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
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.