A Wild Coast Twitcher’s Delight

Newfoundland and Labrador is on the migration route of a variety of birds, especially during the spring and fall migration periods, when storms often carry rare species here. The location, number and variety of these windblown rarities draws twitchers – birdwatchers – from all over. Take a two-day excursion through southwestern Newfoundland, and don’t forget your binoculars.

Day 1 – Birds and shipwrecks

Step off the ferry in Port aux Basques and you’re in a new world. Just the name gives it away. There were Basque fishermen and whalers here hundreds of years ago, followed by French and English fishermen and Scottish farmers. The mariners came for fish and the farmers for the fertile Codroy Valley. Birds, however, had much earlier discovered this area of sandy beaches, abundant food and natural places, and they chose it as their migration destination.

The Railway Heritage Centre in the town houses a rare 17th-century astrolabe, an early navigation tool found in the ocean by a local diver. A stroll along Scott’s Cove Boardwalk from the ferry terminal to a park is a good way to stertch those sea legs and take in a view of the port. The town is also the starting point for a 24-km hiking trail along the abandoned railbed to McDougal Gulch and nearby Wreckhouse, where Lauchie McDougal was once employed to warn the railway of dangerously high winds. The trail continues about 900 km all the way to St. John’s.

Take the Granite Coast Scenic Drive, Route 470 - which takes you to the ominously named Isles aux Morts (Isles of the Dead) and the town’s museum, Walter House, once a church and school. Perhaps the town’s most famous residents were George Harvey and his daughter Ann who, in 1828, saved almost the entire crew and passengers of the vessel Despatch which ran into trouble and sank, joining scores of other vessels lying on the seabed in this particular area of the coast. The town’s name, it appears, is apt.

At the end of the road in Rose Blanche – French for the reddish rocks in the area – you’ll find the restored granite Rose Blanche Lighthouse, one of the last of its kind on the Atlantic coast. From here you can catch a coastal boat – just passengers, no autos – east to the tiny, remote fishing village of La Poile.

Day 2 – Forests, valleys and mountains

Today will take you on a short drive north along Route 1 into forests, valleys and mountains – a complete contrast from yesterday’s barren, coastal landscape. Grand Bay East, just west of Port aux Basques, is a good place to spot a rare and endangered shorebird called the piping plover. Only about 500 of these quick-footed sand runners live in Atlantic Canada, so follow the signs and be careful not to disturb anything that looks like a nest. While the plovers enjoy the sand, other species are drawn to the salt marshes both for food and cover.

Going west again takes you to J.T. Cheeseman Provincial Park, another piping plover nesting area. Dusk is a good time to hear the common loon whose haunting cry is an icon of the Canadian north. You’ll also find the Canada goose and pine grosbeak. During spring or fall migration, the number and variety of birds passing through draws birdwatchers from all over. The lighthouse keeper’s house at Cape Ray on Route 408 features a museum and craft shop, plus artifacts from the nearby Dorset Paleoeskimo archaeology site.

Head north again on Route 1 to Route 407, which takes you to the Codroy Valley and its famous International Wetlands, another spectacular birdwatching area - 925 hectares of estuary at the mouth of the Grand Codroy River. Much of the area is covered by dune grass and eel grass, and birds such as black duck, pintail, green-winged teal, American wigeon and greater scaup. There’s an interpretation centre on the estuary where naturalists can answer any questions. Depending on the time of year, you may see rarities, especially following periods of strong easterly or westerly wind. The easterlies may blow birds from Europe or Iceland across the Atlantic, and westerlies may bring birds from the southeast centre of the continent. The Indoor Wildlife Exhibit and Nature Park at Doyles on Route 406 have exhibits on over 300 animals and birds.

As you drive around the valley, you’ll see working farms, because this area has some of the most fertile soil in the province. It was settled by the French in the 1700s, and later by Scots and Channel Islanders. The Scots are famous as the inventors of golf, and you’ll find a 9-hole course at – where else – St. Andrew’s, on Route 407.

At the end of Route 406, at Cape Anguille, you’ll find a century-old lighthouse at the most westerly point of the island of Newfoundland. Intriguingly, the lightkeeper’s house has been converted to an inn, which boasts: ‘no TV’ and ‘no telephones.’