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Puffin Quest in Newfoundland, Part 2

Puffin quest, part two:

In last week’s column I talked about taking a birding trip to Newfoundland. I wrote about spending an entire day at Cape St. Mary’s Ecological Reserve, which is an amazing seabird colony. I said that I saw thousands of gannets, murres and kittiwakes, but not a single puffin, and seeing puffins was the reason for my trip. I ended the column by suggesting that I might have to do a special puffin rain dance, but believe me, that didn’t happen. I don’t dance for anyone, even puffins. I needed to think of a better plan.

I stopped at a local information center to ask about birds, but ended up causing confusion. Most tourists who visit Newfoundland this time of year want to see icebergs. Each spring hundreds of massive icebergs flow down from Greenland into the harbors and bays of Northern Newfoundland. So, when I asked where I could go to see “birds,” I was told that the harbor was filled with “’bergs.” I said, “No, not ‘bergs, birds.” The reply was, “Right, there sure are lots of ‘bergs.” Oh, man! The more the conversation continued the more it sounded like a bad vaudeville routine. I then asked specifically about puffins and got much better results.

I was told that just thirty minutes south of St. John’s is the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, which is home to 240,000 pairs of nesting puffins. (BTW: The reserve contains four separate islands: Great Island, Gull Island, Green Island and Pee Pee Island. The islands’ names aren’t important, but the four-year-old in me couldn’t pass on a chance to include Pee Pee Island in my story.) I grabbed a flyer on the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve and sadly discovered that it could only be accessed by boat. Boats! Why is it always boats? As I was standing there, tearing up the flyer like it was a losing Powerball ticket, I was approached by a woman who said, “If you want to see puffins without taking a boat, you should just go to Elliston. In Elliston there is a puffin colony that’s only a few feet from shore.” What? Where? I pulled out a map and begged her to show me where this magical Elliston place was. I then thanked her, hopped into my rental car and started the four-hour drive to Elliston although I knew the trip would take me a lot longer. It’s not that I’m a slow driver, but I constantly have to stop and check out every tree with a bird on it. (I also have to make a few extra stops to visit my own version of Pee Pee Island.)

About half way to Elliston I stopped in the town of Port Blandford for the night. In case you didn’t know it, Port Blandford is likely where the word “bland” originated. This town had nothing. I couldn’t even get a slice of pizza. And the only limited accommodations were the dreaded B&Bs. No thanks. However, I did find, of all things, a private golf resort (speaking of bland). The golf people rented me a wonderful room and were actually very nice to me, although, I’m not really sure what any of them were saying. They kept talking about such subjects as “bogeys,” “bunkers,” and “shanks.” Huh? I felt like I was back in Greece.

When I woke up in the morning and looked out at the weather, I discovered something I hadn’t planned on. I was prepared for snow, rain and insects (all of which had already come true), but I had forgotten about the F-word…fog. Who would have guessed Newfoundland would have fog? It was so thick that morning that I couldn’t even see well enough to shave. I had to just guess. Bad idea. (The next day the golf place called me. They had found my missing ear. At least I think that’s what they said. I couldn’t really hear too well.)

By the time I arrived in Elliston the fog had lifted and I was immediately met by a series of charming little signs that guided travelers to the puffins. The cute signs made finding the puffin nesting area fun and easy. Well, easy for most people. I got lost about ten times. (One older woman is still wondering why I was wandering around in her backyard.) Finally, I stopped at the source of all knowledge…the local post office. The post office lady put me on the right track and five minutes later I arrived at Puffin Land. The place was better than I could have imagined. No gates, no guards, no admission and no boats. I just parked, walked across a soft, mossy field to the edge of a cliff, and sat down. About fifty feet away from the cliff’s edge was a massive rock outcropping, which was totally covered in green grass…and puffins. The colorful birds were everywhere, looking and acting exactly like they do on those nature shows we’ve all seen. I just sat and watched, and took it all in. “Wait until the folks back home hear about this place,” I kept thinking to myself. The reserve was everything I could have hoped for. And just beyond the puffins, a couple of ginormous icebergs floated by. It was birds and ‘bergs. Everyone was happy.

I watched the puffin show for about an hour and wanted to stay longer, but it was getting cold and the wind off the icebergs didn’t help. The puffins didn’t seem to mind the falling temperatures, but my cheeks were as red as the birds’ beaks. It was time for me head back to St. John’s and catch my flight to Boston. I was a little sad to leave Newfoundland. In the past week I had visited two really amazing seabird nesting colonies, and had seen a lot of other cool birds in between. I think anyone who enjoys birds, beautiful scenery and nice people should definitely put Newfoundland on their bucket list. Just one word of caution: If the fog rolls in, use an electric razor.