Bird watching an extreme sport in Newfoundland
There are countless ways to meet your maker in Newfoundland, boat accidents, moose collisions, moody weather, and freak waves among them. Near the vertiginous edge of a 100-metre cliff, I add falls to the list of potential nasty endings. Far below, the ocean slaps against some of the oldest rock in the world. “Don’t trip,” cautions my normally fearless teenage daughter. Along with a handful of other visitors, we’re standing on the southwestern tip of the Avalon Peninsula at Cape St. Mary’s Ecological Reserve, a refuge for migratory sea birds.
The sight and sound of 65,000 nesting sea birds is so mesmerizing that you instantly forgive the lack of a fence separating you from the granddaddy of all cliffs. Anywhere else in Canada, you’d have to sign a waiver before visiting a place where fog and cloud obscure the view five out of six days in midsummer, and winds blow so fiercely that 200-year-old trees grow only a few inches high. But that would spoil the fun of fretting about sudden squalls—like the ones that take down entire fleets of small fishing boats—and the stability of the precipice on which we stand.
I have never been much of a bird watcher. As a child, I squinted out my grandmother’s window, trying unsuccessfully with heavy binoculars to see the yellow-winged something or other in distant trees that had elicited so much excitement. “Hiking” with birders was another exasperating episode. My friends juggled bird books, notebooks, and binoculars, stopping every few minutes in agonizing delay and chortling with delight when they spotted what looked to me like a tree-pecking crow.
At Cape St. Mary’s, I am expecting another blurry stint with binoculars, watching sea gulls. We’ve come mainly for the dramatic Newfoundland scenery, not the birds. But one hour later, I feel like a bird watcher extraordinaire. I’m riveted to a rock. I’m ready to buy bird books. I’m scribbling in a notebook. And I don’t even need binoculars.
The cliff affords such an absorbing view of gannets, murres, black-legged kittiwakes, and razor-billed auks that a few of us are willing to retie our shoelaces, grasp our children’s hands, and walk as close to the edge as we dare. We inch toward the heartbeat-skipping precipice and perch carefully on small boulders. I can hardly distinguish between the white of breaking waves and the white of birds plunging into the ocean to fish. The sky clouds with gannets, kittiwakes, and murres.
Only metres away is the Canadian equivalent of March of the Penguins—a noisy, pulsating northern gannet colony. These gannets live in the West End of bird habitats, a rocky outcrop that’s become a veritable apartment building for birds. The limestone that once connected Bird Rock to the rest of Newfoundland has eroded over millions of years, creating a sea stack refuge from land-based predators. Ivory-coloured gannets cover every square centimetre, crowding into crevices and ledges on lower floors that look too narrow to hold anything but a hummingbird.
We observe that life in the gannet village seems to be highly organized, somewhat savage, and marked by rituals. What appear at first to be tufts of brown fluff are chicks resting on shallow nests of seaweed. During our mid-July visit, they are only a week or two old, we find out later at the Cape St. Mary’s interpretive centre. In less than three months, their black-tipped wings will be strong enough to carry them to Florida for the winter.
Gannets mate for life and hatch only one chick each year. One parent’s primary responsibility seems to be to make sure Junior doesn’t move, since more than a centimetre or two could cause a fatal tumble into the ocean. The other parent uses spyglass vision to search for capelin and herring, plunging into the sea from as high as 30 metres. Another duty is to reinforce the nest against the twin threats of wind and rain. Adults soar in with seaweed dangling from their beaks and weave green strands into the shallow shelters. Gannet couples perform their traditional greeting ritual, stretching long necks to the sky and gently tapping bills together. It feels like we’re in the middle of a National Geographic IMAX experience, but we aren’t in a movie theatre and there’s no curtain on this film.
After Cape St. Mary’s, we move on to the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, an offshore protected area about 170 kilometres north of Cape St. Mary’s. The four-island reserve is home to North America’s largest Atlantic puffin colony and houses the world’s second-largest Leach’s storm petrel colony.
Our boat edges up to a small cliff in the reserve, close enough for a captivating view without binoculars. Nearby humpback and minke whales are eclipsed by 260,000 pairs of comical puffins, Newfoundland and Labrador’s official bird. The puffins make clumsy landings in front of rock burrows, ferrying food to their hidden young. The captain says gulls are like the Mafia, splitting up puffin territory. When parents return with fish in their tricoloured beaks, the gulls grab at their tails, shaking until the bullied bird flips dinner into the gull’s waiting mouth. Eventually the chick comes out of the burrow crying for dinner and—gulp—a tender young puffin makes for a tasty change from fish.
Back home in Victoria, I peer at the birds in our back yard with new enthusiasm. Was that flash of ruby red in our apple tree a pine grosbeak, or a crossbill? I have discovered a tantalizing world of colour and flight, much like when I first experienced snorkelling over a coral reef. This time, I have swallowed it whole.
ACCESS: Cape St. Mary’s Ecological Reserve is about 200 kilometres southwest of St. John’s. The reserve is open year-round, while the interpretive centre is open from May to October, during the birds’ breeding season. Guided tours of the reserve are available if you book ahead (709-277-1666); the cost is $7 per person for 1.5 hours and $225 for a daylong group tour. Witless Bay Ecological Reserve is a 30-minute drive south of St. John’s and from there is accessible only by boat. Several tour companies operate out of Bay Bulls. Breeding season at Witless Bay runs May to August.