If you read the posts on my recent Arctic cruise, you likely saw a couple of shots of some funny-looking black birds whizzing across the Arctic waters. Those are thick-billed murres, and besides being a good photo subject, they’re a bird with an amazing story to tell.
In truth, I didn’t see a whole lot of bird species on my cruise through Arctic waters – far fewer than I expected. But I did see a whole lot of thick-billed murres, mainly on the south shore of Baffin Island and off the north coast of Quebec, especially a place called the Digges Islands.
There, hundreds of thousands of these birds gather to nest every season, forming enormous colonies on the rocky cliffs. And we got a great look at them, as our ship pulled up in the deep water near the rock face and drifted by while we snapped away with our cameras.
But beyond the spectacle they present, these birds have an amazing story. They come here to nest because of the wealth of food in these cold waters. Parents dive to depths of up to 180 metres, or 600 feet, to catch tiny fish and crustaceans, swallowing them under water to regurgitate later for their chicks on the ledge.
But it’s when the chicks grow bigger that the story gets amazing. One day they simply jump off the cliff, even though they’re too young to fly. They land in the water, where they’re joined by their father (mom flies off somewhere, her work is done). And then the father and chick begin one of the strangest migrations in the bird world: they swim all the way to Newfoundland, a distance of almost 2,000 kilometres, or 1,200 miles.
Once they get there, they join hundreds of thousands of other thick-billed murres gathering along the Newfoundland coast. The Newfoundlanders call them turrs, and use them as a valuable source of food. The chicks gain maturity, and sooner or later they fly back to the Arctic to have chicks of their own.
With the powerful Nikon D500 and 200-500mm lens I had along, I got some close-up views of these birds, both off the Digges Islands and among the sea ice along Quebec’s northern shore. So here are the thick-billed murres: sometimes they’re graceful, flying at breakneck speeds along the rocky coast; sometimes they’re awkward, running along the water to take off with a belly full of fish. And other times they resemble their nickname – Arctic penguins.