Many years ago our family headed to Cape Breton for a driving tour. I decided that puffins would be the best part of our travels. A place in Rockland Maine offered a way we could see puffins. A minor (four hour round trip) detour, some of us were more excited about than others. When we arrived in Rockland we learned that the puffins were quite a distance off shore, but we could watch by video what the puffins were up to. (We could have watched from home, I suspected.) Clearly I had not done enough reading before insisting we take this side trip.
We visited Newfoundland in September of 2018 when it would have been too late to see puffins. They are pelagic and thus are visible from land only when they are nesting–April to August. On our most recent, 2022 trip, we first thought we’d missed the puffins, but soon learned we were not too late! Our 2022 trip to Newfoundland began in the southwest corner of the island, after a ferry ride from Sydney, on Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, to Port aux Basques, Newfoundland. Puffins nest on the eastern coast. It was a long ride from one point to the other.
We encountered other pelagic birds besides puffins when we visited Boutte du Cap Provincial Park near Port au Port. Well-worn footpaths along the top of steep cliffs offered Easy Walks for me to enjoy, along with amazing views. At the end of the trail kittiwakes soared past us on their way to fetch food from the sea. A constant stream of birds sailed past us as we stood near where they built nests on rock shelves overhanging the ocean. Their constant cries filled the air as we witnessed a whirlwind of small gulls with characteristic black wingtips circling their colony. When we made our way to the east coast we saw them again, whirling away exactly as their relatives in the west had been doing.
We spent the entire trip in our T@B camper. To reach the eastern coast from the western coast, you might think you could follow the southern coast to get from one side to the other. Uh, no. The road stops just past Rose Blanche. That is, it just stops. Swim if you want, climb mountains with no trails, but getting from west to east means following the trans Canada highway north, the east, then finally south along the eastern coast.
When we undertook the journey from the southwest to the southeast of Newfoundland on the Trans Canada highway, we looked for a campground near Witless Bay, where we read we could see puffins from shore. We were lucky enough to stumble across a campground that offered a front row seat for viewing puffins. Directly uphill from the campground is the Cliffs Edge retreat a more luxurious arrangement than our campground, with equally spectacular views of the nesting islands just off shore.
Witless Bay ecological reserve provides protected status to four islands that host an estimated half a million puffins (plus kittiwakes and murres). We had a front row seat for viewing these islands and their seasonal residents from our campground. Binoculars and spotting scopes came in handy since the closest island is about a half mile off shore. I heard as we were leaving the area that there was an Easy Walk to a cliff top trail from the Fork Restaurant in Mobile that brings you even closer to viewing puffins on the East Coast trail. Next trip!
While we were able to view puffins (and kittiwakes and murres) from shore, we hoped to get a closer look and booked seats on O’Brien’s boat tours in Bay Bull. The day was rainy, which kept the number of fellow passengers down, but we managed fine with rain coats and seats inside the cabin when needed.
The two hour tour out to the nesting colonies of Witless Bay offered both stunning views and a veritable bird warm-up orchestra as kittiwakes and murres sought to outcompete each other on the decibel scale.
The kittiwakes nest on cliff shelves where they line the rock with grassy like materials. Murres, (they look like penguins and sound like donkeys braying or elephants trumpeting) nest on bare rock. Why their eggs are so pointy has been a source of debate–here’s an intriguing research paper that offers details about why their eggs are so singularly shaped. Puffins, on the other hand, are silent partners in this concert unless someone like a researcher (the only ones allowed on these protected islands) steps on a puffin burrow by mistake. They need sloped, grassy spots where they can dig their burrows.
Puffins soar back and forth from the slopes to the water below where they float like ducks and then dive like other diving ducks we have seen in so many places.
It takes some effort for these adorable birds to get airborne. And there lies a problem for pufflings (baby puffins) if they leave their burrows too soon. Each season some pufflings get blown off course and end up in places where they are unable to return to the air to get home. Being stranded like this can mean death if they do not get help. In years past volunteers have rallied to rescue stranded pufflings, but this year concerns about avian flu cancelled the group efforts to save these pufflings.
When we arrived at our cliffside campground we heard about the pufflings and the researcher, Taylor, from a university in Ontario, who spent the summer being a one-person puffin patrol. She is the only person allowed to rescue the puffins where we were. One morning my husband spotted a small bird hiding underneath our truck. I went out to investigate and realized we had a stranded puffin in our campground. The little guy tried hard to escape but the wooden fence at the cliff’s edge frustrated his attempts to fly. He stopped to take a breather then skittered underneath one of the large RVs at the campground. I told a fellow camper about the errant puffling. She knew the puffin patrol lady, and soon we had the help needed to safely grab the little guy and get him to where he could fly back to his burrow.
After spending so much time simply watching puffins both on from shore and during our boat ride, it seemed right that we bring a puffin home with us. That is, a soft, furry stuffed animal puffin. We found him at the Edge of Avalon Interpretive Center at Mistaken Bay. We named him Smoky, a nod to a joke some of us find funny, about the delights of smoked puffin (mostly an Icelandic thing, I’ve heard.) Smoky has a great sense of humor and does not take this personally….
I wish we had thought to get a photo of Smoky using our telescope to check out h is family on the islands next to where we stayed. As it happened, it was not till we returned to Gros Morne National Park that it occurred to me to send him on an exciting trip rock scrambling a thousand feet onto the peridotite Tablelands mountains (not an Easy Walk–I stayed in the shade and enjoyed my book). Smoky managed the trip like a trooper, (his sherpa was more wiped out but had a great time regardless). Our little mascot admitted that he was glad to get back down after such an arduous climb.
The hordes of visitors to the Tablelands, offered additional entertainment when a tourist bus managed to get stuck in the parking lot there that was jammed with vehicles. I mostly kept my eyes on my book, taking a peek every now and then to see if anything got dented as passersby helped the bus avoid crashing into the clustered vehicles.
Here are some photos of Smoky. He will show up later in these posts for sure. Happy trails.
Marjorie Turner Hollman is a writer who loves the outdoors, and is the author of Easy Walks in Massachusetts, 2nd edition, More Easy Walks in Massachusetts, 2nd edition, Easy Walks and Paddles in the Ten Mile River Watershed, and Finding Easy Walks Wherever You Are. Her memoir, the backstory of Easy Walks, is My Liturgy of Easy Walks, Finding the Sacred in Everyday (and some very strange) Places.
She has written for numerous local, regional, and national publications over the past 20+ years, has helped many families save their stories, and has recorded multiple veterans oral histories, now housed at the Library of Congress.