Cape St Mary’s, and its Québec cousin Bonaventure Island (still on my to-do list), are without doubt two of the best places in the world to see one of the world’s great birds: the Northern Gannet.
These mighty pelagic birds spend most of their lives out at sea, but once a year they come to land to nest. Their preferred nesting area is a sea stack – a pillar of rock with no connection to the land, so their chicks can be safe from terrestrial predators.
Most of the big Gannet colonies such as Ailsa Crag give good views of flying Gannets but aren’t accessible for close-in views. But the sea stack at Cape St Mary’s is very close to the land. We were able to stand and view the Gannets from about 30m distance, close enough to observe their nesting behaviour and the tenderness with which they treat their mates. And needless to say the photographic possibilities are awesome.
The cliffs around the sea stack also provide nesting opportunities for Black-legged Kittiwakes, Guillemots, Razorbills and Black Guillemots, as well as the occasional Thick-billed Murre. We also saw some interesting birds in the grassy fields around the visitor centre, including American Pipits and Horned Larks. (Though not, as the Visitor Centre suggests, Water Pipits. Were a Water Pipit to show up in North America it would be the first, and would be pursued by hordes of birders from across the continent).
E-Bird tells me I saw 665 bird species last year, a new personal best. Many excellent birds went into this list: gaudy tropical beasts like Motmots, skulking antbirds, and glorious migrant warblers. But what stands out most in my memory are the bird experiences – those special birding moments where everything comes together to make a truly memorable sighting. Herewith are my top ten birding moments in chronological order.
January 26, Amherst Island, Ontario
I was out looking for winter birds with Bruce Kirkland and Rachel Sa. We were stopped by the side of the road to look at a flock of Redpolls when Rachel saw something that looked like an owl fly into a tree. We got the scope out and sure enough we could see a small owl head peering out of the bush. High fives were in order – Short-eared Owls are not an easy bird to see in Ontario. Then a Bald Eagle passed over and all hell broke loose. Nineteen(!) Short-eared Owls exploded out of the tree and swirled madly around for a couple of minutes before settling down, each one to its own fencepost. It turns out there were over 50 Short-ears on the island, feasting on the plentiful voles, but to see nineteen at once was a special birding moment.
20 March, Ecolodge la Minga, Valle de Cauca, Colombia
The first stop on our Colombian expedition was this homey lodge in the foothills of the Western Andes. We spent the morning walking the entrance road and saw plenty of great birds, but then we arrived at the lodge. All thoughts of lunch were quickly pushed to the side as we drank in the hordes of avian jewels feasting on the flowering plants and fruit that the owners had provided. Within minutes I had seen my target bird for the whole trip – Multicolored Tanager, so everything after that was gravy. And very tasty gravy at that!
21 March, Bosque de San Antonio/Km 18, Valle de Cauca, Colombia
Sometimes great birding moments come in retrospect. We had heard Nariño Tapaculos calling at Ecolodge La Minga, but Tapaculos are small, dark, mouse-like skulking birds of the undergrowth so one rarely gets the chance to actually see them. But at this legendary birding site I managed to catch a quick glimpse of a calling bird. Not a big deal in itself, but the great birding moment came at my desk at home, when I worked out that this was life bird #1500 for me.
22 March, RN Laguna de Sonso, Valle de Cauca, Colombia
A great day at this very birdy marsh was capped off by a brief but clear look at a Sungrebe as it snuck across a short channel and disappeared into the reedbed. Sungrebes are uncommon and extraordinarily shy. Ken Edwards is a much more experienced tropical birder than I, and Daniel Uribe Restrepo is an ornithologist and full-time guide who has spent his entire life in Colombia, and yet this was a life bird for all three of us. Happiness abounded.
28 March, PNN Los Nevados, Caldas, Colombia
When I was studying field guides for my first trip to Colombia the Black-chested Buzzard Eagle caught my eye, and I added it to my mental most-desired list. In 2017 we spent some time in the right habitat, but no Buzzard Eagles were forthcoming. Cut to this year and we are 14,000 feet up in the Central Andes, waiting for a Buffy Helmetcrest to show up. In the far distance we spot two large raptors soaring. Scope views allow us to ID them as Black-chested Buzzard Eagles, but after a while it becomes clear that they have no intention of moving any closer.
So it’s a solid “tick” but a better view is needed to quench my Buzzard Eagle longings. Maybe next year. Or maybe later that day! Just before quitting time we were scanning the paramo looking for small seedeaters and looked up in time to see two majestic buzzard eagles silently cruising by about 20 feet above our heads. Gob-smacked we were. A great finish to that day’s excursion.
1 April, road from Riosucio to Jardin, Antioquia, Colombia
This was not a fun day as Montezuma was busy having his revenge on me. I tried to keep my whimpering to a minimum as we clambered up a steep mountain trail in the company of Doña Lucía, a local farmer. Years of patient work had allowed her to convince some Antpittas that she was a reliable and non-threatening source of their favourite delicacy: earthworms. So we got to the right spot, she called, and after a bit a couple of Chestnut-naped Antpittas emerged. Antpittas are proper unicorn birds, and any sighting is great, but to see them hopping onto peoples’ hands to nab worms was epic. Sadly I could not participate in the actual feeding as I needed to be able to dash into the bushes at a moment’s notice, but I got some really great still and video images, and even better memories.
1 April, Jardin
Later that day we made our way into the city of Jardin to visit a Cock of the Rock lek. This did not exactly test our birding skills – we went to the house, paid our entrance fee, and wandered down to the lekking trees. But the sight of those bizarrely gorgeous birds hopping, bowing, squawking and shrieking, all in hopes of impressing the ladies, was truly fine.
9 May, Point Pelee National Park, Ontario
The great Reverse Migration. A truly epic experience as thousands of birds, fleeing an incoming storm, streamed by on their way back to the US. Photos and the full story are here. I can envision a day twenty years from now where a group of birders encounter a gruff, grizzled bloke with weather-faded gear and a thousand-yard stare. They will say in hushed voices – “he was at the reverse migration of 2019”. 😊
4 July, Cape St Mary’s, Newfoundland
For my first trip to Newfoundland I was strongly advised to visit the Northern Gannet colony at Cape St Mary’s. It was a bit of a hike, but I am quite partial to Gannets so it seemed worth checking out. So after doing a bit of whale and Puffin watching in Witless Bay we headed south to the end of the road. Cape St Mary’s lived up to its billing as the best site anywhere for viewing Gannets at close range. Over 20,000 pairs nest on the sea stack and surrounding cliffs, and they are supremely not bothered by people staring at them from 30m away. Also crammed onto every available ledge were thousands of Guillemots and many hundreds of Razorbills and Black-legged Kittiwakes.
And as it turns out, also one lone Thick-billed Murre, at the far southernmost end of its breeding range. I saw a slightly odd-looking Guillemot and suspected that it might be a ringer Knowing that Thick-billed Murre was possible, I decided to wait until the sleeping bird raised its head from under its wing so I could see the diagnostic mark on the bill. For a full 45 minutes the pesky creature didn’t budge, but finally it took a look around and revealed its thick-billedness. So a day that started with Humpback Whales and Puffins and ended with epic views of Gannets and their pelagic friends was capped off by a new life bird. Not to mention a tasty lunch at St Bride’s.
31 December, Presqu’ile Provincial Park, Ontario
For reasons that are not entirely clear I have an inordinate fondness for Purple Sandpipers. Perhaps it’s because they are scarce and a bit elusive; perhaps because my first sighting was special. We were on a very pleasant driving tour through Scotland and I stepped out of the B&B on Islay to see two of the blighters playing in the kelp on the other side of the road. In any case I like them and was keen to add them to my Ontario (and Canada) list.
Typically that means wading out to Gull Island in late November in the hopes that this is the one day when a small southbound flock will stop for a snack. This year there were tantalizing reports of a trio hanging out at Owen Point. Family and social responsibilities kept me away, but finally on the last day of the year I decided to give it a shot. I arrived to a bleak and windswept scene populated by five long-tailed ducks and a Herring Gull. I scanned the area thoroughly with no luck. Then a snow squall kicked in. With melting snow starting to infiltrate my pricey camera equipment, and no reasonable prospect of success I considered packing it in.
Then fate intervened in the guise of one Kyle Horner, who had seen the birds earlier in the morning and posted a report on the OntBirds bird alert site. Knowing that they were likely still around, I redoubled my efforts and soon spotted small bird-like heads popping up and down behind an algae berm. Shortly thereafter the birds emerged and good views were had. After snapping off a number of shots I took a deep breath, remembered my own advice, and set a shutter speed fast enough to capture them as they frenetically dashed about. The results are below in all their rain-spattered glory. And just to cap off this tale, the Purple Sandpipers were the 300th bird species I have seen in Ontario.
So for all the great birds I was privileged to see last year, it is these birding moments that will remain clearest in my memory. Thanks to the birds, and thanks to the companions who shared the moments with me.