Saturday, February 6, 2016

Great Birding Escapes

The Gannets of Bonaventure Island
Bobby Harrison

     The great Appalachia range that rises from the plains of Georgia and extends some fifteen hundred miles north, find its end at the tip Canada’s Gaspe’ Peninsula. There, on the tip of the Gaspe’, the mountaintops wane, and submerge below the deep blue waters of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence.   In what seems to be a last hurrah, the once and mighty range rises once more above the watery surface two miles off the shores of Perce’, Quebec. The emergent mountain is Bonaventure Island, the sight of what many ornithologist claim to be the most impressive wildlife spectacles on the planet.
Bonaventure Island, home to the largest Northern Gannet colony in North America.
(click on image to enlarge)
     By April northern gannets begin to arrive on the island to establish their nest, a few at first, but soon they begin to arrive by the thousands.  Gannets, seabirds with a six-and-a-half foot wing span, spend eight months of the year on the open sea.  Driven by instinct, the birds seek dry land to nest, and Bonaventure provides the perfect habitat.  The east side of the island rises vertically 250 feet above the water with cliffs riddled with nooks, crannies and ledges that serve as ideal nesting platforms.  By the end of April more than sixty-five thousand pairs of gannets descend upon the island to raise their young, a sight that is hard to comprehend until seen.  For this reason, I arrive on Bonaventure to experience the gannetry and capture the show with my camera.
Seaward side of Bonaventure Island showing Gannets nesting on the clift walls.
(click on image to enlarge)
     The boat trip to the island is short and weather conditions for shooting could not be better. A light cloud cover softens the light making photography conditions just perfect.  As I reach the seaward side of the island, birds seem to swirl in a hurricane of flurry as uncountable numbers wing-in from the sea looking for their nest among the many 
Northen Gannet soaring over the cliffs of
Bonaventure Island.  (click on image to enlarge)
thousands that festoon the cliffs.  Soaring over the ocean, many gannets flying just above the watery surface soar skyward sixty feet or more then turn and dive into the sea.  Just before impact, their wings stretch back along their bodies and like arrows the birds strike the water and disappear below the surface.  Like corks, the gannets pop back to the surface and take flight toward Bonaventure.
     As I arrive on the leeward side of the island, I began the two-mile trudge toward the gannetry.  After an hour into the trek, the uphill climb and forty-five pounds of camera gear began to wear on me, but more than half way across the island I find a patch of bunchberries nestled against the trunk of a spruce.  The subtle beauty of the flowers called to be photographed, but more than that, they provided a good excuse to take a breather from the climb.
Cornus canadensis (Bunchberry) -- Bonaventure Island, Quebec
(click on image to enlarge)
     As soon as I saw the patch of flowers I thought of Eliot Porter, the master of large format, color nature photography. Porter, in my opinion was the best bird photographer that has ever lived, and he himself had made a similar trek as I was making to the Bonaventure gannetry. In fact, if you are a nature photographer, you have probably followed in the Porter’s footsteps. He pioneered the use of color nature photography, and is best known for his exquisitely detailed bird, and nature close-ups.
     His book, In Wilderness is the Preservation of the World, was the first oversized coffee table book. Porter’s work inspired a new genre of photography, and future generations of nature photographers.  The Bunchberries beckoned to be photographed, and though I was in a hurry to get to the gannetry I could not pass this exquisite Lilliputian landscape, and pay homage to this giant of photography.

A small stretch of the gantry on  Bonaventure Island
(click on image to enlarge)
        Soon, I am back on the trail and it is not long until I receive my first indication I am close to the rookery.  With each step I take, the screams and cries produced by the immense number of gannets is deafening.   As I walk into the colony the scenery is astonishing. As far as the eye can see gannets line the top of the cliffs.  But, what I see is only part of the colony, the birds line the cliffs for almost a mile.

Northern Gannet, Morus bassanus Bonaventure Island; Perce', Quebec
(click on image to enlarge)
      The gannetry is a menagerie of activity; thousands of gannets sit on nests placed only a beak's reach apart. The air is full of birds zipping over the polka-dotted landscape, each carrying masses of seaweed for its nest, or food for its nestling.  Impeccable flyers, gannets are quit clumsy landing and walking on solid ground.  Once a gannet finds its nest, it falls from the sky and tumbles onto ground where it’s mate awaits.  

Northern Gannet arriving with nesting material.
(click on image to enlarge)
Leaving the nest is bit more difficult.  Gannets must find their way to the edge of the cliff and launch themselves into the air.  Birds further from the edge of the cliff run a gauntlet of pecking and prodding from its neighbors before becoming airborne. There seems to be no peace for any birds in the colony as quarrels and persistent pecking by, and at itsneighbors is the norm.
     There is however another side to the birds, a tender side.  Once a gannet finds its nest and the neighboring bullying subsides, 
Pair bonding ritual of mated pair of Northern Gannet.
(click on image to enlarge)
the mated pair performs a choreographed dance.  With beaks pointing skyward, the pair rubs their bills together in a jest of recognition and pair bonding.  The affectionate affair takes less than a minute.  It is a calm and intimate ritual.
      One of the hardest things about shooting in the gannetry is showing the immensity of it size, as well as the individuality of a bird.  It takes time to find my place among the countless number of gannets.  As I find that place, I also find individuals that exhibit behavior that satisfies my curiosity, and I discover that the gannetry of Bonaventure Island truly is one of the most impressive wildlife spectacles on the planet.

For more information on Elliott Porter:

Tourist Information and boat tickets to Bonaventure Island
Tourist Office of Perce' - Tourist Information Center
142 Route 132 West
Perce', QC G0C 2L0
+1 418-782-5448
Closes at 9:00 PM


Hotel Motel Fleu De Lys                           Riotel Perce
248 QC-132                                                261 QC-132
Perce', QC G0C 2L0                                   Perce', QC G0C 2L0
Canada                                                        Canada
+ 418-782-5380                                         + 418-463-4212               

Hotel la Normandie                                 =Hotel Motel Manoir de
221 Rte. 132 Quest, C.P. 129                    132 Route de l'E'glise
Perce', QC G0C 1V0                                 Perce', QC G0C 1A0
Canada                                                        Canada
+ 418-782-2112                                         + 418-782-2022              

The Mirage Hotel                                      Hotel-Motel Rocher Perce
288 Route 132 Quest                                 111 route 132 Quest
Perce', QC G0C 2L0                                  Perce', QC G0C 2L0
Canada                                                       Canada
+1 418-782-5151                                       +1 418-782-2330                                          

Auberge Les Trois Soeurs                         Au Pic del l'Aurore
77 QC-132                                                 C.P. 339
Perce', QC G0C 2L0                                  Perce', QC G0c 2L0
Canada                                                       Canada
+1 418-782-2183                                       (866) 882-2151     

Camping du Village                                   Camping Bale-De-Perce
16 Rue Donohue                                        180 Route 132 Quest
Perce', QC G0C 2L0                                  Perce', QC G0C 2L0
+1 418-782-2020                                       + 418-782-5102           

Camping au Havre de la Nuit Inc.            Camping Cote Surprise
16 Rue Biard                                             335 route 132 Quest
Perce' QC G0C 2L0                                  Perce' QC G0C 2L0
Canada                                                      Canada         

Restaurant Biard Enr                             Le Recif
99 132 Rte W.                                           119 132 Rte W.
Perce', QC G0C 2L0                                 Perce', QC G0C 2L0
Canada                                                      Canada
+1 418-782-2873                                      +1 418-782-5622

Boite A Lunch Les Etes                          Restaurant La Table a' Roland
774 132 Rte W.                                         190 Route 132 Quest
Perce' QC  G0C 2L0                                 Perce' QC G0C 2L0
Canada                                                      Canada
+1 418-782-2937                                      +1 418-782-2606

Restaurant Resto du Village                  Restaurant Le Surcouf Cafe'
162-A route 132 Quest                             168 route 132 Auest
Perce' QC G0C 2L0                                  Perce', QC G0C 2L0
Canada                                                      Canada
+1 418-782-5009                                      +1 418+782-5656


  1. Great article Bobby, I can almost hear and smell the colony of Gannets. Sublime photography as always. I eagerly await the next installment. Regards John Hodges

  2. Well worth the walk with the 45 pounds of gear, Bobby!