Saint Pierre and Miquelon
Birding Saint Pierre and Miquelon
Birding In St-Pierre Et Miquelon (A corner of France in North America!)
The islands of St Pierre et Miquelon are located only 12 miles off the Newfoundland’s Burin Peninsula, south of Newfoundland; 46°20`N and 47° W – which is about 800 miles North-East from Boston and at the top of the Saint-Pierre Banks near the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. They are what remains of the once vast French empire in North America. The French explorer Jacques Cartier while visiting our islands for the first time on June 11, 1536 found several French vessels already fishing in the area. The islands have been inhabited since 1687, mostly by cod fishermen. Then the islands ownership shifted several times between France and England until 1816 they we became definitely French. Even at that time birds were important to man, for food of course, but also as indicators of the proximity of land. In 1579, in a book for sailors, a basque, Martin de Hoyarsabal describes a few species of birds that were probably the Great Auk, the Gannet and other Alcids that would indicate that sailors were nearing land. People interested by other historical aspects of our islands should visit this website http://www.grandcolombier.com Thousands of pages are available on various subjects.
The islands of Saint-Pierre & Miquelon are very small, only 242 km². They were termed a Natural Geology Museum by Aubert De la Rüe a geologist who spent several years studying them in the thirties and forties. Indeed in such a small area the geology is very varied as St-Pierre and Miquelon are volcanic, the Cape of Miquelon is metamorphic and Langlade is mostly sedimentary. Large areas are covered with peat bogs and small lakes; wooded areas are restricted to river valleys and other sheltered areas. On the Isthmus uniting Miquelon and Langlade there are beautiful sandy beaches, and, on the Northern part; the most fascinating area, a salt lagoon called the Grand Barachois. The low coasts of Miquelon contrasts with the steep cliffs of Langlade and Northern St-Pierre while those of Cape Miquelon are remarkably picturesque.
About 680 species of vascular plants have been recorded since 1816, some have disappeared, some were not correctly identified, and others were introduced. The flora, at the present time, comprises more than 450 native species and about 100 introduced.
Being an archipelago and due to glaciations, native land mammals are quite scarce, only the Red Fox’s origin is uncertain, the Meadow vole Microtus pensylvanicus present only in St-Pierre is believed to have been introduced. The White-tailed deer Odocoileus virginianus introduced in Miquelon-Langlade in 1953, has adapted remarkably well, in spite of the scarcity of its prime habitat, and is now withstanding strong hunting pressure. The Snowshoe Hare Lepus americanus was introduced around 1870 for hunting purposes. The Arctic Hare Lepus arcticus was introduced in Miquelon-Langlade in 1982 and is still present, but in relatively low numbers. There are two species of Pinnipeds: The Harbour Seal, which is breeding here and is a permanent resident, and the Grey Seal, which is present from spring to late fall. Two other species of seals: Harp and Hooded seal are scarce, but less rare than a few years ago, and are usually seen in late fall/early winter. Sea mammals, although not totally reliable, are often present around the islands: Humpback, Minke, & Finback whales, White-beaked and White-sided Dolphins, mostly appear from spring to fall. The Atlantic Pilot whale and the Common Dolphin are seen as well, mostly in late summer/early fall.
The bird life is fairly rich. The first scientific article about the avifauna was written as late as 1951 by Burleigh and Peters, who visited the islands for 3 days in 1945, whilst engaged in the study of the Birds of NFLD, they recorded 35 species. The next study was not for another 20 years or so, while Austin Cameron (1967) spent 9 weeks on the islands in 1963 and 1964, he recorded 118 species. Then Michel Borotra, (the first inhabitant of the islands to get involved in bird watching) published with Dr. L. M. Tuck (1972) an addition of 68 species. Then several people got the bug! There is now a group of birders for whom I compile all the data. We moved the list from 168 species in 1972 to 217 in 1976 (Etcheberry and Borotra); 248 in 1982 (Etcheberry); 268 in 1985 (Etcheberry and Desbrosse) to 319 today with 5 new species in 2002: Black-backed Wagtail, Common Greenshank, American Avocet, Fork-tailed flycatcher and Eared Grebe, these birds, (except the Greenshank) could be seen at the following on http://perso.wanadoo.fr/iles-et-ailes/. 93 species nest or have nested in these islands, 73 species are considered common and 42 species have been seen only once.
On the dark side, we have not signed the Migratory bird treaty act. Several species still are hunted here like Murres (as in NFLD) even Dovekies, Yellowlegs, Whimbrels, Dowitchers, Godwits etc. The hunting season is also longer than in Newfoundland. Although some efforts have been made recently, we still have some work to do, before the regulation become acceptable.
St-Pierre is the smallest and the most populated of the three main islands (6000 people on 28 km²). Four out of the five new species in 2002 were seen there. [Possibly because there are more observers, or it may be because it is easier to spot a new species on a small island]. The location must play a role as well, being the first landfall for birds arriving from the south or southeast. The coasts are interesting to visit for shorebirds but also for seabirds, which are quite common from fall to spring. The small woods have nesting sparrows and warblers, although numbers of the latter have dwindled for many years now.
Grand Colombier is a small island a few hundred meters from the north-eastern corner of St. Pierre; it is about 1.2km long by a few hundred meters wide and 149m in height. This is our single nesting site for the Atlantic Puffin, the population was estimated to be 4/500 pairs a few years ago. Every observer feels now that the population might have doubled. A Rough-legged Hawk is usually hovering overhead; this is the most reliable site to see the species that usually nests there. Absent from that island a few years ago, Razorbill now nest here with possibly 100 pairs. A few hundred pairs of Kittiwakes and about 20 pairs of Great Cormorant also breed.
To really appreciate Grand Colombier, you must try to accompany local naturalists who spend a night there from time to time, you’ll be treated to an estimated 100,000 pairs of nesting Leach’s Storm-petrel. Manx Shearwaters have been actively prospecting here for about 15 years. They were found inside artificial burrows and they might well be nesting in natural deep crevices, although breeding has not been proved yet. These birds are heard singing there every night. This is also a good site for nesting American Pipits. Minke, Humpback, Finback whales and Dolphins are often seen around the island.
La Baie (The Bay) is a misnomer, it is in fact a strait between Langlade and St. Pierre. The Bay is not usually rich in bird life, except during the Capelin run, then hundreds of Sooty and Greater Shearwaters could be present as well as Gannets and Fulmars. The cliffs of Langlade were once rich in Kittiwake colonies but most of them have now moved to the Cape of Miquelon in the extreme North of the Archipelago. Only a few remain near Cap Bleu (Blue Cape) on the southwestern corner of Langlade. Black Guillemots breed here as well, in fact they nest on most of the cliffs around Langlade and Cape Miquelon.
Langlade Landing at Langlade is a bit unusual for modern times! There is no wharf there so you have to land by zodiac. This is a beautiful island, but with few good paths, if you really want to explore, be sure to come with a map and compass; otherwise, you could visit the nice ‘Belle Rivière’ valley (its estuary is where the boat lands) and see most of the warblers and sparrows of the area. A pair of Northern Harrier has been known to nest there as well as Northern Goshawk. Up on the plateau in spring and summer you can see breeding Red-throated Loons reaching their southernmost limit in North America here (in Newfoundland there are known to nest only on the Northern peninsula).
The Isthmus is a fascinating area, in the southern part there is a nice marsh that usually has several broods of ducks in spring and summer: Black Duck, Pintail and Green-winged Teal. In spring and fall other species like Herons, Bitterns, sometimes Pied-billed Grebe or Bufflehead. Bank Swallows have nested a few times in the past, managing to dig burrows in fine sand. Dune vegetation and prairies are home to large numbers of Savannah sparrows and numerous Horned Larks (some of which over-wintering). The Northern part of the Isthmus has the richest ponds of the islands and has several broods of ducks including Red-breasted Mergansers, Ring-necked duck; Greater Scaup have nested there a few times too. Whimbrels usually arrive during the first week of July (sometimes in late June) and stay well into August. Only the Least Sandpiper, Common Snipe Spotted Sandpiper and Semipalmated Plover breed there, and now, since the early 1980s, the endangered Piping Plover. The Greater Yellowlegs is apparently only a migrant. The first fall shorebirds arrive around mid-July and linger into October and some into November and December. A few species are seen in winter: Red Knot, Sanderling, Dunlin and Black-bellied Plover. Arctic and Common Tern nest near Grand Barachois. Some of them, unfortunately are nesting in parts of the beach used in summer by cars. Black Tern has also nested there. Ring-billed Gulls also nest on the Isthmus.
The Lagoon itself is quite shallow and has extensive patches of Eel grass Zostera marina were food for 250 to 300 American Black Ducks a few years ago, the population has risen now to a maximum of 600 in the year 2000. These are present from September to December, most of them over-wintering as Canada Geese used to do, unfortunately, for the last 17 years they have all but abandoned the site due to disturbance. From fall to spring the Grand Barachois has a population of about 100 Common Goldeneye and several Red-breasted Mergansers and Greater Scaup. At low tide this is the best spot to observe both Harbour and Grey Seals. The Harbour seal give birth to his young there in late May/early June. Gannets and Shearwaters and often observed on both sides of the Isthmus in the Capelin season, the latter numbering sometimes several thousands.
Miquelon has coasts all around that have easy access, although the west coast is rather monotonous, bordered chiefly by peat bogs. It is interesting in spring, and to a lesser extent in winter and fall, with concentration of thousands of Eiders, hundreds of Long-tailed ducks, Mergansers and numerous Red-necked Grebes (we have possibly the most important concentration of this Grebe for the whole area). The east coast is more appealing, with numerous ponds and lakes separated of the sea by sand or gravel bars. The largest one: Mirande lake, more than 3 km in length, has more broods or Red-breasted Merganser than the rest of the islands. On the east coast, the road goes only a quarter of the way around to the village to Grand Barachois. From then on walking is easy, on the grass or on the beaches for several kilometres. Woods there are nice and have numerous species of Warblers and Sparrows. Even Northern Goshawk has nested there.
The Cape of Miquelon is not to be missed, this is the most picturesque area having wonderful steep cliffs with thousands of pairs of Kittiwakes nesting with other gulls, Black Guillemots and a few rare Razorbills, Whales are often seen as well. Gently rolling hills will lead you to the tip of the Cape where a pair of Bald Eagle has nested since 1979. This is a good place to see several species of raptors in the fall: Sharp-shinned Hawk, Merlin, Osprey, & Northern Harrier.
Visiting: Be sure to bring some warm clothes, temperature here in summer rarely reach 20°c. and could come down to 14 or 15°. The sky being free of pollution, the sun can be dangerous; do not forget solar protection cream. Precipitations are on average 1300 mm. a year and we have a lot of peat bogs so Rubber boots are indispensable. Good maps are available locally.
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Photographer - Patrick BoezGallery