Pictured are the Gannet colonies on Bonaventure Island.

The little outboard motorboat sped across the waters of Lennox Passage toward a small treeless island about three kilometres from where we launched.

In case you are not sure, Lennox Passage is the long, narrow body of water that separates Isle Madame from the rest of Cape Breton. From the islands on the Cape Breton side of Chedabucto Bay, the passage is a stretch of water that joins with St. Peter’s Bay. The Burnt Island Bridge and Highway 320 crosses over the passage to Isle Madame.

Why were we going to this small insignificant island, to drop in on a seagull nesting colony. This small island appears as Berry Island on the topographic maps. It is only a few hundred metres in length, low in profile, and covered with sparse vegetation, mostly low-growing scrubby alder bushes. However, there is just enough vegetation cover to give the seagull nests some protection.

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I was going there to photograph the nests and chicks in all their stages of development. Careful walking was an absolute necessity, as some nests were built under the low branches of the alders, while others were simply a few strands of grasses or seaweed fashioned together in some semblance of a nest.

None of the meticulous work that our summer songbirds go through to construct their nest was evident in the works of the seagulls. It looked as if most of the nesting gulls on this island were Herring Gulls. The young chicks begin to hatch 24 –to-28-days after laying their eggs.

Contributed photo
A seagull chick and eggs are pictured in a seagull nest on Berry Island.

As we made our way around the island, we encountered all stages and sizes of nests and chicks. Some nests had visible cracks in the eggs and pecking could be heard, while others were fresh out of the eggs. Some were nearly as big as adults with their down slowly changing to feathers. We even caught several tame ones that showed no fear and photographed them.

One of the other common seabirds that nest in a few places around Cape Breton is the Common Tern, easily recognized by their forked tails, black headcaps and darting way of flying. I have visited one small nesting colony in the marsh grasses near the beach on Port Hood Island. Their nests are little more than a few blades of old dry marram grasses sort of laid out on a warm sandy spot.

I have always had fun photographing them by sending someone carefully into the nesting colony. Soon the dive-bombing attacks would start at the intruder. The Common Tern is very protective of their nesting sites much more so than the seagulls. We tried this once on a trip to Iceland and the intruder had to protect herself with her jacket.

Kittiwakes and Puffins nest on the cliffs of Bird Island just off of Englishtown. The puffins tend to burrow into soft soils that might make up the cliffs of the island.

I was lucky enough to visit a very large nesting colony of Gannets on Bonaventure Island off the coast of the Gaspe Peninsula, Quebec. With 25,000 nesting pairs and their chicks, there was close to 75,000 birds on the upper cliffs of the island. This gannet colony is probably the largest in North America. The noise and activity of the colony was deafening. In the fall of the year the Gannets are frequent visitors to the Strait of Canso and can be seen making their plummeting dives after billfish on stormy days near the Causeway.

The Herring Gull in one of the most versatile and adaptable of our seabirds. They seem to be able to survive in just about any conditions. Their range is far reaching, pretty well throughout North America.

We are lucky to have several small nesting colonies here in Cape Breton where the whole range of nesting activities can be witnessed. Many of the small islands on our coastline, like Berry Island, have hidden secrets that many of us know nothing of.

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Musician and freelance columnist Wally Ellison lives in Inverness County