Saturday, August 3, 2019

Birding Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia

Birding Cape Breton Island Nova Scotia from the Great Trail has been an exciting experience, offering opportunities to see seabirds in the Atlantic Ocean, shorebirds along the sandy and rocky beaches, warblers and songbirds in the Acadian and Boreal forests, and waterfowl in the many inland lakes, rivers, and marshes.

We arrived in North Sydney, Nova Scotia on the Marine Atlantic ferry from Port-aux-Basques, Newfoundland. On the crossing we saw many Northern Gannets fishing in the sea, as well as Herring and Black-backed Gulls, and as the ferry docked we had a birdseye view of a Double-crested Cormorant colony that was nesting on the pier.


The first section of the Great Trail is a waterway from North Sydney to Whycocomagh that follows the shore of the beautiful Bras d'Or Lake. This brackish inland sea is surrounded by rolling hills, dotted with with small islands and sandbars, and lined with long sandy beaches. It has been designated as a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve due to the diversity of bird and marine life it contains, as well as the successful agreement between the Mi'kmaw First Nations and descendants from the Scottish, English, and French settlers to live sustainably within the watershed. We were privileged to see seven Bald Eagles in this area, a testament to the thriving population in this region that was used in successful reintroductions across North America following the ban on DDT usage. It is also possible to take boat tours from Baddeck out to Bird Island, where you can see Atlantic Puffins, Common Murrees, and other seabirds.

We took a detour off the Great Trail to visit the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. The wonderful staff at Parks Canada gave us an opportunity to give two presentations in the park, and in an act of incredible kindness and generosity gave us a guided tour of the Cabot Trail. This drive offers stunning views down coastal cliffs, visits to turquoise harbours, cascading waterfalls, wooded trails, sandy beaches, and high elevation Boreal bogs. The Cape Breton Highlands National Park is also an Important Bird Area, providing habitat for the endangered Bicknell's Thrush, as well as 200 other species. Important Bird Areas on the surrounding islands provide breeding habitat for colonies of Great Cormorants. Being given the opportunity to see this amazing place was a highlight of our time on Cape Breton.

The terrestrial section of the Great Trail picks up in Whycocomagh, and from there the trail took us up into the rolling hills above the Bras d'Or Lake. The trail was a shaded, forested track that ascended 300 m up to wonderful view points, and then descended to lush, forested valleys, before climbing again. The forest in this area was dominated by balsam fir, yellow birch, sugar maple, and white birch, and it was home to a mix of songbirds associated with both deciduous and coniferous forests. The songs of American Robins, Red-eyed Vireos, Wood Thrush, Black-capped Chickadees, and Red-breasted Nuthatches accompanied us during our hike. We also saw Dark-eyed Juncos, Blue Jays, Ovenbirds, Hairy Woodpeckers, Black-throated, Black-and-white, and Yellow Warblers, and American Goldfinches. A highlight for us was falling asleep beside a rushing river, listening to the happy, enthusiastic, bubbling song of the Winter Wren.

As we rounded the Trout Brook Nature Reserve and headed up to Inverness, we enjoyed a stunning view out over Lake Ainslie. In the higher, more open sections of trail we enjoyed the fragrance of fields of blooming wildflowers, and the songs of Chipping and Song Sparrows. We also came upon an Osprey nest with a chick in it, watched as a pair of Bald Eagles circled high above us, and were buzzed by a screaming Red-tailed Hawk on a trestle bridge. In the forested section of trail we got close-up views of Boreal Chickadees and Pine Grosbeaks which are more commonly associated with Boreal forest types. We were also surprised by a family of Ruffed Grouse who erupted out of the trailside vegetation like popcorn. Another wildlife highlight from this section was seeing a silver fox standing stalk still on the trail ahead of us, watching.

When we reached Inverness we began walking the Celtic Shores Coastal Trail, which is one of the most well-groomed trails we've ever encountered. It is a flat, pea gravel trail, shaded in many sections, which offers lovely views over marshes, rivers, and the Atlantic Ocean.

We began by walking the Inverness Beach Boardwalk. This beautiful boardwalk took us from the town of Inverness down between the Cabot Golf Course and the harbour to the sandy beach on the shores of the Atlantic. The warm summer breeze smelled strongly of wild roses and salty sea air, and we enjoyed the songs of Yellow Warblers, Savannah Sparrows, American Goldfinches, and Song Sparrows. As we approached the shore we watched flocks of Cliff and Tree Sparrows foraging above the sand dunes, and when we reached the sandy beach we spoke to a lady who was helping keep watch over Piping Plover nests!

On the walk from Inverness to Mabou we crossed the Deepdale trestle bridge, which took us high above a river. We were very surprised to see three garter snakes sunning themselves on the bridge, one of which had just molted.

On the western shore of Lake Ainslie we saw a Bald Eagle perched atop a dead snag, listened to the haunting call of the Common Loon, watched a Great Blue Heron flying majestically past overhead, and were investigated by a curious Ruby-throated Hummingbird. A particular highlight was seeing a Canada Warbler foraging in the shrubs a few away from us on the lake shore.

Later that day we walked through the Black River Fen, which is one of the Treasured Wetlands of Nova Scotia, and through the Black River Bog Nature Reserve. These beautiful areas are home to 13 rare plant species, and provide valuable breeding and staging habitat for Osprey, Bald Eagles, and Great Blue Herons. As we passed through this area we saw many baby leopard frogs on the trail.

In Mabou we stopped at the Red Shoe Pub, which is run by the Rankin Family, to listen to the joyous fiddle music. Fiddling is an important part of the Scottish traditions of Cape Breton Island, and well worth a listen. On the trail between Mabou and Port Hood one of our birding highlights was seeing a family of Common Mergansers swimming along the edge of one of the rivers we crossed. We also saw lots of forest songbirds, including Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Black - throated Green and Magnolia Warblers, and a Blue-headed Vireo.

In Port Hood we deviated from the trail for a bit to walk the boardwalk through the dunes to the sandy beach. There we were rewarded with a sighting of Piping Plovers at last! We also saw Song Sparrows, Yellow Warblers, and American Goldfiches in the dunes, as well as a Belted Kingfisher in the wetland nearby.

From Port Hood to Port Hastings the Celtic Shores Coastal trail followed the shore of the Atlantic more closely. We passed many salt and freshwater marshes, a few large rivers, and lots of sandy beaches. We also traversed sections of trail that took us along the cliff tops high above the ocean. We saw many Belted Kingfishers in this stretch. A particular birding highlight came just before Ghost Beach, which is a long spit of land leading up to the Canso Causaway. In this area we came upon a group of mixed shorebirds, including four Greater Yellowlegs, a Willet, a Solitary Sandpiper, a Least Sandpiper, and a Ruddy Turnstone. There were also Double-crested Cormorants and Black-backed Gulls in the area. It was very exciting.

As we walked the 5 km long sandbar in to Port Hastings we came upon a Spotted Sandpiper with two brand new babies! They were tiny balls of fluff who fell head over heels in their efforts to escape. We also watched groups of Herring and Black-backed Gulls flying overhead, and an Arctic Tern.

We have enjoyed the stunning scenery, diversity of landscape, and great birding of Cape Breton Island immensely. Although we are looking forward to mainland Nova Scotia, we will certainly miss Cape Breton Island!

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