Photo Story | Atlantic Canada, Sable Island and Gulf of Saint Lawrence

Eighteen Birds to Spot in Atlantic Canada

© Dennis Minty

Canada’s east coast buzzes with avian wildlife! Learn some fun birdie facts and which species to look out for on your next Atlantic Canada expedition. From the endemic Ipswich sparrow to the common murre, these are eighteen species worth keeping your eyes peeled for.
Northern gannet in flight blue sky

© Dennis Minty

Northern gannet (Morus bassanus)

Gannets are like sailplanes that can soar long distances with hardly a flap. They travel hundreds of kilometres to hunt the schools of fish on which they prey. Once a gannet spies the fish, it will plummet from thirty or forty metres up, but just a split second before entering the water, it stretches its wings all the way back and transforms its body into a spearhead. Plunging through the surface at speed, it will grab herring, mackerel, sand eels, or any other fish that schools near the surface—even squid! Its impetus is so great that it leaves a vapour trail of tiny bubbles in its wake.

Common murre swimming water

© Dennis Minty

Common murre (Uria aalge)

The murre is built as a compromise between flying in air and flying in water. Beneath the sea’s surface the long-lived murre uses its robust breast muscles to pulse itself along in a seek-and-find mission for small fish. In the air, it beats its wings rapidly as it travels to and from the best fishing grounds. On land, it sits upright in a densely packed colony—as many as forty birds per square metre—where it incubates a single egg on a bare rocky ledge. It has huge eyes; if scaled up to human size, they would be as big as grapefruit!

Two puffins standing on rock

© Dennis Minty

Atlantic puffin (Fratercula arctica)

The puffin can fly at over eighty kilometres per hour, dive to over sixty metres, swim fast enough to catch speeding fish, thrive through a winter on the North Atlantic, find its home nest through dense fog, and lay an egg that is twenty per cent of its body size. It may look comical, but that belies its true competence.

Arctic tern in flight fish in beak

© Dennis Minty

Arctic tern (Sterna paradisaea)

Having the longest migration (48,000 kilometres!) in the animal kingdom, from the Arctic to southern South America and Antarctica, this aerobatic flyer sees more hours of daylight, and therefore has more feeding time, than most other animals.

Osprey photo by Wikimedia NASA

© NASA / Wikimedia public domain

Osprey (Pandion haliaetus)

Flap, glide, hover, plunge, repeat. That’s the pattern you’ll see if you watch an osprey in its fishing territory. It is a specialist that feeds almost exclusively on fish, for which it is superbly adapted. It has spines on the pads of its toes, all the better for gripping slippery fish. It can rotate one of its front toes backward to improve its grasp. It has a third semi-transparent eyelid that it uses like swimming goggles when it makes a plunge. It can submerge itself completely and with a quick shake and couple of flaps rise again, thanks to its oily, water-resistant plumage. Is there anything it can’t do? What a fish-hunter extraordinaire!

Bald eagle sitting in nest

© Dennis Minty

Bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)

There was a time during the 1950s and ‘60s, after decades of DDT and related pesticide use, that a bald eagle would lay its eggs only for them to turn into an omelette. The shells were so thin that they could not bear the weight of the parent bird. But bald eagle populations are now thriving throughout most of Atlantic Canada, since these pesticides were banned in the 1970s. This coastal-loving raptor is commonly found perched high in a spruce tree where its white head and tail proudly announce to other eagles, “This is my hunting ground. Go find your own!”

Pair of common eiders swimming photo credit Wikimedia Rhododendrites cc 4 0

© Rhododendrites / Wikimedia CC BY 4.0

Common eider (Somateria mollissima)

The expression “to feather your nest”—meaning to take advantage of a situation to further your own interest—may well have originated from an examination of a common eider’s nest. The mother eider plucks down from her own breast to line the nest and protect her chicks from the harsh, coastal winds of early spring. “As light as a feather” is still pretty heavy-duty when it comes to this beautiful material, which insulates well and springs back to its original shape after being crushed. Far away in Iceland, it is the basis of a sustainable textile industry, in which the down is removed from the nest after chick rearing is over.

Pair of great black backed gulls swimming

© Dennis Minty

Great black-backed gull (Larus marinus)

This omnivore rivals the more northern glaucous variety for the position of world’s largest gull. Aggressive feeders, they swallow whole live animals like fish, small mammals, and other birds. They have a contrasting red spot near the tip of the yellow bill that serves as a target for the precocial chicks to peck at to elicit feeding by the adults.

Banded greater yellowlegs

© Dennis Minty

Greater yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca)

As our Zodiacs approach a landing beach, it is common to hear the loud call of a greater yellowlegs as it rises from the shallows, its preferred feeding ground. In flight, its long, spindly legs trail behind its rather large body. Feeding on marine worms, amphipods, and small fish, it uses its long bill to stir up the water so that the small hidden creatures are easier to find.

Ruddy turnstones walking pebbles

© Dennis Minty

Ruddy turnstone (Arenaria interpres)

Common along rocky and sandy beaches, a flock of ruddy turnstones in flight catches the eye because of their distinctive markings: white stripe down the back, black tail stripe, white rump, and white stripe down the wings. The markings serve to hold the flock together when flying at high speed. On the shoreline, they use their short, upturned bill to flip rocks, shells, and seaweed in search of insects and larvae, small crustaceans, and molluscs.

Willow ptarmigan pink flowers

© Dennis Minty

Willow ptarmigan (Lagopus lagopus)

In Atlantic Canada, the willow ptarmigan is most often seen in Newfoundland and Labrador, but can also be found in the higher grounds bordering the Saint Lawrence River. It is a winter specialist with feathered feet that serve like snowshoes, pure white winter plumage (changed from its summertime mix of red, brown, and black), and the ability to take shelter within snow drifts during the coldest spells.

Yellow rumped warbler

© Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren / Wikimedia CC BY 2.0

Yellow-rumped warbler (Setophaga coronata)

This little warbler is one of the most common in boreal woodlands and can range further north than most. This ability is derived largely from its versatile food choices which include insects—like most warblers—but also plant material, like seeds and berries.

Fox sparrow on branch photo credit Wikimedia Rhododendrites cc 4 0

© Rhododendrites / Wikimedia CC BY 4.0

Fox sparrow (Passerella iliaca)

Named after its foxy brown plumage, this robust sparrow is a denizen of the woodlands where it feeds largely on the ground by scratching through leaf litter after insects and other invertebrates. It can also eat plant material like seeds, fruits, and buds. Naturalist and ornithologist William Brewster once described its cheerful song as a voice rising “among the evergreen woods filling the air with quivering, delicious melody.”

Savannah sparrow on log

© Dennis Minty

Savannah sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis)

This diminutive sparrow chooses a habitat almost opposite that of the fox sparrow, preferring open, barren headlands and meadows. You’ll first notice them by their rather loud, distinctive song that starts with a few quick notes, proceeds to a thin, insect-like buzz, and ends in a trill. Its name comes from Alexander Wilson, a nineteenth-century ornithologist, who found a specimen in Savannah, Georgia.

Ipswich sparrow

© Dennis Minty

Ipswich sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis princeps)

A unique version of the Savannah sparrow, these little friends nest only on Sable Island (the only songbird to do so in significant numbers) and winter along the south coast of Nova Scotia and the northeast coast of the United States. It is lighter in colour than its more abundant cousin, likely an adaptation to blend in with the island's soft brown sand dunes. Because of its highly restricted and vulnerable breeding habitat, it is considered endangered.

Boreal chickadee photo credit Wikimedia dfaulder cc 2 0

© dfaulder / Wikimedia CC BY 2.0

Boreal chickadee (Poecile hudsonicus)

Say “chickadee” and you likely think of a tiny, black-crowned bird flitting about the woods. The boreal chickadee has a brown crown, instead of black, and is a specialist of the northern forest where it stays all winter. Its capability of keeping its tiny, warm-blooded body active during sub-zero temperatures is an adaptive wonder. This success is a result of food caching, puffing up its feathers, entering a controlled hypothermia each night, roosting in tree cavities, and eating twenty times as much as it does in warmer seasons.

Male pine grosbeak photo credit Wikimedia Ron Knight cc 2 0

© Ron Knight / Wikimedia CC BY 2.0

Pine grosbeak (Pinicola enucleator)

This plump finch likes evergreen forests, where it seems almost tame as it slowly hops from tree to tree emitting a quiet cheep. This behaviour has prompted Newfoundlanders to christen it the mope. With its robust and competent bill, it nips off seeds, fruits, and buds. Rosy red males contrast with the greyish yellow females.

Crossbills eating pine cone

© Dennis Minty

Crossbills (Loxia curvirostra and Loxia leucoptera)

The two species of crossbills in Atlantic Canada, the red and the white-winged, have strange bills that look defective—the tips cross over one another like a pair of shears. However, the design serves to help them open the cones of coniferous trees like pines, spruces, and firs, to access a source of food unavailable to most birds: the nutritious seeds lying flat between the scales. The red crossbill on the island of Newfoundland is endemic and locally endangered.

About the Author

Dennis Minty

Dennis Minty

Photographer, Wildlife Biologist

Dennis has been working with Adventure Canada since 2002. Dennis’s path—from his small island roots in Twillingate, Newfoundland to his current career as a photographer and eco-tour leader—has taken him through more than three decades of local and international work.

For him, nature and photography are inseparable. Dennis immerses himself in nature through photography and seeks to inspire in the viewer a deeper connection with the natural world. Dennis has authored nine books on subjects such as environmental science, his home province of Newfoundland and Labrador, and his photography.

To see more of Dennis' work, visit his website.