Story and photography by Ethan Meleg
Developing your skills and having the right gear are necessary elements for being successful in bird photography, but sometimes just going to the best places can make all of the difference! Every now and then, I’ll feature an epic Canadian bird photography destination in this column and share strategies of how to maximize your potential for capturing great images there. Today I’m focusing on the northern gannets of Bonaventure Island.
Bonaventure Island is located at the eastern tip of the Gaspé Peninsula in Quebec, at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River. The park is part of Parc national de l’Île-Bonaventure-et-du-Rocher-Percé and is reached by a short ferry ride from the picturesque town of Percé, where you should base your trip from. For bird photographers, Bonaventure Island is a dream come true as home of the world’s largest northern gannet colony (50,000+ pairs) that you can walk right up to and shoot until your memory cards are full. It’s one of the best bird photography opportunities on the planet.
Bonaventure is an island and there’s no bridge, so you’ll have to catch a tour boat from the town of Percé. There are a couple of boat companies that offer the short boat trips that cost approximately $20-$30 (return). When you arrive in town, book yourself on the earliest trip for the next morning and plan to spend the entire day there.
When to go?
The ferry operates from spring to fall, but you should time your visit between mid-June (when eggs start hatching) and early August to photograph the peak activity of the gannet nesting season. My trip was during the first week of August and there weren’t many young chicks, but there was still plenty of action to keep me busy.
What to pack?
Upon arrival at the island, it’s a 45 minute hike (slightly uphill) to get from the boat dock to the gannet colony. Wear hiking shoes or boots, hiking pants and pack a waterproof jacket. It can be cool and humid because of the oceanic climate. Come self-sufficient for the day with a lunch, snacks and drinks as these are not available on site.
The range of photo opportunities at the colony is very diverse, and you can shoot with lenses ranging from a wide-angle to super-telephoto. I recommend the following lens focal ranges:
•A wide-angle or standard zoom such as a 14-24mm, 16-35mm, 24-70mm, 24-105mm to capture wide photos of the colony
•A medium telephoto lens such as a 70-200mm, 75-300mm, 120-300mm, 100-400mm or similar to photograph gannets in flight
•A super-telephoto lens such as a 500mm f/4 or 600mm f/4 to capture close-up images of the animated gannet behaviour.
Remember you have to carry all of this with you on a 45-minute hike (each way), plus a tripod, head, lunch, drinks, etc., so take a comfortable pack and be reasonable about how much you lug with you. I favour zoom lenses to cover broader focal ranges instead of primes. Don’t forget plenty of batteries and memory cards — you’ll need them!
It’s often foggy on the island in the morning, and all of that white in the frame can trick your camera into under-exposing. Add exposure compensation or shoot in manual mode, regularly checking the histogram to ensure you’re exposing to the right or “ETTR.”
The variety of photo opportunities and behaviours you can capture at the colony is remarkable. Mix it up by trying different lenses, changing your perspective and focusing on capturing a range of behaviours. This is a place with non-stop action, so don’t be surprised if you shoot thousands of images in one day!
Plan to spend at least a couple of days in Percé for contingency, in case bad weather prevents the boats from running to the island. It’s a picturesque town with great views of the famous Percé Rock and endless scenic locations nearby worth exploring!