Of all the bird life that calls Canada home, there are two species that rank as bucket-list, must-see items for most people: the bald eagle and the Atlantic puffin. I’ve been photographing birds for 30 years, and never got more than a glimpse of either. So the chance to see and photograph both of them was too good to pass up. That’s how I ended up on a boat in Nova Scotia, headed to Bird Island.
In fact, there are two bird islands, Hertford and Ciboux. Located just off the coast near Sydney, Nova Scotia, they’re the province’s most important bird habitat. Passing through the area on our way to the Newfoundland ferry, my friend Dennis and I made note of a company called Bird Island Tours. Their tours promised puffins, eagles, razorbills and half-dozen other seabirds. And if they delivered half of what was promised — a typical haul for most wildlife tours — we figured we’d be satisfied.
So on our way back, we showed up bright and early for the morning tour. I had my heart set on seeing a puffin, the crazy-looking little birds with multicoloured bills that you see in the tourist brochures: some people call them sea parrots. But both Dennis and I were also hoping we’d see at least one bald eagle — even a fly-by would do.
Once we neared the island, however, we realized we’d been too skeptical by half. The islands were home to a thriving colony of these huge birds. As soon as we neared the first island, they appeared, roosting on ledges on the rocky cliffs. There were many adults as well as some juvenile birds, identifiable by their dark feathers and lack of the distinctive white head.
In fact, the captain said, the eagle population on the islands had multiplied in recent years, and the big birds were becoming a nuisance on the islands. Attracted by the thousands of smaller birds whose chicks made easy prey, they had altered the natural balance of species, putting the puffin colony at risk. A minute later, we watched as a band of gulls chased one of the young eagles away from the cliffs.
Once we’d seen the eagles, the next objective was to get a good look at a puffin. And it didn’t take long. Here they were, floating among the other seabirds, as big as life. While the other birds gathered in flocks, the puffins seemed to prefer swimming by themselves. They were a great sight, with their sleek black feathers and rainbow-coloured beaks, which are specially grooved so they can catch and hold several fish in one trip.
We soon began to see them on the cliffs, guarding their nest sites high above the water. The puffins nest in holes in the cliffs in order to protect their young from predators. Both the eagles and gulls will swoop in and snatch a chick that’s left out in the open.
Of course, there was time for a good look at the other seabirds, too. By far the most plentiful were the razorbills, with the distinctive white lines on their razor-shaped bills. But here and there black guillemots flew by, their white wing patches flashing brightly. I managed to get a shot as one hurried by.
Aside from herring gulls and black-backed gulls, the islands are also home to a colony of black-legged kittiwakes. One cliff was crowded with their nests, and decorated with their droppings.
All the wildlife didn’t have wings, however: the islands also shelter a good-sized colony of grey seals. These seals are great swimmers, able to dive up to 180 metres (600 feet). But when they’re not fishing, they just loll about on the rocks like overstuffed couch potatoes. Now and then we saw them swimming, and one came close enough for a good portrait.
Getting a photo of a puffin was a great experience. But I wanted something more. And late in the morning, we passed close enough to get some shots of them taking off and flying across the water in that frantic, headlong style. These are photos I’ve waited a long time to get.
Finally, I’ll leave you with one of my favourite shots from the day: a bald eagle in a classic pose. To me, that dramatic profile and fierce stare makes it clear why this bird is a North American icon.
I’v taken more than a few wildlife-watching tours, but this was a morning to remember. Seeing these amazing birds was truly a bucket-list great adventure. If you’re in Nova Scotia, don’t miss it.
All photos by Paul Marshman; click on the pictures to see them full-size. I was not compensated in any way by Bird Island Tours.