Cape St. Mary’s Ecological Preserve lies at the southernmost tip of the southwest peninsula on the Avalon Peninsula in Newfoundland. It is usually shrouded in fog. In fact, the day that we drove there from St. John’s, Newfoundland’s biggest and most colorful city, it was sunny and warm. But as we wound our way down the peninsula the fog rolled in, thick, foreboding, even a bit eerie as it crept along the bogs and over the narrow road. It lifted a bit as we entered the visitor center at the beginning of the mile long trail, and from the large windows we could see bird rock, a huge outcropping jutting up a couple hundred feet from the sea by the cliffs that lined the shore (see photo). Bird rock gets its name from the thousands of birds who nest in every foot of space. Years ago the birds who claimed the rock were murres; now they are gannets. They nest all over the cliffs, and you can hear them (and smell their guano) more than a mile away.
We walked to bird rock, arriving to a cacophony. The gannets, beautiful, prehistoric-looking birds, come to the same nest each year with the same mate. They lay their egg and spend all summer caring for their chick, who lies mostly immobile on the sparse nest, lest she fall to her death off the cliff edge before being able to fly. There are ten thousand gannets who nest here, another ten thousand murres, and as many kittiwakes. There are a few hundred razor bills – the closest relatives of the extinct great auk – and they all share what looks like crowded high rise apartment buildings. Though territorial, they tolerate each other surprisingly well, given that they may have a mere square foot or two of space.
This year the summer in southern Newfoundland has been hot and dry. The winds are coming from the west bringing warm air. And the capelin, abundant in the north where we watched the whales, haven’t come to their bays in the south. Thus the murres who depend upon the capelin have laid few eggs, and there are no chicks in sight. The kittiwakes are leaving their chicks alone on their nests to find food, whereas in normal years either the father or mother would stay behind with them. It’s possible that there are more single parents this year due to lack of food as well.
There are more icebergs, too. This may sound counterintuitive. How can there be more icebergs when the water is warmer? The icebergs calve off the great glaciers in Greenland and travel for 2-3 years around the coast of Greenland, over to Labrador, and follow the Labrador current down to Newfoundland. With global warming there are more calving icebergs traveling their several year journey.
We’re all connected, and it’s so very obvious when you sit at Cape St. Mary’s and pay close attention to the birds surrounding you. In the midst of my own awe and gratitude for the privilege of seeing this wondrous place, I couldn’t help but regret the role I played in contributing to the persistent problems befalling these animals. My trip to Newfoundland, the fuel I consumed just to get to this magnificent land, plays a destructive part. I watched the birds in amazement and with deep appreciation, and knew that we visitors help protect this rare place by ensuring its preserve status. But we also harm it.
MOGO choices are occasionally simple and clear. Sometimes they are challenging. What is MOGO for me – to witness and experience the natural world I seek to protect – isn’t always MOGO for those I seek to help. Yet these experiences further ignite my passion to help because my awe and wonder spur greater knowledge, understanding and more committed action.
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