Cape St. Mary’s, Newfoundland
Article and Images by Robert NesslernWe can barely hear each other over the cacophony of screeching seabirds as we carry our field equipment along the precipice of a towering sandstone cliff, hundreds of feet above the pounding surge of the frigid North Atlantic. Several days of severe weather has destroyed countless nests, and today’s sun-filled sky, which would normally be placid in mid-July is instead filled with thousands of airborne seabirds, busily rebuilding what they have lost. The dirt path from the Interpretation Center has led us for more than a kilometer across a barren plateau to the vertical edge of Cape St. Mary’s and to this promontory where we are now standing, braced uncomfortably against the wind with our binoculars raised. It is quite a breathtaking scene. Before us, not ten meters away but well out of reach of any land-based mammal, is the unattainable top of Bird Rock, a stone monolith as safe from predation as the crown of the Washington Monument. But the flat surface of this spire is completely covered with a solid mass of nesting northern gannets, a colony so dense that its granite underpinnings are barely visible. From here only a long lens can bring us closer.
We are investigating the Cape St. Mary’s Ecological Reserve, one of the largest gannet rookeries in Newfoundland and the third largest in North America. At this time of year it is home not only to northern gannets, but also to many other pelagic seabirds including razor-bills, black-legged kittiwakes, black guillemots, thick-billed murres, and common murres, all of which, except for the annual breeding season live the bulk of their lives in the relative safety of the open ocean.
Our walk out to Bird Rock from the parking lot at the Interpretation Center is fairly level but has been made somewhat demanding by the large assortment of camera gear that I have decided to bring. Over my right shoulder I carry my Bogen 3021 tripod with an Arca Swiss B1 ball head mounted on it. That weighs almost eight pounds by itself, and attached to the B1 is my EOS-3 body with a 28-135 mm IS lens and a circular polarizer. I also wear my Lowepro Nature Trekker backpack, which contains among other things an assortment of lenses including my 70–200 mm, my 20-35 mm wide angle and my 100 mm macro, a backup camera body and a lot of film—Fuji Velvia 50. In my free hand I am cautiously lugging my real treasure, a 500 mm Canon IS lens, secure in its hard case, which I rarely carry into the field this way. But in addition to my load of camera gear I must pay attention to where I am stepping since sheep are grazed here, the result of an agreement between the Provincial Parks Administration and the local farmers to make way for the Ecological Reserve in 1983. I am secretly relieved whenever my wife Margaret recommends stopping to investigate yet another tiny easy-to-miss wildflower and I can give my arms a rest before continuing on.
Driving south on Route 100 from the ferry landing at Argentina, except for an occasional westward view out to Placentia Bay, the rise to Cape St. Mary’s is barely perceptible; one is not at all prepared for the unsettling acrophobia that sweeps over you on approaching the unfenced cliff. A stiff sea breeze and the swirling aerial dance of thousands of seabirds accentuate our sense of vertigo. At the tiny headland where Bird Rock stands guard, we meet a young staff naturalist who maintains a daily fledgling count of all the species nesting here. As he finishes counting, he backs away from the cliff and sets up a birding scope aimed into the heart of the gannet colony atop Bird Rock. A few moments later he invites us to have a look. What we see through the scope is the first visible gannet chick of the season, poking its downy head out from between the feet and breast feathers of its mother. In a blink it disappears safely back under and out of sight. Produced as an egg six to eight weeks earlier, the recently hatched altricial chick will be fiercely guarded by its parents who mutually share incubation, protection and hunting duties in turns of up to three days. The naturalist makes certain that we fully appreciate the excitement of this first sighting because, so protective are the birds’ parents, that as a general rule the chicks remain unseen by the outside world until they simply grow too large to remain concealed. We began asking questions and our new acquaintance happily painted an absorbing picture of life in this small corner of the world.
Northern gannets belong to the family Sulidae and are found in temperate northern climates. They are cousin to the Boobie, the other main branch of the family, which are found at more tropical latitudes. With an average wingspan of nearly two meters, gannets are able to glide for hours at a time over the open ocean. When a surface school of herring for example, or mackerel, or anchovies is sighted, they will gather in a large group over the school and commence to feed by plunge-diving straight down into the water from heights of up to ninety meters. The momentum gathered by the high steep dive carries their buoyant bodies well below the surface and into the school of fish, often to depths of thirty to forty feet. A gannet’s skull is especially strong, and has developed within it a system of air sacs, which absorb the shock of their plunging dive.
During their breeding season gannets perform elaborate mating displays around the nest. Among the repertoire, a mating pair will sometimes face each other with breasts touching, stretch their necks skyward and gently ‘fence’ with their bills. Gannets mate for the first time between two and six years of age and often remain paired for life. In late April to early May, the female will lay just a single, large pale-green to bluish-white egg in a nest of dried seaweed. Gannets incubate the egg for six to eight weeks and the chick hatches in late June to early July when the capelins are most abundant. The chicks won’t fledge for at least twelve more weeks, but by November they have fully developed and are well on their way south with their parents, on whom they will depend for up to nine more months.
Our lecture is unexpectedly interrupted by an event that few birders may ever witness. The narrow ravine between the headland and Bird Rock is populated with nesting kittiwakes, and if we stand as close as we dare to the edge of the ravine and peer over we can verify that every possible nesting location on the vertical cliff face is tightly packed with kittiwake chicks and adults. All at once a loud chorus of screeches coming from the ravine builds up to a frenzied pitch that is much louder than before, and it continues to build until it sounds as if all the birds are going to burst, but then the volume increases yet again, one more ear-splitting decibel. For a brief moment all Margaret and I can do is look at each to verify that something is going on that we do not understand. The sun blinks overhead as the near body of a massive raven glides over us, and then we catch sight of the clever predator, wings outstretched, hanging improbably on the wind without moving a muscle. The raven descends slowly over the edge of the cliff toward the kittiwake chicks that helplessly await their doom. For a deafening instant the volume of screeching kittiwakes overwhelms the wind itself, and as the black body of the raven rises up into the sun once more, we see the limp silhouette of a kittiwake nestling dangling from its beak. The raven departs and the sound of the screeching slowly subsides.
It turns out that this year, due in part to over fishing, there is a scarcity of capelins, the principal feed fish of the kittiwake. This causes the adults to fly further out to sea in search of food for their young, which results in a longer absence from the nest. Each single kittiwake nestling - which may represent the entire reproductive output for this season - is at risk that much longer. The ravens know this and swoop into the ravine for easy pickings. The carnage is absolute. Today there are perhaps five ravens in all, arriving in serial order one after another. The tuneless din of the kittiwake’s cry explodes again and again as each raven drifts on the wind into the ravine below. For a lifelong birder it is difficult not to be affected by the extreme sadness of the moment. No matter how often we witness this ordeal of survival, it always takes us a while to see beyond our human emotion and consider that this is how the food chain works in the avian world.
I swallow hard but manage to turn a blind eye, reasoning that for me this is certainly a rare photographic opportunity. I race over to my tripod, remove my rig from the ball head, and begin to examine my camera settings with a sense of urgency. I want continuous shooting, aperture set wide open, image stabilization turned off (because of the delay), auto focus turned on. Even though the 500 mm lens with a 1.4 tele-converter is much too heavy for sustained shooting handheld, I note that there is about a half roll of Velvia 50 left in the camera and raise the viewfinder to my eye. As the last raven gains altitude above us I manage to locate him in the viewfinder, acquire focus and fire off the remainder of that roll, completely uncertain of my success. When the excitement dies down Margaret and I dolefully return to our senses, a little more educated and a little more somber. The ravens did not return again for the rest of that afternoon.
As another day in the field comes to a close we gather up our equipment and head back to the van. The walk back to the parking lot is uneventful by comparison with what we have seen this today, but in the lengthening evening light, the high table of the Cape is strikingly beautiful. Here and there we see a downy feather caught by the scrubby vegetation along the path, and think of the kittiwake nestling we saw stolen from its ledge. Within sight of the Interpretation Center we turn to take a last look toward Bird Rock, and observe that the scene looks rather like a shaken snow-globe paperweight with flakes of snow swirling through the air above the sea stack. Cape St. Mary’s is a place that we shall revisit again and again, and each time we make this journey, it promises an experience of unspoiled nature that we shall never forget.
Since Cape St. Mary’s was deemed an Ecological Reserve in 1983, the main focus has become one of education and enjoyment for all visitors. To help with its growing popularity, the Interpretation Center was established in 1995 and is staffed by a full compliment of naturalists to better serve the needs of visitors. The staff here focuses on three main goals, which are 1) to preserve and protect the wildlife, 2) to educate people on the local environment, and 3) to promote scientific research. The Reserve is located at the end of a spur road off Route 100 at the southwest tip of the Avalon Peninsula, and is opened from May to October. Visitors can take advantage of guided walks and group tours. It is also one of the most photogenic locations we have yet visited in the province of Newfoundland.