The birds dipped and swayed in wild mobs overhead. They covered the rocks in a dense mat, sparring with neighbors who dared encroach on their square inches of personal territory.
We had come here to Cape St. Mary’s to witness the third largest colony of gannets in North America, surpassed only by mammoth gatherings in Quebec and Scotland. It was estimated that there were some 16,000 mated pairs of the large birds spread out on the rocks at this desolate southern point of Newfoundland.
It’s a sight that dazzles most who see it. “Amazing,” one visitor remarked to us as we passed on the narrow trail that winds over one kilometer out to the bird rocks. “Marvelous,” another said.
And indeed it was.
From the visitor’s center at Cape St. Mary’s Ecological Preserve you could see the gannet-covered rocks in the distance. Some of the most dramatic coastal scenery in Newfoundland, the cliffs plunge down to the sea, where whales are often seen.
The land atop the cliffs is wind-swept, its ecology more like the arctic tundra than elsewhere in Newfoundland. Ground-hugging grasses, ferns and other things that grow cling to the rocky soil. Boulders are covered with orange lichens and what “trees” there are grow flat to the ground to escape the wind.
But it was the gannets and other seabirds nesting here that we’d come to see.
You see, gannets are unusual and special birds. Large birds with yellowish heads and long beaks, they have a nearly 7-foot wingspan. While they nest on the rocky coasts of the north, they winter in the far southern climes, and can often been seen in the seas off the Southern states.
They’re known for their long foraging journeys, during which time they often never touch land. One industrious gannet was tracked just this year on a week-long fishing trip that encompassed almost 1,700 miles.
They fish from high above the surface of the water, plunging down at their prey at speeds of up to 60 mph, a feat that allows them to pursue quarry at a much deeper depth than most seabirds. Their diving ability is also aided by their anatomy; gannets have no external nostrils, only ones located within their mouths, and they have air sacs in their faces and chests that protect them from their terrific impact with the water during dives.
Chris, an interpretive ranger at the reserve, admits he’s always been fascinated with the birds there. Growing up in the nearby town of Branch, he attended college and earned a degree in fish and wildlife before returned to the area of his birth.
“It’s the best place in the world to get shit on,” he said with a smile, referring to the hundreds of seabirds whirring overhead. “Everybody’s always flabbergasted when they see it.”
One of the reasons the gannets and the other seabird species make their breeding home here is the fantastic supply of plankton and fish in the sea far below their nests. It’s here that the Labrador current and the warmer Gulf stream collide, providing a more temperate mix for creatures and plants that grow in the sea.
Chris estimated there are some 150,000 birds that regularly nest on bird rocks at Cape St. Mary’s. The area has been protected as a preserve since 1983.
Before that, the area had been used to pasture sheep and a few escapees from local farms could still be seen grazing on the rocky hills. But most had fallen prey to coyotes that had crossed the pack ice during winter from nearby Labrador. Newfoundland itself, hasn’t had an indigenous canid predator since the Newfoundland wolf became extinct in 1911.
Today, the gannet have no predators, although the smaller seabirds can still fall victim to ravens, large gulls and eagles.
Walking back down the trail from the bird rock viewing platform, which allows visitors to get within 100 feet of the gigantic nesting colony, I marveled on what a sight nature had prepared. The seabirds still circled and squawked overhead.
One more stop on our homeward (to St. John’s) journey was at the Salmonier Nature Park. It was a provincially run park for native animals and birds that had injured and couldn’t be returned to the wild. Here caribou, geese, owls, fox and even moose, which are not native to Newfoundland, can be seen in large naturalistic enclosures.
The temperatures dropped as we hiked the trails. We needed to head home to our cozy row house in which we were staying.
It is July 7 and the temperature is likely to drop even further tonight.
Frost is expected.