Cape St. Mary's juts into the Atlantic at the southwest corner of Newfoundland's Avalon Peninsula. Home to the second largest colony of northern gannets in North America, the tip of the Cape is now protected within Cape St. Mary's Ecological Preserve.
The gannet colony, which numbers 24,000 adults and half as many chicks, occupies Bird Rock and the adjacent cliffs, which plummet 330 feet from a rolling grassland to the turbulent waters of the Atlantic. Once declining due to overfishing and direct hunting, the gannet population has been rebounding over the past decade and is closing in on the Continent's largest colony, located on Canada's Gaspe Peninsula. Large colonies of murres (common, thick-billed, razorbacks) and black-legged kittiwakes also nest at the preserve and birders have the chance to see greater cormorants, great black-backed gulls and other sea birds here.
My wife and I arrived at the Cape early in the morning, greeted by sunshine with an occasional wave of sea fog. After a brief tour of the Nature Center and a helpful chat with the naturalist, we set out on the 1-mile trail to Bird Rock, enjoying the changing view of sea cliffs along the way. Silence, broken only by the wind and the lighthouse fog horn, gradually gave way to the cacophony of gannets, which covered the top and sides of the sea stack and circled above it in a massive flock. Smaller and less conspicuous colonies of murres and kittiwakes occupied the adjacent cliffs (as did more gannets) and small groups of all species were constantly moving to and from the colony, attending to the needs of their growing youngsters.
The trail ends just short of Bird Rock, leaving the visitor just meters from the raucous colony; if this is not the most accessible spectacle of bird life on the planet, I have yet to see it. Cape St. Mary's gannets begin to assemble in late March, start to nest in May and begin to disperse to wintering areas (primarily at sea) by mid September; come late October, Bird Rock will be abandoned to the wind and the waves.