Birding In The National Parks: A Second Look At Newfoundland's National Parks And Birding

Gray jays are among the locals at Terra Nova National Park in Newfoundland. Photo by Kirby Adams.

Editor's note: Earlier this fall Kirby Adams reported on the birding to be had at Gros Morne National Park in Newfoundland, Canada, and he returns to that region today to explore the other national parks in the area for birding purposes. It’s time to head north once again to wrap up our discussion of birding the national parks on the island of Newfoundland.

Gros Morne is certainly the most famous of Newfoundland’s parks and a gem of the entire Parks Canada system, but the other corners of the island have parks with their own unique birding opportunities.

Heading north from Gros Morne, a traveler encounters the harshly beautiful Great Northern Peninsula. This is an area of brutal cold, poor soil, and hardy people. Conifers grow here, but often fail to rise more than a few feet from the earth after well over a century of growth. Some soil collects in ditches lining the one main highway, and here you’ll find communal gardens where residents attempt to tease vegetables out of limestone, erecting ridiculously high fences around the little garden patches to deny an easy meal to a moose or caribou. In the spring, a polar bear will sometimes wander into a town and cause some destruction.

Life is different here. At the very tip of the peninsula lies a cluster of small towns, parks, and the “city” of St. Anthony, which serves as a base for exploration of the area. Burnt Cape Ecological Reserve is a highlight of the region with botanists who enjoy rare tundra plants, particularly the endemic and endangered and Burnt Cape Cinquefoil.

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Tundra landscape at L'Anse aux Meadows. Kirby Adams photo.

Just down the road is the Parks Canada property in the area, which happens to be there for historical purposes.

Don't Step On The Bald Eagles

L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site of Canada preserves the site of the oldest, and presumably first, European settlement on the continent of North America. A reconstructed Viking village meticulously based on archaeological discoveries on the site allows visitors to experience what life was like around the year 1000 when the Vikings first settled the area.

There also happen to be birds there. During the breeding season in June and July, one can find the fields outside the Viking village swarming with boreal finches such as the Common Redpoll. The lucky birder may get to see a rarity like a tundra-dwelling Gyrfalcon or the always difficult-to-find Ivory Gull.

Trails originating near the historical area wind through bushy meadows and down to the shore where shorebirds and seabirds abound. Common Eiders, the quintessential ocean duck, are a common sight in the bay. I had the pleasure of exploring a large expanse of limestone several hundred yards from shore that was strewn with the remains of bright purple sea urchins. At first glance, that would seem odd, until you spy a Herring Gull flying over and dropping an urchin onto the rock with a splat. The tasty innards are a treat for the gulls once extracted from the hard and spiny shell of the urchin.

Still musing about the urchins, I walked to the edge of the rock to peer down a short slope toward the sea, when an adult Bald Eagle flushed up from right beneath my feet. Once my heart rate returned to normal, I couldn’t help but note that while I’ve seen eagles all over North America, they always tend to perch in trees. It hadn’t occurred to me that in this barren landscape there were no trees. There is nothing taller than me on which to perch.

Flushing an eagle from the rocks at your feet doesn’t seem so unlikely when you pause to take in the surroundings.

Terra Nova National Park, Chickadees, Redpolls And More

Having visited the extreme western (Gros Morne) and northwestern (L’Anse aux Meadows) parks of Newfoundland, a change of pace might be in order.

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Pine grosbeaks are among the regulars in the highlands of Terra Nova National Park. Kirby Adams photo.

The easternmost park in North America with the “national park” designation is Terra Nova National Park on the island of Newfoundland’s east coast. Like the other sites we’ve explored here, Terra Nova is a boreal habitat, but less barren than the brutal landscape on the Great Northern Peninsula.

Spruce and fir forests dominate the mountains of Terra Nova. Here you find flocks of Boreal Chickadees, Common Redpolls, Pine Grosbeaks and the other common denizens of the far north. A particular treat for birders and non-birding travelers alike is the personable Gray Jay. These relatives of the more familiar Blue Jays and American Crows look like enormous chickadees at first glance, but they are truly jays and have even less innate fear of humans than their more southerly cousins.

Gray Jays have received the moniker “Camp Robbers” for their habits of helping themselves to food at campsites. Their raiding isn’t limited to concealed stashes of food, as they have no problem landing on an occupied picnic table and sampling food from a plate in front of you. Many travelers figure out that putting a small treat atop their cap will lead to the photo opportunity of a Gray Jay calmly perched on the subject’s head.

Another colorful common name for these jays is Whiskey Jack. This has nothing to do with their fondness for alcoholic beverages, but is rather an Anglicization of the aboriginal name for the birds, Wisakedjak, who was a mischievous trickster from Algonquian mythology.

My most memorable birding experience at Terra Nova once again involves Bald Eagles. Having just nabbed the first Boreal Chickadees of my life on Ochre Hill, I descended back down to the main road through the park, which just happens to be the Trans-Canada Highway. At a scenic pull-over just down the road, I paused to look out to the bay and the fir-covered islands there. Two raptors were soaring above the islands, but still below my vantage point.

Getting binoculars on them revealed them to be adult bald eagles with white heads gleaming in the sun. While I watched, they soared into the air, locked talons, and tumbled downward. Just before striking the treetops, they disengaged and flew off in different directions, but soon reunited for another display.

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View from Ochre Hill of the highlands of Terra Nova. Kirby Adams photo.

It’s difficult to say for sure what I was watching. It was quite likely a mating ritual, as Bald Eagles are known for these acrobatic aerial courtship displays in the spring. It could also have been a territorial dispute for all I know. All I’m keenly aware of is that the eagles let me watch their antics for half an hour. And while this majestic raptor is the national bird of the United States, I got the show of a lifetime from two of them in one of Canada’s more remote and less famous national parks.

Birds recognize no borders, and sometimes I envy them for that.