Awestruck by Colonial Seabirds at Cape St. Mary’s Ecological Preserve, Newfoundland

The rocky cliffs of Cape St. Mary's are verdant with grass and wildflowers in spring. © Melissa Groo

The rocky cliffs of Cape St. Mary’s are verdant with grass and wildflowers in spring. © Melissa Groo

A few summers ago I traveled with my family to Newfoundland, an island on the eastern seaboard of Canada. I had recently taken up photography, so the rugged landscapes and verdant cliffs jutting out over the sea made for perfect subject matter. We (my husband, 4-year-old daughter, and I) found much to explore, from fascinating geological sites to rocky beaches, to long boardwalks through bogs where we could spy moose along the forest edges.

We roamed far and wide across the island by rental car. One of our favorite stops was Cape St Mary’s Ecological Preserve, located at the tip of the Avalon Peninsula. I had heard this place touted as one of the great “natural wonders of the world,” as it hosts a huge seabird rookery in a spectacular setting. Would it live up to the hype? Indeed it did. Imagine the sight and sound of more than 20,000 Northern Gannets nesting on the rocks, and large numbers of kittiwakes, Razorbills, and murres intermingling nearby.

Bird Rock, at Cape St. Mary's Ecological Preserve, is one of just a few breeding areas for Northern Gannet on the North Atlantic seaboard. © Melissa Groo

Bird Rock, at Cape St. Mary’s Ecological Preserve, is one of just a few breeding areas for Northern Gannet on the North Atlantic seaboard. © Melissa Groo

To reach the site, we followed the roughly mile-long trail from the visitor’s center to Bird Rock. This pleasant trail led us over high meadows that provide stunning vistas of cliff faces that were jam-packed with birds.

Once we reached Bird Rock, we found ourselves standing about 50 feet from a massive rock covered with adult gannets and their chicks. The smell of guano filled the air, the cacaphony of mating and territorial calls resounded over the wind.

The Northern Gannet spends most of its life at sea, coming to land to nest in only a few large colonies in the North Atlantic. © Melissa Groo

The Northern Gannet spends most of its life at sea, coming to land to nest in only a few large colonies in the North Atlantic. © Melissa Groo

Everywhere we looked, adult gannets were engaged in bonding ceremonies with their mates, making spectacular plunges into the ocean for herring, mackerel and capelin, and regurgitating partially digested fish for their young.

Gannets use their time on land to rest, nest, and feed. Their sensual bonding ceremonies make for great photography.  © Melissa Groo

Gannets use their time on land to rest, nest, and feed. Their sensual bonding ceremonies make for great photography. © Melissa Groo

Once in a while a Common Raven or Bald Eagle swept low over the rookery, perhaps looking for a vulnerable chick. I sat as close as I dared to the cliff’s edge and trained my 300mm lens on the colony. Watching this wild and exuberant scene unfold was exhilarating; I was awestruck. Certainly, this magically vibrant and important breeding ground should qualify as the 8th wonder of the world.

While carefully perched on the cliff's edge (emphasis on carefully) you get excellent birds-eye views of the birds, and great photographic opportunities. © Melissa Groo

While carefully perched on the cliff’s edge (emphasis on carefully) you get excellent birds-eye views of the birds, and great photographic opportunities. © Melissa Groo

Looking back at these photographs I see the flaws of a newbie: photographing white birds in the middle of the day is tough when one doesn’t know much about exposure. I wish I had done more to isolate birds…I wish I had had a longer lens…I wish my kid had not begged to leave after an hour. But I was lucky to have light and a clear day: the cliffs are often shrouded in fog so it’s wise to let weather be your guide if you decide on making a photography trip to Cape St. Mary’s.

Regardless of the photo opportunities, however, the experience of being at Cape St. Mary’s Ecological Preserve is absolutely matchless. And definitely worthy of putting on your bucket list!

Watch this home video for a taste of what it’s like.

Being in the midst of a large gannet colony is a truly phenomenal experience. © Melissa Groo

Being in the midst of a large gannet colony is a truly phenomenal experience. © Melissa Groo

 

 

 

  • If you go...

    How to get there

    Cape St. Mary’s is located at the southwestern tip of Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula. It’s a two-and-a-half hour drive from St. John’s (Trans-Canada Highway/Route 1 to the Cape Shore highway/Route 90), and about an hour from Argentia/Placentia.

    The turnoff to the reserve access road is about 15 km east of St. Bride’s and 15 km west of Branch.

    The path to Bird Rock is not wheelchair accessible, but the Interpretive Centre is fully accessible.

    Aircraft are prohibited from landing in the reserve, or flying lower than 300 metres from April 1 to October 30. No tankers or vessels longer than 20 metres are permitted in the marine portion of the reserve.

    Best time to visit

    The reserve is open year-round; the interpretive centre is open from May to October, which coincides with the birds’ breeding season. Guided tours are available from May to September or early October:

    • 1.5 hours – $7.00 per person
    • Day-long group tours – $225.00 per group

    Book ahead:

    Tel: (709) 277-1666

    Who to contact

    Cape St. Mary’s Ecological Reserve

    Access to the reserve and Interpretation Centre, including the gift shop and washrooms, is free of charge.

     

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Melissa Groo

Freelance Photographer

Melissa Groo is a wildlife photographer living in Ithaca, New York. She travels often to feed her photography obsession, and is never happier than when she’s lying in mud in a swamp, or in sand on a beach, seeking to blend into the landscape and enter the world of her subjects. Her award-winning work has […]


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