Newfoundland

Viking settlement at L'Ainse aux Meadows From the first moments I arrived in Newfoundland, I felt somehow different, and in a way I can't even explain.  There was something very unique about this place, aside from the abundant wildlife and beautiful scenery.  I still don't know quite how to describe it.

I headed north toward Gros Morne National Park, and arrived there by mid-afternoon.  It was gorgeous, and the most amazing place.  It had broadleaf forests surrounded by boreal forests, and beautiful fjords with the bluest water I have ever seen.  I stopped to take a hike on a trail, and saw typical broadleaf species mixed in with boreal species: a Pine Grosbeak, Black-and-White Warblers, White-throated Sparrows, Fox Sparrows, a Northern Waterthrush, a Gray-cheeked Thrush.

I did want to find a Rock Ptarmigan, and I knew they were present on Gros Morne itself.  That would be a four-hour hike, which I planned to do the next morning. 

For now, though, I needed a place to stay (and as always, I hadn't booked ahead).  The motel was full, so they referred me to a B&B down the road.  It turned out to be a private residence with some extra rooms, so I spent the evening chatting with the couple who lived there.  I can't even express how amazing that place was.  The B&B sat on a hill overlooking the town, which was wrapped around a small harbor, flanked by hills on each side.  When the sun set, the sky turned black, and the stars were bright and brilliant.  I was amazed at how quiet it was.  Before that night, I don't think I ever realized how light the sky is, and how much background noise there is in my area.

After a long conversation with the folks who lived there, I became more and more curious about this land I had found myself in.  I started reading the tourist brochures in my room, and began to add things to my list of things to see.  I headed out to the lighthouse early the next morning, and anxiously made my way to a viewpoint of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.  Along the trail, I passed White-throated Sparrows and Red Squirrels in large numbers, and couldn't wait to see what sorts of pelagic birds I could find.

I couldn't believe it.  There wasn't anything out there.  Not even a gull.

At that moment, I realized that my birding luck was running pretty poor, and that I should just forget about Gros Morne.  Instead, I thought I might drive up the coast and check out L'Ainse aux Meadows.  This was a once-in-a-lifetime trip, I thought, so I might as well see the Viking settlement while I'm here.  Plus, it was a clear and sunny day, and who knows what I might come across.

Blackpoll Warbler Well, during the long drive north, I came across Common Terns nesting on the tundra, a few Gray Jays perched on treetops, a flock of White-winged Crossbills in the spruce trees along the road, and a Greater Yellowlegs in a roadside pond.  As I passed St. Barbe (the port from which the Quebec ferry leaves), I strained my neck toward the straight, thinking that any bird visible from the ferry might possibly be visible from land.  (I could see Labrador, so why not the birds in between?)  There was what might have been a flock of Black Guillemots out there, but the only thing I could identify for certain was a Common Merganser.  That was odd, since the article had listed around twelve possible pelagic species for that place, including shearwaters.  I had imagined rafts of birds out there, sitting on the water and flying over it.  Now, it seemed dead.  At least it was still clear and sunny...

I arrived at the park around noon, just in time for an organized tour.  It was a neat experience - they had people dressed up as Vikings answering questions (prompting a visitor from Iceland to pose the relevant question, 'Why aren't you speaking Icelandic?'), and they showed us the ruins of the original site as well as the recreation.

Later, I scanned the area for birds, finding only a Horned Lark, a Herring Gull, several Common Redpolls, and a few Blackpoll Warblers.

Atlantic Puffin I still had hope, and decided to return to St. Barbe and take the ferry the following morning.  I checked into the motel by the terminal, and looked outside - the weather was clear, and the ferry was not more than a hundred yards from my window.

The next morning I looked outside, and... I couldn't see the ferry.  I couldn't see anything.  That is, except FOG!

That was the last straw.  I had come all this way, and if nothing else, I wanted to see an Atlantic Puffin.  I pulled out a very thick tourist guide book and started to look for anything on where to go see them.  The only reference to a breeding colony that I could find was by St. Johns, a twelve hour drive away.  After deliberating for a few nanoseconds, I decided to go, knowing perfectly well that I would have to drive all the way back to take the ferry from the other side of the island. 

You see, these weren't ordinary birds, like Rock Ptarmigans.  These were puffins!

During the twelve hour drive, I did see a Woodland Caribou, a Moose (which walked out in front of a car going the other way), a single Common Loon, a Short-eared Owl, and a Northern Hawk Owl.  I also stopped at Gros Morne again, and found a few more songbirds, including a few Mourning Warblers near a trailhead.  By the time I got to Gros Morne, it was clear and sunny again (there's a pattern, here), and it stayed sunny for almost the entire drive.

When I finally reached Bay Bulls, a coastal town near the famed puffin colony, it was still clear and sunny.  Still excited, I searched for any vantage point of the open ocean, found one, and...

Surprise, surprise.  It was covered with fog.  (Sigh.)

Razorbill Try as I might, I could not see or hear anything out there.  I was now forced to stay the night nearby.  I checked into a hotel and booked a boat tour for the next morning.  By now, I realized that I was not going to drive another twelve hours back to my starting point, so I also changed my ferry crossing to leave from Argentia, on the eastern side.  This also allowed me to possibly stop at a gannet colony at Cape St. Mary's, which looked like it was in the same general direction.

I returned to Bay Bulls the next morning and met up with the tour.  The boat left the dock in perfect cloudless sunshine, and the tour guide got us excited about the prospect of seeing Humpback and Minke whales (which the previous group had seen moments before). And then, as I could have predicted, we immediately sailed out of the harbor, and right into peasoup fog.

Iceberg We sailed on in virtual blindness, wondering what we were going to see (if anything), when all of a sudden we found ourselves surrounded by puffins, thousands of them, calling and flying and landing all around us. Then the looming shape of the little island materialized in front of us. Every square inch of this barren rock was covered with Atlantic Puffins, attending their burrows, feeding chicks, posing for their (potential) mates, and waddling around in the most adorable way. (The fog even lifted at moments, which allowed a few photographs to turn out!)

Aside from a few Greater Black-backed gulls, there were no other species there. We continued on to another island, which was much steeper, and was covered with Black-legged Kittiwakes, Common and a few Thick-billed Murres.  Now I was happy, and the guide even pointed out a pair of Razorbills perched on a crag, just above the boat.  We were then supposed to visit a third island, but the winds picked up with a vengeance, and we had to curtail that plan.  We went to take a look at a grounded iceberg nearby, but due to the fog, we were unable to find any whales.  The tour was fantastic, though.

I shouldn't have to say this, but I drove all the way to the gannet colony, and of course I found it fogged in.  I opted to skip it (having seen gannets during the ferry and the boat tour), and headed back to Placentia.  There were no rooms left at the only motel within a forty-minute drive of the ferry, but one of the families in town was kind enough to put me and another couple up for the night.  Not just a room, but tea, cookies, breakfast, a wake-up call, you name it! 

That was another example of how amazing this place was: When I mentioned that to other people, they didn't even find it remarkable.  That was just their way of life.

During the fourteen hour ferry ride the next day, I did finally see pelagic birds. Greater and Manx Shearwaters were the most common, but (thanks to a few other birders on lookout) I also saw a Great Skua and a Cory's Shearwater.  Humpback Whales would even surface on occasion, and I even saw one jump!

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