What birdwatching tourists come to see

Bruce Mactavish telegram@thetelegram.com
Published on July 5, 2014

The island of Newfoundland attracts many out-of-province vacationers in the summer. The government calls these people tourists. The scenery, culture, icebergs, whales, puffins and a North Atlantic experience are strong draws.

A growing minority come with all these expectations, but with an additional focus on birds. Newfoundland offers quality birdwatching experiences not easily obtained elsewhere.

The entire island of Newfoundland is classic boreal forest. Birdwatchers enjoy being immersed in the boreal forest during the nesting season.

Many of the warblers and other songbirds that visiting birdwatchers saw migrate through their backyards in the United States during the spring, nest in abundance in Newfoundland during the summer. It is a novelty for many birdwatchers to see these and other boreal forest birds at home on their nesting grounds.

Some boreal forest birds are resident throughout the year and rarely venture south into the United States where most of the birdwatching tourists come from.

Pine grosbeak, boreal chickadee and gray jay are examples of widespread residents of the Newfoundland forest that southerners will not see at home.

Visiting birders often ask about willow ptarmigan, a bird normally associated with the Arctic.

Yes, we do have these birds on the coastal barrens at places like Cape Race, Cape St. Mary’s and parts of the Northern Peninsula, but they are not exactly found on demand.

Willow ptarmigan are being extra careful with their broods of little chicks during the summer. You need luck on your side to encounter ptarmigan in the summer.

The same is true for the rock ptarmigan, but there is a high success rate of seeing these ones if you hike up Gros Morne mountain in Gros Morne National Park.

While Newfoundland offers easy access to the boreal forest birds, it is seabirds that are the biggest drawing card for visiting birdwatchers. The island of Newfoundland is blessed with seabirds.

The biggest nesting colonies of seabirds in Atlantic Canada are found in Newfoundland.

This includes the iconic Atlantic puffin. Everyone can see puffin in Newfoundland.

At last count there were 272,000 pairs of puffins nesting at the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve located just south of St. John’s, making it by far the biggest concentrations of puffins anywhere in North America.

Very popular with tourist are the boat tours that go around these islands every day all summer long, weather permitting. Phone numbers for the tour boat operators are easily found in the phone book or at tourist information centres.

You are virtually guaranteed to see puffins, lots and lots of them. They will be sitting on the islands and in the water and flying all around you.

The large numbers of other seabirds (common murres, kittiwakes, razorbills and black guillemots) nesting on the same islands create an overall awesome spectacle.

You cannot land on the islands, but there will be countless excellent photo opportunities from the boats as they cruise very close to the shore.

The tour is more than just about birds.

Usually there are humpback whales to see and this year in particular you may see an iceberg close up.

It is a tour even people who live in Newfoundland enjoy. That means you!

If you don’t like boats, a Plan B to see puffins is to visit Elliston on the Bonavista Peninsula where a small colony of nesting puffins can be observed while standing on solid ground after a very short walk from your car.

Cape St. Mary’s is the other well-known seabird colony of Newfoundland.

There are no puffins here, but you can view thousands of northern gannets and other seabirds nesting in sea cliff grandeur. Located on the southern Avalon Peninsula at the mouth of Placentia Bay, you do not need a boat to visit Cape St.Mary’s.

All you need is clear weather. The area is rather famous for fog in summer, but even in the fog the birds are so close you can have a rewarding experience.

Northern gannets are the main attraction at Cape St. Mary’s.

More than 14,000 pairs nest on Bird Rock just a narrow chasm away from where you can stand and look at them. Countless thousands of photographs are taken there every summer.

Thousands of kittiwakes and murres nesting on the dramatic cliffs add to the sounds and visual experience of the scene.

Shearwaters are another group of seabirds that land-based birdwatchers have a craving to see when visiting Newfoundland. Great and sooty shearwaters nest in the Southern Hemisphere but holiday in Newfoundland waters during the summer months. They gorge on the abundance of caplin and other seafood.

Shearwaters are easily seen from the ferries crossing to Newfoundland.

However, excellent views are frequently obtainable from land. It takes good feeding conditions to entice shearwaters near shore.

During the caplin spawning, this happens in Newfoundland more than anywhere else in eastern North America.

Locations that may provide excellent shearwater watching if the conditions are just right are Cape Spear, St. Vincent’s beach, St. Shotts, Portugal Cove South and Cape Race.

Both shearwaters and whales feed on caplin. Any boat tour trips to see whales around the coast of Newfoundland could also be good for shearwater viewing.

These are the main targets for birdwatchers visiting Newfoundland and should also be considered as an adventure for Newfoundland birdwatchers. Summer is here only once per year and it does not last long.

Enjoy it today!

Bruce Mactavish is an environmental

consultant and avid birdwatcher. He can be reached at wingingitone@yahoo.ca, or by phone at 722-0088