Soaring oceanside cliffs thrum and squawk with spectacular life as Chris Mooney hikes a rolling path towards one of the most accessible seabird colonies in the world.
Cape St. Mary's Ecological Reserve in southeastern Newfoundland draws visitors from around the globe who can get within metres — on foot — of preening northern gannets, swooping bald eagles, black-legged kittiwakes, and thousands of common and thick-billed murres.
"This is one of the only places in the world that you don't have to take a boat to see the northern gannets," said Mooney, a park interpretation technician.
A one-kilometre trail over one of the most southerly stretches of sub-Arctic tundra leads from an interpretation centre to Bird Rock. It's a sea stack that rises about 75 metres from pounding surf to a level surface a stone's throw from the closest observation point.
Thousands of northern gannets nest side by side, separated from the cliff by a deep chasm but close enough for an unusually good look.
"No matter what the weather is like you'll still see them," Mooney said.
He stressed that point because Cape St. Mary's, a two-hour drive southwest of St. John's, is shrouded in fog about 200 days of the year.
It's a huge draw for birders anxious to tick off species on checklists. But it also offers absolute beginners a great introduction to everything from seabirds and ravens to the horned larks, American pipits and Savannah sparrows flitting among vast meadows of wildflowers and mosses.
Woodland caribou make the occasional appearance.
Endearing love habits
Mooney especially likes pointing out the endearing love habits of northern gannets.
' it's almost like the nest is sort of the wedding ring that links them' - Bill Montevecchi
"They come back to the exact same nest every single year," he said of pairs that typically mate for their 30-year life spans, starting from about age five.
The couples produce one chick before heading toward the Gulf of Mexico to spend winter separately.
"Then the next spring, it's almost like the nest is sort of the wedding ring that links them," said Bill Montevecchi, a seabird specialist and biologist at Memorial University of Newfoundland.
"It's a little kissing kind of greeting when either the female or male returns to the nest," he said of how the birds entwine necks and seem to embrace.
"They'll preen one another."
Such sweet gestures go out the window, however, if a neighbour encroaches on very close quarters, he added.
"They'll kill the bird next to it without a second glance."
Clues about climate change
Cape St. Mary's also offers clues about climate change, Montevecchi said.
Extraordinarily warm August sea temperatures have corresponded in two of the last three years with gannets, usually devoted parents, abandoning their chicks in droves.
Montevecchi said such changes may be driving fish on which the birds rely into cooler, deeper water beyond their easy reach.
"We've seen sightings of birds coming way out of their foraging ranges," he said. "These warm water pulses are really having some sort of crazy effect here, and that's what we're looking at."
Humpbacks and other whales are also frequent visitors in summer off the towering headland that locals simply call "the Cape."
Mooney has been on the job for 14 years but still smiles like a kid as he takes in the view.
"I've got the best office in the world."