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Puffins

tbutler

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We left Gander, Newfoundland, on Friday, July 31 on our way to St. John's, NL. Along the way we passed through Terra Nova National Park. We spent several hours at the visitor's center and did some hiking around the area. We had hoped to stay in the park for several days to do further exploration but there were no spaces suitable for us in the campgrounds. They do have some spaces that we could fit into but they were already taken so we continued on late in the afternoon. Coming into Clarenville just south of Terra Nova we stopped at the visitors center as it looked like a good place to spend the night. Pulling into the parking lot we noticed a sign prohibiting overnight parking. We decided to ask if they had suggestions for places to stay. It turns out there was a Walmart less than a mile from the visitor's center. We asked about things to be seen in the area. Clarenville is located at the inland end of a long peninsula. This is typical topography for Newfoundland. We find that we are exploring Newfoundland one peninsula at a time. In this case, we parked the motor home at Walmart and took the car to explore the peninsula the next day.

Driving down the peninsula is always a slow process. There is one road, it goes through towns and speed limits are slower. The roads are rough in places and speed limits for the roads tend to max out at 80 KPH, about 55 MPH. Get off the main road and things go downhill rapidly. Potholes, dips, broken surface and just plain gravel and dirt roads are the rule, not the exception. Anyway it takes a while to get anywhere on these peninsulas. We set out on Saturday morning for a coastal hike, the Skerwink Trail, a 4.5 kilometer loop out of the town of East Trinity. Billed as one of the most beautiful hiking trails by Travel and Leisure Magazine. It lived up to its billing. The coastline is mostly seacliffs with sea stacks in many locations. Sea stacks are just sea cliffs that have been eroded away, separating them from the mainland. They are isolated pillars standing just off the coast. The trail skirts the edge of the cliffs so there is a constant scenic view of the bay, the coastal cliffs and the sea stacks. We spent a good four hours on the trail. I'm taking pictures so the time required to travel is directly related to the quality of the scenery.

On the trail we encountered a number of other hikers. One of the first groups to catch up and pass us was another retired couple, residents of the Toronto area. They recognized us a hikers, not just tourists out for a walk. We visited for a while and they tipped us off to several other hikes that were musts in Newfoundland. They also mentioned a location where we could see Puffins. It wasn't far from where we were so we put that on our list, one more thing to do today. Following the hike we set out immediately for Elliston. Remember what I said about secondary roads. The road to Elliston was 15 kilometers of all the things listed above, continuously, never any good pavement, creeping along we were the Butler bobbleheads.

Once in Elliston we had to find the exact location to see these Puffins. After a missed try a friendly gentleman gave us directions and we found the trail head to the Puffin viewing area. The trail led out toward the sea over one potential sea stack and then another before we finally ended up on a third about-to-be sea stack to be looking out at an actual sea stack. On that sea stack, the top covered with grasses and low plants, there were Puffins. Several hundred Puffins. This was a rookery. Puffins are pelagic birds, they spend most of their lives at sea. They are here on land only briefly to raise a chick and then they will return to the sea. Their nests are burrows, deep underground, up to six feet below the surface. That is where the egg is laid and the Puffin chick stays there until big enough to fly. Even at that the gulls and other predators will get most of the chicks. The few that survive will spend their next four to six years a sea before they return to land to breed and raise a chick.

So here we are, gazing across about 100 feet of air at this Puffin rookery. Their antics are quite entertaining, they walk funny, they fly as if they are hummingbird wannabees. Their short stubby wings are a blur. When they land they are quite entertaining with their red feet dangling as if they are stretching out for the land all the time the wings are beating like crazy. Their bills are beautiful in their breeding plumage, a blue vertical stripe accents the red tip of a massive bill. It is really a very strange looking bird which makes it even more interesting.

Another visitor to the site told us that if we stand back toward the center of the area they would land on our piece of real estate. We backed away and in just a few minutes we had Puffins within ten feet. Now that was a real nice look at these amazing birds. I took pictures, clicking them off as fast as possible. I had to stop now and then to wipe the moisture off the lens as the humidity was very high and everything was moist. It is late in the day and fog is starting to form. One memory card is filled with Puffin pictures, pop in the next one and take more pictures. One bird is walking directly toward me. I keep zooming out with my telephoto to be able to get the entire bird in the picture. I finally gave up, it was cold, breezy and damp. My hands were getting stiff from the cold. We hiked back to the car carrying with us some great pictures of Puffins. These pictures were more than I would have ever thought possible.

Driving on into Bonavista on Saturday night we used the last light of day to locate a statue of John Cabot at the place where he landed in 1497 and wrote in his log book about this new found land. We snapped pictures, using flash to get enough light for a good picture of us. The statue remained too dark for detail until I took pictures of it by itself. Then we found a Subway shop in a quick shop and picked up dinner for the road. An hour and a half later we were back at the motor home. We slept in on Sunday morning. Walmart didn't open until 10:00 and we were on our way shortly after that.

Since then we've moved on to St. John's and are in the campground in Pippy Park. Today, Monday, we had an appointment for a Puffin and Whale Boat Tour. We did some additional hiking in the morning, got lunch and then arrived before the appointed time to check in for the tour. Setting out from Bay Bulls, we saw about five whales, humbacks, a mother and calf swimming together in the bay. Then we turned our attention to the Puffin rookery in the Witless Bay Ecological Preserve. This a group of five islands lying just offshore. Each of the islands hosts thousands of breeding birds. There are many different species, Puffins being only one. Throughout the trip we are seeing Puffins flying, resting on the water, diving to catch fish. As we approach one of the islands you can see Puffins flying in the air, hundreds of Puffins flying in the air. It is like watching the activity around a bee hive only these are birds. It reminds me of bats at Carlsbad Caverns if you have ever witnessed that phenomenon. Not as many, not quite as thick as the bats. There are Puffins everywhere. On land there are thousands. Unlike the previous experience we are on a rocking boat. The chance to get good pictures of individual Puffins was yesterdays experience. Today we are seeing a different aspect of Puffins. The activity of a monster colony of Puffins is amazing to witness and something that we saw on a much smaller scale the day before.

Isn't it amazing, my best Puffin pictures are the result of a casual conversation we had with fellow hikers we met on the trail. We don't stop and talk with many hikers, I'm sure they also pass by many groups without more than exchanging pleasant greetings. We sensed a common interest and that led to a conversation, which led us to see Puffins up close. And Louise, my lovely Louise, will hike until she can go no more than go further to see the Puffins and stand in the cold offering assistance with equipment as we work as a team to experience the wonders of nature and get these amazing pictures.



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