Saturday, 30 June 2012

Atlantic Canada

We are four days in to our longest trip of the year, two weeks in the Atlantic Provinces. Besides the Maritime Provinces of Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, our itinerary takes in Quebec and Newfoundland & Labrador.

June 26 – We fly from Calgary to Charlottetown, PEI via Montreal. Our arrival in Charlottetown is not too auspicious, as we break through the clouds shortly before landing, and dodge the raindrops as we scurry into the terminal building. Brian picks up our Ford Escape which we’ll be using for ten days, and we drive the short distance to the Super 8 motel. Given the weather, there is no point in any evening birding and we have a fish supper at Maggie’s Family Restaurant across the parking lot from the motel.

June 27 – Making up for lost time we have a quick breakfast in the motel lobby and head for Prince Edward Island National Park, a 50-km stretch of PEI’s north coast. We will need to get as much birding done as we can before catching the ferry from Souris at 2 PM, and fortunately the rain has stopped overnight.

Prince Edward Island National Park

At various points along the shore between Cavendish and Brackley Beach we pick up several sea birds including the majestic Northern Gannet, which we will see in considerable numbers over the next few days.
Northern Gannet

In some wooded areas we find a number of songbirds including an excellent look at a White-throated Sparrow.

White-throated Sparrow

A hiking trail called Bubbling Springs had been recommended as a good birding spot, and we hear our first Winter Wren of the year there, but the trail is thick with mosquitos so we retreat to the car and head to the next birding locale, Pigot’s trail at Mount Stewart. No mosquitos there, as they have been swept away by the freshening breeze. Birding is accordingly quiet so we head for Souris and have lunch in a café by the harbour.
The ferry Madeleine plies the Gulf of St. Lawrence daily between Souris, PEI and Cap aux Meules, Quebec, on the Iles de la Madeleine, a 5-hour voyage. Brian had selected the Iles de la Madeleine (known in English as the Magdalen Islands) as our Quebec destination for the year, an unorthodox choice but an inspired one. The 135 km voyage to this remote outpost of Quebec is very smooth, with few birds except as we rounded the eastern tip of PEI and on the approach to the islands. Brian and Phil slipped inside for a coffee and missed a couple of Sooty Shearwaters spotted by Ray and Mike. We are back on deck to see the first of many Black-legged Kittiwakes and a couple of Humpback Whales and enjoy the final approach into the harbor at Cap aux Meules.

The day ends with dinner at our comfortable hotel, and a tally of our bird and mammal list for the day – 57 bird species recorded in PEI, and 12 in Quebec, and the whales the only notable mammals.

June 28 – Today we begin our exploration of the Madeleine island archipelago , consisting of about twelve islands, six of which are connected by sand dunes by the 65 km long Hwy 199.

Iles de la Madeleine

Before breakfast we bird the wooded slopes on Cap aux Meules Island, tallying over 20 species, several being heard-only, but we do get good looks at a Winter Wren. By late June, many birds are no longer singing with much vigour and two of our target birds, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher and Mourning Warbler prove elusive and remain on our wanted list at the end of our stay on the islands.

Sand dunes on Madeleine Islands

After breakfast we head north-east along Hwy 199, finally reaching Grand Entrée at lunchtime. Along the way we explore the dunes and marshes and take in the small communities and harbours, watching the fishing boats disgorging their catches of scallops, crabs and lobsters. We have excellent looks at both Common and Arctic Terns, Black and White-winged Scoters, Black Guillemots, Common Murres  and several species of sparrow (but unfortunately no Nelson’s).

Black Guillemot
Swamp Sparrow

A family of Red Foxes provides much amusement. This mammal is seen frequently on the islands. In contrast to the fertile soil of PEI, we see few signs of agriculture here. Two dead humpback whales on a long sandy beach are less appealing.

On our return south we check several beaches for signs of Piping Plover, without success. Scoping an offshore rocky island reveals both the numerous Double-crested Cormorants and a number of Great Cormorants. Arriving back at Cap aux Meules, we go into the office of Excursions en Mer to enquire about the possibility of a trip by zodiac to Ile Brion tomorrow. We are in luck, as the weather conditons look favorable and we will be on the second trip which will leave Grand Ile at 11:00 AM. Charming Pauline explains what the trip involves, and tells us she will be acting as our guide on the island tomorrow. She also tells us where to find the scarce Piping Plover on Cap-aux Meules.

We have dinner at a funky café at Cap Etang du Nord, and head home for an early night to ensure a good night’s sleep before tomorrow’s adventure.
An unusual dining experience at Le Salon de The Le Flaneur

June 29 – After a quick breakfast at Tim Horton’s, we do a couple of hours birding in the south before heading up to the harbor at Grand Ile. We are delighted to find a Piping Plover very close to where we park the vehicle by the Dune du Nord, a long expanse of sand dunes. Less delightful is watching a man walk his dogs right where the endangered plover is nesting.
Piping Plover

Our Quebec list is growing steadily, and as we await the zodiac a Glaucous Gull is a pleasant addition. Along with six other intrepid adventurers, we board the zodiac promptly at 11:00  AM. Captain Gaston (and owner of Excursions en Mer) explains the itinerary: a ½ hour journey to Ile Brion; 1 ¼ hours sailing around the island to a landing point; 2 ½ hours on the island; then ½ hour back to Grand Ile. The journey across is very smooth, everyone is having a great time and besides the expected sea birds we are lucky to spot a Manx Shearwater and a Long-tailed Jaeger. The sea cliffs of Ile Brion are filled with nesting Black-legged Kittiwakes, Common Murres, Atlantic Puffins and Razorbills. Several colonies of Grey and Harbour Seals are encountered.

Black-legged Kittiwake
Part of a Large Colony of Common Murres

Atlantic Puffin

We land on a rocky beach, where we are greeted by Pauline. The morning group leaves on the zodiac and we are left behind to enjoy the peace of the island, and a picnic lunch on the beach where the seals can be seen close up.

Our guide Pauline communes with Harbour Seals
We walked to the beach across beautiful meadows and a forest of stunted trees, past the lighthouse. descending the cliff down a narrow gully with a rope to hang on to. Almost all of the uninhabited island is now an ecological reserve, returning to the state it was in when discovered by Jacques Cartier in 1534. The island had been inhabited by one family for about a hundred years until the 1960s, as well as fishermen who lived there in the summer months.

Walking across the meadow at Ile Brion
On the beach at Ile Brion

Time passes quickly and we return to the landing beach, where Captain Gaston soon appears in his zodiac. We are quite unprepared for the rough return crossing, and our backs take a beating as the zodiac leaps and tosses like a bronco at the Calgary Stampede. But it’s only a ½ hour before we are back on dry land at 4 PM.

We spend the next three hours returning to the south end of the island chain, checking out a few birding spots we haven’t visited yet, and enjoying the views under glorious sunny skies. A Black-headed Gull is a surprise sighting.

Black-headed Gull

We have dinner at a lobster “factory”, and spend our last night on the Iles de la Madeleine with many happy memories.
Evening on Iles de la Madeleine


  1. Hey guys, this is Alix. I spoke to you tonight across from the Red Cap in Pubnico. Just wanted to say that I am very very jealous of your amazing adventure.

    The place that I suggested you go to tomorrow is called Goose Creek Marsh, here is a google maps link:,-65.887499&spn=0.008907,0.01929&t=h&z=16

    The Facebook group that I was talking about is called "Nova Scotia Bird Society". It shouldn't be hard to find.

    For a lot of information on the terns of the area and much more go to:

    I with you the best of luck for the remainder of your trip.

  2. Hi Alix, it was nice to meet you yesterday and to learn a bit about the birds in the area from you. We enjoyed a brief walk at Goose Creek Marsh this morning before going to see the terns. Brian