Chapter 4: BIRDING FROM CAPE SPEAR TO SAINT MARY’S
Our small birding group was sitting around the table after a dinner of cod tongues and cheeks, creamy seafood chowder, (every Newfoundland restaurant claims their seafood chowder’s the “best”…and best is defined by the most creamy stock, fewest potatoes and the most local lobster, shrimp, crab and…of course cod…in the chowder) and, you guessed it…baked cod at Edge of the Avalon Inn in Trespassey, when our host came over with a round of drinks, on the house.
Having bought the drinks and by Newfoundland mores and manners, she had the floor and sat down and began sharing her fabulist tale of Cod Tongues, Cheeks and David and Goliath. Her voice was quiet, but clear with an almost sing-song Gaelic lilt. Talking in her idiomatic Southeastern Newfoundland dialect clipped by lifelong North Atlantic gales and fog, Jared had to often translate for her. The tale was the story of the power of the Newfoundland mercantile “barons” over the working fishing folk and their incredibly rich fishing grounds and how these proud, hardy people who risked everything everyday on the sea slyly evened the score.
The “barons,” which was her term not mine, loaned money and resources for fishing family essentials: boats, gear, fuel and food, clothes on their and their families’ backs; much like the company stores once owned and operated by U.S. coal mines and factories. The “barons” on demand owned the entire catch.
The proud fishing folk took some umbrage over loss of their independence and catch, but they were wedded to their fishing life and their stormy partnership with the sea. Not able to legally withhold an ounce of the closely carved cods, cod they caught and prepared for salting in the mercantile processing plants, they devised a quiet but elaborate, rebellious deception to withhold part of the catch to feed their families and to hoodwink the “barons.”
They took the meat from what was thought to be the least desirable part of a cod—their heads. Since the rest of the world imported Atlantic cod for the abundant meat in their two to three-foot-long bodies, the fishing families were left with a lot of extra heads, deemed worthless by the “barons,” who didn’t know how to cut out the tongues and dig beneath the cheek bones for the most tender meat.
The fishing folk slyly fooled the “barons,” fed their families with a wry joke that was the original “Tongue ’n Cheek” confidence scheme.
Today, cod tongues and cheeks are the most-called for delicacy on Newfoundland menus.
But, I get ahead of myself and my sainted mother Beth O’Donnell Brower, a journalist and correspondent, wouldn’t like short-changing a story because our road to Trespassey was an astounding five-day birding trip down Newfoundland’s Irish Loop.
We continued to base from the Monroe House in St.John’s returning late from days of birding and leaving earlier each day to push farther south.
As the distances cut more into our birding time, we stayed at the Edge of the Avalon Inn, but kept our baggage in the Monroe House.
First, we re-visited Cape Spear and watched five Humpbacked Whales. We were looking for closer inshore Great, Sooty and Manx Shearwaters and we weren’t disappointed and treated to excellent looks at these generally far-out-to-sea pelagics.
Equally, we took in our “usual” crowds of Atlantic Puffins, Common Murres and all our now typically expected Gulls: Great Black-backed, Herring, Ring-billed, and Black-legged Kittiwake. This day, a new bird appeared joining the Common Terns working the capelin schools. They were several stubby-legged, solid red-billed, deeply fork-tailed Arctic Terns.
As always, we were pleased to see a few Black Guillemot on the sea and American Pipits working the rocks and cliff-sides.
Next, we returned to the forest in search of song birds and at Donovon’s Pond, we had extraordinary close-up, good looks at Boreal Chickadees, a Black and White Warbler, several Blackpoll Warblers, some ever present Yellow Warblers, Pine Grosbeaks, and more Yellow-bellied Flycatchers and Swamp Sparrows.
Stopping at Bidgood’s Market for a “Washroom Break” and a snack, we enjoyed the sunny, clear and cool day.
Founded in 1963 in Gould’s, Newfoundland, Bidgood’s is the closest thing to a “Whole Foods” in the province.
Young Ms. Leslie Bidgood is the fifth generation of her family to run the operation and she’s doing a fine job. Jared in his own instructive way had a reason for stopping at Bidgood’s Grocery.
We realized this as we turned into the pristine 38-acre Bidgood Park, donated to the people City of St. John’s by Roger and Jennie Bidgood in 2000.
Later in 2012, an additional donation of $300,000 by the Bidgood family ensured that other donors were motivated to fund final park development and the ribbon was cut on October 4, 2012.
Bidgood Park is a terrific Newfoundland birding spot. Consisting of two distinct types of forest (Black and White Spruce and Balsam Fir, Larch, also known as Tamarack, and Alder) divided by nearly 200 meters of board-walk across wide sub-arctic wetlands that are rich with native flowers, butterflies and birds!
We added Fox Sparrows to our trip list along with sighting even more Swamp, Song and White-throated Sparrows. Cathy picked up her first ever Northern Waterthrush from an obligingly photogenic and happily singing bird.
As always, there were resplendent breeding plumaged Yellow-rumped Warblers and several handsome Blackpoll Warblers.
The Bidgood tally was rounded out with several, solitary pairs of Cedar Waxwings, which were just starting to nest.
The waxwings were timing their pairing, egg-laying and hatching to the ripening, but not-yet-ready fruiting berry bushes.
The marsh sinkholes were filled with American Black Duck, but Jared said that in February the area would be filled to capacity with waterfowl.
Naturally, there were American Crows and iconic Common Ravens perched across from each other on opposite sides of the wetland each complaining about the other.
Timing is everything, and we had missed the courtship displays of “billing,” when mates first meet after their 8 or 9 months of separation at sea and rub their bills together, but we were there for the main event on the hillside as they jostled for space and fished for capelin to feed their single chick.
Across the hilltops all over the Witless Bay Ecological Preserve, the same scene played over and over again hundreds of thousands times.
Besides Atlantic Puffins, Gull Island is a nesting site for Common and Thick-billed Murres, Razorbill Auks and Black-legged Kittiwakes and the sky was full of Great Black-backed, Herring and Ring-billed Gulls all waiting for an opportunity to snatch a chick for their dinners.
On the way back to a Bulls Bay, we had tremendous show by a good sized Humpback Whale.
The next day, we left The Monroe House at dawn on the way to the fabled St. Mary’s Ecological Reserve with a “warm-up” bird walk down the Salmonier River Trail before heading out of the Black and White Spruce forests into the Sub-Arctic Tundra, which is tundra without permafrost.
As we approached the coast, the habitat transitioned into an Eastern Hyper Oceanic Barrens ecoregion.
This small ecoregion is only located at the southern tips of Newfoundland’s Avalon and Burin Peninsula’s rocky coast.
Trees, which are few and far between, are almost totally stunted Balsam Fir and are found only in scattered, intertwined dense thicket clusters called Tuckamores.
The Barrens are also called “Heathlands,” as most of the low-growing plants adapted to the soils and weather belongs to the heath family including extensive carpets of heath moss (Rhacomitrium lanuginosum).
Where the barrens are poorly drained, blanket and plateau peat bogs dominate. With so much igneous rock, that is volcanic rocks, just below the thin soil, bogs truly dominate.
Uniquely, Arctic-Alpine plants grow on these barrens including the alpine azalea and smartweed. The heathlands are widely populated by cloudberries (Bakeapple), lingonberry (Partridge Berry), Crowberry and Blueberry.
Berry picking is allowed across all Newfoundland’s Reserves, a legacy of the fruits’ important niche in early and present Newfoundland’s diet and tradition (Fun fact: Bakeapple are gathered before they are ripe and ripened in a closed jar of water.
Bet you, Newfoundlanders fermented and distilled the remaining water into something that tasted good, cured colds (high in Vitamin C), and warded off scurvy and winter’s cold and fog).
On the Salmonier River Trail, while we were still in the forest, it was clear the forest was transitioning into mostly Balsam Fir, Larch and Adler with lots of stump-sprouting White Birch on the edges.
Here, we added a Red-breasted Nuthatch to the trip list, as well as seeing more brightly yellow American Goldfinches and another Northern Waterthrush.
We found another Yellow-bellied Flycatcher… By trip’s end, we would see 12 and hear many more Yellow-bellied Flycatchers…plus Boreal and Black-capped Chickadees, a bunch of Tree Swallows, a Red Crossbill, a Northern Goshawk, a Northern Flicker, a single Jay Blue and another flood of American Robins.
But this walk in the woods was merely an appetizer to our first sight of St. Mary’s Ecological Reserve seabird nesting.
The plateau and blanket bogs of St. Mary’s Eastern Hyper Oceanic Barrens ecoregion were aflame with acres of Pitcher Plants, Blue Flag Iris, and Purple Fringed and Green Orchids and alive with butterflies including the Newfoundland unique Short-tailed Swallowtail, White Admirals and Atlantis Fritillary. Each butterfly was a “first” for Cathy and me. Naturally, camera in hand, I got my feet wet.
Cape St. Mary’s is recognized as the most accessible seabird rookery in North America. The St. Mary’s Ecological Reserve’s Bird Rock is North America’s third-largest nesting site and southernmost colony of Northern Gannets.
Cape St. Mary’s is the world’s southernmost breeding area for Thick-billed Murres and the southernmost major breeding site for Common Murres in the northwest Atlantic Ocean. The site is overflowing with perching, diving, and scrambling birds from edge to edge; joined together into an amazing moving, breathing spectacle of birds, sounds, smells and the sea.
You come to the edge of the nesting colonies after a short 1.5 km hike from the Park Interpretive Center along a trail alee, below and inland of the cliff-face and is loaded with Horned Larks (a Life Bird for Cathy), Savannah Sparrows and American Pipits. Overhead, a Peregrine Falcon arced and soared over more American Crows and Robins.
You hear the nesting colony, over the ocean’s curling crashes, long before you see them. Next, you smell the capelin being regurgitated to feed mates and chicks or deposited in long, white mounding strings of guano clinging to the rock-face.
As you crest the ridge and look down, you are stunned by the up-close, intimate presence of a hundred thousand standing and sitting birds. They are mostly Northern Gannets, Common Murres and Kittiwakes. A second look allows you to notice many Thick-Billed Murres and all the typical predator gulls. The sky and the sea, far below, is equally crowded.
No need for a spotting scope or binoculars, you can walk down the slope onto a narrow (about 4-meter), grass-covered and pretty level rock, but you walk….Right Into The Middle Of The Nesting Colony! Albeit, we were separated from the nesting colonies by a few feet of thin air and about 200-meter drop into the crashing North Atlantic.
The birds ignore you, they are too busy ensuring propagation of their species and seem to appreciate you will do them no harm. Seeing Northern Gannet chicks was a first for Cathy and me.
By Michael Brower