Sep 13, 2008
|Cape St. Mary’s the perfect ending to our Newfoundland adventure - Saturday, September 13
“The closest you will ever come to knowing what it is to be a bird.” That is how their brochure describes a visit to the Cape St. Mary’s Seabird Ecological Reserve - and it could not be said any better.
Our friends Chuck and Barbara McLaughlin know Newfoundland well and they told us “Be sure and see Cape St. Mary’s!” All their advice has been good so we put it on our itinerary - planning to do it last as we round the Avalon Peninsula to Argentia where we will catch the ferry back to Nova Scotia.
This seemed like a good plan, but we didn’t count on finding so many other alluring things to do on our way there. The Avalon is a big place and it takes a while to drive around it. We spent most of a day at Ferryland, and now we were at Portugal Cove South. In addition to being situated on the beautiful barrens, Portugal Cove South is next to Cape Race and Mistaken Point, both places well worth seeing.
Cape Race is the place where the distress signals from the Titanic were received and relayed to other ships, and they have a reconstruction of the wireless station there. Cape Race is also home to the most powerful lighthouse on the Atlantic seaboard, and is often the first or last light travelers see on their voyages inbound or outbound to Europe.
On Mistaken Point you can see fossils of some of the earliest multi-celled creatures that ever lived. Fossils older than these are apt to be single celled organisms that can not be seen without the aid of a microscope. The first multi-celled organisms were soft bodied and therefore not often preserved, but at Mistaken Point a large colony was covered with a sudden deposit of volcanic ash. This preserved them in fossilized form, making these fossils some of the oldest ever found. They are large and out in the open on flat formations along the shore, and the ranger told us they are offering a guided hike out to them on Saturday afternoon at 2:00.
Now we were forced to make an agonizing choice. It was still a day’s drive to Cape St. Mary’s where we knew we wanted to spend some time, and Monday we have to be in Argentia to catch the ferry. Staying at Portugal Cove South would blow another whole day, leaving us Sunday to drive to Cape St. Mary’s and see it. Chuck and Barbara had told us the cape is often fogged in, and they had to go back a second day to see it. If we put it off until late Sunday and then found it fogged in we were in danger of missing it altogether.
We dithered for an hour while we studied the exhibits at the Portugal Cove Visitor Center, and then Cape St. Mary’s finally won out. We reluctantly left Portugal Cove South and continued on toward Cape St. Mary’s. The Cape St. Mary’s Ecological Reserve is home to the largest nesting place of seabirds in Newfoundland, but what makes it remarkable is the rare accessibility it offers to see this phenomena up close. It is the largest nesting place of Gannets in Newfoundland, with some 11,000 nesting pairs of these largest of seabirds. We didn’t want to take a chance on missing it.
The drive followed the shoreline for the most part, and it was scenic enough to dazzle the most jaded tourist. The first miles stretched out over the rolling barrens and included a 20 mile side trip out to St. Shotts, the southernmost point on Newfoundland, and one of the few outports that successfully resisted resettlement when Newfoundland joined the Confederation. For you Catholics reading this - did you know you had a saint named Shotts?
Shortly after rejoining the main highway we saw our first caribou! The herd in this area is the southernmost herd of caribou in the world. We were fortunate enough to see first two loping off into the distance, and then four more taking a leisurely stroll along the barren toward the Avalon Wilderness. They were far away, but it was a thrill to see them. And then another herd in the distance.
The highway turned inland, following the eastern shore of St. Mary’s Bay. The bay is huge and it is a long drive around it, but the views are spectacular all the way. Descending the western shore we finally came to the end of the peninsula, first to Point Lance, which we decided to come back and do tomorrow, and then to the turn off to Cape St. Mary’s. There is a restaurant and RV park just past the turnoff and it was late in the afternoon, so we stopped and secured a campsite for the night, then pointed our RV toward the famous cape.
The drive out is on a narrow road over the moor. The top of the cape is fairly flat, covered with peat bogs and pools of standing water. Seven miles later we reached the end and parked at the Reserve Visitor Center. There is a picturesque lighthouse here too, standing conspicuously at the end of the point.
The Visitor Center has good exhibits on the birds that nest here, but the ranger told us that the whales, murres, kittiwakes, guillemots and razorbills have all left, and only the cormorants and gannets are left. In the distance you can see the formation they call Bird Rock and it is alive with birds from the top to over half way down it’s 300 foot drop to the sea. Hundreds more birds are in the air, constantly circling the rock. Even from this distance you can hear their cries. It must be even more spectacular with thousands more birds here in July.
The mile and three quarters self guided trail to the rock follows the top of the cliff, and they warn you to stay back from the edge. Even the wind seems to be warning you and trying to blow you back. If the wind was blowing the other way this would be a scary trail indeed! On the way out we passed some other hikers returning, and met one other couple heading out. They turned out to be from British Columbia, and by the time we returned to the parking lot an hour later we were good friends with Brian and Barbara.
As we approached the cliff that overlooks Bird Rock we could see the constant motion of birds rising from the rock, wheeling over it, and descending back toward it. The birds were mostly gannets with an occasional gull, and if you’ve ever seen a gannet up close you know what a thrill it is. A mature gannet stands almost a yard tall and has a six and a half foot wing span. They are pure white with a sulfur yellow head and black patches on their wings. They are absolutely stunning.
The pictures above tell only part of the story. You have to actually stand there at the edge of the cliff to understand this most unforgettable of experiences. You are totally surrounded by birds. They fly above you, below you and all around you. They are in constant motion, and the motion is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. They are incredibly beautiful birds, large and powerful, and utterly at home in the air or on the water.
They hunt fish by diving like a pelican, dropping like a rock from a hundred feet in the air, and reaching speeds of a hundred miles an hour when they hit the water. They are sleek and graceful, and large as they are they seem to float on the updrafts as easily as the gulls. The top of the rock was so crowded with gannets that you could barely see the surface. The young are well grown already, and they are a soft gray in color. The parents are extremely protective, driving off predators with harsh cries and powerful lunges.
With Brian and Barbara we stood enthralled for nearly an hour. Watching the birds you find yourself almost believing that you could fly, and hard as their life may be the gift of flight seems almost worth it. “The nearest you’ll ever come to knowing what it is to be a bird.” A simple statement that perfectly describes this priceless experience.