Although there are two boat tours that visit Bird Islands, Doran and I chose to take Donelda’s. It is a longer boat ride to the islands than the other tour in the area, but it has a longer list of birds and includes birds seen on the way to and from the islands such as Arctic Terns, Common Loons, Common Eiders, White-winged and Surf Scoters, Red-breasted Mergansers, Belted Kingfishers, and Ruddy Turnstones (we only saw one of these).
The list of species seen at the Bird Islands includes Atlantic Puffins, Black Guillemost, Razorbills, Great Cormorants, Double-crested Cormorants, Herring Gulls, Great Black-backed Gulls, Black-legged Kittiwakes, Bald Eagles, Great Blue Herons and Grey Seals. We saw a few Bald Eagles, two Belted Kingfishers, and two Spotted Sandpipers as we followed the shoreline of St. Ann’s Bay out to the Atlantic Ocean. Donelda gave a presentation about the birds we would see, showing us the pages for each species in Sibley’s Field Guide. She had also brought a bucket of fish on board, and I thought we were going to try to entice the seabirds closer by throwing them out into the water. It turns out the fish were for the eagles – we fed two adults when Donelda spotted them on the cliffs. I got one quick photo as the Bald Eagle snatched the fish from the water’s surface.
I got my lifer Great Cormorant and Black Guillemot before we even got to the islands. A couple of guillemots were swimming along in the water, while two of the cormorants were sitting on top of a rocky ledge overlooking the bay. They can be differentiated from the common Double-crested Cormorant by the white patch beneath the chin.
As the boat drew closer to the islands I noticed a large flock of gulls wheeling over and landing on a small patch of water. It seemed unusual to see so many gulls (Herring and Great Black-backed from what I could see) concentrated in one area. Then, as we got closer, I noticed a couple of fins slicing through the water and understood the reason – several dolphins were churning up the fish, and the gulls were taking advantage of the feast!
Dolphins feed cooperatively by herding fish and pushing them together in one area. The pod gets the school of fish to curl up into a tight ball, and then each dolphin takes its turn to swim though the center of that ball, eating as much as it can in the process. In this image it looks as though a Great Black-backed Gull is harassing the dolphin. Note the Northern Gannets with their white bodies and black wing tips in the distant background (I missed them while watching the dolphins and was surprised to see them in this shot).
It was hard getting photos of the dolphins as they breached the water. This was the best image I got, though it isn’t enough for me to be able to identify the species. I am guessing these are Atlantic White-sided Dolphins as this species is the most common one off of Cape Breton Island according to various internet sources. (If anyone can confirm this it would be appreciated.)
The first seabirds we saw as we approached the islands were a few Black Guillemots and Razorbills swimming in the water. The guillemots were entirely black, except for the white wing patches and red feet. Smaller than a Herring Gull, this species has a long neck and a thin, straight bill. The Black Guillemot forages in relatively shallow near-shore water, diving beneath the water to capture prey while using its wings to swim. It usually searches for food to a depth of 30 feet and can stay underwater for just over two minutes.
Once we reached the islands, we saw several cormorants standing along the top of the cliffs. The Great Cormorants were slightly larger and heavier than the Double-crested Cormorants standing near by. The Bird Islands are home to approximately 560 nesting pairs according to one of the last known formal surveys, constituting the largest known colony of breeding Great Cormorants in North America.
Because the Bird Islands host as much as 9% of the western Atlantic (North American) population, the islands have been designated as an Important Bird Area (“IBA”). A site is designated as an IBA when it is known or thought to hold, on a regular basis, more than 1% of a biogeographic population of a congregatory waterbird species. Unlike the Great Cormorant populations in Europe and Asia, which often breed at inland sites, the North American population breeds strictly along the ocean coasts. This is because they require nest sites that are both close to adequate food resources and safe from terrestrial predators, which is what makes the isolated islands and steep rocky cliffs along the coast of Atlantic Canada so suitable.
The Bird Islands also support the largest concentration of Black-legged Kittiwakes, Razorbills and Atlantic Puffins within Nova Scotia. In the 1990s, surveys confirmed approximately 960 Kittiwake, 150 Razorbill, and 75 Puffin nesting pairs on these islands, in addition to a few hundred nesting pairs of Double-crested Cormorants, over 300 Black Guillemots, and Leachs Storm-Petrels.
Because of the importance of these nesting sites, Hertford Island is currently protected as a Nova Scotia Bird Society Sanctuary, and boats are not allowed to land on the islands during breeding season in order to prevent disturbing the nesting birds. We got close enough to get good views with the binoculars, seeing a couple of Great Blue Herons in the stunted trees on top, both gull species on the rocks close to the water, lots of kittiwakes on nests built on ledges on the cliff face, and both Razorbills and Black Guillemots standing on various rocky perches. This picture turned out to be one of my favourites of the trip. I was trying to photograph the detailed patterns in the rocks (click to enlarge the photo for a better view) and didn’t notice the Razorbill to the right. It was hard to focus on the birds on the island (particularly the tiny puffins) while standing on a moving boat, so I was pleased that everything was in focus in this image:
Although the Razorbill wasn’t a lifer for me, this was the first time I’d seen them on their breeding grounds, and up close; the one that visited Ottawa in October 2011 was way out in the middle of Lac Deschenes, seen while flying up and down the section between Britannia and the Champlain Bridge. These views of the Razorbills were much more satisfying.
The birds were all at various stages in their nesting cycle. The Herring Gull chicks had already hatched, and I witnessed a couple of adults feeding their young.
The kittiwakes were sitting on visible nests, though only one nest apparently had young already. Their nests looked like large tumbleweeds stuck to the rock, with dozens covering large areas of the cliff face.
In this image you can see the eponymous black legs of the kittiwake – most gulls have legs that range between yellow and pink.
I saw a couple of nesting Razorbills, and no nesting Black Guillemots or Atlantic Puffins; these birds do not place their nests out in the open, but rather in crevices, caves and beneath overhangs. The puffins nest in burrows they dig themselves in the earth or between rocks for protection from predators. They use their bills to cut into soil and then push the loose material away with their feet. Still, we saw several Razorbills and Black Guillemots standing on the cliffs; occasionally we saw Razorbills and Puffins standing in front of a cavity, which I presume was the entrance to their nesting area.
Predators of puffins include the Great Black-backed Gull, which can catch adult puffins in mid-air, and Herring Gulls, which may steal puffin eggs or chicks from their nest. These gulls are often known to chase puffins returning from sea with a beakload of fish in order to steal their food. The Bald Eagle is another predator; it can swallow a puffin in one gulp. We saw two adults and one sub-adult standing on ledges cut into the rock.
Bald Eagles take about five and a half years to reach their full adult plumage; this one is probably in its second year given the white coming in on the head feathers, the gray bill, and the flesh-colored cere (that fleshy area at the base of the bill).
We also saw plenty of Grey Seals around the rocky outcroppings surrounding the water. None were basking on the rocks as I’ve seen them at various spots along the Bay of Fundy; instead we saw them poking their head out of the water next to the boat before swimming away. At one point we saw about seven swim by in a row. Although four seal species are found along Nova Scotia’s coast, only two are common. The Harbour Seal is the most common species along the coast of mainland Nova Scotia, while the Grey Seal is more common in Cape Breton. The Hooded Seal and Harp Seal appear in Nova Scotia only sporadically, spending the summer further north in the Arctic.
Head shape is one of the ways that these two species can be differentiated: the Harbour Seal has a round, smooth head with a distinctly sloping “forehead” and shorter snout, while the Grey Seal has a long, straight head and longer snout. In fact, the Grey Seal’s distinctively shaped head has given it the nickname “Horsehead Seal”. Another difference I’ve read about it is the nostril shape. Gray Seals have “H” or “W” shaped nostrils, while Harbour Seals have “V” shaped nostrils.
As the boat made its way around the islands we saw a flock of Bank Swallows flying just above the water at the northern end of the islands, and I heard a Savannah Sparrow singing from the grassy area on top of the cliffs. We noticed more puffins in the water and a few on the cliffs on the westward side of the islands. There were definitely fewer puffins than Black Guillemots and Razorbills, and more kittiwakes and gulls than alcids.
There were more birds standing on the rocks close to the water on the return trip to St. Ann’s Bay. The Razorbills, looking a bit like penguins (to which they are completely unrelated), were my favourite birds to photograph.
The Black Guillemots were more difficult to photograph. They quickly flew out of the path of the boat when it approached, and stayed further back on the rocks than the gulls and Razorbills.
The trip around the islands didn’t seem very long. Before we knew it, we were heading back to the shore. On our way we saw a few more Black Guillemots and two Northern Gannets on the water and a Belted Kingfisher flying along the shore. A couple of Common Terns were fishing in the harbour near the ferry; we had witnessed one driving an eagle away from the area while waiting for the tour to begin.
I would highly recommend this tour to anyone who enjoys birds, marine wildlife, or being out on the ocean. Doran – who isn’t a birder – really enjoyed it too, which isn’t surprising given that the huge Bald Eagles and tiny, comical puffins were both crowd-pleasers. The next time we go to Nova Scotia, I think we’re definitely going to have to spend more time in Cape Breton!