Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Wednesdays with Audubon, Chapter 9

As a matter of manners and thanks, Audubon and his men conducted some business on Magdalene island before departing. They bought over-priced, low quality animals skins (in Audubon's developed opinion), a few other provisions, and proceeded along the archipelago about 18 miles in search of nesting Mergansers and Geese. Along the way they stopped to collect Black Guillemot eggs, which turned out to be quite an undertaking. The birds lay their eggs on bare coastal/cliff rock, just above the high-water mark, and are very staunch defenders of their nurseries. It's a fun image, these heavy-laden sailors slipping and sprawling on the wet and poo-plastered rocks as the cold waves break and spray with the protesting birds.

Before they reached the waterfowl lakes on the eastern extremity of the Magdalene Archipelago, the Audubon crew caught a very favorable wind towards Labrador Island, and they changed course without much debate. Their new heading took them into line with the many trails of Gannets all heading to some unseen breeding ground. Some of them hung noticeably low in the air, no doubt gorged with fishy bits for their waiting mates and young. The birds were heading towards a large, snowy monolith that rose out of the churning water. As the men drew closer, Audubon realized with great elation that it was not snow at all which covered the rock, but Gannets. Thousands and thousands of Gannets:

"I rubbed my eyes, took my spy-glass, and in an instant the strangest picture stood before me. They were birds we saw--a mass of birds such a size as yet I never before cast my eyes on. The whole of my party stood astounded and amazed, and all came to the conclusion that such a sight was of itself sufficient to invite any one to come across the Gulf to view it as this season."

To Audubon's dismay, they were unable to bring the ship/row-boats in close enough to land on Gannet Rock. After a few dangerous and futile attempts, the mournful crew pressed on. Many of the men spent the next few days in a state of poor health, no doubt brought on by their fool-hardy pursuit of the Gannet roost in cold and stormy conditions. They sailed on through the rain and reached the island of Anticosti on June 15th. They spent the 16th recovering and fishing for cod, and at 5 am on June 17th they first sighted the shores of Labrador.

Thousands of Razor-Billed Auks and Velvet Ducks (Velvet Scoter) escorted them in towards the island, and they soon found a harbor where several Hudson Bay Company fishing boats were moored. After saying hello to a few friends, they continued on to an American harbor. When they dropped anchor around latitude 50, it was farther north that Audubon had ever been before. Despite this auspicious beginning, the initial explorations were somewhat disappointing. The island was covered in a thick, spongy moss that spread over any and all exposed earth. The trees were haggard and wiry, presenting only a single Pigeon Hawk as game for the men.

They continued to sail around the island and made anchor again at noon, where Audubon gathered specimens of Eider Ducks, and began to catch up on his neglected drawings, before his previously gathered specimens started to spoil. It has been a trip of mostly pelagic sightings so far. I'm sure that Audubon and his crew were eager to spend some time ashore, and so am I.