Nature’s No. 1 live show

Bruce
Bruce Mactavish
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It is my annual moment of preaching. One of the greatest natural spectacles in the Newfoundland bird world takes place all through June and July, and you can see it. You must see it. If you have seen it, see it again.

For eons, huge seabird colonies on the Avalon Peninsula have been a beehive of non-stop, ’round-the-clock activity during June and July. There is a lengthy list of interesting and varied lead characters in the summer show starting with the largest, the northern gannet. Goose-necked and awkward looking on land, they turn into a bird torpedo with blue eyes when diving for fish.

There are the black-and-white murres, standing like upper-class sentinels appearing full of self-importance.

Spritely black-legged kittiwakes wheel like little kites en masse, creating blizzard-like scenes in front of tall, dark cliff faces.

For a touch of colour among the cast of thousands, there are Atlantic puffins in newly cut tuxedos and freshly painted bills.

Smaller in numbers, but equally proud of their presence among the colonies, are the razorbill and black guillemot. The razorbill, coloured like murres with a heavier bill marked with fine white scrimshaw, choose claustrophobic caverns under boulders to lay their egg. The black guillemots use crevices in the cliff faces where even the razorbills cannot go.

Although very different in habits and appearances, the seabird species choose one another’s company during the breeding season. There is safety in numbers. Potential sites with the ideal conditions and circumstances for a workable seabird nesting colony are rare in nature. Small islands serve as protection from most land mammals such as foxes.

Seaside rocky cliffs with enough space for hundreds or thousands of birds to nests are not that common. Even then, the perfect cliff face or island is useless without a nearby food source.

The textbook combination of factors comes together where the eastern Avalon Peninsula abuts with the Grand Banks. A few perfect cliffs and a few just right islands meeting with the food-rich Grand Banks result in spectacular seabird colonies.

World-renowned Avalon Peninsula seabird nesting colonies easily accessible for our appreciation are at Cape St. Mary’s and Witless Bay. Cape St. Mary’s is about a

2 1/2 hour drive southwest of St. John’s. Check the map for location and the weather forecast for weather. If the forecast says southwest or south winds then there is a good chance there will be fog at the Cape. You can still see some of the gannets and other nesting seabirds but it is a shame not to see the entire breathtaking scenery.

There are no boats involved in visiting Cape St. Mary’s. There is a visitors’ centre and parking lot at the end of the road by the lighthouse. A 15-minute walk on a well-marked trail over open grassy terrain gets you to the gannet viewing area. You are practically within spitting distance of the personal lives of thousands of gannets sitting on nests and tending young. The birds are separated from you by a chasm only a daredevil would consider crossing.

Bring a fully charged battery for your camera. The instinct to take photographs is hard to resist at Cape St. Mary’s. You can see hundreds of kittiwakes and murres close up, as well as myriads of others from a distance on the cliffs. No puffins here.

The Witless Bay seabird islands are an easy boat ride from one of the communities between Bay Bulls and Mobile. Check your phone book or tourist chalet for your pick of the several commercial bird island tour companies. There are numerous trips daily out to the seabird islands during the nesting season.

Trips are about 90 minutes to two hours in length, in certified safe and comfortable boats run by professional tour leaders from the local communities.

You cannot land on the islands, but you do not need to. You get close in the boats and have superb views of thousands of puffins, murres, kittiwakes and some razorbills and black guillemots.

And when there are whales about, as there usually are, time is provided to view these creatures of the deep, often from awe-inspiring range.

For landlubbers looking for a quieter, smaller-scale seabird experience there are small seabird colonies visible at The Rookery off the Cape Race road, the cliffs by the Cape Pine lighthouse, and there is a great little spot for viewing puffins at Elliston on the Bonavista Peninsula.

What are you doing next weekend?

Bruce Mactavish is an environmental consultant

and avid birdwatcher. He can be reached at

 wingingitone@yahoo.ca, or by phone at 722-0088.

Geographic location: Newfoundland, Witless Bay, Eastern Avalon Peninsula Bay Bulls Cape Race Cape Pine

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