Brier Island (DIGBY-A6)

Brier Island, Digby County, is a/t the mouth of the Bay of Fundy and at the end of the long peninsula of Digby Neck just SW of Long Island. The island ranks with Seal Island (Yarmouth County) and Sable Island (HRM) as one of the best birding places in Nova Scotia. More easily accessible than the others, Brier Island’s whole natural history is interesting, whether one looks for the invertebrates revealed by its big Fundy tides, the rare plants (such as curly-grass fern, dwarf birch, or the rare relict Avens, Geum peckii) that occur in its bogs, or its birds. The island’s Triassic-Jurassic basalt rocks make the island exceptionally picturesque, especially from the sea or from high points near Northern Point or at the Joshua Slocum memorial (Southern Point). Much of the west and southwest of the island (about 485 ha.) is a nature reserve owned by the Nature Conservancy of Canada.

Access

Drive west from Digby for 40 km down Digby Neck on Rte. 217, take the ferry (hourly on the half-hour) from East Ferry on Digby Neck across Petit Passage to Tiverton on Long Island. Proceed west on Long Island to Freeport (18 km), and there take the next ferry (hourly on the hour) across Grand Passage to Brier Island. Both ferries are available 24 hours a day, on demand after midnight until about 6am. The ferries are likely to be crowded on summer weekends and holidays. Both ferry crossings can be birdy – look for eiders and other sea-ducks, Black Guillemots, both cormorants, several species of gulls, and gannets, with the greatest variety in winter. Phalaropes and Kittiwakes occasionally enter the Passages. En route to the island, especially in fall, watch the Digby Neck roadsides and power lines for migrants. At The Seawall (Rossway) check the salt marsh and pond for ducks, herons and shorebirds. Just before East Ferry at Tiddville, a fine marshy pond just S of the road is worth checking for grebes, ducks and egrets, especially in late summer. On Long Island, in Central Grove a day-use provincial park is a good place to look for Boreal Chickadees.

Accommodations and supplies

Westport, the village on Brier Island has a permanent population of a few hundred, roughly doubled on occasion by summer residents and visitors. Robicheau’s store in the village is particularly well stocked with groceries, hardware, an NSLC outlet, fuel, and in summer a café serving mainly fast food and some of the best egg tarts in the province. Across Grand Passage, just above the ferry slip is an excellent (but seasonal) restaurant, Lavena’s Catch. There is a motel (Brier Island Lodge) on the road to Northern Point offering whale-watching cruises as part of the package, and a B & B, Bay of Fundy Inn (associated with Mariner Cruises for whale-watching) on Second Street. Brierwood Farm on Church Street also offers B&B accommodation. There are no formal camp grounds (the Camp Road leads to cottages, not camping), but there are few restrictions on informal camping, even though it is technically illegal within the NCC nature preserve. A post office is located on Water Street. Car repairs are only easily available in Freeport, in Central Grove, or in Digby, so come prepared. Medical attention is available at regular times in a new medical center just above the ferry landing in Freeport or via EHS. There is a washroom in the large building facing Robicheaus’s store (open days during the summer) and an outhouse (sometimes functional) at the campground located along the Lighthouse Road about 3 km W of Westport).

Birding the island

See the map. From the ferry wharf, turn right (N) toward Northern Point. Especially in late summer and autumn this 2 km section of road is worth birding carefully. A few short trails lead into interesting clearings and thickets. Northern Point itself, especially just after the passage of a cold front before dawn in late summer and autumn can be spectacularly active. Many birds that reach the island before dawn in autumn leave toward the N and NE just after dawn, challenging one’s skills with warblers and sparrows in flight. Check the isolated spruce thickets near the tip, also the lighthouse lawn and environs for grounded migrants. The alder thickets farther south are hard to bird but frequently harbour hundreds of migrants, including the occasional rarity. The bird-banding paths give access to some of this area. A banding station is located near Northern Point; its operators welcome visitors and other birders during their short season between mid-August and early September. Sea-watching with a telescope may be good from the shelter of the Northern Light, especially on an early morning flood tide and in northerly gales.

Left (S) from the ferry wharf, Water Street runs about 1 km to Southern Point, opposite Peters Island. Check the fish plant for gulls, also the marsh on the right past Robicheau’s Store and the shore on the left for herons, shorebirds, and the rarer gulls. Front yards and thickets along the road should not be overlooked. Church Street just past the marsh has Brierwood Farm (Vicki and Floyd Graham) at the end; it offers a good view of the adjacent marsh and bog (locally called “The Big Meadow”), and can be good for migrants. Gull Rock Road, marked by a sign, runs SW 3 km to Pond Cove. The whole road and the raspberry thickets at Gull Rock Point are worth birding carefully. Gull Rock and Green Island, offshore to the S usually harbour a large flock of Purple sandpipers in winter, and Harlequin Ducks are regular, though scarce from November through March. Gull Rock Road, toward the end, where there is a parking area, offers access to Pond Cove (see below). At Southern Point is a memorial to Joshua Slocum, who lived on the island for a time, and a good view of Peters Island, where gulls, Double-crested Cormorants and Black Guillemots nest. Eiders, loons and alcids (mainly Black Guillemots) ride the strong current past the point, and there is a fine view of Grand Passage.

Westport itself can provide some splendid birding and is best birded on foot, especially along Second Street from Wellington Street (“the New Lane”) to Pugh’s Lane or the reverse. Check every thicket, multiflora rose hedge and deciduous tree. Ditches may hold sparrows or even unseasonal warblers in early spring and late fall. The spruce hedge along Baileys’ Field Lane is a fine shelter for migrants. Large trees and scrub between Second and Water Streets at Tomcat Alley should be examined with care. A fine set of feeders behind 235 Water Street, accessible from Second Street, attracts many birds. It is possible to walk across the fields just behind the houses on Second Street as far as the church on Wellington Street, or the reverse, giving access to weedy areas, scrub, and the forest edge.

Lighthouse Road runs 4-1/2 km from Westport to the Western Light. Just above the village on the left, the Hilltop Cemetery can be good during migrations. To the right, opposite the cemetery, Pea Jack Road runs 1 km to the sea. It can and should be birded carefully on foot, including the almost invisible pond on the right near the junction with the Lighthouse Road. Pea Jack Cove attracts ducks and gulls, especially during gales at high water when the shore weed is stirred up, and there is a good view for sea-watching toward the W. The walks from Pea Jack Cove to Western Light or to Northern Point are rough but beautiful. Along the Lighthouse Road, check the edge of Woodside Cemetery for migrants, and power lines and field edges for Kestrels, E. Bluebirds (especially in April and October), sparrows and warblers. The “picnic ground” clearing about 3-1/2 km from Westport is worth checking for passerines in spring and fall, Saw-whet Owls in March-April and October, Woodcock in early spring, and soaring hawks in August – October. Opposite the Camp Road on the right is the rocky ridge of Lighthouse Hill, a fine hawk-watching vantage point in late summer and autumn. Scan the water off Western Light for the occasional Fin or Humpback Whale that may be feeding near shore, and for late summer and autumn flybys of Gannets, shearwaters, and other seabirds.

Camp Road is a lane leading S from Lighthouse Road toward Whipple Point and the W end of Pond Cove. It is best walked. Check especially around the cottages (“camps”) and in raspberry thickets and around the old gardens. Just below the cottages there is an unmarked, rather grown-in trail on the right that leads to Whipple Point, the westernmost point of Nova Scotia. The wooded area of the trail is one of the better locations on the island for Boreal Chickadees. The road continues on toward Pond Cove and joins a trail constructed by the Nature Conservancy of Canada running from Western Light to the Cove, which is a centerpiece of its Brier Island Nature Reserve. At the first cove (“Little Cove”) is a small barachois pond, and beyond it the big pond of Pond Cove and its beach. Both ponds are worth checking for ducks and herons. When the water is low, either pond can be good for shorebirds. Also check the beach carefully for shorebirds, especially the rocks and piles of rotting algae at each end. Baird’s and Buff-breasted Sandpipers are regular on Pond Cove Beach from the end of August through October. Brant sometimes use the big cove, especially in spring, and the flock of summering eiders can provide surprises. The head of the big pond may be good for ducks, herons and shorebirds.

Seabirds and whales

Strong tidal currents, rough bottom topography and high marine production combine to make the Bay of Fundy waters off Brier Island outstanding for seabirds. The best places for sea-watchers, preferably with telescopes, are Northern Point and the Western Light. In August-September flocks of phalaropes and shearwaters may gather along the plankton-filled slicks northwest and west of the island. Jaegers are regular, especially Pomarines, but also occasionally Parasitics. A few South Polar Skuas are seen each season especially after mid-August. Manx Shearwaters are regular among the more abundant Sooty and Great Shearwaters. Wilson’s and occasional Leach’s Storm-petrels are regular in mid to late summer. Seabird and whale-watching trips are available daily from July to October with Brier Island Whale and Seabird Cruises, Mariner Cruises, or as part of the Brier Island Lodge accommodation package. Their main focus is always whales, so it is advisable to let the crew know that you are a birder. The main problem with summer birding is that fog is frequent. The chances of good birding at sea improve as summer proceeds and are best in August and September.

The seasons

Typical of Nova Scotia, birding is at its best on Brier Island in autumn. Beginning in mid-August, flocks of warblers and Red-breasted Nuthatches arrive during and after the passage of cold fronts. September is usually the peak month; Northern Point and the roadsides may be alive with birds, especially for an hour or two after dawn. In clear weather with light NE winds there can be big flights of buteos, mainly Broad-winged Hawks, but with the possibility of almost anything. By late September the dozens of cruising Sharp-shinned Hawks and a few Merlins have terrorized the migrants into skulking invisibility, but their numbers remain high in sheltered areas. In October large numbers of sparrows, Juncos and winter finches begin to appear. Even in November, finch numbers are often high, and Pipits, Horned Larks, Snow Buntings and Lapland Longspurs are regular in Pond Cove. By December, when the freshwater usually freezes, land birds begin to disappear from the island except in Westport where some surprising vagrants or summer holdovers may be found at feeders or in shrubbery. In mid-winter, Westport and the sea are the main attractions. During NW gales in fall and winter thousands of Kittiwakes and alcids (mainly Razorbills but also Murres and Dovekies) may pass by Northern or Western Lights. Eiders and Gannets are on the move in March; Saw-whet Owls and Woodcock begin their breeding vocalizations. Early spring trips to the island – in March and April – have been rewarded by a remarkable array of southern warblers and herons, especially if the winds have been SW. May is often slow; the alders leaf out late in the month and warbler waves are few and late, usually after the 20th. Spring birds trickle in, unlike the autumnal floods. Even in early June vagrants and migrants may still occur, but by early July the island is dominated by its small array of breeding species, including, of the approximately 75 breeders, notably Blackpoll, Yellow-rumped, Magnolia, Yellow and Black-throated Green Warblers, Common Yellowthroats, American Redstarts, Golden-crowned Kinglets, Hermit and Swainson’s Thrushes, along with Black-capped and a few Boreal Chickadees.

Summary and conclusion

For a written account of the island with an annotated list of all the species known through 2010, see Eric L. Mills & Lance Laviolette, 2011. The Birds of Brier Island Nova Scotia. Proceedings of the Nova Scotian Institute of Science 46 (1): 1-107, which is usually available in the gift shop operated by Robicheau’s store, or can be ordered from the Nova Scotian Institute of Science. Brier Island has something for the birder at any time of year, but if your time is limited and your disappointment threshold is low, try mid-September, when the passerine and raptor migrations are at their peaks and the sea still has phalaropes and shearwaters to offer. Late May is a good second choice, provided a passerine arrival occurs. As on most islands, birding is very much an on-off affair on Brier Island. Long periods of uninteresting birding are common, broken, often unexpectedly, by some truly spectacular days and stellar finds. Nonetheless, the island is worthwhile at any time of year, although for sheer numbers and diversity, enlivened by scarce species now and then, Brier Island in September and October is hard to beat.

Contributed by Eric Mills and Richard Stern.

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