Bay of Fundy Pelagic Birding (DIGBY-A7)

Any trip to Nova Scotia should include at least one expedition to the waters of the Bay of Fundy surrounding Brier Island. They are rich and diverse in marine life and host a wide array of marine mammals and very large numbers of many species of pelagic birds. This is ‘the’ spot in Nova Scotia to get close-up views of shearwaters, jaegers, skuas and phalaropes. While this is an important feeding area year round, late summer until the end of September is the best time to plan a visit that encompasses journeying out into the Bay on one of the several whale watching boat trips.  If you arrive earlier than this time frame and target species may not have arrived yet. There is also a greater risk of fog. Later than this and the number of whale watching trips become less frequent and are more prone to be canceled due to weather. An alternative to a boat ride is a sea watch from Northern Point or Western Light on Brier Island. Both locations offer the chance to see distant pelagic birds and occasional close encounters.

To Get There

From Halifax follow Highway 101 west towards Digby.  Pass Digby and turn right on Middle Crossing Rd. (~4 km). Follow this road to Digby Necks and Islands Scenic Drive (#217) and turn left. Proceed down this drive to the ferry wharf at East Ferry. Take this ferry across to Tiverton on Long Island. The ferry leaves every hour on the half hour or more often during some peak times and is not very expensive. At this point you can continue down route 217 to East Ferry and take another ferry (every hour on the hour) from Freeport to Westport on Brier Island. Again, a return trip is quite cheap.

Birding the Area

Whales and pelagic birds are generally found in the same areas of the Bay of Fundy. The birds are usually concentrated along slicks/rafts of drifting seaweed. Since the best way to bird the area is via boat, birders benefit greatly from the region’s whale watching businesses. There are a number of whale watching companies based in the towns mentioned in the driving instructions that offer trips into the Bay of Fundy. The companies have good sized, stable craft as their bases but for the more adventurous, a couple offer trips on zodiacs. There is more driving involved in going all the way to Brier Island but at the time of writing there are more overnight accommodations available there and it takes less boat time to get to the birding areas so there is more observation time if you start there. The choice is yours.

If you intend to sea watch then you must proceed to Brier Island. The prime areas are only viewable from land on this island. Both the north and west points of the island are marked with lighthouses and it is from these spots that scoping the waters of the bay works best. Usually pelagic species are very distant from land and it takes a fine eye and an excellent scope to identify most of them. Occasionally, weather conditions result in pelagic species coming very close to shore, sometimes even flying into the strait between Brier and Long Islands. For example, a NW gale in the fall or winter may result in thousands of Black-legged Kittiwakes and alcids being pushed in close to the coastline.

Comments

It’s very important to keep an eye on the weather. Whale watching trips will sail in fog and rain as well as sun but the birding will be much less satisfying. High winds may cancel boat trips completely if the water/wave action is too rough. Fog is much more likely to be encountered in July and August that in September. High winds and storm events are more likely in late September and October. Be advised that marine mammals are the primary focus of these trips however if you let the crew know that you are a birder they will often allow some time to specifically target pelagic species.

The area has produced sightings of all of the common pelagic species expected in the Bay of Fundy and many rarities. In the July to October time frame, phalaropes, shearwaters, storm-petrels, gannets, Larids and jaegers are commonly found. A few skuas are seen each season, especially after mid-August. The locally breeding Atlantic Puffins and Black Guillemots can also be targeted at this time. As fall progresses to winter, loon, grebe, fulmar and alcid numbers increase and many of the previously mentioned species disappear. There can also be huge numbers of some species. For example, the number of phalaropes encountered may be in the tens of thousands and there may be thousands of Greater Shearwaters at times.

If you brave the cold winds in the winter months, thousands of alcids winter in the area, the bulk being Razorbills, Thick-billed Murres and Dovekies.

Contributed by Lance Laviolette.

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