For the Birds: Canada’s Bonaventure Island

This week, we’re looking at great birding sites around the world. For author and birder Rachel Dickinson, Canada’s Bonaventure Island was on her must-visit list.

As we neared the far side of Bonaventure Island an acrid stench hit us and then we heard the almost deafening noise of over a hundred thousand gannets

clacking and calling and moving about. Bonaventure Island is a park and bird sanctuary in the Gulf of the St. Lawrence off Canada’s Gaspé Peninsula

— the village of Percé lies two miles away by boat. The boreal forest we were hiking through opened and there before us at the end of the island was one of the largest gannet colonies in the world. These large white birds — the size of geese and with sleek yellowish heads and black wingtips — were sitting on nests and landing and taking off and fussing about with each other. They covered all of the real estate between the forest edge and the cliff.

I couldn’t take my eyes off the scene.

View Images

A low fence separated the birds from the people and I lay down on my stomach at the edge of the fence to get a bird’s-eye view of the action.

Mounded nests built of grass and twigs, cemented with guano, stretched to the cliff’s edge. In most nests an adult gannet sat on an egg or beside a very young chick that looked more like a dinosaur — all gangly and without any feathers.

Two adult birds began engaging in swordplay in front of me. They lifted their long necks and tilted their wedge-shaped beaks and began parrying back and forth. I couldn’t tell the male from the female although it became obvious when one bird got behind the other and, well, you know.

Birds were taking off from and landing on tiny bits of land between the nests. Didn’t seem possible, but I watched as birds came in, feet out, and touched down doing a little back pedal with their long wings. Some birds came back with beaks full of fish ready to feed their young and their mate. The ranger told me that the birds eat about a pound of fish per bird per day. That’s sixty tons of fish every day to feed this colony.

On my way back down the trail I suddenly heard someone call my name. I looked up and there was Bobby Harrison, my husband’s best friend and a bird photographer from Huntsville, Alabama. I just laughed and said, “Of all the gin joints, in all the towns . . .” and he laughed and continued on toward what must be a bird photographer’s dream.

Getting there: The Parc national de l’Île-Bonaventure-et-du-Rocher-Percé can be reached by night train from Montreal. Camping and a few small hotels are available in the area. Boats leave daily to Bonaventure island from May to October. 

Rachel Dickinson often writes about birds and birding. Her latest book is Falconer on the Edge: A man, His birds, and the Vanishing Landscape of the American West (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2009).