Just Puffin’ Along: Birding Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula

Day One
Alcids! Seabirds! PUFFINS!
Words like this strike wonder into the minds of inland birders–even those like me, who have ready access to the Great Lakes. Naturally, I was ecstatic when I learned that I’d be attending a family reunion in Newfoundland and we had a few days to go birding beforehand.
For those who don’t know, Newfoundland is the easternmost province of Canada (far enough east to be, confusingly, 1.5 hours ahead of Eastern Time). Surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, Newfoundland is full of shoreline and rocky cliffs that provide habitat to countless alcids, seabirds, gannets, gulls, terns, and much more. Plus, I even had the chance to go on my very first pelagic!
As we landed in the St. John’s airport, I found a highly favorable omen for the rest of the trip: a Bald Eagle walking around a grassy area between runway strips. I couldn’t ask for a much better first bird of a trip! I amused myself on the way to the hotel with the Ospreys and Common Ravens abounding in the endless boreal forest.
Day Two
The first destination of the trip was Cape Spear, the easternmost point in all of North America. Apart from being a natural tourist destination, Cape Spear juts into the Atlantic Ocean, making it a great spot to look for coastal birds. Plus, it’s right near St. John’s and very convenient.
“The easternmost point on the continent,” someone commented as I reached the end of the boardwalk.
“GANNET!” I yelled in response. Not five seconds after reaching the destination did our first lifer of the trip fly by. Transfixed, we watched the huge white birds glide effortlessly, before drawing their wings to their bodies and plunging beak-first into the ocean. Nothing took my eyes off the gannets until a Black Guillemot appeared. I frantically snapped some awful photos of the birds before my brother yelled the best word a Newfoundland birder can hear: “PUFFINS!” Through the scope, we got views of far-out flocks of Atlantic Puffins and Common Murres skimming across the water, until another lifer distracted us: a small white bird diving into the water. We scanned for field marks: gray wash of underparts, small red bill with black tip…Arctic Tern! It was like the first trip to Florida, all over again.
After we got our sixth lifer (Black-legged Kittiwakes, annual but very rare in my home state, but common at Cape Spear), we were about ready to go. Of course, deciding to leave is the perfect way to coax the rarest birds to show up. Just as we picked up the scope, a brown bird, sort of like a gull but not quite, flew directly over our heads. My brother and I glanced at each other, barely believing it: our very first jaeger! And a Pomarine, no less!
After leaving Cape Spear, we enjoyed some common boreal specialties, several jellyfish, and a good warbler ID challenge. (Verdict: juvie female Yellow, but still…)
The Pelagic
We were in Witless Bay now, an inlet that hosts pretty much every single coastal bird in the region, sometimes in huge numbers–who knew eBird doesn’t flag 50,000 kittiwakes? It was time for my first pelagic, on the highly recommended “Mullowney’s Puffin and Whale Tour.” I could barely contain my excitement upon stepping on the boat, and the pelagic immediately dwarfed a good deal of the Cape Spear experiences.

Pretty much what the sky looked like the whole time.

Pretty much what the sky looked like the whole time.


The puffins ran across the water to take flight.

The puffins ran across the water to take flight.


For instance, the previous day, we had seen puffins through a scope. As we rode through the water, thousands of Atlantic Puffins were sitting in the water, either alone or in small groups. Each one darted out of the water as the boat passed by, running across the surface in a way divers can only dream of doing. Up close, these comical birds were absolutely adorable, and immediately skyrocketed into my top five favorite birds. Their small, round bodies, ungraceful splashing, and triangle bills were much funnier than the equally numerous and more elegant murre flocks. Along with the alcids, we enjoyed gannets, turnstones, and whales–minkes, humpbacks, and one fin–wowing everybody by breaching and slapping their tails.
A Humpback Whale right next to the boat!

A Humpback Whale right next to the boat!


Kittiwakes with their exceedingly cute chicks.

Kittiwakes with their exceedingly cute chicks.


Finally, we reached Gull Island, a completely unparalleled experience. Kittiwakes, murres, and puffins crowded the cliffs of this small island where they nested. We stopped the boat to marvel at the sheer spectacle of tens of thousands of seabirds, all right next to each other. Razorbills were there, too–an awesome lifer, and the target bird of the trip for my uncle! I picked out Razorbills from among the murres, photographed kittiwakes with their chicks, admired the puffins in the water next to us, and played the excruciating game of “Find the Thick-billed Murre.” We found a couple, but could never re-find them among the 25,000 Common Murres. I attempted a photo of the island itself, but only captured about a tenth of the murres.
Time for a fun game: "Find the Thick-billed Murre!" (If you find one, please let me know!)

Time for a fun game: “Find the Thick-billed Murre!” (If you find one, please let me know!)


We left Gull Island all too soon, and I took to getting better photos of birds we’d already seen and scanning for fulmars, shearwaters, and storm-petrels. Over a million Leach’s Storm-Petrels nest at Gull Island, and yet are never seen on these tours, being nocturnal and all. Finally, we bid goodbye to the puffins and their friends and stepped off the boat. The pelagic was one of the most exhilarating moments of my life, and I can’t wait for another one!
A breeding pair of Razorbills.

A breeding pair of Razorbills.


That afternoon, we went to some true boreal forest and found a Gray Jay and Boreal Chickadees. Even in the evening in late summer, we still listened to Fox Sparrow, Bay-breasted Warbler, and Hermit Thrush at sunset.
The End of the Trip
There was one more birding destination, at the southwest corner of the peninsula: Cape St. Mary’s, gannet site supreme. Having enjoyed pleasant weather before this, it was somewhat jolting to have thick enough fog that we couldn’t see the other car in our party a few yards in front of us, or the gift shop from the parking lot. Viewing mammals was apparently not affected: we saw a Moose along the way, and on the way to the point, we saw sheep. Lots and lots of sheep, all staring at us. We picked up the pace.
Despite Cape Spear being the easternmost point, I never got the sense of being at the end of the Earth there. Cape St. Mary’s was different. The point was shrouded with fog, and the cliffs high enough that we couldn’t even see the ocean below. We couldn’t see the murre colony next to us, though we could hear it (in a cruel bit of irony, that colony was apparently entirely Thick-billed Murres). What we could see were gannets–thousands of them, in their nest-free breeding colonies. Despite the fog, we watched gannets perform their “fencing” ritual–the pair clash their beaks against each other, a gesture of affection. All of them were sitting on the well-named “Bird Rock.” Fog notwithstanding, seeing the gannets was fantastic.
Just a few of the gannets breeding on the appropriately named "Bird Rock."

Just a few of the gannets breeding on the appropriately named “Bird Rock.”


In spite of the fog, we got to watch the gannets and observe their behavior.

In spite of the fog, we got to watch the gannets and observe their behavior.


That was all the Newfoundland birding for me, as I had to go back to Michigan early. My brother reported seeing Common Loons, Mourning and Blackpoll warblers, Olive-sided and Yellow-bellied flycatchers, and Northern Waterthrushes. Would I go back to Newfoundland? Absolutely! For one, I have more birds to see there! None of my willing could persuade a Double-crested Cormorant to turn into a Great, and we dipped on ptarmigans, owls, fulmars, eiders, and shearwaters. I also can’t wait to get on Mullowney’s boat again and catch up with my puffin friends.

2013-09-26T11:17:27+00:00