Have you ever woken up with the desire to see 11,000 gannets? That appears to be the number at Cape St. Mary’s Ecological Reserve in Newfoundland. This ecological reserve, located at the tip of a peninsula that juts out into the frigid Atlantic, also happens to be home to one of North America’s largest and most accessible seabird colonies.
After about an hour of driving along the Cape Shore, we pulled into the parking lot at the interpretation center, and the license plates around us revealed how quickly word about this place is spreading—Florida, North Dakota, Texas, and Ontario (along with Newfoundland and Labrador, of course) were all represented in the half-empty parking lot.
Passing through, or going around, the interpretation center will lead you to a path through the grassy, cliff side terrain. The walk is gentle, though side stepping sheep droppings can require some finesse.
These guys graze on the grassy hillsides, creating their own paths along the cliff edges. I suppose that fear of heights is a non-issue in the world of sheep.
The walk you take gently meanders for about 1.5 km. With the ocean always to your right, you’ll get some decent views of the waves crashing against the jagged cliffs ahead.
Eventually, you’ll see the birds. At first, a few kittiwakes, and then northern gannets as you approach their main hub—Bird Rock.
Here are a few of the birds you can expect to see:
- Northern Gannets
- Common Murres
- Black-legged Kittiwakes
- Black Guillemots
- Thick-billed Murres
According to information from the interpretation center at Cape St. Mary’s, there are around 70,000 seabirds in the area. They nest on the rocky cliffs, each species occupying its own niche.
How to get there
If you want to get here, you’ll need a car.
From St. John’s, you take the Trans Canada Highway West (the signs may say “TCH West”) for around 45-50 minutes, until you reach Route 90 on your left, heading towards Argentia and Placentia. Turn here and continue to the town of Placentia, about 25 minutes.
Once you reach Placentia, you just follow the main road across the bridge and through the town. You’ll head up a hill and see a sign for Route 100, heading to the Cape. The turn is on your right. Drive for another 45-50 minutes, passing through various towns along the way. You will pass through St. Bride’s. From here, you’re only a couple of minutes from the access road to the reserve, keep an eye out for the turn on your right. There are signs, but they aren’t always the most obvious.
Read also: Complete Beginner Travel Guide to Nassau
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
What is Cape St Mary’s Ecological Reserve?
The Ecological Reserve at Cape St. Mary’s is one of the greatest and most accessible areas in the world to watch breeding seabirds. Hundreds of thousands of gulls, razorbills, common murres, black-legged kittiwakes, northern gannets, and double-crested and great cormorants breed here. Wintering grounds for 20,000 scoters, long-tailed ducks, harlequins, dovekies, thick-billed murres, and kittiwakes. What makes it so beautiful is that all of these birds can be viewed from land, up to 10 metres away.
During the mating season, around 30,000 Northern Gannets congregate on the top of a massive sea stack (aptly dubbed “bird rock”) and neighbouring clifftops, making it North America’s third biggest colony. Visitors may get up up and personal with these magnificent birds as they go about their business of building nests, rearing young, and executing their exquisite “sword crossing” ceremonies.
Where can I see puffins in Newfoundland?
Witless Bay, south of St. John’s, is home to the biggest puffin colony in Newfoundland, if not the western Atlantic. But you’ll have to take a boat to view them. And wow, do I recall the last time I saw puffins from a boat! That vacation happened to be in Maine, and I remember how difficult it was to focus my binoculars on a puffin. These birds are rapid in flight, and maintaining them in a small range of view is difficult.
We arrived to the puffin lookout in Elliston on an exceptionally hot day in early August on our first visit. We were shocked to see the puffins on an island approximately 100 feet away from us, with no human access. I gazed through my telephoto lens to take some distant shots, but I couldn’t help but feel let down.
Understanding the puffin’s life cycle is essential for an enjoyable watching experience. The Atlantic Puffin, like many migratory seabirds, spends the most of its life at sea, foraging over a large expanse of water and only coming ashore to mate and birth babies. When you get at the Puffin location, it’s a five minutes away from the road to the cliff that overlooks the island where the Puffins nest. The puffins may fly to your side of the cliffs depending on the time of day, their attitude, and the size of the crowd.