Go coastal

Come visit one of Nova Scotia's most popular destinations for birders and whale watchers

Located on the narrow, westernmost tip of Nova Scotia – called Digby Neck – and surrounded by the Bay of Fundy and the highest tides in the world, “rugged” barely begins to describe Brier Island.

A four-hour drive from Halifax, it’s the final leg of the trip to the island that really makes it stand out.

“You need to take two ferries to get to Brier Island from the mainland, and you have to cross some wildly churning waters, so it feels like a real journey to get there,” says Doug van Hemessen, NCC’s Nova Scotia stewardship manager. “Once you’re on Brier, you feel the presence of the sea everywhere.”

NCC established the Brier Island Nature Reserve in 1988. Since then, we have protected 406 hectares along the west side of the island.

Important then, now and for the future

Brier Island has a rich history, both culturally and geologically. The island was once home to Joshua Slocum, who, from 1895 to 1898, was the first person to sail solo around the world. But Brier Island is famous for more than this legendary sailor — the island is considered a birder’s paradise. During peak migration in May to July, visitors to the island can witness thousands of songbirds, hawks, seabirds, shorebirds and waterfowl in the area.

“Brier Island is a well-known hot spot for birdlife thanks, in part, to its location at the edge of the continent and its position along the Atlantic Flyway,” says Doug. “Of the 470 or so bird species observed in Nova Scotia, nearly 340 of those have been seen on Brier Island.”

A haven for species of all shapes and sizes

One of Doug’s favourite memories made on the island is of seeing the migration of hawks in the fall.

“Hundreds of sharp-shinned, broad-winged and red-tailed hawks can be seen, if you catch them at the right time,” he says. “It was the most amazing thing I’ve seen on the island.”

The rich wetland habitats on Brier Island also offer an incredible amount of plant diversity, including more than 20 species of orchid and Michaux’s dwarf birch, a rare shrub in Nova Scotia. Critically, Brier Island’s peat bogs are home to 95 per cent of the entire Canadian population of eastern mountain avens — one of only two regions in the world where this rare flowering plant can be found.

“The largest wetland on the island is a special place,” says Doug. “Trenched and drained in the 1950s in a failed attempt to grow crops, it is now the site of one of Nova Scotia’s largest wetland restoration projects to conserve the endangered avens.”

A birder’s paradise

Brier Island is unique thanks to the exceptional numbers of birds that pass through the area during the May to July peak migration period. At these times, you can find thousands of songbirds, hawks, seabirds, shorebirds and waterfowl in the area.

The property’s four-kilometre trail, built by NCC, allows visitors to get a VIP view of the island’s coastal beauty.

Species to Spot

– black-legged kittiwake
– dragon’s mouth orchid
– eastern mountain avens
– fin whale
– great shearwater
– harbour seal
– humpback whale
– minke whale
– Newfoundland dwarf birch
– North Atlantic right whale
– razorbill
– red-necked phalarope
– sharp-shinned hawk
– white-sided dolphin

Rocky beaches make for a great view

According to Doug, Brier Island is also a great place to see an unusual geologic formation called columnar basalt.

“As the basalt erodes along the shore, it shears off along its vertical lines to form a hexagon, exposing standing columns of rock,” he explains. “It’s incredible to see such precise shapes in nature.”

From atop Brier Island’s cliffs and on its rocky beaches, visitors can catch a glimpse of minke, humpback and fin whales in the ocean, as well as harbour seals resting along the rocky coast.

A detailed assessment of the Brier Island Coastal Trail was completed in 2022, and it identified improvements needed to keep the trail safe and enjoyable. NCC will begin that work in 2023 and into 2024.

The picturesque views of Brier Island leave visitors with a one-of-a-kind nature experience that’s well worth the two-ferry trip to get there.

Photo Credits (Top to bottom): Mike Dembeck; NCC; NCC; Ryan Murphy; June Swift.

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