Saturday, January 21, 2012

Magic at the Cape

Cape St. Mary's Ecological Reserve lies at the southwest corner of the Avalon Peninsula, near the mouth of Placentia Bay. It's roughly a two-hour drive from St. John's, across wide-open rocky barrens, through forested regions, and alongside some beautiful coastal scenery. The last few kilometres of the trip are on an access road that travels across eastern hyper-oceanic barrens, an eco-region that has almost no tree cover apart from small stands of stunted balsam fir locally referred to as "tuckamore" -- this is one of the worlds most southerly examples of sub-arctic tundra. There's a visitor centre with restrooms and a well-stocked gift shop, and a staff of knowledgeable on-site interpreters from the Parks and Natural Areas division of Newfoundland's Department of Environment and Conservation. A twenty-minute walk from this visitor centre leads to the site's principal attraction, Bird Rock. On this 100-metre tall sandstone sea stack, thousands of northern gannets or Morus bassanus occupy precarious-looking nesting sites from early spring through autumn. Early in the season, through the month of June, cool temperatures and fog often dominate the weather at the Cape; it might not be the conventional view, but a foggy day is my favourite way to experience this remarkable spot.
Visiting the Cape in the fog is an act of faith: there are days when it's so thick that the visitor centre is barely visible from its parking lot, yet even on those days it's possible to get excellent views on gannets at their nesting site. The walk along the well-marked trail becomes an epic journey straight out of Tolkien, up hill and down dale, the air filled with the raucous cries of murres and razorbills. The seabirds' voices fade out as the trail passes behind a large rounded hill, then suddenly the harsh "grrah, grrah, grrah" of the gannets. They're still not visible, mind you, but their calls are reassuring -- there's definitely something out there! A few more metres down the trail, through a brief rocky section, and the shape of Bird Rock begins to resolve itself through the mist. The bright white bodies, black wingtips, and golden heads of the birds stand out against the surrounding grey. The viewing area is so close to the nesting rock, a mere 15 metres away, that the views are excellent even in the thickest of fog. Every inch of the stack's rugged dome seems to be occupied, with nesting pairs of gannets and their young.
Sometimes Nature is kind and rewards this foggy trek with a few minutes of sunshine; in fact, depending upon the wind direction there may not be a trace of fog. Whatever the conditions, though, this observation area near Bird Rock is a place to remain and enjoy the proximity of these beautiful, graceful creatures. They wheel overhead on the breeze, dropping suddenly onto their nests before exchanging greetings with their mates. The partners touch beaks in a behavior called fencing, the "honey, I'm home" of the gannet world. Shortly after one partner's return, the other leaves on a foraging mission. Watching the newly-returned partner closely will sometimes provide an opportunity to see one of the rock's more interesting sights, the feeding of the pair's chick. The hardest part of a visit to Cape St. Mary's, for me, is tearing myself away from the spectacle of Bird Rock to start back up the trail. I never tire of this place and its magic.

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