Chapter 4: Seabirds and Songbirds: More Life Birds For Cathy Brower.
Our Newfoundland journey had brought us back to where we started; St. Johns, the capital of the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador and the Monroe House perched on a tree-lined ridge overlooking and just steps away from St. John’s Harbor.
The Monroe House is the former home of Newfoundland’s past-Prime Ministers Walter Stanley Monroe, and is now a boutique hotel/guest house capturing a long-passed era with period art, china and furniture backed up by every modern convenience including first-rate WiFi.
Monroe House would be our base for the remainder of our stay and typically, each night after a birding-filled day sequestered in the high-ceilinged wood-paneled study, I would download and sort through my photos and make sure our field-notes matched the photographic record.
The Avalon Peninsula hangs down into the North Atlantic Ocean like a thick, misshapen letter H.
To the north are Trinity and Conception Bays spilling into the Labrador Sea and to the east is the often stormy North Atlantic Ocean.
Generally, every paved road on the Avalon Peninsula hugs the coast connecting hundreds of small fishing villages.
Filling the middle of the southeast leg of the H is the 1070 square kilometer Avalon Wilderness Reserve, a truly wild place with zero roads and just as few visitors.
On the southwestern leg of the H, ringed by St. Mary’s Bay on the east and Placentia Bay on the west is the birding mecca of Newfoundland, the Cape St. Mary’s Ecological Reserve.
We had a day to use after the short drive from Bareneed to St. John’s and we opted to hike a section of the Eastern Trail at the Village of Mobile, overlooking the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve including Gull Island, Green Island, Great Island and Pee Pee Island.
Later in the day, we would also go out on a typical, but converted for bird and whale watching, Newfoundland cod trawler for our first of two visits to the colonies on Green and Gull Island.
Witless Bay Ecological Reserve is home to North America’s largest Atlantic Puffin colony with more than 260,000 nesting pairs and the second largest colony Leach’s Storm Petrel colony in the world with more than 620,000 nesting pairs.
Equally, the Reserve hosts thousands of nesting Common Murres and Black-legged Kittiwakes, and as it turned out a goodly number of Thick-billed Murres and Razor-billed Auks.
Luckily, the seas were calmer, weather sunnier and our boat was designed for Newfoundland’s waters, which made for a much more stable photographic platform.
The Eastern Trail was a rugged climb along the coast with lots of the usual bird suspects including all the gulls, a nice close-up look at an immature Bald Eagle, a Goshawk, lots of Dark-eyed Juncos and American Robins and the highlight was a small flock of distinctive Red Crossbills generally found only in Newfoundland that we flushed feeding in a cliffside Green Alder thicket.
Whether the five or six crossbills hadn’t settled into nesting pairs or they were early nesters with fledgling youngsters we’ll never know because they made themselves scare fast and the trail didn’t lend itself for chasing birds who can defy gravity.
After a couple of hours hiking the vertical up and down cliff-side trail, we cut back to find the road because we had a boat to catch.
Bald Eagle, Eastern Trail, Mobile, Newfoundland
We meet with Molly Bawn, the operator of the boat tour on Gus O’Reilly Road in Mobile.
There were five or six other people joining us including a couple from Paris and and a family from Alberta.
They came for the whales, we came for the birds; they would be disappointed, but we were not.
We saw and photographed plenty of seabirds, all up close and personal, as our boat skirted the coast around Gull and Green Islands.
Common Murre, Gull Island, Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, Newfoundland
How do you describe the immense adrenaline surge we got when we saw hundreds of thousands of Atlantic Puffins standing outside their burrow-nests framed by a dark green, grassy hillside?
Or hundreds of thousands of birds flying in a steady stream…puffins in orderly lines and murres in clumps…between their nesting islands and their capelin fishing spots.
Working diligently everyday to bring capelin, one-by-one, back to their mate and chicks in burrows or on sheer, bare rocky ledges.
Razorbill Auk, Gull Island, Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, Newfoundland
You might have to be a naval aviator to truly envy the orchestrated beauty and precision of dive-bombing Northern Gannets dropping one after another into a capelin school.
Did you know that Northern Gannets have an inflatable shock absorber protecting their brain, which they self-inflate nano-seconds before they hit the water?
Northern Gannets are shallow capelin-catching birds, they go no more than 30-feet underwater, so they must fly longer distances to feed.
To compensate, Northern Gannets swallow fish until they can hardly manage a water take-off and then regurgitate their catch to feed their often faraway mate or chicks.
Atlantic Puffin Nesting Colony, Green Island, Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, Newfoundland
Maybe it was frivolous, but we would visit Witless Bay with our guide, Jared Clarke, again.
Frivolous or not, we saw and learned a lot more and would go again when we return to Newfoundland to follow-up on all the birding opportunities we couldn’t squeeze into nearly three weeks.
Atlantic Puffin, Green Island, Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, Newfoundland
We were happy to settle into our new base at the Monroe House for the next seven days.
Monroe House made me recall Newfoundland’s mercantile history and economy based solely on catching cod.
John Cabot, an Italian navigator working for the English, who is credited as the first European to land in North America since the Vikings, wrote about cod in St. Mary’s Bay, “…Terra Nova (New Found Land) fish were so thick and boiling the water that we could not even row our longboat through them to fill their water casks.”
May be it was a “sales job” aimed at his patron King Henry VII, but history also indicates roving Basque and Portuguese fishing fleets worked the same cod fishing waters for about a century before Cabot’s voyage in 1497.
No wonder a great trading scheme, based on cod, dominated Newfoundland’s history and economy for over 500 years.
Jared Clarke, our guide for the next seven days, is 100% Newfoundlander and noticeably proud of his heritage and home, as were all of the many Newfoundlanders we met.
A graduate of Newfoundland Memorial University as health researcher, he welded his love of birding into a career and is now an independent professional guide and part-time contractor for Eagle-Eye Tours.
Jared regularly leads birding trips across Newfoundland, Labrador and New Brunswick and as far north as Greenland and down south to Trinidad and Tobago, Guatemala and Costa Rica….naturally during the long Newfoundland winter.
Red-haired and bearded, Jared is a quiet man with a dry, insightful wit and is expertly informed about the habitats, geology, archeology, flora, fauna and history of every place we birded.
As birders, Cathy and I most appreciated his keen ear for birds calls and sharp eyes for finding elusive birds, who didn’t want to be found…with Jared we sighted every single common (6) Avalon Peninsula wood warbler plus a few uncommon ones. too.
He knows where the birds are even if they are nesting, quiet or hiding.
Tree Swallow, Mundy Park, St. John’s, Newfoundland
Jared picked Cathy and me up at 7:30 in the morning to bird the environs around St.John’s.
First stop was a rainy one at Mundy Pond Park. Earlier, we had mentioned that a good look at an Alder Flycatcher would be nice and a life bird for Cathy.
As we worked the Alder thickets bordering the trail, Jared quietly spoke and directed our eyes up to a slightly obscured bare black spruce branch, there was an Alder Flycatcher, who quickly repositioned into the open and into my camera lens.
We also counted at least eleven Yellow Warblers, lots of Tree Swallows both fledges and parents and large rafts of American Black Ducks on Mundy Pond.
Then it started to pour.
Alder Flycatcher, Mundy Park, St. John’s, Newfoundland
We decided to reposition too and moved south of the squall line to Witless Bay and the Village of Mobile where a young Beluga Whale…an actual “Baby Beluga” from our long-grown, children’s songs…had been reported separated from its pod.
Seems that the normally very social Beluga had attached itself to an Eco-Tour Whale Watching outfit’s grey Zodiac as a potential companion…guess it figured the Zodiac was grey and wet like its playmates in the pod.
When we got to Mobile, there was the Beluga next to the Zodiac rubbing its body and plaintively vocalizing as if it expected the Zodiac to answer.
Was both poignant and sad, but it was also the first time Cathy had ever seen a Beluga Whale and the rain had stopped.
We headed into the nearby forest looking for songbirds.
Beluga Whale, Mobile, Newfoundland
We were initially rewarded with two Wilson’s Warblers, a new life bird for Cathy.
Closer to the edge of the road several Yellow Warblers sounded off and popped up. Back in the lower branches of a larch a Black-and-white Warbler worked its way down the tree.
And as plain as day, a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher was perched singing away now the rain was gone!
A shy Mourning Warbler, another life bird for Cathy, joined the fracas, but stayed mostly hidden flitting about on the periphery.
There were a good number of breeding plumage Yellow-rumped Warblers, Purple Finches, bold Pine Grosbeaks.
As we approached one boggy sinkhole, we spied a mother Pin-tail Duck and three ducklings.
Wilson’s Warbler, Forest Environs, St. John’s, Newfoundland
Turning back into a dense Black Spruce cluster we saw a Golden crowned Kinglet and a Magnolia Warbler and then we heard and saw what Cathy said was the forest bird she most wanted to see…a Boreal Chickadee…and oddly enough after living so long in Upstate New York…another life bird for Cathy.
We also recorded our usual quota of American Crows, American Robins, Savannah Sparrows, Song Sparrows and Swamp Sparrows.
Boreal Chickadee, Forest Environs, St. John’s, Newfoundland
Cape Spear is the easternmost point in Canada and North America, excluding Danish-controlled Greenland and sailing east the next land you’d find is Ireland.
The North Atlantic waves can be fierce, as the many warning signs dotting the rocks announce, and the skies are crowded with seabirds and the seas filled with marine mammals.
Our sightings this day included Humpback, Minke and Fin Whales. The endangered Fin Whale, called the “Greyhound of the Sea,” is the second largest mammal on earth and are nearly 90 feet long and weigh an estimated 114 tons and was a first ever sighting for Cathy.
We also sighted a pod of 10-12 protected White-beaked Dolphins, Jared told us they were often seen accompanying Fin Whales.
Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Forest Environs, St John’s, Newfoundland
Amid the crashing waves and kelp covered jagged rocks and along the ground cover on the edge we heard and saw three American Pipits, the first of many Pipits we would see along the Avalon coast.
Overhead and on the sea surface were the anticipated thousands of Northern Gannets, Atlantic Puffins and Common Murres plus hundreds and hundreds of Greater Shearwaters, Sooty Shearwaters and relatively tiny Manx Shearwaters…another life bird for Cathy!
We also saw a few Black Guillemot with their black body and wings with the big white spot on the top standing out in the crowd.
Our greatest treat at Cape Spear was three Whimbrels…another life bird for Cathy ….repeatedly flying over us offering us great close-up looks as they searched for a place to set down, but too naturally shy to land anywhere near people.
Whimbrel, Cape Spear, St. John’s, Newfoundland
Heading back to St. John’s, we got word of two Tufted Ducks in a park pond by the Newfoundland Memorial University.
To find an Eurasian Tufted Duck is not rare but uncommon in July in Newfoundland and we said go for it!
We found the two young male Tufted Ducks, our first and only diving duck of the trip, among a mixed crowd of American Black Ducks and Mallards and flanked by a small raft of Green-winged Teal.
Along the shore, there were 12 Greater Yellowlegs.
Pine Grosbeak, Forest Environs, St. John’s, Newfoundland
Our long day with Jared exploring and birding near St. John’s was exhilarating, exhausting and rewarding and we were looking forward to the next morning.
He proved to be all his reputation said he was…and actually…a good bit more.
We needed a quick dinner and some sleep because we had an earlier pick-up the next morning to continue farther afield down the Avalon Peninsula looking for more and different song birds and seabirds, but that will be reported in Chapter 5: Birding From Cape Spear To Saint Mary’s to be published on fmwaudubon.org.
By Michael Brower