Birding Along the New Trans-Labrador Highway

10 Jan 2011

Be there a birder in temperate North America that has not dreamed of a visit to Labrador much like J.J. Audubon did. Well dream no more! You may not be able to follow in the footsteps of J.J., but you can now drive into and across the Labrador Peninsula.

In 1987, Route 389 from Baie-Comeau, PQ, was opened, allowing one to drive the 375 miles northward through Quebec and into western Labrador. In 1991, Highway 500 was pushed through 300 miles of wilderness to Goose Bay in central Labrador. Finally, at the end of 2009, the Trans-Labrador Highway made the 230-mile connection to Cartwright on coastal Labrador then onward 200 miles to the lower north shore of Quebec.
Taking this drive, which is mainly on gravel, will allow you to travel through the boreal forest, and with a side trip, allow you to dip into Subarctic tundra. While this trip can be done with the family car, be advised that gravel roads are best suited to an SUV, especially in winter time. Travelling off the beaten path means gas, food, and rest stops can be few and far between (up to 200 or so miles apart), and there is also very little cellphone coverage. Forewarned is forearmed.
Now that I have instilled the idea, given the particulars and stated the caveats, what can you expect?

There is no need to list the common boreal birds or the waterfowl or the birds that inhabit or pass through most of North America, so let’s look at a few ‘Labrador Birds’.
First has to be the Willow Ptarmigan. This bird has an unofficial status as the Labrador State Bird and it can be seen year round in all of Labrador. Sightings are less common but possible for its cousin the Rock Ptarmigan. Both birds are at their best in winter, often seen along roadsides, when they are all white except for a bit of black on the tail.
Close to the top of my list would also be the Boreal Owl, a small year-round owl with a really great call in mating season. Also seen regularly is the Northern Hawk Owl, a bigger cousin seen a lot in daytime. Another great sighting would be the Gyrfalcon; although rare in a lot of Labrador, it winters on the coast and is year round in the northern part.
If one spends time on the coast, two great possibilities are the Common Eider year round and the King Eider in the winter. A really great Gull to see is the Ivory; on occasion, it has been seen well into central Labrador in winter, feeding on the remains of caribou kills.
Winter is also a great time to see hordes of Common Redpolls and the lesser often seen Hoary Redpoll. Another great sight in towns is the Bohemian Waxwing in January – February, as they harvest the berries on the mountain ash trees. Common at feeders in winter are the Pine Grosbeaks and Boreal Chickadees.
At almost any time of year one is sure to see the Gray Jay and White-winged Crossbill as well as the ever present Raven which is flying even at -40F. Be on the lookout for Woodpeckers such as the Three-toed and the Black-backed. The Northern Shrike is seen in most parts of central and coastal Labrador all year.
I am sure from the birds mentioned above most readers can find a few to add to their life list. If not that, I am sure you will have taken a drive of a lifetime full of scenic beauty that you will often talk about with very little prompting.