Tuesday, August 13, 2013

It's All About the Gannets at Cape St. Mary's

Cape St. Mary's on the Avalon Peninsula of the Island of Newfoundland
They have a saying in Newfoundland: “Cape St. Mary’s pays for all.” What that means is that if you make your living as a fisherman on the North Atlantic, you can have a rotten catch all year and still turn a profit with one trip to the hyper-productive waters off of Cape St. Mary’s. That had more meaning back in the days when fish were a matter of life and death and before the devastating (to the people of Newfoundland) moratorium on cod fishing in 1992. Today it may have more meaning to birders. I’m not sure it’s possible to have a bad birding year in Newfoundland, but if you manage it somehow, a trip to Cape St. Mary’s Ecological Reserve will make it all better.  
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.


  1. You brought the smells and sounds of bird cliffs back. I haven't been to Cape St. Mary's but have experienced Latrabjarg in Iceland, Alkefjellet in Svalbard, the Isle of May in Sctland, seen Bass Rock in the UK where there are Northern Gannets and it all comes back - a special birding experience, so thank you.

    1. Ah,you're making me jealous. Iceland! Svalbard! We keep talking about an international jaunt soon. We'd get a handful of lifers in the arctic and a couple hundred in Peru. But the seabirds of the arctic beakon. Birding the Hebrides by kayak...

    2. I think I'd go for Peru with the numbers like that. Birding in Iceland is easy because there aren't a lot of trees. Svalbard was incredible - not many species but large numbers, and polar bears thrown in. Hebrides by kayak sounds magic if the weather cooperated!

  2. I am coming there. What a lovely place..okay words not enough...and what awesome photography...again words not enough. Thanks for sharing. Simply mind-blowing. Oh! I would love the caribou -- I love watching anything in nature.

    1. Go! Now! Well, not now...there won't be any birds. Go in early July. Sarah and I have made a couple summer trips to Newfoundland lately. Drop me a line if you want any tips.

  3. Oh, you make my mouth water. A trip to Newfoundland is on my list, being just a hop, skip, and a jump away here in Cape Breton. I delight in seeing the gannets fishing off the shoreline here, and look forward to a visit to Cape St. Mary's in the near future. Maybe next summer!

    1. We've done the ferry thing every trip to NL, so Cape Breton is familiar. The one time we allowed an extra leisure day to explore Cape Breton Highlands National Park (July of 2010, this would have been) the temperature ended up being 35°C, so my bird list is miniscule for that day. I look at my Cape Breton pictures and I all can feel is sweltering heat, which is totally wrong, I know!

  4. Glorious Kirby! Loved the writing, wit, and photos. Just added another location to my birder bucket list.

    1. Thanks, Robert! If you're like me, you add two or three items to that bucket list for every one you check off. The Birder's Curse - we're never satisfied!

  5. Wow. What beautiful scenery and so many lovely birds. Agreed - another place I need to go!

  6. Hi Fantastic place.. Greetings from Madrid..

  7. What a cool place to go birding. I love the scenery and the Gannets. Wonderful photos.

  8. Loved this post! What wonderful Gannet-watching cliffs you have ...