Winter is coming. I know this because I saw my first Dark-eyed Juncos of the season here in southern Michigan the other day. I’m always excited for the return of our winter residents, but seeing them arrive one-by-one reminds me of warmer (sometimes!) summer times in the north where these birds nest and raise their young.
Several national parks in the United States offer good summer viewing of boreal birds. Isle Royale National Park and Voyageurs National Park are the first two that come to mind. If you hunt a little harder, you can find some of these northerners nesting in the Lake Superior lakeshore parks as well. Apostle Islands and Pictured Rocks have their share of boreal nesters if you find the right habitat.
But today, I’m thinking back to some excursions north of the border. North and a good bit east, actually. One of the gems of Parks Canada, and of the world’s collection of national parks, is Gros Morne National Park on the island of Newfoundland. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to some of the most stunning scenery on the east coast of North America, with all due respect to Acadia National Park.
Freshwater Fjords And Gulls The Size Of Eagles
Gros Morne has a freshwater fjord lined with 2,000-foot-high, waterfall-draped cliffs that remind one of Yosemite Valley. It has bays full of whales, and plateaus full of caribou. It has mountains of peridotite, a rock lifted straight from the mantle of the earth. It also has birds.
With a topography and geography somewhat akin to Olympic National Park on the west coast, Gros Morne boasts ocean, forest, and mountain habitats all within easy reach of each other. Northern Gannets on Bonne Bay, breeding White-throated Sparrows in the forest, and a Rock Ptarmigan on the slopes of Gros Morne (the mountain the park is named for) can all be had in a long day of birding.
One of the best ways to check out water birds is always to get on the water. My wife and I have taken advantage of the kayak rental and guide service provided by Gros Morne Adventures. A paddle around Bonne Bay yields plenty of gulls, shorebirds, raptors, and the occasional ocean-dwelling bird that wanders into the bay. Bald Eagles nest all around the area and can often be found adorning a spruce tree at heads of land jutting into the bay.
The lucky kayaker may even get to see them fishing. An added benefit of being in a kayak is the chance to get up close to a Minke Whale. I love birds, but it’s hard to argue that a 25-foot whale surfacing near your kayak is a close encounter of the mammal kind not to be missed.
Waterbird viewing from land can be just as rewarding in Gros Morne. An afternoon spent on the rocks of Lobster Cove Head will leave you in awe of the Great Black-backed Gull. These gulls are big enough that at first glance they can be mistaken for eagles, particularly given their very dark mantle and white heads.
Picture the Ring-billed Gull, ubiquitous across the United States, with its 18-inch height, 48-inch wingspan, and weight of around one pound. Now, check out a Great Black-backed Gull sporting a 30-inch height, 65-inch wingspan, and weighing in at over three pounds.
That is a big gull!
At a fast food restaurant in Corner Brook, Newfoundland, we chuckled at a sign indicating the gulls should not be fed. It had a silhouette caricature of a small child being chased by a huge, threatening gull. We quit laughing moments later when several two-and-a-half-foot tall Great Black-backs sauntered up to us and demanded French fries. The birds really are big enough to chase down and mug a child holding a box of chicken nuggets.
Thick Boreal Forests And Their Birds
Wander inland from the rocks of Bonne Bay and you’ll likely find yourself in the boreal forest dominated by Balsam Fir. This is the summer home of more than a dozen species of warbler that are most often thought of as twice-a-year migrants along the eastern flyways. The Hermit Thrush and White-throated Sparrow, two migrants known for distinctive and beautiful songs are also abundant during nesting time in the forests.
Of course, Gros Morne boasts some year-round forest residents as well. Boreal Chickadees, the northern cousin of the Black-capped Chickadee (which is, in turn, a northern cousin of the Carolina Chickadee) can be found in any given fir tree throughout the park. Venturing higher from the forests, a birder can emerge onto the barren plateaus and mountaintops of Gros Morne.
One popular destination is Gros Morne itself, a monolithic mountain whose summit is reachable via a strenuous trail up a rock-strewn gully. For the hardy souls who make the trek, the reward can be a Rock Ptarmigan, birds typically of the extreme north, a few of which make their home on the inhospitable tundra atop the mountain. For the record, I did not see a Rock Ptarmigan, having chickened out at the base of the rock scree. That just means I’ll have to return sometime soon.
They say getting there is half the fun. Getting to Newfoundland can indeed be fun, but can also be quite an undertaking. Driving is my method of choice, taking advantage of the ferry service from North Sydney, Nova Scotia, to destinations on either the southwest or southeast corners of Newfoundland.
The southwest trip is the shorter of the two and delivers you closer to Gros Morne National Park. The ferry ride itself is a pelagic birdwatching adventure with petrels, shearwaters, and gannets easily seen from the deck.
When short on time, flying to the island might make more sense, although it can be expensive. It’s also worth noting that your flight will drop you in St. John’s on the east coast of Newfoundland, a very long drive in an expensive rental car from Gros Morne, should that be your destination.
Either way, a trip to Newfoundland is worth every penny and hours spent on plane or boat for the birder and national park enthusiast. We’ll take a look at the island’s other two park destinations next time.