Wildflowers Along Newfoundland’s Skerwink Trail

After two days of puffin hunting, I realized that it was fruitless to try to photograph them much before sundown, so early on day three I drove south to Skerwink Head, where a 5.3 kilometer loop trail takes you along coastal cliffs, through boreal forest and bog. Here I found flowering plant species that weren’t in the Bonavista area.

Of course balsam fir (Abies balsamea; Pinaceae) isn’t a flowering plant, but since it is the predominant species in this region, I wanted to show it. I have some sort of mental block when it comes to conifers and can never remember how to tell them apart. One clue, though, is that fir cones always stand up. Also, there’s this handy mnemonic: “Flat, friendly fir needles. Sharp, spiny spruce needles.”*

Sheep laurel (Kalmia angustifolia; Ericaceae) is a northern relative of mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia); the former ranges from southern Virginia north into Newfoundland and Labrador, while the latter ranges from the Florida panhandle north through Maine. In Maryland sheep laurel is found mostly in the Coastal Plain.

Seven-angle pipewort (Eriocaulon aquaticum; Eriocaulaceae) is an aquatic plant that ranges from South Carolina north into Newfoundland and Labrador. In Maryland it’s listed S1/endangered and is a plant of the Coastal Plain.


Another aquatic plant, Dortmann’s cardinalflower (Lobelia dortmanna; Campanulaceae) is native to northern North America and Europe. In the US it can be found as far south as New Jersey. I don’t believe it’s found in Maryland, but there are conflicting accounts.

Twinflower (Linnaea borealis; Caprifoliaceae) is circumboreal, as the specific epithet suggests. In the US it’s found in New England, the upper Mid-West, and southwards in the Rocky Mountains. Some sources list in Maryland, but Maryland Biodiversity Project has no records; if it’s here, it would likely be in the far western part of the state, in the Allegheny Plateau.

Dwarf cornel (also Swedish bunchberry, Lapland cornel, and many others; Cornus suecica; Cornaceae) is a circumpolar species. In North America the furthest south it gets is Nova Scotia or Quebec. A closely related species, also called bunchberry (C. canadensis), ranges much further south; in Maryland that species is found only in Garret County and is listed S1/highly state rare. In areas where both species are found, they can be distinguished by leaf venation.

There’s something really special about glancing into the dim understory and spotting an orchid. Dactylorhiza viridis (frog orchid, also placed in the genus Coeloglossum, and formerly in Platanthera) is wide-ranging in the Northern hemisphere. I saw it in Iceland and once in Maryland, where it’s listed S1/endangered.

Moneses uniflora
(Ericaceae) has many common names, including one-flower wintergreen, one-flower shinleaf, and simple delight. It’s found in much of the northern part of the northern hemisphere, including New England, the upper Mid-West, and the Rocky Mountains. In Maryland look for the closely related striped wintergreen.

Garden lupine or bigleaf lupine (Lupinus polyphyllus; Fabaceae) ranges from Minnesota east and north into Newfoundland (but not Labrador), and also in the western US and Canada. Various accounts claim it is native to this western region, but none say that it’s alien to the east, so I’m not sure what its “native’ status is in Newfoundland. BONAP and USDA PLANTS Database show it in Maryland, but Maryland Biodiversity Project has no records for it.

*Berkshire Environmental Action Team

Wildflowers Along Newfoundland’s Klondike Trail

heathlands along the Klondike Trail near Cable John Cove

It’s true that I went to Newfoundland just to take pictures of puffins, but of course I couldn’t resist taking a few wildflower pictures, too.

Newfoundland is complicated, climactically speaking, and as a result the flora is complicated, too, with some (primarily Atlantic Coastal Plain species) occurring at the extreme northern edge of their range and others (subarctic and arctic species) at the southern edge of their range. The island is in the boreal forest region, with balsam fir (Abies balsamea) predominating, and has many heathlands and bogs.

The rose and heath families (Rosaceae and Ericaceae) are well represented, as is the aster family (Asteraceae), of course.

The Klondike Trail starts at Elliston, near the northern end of the Bonavista Peninsula, passing through boreal forest and a bog or two until it gets to the heathlands near Cable John Cove.

Fireweed (Chamerion angustifolium, Onagraceae; aka Chamaenerion angustifolium and formerly Epilobium angustifolium, depending on the source) was the first flower I saw on the Klondike, but to be fair this plant is just about everywhere, including roadsides all through Newfoundland. It’s a circumpolar species with a confusing taxonomy. In the US it’s found in the northernmost states, southward along the Appalachians, and in the mountainous West.

Heading northwest from Elliston, the Klondike Trail quickly comes to a bog, where I saw lots of northern pitcher plants (Sarracenia purpurea; Sarraceniaceae). This strikingly showy carnivorous plant, the provincial flower of Newfoundland and Labrador, is found in most of Canada, and in the US from Minnesota east to Maine, south along the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico coasts, with a few populations in the West.





And guess what was growing in the bog along with the pitcher plants? That’s right: Iris versicolor (northern blue flag; Iridaceae). I’ve written enough about that species this year, so onward…



Foraging for berries is a popular pastime in this area. There are blueberries (Vaccinium angustifolium, I think; Ericaceae) and raspberries (Rubus idaeus; Rosaceae) growing right along the trail.







Further along in the heathlands I saw a family gathering redberry, aka partridgeberry, aka lingonberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea).




The Bonavista peninsula is the windiest place in Newfoundland, and it showed in the stunted plants of the heaths along the headlands. I believe this goldenrod is Solidago hispida, but goldenrod identification is tricky when you’re working from photos, so I could be wrong.


Also stunted: New York asters (Symphyotrichum novi-belgii).




Virginia rose (Rosa virginiana) is found in Virginia, but despite the specific epithet it’s more common to the north, ranging through New England into Canada.



Meadowsweet (Spiraea alba var. latifolia, formerly Spiraea latifolia; Rosaceae) is found in the Mid-Atlantic mostly in the Appalachians, but is more common north into New England and Canada.



Here’s yet another rose family species, three-toothed cinquefoil (Sibbaldiopsis tridentata, formerly Potentilla tridentata).



This spectacular flower is harebell (Campanula rotundifolia; Campanulaceae), found in mountainous areas and northern areas in the US, mostly in New England and the upper Mid-West, and is all over the place in Newfoundland. In Maryland it’s listed S2 (state rare).

Guano and Feathers

If you love puffins, please visit my facebook page The Daily Puffin. You don’t need to join facebook to view it, but if you are on facebook I’d appreciate a “like” and a “follow”.

I was so taken with Atlantic puffins in the Faroe Islands that three and a half weeks after coming home, I took my camera, tripod, and two new lenses and set out solo for the Bonavista Peninsula in Newfoundland, Canada.

There are numerous puffin colonies in Newfoundland, including the well-known Puffin Viewing Site between Elliston and Maberly; the Cape Bonavista lighthouse; and Cable John Cove. At each of these locations the colony is on an islet, just a short distance from the mainland: good places for the birds, since they can’t be preyed upon by land mammals.

Also, the islets protect the birds from us. Not that Newfoundlanders hunt them (as the Faroese did traditionally), but overly enthusiastic tourists unknowingly trample their burrows, killing chicks.

Islet colonies mean you need a long lens to get good pictures. The 200mm lens I used really wasn’t quite long enough (I had to crop many of the photos).

But I read that in some of these places, if you’re still and quiet, the birds will come and land on mainland ledges, and hang out for awhile, and you can get really close to them. Which is common sense, really: don’t spook the wildlife.

Sadly most people were so caught up in the moment that they didn’t stop to think. As soon as one bird landed on a ledge, there would a rush of people with iPhones out, and the bird would take off again.

So I spent a fruitless day of multiple visits to all three sites, then decided to return to one place after dinner, a little before sunset. The weather was gray and damp, and the light frankly sucked for photography, but nobody was there. As I rounded the last little hill on the trail, I saw about 50 puffins lined up along the ledge.

I quietly dropped my pack and lay down on a little hillock (among feathers and dried guano), picked up the camera, and started shooting. Every minute or so I would scootch forward a little, until I got to about ten feet from the ledge.

Then I heard voices – human voices! Two groups of four people were approaching. Oh, no…

I’m not one to tell strangers what to do, but I waved emphatically, and when I got their attention, put a finger to my lips, then made a “slow down” motion. Thankfully they all got the hint, stopped talking, and quietly spread out at a respectful distance, allowing everyone to spend some real quality time with the little birds.

The next evening played out much the same way, except I was never alone. I lay in the grass alongside another photographer, and together we convinced people to be quiet and patient. Within five minutes the birds started arriving. The skies were mostly overcast, but in the last ten minutes before sunset the sun broke through, bathing the little spit of land in golden light while the cameras clicked away.

On the third evening first one and then another photographer joined me in the grass on the little hillock. They were both disappointed that the birds were far away on their islet. I advised them to be patient, wait for most of the people to leave, then get ready. Once again I got the remaining peoples’ attention, got them to be still and silent, and once again the puffins came and perched on the ledge.

I stayed well past sunset, and darn if some of those low-light pictures weren’t among the best I took the whole trip.

The closest I got to the birds was about four feet. Of course my inner child wanted to get closer, and maybe I could have if I’d stayed longer, but there were still other people around, and I didn’t want to ruin their experience by spooking the birds.

And really, four feet was close enough. After awhile, I stopped shooting and just watched, for a long time.(all the pictures above were shot handheld with a Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8E FL ED VR lens on a Nikon D750 body)

Little Northern Friar

When I was a child I had a picture book of birds of North America. I was delighted by the picture of the Atlantic puffin, and dismayed to read I had to go to Maine or better yet Canada to see one.

That memory came back to me on our trip to the Faroe Islands. On America’s Independence Day, Steve and I set out on a small ferry from Sørvágur across choppy waters to the small island of Mykines (pronounced “Mitchiness”). A short but tricky hike took us west from the village and across a bridge to the sister island Mykines Hólmur, known for its lighthouse and bird colonies. There were kittiwakes (right) and gannets by the thousands.

And puffins.

The Atlantic puffin (Fratercula arctica) is pelagic, spending more of its life at sea than on land. In spring, they come to shore to breed, each female laying a single egg in a burrow dug into a rocky cliff, then they return to the sea in late summer. Their nesting sites range from Maine north through coastal Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Russia, the Faroes, Norway, Scotland, and Ireland.

The fledglings will spend up to five years at sea before returning to nest in the colony where they were born. They appear to mate for life, although apparently that’s coincidental: what they really do is return to the same burrow year after year.

They look a little awkward in flight, even though they reach speeds of 88 kilometers per hour, wings beating 400 times per minute. But puffins are excellent swimmers. They dive for fish, staying under 20-30 seconds, or sometimes as long as a minute, then return to their burrows with up to a dozen small fish in their bills.

Puffins don’t nest in places where there are land-based predators (not for long, anyway). One of the nice things about Mykines Hólmur is that the puffins are right there, easy for humans to get to, once they’ve gotten to Mykines, that is. The problem is that the birds are in danger of being loved to death. People leave the trails to get close to the birds, which spooks the birds sometimes, but more importantly, the burrows get trampled, and sometimes the chicks get trampled within them.

So the Faroese government passed a law earlier this year: visitors to Mykines are not allowed to leave the village without a tour guide. However, they have no way to enforce the law, and not enough tour guides for the number of people the ferry can bring.

The tourism infrastructure in the Faroes isn’t well developed yet, but the number of tourists is increasing. Hopefully the Faroese won’t allow their wonderful islands to be loved to death.

More Faroese Wildflowers

Here are a few of the showier, prettier, and more interesting wildflowers I saw in the Faroe Islands. Many of these have a worldwide distribution pattern known as arctic-alpine, which means exactly what you would expect: they are found at high latitudes, and at high elevation at lower latitudes.

Armeria maritima (sea thrift, Plumbaginaceae)
a circumpolar species that likes poor, salty soils; thrives on rocky coasts




Dactylorhiza maculata (heath spotted orchid, Orchidaceae)
common in mountainous areas in Europe; can vary greatly in color from dark pink-purple to almost white



Dactylorhiza purpurella (northern marsh orchid; Orchidaceae)
these two Dactylorhiza species are difficult to distinguish and it’s quite possible that I’ve mis-identified them; also Dactylorhiza is one of those “problem” genera; found in the UK and Scandanavia

Geranium sylvaticum (wood cranesbill; Geraniaceae)
found in temperate regions throughout Europe; introduced in Quebec and Greenland



Pinguicula vulgaris (butterwort; Lentibulariaceae)
found in boggy areas in the upper Mid-West, New England, Canada, and northern Europe; the plant’s leaves produce both a sticky substance and enzymes which together trap and digest insects


Polygala serpyllifolia (heath milkwort; Polygalaceae)
I can’t find much on where this species is found, other than the British Isles (and of course the Faroes)



Polygala vulgaris (common milkwort; Polygalaceae) this species has a widespread distribution in Europe and Asia; it’s introduced in Michigan and Oregon



Salix herbacea (dwarf willow, snowbed willow; Salicaceae)
a subshrub growing to only 2 inches tall, with arctic-alpine distribution in North America and Europe



Micranthes stellaris (formerly Saxifraga stellaris; starry saxifrage; Saxifragaceae)
this little charmer is found in arctic-alpine areas of Europe, and in Quebec, Labrador and Greenland in North America


Silene acaulis (moss campion; Caryophyllaceae)
arctic-alpine distribution, including the Rocky Mountains in the United States