Northern Gannets on Bonaventure Island

Welcome to Wing and Song – It’s a bird thing. The header features nesting Northern Gannets on Bonaventure Island that I saw when I visited Quebec Province during the summer of 2006.

Little white puff balls rested delicately under many of the female gannets on the cliff top nesting spot. Some were curled around their mothers’ feet, and others born earlier, were sitting and nuzzling their moms. The nesting birds, with their white bodies, butterscotch colored heads and long spear-like beaks outlined in black, were clustered tightly over the top of the cliff as far as the eye could see, creating a mat of white.

Above the cliffs their mates circled over the Gulf of St. Lawrence, their six-foot wingspans flapping and gliding gracefully. There were so many birds circling, it resembled a snowstorm. Occasionally, one would abandon flight and knife vertically down into the water to capture a fish. When it returned to the nest site, each mate bowed in formal greeting, much as they do in their courtship ritual.

I had traveled to the three and a half mile long Bonaventure Island, off the far eastern coast of Quebec’s Gaspe Peninsula – the site of the world’s largest gannetry, specifically to view the nesting spectacle of the Northern Gannets. Close to 100,000 gannets start congregating in late April and will occupy their nesting site until late September when the young birds are able to fend for themselves and take to the sea.

Male gannets choose a nest site when they are three to five years old, and spend the first season courting a mate they will stay with for many years and building the nest they will occupy season after season. The “starter nest” is constructed of seaweed and sticks. In subsequent years it will contain mounds of feathers, fish skeletons and droppings. In the second and subsequent season, a single egg is laid in late May or early June, and the babies start hatching in early to mid July.

I spent the night prior to my visit at La Cote Surprise – a delightfully welcoming motor hotel just outside of Perce. Theresa, the owner, wrote down the name of the boulangerie where she purchases her bread. “They will make you a sandwich for your picnic lunch on the island,” she promised.

The Les Bateliers de Perce tour boat cruised by Perce Rock, a 288 feet high limestone block just off the coast, then circled Bonaventure Island so we could see the gannets that nested along the cliff ledges, along with Common Murres, Razorbills, Black Guillemots, and Black-legged Kittiwakes, a small gull, each with its own narrow shelves on the sheer cliff.

Six Razorbills, looking like miniature penguins, stood on the edge of a rock near the water. It was fascinating to watch them take, what was obviously, their first plunge into the sea. The bravest jumped off first, followed by the others as they got up the nerve. It reminded me of a similar scene in the movie March of the Penguins.

After disembarking, the staff of Parc national de l’île-Bonaventure, divided us into two groups – francophones and English speakers – to get information on the trails and learn the history of the island. There were only five in our group.

The island was originally settled by immigrants from the British island of Jersey – because they could speak both French and English. They worked as fishermen from the early 1800’s until 1919 when the island was set aside as a protected bird sanctuary.

I followed the 1.6 mi. Colony Trail heading up and across the island, passing through wildflower covered slopes and dense forest. There were ample log benches along the trail. I knew I was approaching the viewing spot when whiffs of guano began mixing with the damp forest smells. Then I became aware of a low rumble of bird conversation that reminded me of the Sandhill Cranes as they settle in for the evening at the Bosque del Apache. I opted to wait to eat my sandwich until well along the return trail!

I wound my way back on the 2.8 mi. Chemin du Roy trail that skirts the perimeter of the island, descending over a series of boardwalks and wooden stairs. When I was out of the forest, the trail meandered through meadows that overlooked the coastline and passed by some of the remains of the original fishing settlement. The bushes were laden with Cedar Waxwings with their yellow breast and black masks. Song and Savannah Sparrows flitted through the grasses.

As the boat pulled back into the Perce harbor, tourists were scrambling over the exposed rocks between Perce Rock and the mainland. After walking almost 5 miles, I opted out of this experience.

This is a trip that is interesting to birders and non-birders alike.

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