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 Justine's Journal

CackleTV Productions


Birds, birds and more birds in Newfoundland
Tuesday, June 14, 2005

We’re home in Wales after a packed & fun 3 weeks away. The last 9 days paddling in Newfoundland was a fantastic chance to get to know a bit more of the island, which has a knack of sneaking into your heart the more time you spend there. Alun and I had originally intended to go for a self-sufficient camping trip and explore one area in detail. However, we were filming for the sequel to ‘This is the Sea’ and the Tourism department in Newfoundland agreed to give us some financial support in the form of a hire car and a couple of internal flights so we could head straight for some of Newfoundland’s kayaking hotspots – and there are many to chose from! On the first day back, we kayaked out to Witless Bay Nature Reserve with Richard Alexander, a local kayaking instructor and very nice man. We were almost instantly paddling around small islands amongst thousands and thousands of birds - puffins, kittiwakes, guillemots (called Murres in Newfoundland) and the odd razorbill. It was a bit like being at home, but I’ve never seen so many birds in one place – some friends of mine described paddling under a cliff in Iceland as being in a ‘blizzard of birds’ and I think it must have been similar. The only difference in Newfoundland is that in a few weeks time Witless Bay will also be full of humpback whales – every year they come for the same reason the birds are there….lots and lots of fish.

The next day we drove south west for a couple of hours to ‘Cape St Mary’, a huge gannet colony in an incredible position. About fourteen thousand gannets are nesting on one big sea stack, which is almost close enough to the mainland to jump to. We drove down on a beautiful sunny day but as we approached the coast we saw that someone had plastered a thick layer of fog on the cliffs – fairly typical in Newfoundland we were learning. We walked along the cliffs towards the colony in about 30 metres visibility and the sound of gannets chattering and squabbling echoed in our ears long before we saw them. Suddenly a white stack appeared just in front of us and I realised we were looking slightly down on a prime piece of gannet real-estate, birds were shoulder to shoulder on every available bit of space making the whole stack look white. Several hundred other gannets swarmed overhead in seemingly random directions and it sounded like everyone was talking at once. It was an incredible experience, even more amazing because the nearest gannets were only about 5 metres away and they all seemed completely oblivious to our presence. We sat mesmerised for 2 hours, watching preening sessions between pairs and fights between neighbours (a hazard of living within pecking distance of 2 or 3 other nest sites). We learnt that the flights had a pattern and saw at close quarters how the birds turned, stalled and landed by their tiny nests. A few carried twigs or green tatters of old fishing nets as new material.

The fog shifted slightly and at times we could see the sea at the bottom of the stack, but mostly the sky around remained a grey murk and the white rock of gannets shone out like a lone beacon. We had hoped to paddle around to the colony by sea but reluctantly decided that there was little point in attempting the 12km paddle along steep cliffs if we couldn’t see anything. We’d been told that the wind was shifting from the SW (which always brings fog) to the West or NW (which brings clear weather) but after 3 hours of waiting it was getting too late to start the paddle. We decided to drive back 10km to a pretty fishing village called ‘Branch’ which was out of the fog and do a short paddle around there. When we returned to the Cape, it looked like it might be clearing and we opted to stay in nearby Placentia that night and cross our fingers for good weather the next morning.

When the dawn broke we weren’t disappointed – clear skies and sun beckoned us southwards and we enjoyed views of cliffs and storm beaches that had been cloaked by fog the day before. At the fishing village of “St Brides’, we pulled our kayaks through squidgy seaweed and launched into an almost flat calm sea. We’d been warned that Cape St Mary’s can be wild and stormy with big swells and strong tides, but today it was a beautiful mellow place to be – probably just as well with a 12 km paddle along steep cliffs ahead of us. The scenery was very dramatic; red and black layers of rock, splatterings of yellow lichen and some really interesting geology. We came around a corner and thought we spotted a dramatic thin waterfall several hundred metres high, but as we got closer we realised that it was a vertical white layer of quartz which had been eroded more than the surrounding rock – it was the best non-waterfall that I’ve ever seen!

As we approached the gannet colony the sound of birds echoed all around us, and they were everywhere. Rafts of hundreds of guillemots took flight as we approached them, the splatter of their bodies crashing on the water being replaced by the quick shwoosh of tiny wings against air. A little higher, Kittiwakes moved in gangs, squawking in unison and flying a little slower. Above them again were the gannets soaring in circles on a never-ending circuit for nest material and food. A few came a little closer to have a look at us and then went back to their daily business. It was amazing how the different birds all lived so close together in what seemed like peaceful co-existence. They all live in their isolated colonies – guillemots at the bottom of the cliff, kittiwakes in the middle and gannets on the sea stack with a bit of overspill onto the upper part of the mainland cliffs. They narrowly avoid each other on their flight paths and presumably feed on slightly different food.

We watched for a while in admiration, filmed the birds from this new perspective and turned back for the ride home. It was calm enough for us to land on a small cobbly beach for lunch and as we enjoyed our sandwiches a minke whale cruised on by…. what a great place!

After that trip and a bit of filming with Linda Bartlett, we flew up to the northernmost tip of Newfoundland where we were very well looked after at Quirpoon lighthouse and where we had the pleasure of kayaking with icebergs (well, iceberg!) and whales. More on that another day soon….. and I’ll also post some photos from Newfoundland and Lake Michigan in the next week or two. In the meantime, you can see some photos and a write-up of the trip we did to the Manitou Islands and the symposium on Derrick Mayolith’s website…

until the next time!


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