Off-the-Beaten-Path Birding in Central Newfoundland
This travel article is brought to you in collaboration with our friends, Catherine Dale and Laura King.
Travelling throughout Newfoundland and Labrador’s back-country is all about the excitement of embarking into the unknown, and there’s nothing like getting into the remote corners of boreal forest to wake up your inner wilderness explorer.
To know the wildlife of the island of Newfoundland means knowing its birds. Our iconic and well-loved moose are routinely spotted and caribou if you know where to look, but seeing and hearing birds is a part of daily life across the island. For a province known for its puffins, it might come as a surprise that Newfoundland and Labrador is host to hundreds of other bird species (411 at last count). So it’s well worth spending some time getting to know all the other little gems that stud our landscapes, like flycatchers and falcons, warblers and wigeons, bunting and bitterns, kingfishers and kinglets.
A Belted Kingfisher surveys his pond kingdom in Summerford, NL. Photo by Catherine Dale.
There are many spots to bird, and you’ve likely heard of places like Witless Bay and Cape St. Mary’s. But some of the best birding is found in central Newfoundland, where the wide open spaces of the more remote areas provide an abundance of boreal forest habitat, and breeding bird densities can be higher. So exploring the back-country and bays can really pay off in a trip that’s low on stress, high in birds, and full of pure nature.
The Baie Verte Peninsula
A male Pine Grosbeak in a spruce tree near the town of La Scie. Photo by Catherine Dale.
If the early bird gets the worm, then the early birder gets the bird. While getting up before sunrise is a challenge, early mornings offer the best birding, so it’s worth it. In La Scie, a small town near the tip of the Baie Verte Peninsula, your day might begin with encounters with Northern Waterthrush and Pine Grosbeaks, set to a soundtrack of White-throated Sparrow song, the anthem of the boreal forest. The Pine Grosbreaks are a particularly eye-catching bird thanks to their scarlet red colouring—they're also friendly birds, not too wary of humans, and not too energetic (which has earned them their nickname of "Mope" here in Newfoundland and Labrador).
As you're bird-watching, don't forget to take in the stunning coastal views punctuated by colourfully decorated sheds, picnic tables, and wharves. Nestled into emerald green forested hillsides, this small fishing village offers miles and miles of back-country for bird explorations.
Summer evenings on the Baie Verte Peninsula mean comfy B&Bs and saltbox accommodations that bring a perfect day of birding to a perfect close. Stay at the Harbour View House, or the Hometown Comfort B&B. Cozying up with tea and a bird book while an owl hoots outside is a proper evening in La Scie.
A Tree Swallow dressed in vivid blues. Photo by Catherine Dale.
No birding excursion in Central Newfoundland is complete without a visit to Grand Falls-Windsor’s Corduroy Brook Nature Centre and Trail, where you can watch families of Tree Swallows zip and zoom over the gorgeous, expansive marshes that surround the nature interpretation centre. The American Bittern, a type of heron, can be seen and heard here—listen for their gulping calls echoing repeatedly across the cattails. Grand Falls-Windsor’s historic downtown provides dining options from classy to casual, but there’s nothing like giant burger from Juniper Kitchen & Bistro for dinner (or some sweet treats from the Common Grounds Cafe) after a long day of hiking up and down hills.
Worth waking up for: sunrise in the town of St. Alban’s. The expansive flats of St. Alban’s are home to shorebirds, songbirds, waterfowl, and great photo opportunities. Photo by Laura King.
Heading south, the community of St. Alban’s on Newfoundland’s southern shore stuns with its bright blue open skies, wide estuary, and easily accessible beach. Take the time to scan the expansive mud flats for graceful Greater Yellowlegs, chunky Spotted Sandpipers, and other shorebirds.
This Mourning Warbler carries a mouthful of food for her nestlings, clear evidence that she’s breeding nearby. Photo by Jared Clarke.
The rutted back-country trails weaving over the rounded mountains hugging Bay d’Espoir offer the opportunity to get deep into the boreal forest—perfect for encountering breeding birds like Mourning Warblers, Tennessee Warblers, American Redstarts, and Yellow-bellied Flycatchers. Every spring and summer, these tiny colourful birds breed in the boreal forest across the province, spending their time gorging on insects and raising their young. Bring a bug jacket and your camera, and prepare for some up close and personal encounters with these lively visitors.
Road with a view! Resource roads, or logging roads, offer rugged, isolated hiking challenges in areas few travellers get to experience. Photo by Catherine Dale.
After all that hiking, enjoy a refreshing dip and a picnic on the sandy beach at the south end of St. Alban’s, where the occasional boat zips past and birds drift overhead, before getting back on the road to explore some more.
Notre Dame Bay
Cottlesville, a small town on the north coast not too far from Twillingate, offers a mix of forest and coastal habitats, not to mention endless photo opportunities. At sunrise, the morning mists hover lazily over the water’s surface, and at sunset, the bays and inlets separating the archipelago’s islands glow orange with reflected light.
Nearby, the Summerford Hiking Trails—an enchanted place complete with whimsically decorated tire swings—are filled with the sweet whistles of Yellow Warblers, clear fluting of Swainson’s Thrushes, and slurred song of Fox Sparrows. Don’t be surprised if you hear a cacophony of calls coming from the trunk of a nearby tree. Many species, like woodpeckers, nest in holes within trees, and as the nestlings get older, they can get pretty noisy.
What to Pack For Your Birding Adventure
If you're out birding along Newfoundland and Labrador's back-country terrain, here are some useful items you'll want to bring with you:
- GPS units—many of these areas have limited (or no) cell phone service
- Microphones for capturing and identifying birdsong
- Tons of extra layers (the weather can turn on a dime)
- Water and snacks for long days
- Your camera
- Checklists for keeping track of your sightings
One of the most exciting things about birding in central Newfoundland is the aspect of discovery. Many areas of the island are rarely visited, and you might easily be the first person to visit a spot - and the first to encounter a species never before recorded there.
While searching for birds at the far-flung edges of the island, you can also contribute to an ongoing citizen science project, the Newfoundland Breeding Bird Atlas. Led by Birds Canada, the atlas is a five-year project aiming to map the distribution of all the bird species breeding on the island. That’s a lot of ground to cover, so the success of the project depends on the participation of citizen scientists, who can add their sightings to the online database. Contributing to the Atlas is a great way to share your birding encounters and help expand our knowledge about Newfoundland’s breeding birds.
Watching the sun rise over the coast, feeling the chill in the air on foggy mornings, and exploring the roads less travelled in pursuit of some of the smallest, least-seen birds of the island is an experience not to be missed. If you’re visiting Newfoundland and Labrador, make sure not to miss the huge skies, exciting wildlife encounters, and challenging hiking that can be found beyond the major centres. And of course, keep your ears open for all the birds of the backcountry and bays.
Catherine Dale is a biologist and a self-professed bird nerd. She works for Birds Canada as the Coordinator of the Newfoundland Breeding Bird Atlas, and enjoys any opportunity to get out and explore the nooks and crannies of this amazing province.
Laura King is a naturalist and outdoorswoman who works as a biologist and serves as President at Nature NL. She likes spontaneous road trips to new parts of NL, paddling, and of course, all the wildlife of our beautiful province.
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