Nfld. & Labrador

Scanning for Seabirds: Counting numbers on the Avalon Peninsula

Stan Tobin visits sites on the Avalon Peninsula twice a week for an hour at a time. He's counting seabirds wintering offshore. He's hoping that some day the bi-monthly counting will tell a story as to the health of the bird population.

Stan Tobin counts seabirds, looking for a telling snapshot

Stan Tobin looking for seabirds off Cape Race. (Todd O'Brien/CBC)

Stan Tobin lifts a pair of powerful binoculars to his eyes and scans the ocean.

"It's a good thing I didn't promise you eiders 'cause I've never seen them as scarce," he says.

Today, Tobin is at Cape Race.

The wind is up and there's a glare on the ocean.

Tobin was expecting to see at least 500 ducks today, but Mother Nature has other ideas.

He says it could be an entirely different story if "you could come here tomorrow with the wind the other way."

Stan Tobin uses his 1985 half-ton Chevrolet pickup to help count seabirds on the Avalon Peninsula. (Todd O'Brien/CBC)

Tobin visits various sites from Ferryland to Cape Pine on the Avalon Peninsula twice a month, spending an hour at each location, counting seabirds wintering off the coast.

"Scoters. Eiders, a lot of eiders. Mergansers. Long-tailed ducks — oldsquaws, some people call them different things. Loons. Sometimes you might see some murrs or dovekies or bullbirds."

The numbers of each variety are carefully recorded in a notebook that fits in the palm of his weathered hand.

Later, the information will be relayed to Environment Canada's Canadian Wildlife Service.

"If you can do monitoring like this long enough, I think you need at least 10 years consistently to get some sort of snapshot of bird numbers increasing or decreasing."

Tobin says he's seen the number of wintering ducks drop in the time he's been doing his counts (Todd O'Brien/CBC)

Nalcor Energy — through its community investment program — is providing $10,000 to cover three years of research.

"I like to use binoculars, good binoculars, and in that hour … you count everything that crosses your screen and record it," she says.

"They're all approximate numbers, but if you are consistent it'll eventually tell a story."

Anecdotally, 68-year-old Tobin has seen changes.

"I never did any monitoring of birds out in this area, but compared to the east side of Placentia Bay where I live and out towards Cape St. Mary's, eider ducks numbers are probably one-tenth of what they used to be say 30 years ago."

"Most species are down. I mean hunting practices, loss of habitat, disruption of habitat, fragmentation of habitat, some marine pollution. It all takes a toll you know."

Stan Tobin drives to various locations along a section of the Avalon Peninsula twice a month to count seabirds. (Todd O'Brien/CBC)

Tobin was disappointed when Suncor Energy ended sponsorship of another offshore bird monitoring study taking place between Argentia and Cape St. Mary's.

The project ran from 2012-14 with Suncor's $18,000 annual contribution.

Tobin thinks it was a casualty of the fall in oil prices, something Suncor confirmed citing "budgetary constraints."

A decision that still irks Tobin.

"The very first thing that took a cut, despite the good songs they sing about it, was the environmental programs."

"It says something about where their priorities lie I think, and the cost was peanuts. It wasn't the cost of a good Christmas party."

Still, Tobin vows to continue his monitoring even though funding is low.

"Not a lot in it for me. It's just something that I believe in and ah … you know if I could afford to be doing this for nothing, I think I'd be doing it."