The fog at Cape St. Mary’s, Newfoundland, doesn’t so much gently roll in as it stampedes like a crowd of Black Friday shoppers through just-unlocked doors of a big box store. Like shoppers rushing and pushing their way through store aisles, the fog is thick and swirls with little patience over the edges of sea cliffs and up from swales in the rugged terrain. But unlike the once per year shopping frenzy of Black Friday, the fog of Cape St. Mary’s is practically an everyday event.
The dense fog is a seriously inconvenient roadblock if you happen to be a birder who has trekked to this remote corner of Newfoundland to experience the superlatives of the “Rock.” For starters, Cape St. Mary’s is the most accessible seabird rookery in North America – a moderate hike on the “mainland” of the Cape takes you literally within reach of an underhand stone toss. The “Rock “is Bird Rock and it’s the third largest nesting site and southernmost colony of northern gannets in North America. Around 30,000 of them call it home base. Cape St. Mary’s is also the southernmost breeding area in the world for thick-billed murres and the southernmost major breeding site for common murres in the northwest Atlantic Ocean. Add in the nesting kittiwakes and razorbills and, well, the anticipation for even a passive hobby birder is almost too much to bear.
After a long drive from Gros Morne National Park on the western side of Newfoundland, my friend and I arrived at the Cape Visitor Center just after 5 pm, in time to chat with the Biologist before she headed home for a dinner of turkey soup and cod brewis. The sizeable parking lot was nearly empty. We had seen wispy fog as we approached the cape from the nearby Village of St. Brides and we braced ourselves for the inevitable, having heard that if there was fog anywhere in Newfoundland you could safely bet your house it would be foggy at Bird Rock.
The Biologist wearily asked if we were headed out to make the hike to the colony overlook. We eagerly told her we had planned to do just that, but wondered if we would see anything in the dense fog. “Oh, you’ll see birds” she said in an oddly consoling way. Leaving us hanging, she gave no more details except to tell us where it was safe to walk along the top of the 300-ft high sea cliff. Her eyes lit up briefly when she informed us that up until about 30 minutes ago, the day had been perhaps the clearest day in a month, and crowds of people had rushed down from Newfoundlands’ capital city of St. John’s to soak up sparkling panoramas of blue skies, endless ocean, and air so clean and clear that visitors could count the feathers on the wings of individual gannets roosting on the rock.
Working hard to feel happy at the luck all those people had, we trudged out the back door of the Visitor Center, across the concrete path, and through a gate in the white picket fence. The gate might as well have been a portal to another universe. With our first step off the concrete and onto the dirt path we stepped into an other-worldly dimension of the absolute essence of gray, where sound and light were equally muted, and the moisture in the air so dense you could quench thirst with it and feel it on your skin through three layers of clothes. Sheep moseyed in and out of our stiflingly small field of view, and in the distance a fog horn wailed a pitifully feeble attempt at piercing the armored veil. The brilliant but muted purple of the biggest field of iris I’ve ever seen reminded me of looking at a traffic light through a car windshield in a rain storm.
The path from the Visitor Center to the overlook at the Rock is an eroded trail through a tundra meadow without end, disappearing in all directions into the mists. We had been warned to stay left of red posts – a short distance to the right was the top of the sea cliff which was eerily sensed but out of sight, and which had the nasty feature of an overhanging and unstable edge.
At some point along the path, we began to hear a raucous rattling in the distance that sounded like rocks being rubbed up and down on an old washboard. Living near the coast, I’m used to the sounds of gulls and terns, so the source of the noise didn’t immediately register with me. The fog was too thick for any views from a distance, and we were practically upon the overlook before we realized it was the sea bird colony.
The path eased over the final knoll and ended, with no warning or barrier, at a cliff, and there it was. First impressions being everything, this apparently was a huge ice cream cone, obviously “Rocky” road flavor, with white chocolate sprinkles spread extremely generously all over the top and sides.
The largest colony of Northern Gannets on the east coast of North America seemed to greet us all at once in one large and gloriously abrasive roar.
The top of Bird Rock stood, in all its chaotic glory, less than 60 feet away. Between us and it was a seemingly bottomless – due to the fog – chasm, the depth defined only by sounds of the waves crashing about a football-fields’ length below. It was like standing on the edge of an abyss where a tall bridge had collapsed. I’d read that many people experienced vertigo standing at the edge of this cliff – your sense of depth perception is assaulted by the shifting fog and the birds constantly moving through your field of view: across, down, and up.
Spending time in nature for me often is about quiet reflection, meditative awareness, and relaxing recharge. Exceptions to this are usually especially memorable. I’ve had the pleasure of sea kayaking within a huge rookery of magnificent frigate birds, laying hidden in corn fields while enormous flocks of Canada geese cupped their wings and set down all around me, and peering up into a nighttime starlit sky and being mesmerized by the sounds of a bubbling river of migrating songbirds on a fall “big night” when huge numbers of birds migrate through an area at the same time. None quite compared to the wild abundance and sensory overload of the gannet colony of Bird Rock.
Our ears rung with clacking and clicking- the raspy and raucous crazy riot of gannet communication. Our noses were stung by the biting smell of ammonia in the tons of sea bird droppings called guano. Our eyes darted from side to side, top to bottom, and every direction possible in between as birds swooped in from the fog from all sides, landed, took off, quarreled with their neighbors, greeted their chicks, and checked in with their mates. We were overcome by the busy-ness of the scene and we struggled to take it all in. We fell into a trap of experiencing the colony as a single entity, and stopped before we even scratched the surface of the experience.
It didn’t take long for us to tire a bit at the singularity of this “one” colony…..we humans tend to get full fast when big things are consumed. Anyway, we were distracted by the promise of better weather in the morning, and we decided it was worth another shot at a clear view. We limited our stay to a sound-byte short span of time, and headed out to check in to a motel back in the nearby village.
The major impressions from our first visit to the Rock was first that there were a ton of birds, and second, that something like this would never have been free back home in the good ole U.S. of A.
We celebrated our fine planning when we looked out the window the next morning at clear skies. Cape St. Mary’s doesn’t play along with any forecaster’s models though, and tendrils of fog began to teasingly tickle the landscape as we turned onto the 7-mile narrow road from the highway to the preserve. Sure enough, by the time we made it to the visitor center, the fog horn began to chant its mournful mantra.
All sense of urgency disappeared so we decided to check out the visitor center. Chris and Kyran were the biologists on staff, and they were firing introductory lines at anyone who walked within earshot, to see who would help them to pass the time with some conversation. “First time to the Rock”? “Where ya from”?
None of the few visitors rose to take the bait beyond one or two word answers.
I decided to go all in and I lobbed an opening volley that they could sink their teeth into: “Do you notice any difference in nesting success in the gannets nesting on mainland slopes compared to the Rock gannets, and does global warming appear to be affecting either adult or chick survivorship or mortality rates?”
Unfazed at the complexity of my question, but also apparently either confused by my American drawl or programmed only to respond to answers to questions about fog, Kyran began to tell me how new instrumentation at the St. John’s airport was actually causing more flight delays due to fog, compared to before they had this fancy equipment.
Equally confused by his response, I asked the question again and this time the Biologist launched into a fascinating and complicatedly layered response. The seabird colony is growing at least partly because predation is down. He gave the credit to coyotes because coyotes, which got to Newfoundland only as recently as the mid-1980’s, apparently chased off the foxes. While foxes can nimbly work their way along cliff faces to pick off nestlings, it seems that coyotes are afraid of heights. Because of this, the “mainland” gannets are doing just as well as those gannets lucky enough to possess real estate on the Rock itself.
Even more intriguing, climate change is having a dramatic effect on the local seabird population. Global warming is leading to bigger weather systems, including larger hurricanes that move slower and which are arriving to Newfoundland as early as August. These plodding storms are forcing warmer water in towards shore and keeping it there for longer periods of time. The warmer water drives off the fish that drives the seabird engine. Capelin thrive in water of around 4 degrees Celsius, so they either head to waters too deep for the gannets or head north when the warmer water hits. When this happened in 2012 and 2014, the adults abandoned the nestlings and followed the capelin to the northern coast of Labrador. It doesn’t take long for the nestlings to starve and it resulted in failure of the colony. The impact on the population won’t be known for several more years, when the birds from the failed years won’t show up as breeding age adults.
Kyran was really getting into the discussion now – Chris commented that Kyran removing his coat wasn’t an everyday event. His voice was thick with Newfoundland lilt accent that hinted at Scottish highlands, and he would lose me every once in a while. “Keep with me now,” he would scold…”How long you been in Newfoundland? How long you gonna stay? So you better work at it.”
The phone would ring and the Biologists would take turns answering and repeating a well-practiced response: “Yes, it’s foggy. Well, I can’t really say if it’s going to be foggy at noon. Yes, there’s a good chance it’ll be foggy tomorrow, too.”
Side bar tangents from our main discussion shot off like gannets darting out of the sky into the water after fish. We touched upon declines in the Newfoundland caribou herd, and the liability of the government in moose-car collisions – the government being the one who introduced moose to the island. We talked about sheep and their presence on the preserve. Evidently there once had been cows and horses on the preserve, too. Preserves being preserves, grazing was halted. Sheep were headed for the same fate, until a dramatic meeting of farmers and the government where the farmers were informed that sheep also wouldn’t be allowed on the preserve with seabird nesting going on there. The government was informed by the farmers that there wasn’t a problem then, because there wouldn’t be any birds on the preserve as of the next day. Sheep grazing was allowed to continue.
Towards mid-morning, the Visitor Center began to entertain a steady trickle of visitors, many of whom compensated for the poor viewing conditions by paying extra attention to the indoor exhibits. It was obvious the fog wasn’t going anywhere, so it was time to let Kyran and Chris attend to the other visitors and time for us to head back out to visit the seabirds. I felt quite satisfied partly because I had helped their day pass a bit more swiftly, but mostly because I had had a great conversation with a couple of Biologists who knew a ton and who also came across like crusty Newfoundland sea captains.
We headed for the door and the portal to the parallel fog enshrouded universe where time would lose all meaning, and where sheep were the only thing that made sense. As the door closed, the last thing we heard from behind us in the Visitor Center was the Biologists slipping back into their routine. “First time to the rock?” The phone once again rang. “Yes, it’s foggy…..”
None of the folks at the Visitor Center seemed to be venturing out on the trail. We walked alone, mostly in silence, without the sense of mystery and awe of the evening before, but with just as much excitement to see the birds again. When we did talk, we would say things like “I think it’s not quite as foggy as last night” when it most certainly was, or “I think it’s actually getting brighter,” when of course it wasn’t.
Our pace quickened as we neared the end of the trail, and we were glad to see that no one was occupying the rocks at the edge of the cliff, the front row seats for the seabird lollapalooza. We had determination of sorts as our inspiration. We were determined to be there if the fog did lift, determined to catch a glimpse of the waves crashing on the rocks far below if it presented itself, determined to beat the odds and see the Rock framed by blue sky, and maybe even see some whales swim by. We settled in and made ourselves as comfortable as possible in the damp exhalation of the North Atlantic.
We happened upon patience, and patience rewarded us.
There is a magic rule in nature that states that if you are successful in actually doing nothing in nature, you find that there never actually is nothing going on in nature.
The best experiences result when the mind is cleared of clutter, eyes are stilled, voices are quieted, and muscles are relaxed. It doesn’t happen immediately, but when it does, senses and awareness are heightened to an almost jarring extent.
It’s then possible to witness things that normally escape you. You may not be able to predict exactly what it will be, but you can be certain Nature will reward you.
I began to deconstruct the complexity and craziness of the scene in its singular entirety and began to concentrate on individual birds.
Suddenly, each gannet in the colony of 30,000 seemed unique, a result of the combination of its location, activity, and behavior, and especially the art of its shape. Interactions between birds became intricately choreographed ballets that alternated movements of the ritualized, the instinctive, and the reflexive.
I watched individual birds as they circled and repeatedly tried to land, flaring their tail feathers and hovering, not finding an opening and going around again. Some nestlings lay so still that they appeared lifeless other than a barely perceptible breath. Pairs would shake their heads at each other, in some cases clicking bills, and then simultaneously lift their wings and dip their heads under and look behind in apparent ritualized pair bonding.
Any activity served as an excuse to utter an ornery raspy call. Taking off was an excuse for a major bar-room brawl, as it typically involved a slow flapping of wings while jostling and walking over as many neighbors as possibly could be bothered, each of which would snap, flap, and complain, until the bird finally reached an edge and fell into the sky. Landing wasn’t much smoother, given that the nests seemed to be about 3 feet apart, and the wingspan of a gannet is about 6 feet.
Preening seemed to invite criticism and wise-cracks from surrounding peanut galleries. Even sitting still doing nothing was an excuse to randomly bicker general displeasure at any other bird within earshot.
Through binoculars, we were able to closely study the gannets’ plumage. Their blue eye ring was a vivid statement of exotic beauty. The soft yellow on the back of their heads suggested with wry humor either that the sun was shining on them through the fog, or hinted of an angelic aura for these cranky birds.
I’m not sure how much time we spent at the Rock on that second day. In the end, it was probably some hunger pangs, and the hint of a headache from breathing so much ammonia emanating from all the guano that started us thinking about heading out.
I had noticed quite a few other visitors come to the rock. All of them snapped a few pictures, commented on the fog, and left within five minutes. No doubt all had a wonderful singular imprint of the overall scene of the rocky road ice cream cone with white chocolate sprinkles. Every one of them apparently missed the major part of the show though. It was the part that only comes with pausing, watching intently and becoming part of the landscape, like the very rocks that lined the edge of the cliff face.
I thought back to the Biologists back at the Visitor Center, and their shotgun questions. “First time to the Rock?” seemed to be a much deeper question. The first day was our FIRST time to the rock. The second day was our first TIME to the Rock. The difference was amazing.
Spending slow time in Nature with no other agenda but to witness and be aware once again revealed itself as the key to a magical experience.