GROS MORNE, NEWFOUNDLAND IN JULY
After decades at sea on aircraft carriers and flying over the world’s oceans, one can assume and appreciate my affinity for pelagic seabirds and an overpowering urge to visit them when they make their annual visits to land to nest and raise their young.
My naval aviation career was lucky in that regard. I was also able to spend a few days on Midway and Wake Islands, Guam and Hawaii birding, and able to see most Pacific nesting Albatrosses (Laysan, Black-footed and Short-tailed), most of the Boobies (Brown, Masked, and Red-footed), Great Frigatebirds and White Terns.
Rocky Harbour Light, Newfoundland
On another deployment I visited the British Indian Ocean Territory of Diego Garcia, the largest island in the Chagos Archipelago…truly a fly-speck on the big blue sea.
Diego Garcia is also home to the 1600-acre Barton Point Nature Preserve…and at the time was full of nesting Red-footed Boobies, Red-tailed Tropicbirds, Brown Noddies, Lesser Noddies, Lesser Frigatebirds, Bridled Terns and even one vagrant White-breasted Waterhen.
Simply put, I was willing to fly to the ends of the earth to see seabirds, so when I suggested to my wife Cathy that we spend three weeks in Newfoundland in July…to escape the Gulf’s coastal heat and humidity…my motives were purely avian.
We flew in to St. John’s, Newfoundland on a rainy, foggy afternoon after spending a weekend in New York City with our son Tom and his friend Sue including a superb matinee outing to “Hamilton,” and a series of top-notch restaurants that challenged the waistline and reduced the wallet.
Greater Yellowlegs, Gros Morne
The island of Newfoundland is shaped like a triangle bounded on the west by the Gulf of St. Lawrence, on the northeast by the Labrador Sea, and on the southeast by the North Atlantic Ocean.
Standing on Cape Spear, you are on the farthest east point of land in North America, it’s just a hop, skip and a 3,194 km flight to Ireland like Amelia Earhart did on May 20, 1932, when she piloted the world’s first transatlantic flight by a woman from Harbour Grace, Newfoundland, and landed in Northern Ireland 15 hours later.
After a night in the Monroe House, former home of Newfoundland’s Prime Minister Walter Stanley Monroe (1924-1928), now a boutique hotel/guest house, we aimed ourselves west toward Rocky Harbour and Gros Morne National Park on the western side of Newfoundland.
Savannah Sparrow, Rocky Harbour
As we forged west from easternmost end of the Trans-Canada Highway in the driving rain and thick fog, I wondered if we would ever see a bird and “OMG, would I be in trouble if the weather stays this way,” but the weather abated mid-way across the island between Gander and Grand Falls-Windsor.
At least it stopped raining, but we had missed seeing half the island in the fog.
The western Newfoundland Highland region’s forests are more diverse than the eastern Avalon Peninsula, Atlantic Upland regions.
The west is the edge of the plateau pushed up when the island drifted north 400 million years ago from the coast of today’s Africa.
The present skyline is dominated on all points of the compass by towering conifers of white and black spruce, and balsam fir interspersed with red pine, birch, larch and green and yellow aspen perched on huge rocky outcrops.
Common Yellowthroat, Bonne Bay
The birds, as our guide Jared Clarke would later remark, “are different.”
We drove up Lookout Hill in Rocky Harbour toward Tom’s Fish Sheds, four cottages overlooking Rocky Harbour’s breakwater and the low tide kelp field teeming with Herring, Great Black-backed, Ring-billed Gulls, and Black-legged Kittiwakes.
Stepping out of the car we were greeted by both Lincoln and Savannah Sparrows singing among the abundant flowering Cow Parsnip (Heracleum).
American Robin, Rocky Harbour
After dumping our bags in our Tom’s Fish Shed cottage, we immediately set off birding up Lookout Hill toward the meadows, forest and headland overlook 400 feet above the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Looking landward, we were instantly rewarded with a two Common Ravens, a Red Crossbill, our singing Lincoln’s Sparrow, the first two pairs of the highly adaptable American Robin (the most common thrush on Newfoundland where there would be hundreds and hundreds seen this trip).
Turning seaward we were treated to a slow adult Bald Eagle fly-by, a Minke Whale repeatedly breaching the surface and seabirds!
Common Raven, Gros Morne
Including hundreds more Black-legged Kittiwakes and our first trip look at a several Northern Gannets.
It would not be the last-time we saw Gannets.
Later, from our cottage porch two Belted Kingfishers chattered their way back and forth and deciding we were no threat settled in for the night perched on a wire fence on the cliff-edge.
Because the woods were so quiet; due to passerine nesting season, we next decided to explore a stretch of grassy coastal wetlands interspersed with occasional “Tuckamores” or closed, intertwined, stunted conifer groves along the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Throughout Newfoundland, the Provincial Parks and National Parks have second-to-none “target-rich” birding trails and boardwalks across the province.
Northern Gannet, Rocky Harbour
On the same day Bob Duncan reported his first-of-the-season Yellow Warblers in Gulf Breeze, we were watching a couple of Yellow Warblers too in Gros Morne.
On one day on our trip, we counted eleven different Yellow Warblers. To the west along the coast there were hundreds of Common Terns, Great Black-backed Gulls and Ring-bills plus one Spotted Sandpiper.
In the Tuckamores we found swarms of Black-capped Chickadees, but no Boreal Chickadees…which would have been a life bird for Cathy.
Along with lots of Robins and American Crows, we were satisfied with our wetland tromp and turned into the forest.
Bald Eagle, Rocky Harbour
We were already tracking Newfoundland’s Uncommon/Rare Birds on eBird and saw of a Common Yellow-throat was on one of the Gros Morne trails around one of the thousands of ponds and lakes that make up almost 8% of Newfoundland.
While not a big-deal to us down south, they are quite uncommon in western Newfoundland and rare on the Newfoundland east coast.
We went for him and were As the afternoon grew longer amid the bogs and marshes, clouds of insects arose and we gratefully voiced our thanks to Lucy Duncan who had lent us face netting hoods.
Bugs be damned, we were birding Newfoundland!
Northern Gannet, Bonne Bay
Persistence in the Gros Morne forests paid off with both American Black and Ring-necked Ducks in the same pond, a lot of Savannah Sparrows, a solitary American Redstart (another “not on the east coast of Newfoundland bird”), the first of many Blackpoll Warblers and more than 12 Common Ravens.
Yellow Warbler, Gros Morne
Time to return to the northeast toward Grates Cove and fabled Baccalieu Island.
Baccalieu Island is a 5 km2 uninhabited island at the northern extremity of Conception Bay, and separated from the island of Newfoundland by Baccalieu Tickle, a small strait and an abundant fishing ground.
Baccalieu Island is home to the Baccalieu Island Ecological Reserve, the largest seabird nesting area in Newfoundland and supports the greatest diversity of breeding seabirds in Eastern North America.
The island supports the largest known colony of Leach’s Storm Petrels in the world, approximately 40% of the global population, and about 70% of the western Atlantic population of this species. Baccalieu Island is a nesting area for 11 breeding species.
*Check this website soon for Chapter 2: Adventures in Sea Birding
By Michael Brower