I’ve had enough of winter. I’m dreaming about an island paradise.
Keep Aruba, I’m talking about Grand Manan. While technically the island is in New Brunswick, it’s closer to Maine than it is to the Canadian mainland. When the Treaty of Paris ended the American Revolutionary War, we Americans thought we owned the island. The British thought otherwise and the matter wasn’t resolved until a new treaty in 1794 gave title to Britain in return for our sovereignty over Eastport. Islanders readily accept American currency, but the island is on Atlantic Time, so the lines remain a little blurry.
I’ve personally blurred the lines further. When I wrote a guide to the Maine Birding Trail, I included a bonus chapter on Grand Manan. Grand Manan is one of the best-known birding locations in New Brunswick. Of the 391 bird species currently accepted for the province, 363 have occurred on the island. Even the ferry ride from Blacks Harbour to Grand Manan is one of the finest pelagic birding trips in North America. Sometimes thousands of great and sooty shearwaters collect in the channel in summer.
The island of Grand Manan stands above the ocean, with towering cliffs around three-quarters of its circumference. Most of the inhabitants live on the east side of the island simply because the land is too rugged everywhere else. The cliffs give the island much of its unique habitat. Common ravens and the occasional peregrine falcon nest on the ledges, while black guillemots nest in the crevices. Gulls nest anywhere that tumbled rocks create islets. Bald eagles take command of the more prominent trees while merlins breed in the lower conifers.
Grand Manan is situated in the middle of the Bay of Fundy, home of the world’s highest tides. The cold currents that sweep by all sides of the island are rich with food for wildlife. Visiting birders should book a trip on one of the whale watch boats for all the seabirds that accompany the whales. I recommend both Whales-n-Sails and Sea Watch Tours.
Before entering North Head harbor, the ferry passes Swallowtail Light. It’s one of the island’s most popular scenic areas. Shearwaters, terns, gulls, eiders, guillemots, long-tailed ducks, red-breasted mergansers and passing gannets and jaegers are all observable from this cliff in their proper seasons. So are whales, dolphins, porpoises and seals.
Route 776 runs the length of the eastern shoreline. Just south of North Head, two roads split west. Whale Cove is picturesque, quiet and secluded. Whistle Road leads three miles to The Whistle, one of three lighthouses on the island. There is a low observation platform adjacent to the lighthouse. The seascape is exceptional. On calmer days, porpoises, seals, and minke whales are impossible to miss in the eddy that surges around the northernmost point of the island. Great and sooty shearwaters come within binocular range here. Sunsets are spectacular.
Castalia Marsh is one of the reasons why the island is known for its birding diversity. Vagrant rarities are apt to settle on the beach or in the rose bushes. Shorebirds gather in late summer. Peregrines and merlins are likely to buzz the flock. Nelson’s sparrows lurk in the wet grasses. The marsh always contains a variety of waterfowl.
Anchorage Provincial Park is 1.5 miles south of Grand Harbour. Turn toward the park, then bear left to another of Grand Manan’s premier birding opportunities. On a typical day, gulls bathe in Long Pond, and careful observation will reveal freshwater ducks on the far side. Continue past Long Pond to Big Pond, pausing to enjoy the nature trail midway. Big Pond tends to be more promising for freshwater ducks. Most retire to the far side of the pond, so a spotting scope is helpful. American widgeons, blue-winged teal, green-winged teal, ring-necked ducks, mallards and black ducks occur regularly.
Deep Cove is three miles below Seal Cove. It is the best beach on the island. In fact, at low tide, it’s the biggest beach in lower New Brunswick.
Southwest Head is the end of the road on Route 776, and the view is breathtaking. The lighthouse on this cliff is relatively short, because the land itself is already 200 feet above sea level. The entire head consists of a precipitous cliff that is rare in nature, although common on Grand Manan.
Make sure to visit Dark Harbor, which lives up to its name. Its photo could illustrate a Stephen King book.
Yup, you should add Grand Manan to your birding bucket list.
Bob Duchesne serves as a Maine Audubon trustee and vice president of its Penobscot Valley Chapter. Bob developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at www.mainebirdingtrail.com. Bob can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.