking, and well-known to the tour operators and the park naturalists. One day, thousands of murres are active on the cliffs, around the boats and at sea, and the next day, in the same place, there’s still the spectacle – dazzling, granted – of the gannets and the screeching visits of the kittiwakes, but the black and white notes of those little fast-flying birds are missing. Great stretches of cliffs seem to have been vacated by their occupants, leaving behind empty spaces. And the spectacle of the colony has lost one of the voices that make the symphony so harmonious.

To look for in my next post: Why are murres in such a hurry to leave their nesting place?

Thanks to Jean-François Rail of the Canadian Wildlife Service and to Mélanie Sabourin and Rémi Plourde of Île-Bonaventure-et-du Rocher-Percé National Park for their contributions.

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