Backpacking & Atlassing the Cape Breton Highlands

I think most who knew me (Jeff MacLeod) while I was volunteering at Ruthven know that I am living in Nova Scotia these days. If you didn’t know me from before: I used to spend a bunch of time at Ruthven, and still do a bit of work on this site. I figured at least a few of you might be interested to hear about a recent backpacking trip I went on, so, here is the story and some pictures:

My brother (Scott) and I have been planning to backpack from Red River, NS to Meat Cove, NS for about 1/2 a year, and, at the end of last month, we did it. It also happens that the Maritime Breeding Bird Atlas is in its last year of data collection, and the (very remote) area we were backpacking through needed lots of atlassing and point counts. So, I backpacked with a binoculars and a notebook, and took lots of notes!

Our trip lasted four days and three nights. Since I had a GPS in my pocket the whole time, you can see the route we took by clicking here. Our route started in Red River, close to Pleasant Bay, NS. We followed a trail for about 10kms to Pollett’s Cove, and went off-trail from there. On our first day, we quickly learned how slow our movement off-trail would be. We hiked 10kms on-trail before 1PM, and 4 kms off-trail between about 2PM and 7PM. We were happy to set up camp! The second day we started with an ascent up to the plateau, hoping it would be easier going up there. It wasn’t especially easy getting up there, but was easier going once we were there. Certainly the views were better, too. We stayed on the plateau and headlands, save the river valley descents, for the next day or so. Near supper of the third day, we reached the trail at the other end of our route–the trail that runs from Lowland Cove to Meat Cove. We camped in Lowland Cove that evening, and hiked on-trail out to Meat Cove by the afternoon of the 4th day.

The birding was unlike anything I had experienced, having spent most of birding life in Southern Ontario. It wasn’t the number of species that I found unusual, but the frequency with which I encountered certain species. For example, Mourning Warbler were quite common throughout the hike, but I heard only a few Yellow Warblers. Lincoln’s and Savannah Sparrow were also quite common, but I only heard a couple of Song Sparrows. Quite notably, we came across a handful of Vesper Sparrow, an uncommon species in the Maritimes. We heard our first Vesper Sparrow near a clearing on a steep slope on the 2nd day. I had never encountered this species before, and it was the unfamiliar song that tipped me off to figure out who the singer was (using my ipod). After this first encounter, we came across maybe 7-8 more on the hike. Other uncommon species are also reliably found in the remote areas of the highlands, like Olive-sided Flycatcher. I had never encountered one of these birds on its breeding territory before. All said an done, I think I tallied about 55 species on the trip (see list with notes below). We walked through four atlassing ‘squares’ (10kmx10km plots), and I had around 35 in each. In one square we did 10 point counts as well.

The scenery on the trip was amazing. You can click here to see some of our pictures (a mix taken by Scott and I). In addition to the marvelous coastal headlands and lush river valleys, whenever we had a view of the ocean, we could watch pods of whales and flocks of diving Gannets. We saw pods of pilot whales throughout most of the trip, and at our campsite on the 3rd night, watched Minke Whales surfacing and blowing water into the air.

Certainly I recommend the trip to anyone physically able to do it, but it takes some planning and some wilderness living know-how (for which I relied on my brother). If you’re in NS and don’t have the time or desire for off-trail hiking, both Pollett’s and Lowland Cove (the start and end of our trip) are accessible on-trail. Both are worth the hike.

Birds encountered with notes about frequency:
Yellow Warbler – only a few on the trip, near the coast
Ovenbird – only a few on the trip, in low elevation deciduous forest
Blackburnian Warbler – relatively common
Magnolia Warbler – very common
Yellow-rumped Warbler – very common
Black and White Warbler – very common
Mourning Warbler – very common (not as common as Magnolia, but close)
American Redstart – very common
Black-throated Green Warbler – only a few on the trip, in low elevation deciduous forest
Common Yellowthroat – only a few on the trip
Blackpoll Warbler – somewhat common in appropriate habitat (conifers, often higher elevation)
Wilson’s Warbler – only a couple on the trip
Black Guillemot – common close to Meat Cove, where there is a nesting colony
Double-crested Cormorant – common on the coast
Greater Black-backed Gull – common
Herring Gull – common
Northern Gannet – common, but not breeders in NS
Bald Eagle – four or five on the trip
Osprey – one, near an inland lake
Red-tailed Hawk – several on the trip, soaring spectacularly above cliffsides in order to cruise across river valleys
Blue Jay – only a few on the trip
Gray Jay – two pairs with Juveniles encountered
Common Raven – relatively common
American Crow – only 1-2 on the trip
Ruffed Grouse – one mother with chicks encountered, quite comical!
Belted Kingfisher – a pair in Pollett’s Cove
American Robin – common
Swainson’s Thrush – common
Hermit Thrush – common, but Swainson’s more common
Olive-sided Flycatcher – one encountered
Alder Flycatcher – fairly common
Least Flycatcher – one pair on trip, at trailhead
Yellow-bellied Flycatcher – several encountered
Spotted Sandpiper – two encountered
Slate-Colored Junco – very common
White Throated Sparrow – very common
Song Sparrow – two encountered on trip
Lincoln’s Sparrow – common
Savannah Sparrow – common, in appropriate habitat
Vesper Sparrow – 7-9 encountered on trip, mostly in open upland habitat
Winter Wren – fairly common on plateau
Bank Swallow – one colony in Pollett’s Cove (with maybe 70-100 birds)
Hairy Woodpecker – one pair encountered (they’re quiet this time of year, it seems)
Downy Woodpecker – one pair encountered (they’re quiet this time of year, it seems)
Northern Flicker – common
Red-breasted Nuthatch – one encountered (though we were often in appropriate habitat, and they could just be quiet now)
Black-capped Chickadee – only a few encountered, but seemingly quiet while breeding
Boreal Chickadee – only a few encountered
Golden-crowned Kinglet – fairly common
Ruby-crowned Kinglet – very common in the proper habitat
Red-eyed Vireo – very common
Blue-headed Vireo – several encountered
Pine Siskin – one pair flew over on the plateau
American Goldfinch – only several encountered
Evening Grosbeak – fleeting glance neat the trailhead
Purple Finch – one female sighted

The majority of birds were identified by ear, as finding them would have been stupidly difficult.

Well, that’s an update from the east coast! I hope everyone is doing well in that lovely Ontario summer weather!

Jeff MacLeod

1 thought on “Backpacking & Atlassing the Cape Breton Highlands

  1. Hey,

    I am thinking about doing the trek from red river to meat cove in a few weeks time. Could you offer any suggestions for planning (ie you mentioned wilderness skills, mapping). Cheers

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