Of course, that’s not the only reason we wanted to go to the Maritimes. But that’s the reason we made a beeline for Big Bras d’Or, a hamlet in Nova Scotia perched on the edge of Bras d’Or Lake. This is the closest spot for visiting Bird Islands, a favorite nesting site for puffins and other seabirds. Mid-July was an excellent time to be there for our birding quest.
Speeding To Our Destination
It is a long way from Québec City to Bird Islands. But we were determined, so we pushed through about 750 miles in a week. For us, that’s moving really quickly. Knowing that we had two full months to leisurely explore the Maritimes after our visit to Bird Islands made it easier to hurry along.
Despite our speedy pace, we had fun along the way:
Click on photos for captions and larger image
Boating To Bird Islands
An inland sea in the heart of Cape Breton Island, Bras d’Or Lake is set in a storybook landscape of craggy coastline and rolling green hills. On small rocky islands in the channels leading to the sea, seabirds find respite from most predators. Couple that with a plentiful supply of small fish, and it provides an ideal habitat for supporting the largest seabird colony in the Maritimes. The natural beauty, wildlife-rich environment, and dedication of the locals to preserving this special place has earned Bras d’Or Lake the designation as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.
We arrived in Big Bras d’Or late afternoon, just in time to set up camp and relax. But as we were checking in, the captain of the Puffin Express appeared in the doorway of the campground office. “Our afternoon tour leaves in 10 minutes…and the conditions are perfect,” he said. And he strongly suggested that we take advantage of the calm seas for our trip to Bird Islands. We backed into our campsite, grabbed our cameras, and headed out for a three-hour boat tour.
Puffin Success On The Puffin Express
A 45-minute boat ride (replete with nonstop education about the history, nature, and culture of the area) brought us to Bird Islands, and we suddenly found ourselves surrounded by floating, diving, and flying Atlantic Puffins. It was all we had hoped for.
Dressed in little black-and-white tuxedos and sporting huge, colorfully striped bills, Atlantic Puffins are sometimes called ‘clowns of the sea.’ I think they’re one of the most adorable birds on the planet.
Puffins are awkward in flight—they look like 10-inch bowling pins with wings. But they can reach speeds of 55 miles per hour by flapping their little wings 400 times per minute. (Hence, we have no photos of them in flight.) Under the sea, they use their short wings as powerful flippers and their webbed feet as rudders, moving effortlessly through the water as they gather beakfuls of small fish.
Atlantic Puffins spend most of their lives far out at sea and are only on land during nesting season, from late April through August. From all accounts, June and July are the best months to observe the birds, because they’re busy fishing and flying back and forth to their burrows to feed their young.
As far as their home life, puffin couples are monogamous and return to the same burrow year after year. They’re social creatures, and place their nesting burrows close to one another. Relatively long-lived (about 20 years in the wild), Atlantic Puffins produce only one chick each year, called a ‘puffling.’ I think they win the prize for the cutest baby bird name. I only wish we could have seen a puffling.
Other Residents Of Bird Islands
Along with Atlantic Puffins, we saw Razorbills and Black-legged Kittiwakes. They all get along well together.
Razorbills are very cool looking birds. Closely related to the extinct Great Auk, they’re plentiful on Bird Islands.
Although the Black-legged Kittiwake is in the gull family, it isn’t a predator or scavenger. This small crow-sized gull fishes for its food, diving into the water much like a tern (you’ll never see other gulls dive into the water).
Bald Eagles—of which there are many in the Bird Islands—are not a welcome sighting. They are major predators of the puffins. As are Black-backed Gulls, who eat eggs, chicks, and even adult puffins. Boo. Hiss.
This was the first time we’ve seen Grey Seals. They live along the North Atlantic coast, and although we were delighted to see them, the local fishermen are not so happy with the seals because their numbers continue to increase, and they decimate the fish population.
About The Campground
It was a fabulous trip. We highly recommend Bird Island Boat Tours, and we found it convenient to stay at the funky little Mountain Vista Seaside Campground, owned by the captain and his wife. The campground isn’t much—grassy sites, decent spacing, electric and water hookups. The bathrooms and showers are beyond rustic (we used our own) and there are a couple of ancient washers and dryers that get the job done. We enjoyed hanging out down by the water, and it was wonderfully convenient to walk to the boat from our campsite.
Awesome, you find the most amazing places to explore…have you done the Gaspe’ yet? Definitely a must see…
Julie, we haven’t done the Gaspé Peninsula yet, but I know you guys loved it! So many places to explore…
They are the most wonderful looking creatures, I can only imagine how sweet the little Puffllings are! They belong on the pages of a children’s book!
Sue, they really are adorable, aren’t they? And they’re so much fun to observe in the wild.
Marvelous photos, as always! I love the eagles, but am sorry they are such a nuisance. The Puffins are adorable. What a fun spot to explore.
I’m glad you enjoyed the photos, Les. Even though we had calm waters, it’s still a challenge photographing moving birds from a boat! The eagles (and gulls) are a significant problem for the puffins. :-(
What beautiful photos of the puffins. I think the captain might be a distant relative of Eric’s. I thought it was Eric in the picture at first.
LOL, no, that wasn’t Eric! All those guys with white beards look alike, huh? I’m glad you enjoyed the puffin photos, Sheila. They’re very photogenic.
Puffins!!! So adorable! And “pufflings!” I agree, possibly the cutest baby animal name. I looked up what they look like, though, and I must say, they’re way cuter as adults. Are bald eagles protected there or could you have had some grilled bald eagle to help save the puffins? (I kid, I kid. Mostly.) Also, I’m guessing the grey seals can’t be eaten, either, which would probably help the whole seal-to-fish balance. (I’m not kidding with this one, though.) But mostly, puffins!!!
Joodie, anything with the name ‘puffling’ should be adorable, right? They’re still pretty cute, even as balls of gray fluff, but they definitely grow into their maximum cuteness as adults. :-)
Bald Eagles are protected everywhere, hence, their populations have exploded everywhere. They just hang out in the puffin nesting grounds waiting for easy pickings—we saw dozens of eagles! Poor puffins. And the seals are protected, too, which is why there are too many. Obviously, it’s a challenge to protect species and to not have their populations grow out of control.
I can see it now, preparing for their adventure:
Laurel: “Oh, honey, would you please wear your nifty sailor outfit today? You know, the one with the epaulets and natty cap.”
Eric: “Sure thing, babe. Why, it’s your lucky day because it just came back from the dry cleaners!”
Actually, even tho’ it’s not Eric it looks great. And, nice photos and writing, too. Thanks!
Hahaha, you made our day, Doug! Eric and I are still laughing! Now I want to get a ‘nifty sailor outfit’ for Eric that he can wear whenever we’re boating, including kayaking. But I’m hoping for something wash-and-wear.
I’m so glad to hear from you, and to know that you’re still following along with our adventures. Are you and Sue set up in your luxurious camp for your Anza Borrego winter vacation? One of these days we’d love to join you there again. Big hugs to you both!
We loved the puffins our our trip to Alaska on the Alaskan Ferry. They eat so much that they can barely fly sometimes. Glad you had that perfect day and great captain.
Traveling to Alaska by ferry is on our list of things we’d love to do, Deb. So it’s very cool that we can anticipate seeing puffins! And that would add another puffin species to our bird sightings. So funny they eat so much they can barely fly.
I’ve seen puffins at Cape Flattery in WA and I so wanted see them in the Maritimes. Never did, or a moose either. We did see quite a few eagles, I never thought of them as evil! The circle of life.
We are currently at Poche’s RV and Fish Camp due to your stories. I love it here, we’re kayaking with the alligators. I’m born and raised in Central Louisiana but I used your posts to plan our trip! Y’all are great tour guides.
Thank you so much, Nancy! I’m so glad to know that our posts give you some ideas for your travels. And I’m happy to hear that you’re loving Poche’s. That’s such a great campground and location for exploring Cajun Country. I think we’ve been there five or six times because there’s so much to do.
We also saw puffins at Cape Flattery, but we only saw a couple and they were far away. I’m happy we FINALLY got up close to puffins in the Maritimes. The boat tour is the only way we would have seen them, but that made it even more fun!
The puffin are so darn cute! Lucky you hit the island with so many around. They don’t look real with that beautiful, colorful beak. Who knew the Bald Eagle was so vicious when it comes to the puffin!!
Pam, they really are cute, aren’t they? We planned our trip deliberately to be there for the best opportunity for seeing large numbers of puffins. They can be there into August, but we didn’t want to miss our chance…it was so worth it!
Are they related to Penguins?
That’s a good question, TBG. And it seems like they should be, because of their similar black and white outfits and their love of fish. But they are entirely different families of birds, not even cousins!
Puffins and pufflings!! They are charmingly named and charmingly shaped and charmingly colored. It’s so great that you were able to see them in a perfect locale on a perfect sea day. I had no idea that they spend most of their non-breeding time at sea — somehow when I think of long-term sea birds I only think of albatrosses with their impossibly long glider wings. So now my favorite thing about puffins is the endurance they show with their not-exactly-model-thin bodies!
Also, I’m glad that you made that longer stay in the Adirondacks before hitting Quebec, because if you were already exhausted that trek of 750 miles in one week might have done you in completely. And then we would have missed all the forthcoming tales of the Maritimes, a places that is high on my wish list for a future summer.
Shannon, they really are charming birds, in every way. And they even have charming personalities and behaviors, like ‘bowing’ to each other in greeting. It has always seemed like a hard life to me, to think of a small bird spending months far out at sea with no land to rest on. I know they rest on the water, but still…
We were so excited about the opportunity to see puffins that we were okay with the 750-mile fast trek. Had we realized earlier in our planning that seeing puffins was a possibility, we would have likely come into the Maritimes a month earlier so that we didn’t end up backtracking. But then we would have missed out on our leisurely travels along the way. Planning travels is always like putting together a big puzzle!
Pufflings … such a cute name. I loved seeing the puffins when we went to Svalbard … and saw them again in Alaska. But something about the razorbills really called to me. I’m going to bookmark this post. Now that we have a smaller motorhome, I’m hoping we get to Canada on a roadtrip in the next few years.
Erin, we had never seen Razorbills, either…they are such striking looking birds! I’m so glad that this post is inspiring you to make a trip to Bird Islands. I look forward to seeing your photography. Oh, and as I’m sure you already know, your smaller motorhome will be ideal for traveling in the Maritimes.
Wow. I didn’t think I could ever root against a Bald Eagle, but here we are! Don’t they realize that puffins are adorable, and give us the even MORE adorable pufflings?? Jeez. Way to be rude, eagles!
You definitely had great timing showing up when you did. I’m glad that worked out after all the extra miles. I’m sure you were exhausted, but the reward was certainly worth it!
I’m looking forward to your posts about the Cabot Trail! One of our favorite scenic drives!
Laura, despite the majestic appearance of Bald Eagles, their behavior does NOT make them endearing. They are scavengers, thieves (they steal food from other birds), and they murder cute little baby birds. :-(( In fact, Ben Franklin thought they were so despicable he proposed that turkeys should be our national bird, LOL.
Anyway, we loved seeing the puffins. It was a great way to kick off our two months of fabulous adventures in the Maritimes!
Great timing for your arrival!! The Puffins colors are so intense and defined. Bowling pins indeed. I’ve never seen them in flight or in the wild, glad you were able to reach that goal. The Razorbills are unique as well. I’m hoping we can get to the Maritimes eventually (they’re just so far “over there”!)
Jodee, the Maritimes are far away, indeed. What surprised us was how easy the trip was! We were not looking forward to driving and towing on the East Coast, but we had no problems at all. We would happily return to the Maritimes, for more puffin sightings and everything else! For the most part, our travels were leisurely, which helps a lot.
Great reading about puffins and seeing your beautiful photos! I love the bright color of their beaks. Seems the long drive was well worth it for such good birding opportunities.
The puffins are delightful, Peta! They make me happy, just looking at them and observing their endearing behavior. It was a long drive to visit them, but worth it! And we were also happy to slow way down for the rest of our Maritime explorations.
It’s been awhile since I’ve posted due to two back to back rather serious surgeries for Mike. We just kinda “got through each day” and it left no time for blogging. But now things are getting better…I’ll have to go back to catch myself up with what you guys have been up to.
Those Puffins are adorable…I agree I think they are the cutest bird!! We have never been to Bird Islands but will put this on our “to do” list. It sounds amazing for sure!!
Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that Mike has had two surgeries. We send our best wishes to both of you. I’m glad to hear from you, Geri. If you guys get the chance, you will love Bird Islands and the puffins. Here’s hoping you’re able to get back to your travels soon!
Boy did I have to scroll and scroll to get to the comment form below all your comments.
Not surprising given how gorgeous your blog is. What fabulous pictures, as usual. Those puffins are just simply darling. 750 miles in a week makes me grit my teeth but it looks like it was worth it. I’m with you all the way on our not so admirable national bird.
I’m so glad you enjoyed the photos, Sherry. And I’m happy to hear from you! Aren’t the puffins adorable? They were worth the 750-mile trek, for sure. We would do it again. And yeah, our national bird looks majestic, but…
Pufflings, I love it!
Leah, isn’t ‘puffling’ the best name? Hope you’re doing well, my friend.
And here I thought we have explored the Maritimes thoroughly! Only you and Eric would know places where birds hang out and this time at Bird Island which I never heard of. Too bad we are not going back that way or we would follow your trail to see those cute and also menacing birds. We have seen the puffins and kittiwakes in Alaska but not the Razorbills!
I sure hope though that you did stop in between Quebec and Bird Islands :)
Love all the critters on this post.
Mona Liza, I thought of you when we were on that boat trip, knowing that you would love the puffins, razorbills, and other birdlife. It was a wonderful adventure!
And yes, we stopped several places for a night or two in between Quebec City and Bird Islands. We don’t like traveling more than 200 miles in a day. But our goal was to get to Bird Islands for prime bird sightings, so hurried along, and then slowed way down for the rest of our Maritimes explorations.