Wednesday, June 23, 2010


June 22, 2010

Bonaventure Island--off Perce, Quebec

We added 800 miles to our New Brunswick/Nova Scotia vacation plans just to see the largest gannet breeding colony in the world off the Gaspe Peninsula in Quebec Province. That's a long way to drive to see a bunch of birds that are not new to our life list—in fact we can go to Tybee Beach near home and usually see a few gannets diving for fish far off the shore.

Was it worth the trip? Absolutely!

We got on the first boat of the morning at 9 am, and came back on the second to last boat to leave the island, so you know we maximized the experience. Before we even set foot on the island, the boat circumnavigated the high cliffs of its shoreline, where we could see thousands of gannets, as well as other ocean birds, such a black-legged kittiwakes, murres, and guillemots. We saw razorbills in the water, and a couple seals basking on rocks. We knew we were in for spectacular sights once we disembarked.

Bonaventure Island is a mere mile or so offshore from Perce on the mainland, and multiple tour boats travel there every hour on the hour from nine am to five pm, or nine hundred to seventeen hundred, as they say here. So, it is much more accessible than our puffin island journey of two days ago (a maximum of three boats, each limited to less than twenty passengers, are allowed to land at Machias Seal Island each day).

But, the Bonaventure gannet colony is on the opposite side of the island from the boat landing area. So we had to haul all our equipment (three cameras, multiple lenses, a tripod, a backpack with our lunch and water) nearly a mile uphill to get to there.

We knew immediately when we arrived at the colony that all our efforts would be richly rewarded. There are 120,000 gannets on this island—it makes the Machias Seal Island puffin colony look like a tiny village. The gannets make their nests on rocks, only as far apart as they can defend the nest while sitting on it. The racket of their scolding and courting and the sight of so many of them packed so close together was overwhelming.

Dick asked this very good question: How do the gannets who leave their nest to go out to the sea to feed find their nest again when they return? It is imponderable.

We watched birds come in from the ocean bringing seaweed to their mates to enhance their nests. The mate would accept the seaweed, then the two would rub their heads and necks together to express their pleasure. (Males and females look alike and share duties, so we couldn't tell who is getting the gift of seaweed and who is giving it—male or female.) The one time we can tell male from female is in mating, which looks brutal—the male hops on the female's back and grabs her neck in his beak while he seems to jump violently on her.

The female lays just one egg, and the pair share in incubating it—keeping it warm with their big webbed feet. Although most chicks are born in mid-July, we saw some early chicks lying protected beneath their parents. It sometimes seemed as if the parents were stomping on them, because they held them with their feet.

After a couple hours of watching the gannets, we hiked a trail that followed the perimeter of the island. The spring wildflowers are still in bloom here, and the rocky woodland and meadow vistas were beautiful. It was an unexpected bonus pleasure of our trip to the island, although Dick would have enjoyed our five miles of hiking more if he had not been toting his tripod with a camera and long telephoto lens attached the whole way.

Another unexpected pleasure of our time here was the charming town of Perce. The town is built along the ocean shore at the foot of Mont Ste.-Anne. Just offshore is Perce Rock, a tall narrow rectangular slice of rock with a natural bridge carved into it which is one of Canada's most recognized geographic features (if you are Canadian) . Our hotel room has a grand view of the rock and of Bonaventure Island, except today, when the fog is so thick that both are obscured.

The main street of town is lined with brightly colored souvenir shops and restaurants, and a long dock stands in the harbor where the tour boats depart and arrive. In the mornings, we watch the lobstermen tending their traps just offshore.

Our hotel, the Manoir de Perce, is a family business, and the owner spent at least half an hour with us when we checked in. He asked about our interests and made all sorts of suggestions about ways we might best enjoy our time in Perce. The staff are all friendly, and seem, like the owner, genuinely concerned that we are having a good time and that absolutely every aspect of our stay there is perfect.

We love it that everyone we pass says "Bonjour" as we pass on the street or enter a shop. When we say "Bonjour," everyone immediately responds by switching to English.

The restaurants in town all serve a Table d'hôte menu with one price for many courses, and the expectation that you will spend the whole evening dining with them in a leisurely fashion—tres French. Begin with an amusee, then some fish-based appetizer from the chef (they are big on smoked salmon, and pickled or smoked cod or mackerel around here), next soup and/or some other appetizer you choose, on to the main course, then cheese, and finally dessert. Both last night and tonight we dined like the French—we need to leave tomorrow, or we will never fit in our clothes by the time we get home.

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