Funk Island is 40km east of Fogo Island off the coast of Newfoundland.
Getting to Funk Island, requires a 5 hour boat trip. It is an inhospitable environment for humans – a bare rock fully exposed to the unpredictable, and uncompromising moods of wind and water. There are few places to land and, depending on ocean conditions, it is often impossible to get on or off the island. Scientists working here must bring everything they need to survive. There is no water and no fuel. In this episode, Bill and his research assistant, Seth Bennett get ashore with the help of fishermen, set up camp and consider the work that lies ahead.
2. Ecological Seabird Reserve
Bill gives us an overview of the Funk Island Ecological Reserve and of the various seabird species that come here each summer to breed and raise their young.
Nine seabird species nest on the island – Northern Fulmar, Northern Gannet, Herring Gull, Great Black-backed Gull, Black-legged Kittiwake, Common Murre, Thick-billed Murre, Razorbill and Atlantic Puffin. By far the most numerous of these seabirds is the Common Murre. Its colony stretches from west to east, over the entire spine of the island.
3. Bagging and Tagging Murres
Using a fisherman’s dip net, Bill captures murres as they return from the ocean with food for their chicks.
While Seth weighs the birds to determine their general health, Bill examines the fish they have brought back to determine what can be learned of current food resources and ocean conditions.
There is nothing common about the Common Murre.
Over a million of these birds hone in on Funk Island every spring to renew their relationship with their life-long mates, breed and raise their chicks. Like all seabirds, they live most of their lives on the open ocean, and will return to it as soon as they can get their chicks off the island. This is the largest breeding colony of murres in the North Atlantic.
Northern gannets may be the most aggressive bird on earth.
Closely packed nesting pairs often engage in blood baths with their neighbours, especially early in the season when territories are being established. Unlike fledgling murres that venture to sea with their fathers, gannet fledglings go it alone. After three months in the nest, the fat-ladened young will stop accepting food from their parents and find their own way to the ocean.
6. Catching Gannets
The life of a research scientist is not without excitement or danger.
Snaring gannets to sample weight and determine sex can be a tricky business. In this video, Bill shows how it is done – not without consequences.
Razorbills are the species that most resemble the extinct Great Auk.
A small colony of these birds breed on Funk Island, nesting under rocks and in crevasses. Blood samples from these birds provide genetic information that clarify relationships to other North Atlantic colonies.
8. Procession of the Murres
At most breeding sites, murres lay their eggs on cliffs and when the chicks are ready to leave the colony, they simply jump into the ocean.
On Funk Island, the colony is on relatively level terrain, so parents and chicks form noisy processions and trudge to the sea in a manner reminiscent of marching penguins. The cacophonous departure of the young is a profound and irreversible rite of passage. With constant coaxing, crooning and chirping, tight pairs of fathers and chicks walk slowly over hundreds of metres and in a final leap of faith, jump into the cold and unforgiving North Atlantic.
9. In the Meadow of the Great Auk
Funk Island was the largest known colony of the Great Auk.
Following centuries of exploitation as food, these penguins of the North Atlantic were finally slaughtered for their down feathers for mattresses and quilts. So great was the carnage that a meadow developed from the compost of discarded auks. But nature abhors a vacuum and today the meadow is the location of numerous puffin burrows. Bill takes us on a walk in this meadow of the Great Auk and suggests some lessons to be learned from this ecological tragedy.