|Cape St. Mary's on the Avalon Peninsula of the Island of Newfoundland|
|Cape St. Mary's on the island of Newfoundland|
You go to the cape for the gannets. You just do. Sure, the scenery is stunning with the best sea-cliffs this side of Ireland. Yes, there are thousands of Black-legged Kittiwakes and murres of all kinds. There are whales easily viewable from land. There’s even some of the best lichen colonies a botanist will ever see. But let’s be honest here, you’re going there for the gannets.
|North America's resident booby, the Northern Gannet|
The Northern Gannet colony at Cape St. Mary’s boasts about 24,000 birds in a typical breeding summer. When you start making the short one-kilometer walk from the visitor center to the colony, it does smell like about 24,000 large sea birds, give or take a thousand. I don’t know about you, but I adore that stench. If it’s a typical day, it will be foggy. Through occasional breaks in the fog you’ll see the Atlantic Ocean five hundred feet below you. Take a wrong turn in the fog and you may find yourself making an abrupt 500-foot trip to the ocean. You should not take a wrong turn in the fog. The cliffs of the crevice-like slits in the headland are vertical.
|It's a long way down to the beach|
The heart of the gannet colony is “Bird Rock”, a sea stack as high as the mainland, separated by only a couple dozen yards of thin air with wave-battered rocks below. In his prime, Michael Jordan might have been able to leap from the viewing area to the colony on Bird Rock. It likely would have ended badly for him even if he made it, though. Gannets have enormous bills and are a bit territorial about their personal space.
|My wife, a much better birder than Michael Jordan, with Bird Rock in the background|
When you’re looking at the rock, you’re on a peninsula of grassy headland with a chasm on each side. The walls of the cliffs are filled with nesting Black-legged Kittiwakes wherever there’s even a hint of a ledge. A kittiwake will be sitting on her eggs hundreds of feet above the pounding surf, and you will be looking directly down upon her. That doesn’t happen many places on earth.
|I hope that Black-legged Kittiwake chick isn't afraid of heights|
Peering past the obviously non-acrophobic gulls, the rocks and water below are filled with small dark shapes. There are more than 20,000 assorted alcids down there. Ninety percent of them are Common Murres and most of the rest are Thick-billed Murres. Good luck identifying them from up here. A few Razorbills and Black Guillemot are sprinkled in for good measure.
|The third from the left, seven from the top is clearly a Thick-billed Murre. The rest are Common Murres|
It’s foggy about 300 days every year at Cape St. Mary’s. I’ve been there in the fog, and it’s gorgeous and surreal. But the first time I laid eyes on the cape it was clear and sunny, as luck would have it. And when it’s that bright, you can see the gannets dive. Of course you can see them plunge-dive even on a foggy day, but when the sun illuminates the water and a gannet pierces the surface in a dive from hundreds of feet in the air, you can watch the bird plowing deeper and deeper under the surface. Newfoundlanders have a colorful lexicon to describe all manner of natural wonders, but there aren’t words in any language to properly describe the sight of those gannets as you follow them from soaring, to plunging, to diving, to swimming, and finally surfacing. I won’t even try.
|The iconic "fencing" pose of Northern Gannets|
|Visit in late June or early July for the best action at the colony. This was taken on Canada Day (July 1st) three years ago.|
Did I mention that on the drive to Cape St. Mary’s Ecological Reserve, you may pass a herd of caribou? It doesn’t matter. You’re going for the gannets.
|Whatever air traffic controllers are paid at Cape St. Mary's, it isn't enough|
|A nice view from above of a second-year Northern Gannet starting to show adult plumage.|
|You can see several gannets in this shot.|
Every photograph in this post was taken without the aid of boats, helicopters, climbing gear, levitation, or anything other than a short stroll through a grassy field.
|This grassy field. Seriously. This is the trail to one of the world's most accessible seabird colonies.|
Thinking about a trip to Newfoundland yet? Those gannets you saw on your pelagic will never look the same!
|If a picture is worth a thousand words, being there is better than a million words.|