NatureNL Blog

Welcome to the Nature Newfoundland & Labrador Blog. Here we share interesting local nature stories, photos from our hikes and events, selections of articles from our publication ‘The Osprey’, and more.

Naturalist Sightings

By Justin So

A red fox was observed bounding across sea ice to get at a colony of puffins in Elliston, NL (Photo by Rodolphe Devillers).

Over the last few weeks there have been more than a few interesting nature sightings around our province.  Check out below some fascinating wildlife stories in the news and online.

 

• Elliston, NL is one of the best places to view our provincial bird, the Atlantic puffin (Fratercula arctica). A fox was filmed by Rodolphe Devillers trying to get a meal of puffin. The fox bounds across the sea ice and cliffs to find a way up, but is ultimately not successful at getting at the puffins.

 

• In late May, Gerard Gale in Black Duck Siding in western Newfoundland, captured video of a white piebald moose (Alces alces) as close as three feet away. These moose are predominantly white in colour with spots of pigment and are protected from hunting. Gale said it was a “Once in a lifetime for [him]”.

 

• On May 22, a dead humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) washed ashore in Outer Cove, NL. While initially a fascinating site, there was a lot of debate of how to remove the rotting carcass. A Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) lead initiative saw the removal of the carcass to a local disposal site. However, much of the whale fat that has floated off will likely persist in the water for a while.

 

• A dead polar bear (Ursus maritimus) washed up in Bristol’s Hope, NL. Ann Peddle, who discovered the bear, noted it was an uncommon sighting for the area. The carcass was eventually removed by the provincial Wildlife Division.

 

• A man in Harbour Breton, NL has been guarding his home from ravens (Corvus corax). The birds can be seen banging against the window panes and pulling apart the rubber seal. Bird expert Bill Montevecchi, indicates that ravens are very intelligent and but may see the reflection in the window as an intruder on their territory.

 

• A lawn in Kippens, NL has been overrun with an infestation of crane fly (Tipula paludosa) larvae. Homeowner Roland Peddle looked out his window one morning after a large rainfall and saw thousands of grub-like insects crawling all over the land surrounding his home. Entomologist Barry Hicks indicated on social media that many insect populations are episodic and these insects may have escaped their natural regulator factors. He suggested that eventually the populations will crash as they would starve themselves or a build up of parasitoids and pathogens would build up and cause a crash.

 

• A couple was driving toward Rocky Harbour in Newfoundland’s Gros Morne National Park and had a close encounter with a black bear (Ursus americanus) cub. The couple took pictures of the bear from inside their vehicle. Parks Canada advises against stopping to see bears on the side of the road.

 

• The long May 24 weekend brought a lot of rare birds to the island. At Quidi Vidi in St. John’s, NL, a vagrant European Common Swift (Apus apus) caused a stir in the birding community. As Bruce McTavish noted; “The long, narrow wings and sharply notched tail [of the European Common Swift] are different than any other Newfoundland bird. This extremely rare bird at Quidi Vidi Lake kept birders very warm all weekend.”

Bees, Agriculture and the Precautionary Principle

 

By Julie Sircom,  Grenfell Campus, Memorial University of Newfoundland

 

 

It’s hard to miss the news that Newfoundland’s honey bees are special – Varroa mite, a major pest elsewhere, is absent from the island, and several other diseases have not been found here. Many of the stressors that have led to declines elsewhere aren’t a problem here. Far less is known about the island’s native bees. There are over 70 species, from tiny solitary bees not much larger than an ant to the familiar fuzzy bumble bees. These bees provide a vital and largely unmeasured service, pollinating both crops and native plants. There would be no berry-picking in the autumn if it weren’t for our many native pollinators. Little is known about the health of our native bees, either in terms of the stability of their populations or the types of diseases that affect them.

 

There would be no berry-picking in the autumn if it weren’t for our many native pollinators.

 

The Canadian Environmental Law Association (www.cela.ca) defines the precautionary principle as the duty to do whatever we can to prevent harm, whether or not we have all of the evidence. In the case of Newfoundland’s pollinators, both the native species and the managed honey bees, this means avoiding the possible introduction of pests, disease, and alien species. There are two main ways this might happen: imports of honey bees and related equipment, and imports of the commercially-reared bumble bee Bombus impatiens. There are regulations regarding both, but the latter is seen as less of a threat, based on a number of assumptions.

 

Although imports of bumble bees were allowed in the past, no permits have been issued in recent years. Due to earlier imports, B. impatiens is currently considered to have low environmental risk. It has been assumed that the bees are disease-free as they are reared in a controlled environment and are not thought to share diseases with honey bees. The commercial nests are also equipped with queen excluders that are designed to prevent queens from leaving the nests and establishing new colonies. Furthermore, B. impatiens is a more southerly species and it is assumed that any escapees would be unable to survive Newfoundland’s harsher winters. All of these turn out to be questionable assumptions.

 

Common Eastern Bumble bee (Bombus impatiens) (Photo By Judy Gallagher [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons).

Import permits for B. impatiens have not been issued recently due to rising concern about the potential impact on local bees. Commercially-reared bumble bees have been shown to carry a number of parasites and diseases. These are almost certainly capable of infecting native bees, which may not have the defences to fight such infections. In addition, some of these pathogens are shared with honey bees. Parasite and disease transfer between B. impatiens and other bees is very simple: bees repeatedly visit the same flower as its nectar reserves are replenished. An infected bee can leave behind ‘hitchhikers’ that survive until the next bee visits the flower. Bees also visit other nests more frequently than you might imagine. If a native bee enters a B. impatiens nest to rob a little nectar, it can very easily become infected.

 

It is also clear that B. impatiens can overwinter in Newfoundland. Bumble bee nests die off at the end of the season, and only new queens overwinter. In 2015, B. impatiens was imported for supplemental pollination on a cranberry farm in Western Newfoundland. To the best of my knowledge, these were ‘used’ bees, from lowbush blueberry crops in Nova Scotia or New Brunswick. This is obviously of concern, as they would have been exposed to a range of parasites and diseases in those fields. These nests either were not equipped with queen excluders because B. impatiens is native to the Maritime provinces, or were damaged; either way, an unknown number of queens escaped. In May and June 2016, I collected 24 B. impatiens queens on the farm. These must have come from the commercial nests imported the previous year; no B. impatiens were recorded in any other sampling location.

 

But what would happen if B. impatiens were to become established in Newfoundland?

 

So far, there is no sign that any of the queens successfully established a nest, but searching for a newly-established species is like looking for a needle in a haystack. But what would happen if B. impatiens were to become established in Newfoundland? Would it really matter? We don’t know, so the precautionary principle dictates that we do our best to avoid it happening.

 

One possible outcome is the displacement of native species. The queens of B. impatiens are larger than many of our native bees, and in 2016 they emerged early in the season. This raises the possibility of these queens establishing nests in prime locations before some native bees are even active, and usurping nesting sites from smaller native bees that are active at the same time. This includes one of the most abundant species, at least in Western Newfoundland, B. ternarius. This is a distinctive bumble bee with a broad orange band on its abdomen.

 

Bombus ternarius on Aster (Photo by Julie Sircom).

 

A pragmatist might ask why this matters, as long as there are bumble bees to perform the task of pollinating. However, if B. impatiens were to dominate the bumble bee community, important ecological resiliency would be lost. Our diverse native bee community is adapted to local conditions and provides insurance against our often unpredictable weather. If B. impatiens populations crashed, there may be few species to take up the slack. If parasites and diseases carried by these bees were passed to honey bees and led to colony losses, they would be unable to fill the pollination needs of agriculture. There are many other unknowns with regards to the extent of environmental effects of introduced B. impatiens. For example, I collaborated with Barry Hicks (College of the North Atlantic, Carbonear), on a study in Western Newfoundland that suggested that B. impatiens was a less efficient pollinator than native bees.

 

If Newfoundland is to preserve the special status of its honey bees, and protect its native pollinators, the precautionary principle must be applied. It is tempting to take the easy route that claims to provide reliable pollination and consistent crop yields, but we should have greater faith in our own resources. A few simple farming techniques, such as maintaining native flowering plants on field margins, can ensure a diverse and abundant pollinator community. Meanwhile, my research team and collaborators can continue to collect the missing evidence that will allow us to make informed choices about whether we need supplemental pollination, and how best to deliver it if we do.

 

Trip Report – Annual Long Pond Clean Up

by Emma Bocking

 

Thank you to all of the wonderful volunteers who came out to our annual clean up of Long Pond last Saturday. We had a total of 24 people haul out over 20 bags of garbage from around the pond, including a large plastic barrel that some volunteers are planning to upcycle for use in their garden!

This year, the clean up was our way of celebrating International Migratory Bird Day. The shoreline around Long Pond is important habitat for urban populations of waterfowl, and several species such as black duck, pintail and greater scaup are regularly spotted on the pond and surrounding marshy riparian zone. This annual clean up is held every year in early spring, to remove debris from the area before nesting season begins.

 

Thank you again to everyone who helped out. See you next year!

 

John Blake passes away

In the midst of another round of deep cuts to the Wildlife Division, Mr. John Blake, Director of Wildlife Division, has passed away.

http://www.thetelegram.com/news/local/2017/3/28/john-blake-was-a-giant-among-outdoors-enthusiasts-in-n-l-.html

 

 

 

Trip report – snowshoeing in a winter wonderland

 

by Allan Stein and Michael Collins 

 

One couldn’t really ask for better weather for the February 20th 2017 Nature NL snowshoe trip – not too cold or windy, with sun and blue skies and, of course, plenty of snow! The snow not only covered the ground and the tree limbs, but also coated the tree trunks creating quite a winter wonderland.  Even though the snow was very deep we decided not to use snowshoes as on the main trails snowmobiles had packed the snow down enough to walk on just in boots.

 

The area was dense woodland mostly covered with conifers and an occasional dogberry.  As one might have expected snowshoe hare tracks were abundant, many smaller than might be expected.  Allan pointed out that hares give birth to young around this time of year hence the many smaller sets of hare prints.

 

Besides buds snipped off by hares close to snow level, there were also a number of smaller deciduous shrubs where the bark had been scraped off by hares near the base.  On several occasions we heard the sounds of a moose ahead of us although we didn’t actually see the animal.  There was, however, plenty of evidence of moose feeding as many of the dogberry buds had been snapped off by moose.

 

In one area we came across a set of dog-like tracks which did not show the aimless wandering of a dog and which were too small for a fox.  We concluded that the tracks were those of a coyote.  Towards the end of the trip the sun came out from behind the clouds creating a real life Christmas scene with the snow decorating the conifer branches.  In places the sunlight shone through icicles hanging from the trees giving the appearance of multicoloured Christmas tree decorations!

 

All in all a very enjoyable stroll through the woods among wonderful natural scenery!

 

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