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Well, the great Newfoundland expedition proved to be unbelievably successful. Despite dour predictions, the weather was quite good, and as a result we had 9 relatively clear days to enjoy this amazingly beautiful place. As at least 2 people have asked for detailed information about my trip, I will provide a thorough recap and some suggestions for others who might want to go and check out this truly amazing place.
We camped all 10 nights that we were there so I can offer zero information as to where to stay. Camping is easy and cheap ($20/night), so if anyone wants to go that route I highly recommend it. We drove for 1.5 days from Boston to North Sydney, Nova Scotia where we caught the ferry to Argentia. This ferry ride is LONG (~18hrs) but was very comfortable and quite enjoyable. We had VERY thick fog on the trip so I did not do any birding on the ride out.
Our first destination was CAPE ST. MARY’S ECOLOGICAL RESERVE. This is a huge seabird nesting colony on the southern shore of the Avalon peninsula that has gannets, alcids, and gulls. I think the numbers are like 10,000 pairs of gannets, 10,000 kittwake pairs, 10,000 common murre pairs, 1,000 razorbill pairs and so an and so forth. When we arrived on the first day visibility was TERRIBLE because of the fog. I was told it had been like this for the previous 12 days as the wind had been from the southwest that entire time. Apparently, when the wind blows from the southwest, this place gets really foggy, pretty much without fail. Needless to say I was completely heartbroken as the wind was predicted to blow from the same southwest direction for the next 3 days, the exact 3 days I had planned to shoot. However, we decided to alter our plans (easy to do when camping) and go north for few days in the hopes that the winds would shift and give me a change to experience this place with good weather.
We headed north to WHITLESS BAY where we took a zodiac tour (book this through Elaine’s b and b) to a set of 4 islands where again there are thousands of nesting seabirds. There were thousands of murres and kittwakes, but puffins really dominated as there were something like 500,00 of them present! This spot, like Cape St Mary’s, is completely overwhelming in the numbers of birds present. We also saw quite a few whales very close to our small boat. This is a great place to photograph, but the number of birds can make it almost dizzying trying to decide what to shoot in the short time that the boat trip spans. Shooting in nesting colonies of this size was much harder than I though it would be mainly because it is very difficult to isolate one bird in good light. Also, our boat trip left at 9:30am which is not ideal since the sun rises at 5am here in summer. They also have noon and 3pm trips, I think. I got a cloudy day so I could get some shots, but if the sun had been out it would have been really tough. What I would do if I go back here is just try to charter the small zodiac with a couple people for a private trip at 6am. There were only 5 people on our boat at $55/person so just buying out the boat and trying to get them to go really early would be the best way to go in my mind. No idea how they would feel about this, but we all know money talks. The alternative would be to go at like 6:30pm, the rationale being the same that the light would be really good then. Regardless, Whitless Bay was a rousing success.
We spent the next 2 days kicking around the north side of the Avalon peninsula, specifically taking a couple of really nice hikes in La Manche Provincial Park and Butter Pot Mountain Provincial Park. Warblers abound in both of these areas so they make for very challenging shooting. In general, there are warblers EVERYWHERE you go in Newfoundland, so there are always birds to see, even away from the coast.
Ok, we heard that the wind was supposed to shift to come from the north for our 4th day. As a result we decided to return to Cape St. Mary’s on the slight chance it would be clear. This was the single best decision I have made in recent memory. With north winds this place was CRYSTAL CLEAR and it turned out to be one of if not the most spectacular birding places I have ever been. I had an entire clear afternoon to enjoy this place and part of the following morning before the wind shifted to the southwest again and the place became blanketed in fog right before my eyes. It was really amazing. This place is a great place to shoot, but again its almost overwhelming since there are so many birds. The sun moves over the most birdy areas but you never get it perfectly at your back. It is worth having both an afternoon and a morning here since the light will allow you to shoot different areas at those different times. Again, if you get anything clear you’re lucky, so it is worth doing everything you can to get here on a clear day. The highlight for me was at the end of my first evening when I was walking back along the cliffs. Two eagles came cruising by and started hunting in the nesting colony. The noises from the birds are impressive when eagles aren’t present but the raucous that went up when the eagles starting swooping down on the birds on the cliffs was amazing! All in all it is a truly amazing place that even nonbirders and spouses can enjoy – my gf LOVED this place.
Ok, we next headed to Elliston on the Bonavista Penisula to visit a smaller but very accessible puffin colony right in town. This is THE PLACE TO SHOOT PUFFINS!!!! The birds are very accustomed to people and they put on an amazing show for us. This place can be either a morning or an afternoon shoot, but all my best shots came from late in the evening (like 7-8pm) on our 5th day. I literally had puffins walking within 5-10 feet for me! Also if you go here, go over to the Bonavista lighthouse as it is really pretty. The chicks had not hatched yet, so I did not get any shots with adults beaks full of fish. Feeding of chicks starts in mid-July, but so does high tourist season. So, if you go a bit later in the summer than we did, you should be prepared for more people and probably higher prices.
We then drove west to Terra Nova NP for 2 days and then further west to Gros Morne NP for out last 3 days. Both of these spots have lots of good trails and lots of birds. The main birds attractions at these spots are warblers and they are EVERYWHERE! There are also lots of other boreal birds such as woodpeckers, flycatchers, and chickadees. Gros Morne is AMAZINGLY beautiful and has enough stuff to keep general outdoor enthusiasts busy for several days. My main goal on this leg of the trip was to find and shoot willow ptarmigan, the only new species I could get in Newfoundland. The shot I did get is decent, but I am EXCEPTIONALLY proud of myself for getting it since I hauled my 1DIV, 100-400L and 500L (and 17-40!) up 2000 vertical feet on what ended up being a 14-mile hike that took 9 hours round trip. My girlfriend actually heard a clucking noise that turned out to be a pair of ptarmigans next to the trail. They gave me just enough time to get my 500 out and crack off a few shots before they disappeared into thick alpine forest. It was really fortunate as these were the only 2 birds we encountered on the hike (we did see plenty of other species though). We rapped up the trip in Port aux Basques on the extreme western end of the island where we caught the ferry back to Nova Scotia.
One other weird story occurred while I was getting my only arctic tern shot of the trip: a car flew off the road right next to us. I stopped shooting to help the two folks in the car (they were fine) and spent the next 45 minutes trying to dig their car out of the sand dune into which they had somehow drifted. We eventually got their car out with the help of a pickup truck we flagged down. It had started to rain while we were doing this so I did not get any additional shots of this tough to find bird. It was a bit of a bummer but what was I gonna do, keep shooting with this guy and his car stuck in the dune behind me?
If anyone wants any additional information, please feel free to contact me.
blackpoll warbler fledgeling