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:
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.