Chronicles

Scoters Part Two
by: Mike Lushington  

        Once again the Black scoters have come and gone. This year, though, several of them took a small piece of human technology with them.As a result, we are going to learn a little more about them - where they go when they leave here, how long it takes them to get to where they go and perhaps even something about what they do when they get there

        For years, I have been fascinated with these enigmatic sea ducks. Every March they appear in the Bay of Fundy, migrating from further south in the Atlantic Ocean, where they have spent the previous several months. Usually, they don't stop - at least for very long. Instead, they continue up through the Bay, cross over into Northumberland Strait and proceed up to Miscou Island. From there my make their way into the upper Bay of Chaleur to wait for the ice in the Restigouche Estuary to break up. Then, they take a break. They feed, court and loaf around for a couple of weeks in early to mid May. And then they disappear.

        Five years ago, we knew less of the story than we do now. For example, we now realize that the Restigouche is a vitally important stop for a very large percentage of the total western Atlantic population of Black Scoters. Five years ago, we suspected that perhaps fifteen or twenty thousand of them stopped here. Now we know that that number is closer to one hundred thousand, and may even exceed it. We now know that they feed here on the vast supply of small mussels that is produced in the estuary. We also know that many of them pair off here: they arrive in flocks and leave in couples. Much of this we have begun to piece together in this time. Where they went when they left here, though, has remained a huge mystery. Now, thanks to a fascinating blending of primitive and cutting edge technology, we are beginning to learn something about that as well.

        This spring the Canadian Wildlife Service and the Us Department of the Interior combined forces to capture a total of seventeen scoters. Four of the birds were simply banded, but the other thirteen were implanted with small telemetric devices which now broadcast their whereabouts to satellites, which relay the information back to us via computer. This is remarkably sophisticated technology. Just before I started to write this article, I went on-line to find out just what was happening with the birds and discovered that since they were implanted in mid May, several of them have continued to putter around in the general area, several others have crossed over into the Saint Lawrence, still others have made their way up into that vast area of northern Quebec and western Labrador - and three have made it to James Bay. One of them, in fact, is almost to Hudson's Bay - and may very well be there by now.

        As I said, this is remarkable technology. But the story of their capture is one that could have been told by native hunters hundreds or thousands of years ago.

        Picture this: it is just about dark on a cold, rainy, windy night in early May. Six of us set out in two small, open boats, to capture scoters. Within minutes the other boat is lost in the gloom. We putter along slowly, scanning the water ahead of us with a handheld floodlight, stopping to listened every now and again, because the birds are more easily detected by their singing. When we see some, we approach as slowly and carefully as we can - to try to snag one with a dip net, one about the same size as salmon fishermen use. More often than not we miss, but at the end of that first night, we have seven candidates for space-age implants. (The crew does better without me the next night - and captures the other ten birds).

        Such is the practical world of real field research - from dip nets little different in size or concept from those used by our ancestors and by native fishermen for thousands of years, to technology so new that most of us still hardly realise that it exists. And it all comes together to add a few more pieces into a fascinating puzzle and a remarkable story, much of which unfolds right here on our doorsteps each spring.

       

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