Chapter 2-Adventures in Sea-Birding: Grates Cove and Baccalieu Island Ecological Reserve
We made the 8-hour plus drive to Grates Cove over some very steep “Baccalieu Trail” roads hugging the cliffs of Conception Bay as the Bay de Verde peninsula got narrower and narrower and pointed more and more into the Labrador Sea where Conception and Trinity Bays meet.
Our guide, Jared Clarke, later said, “In England they drive on the left-side of the road and in Newfoundland we drive on what’s left.”
We stayed at the Grates Cove Studios, a great bed and breakfast guest house, where we shared four big bedrooms with private bathrooms, a sitting room with a wood stove, a huge kitchen and dining room with big picture window overlooking Grates Cove and the Labrador Sea.
Every morning as we had our tea and every evening as we had our “sundowners,” we had spectacular opportunities to watch a cavalcade of seabirds and whales (one morning there were more than 20 heading east) make their morning and evening transits just a stone’s throw away. Usually left my scope set up at the window scanning the cove.
We were in Grates Cove mainly for Baccalieu Island, but the long-pole in the tent was there were no tours of any type to or around the island.
As an Ecological Reserve, the government allows no boats to land, no one has lived on the island for more than 50 years, the Baccalieu Tickle can suffer wind-tossed sea windward of the island as the wind is squeezed between the cliffs of Baccalieu and the peninsula headlands, and the sheer rock walls ringing the island without respite are absolutely forbidding.
That fishing families lived there into the 1930s was amazing and attests to the value of being near the incredibly rich Baccalieu Tickle fishing grounds. Our hosts Courtney and Terrance, (who also own and operate the best restaurant in Grates Cove, albeit the only restaurant in Grates Cove, luckily it’s a five-star one) introduced us to Paddy Broderick and his First Mate and wife Judy.
The Brodericks are retired owners of a cod fishing operation from a cod fishing family business across five generations. They are true seafaring people.
Natives of nearby Bay de Verde village, Paddy and Judy talked about their lifetime partnership working and owning cod fishing boats and why the birds, whales, cod and fisherfolk where there: They were there for the Capelin, a small smelt that dominates an essential niche in everyone’s food-chain.
Paddy had Master’s papers, Judy had her Mate’s papers, they were insured and certified: we made a deal to charter his boat for the next morning weather permitting.
Was expecting a typical Newfoundland fishing boat and was surprised to find a Boston Whaler 330 with two 100HP outboards waiting.
“We were going in style,” I thought as we donned our foul-weather gear, float-coats and came aboard, but as we cleared the breakwater and pushed out into the Labrador Sea, a Breton fisherman’s prayer, “O, God thy sea is so great and my boat is so small,” came to mind.
Paddy’s skillful seamanship and lifelong experience made our 8-foot swell rollercoaster transit across the Baccalieu Tickle seem like a slightly lumpy “piece of cake.”
Cathy sitting up next to Paddy behind the windscreen but bravely catching the unavoidable spray and splash was a looking totally nautical and I was grateful to the “birding gods” for such a first-rate birding partner and companion.
Paddy didn’t much know the Field Guide names for birds, but he knew his seabirds and why they gathered.
From decades on his home waters he knew them all on sight and by their northern Newfoundland “Labrador Sea Names:” generally they were “hagdowns” actually an adaption of the Latin “hagdon.” But he knew each and every species, so Greater Shearwaters were “Bawks,” Sooty Shearwaters were “Black Bawks,” and Manx Shearwaters were “Skerwinks.”
Then the birds started; tens of thousand overhead and tens of thousands on the surface….majestic Northern Gannets, soaring Greater Shearwaters and sitting Sooty and Manx Shearwaters,
tube-nosed Northern Fulmars (Noodies), Common and Thick-billed Murres (collectively Turs), distinguished tuxedoed Razor-billed Auks (Tinkers), Parasitic Jaegers, all the gulls and thousands more Black-legged Kittiwakes (Tickleaces) and Atlantic Puffins…everywhere.
The sight was a totally humbling experience. Looked like there were more birds than sky.
The cliffs were streaked white with guano and birds in stacked nesting colonies with clear delineation between almost every species group, which repeated and repeated around each side of the island.
We spent hours closely navigating along the long narrow island amazed with each new nesting colony perched on and among the glacial, vertical rock face.
The sea mitigated on the eastern Labrador Sea side of Baccalieu easing our ability to tally wedged birds in colony after colony after colony inhabitants on wing, on the sea and on land.
Where there was grass and some earth on top of the 300 meter plus cliffs plunging into the sea there were thousands of Atlantic Puffins clearly visible and we speculated about the Leach’s Storm-Petrels burrowed there in the earth.
The Razorbill Auks and Thick-billed and Common Murre were crowded on rocky ledges and outcrops where they lay their eggs with nothing but their parents to protect chicks or eggs from the ever-present hordes of Greater and Lesser Black-backed Gulls, Herring Gulls, Ring-billed Gulls, Skuas and Black-legged Kittiwakes.
Easily, we were watching 500,000 to 750,000 birds.
Imagine, on Baccalieu Island there are 3.3 million nesting pairs of Leach’s Storm-Petrels, 6.6 million birds with a single egg each.
That’s nearly 10 million birds by mid-August. Why then did we only get a glimpse at only three birds?
It’s because Leach’s Storm-Petrel, known in Newfoundland as “Mother Carrie’s Chicks” is nearly always nocturnal when ashore and breeding to fool predators such as gulls and skuas.
We were disappointed to turn toward home with only vague, potential “eyes on” a Leach’s Storm-Petrel, a Life Bird for both of us.
Paddy sensed my disappointment and offered, “Want to see a Humpback?” as he turned the bow to the west.
After a few minutes, ahead on the starboard quarter there was a Humpback Whale repeatedly slapping the sea surface with its flippers.
As we approached, it breached about five times feeding on the capelin, then it waved its flukes at us as it sounded.
Paddy said, “Watch this!” And in an explosion of foam and seawater, the whale shot up before our eyes exposing nearly all of its body and slammed down in a gargantuan, thunderous splash…and then the Humpback was gone.
Then Paddy said, “Good cod grounds here. Want to catch a few cod?” I demurred, but he asked again and I sensed it would be hateful to deny their life’s vocation and said yes.
Within three minutes of wetting the line we started pulling in good-sized cod one after another after catching and releasing three, I hooked and pulled in a really big cod.
Moments later, Paddy looked at me like I had lost my senses when I released him. Later Paddy and Judy hosted us in a typical Newfoundland house for tea and Fish and Brew, salt cod and salt tack cooked into a stew, true Newfoundland hospitality from a truly authentic Newfoundlander fishing family.
At Baccalieu Island, we experienced what few Newfoundland birders get an opportunity to do. We experienced first-hand with a native fishing family our own personal “Nature” program.
Baccalieu Island reaffirmed our commitment to protect habitats for all birds and so saturated our eyes with birds that we gained a new, more insightful personal appreciation of birding and our “not-so-big” human niche in the world of birds.
Early the next morning, as we processed the magnificent sights of the day before, our picture window view was shrouded in a thick morning fog bank like a featherbed tucked into the sides of Grates Cove.
As the fog lifted about 100 feet, we could see the birds feeding on the capelin roll…that’s when capelin follow the tide up to the rocky shores to lay their eggs and die.
Suddenly, I caught three small black, tube-nosed birds with distinctive grey wing-top vee terminating in a snow white rump and rounded vee-shaped black tail less than 20 feet above the sea surface…guess they thought it was dark and safe enough to grab a few more capelin to take home to their happily burrowed mate and chick on Baccalieu Island. It’s an ill-wind (and fog) that blows no person well! Cathy and I both got a new Life Bird, Leach’s Storm-Petrels.
Later the fog cleared and the day was bright and sunny. We hiked to the top of Cabot’s Hill and were treated to Yellow Warblers, Savannah Sparrows, Ravens, a Northern Harrier, a Northern Goshawk (a fiercer cousin of the Sharp-shinned Hawk) and American Robins…hundreds of Robins.
Then we went over to Red Head Cove, the next cove to the west, and the Baccalieu View Trail.
The trail treads its way across three habitats: bogs, upland forest and coast upland barrens and has very instructive interpretive signage for all the flora and fauna proudly provided by the tiny fishing community of Red Head Cove.
The trail was immaculate…not groomed, but devoid of litter and trash. Lower on the trail amid the pitcher plant-clogged bogs we sighted Song, Swamp and Savannah Sparrows.
In the forest, there were many Yellow-Rump Warblers still-resplendent in breeding plumages carrying caterpillars to their nests for their youngsters.
There were other warblers mostly Black-throated Greens quietly calling but we only barely heard them and they weren’t giving themselves away.
As we crested the hill and entered the partridge berry and crow berry barrens, we stumbled on a single female White-winged Crossbill feasting on under-ripe partridge berries, she ignored us as she gorged on berries. There were lots of Pine Grosbeaks, Dark-eyed Juncos and American Robins working the crest of the hill too.
As we looked over Baccalieu Trickle, two Bald Eagles majestically flew along the rocky coast.
In the coves in the slack water there were groups of Atlantic Puffins. Later, on the way down to check-out Red Head Cove village, we saw a breeding and very handsome, American Goldfinch.
The next day it was time to head down the Bay de Verde Peninsula to Bareneed, about an hour and half to the southeast and just barely on the west shore of the cup of Conception Bay.
Bareneed was to be our base for exploring the upper Avalon Peninsula including Butterpot Provincial Park, the Sheartown/Bay Roberts Estuary and Salmonier Nature Park. And will share that in Chapter 3, to be published right here on FMWAudubon.org.
By Michael Brower