Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Let me bird off Cape St. Mary's - i.e. the most amazing birding experience of my life! (#228)

Cape St. Mary's was such an incredible experience that I had to dedicate a full post to it. In the car Matt and I were discussing our "Top 5" and "Top 3" lists of the trip and we both agreed that, over everything else, Cape St. Mary's was probably #1. Toward the end of our trip we heard a woman from San Francisco inquiring about birding spots at the visitor centre in Bonavista, so I approached her. I asked her if she'd already been to Cape St. Mary's (not in Bonavista)--she tried, but went to St. Mary's instead by mistake (easy enough to confuse, I suppose...actually I almost did it too...), and ran out of time. And I literally told her to turn around and drive the 3 hours back and go see it. She didn't (oh noooo, we have a "schedule" and "reservations"--her loss).

After a fun little incident of nearly running out of gas on a long stretch of road with no gas stations, no towns, no people, and apparently no other traffic in either direction, we arrived at Cape St. Mary's. But before that, just as we were crossing a bridge in the quaint little town of Branch, we spotted some odd ducks. And I'm not talking about awkward people, but really, odd ducks.

look ma, I can do it too!

Bewildered, I had taken lots of pics but could find nothing even close in my book. So, we continued on to the intended destination of the day, Cape St. Mary's, which was surrounded with a heavy fog. We are told that this is the case an average of 26 of all days of July. I asked the guy in the visitor centre if we'd be able to see anything, and he assured me that yes, we would. So off we ventured, into the fog, and not seeing much of anything, when Matt tells me to look up and there are these things gliding overhead--a steady stream of Northern Gannets cruising, silently, just above me...and I mean just above me...maybe 10 ft. It's as if they don't even take notice that I'm there, they are so casual about it. Because the fog was so thick you'd sort of just start to see them once they were already almost right over you--it's hard to describe but was totally surreal.

We continue along this incredibly beautiful path--beautiful is a weird word to use, since I could barely see a thing--really just a hint of things through the fog, but I think I'm referring to just begin surrounding by grass and sea and nothing else, and a small picturesque trampled path in front of me. There is something to be said for the dense, salty sea air...just makes you feel so good and alive and healthy...makes you wonder if we were really ever meant to live inland. so we get a little farther along the trail and then it just drops into this spectacular cliff (well, at least the fog wasn't so dense we could see that!) and there are thousands of gannets, some above us, some gliding in front, more circling below and yet more way down below in the water. It's a sight I'm not sure I could do justice in describing.

Totally in awe, we had no idea that it would get even better, and we took lots of videos and pictures before the going got...incredible. Eventually we made it to the main "bird rock," and there was another young couple already posted there (neat people, actually, but that's another story). Then, the fog just magically lifted and the couple turned to us and said "you've got good timing!" They'd been waiting there for 2 days waiting for the fog to clear! Turns out that's the story most of the time--people are always saying how great our timing is, or how we bring the good weather--what they don't know that I'm secretly stockpiling karma points.
So what did we see? Literally, thousands and thousands of gannets, nesting right in front of, flying all around us. I think I ended up sitting there for at least a few hours, just watching them, mesmerized. I was quite happy not to go anywhere, quite happy that we had dedicated an entire day to this. Their behaviour is very peculiar and fascinating, and the longer I watched, the more I noticed. It took me a little while to notice the little chicks that were under their bodies, or the way the came in to land on each other, or the way they smack their beaks together, or how the male bites the females neck when he comes into land, or how aggressive they get for territory and how they would fight, and literally, push each other off the edge of the cliff.

Honestly, I was quite happy to just watch them. It's not often that you get to just watch birds do their thing, and there is so much going on that no pictures would ever communicate (that's why I took videos!). They could be elegant and brutal at the same time--when they fence and preen each other it seems so delicate and almost affectionate, but then they can go to stabbing at each other, landing on each other, biting each other and fighting each other.

some of the murres I mention in the video--imagine this picture x 100

got some nest material

Eventually the fog rolled back in and the party was over--we headed back to the visitor centre and I had a good chat with one of the park staff about the birds, asking him lots of questions about what I had seen and what I had thought about.
  • Like how they smack their beaks together--"Are they just getting to know each other?"--"oh no, they already know each other all right. They're bonding" (took me a minute to realize he was saying "bonding" and not "banding," which is sounded like to me...gotta love that accent). Watch the video and I think you'll agree to where the term "necking" came from. Yeah they are totally making out!
fencing gannets.

  • He took the time to explain the one with its mouth open and moving its throat (looked like it was calling out or something) was panting, since birds don't have sweat glands like we do---that's the same reason the crows all sit around with their mouths open on hot days. 
bleating gannet with chick underfoot

  • I asked him if there was some kind of hierarchy as to the locations of the nests, and noted how they seemed aggressive and would push each other right off the cliff--and some had cozy spots while others were rather precariously perched on the tiniest of precipices. And he explained how they not only return to the colony but return to the exact nesting location--as if it had a postal address 131 Bird Rock. They won't reproduce until they are about 5, at which point they have to find their own spot, and that's why the colony is expanding outwards from the sea stack to  neighbouring cliffs, which are less sheltered because they are on the mainland (and when I say mainland, it's not really the mainland, because we are still in Newfoundland, after all). If one tries to take another's spot, they will, literally kill or be killed--these birds don't mess around! 
arranging the nest - pulling up dirt
  • I also asked him about the neck biting I had seen and he explained that the males will land and bite the female's neck (Or, "honey, I'm home!"--don't think I would take too kindly to that!) and then they proceed with the bill-whacking (or "fencing," it's called), and then they can finally settle in, or the other can take a turn heading out. I get the submission thing, but I think he might be taking it a little far here. 

  • Mr. Park Officer also explained that they are mates for life...but he is quick to clarify--paired for life, but certainly not monogamous. 
  • Finally I also asked him about the odd ducks and showed him the pictures on my camera. He chuckled a bit and asked if I'd seen them down in Branch. He said there's a farm that had Pekin ducks (yes, as in Peking Duck for dinner) and that they had interbred with the wild ducks and hang out at the inlet. So, mystery solved!

Pretty fascinating stuff, and an awesome visit to Bird Rock. On the way out to the parking lot, we saw that there was a lighthouse there, which we couldn't see 20 metres away from us on the way in. And that is how thick the fog is in Newfoundland. And I asked myself for the first of many times--what is the point of a lighthouse if you can never see it? And I became familiar with the blaring of the foghorn--far more effective in the given conditions. It's funny how quickly it comes and goes--in a matter of 5 minutes you can go from sunny and bright to....can I count all the fingers on my hand in front of me?
I took this picture when the fog was actually not the bad

I'm sure you appreciate accuracy but I think you'd rather see it like this :)

Our first hosts, whom we stayed with for 3 nights in St. John's, had given us a whole disc holder full of Newfie music CDs they burned for us (did I mention how awesome Newfoundlanders are?). Actually we spent most of the trip listening to them and by the end of it were singing along and had picked our favourites. One of the traditional Newfoundland songs that we heard a few times was "Let me fish off Cape St. Mary's." Of course we got pretty excited and were like...."we are going there!" or eventually..."we went there!"


dwaynejava said...

Jenna, this was an amazing birding experience! The photos, the geography and birds are incredible. Nice inclusion of video as well! :-) Thanks for sharing! -DM

Tiffanie said...

Absolutley amazing! I can't believe how loud they are! Definitely a place to put on my list of places to see :)

Ash McCarthy said...

Amazing pictures! Glad you had a great time! :) We Newfies love visitors!