BRUCE MACTAVISH: Tourists flock to Newfoundland and Labrador to see birds of all feathers on both land and sea

CAPE ST. MARY’S, NL — Out-of-province bird watchers holiday in Newfoundland and Labrador with hopes of seeing a wide range of birds.

Seabirds are the obvious attraction when visiting an ocean-oriented province, but there is more.

The province of Newfoundland and Labrador is within the boreal forest zone of Canada. This means the forest cover is largely made up of coniferous trees. Birds we take for granted are not so routine or do not even occur at all in the more temperate ecozones where the majority of North Americans live.

For instance, the Canada jay and boreal chickadee live only in the boreal forest. Both are common and widespread in the province.

Canada jays, formerly called gray jays, are a natural treat. They are inquisitive and will take food offerings right from the hand or even steal an unguarded sandwich off the picnic table.

Boreal chickadees are very confiding, allowing birders close views of this strictly boreal forest bird.

Pine grosbeaks are well appreciated. At this time of year, they are quite approachable as they feed on the seed heads of the dandelion growing along the sides of backroads.

Other birds, like the blackpoll warbler, Wilson’s warbler and yellow-bellied flycatcher and a few dozen other species spend the winter in the tropics, but are present during the summer in the boreal forest. Visiting birdwatchers may see them for a brief period during spring and fall migration in their own backyards as they move between their winter and summer homes.

Seeing these birds in abundance going about their business on their summer nesting grounds in this province is a treat.

Some boreal forest birds occur in low densities. Finding them is never a guarantee, but the possibility of seeing such a treasure adds to the allure of walking in the Newfoundland and Labrador forest.

Black-backed woodpecker is one of those highly desired boreal forest birds. People realize the success rate is under 50 per cent for visiting birders, but those who get lucky go home with a big smile on their face.

Willow ptarmigan is another highly sought-out species, but, again, is not available on demand. Some of the more adventurous will hike Gros Morne Mountain for the rare rock ptarmigan.

Visiting birders who spend some quality time in the boreal forest of Newfoundland and Labrador are guaranteed a certain sense of satisfaction.

Looking to the sea

The Newfoundland land birds are an attraction, but, certainly, it is our seabirds that get birders to cross that line and dish out the extra expense and travel time to come all the way to Newfoundland and Labrador.

The Atlantic puffin is the provincial bird for Newfoundland and Labrador. Besides the bird’s endearing appearance, the province hosts the vast majority of nesting puffs in all of North America, with well over 300,000 nesting pairs.

Black-backed woodpecker is one of those highly desired boreal forest birds. People realize the success rate is under 50 per cent for visiting birders, but those who get lucky go home with a big smile on their face.

Elliston on the Bonavista Peninsula is rapidly becoming known as the place to go for good views and photographic opportunities of puffins. After a mere five-minute walk from the car, you can view them at quite close range standing around on their grassy-topped nesting headland.

For sheer numbers of birds, the boat trip to the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve cannot be beaten. Besides seeing the thousands of puffins on the grassy slopes of the islands, on the water and in the air around you, the seabird spectacle includes great numbers of nesting common murres, black-legged kittiwakes and a few razorbills.

The comfortable tour boats take visitors to the islands several times per day during the nesting season from May to August. Good views of whales are a bonus part of most trips.

Cape St. Mary’s is the other well-known seabird colony on the island of Newfoundland. There are no puffins here, but you can view thousands of nesting 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 during the prevailing southwest winds of summer, but, even in the fog, the gannets are so close you can have a rewarding experience.

Northern gannets are the main attraction with more than 10,000 pairs nesting on Bird Rock just a narrow chasm away from where you can stand and look at them at your leisure.

Thousands of kittiwakes and murres, plus good numbers of razorbills, nesting on the dramatic cliffs add to the sounds and visual experience of the scene.

Countless thousands of photographs are taken at Cape St. Mary’s every summer.

The capelin season is upon us now. The more serious bird watchers will look for shearwaters, jaegers and rare gulls and terns among the feeding swarms of birds.

Summer is indeed a good time to be a birdwatcher in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Bruce Mactavish is an environmental consultant and avid birdwatcher.

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