Somebody once asked me what my next book might be about, to which I replied that I’d like to write a book about fun places to go birding. Of course, that meant I’d actually have to travel to some fun birding places first…but where? Maybe the Amazon rainforest? Nope, too many snakes. Antarctica? Sure, I’ll go there…as soon as they build a bridge or find a cure for seasickness. Then two customers told me about their trip to Newfoundland. Newfoundland, eh? So, I looked up Newfoundland and yes, it has no native snakes. (St. Patrick must have been there, too.) And if I flew and rented a car, I could also avoid boats. But what kind of birds are there? It turns out Newfoundland is home to one of the world’s largest colonies of Atlantic Puffins. Puffins!! Whoa! I am so going to Newfoundland.
I’d have to travel alone this time. My wife is a schoolteacher and because of all the snow days this past winter, she isn’t getting out until August 8th. Too bad for her; I wanna go now. Besides, this will be a birding trip. There would be no time for candlelit dinners or relaxing in the local cafés. This would be about getting up early, slogging down muddy trails and eating boxes of Fig Newtons for lunch. Oh, who am I kidding? That’s what all our vacations are like.
It was late in the afternoon when I arrived in Newfoundland’s funky capital of St. John’s. At least I think it was in the afternoon. I had a little trouble figuring out the local time. For some reason Newfoundland’s time zone is an hour and a half different than Cape Cod’s. Not one hour or two hours, but an hour and a half (must be some kind of metric time). So, every time I looked at my watch I had to get out a pencil and paper and do the math. But in spite of their peculiar time zone, Newfies are super nice people, who speak English surprisingly well for foreigners. St. John’s has everything you might expect in a small city, including movie theaters, museums and even traffic. But what it doesn’t have much of is sunshine. Even people in Seattle and London feel bad for these folks. It was raining when I arrived and it was raining when I woke up the next morning. While I waited for the weather to improve I decided to explore a bit of the city. The first place I found was, of all things, a birding store. I walked right in to ask about local birding sites and, of course, to do a little retail spying. The lady working behind the counter was very helpful, but amazingly she didn’t know who I was. Can you imagine? She told me about a place three hours south of town called Cape St. Mary’s Ecological Reserve, where thousands of seabirds could be seen nesting just a few feet from shore. That was just the info I was looking for. I went back to my hotel room and started planning my trip to Cape St. Mary’s, and to do an anti-rain dance. (The people in the room next door weren’t too happy about it, but I had to try something.)
I got up early the next morning and packed for my long drive. The local weather dude had predicted a nice day, but at 7:00 AM it was cold and snowing. Stupid weather dude. (I guess I should have done an anti-snow dance.) I dressed warm, jumped into my little rental car and headed out. This is when I discovered something Newfoundland has more of than any other place in the world: potholes. Major roads, side roads and country roads are all filled with potholes. I used to think Boston had the worst roads, but Boston’s roads are like silk pajamas compared to the roads in Newfoundland. (Don’t ask me how I know so much about silk pajamas. I just do.) The bad roads probably explain why every town in the province has its own Canadian Tire store. They are everywhere, like Starbucks, only much cheaper.
Despite the roads, I really enjoyed the drive to Cape St. Mary’s. Along the way I saw caribou, loons, Gray Jays and a Snowy Owl that was being harassed by a Northern Harrier. By the time I arrived at the bird colony the snow had stopped and the skies had completely cleared. (My apologies to the weather dude.) I’ve heard the reserve is busy in the summer (or whenever it warms up), but on this wonderful day I was the only one there. I sat along the edge of a cliff in the middle of forty thousand seabirds. There were huge numbers of Northern Gannets, Black-legged Kittiwakes, Common Murres, Razorbills…and me. Just me. Wow! It was my own personal moment of Zen. However, it was serious business for the birds. In the tightly packed, chaotic colony birds were selecting partners, fending off rivals, mating, building nests, and incubating eggs…all while clinging to the side of a cliff. Then things took a dark turn. I looked up just in time to see a pair of Bald Eagles dive at the colony, but they didn’t seem to do any damage. Later a Common Raven landed right in the middle of all the murres. The panicked penguin-like birds scattered like bowing pins to get away and left their eggs unguarded. The raven quickly grabbed an egg and off it went. Part of me wanted to be upset with the raven, but I know it has its own young to feed. Besides, I had eaten an omelet for breakfast, so what could I say?
As I made the long drive back to my hotel in St. John’s, I thought about the marvelous day I had just experienced. Then it hit me. Where were all the puffins I was promised? Gannets are great, but I came here to see puffins. What am I going to do? Is there such a thing as a rain dance to find puffins? If there is, I’m going to do it. I’ll let you know if it works…next week.