"I hope you love birds too. It is economical.
It saves going to heaven." —Emily Dickinson
FOR AMATEUR BIRDING, I've found no better place than Cape St. Mary's Ecological Reserve on the southeastern corner of Newfoundland. Despite roughly fifty-fifty odds the area will be shrouded in fog, the August day when I visited was sunny but cold. I followed a trail across a flat headland to a rocky point that juts out from steep ocean cliffs, wildflowers absorbing my attention until the sound of birds overwhelmed me. Then I caught sight of the rookeries just below the path: thousands of black-legged kittiwakes feeding their chicks, common and thick-billed murres guarding their eggs, and less common razorbills and black guillemots jostling for space on tiny rock ledges.
But even better, only 15 feet in front of me rose a 300-foot-tall rock separated from the mainland by a roiling ocean and carpeted with a moving mass of nesting northern gannets. Marathon flyers, gannets are pelagic birds that, like albatross, live mostly in the air. They are particularly entertaining to watch because they are so big--the size of a goose with a two-meter wingspan--and so graceful in flight they make other birds look like windup toys. Gannets fish spectacularly by folding their wings and diving headfirst into the ocean from great heights, their skulls protected by air pockets. They generally mate for life and raise one chick each summer. Gannets also have a comically beautiful form of greeting each other by stretching their necks up, touching bills, and writhing.
Birding without binoculars, I discovered, is a whole new sport: If you are close enough, you can be with the birds instead of watching them from a blind or through a long lens. I sat on the grass, closed my eyes, and immersed myself in the sounds of 30,000 birds squabbling, fishing, and feeding. I opened my eyes to see a very busy rookery close up and felt as if I had landed in the middle of a nature documentary. The birds wheeled and soared, the ocean slammed and growled, and I gave thanks for the unpredictable weather that deters many tourists from overrunning this annual avian assembly. —Tracy Johnston