Locals affectionately call the large island off the east coast of Canada the “rock”. John Cabot was the first known European explorer to land on this island of Newfoundland in 1497. For nearly a hundred years after that, fishermen from Portugal, Spain, France, Holland and England launched seasonal fishing explorations around the cod rich waters of Newfoundland. Eventually, it was the British who claimed the island in 1583 and established permanent colonial settlements. It wasn’t until 1949, however, that Newfoundland joined the Canadian Confederation.
With that short introduction about Newfoundland, you might well ask “so what were Jane and Rinus doing in Newfoundland?” Good question. I had learned of photographers going to Newfoundland to photograph seabirds and so, a few years back, put the idea of going there on my to-do list. After some covid-19 related delays, the trip finally came together this year. The plan was to spend a couple of weeks photographing in Newfoundland and finish our Canadian trip in Ontario for some loon photography.
We flew from Albuquerque, via Dallas-Fort Worth and Toronto, to St. John’s. With a population of about 112,000, it is the largest city, by far, in Newfoundland. We had a few days to explore this most easterly city in North America. We stayed in the downtown area near the working harbor. Fishing and maritime activities are a mainstay of St. John’s economy and the wharfs were crowded with ships of all sizes, including the Polar Prince, mother ship to the ill-fated Titan submersible.
Our hotel was close to the shops, restaurants and pubs on Water and Duckworth Streets. We sampled a variety of restaurants and found the funky Bagel Café with its small booths our favorite for breakfast. Jane and I are not night owls, so we missed out on some of the live entertainment offered at the pubs. We enjoyed our stay in St. John’s but found the downtown area a bit old and weathered, which is understandable in the harsh environment of Newfoundland. Up the hill from Duckworth Street, however, are residential neighborhoods of row houses painted in an array of bright colors, nicknamed Jellybean Row, that give St. John’s a festive look.
A few miles south of St. John’s, the offshore islands of Witless Bay Ecological Preserve offered our first opportunity to photograph seabirds. The preserve is host to large Atlantic Puffin and Common Mure colonies. I had made arrangements with O’Brien’s Whale and Bird Tour to access the preserve. The island is off limits to all but researchers, so we had to photograph the birds from O’Brien’s boat that wallowed in the swales of the Atlantic Ocean. Not the best of conditions, but seeing hundreds of birds in their natural environment was truly amazing.
Our next stop was St. Bride and the Cape St. Mary Ecological Reserve, located at the southwest corner of the Avalon Peninsula, to photograph the Northern Gannet. Gannets roost on a near-shore sea stack, called “bird rock”, about fifty yards from the mainland. Tens of thousands of Northern Gannets have chosen the rocky ledges of this towering formation to mate and raise their chicks. Like puffins, the gannets spend most of their lives out on the ocean, only coming ashore in late spring to reestablish relationships, build nests, and raise their young. During our visit to the colony in early June, courtship, mating, and nest building were in high gear. A few birds were incubating eggs and I only observed one chick that appeared to be only a day or so old.
After our three nights stay at the small village of St. Bride, with a resident population of around three hundred, we drove north for a four nights stay in Bonavista, a much larger community with a population of three thousand. It was in the area of Bonavista that the explorer John Cabot landed in 1497. My primary objective for going to Bonvista was to photograph large puffin colonies at Elliston and Cape Bonavista. Both of these colonies were located on large, rounded, near-shore sea stacks that had a covering of soil in which the puffins could dig their nesting burrows. At each location the puffin viewing area was only a short walk from the parking lot.
Puffins appeared to have just started returning from their time at sea and looking for nesting sites. There were groups of puffins scattered around the top of the sea stack and flocks flying overhead as if looking for their missing mates. There were only a few obviously paired couples checking out nesting sites. Squabbles occasionally occurred as mated couples appeared to compete for a nesting burrow. At mid-June, we were too early to observe parents with fish laden beaks returning from the Atlantic to feed their brood. As a bonus, however, on a rocky outcrop at the Elliston location, high on the cliff, I noticed several pair of Black Guillemots going through their mating rituals.
Every spring, as Nordic temperatures rise, the glaciers of western Greenland calve icebergs. These large, ten thousand year old chunks of ice are carried on ocean currents some 1,800 nautical miles to Newfoundland’s coast. Jane and I boarded the trawler “Lady Marguerite” in Bonavista to go iceberg hunting. We encountered icebergs shortly after leaving the harbor and the captain maneuvered the vessel for some close views.
The next stop on our itinerary was a two night stay in the quaint fishing village of Twillingate. Here we did not have to take a boat to find icebergs. The bergs were floating around Twillingate Harbor right in front of our hotel. The drive to Twillingate took us through the town of Gander. Modest in size, with a population around twelve thousand, Gander is location of an international airport with a long runway that served as a refueling stop for flights between Europe and North America before the advent of long range jets. When the U.S. closed its airspace on September 11, 2001, Gander’s airport was one of only a few capable of handling redirected aircraft. This small community then provided refuge for nearly seven thousand stranded passengers. This outstanding show of kindness and hospitality is now the basis of a Tony award winning Broadway musical, “Come From Away”.
All through our tour of Newfoundland we were adversely impacted by smoke blown in from wildfires in other parts of Canada. It was particularly bad in the Twillingate area. With its numerous small islands, bays, coves and charming villages, the scenery around Twillingate would have been striking if not for the grey, hazy layer of smoke. We did venture out to explore, however. The countryside around Twillingate and the rest of Newfoundland is primarily subarctic tundra and boreal forest. Trees are mostly small conifers with black spruce dominating some areas. Conifer lined roads with small ponds and lakes are prevalent throughout Newfoundland. Treelined lakes would have made interesting, scenic landscape images if it had not been for the smoke.
From Twillingate, we traveled back to St. John’s and on to Toronto for the last phase of our trip. We rented a car at the Toronto airport and drove north to Huntsville in the Muskoka region of Ontario. Back in 2020 I had made arrangements for a loon photography workshop with Michael Bertelsen. Back then the Canadian border was closed due to covid-19, so this year I was finally able to make this three day workshop. Including Jane and me, there were a total of four participants that embarked with Michael to search for loons on his specially outfitted boat.
Conditions were less than ideal, however, as the Muskoka region was also impacted by smoke from the Canadian wildfires. The group was intrepid, however, and was out at five AM each morning. We searched for loons on the Muskoka River, the Ox Tongue River and Lake Muskoka. My hope was to photograph loons with chicks riding on their backs. As with many of my wildlife photography aspirations, Mother Nature always calls the shots and success is totally dependent on Her. According to Michael, there was a low probability of finding loons with chicks during this workshop.
However, while we were photographing a nesting loon on the Muskoka River, Michael received a call from one of his fishing buddies that a loon with newborn chicks had been spotted on Lake Muskoka. Early the next morning, that is where we headed. Sure enough, Michael spotted the loon and chick and that morning my aspiration of photographing loon chicks on a parent’s back was realized.
After nearly three weeks of travel, we left Huntsville and headed home to Albuquerque. Rain slowed our drive back to Toronto but we got to the airport in plenty of time for our afternoon flight back to DFW. From there, it was a late night arrival at Sunport, a taxi ride back to Lake Isabella Way, and good night’s sleep in our own bed. Despite the annoyance of smoke from wildfires, our excursion through remote Newfoundland and finding loons in Ontario made for a very unique adventure.