Seal Island (YAR-E2c)

The Seal Islands (Seal, Noddy, Mud, Flat and Round) lie S of the Tusket group off the southwestern corner of the province where the Atlantic inflow enters the Bay of Fundy. Seal Island proper, only 3 km long and a km or less in width, is 32 km W of Cape Sable and 48 km SSE of Yarmouth. Despite its maximum elevation of only about 15 m, the island is a haven for migrant and stray birds nearly unparalleled in the Atlantic Provinces. Rarities such as Pacific Loon, Wilson’s Plover, Ruff, Franklin’s Gull, Band-tailed Pigeon, White-winged Dove, Say’s Phoebe, Fork-tailed Flycatcher, Cave Swallow, Rock Wren, Townsend’s Solitaire, Black-throated Gray Warbler, Chestnut-collared Longspur Swainson’s Warbler, Green-tailed Towhee, Cassins’s Sparrow, Bronzed Cowbird, and many other extralimital species have been seen on the island during the past five decades of regular visits by NSBS members. Much new information has come from late summer-early fall banding by Acadia University students of the Atlantic Bird Observatory.

Champlain and his chronicler Nicolas Denys noted the island, including its seals, in the 17th century, but it was uninhabited until 1823 when Mary Crowell Hichens, her husband Richard, the Edmund Crowells, and John Nickerson moved there to rescue ship-wrecked sailors. The Hichens were responsible for the first government wharf, built in 1827, and for the establishment of a lighthouse that became active in November 1831. The Crowell family and their relatives, then a succession of other keepers, tended the light until recent times (it was de-staffed in 1990). Seal Island is now inhabited off and on mainly by fishermen and their families who occupy houses on the West and East Sides, Irish Moss rakers (in summer), and a flock of sheep. Birders have arrived in season since the 1960s, not necessarily in synchrony with migrants.

Access

Clark’s Harbour, Shelburne Co., is the traditional jumping-off point for Seal Island. From Halifax, follow Hwy 103 about 240 km to Exit 29, then follow the old highway into Barrington Passage. Following the signs, turn S for about 20 km to Clark’s Harbour on Cape Sable Island. From Yarmouth, Exit 30 on Hwy 103, leading to Barrington Passage, is about 70 km from the town. There is no regular boat service to Seal Island. Lobster fishermen may occasionally take passengers to the island in spring and fall mainly from Clark’s Harbour and occasionally from Pubnico (Yarmouth Co.). Access must be arranged privately and may be difficult and expensive. The crossing takes about 2 hours and can be rough, cold and wet. Depending on tide and weather, you may have to go ashore in a skiff and climb onto a jetty, which can be wet, strenuous, and at times dangerous.

Accommodation, equipment and supplies

A house rental is sometimes available in the East Side village, more rarely on the West Side. A few members of the Nova Scotia Bird Society own an old house, the North Home, newly renovated, located a few hundred meters N of the West Side village at the N end of the big pond. Accommodation should always be arranged in advance. A trip to the island should not be undertaken lightly. You must be completely self-sufficient, which means food, sleeping bags, a gas lamp, camp stove and fuel, warm waterproof clothing and good boots. Water is easily available on the island. Cell phone coverage ranges from non-existent to fair, depending on location. There is no medical service of any kind; in emergencies, residents can contact the Canadian Coast Guard in Clark’s Harbor, which maintains the lifeboat CCGS Clark’s Harbour. In dire emergencies, a Canadian Forces SAR helicopter from CFB Greenwood may have to be mobilized.

Birding the island

Because it is so small, the entire island may be birded in a day or less. A good strategy is to work the south end in the morning and the north end after lunch. Some birders prefer to start in the north at dawn, especially in late summer and autumn, because the overgrown clearings near Race Point may be full of birds before they disperse or leave the island. Beginning at the East Side going S, carefully examine the area around the houses, including the extensive beds of Blue-flag Irises and the old gardens, also the region of the old church, and especially the tide-line and thickets at the Salt Water Pond. Follow the shore southward and westward, checking thickets, trail, and beach rocks for birds. The iris beds just N of Mother Owens point can produce surprises. At the Lighthouse, check lawns, clearings and forest edges. You may return to the East Side by the road , take a wet path back to the East Side, or walk to the West Side (2 km) past ship Pond, staying close to the shore. Check the open places and forest edges for migrants. The West Side village, overall, is the best island hot-spot. Birds concentrate around the houses, in iris beds, and along the shore of the Big Pond. If there are stored lobster traps, they are worth checking, as is the little beach in the shelter of the jetty. Scope the pond for ducks, grebes, herons and shorebirds and the sea for pelagic species.

Do the North End according to weather, attempting to bird with sun or rain and wind behind you for as long as possible. The beach flat (the “goose green”) between the West Side and the North Home may be good for waders or passerines. Check the wood-edges for migrants. A twisting, wet and often overgrown path from near the North Home leads northeastward through thick forests (and the Island’s only hemlock stand) to near Dougall’s Point. Another path leads from S of the North Home to the gull colony and from thence to the E side of the big pond. Both are hard to bird. Going N from the North Home, watch the cliff-edge, where exhausted migrants may be on the ground. Clearings with dead trees should be examined minutely. At the North End carefully work the clearings and wooded patches looking for skulking vagrants. Seabirds occasionally pass by Race Point and eiders are usually abundant. Then follow the forest edge S, checking the beach rocks periodically for land birds. The Cranberry Pond area is worth careful attention, also the patches of woods and raspberry thickets close to the shore just S of the gull colony. Between the Big Pond and the sandy beach is a rich marshy area, well worth checking for rails, small herons, and sparrows. The SE side of the Big Pond is the only good shorebird habitat on the island, provided the water level is low.

Return to the East Side or West Side villages along the road, simultaneously watching the road, the forest edge, the Big Pond, and the sky. Anything can happen. Seabirds are usually few around Seal Island, with the exception of Common Eiders and Black Guillemots, but recent sea-watching has revealed occasional passages of shearwaters, jaegers and other pelagic species in late summer. In late autumn (October-November) early morning passage of a cold front and rising NW winds may bring seabirds (gannets, shearwaters, kittiwakes, jaegers and a few skuas) close to the West Side. Race Point may also be good for sea-watching then. During southerly storms try whiling away the birdless hours sea-watching from the south side of the island near Mother Owens Point.

The seasons on Seal Island

Most birding trips to the island have been in May and August through early November. Early spring, winter, and summer are poorly known ornithologically. Birding in mid to late April has the potential to be exciting, especially if SW winds have brought early migrants or southern vagrants. Early May, as in the rest of Nova Scotia, may be very quiet, as migrants trickle in against prevailing northerly winds. From mid-May onward dramatic warbler and thrush arrivals may occur when W winds prevail. Late May and early June are good times to look for western vagrants among the late-returning migrants.

The breeding species are relatively poorly known, but Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls occupy a large colony in mid-island, Blackpoll Warblers nest, as do a number of common woodland species including Boreal Chickadees, Golden-crowned Kinglets, Black-throated Green, Yellow, and Magnolia Warblers, and Redstarts. Leach’s Storm-petrels may attempt to nest in the thick forest (they are often heard on foggy nights), but Bicknell’s Thrushes, last recorded as breeding in the early 1980s, seem to have abandoned the island as breeders. Occasionally one or two pairs of Black-crowned Night-Herons may be present, likely wanderers from the colonies on Bon Portage and Cape Sable Islands.

In mid-August the warbler and flycatcher migration begins, peaking during September. By late September floods of warblers, sparrows and finches occur on the island every few days, most of them sheltering from patrolling Sharp-shinned Hawks and Merlins. In late September and October, Peregrines are common (sometimes several at a time), many of them of the Arctic-breeding subspecies tundrius. A Nova Scotian birder frequently recalls once seeing a Gyrfalcon and a Yellow-throated Warbler in the same binocular field on a day in early November, but finches and sparrow predominate then, especially after the passage of a cold front. November is probably the most interesting autumn period for western and a few southern vagrants, but it is also the month when the weather begins to turn cold and stormy.

In summary and in general

Birding Seal Island is one of Nova Scotia’s best experiences for the hard-core aficionado, or for the general naturalist. The island’s remoteness, difficulty of access, rugged terrain, and the palpable feel of bird migration lend mystery and high expectation to every trip. But birding on the island is always a gamble. Long periods – a few days or a week – may pass with few birds, but then the miracle occurs and the island is alive, or an unexpected vagrant appears out of nowhere. Three- or four-day trips may yield 40 species, or 140, depending on one’s luck. Take a good book or two and a healthy dose of optimism.

Contributed by Eric Mills.

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