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Cape St. Mary’s Ecological Reserve is about a one hour drive south on Highway 100 from the Marine Atlantic ferry terminus of Argentia. The drive to the reserve itself is fascinating and provides many opportunities for images of the rugged maritime coastline, particularly around Ship Cove and Gooseberry Cove. Should your departure point be the international airport at St. John’s, the drive will take about three hours as you travel inland via Salmonier Line, and south across the Avalon Peninsula to St. Bride’s. Should you want the most scenic drive from St. John’s, take the 350Km coastal drive along what is known locally as the “Irish Loop.” Be forewarned, however, you will want to stop continuously and can easily spend a couple of days playing tourist before you arrive at the Placentia Bay community of St. Brides.
Once at the reserve your best vantage point will be mere metres from the large precipitous pinnacle known as Bird Rock, which is a 30-minute walk from the Visitation Centre. You will be welcomed to Bird Rock by a chorus originating from the third largest nesting colony of Northern gannets in North America. In addition there is a large rookery of common murre (known locally as turres), black-legged kittiwake, thick-billed murre, razorbill, black guillemont, double-crested and great cormorant as well as Northern fulmar all nesting at the site. By far the most spectacular of these Pelagic species that nest here each summer is the golden headed avian dive bombing gannet.
You will also want to be vigilant as there is a strong possibility you will see the resident red fox scampering along the headlines in search of a poultry lunch.
Images can be made here even during the harsh light of high-noon. For unique pictures mount your camera on a tripod and extend the legs as far as possible. You can safely lie on the cliff edge and then extend the tripod mounted camera out over the edge of the cliff face, and point the camera straight down yielding what will look like an aerial shot. You should be able to program your camera to take a series of images with a time lapse between frames and thereby increase the probability of getting a good frame. When you think you have finished the sequence —I would recommend starting with a five image sequence— simply retrieve the camera back to terra firma and see if you have captured a “keeper.” The nice thing about this location is that if you aren’t happy with your results the first time, try again – the birds and rocks aren’t going anywhere soon.
This is also a great location to practise panning technique. If you just sit and watch the birds for awhile, notice how the gannet when fishing dive bomb from great heights and plunge into the water at speed upwards of 100 km/h (60 mph). The distance and the speed will probably make panning shots of a diving bird near impossible; however, if you observe the birds as they take off and land on Bird Rock you should notice several things: they will almost hover as they come in to land and they will usually always land facing into the wind (as do all birds). It won’t take long until you learn the habits of the gannets, and why I think they are the most beautiful of all sea birds.
Most of your image making will be done facing a southerly direction with an unobstructed field of view to both the east and west. Pre-dawn is my preferred time, which means leaving the Interpretation Centre about an hour before sunrise. Simply do a web search or check the St. John’s newspaper, the Evening Telegram, for sunrise times. You should also be aware that this area annually receives around 200 days of fog per year, so you will want to dress warmly with a rain shell.
Extreme caution must be exercised as this is a natural area with no retaining or safety fences to keep an errant foot from going over a cliff edge. An inattentive moment could result in a fall that would surely be fatal, as the drop to the ocean is about 100 metres.
Ensure you have lots of fresh batteries and more than enough media. I know from experience you are going to shoot like crazy at this most incredible seabird sanctuary.