I first came to Newfoundland in 2000 when I spent the better part of a week in St. Johns for an ornithological conference. It was a great trip and the weather (warm and humid, actually) cooperated for some great sight-seeing: until rough seas canceled our one opportunity to get offshore for some seabird and whale watching. I was left to satisfy myself with rather distant views of puffins and murres from shore – and no whales. Thirteen years had passed and now I had my next opportunity to see such things close-up. I was anxious for that chance, fully aware that no matter how bright the day might dawn, conditions could turn on a dime and I might strike out again. We were cautiously optimistic about the forecast, and our first full day around St. Johns was gloriously bright and warm.
We began with a twisting, turning drive up to Signal Hill for spectacular views of St. John’s Harbor and a tour of the historic Cabot Tower. There is a rich military history to be explored here, with centuries of English and French interest in the harbor and the specter of German U-boats in World War I and World War II. Signal Hill is also the location Guglielmo Marconi chose to confirm the first transatlantic radio transmission on Dec. 12, 1901.
Above: The deep, protected, strategic harbor of St. John’s, from atop Signal Hill. I think of St. John’s as “West Dublin” because the local dialect sounds like an Irish brogue to me – so does the great wit and humor of the locals.
Signal Hill was crowded on this beautiful midsummer day, as tourists packed the parking lots and locals ran or cycled up the steep incline for an intense workout rewarded with a breathtaking view. We stopped at the visitor’s center below the hill, fortified with some cookies and sodas by the cute young lady working the snack bar, and watched as red-coated military re-enactors fired the Cabot Tower cannon at exactly 12 noon.
From Signal Hill we wended our way east to Cape Spear. There aren’t many places east of St. John’s and still in North America: Cape Spear is as far as one can go. I like Signal Hill, but Cape Spear is more my speed. It’s away from the city and it feels wild and rugged, a bit like Point Reyes in California. Like Point Reyes, it’s one of the few points of land I know of where one can reliably see pelagic birds from terra firma. And we did.
A big part of the excitement of this trip involved my two nephews who’ve become accomplished and eager birders. This was a great opportunity to share with them some life birds, and we focused heavily on birding Cape Spear, especially with that worry in the back of my head that clear days like this were to be used to their full advantage. Almost immediately the cool birds appeared out in the calm, blue waters of the Atlantic. Here the Herring and Ring-billed gulls of St. John’s Harbor were joined by Black-legged Kittiwakes, Atlantic Puffins, Black Guillemots, Northern Gannets, and Common Terns. Things got really interesting when tourists oohed and aahed to the site of a Minke Whale plying the waters around the Cape. Our appetites whet for the prospect of even better looks at marine life, we proceeded south to our accommodations for the night, and the prospect of a whale and puffin tour on the ‘morrow.
Our plan was to take a boat tour of the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, a four-island sanctuary for nesting seabirds and other marine life. We perused sources online and, impressed with their photo galleries that featured more than just puffins and whales, we decided to book a tour with Mullowney’s Puffin and Whale Tours out of Bay Bulls. Our excitement grew as the day dawned as brightly as the one before, and we quickly made our way to Mullowney’s to board the comfortable and capable, but not too big, Mary Vincent.
Just minutes after pulling away from the dock we spotted puffins and guillemots on the open water. A binocular scan of the horizon revealed clouds of birds, and our excitement grew. Soon we were distracted, however, by the site of two breaching humpback whales and our captain steered the Mary Vincent on an intercepting course for an even closer look.
Once out of the bay, we were delighted to find frolicking whales (both humpback and Minke), wave after wave of puffins and murres either heading out to catch capelin or heading back to feed their young. Ultimately, we headed out to Gull Island, one of the four sanctuaries of the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, to observe the nesting seabirds at close range. Gull Island’s sheer vertical rock faces offer protected nesting for vulnerable seabird colonies, but there is enough soil on top of the island to support trees, grasses, and the burrows dug by nesting puffins.
Above: On a perfect day like this, it’s difficult to imagine how forbidding Gull Island can be, but there are clues. . .
We found Northern Gannet, Atlantic Puffin, Common Murre, Razorbill, Black-legged Kittiwake, Herring Gull, and Great Black-backed Gull on the island, as well as a bonus Song Sparrow singing from the top and a Spotted Sandpiper and Ruddy Turnstone foraging along the rocky water’s edge. We did not see any guillemots nesting on Gull Island, and whatever Leach’s Storm Petrels nesting there were in their burrows and unavailable to us.
Razorbill (above left) was a life bird for me, and I love their crisp lines in breeding plumage. Crayola should make a deep black color called “Razorbill”. On the right is a Black-legged Kittiwake. The kittwakes provided most of the noise and the guano on Gull Island.
We arrived back in Bay Bulls a bit more than 2 hours after we left, and just in time to enjoy a great lunch at O’Brien’s Restaurant. The mussels were great, and another cute young lady waiting on us gave us directions to the best soft serve ice cream on the Avalon Peninsula. All in all, this was one of the best all-around outdoor experiences I’ve ever had, and well worth the 13 –year wait!