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That $12,000 Life Bird, Part Two
By Matt Heyden
(Editor's note: See That $12,000 Life Bird, Part One for part one of this story)
Leaving Maine, we had to cross into New Brunswick at St. Stephen. This is a tiny crossing compared to most urban bridges, but the traffic was heavy. It seemed that Canadians were not real pleased about paying more than $6 per gallon of fuel. So, gas at $4 per gallon on the Maine side of the border was a bargain. The savings allowed the Canadian shoppers extra money to spend in the stores in Calais, Maine, which they did.
We made a bee line for Fundy National Park, did some hiking and birding and moved on to the New Brunswick/ Nova Scotia border for the night. On our way, because someone loves to go back roads that take FOREVER, we stumbled on the "chocolate river". At first sight, I exclaimed, "Oh my God, there must have been a horrible flood to make such a yukky muddy mess". Well, yeah, it floods every single day, due to the incredibly high tides. The river color is exactly that of milk chocolate. It looks just as thick. I imagine you could get used to it, but we moved on.
After getting lost in Moncton, and discovering that they were serious about asking $150 per night for an econo motel, we landed in Sackville which was on the border. What a bargain. Rooms were less than half price, and get this, next to the welcome center was a manmade wetlands. It didn't look like much, but I was already thinking that we had to come back this way, and in Canada when you find something reasonably priced, you remember where it is.
Crossing into Nova Scotia, it was decided that we would take every back road we could possibly find with the hope of getting hopelessly lost. We were successful as usual. The route we chose was the Sunrise Trail which meandered along the coast and allowed for frequent stops at Provincial parks. Parks and restrooms were abundant. Expensive lobster sandwiches were abundant. Birds were not. To make sure we saw every back road possible we decided to find Wallace Bay National Wildlife Area. The tourist book said to turn off the main road on "Old Bidou" road. We stumbled through productive farm land and saw Willets with fluffy chicks that looked all the world like miniature sand hill crane chicks. Eventually we headed back to the main road on aboiteaux road and found NWA trails. We later found out that aboiteaux means a sluice with gates to allow fresh water out without letting salt water in to produce farmland. Someone should tell the tourist folks that it isn't Old Bidou! This part of Nova Scotia has road signs in English and Gaelic.
Our goal had become to see Cape Breton Highlands National Park, if we ever got there. Of course, we were traveling the week of July 4th, with no reservations. Lora wisely packed the tent and camping gear just in case. We had no idea if we would be out of luck.
Motel after motel all shad rooms. Some were absolutely empty. Could this be the year that the American tourist stayed home? Arriving at Cheticamp which is just south of the national park, we got a room with a waterfront view for $96. Think about it. July 4th week, and no reservations needed. Hmmm.
We birded that night around Cheticamp, and it was slowly dawning on me how we take Brevard County for granted. In Brevard, it's yeah, yeah, another thousand shore birds, yawn. Well, let me assure you, they weren' t spending the summer in Nova Scotia! The next morning we headed into the park. You must buy a daily pass that is good until noon the next day. We were allowed to buy ours the night ahead of time and they post dated it so that we could come in at dawn to bird. The ticket booths don't open until 8:30 a.m. That was a nice thought on their part.
The Cabot trail is breathtaking with spectacular views down to the ocean. A black bear walked right past the car, for the best look we had ever had at one. For a split second I was going to tell Lora to lock her door. Then it dawned on me that they probably couldn't work the knob, or for that matter, even drive, so we were probably safe. Well, the next thing we know, the door flies open, and Lora is being dragged out of the truck. No, that didn't happen. I just wanted you to think, well, that serves them right for not locking the door! The bear moved on slowly past the truck. What a surprise that it wasn't afraid of the truck. Hmmm It's almost like the bear was hanging around for a handout. You don't suppose anyone would really feed a bear? Naw.
Public access is pretty good in the park. One of the first scenic turnouts had us looking at the brush behind the parking lot. Who else but birders would turn their backs to a spectacular ocean view to watch... THE FAMOUS BOREAL CHICKADEE. Someone had explained to the bird that we were coming, and he was just as interested in ticking off Floridians on his life list as we were in putting him on ours. What an incredible bird. He followed us along the trail explaining that it was hard to distinguish Floridians from Canadians, probably due to the hybridization over the years!
A wonderful bog board walk and spruce forest walk to Benijes Lake at French mountain were everything a birder's website had promised. Here in the highest accessible section of the park we got to experience familiar birds in unfamiliar ways. The weirdly stunted "ice blasted" spruce and fens had common yellow throats, swamp sparrows and fox sparrow keeping territory. As promised Bicknell's thrush sounded off at the parking lot but also gave great looks for once. We were hoping for bay breasted warblers and listening intently. Juncos were alarmed by gray jays eating someone. A mystery bird sang and sang near the lake. It was a ruby crowned kinglet singing its little boreal heart out. Then we heard a teasing "teesa ,tessa" could it be? Have you ever heard a black and white warbler in full blown song? How about a magnolia warbler? Just as awesome as any life bird!
This National Park does have some small towns, so there are very, very limited services. I'm telling you right now, take as much food as you can stuff into your vehicle. Your dollar just doesn't go very far for anything. At the northern most point of the peninsula we decided to head out to Meat Cove on a friend's recommendation. Desolate, isolated, but ruggedly beautiful. The road was dirt for the last 5 miles... and a dead end. A ruffed grouse and her chicks liked it however. As it would turn out, National Geographic ran a photo in their book "Canada's Incredible Coasts", but ran no caption. Well, here's where it was taken. Bald Eagle and Golden Eagle soared by. Gannets flew and crashed into the ocean far below us. Scenic overkill.
It was getting late in the day, and the motels were few and far between at this point, so, I had to choose between the tent and a strange kind of B&B. We climbed up this rock scramble to this vacation home kind of thing. The view was absolutely incredible. It was an empty hunting lodge, and they rented each of the 5 rooms out for $55. The owners were more than happy for US cash. The house had a full kitchen, decks overlooking the ocean view, and the owners didn't live in the house. So, we had it to ourselves, until 9 p.m. to enjoy our camp meal that Lora had wisely hidden, for just in case.
So, get this. Lora and I are alone in the lodge, and it‘s getting dark. Strangers show up, I have to show them their rooms, and then instruct them to call a special number if they'd like to stay. Of course, it's late, so they agree, and are told to go to the little restaurant in the morning to pay. Talk about casual. Of course, no names are given, no registrations are taken, and this couple probably hasn't murdered anyone in their sleep in weeks. No keys for the bedrooms. Do the locks even work?
At 3 a.m., Lora shakes me awake. Just as I feared, they're here to kill us. Nope, someone wants to go out to look at the stars. I bop her on the head and go back to sleep. No, I didn't. I get dressed and go outside to the most incredible sky I'd ever seen. Actually getting up was my idea, because among my many pursuits are the Northern Lights which we haven't seen in more than 20 years. Alas, no Northern Lights, but, an incredible blanket of stars at the furthest most northern spot we had ever been. Worth getting up for? Oh yeah.
In the morning, we served coffee to the other couple and learned that they lived in the Yukon, and lived off the grid. Fascinating, folks, for killers! I have no idea if they ever paid for their room. Kind of a strange way to run lodging, but it is Meat Cove, after all.
Upon leaving Meat Cove, I decided that we should see Bras d'Or Lake. The navigator again picked many unnamed roads to ensure a real tour. The maps simply don't show all the roads, and some are actually wrong. But this allowed some birding stops, but we'll never know where we were. Crossing back into New Brunswick, we stayed again in the motel near the wetlands. The next morning I had planned to allow 30 minutes. This turned into more than 2 hours. They have a nice mix of ponds and trees and shrubs. There were many Yellow Warblers, American Widgeon, mallards, with chicks, American Redstarts, Red Wing Black Birds, and muskrat. A special treat was seeing young yellowlegs. Sackville has a lot going for it. Should you do this trip, don't miss the wetlands.
All told, the puffins really weren't $12,000 life birds... I figure with the others we added it was only about $4,000. Somehow, that doesn't make me feel much better!