Chasing Birds and Ancestors on Prince Edward Island

North Cape, PEI


It’s a large smile-shaped sandbar lying in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, just west of Nova Scotia.  There are no rocks, just the distinct red sand and soil, the result of iron oxides and eons of silting of prehistoric rivers.  This is a gentle land of low rolling hills, tidy farms, expansive and nearly empty beaches, with a few bays and harbors populated with more fishing vessels than pleasure craft.  The people are also gentle and smiling, happy to see us tourists supplementing their income from the land and sea.

Tignish Shore

Prince Edward Island (PEI) is named for George III’s fourth son, the father of Queen Victoria.  The Mi’kmaq First Nation called the island “Epekwitk” which means “cradled on the waves”.  Jacques Cartier was the first European to see it in 1534.  Initial Acadian settlers battled New Englanders from the colonies for control until England gained the upper hand at the treaty ending the Seven Year’s War in 1763.   British settlers were largely Irish and Scots, with loyalists also emigrating from the colonies during the American Revolution.  PEI joined the Canadian Confederation in 1873 as its smallest province.

Suzanne and I spent two weeks in the Canadian Maritimes this September, reliving a similar trip some 40 years earlier.  I planned to do some birding, as we enjoyed all the sights, and also research Suzanne’s roots.  All four of her great grandparents on the maternal side were multigenerational immigrants from Ireland and hailed from the region of Tignish, a small town near the northwestern tip of PEI.

American Crow, Corvus brachyrhynchos

I’ve never seen so many crows as on this island.  They were American Crows, perhaps with an Acadian accent.  Not a rare bird, for sure, but they did pose for some good portraits.  The other most common woodland bird was the Red-breasted Nuthatch, honking from seemingly every pine.  I suspect they may have been actively preparing for the local winter, or perhaps a short migration to slightly warmer forests.

Red-breasted Nuthatch, Sitta canadensis

St. Simon & St. Jude Church is a majestic brick church, the tallest edifice in Tignish.  The people in the rectory were very helpful in our search, showing us birth, baptismal, wedding, and death records.  Someone had previously cataloged all the tombstones in the adjacent burial ground and were able to direct us to the plot of one set of great grandparents.  “It’s just down the lane, on the left side, three rows past the seventh maple tree.”  Sure enough, there it was, just under a tree and in plain sight of the towering church steeple.

Great grandfather Peter Kinch was a young man on PEI who shunned the usual professions of farming and fishing and instead used his woodworking skills building carriages and coffins. His first wife tragically died during childbirth in 1883, leaving him with two daughters, ages five and two.  Where better to search for a prospective wife and mother for his children than at Our Lady of the Angels Convent School, right in Tignish?  That’s where he met Mary Ellen Murphy, Suzanne’s great grandmother.  They had fifteen additional children including grandmother Marguerite!  This same convent school later became the Heritage Inn & Gardens and was our highly recommended lodging for three nights.

Tignish Heritage Inn and Gardens

It’s ironic to find a “life” bird while combing through cemeteries, but one can bird while doing just about anything.  I was strolling along a hedgerow, just behind our B&B when I briefly glimpsed the chickadee.  It had more brown on the head and upper back than the black-capped.  I could not coax him out for a photo but will declare him a Boreal Chickadee and claim a new life bird.  The sparrow below was more cooperative.

Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia

PEI is bordered by beautiful wide red sand beaches, almost deserted in September.  I spent several dawns birding the shoreline in the slanting morning light.  Common Eiders were the prevalent birds in the surf, with soaring gulls and the more purposeful flights of Northern Gannets and Double-crested Cormorants noted off shore.  Shorebirds included foraging Semipalmated Plovers, Sanderlings, and Ruddy Turnstones.  In the picturesque freshwater ponds amidst the dunes of Greenwich National Park we were able to get close shots of two feeding Greater Yellowlegs.

Common Eider, Somateria mollissima

Greater Yellowlegs, Tringa melanoleuca

At East Point, the opposite end of the island to Tignish, there is a lighthouse and birding hotspot.  Unfortunately we were there on a blustery, rainy day.  My hopes at seeing migrating raptors was dashed, but the rip currents offshore were spectacular.  A Northern Harrier gave us a brief airshow while we were waiting for the ferry to Nova Scotia, and thousands of cormorants had a farewell beach party as we departed from PEI.


Northern Harrier, Circus cyaneus

Cormorant beach party

The small museum in Alberton, PEI, has an excellent genealogy section in the basement.  It also has a wonderfully helpful curator, Arlene Morrison, who guided our search for ancestors.  She directed us to the gravesite of the other maternal great grand-parents, the Casey’s, in the burial ground of the Church of the Immaculate Conception, again a large majestic church situated at a mere rural crossroads today.

Alberton Museum, Alberton, PEI


We were also given directions to the old Kinch homestead.  Initially we couldn’t find the house so I flagged down a passing red pick-up.  As luck would have it, he was the owner of a large potato farm that included the old Kinch land, and very eager to talk and point out the old farmhouse.

1909 photo of the Kinch homestead, PEI

He in fact called his elderly father on cell phone who came and joined into the conversation.  After we checked out the farmhouse the red pick-up pulled up again, this time with a red-headed cousin of Suzanne, probably 3rd or 4th removed.  Then they sent us to the home of an elderly Kinch in-law.  This charming nonagenarian took us into her humble kitchen and shared her memories of favorite family fables.  What a day–no life birds, just real, live relatives.

Suzanne and cousin George

One wonders why people choose to leave such a charming and beautiful island, but then again, we were there in September with a warming sun–barely sweater weather.  It must be bleak in midwinter.  Fishing and farming are professions for the hardy.  One hundred years ago both Suzanne’s grandmother and grandfather left PEI separately as single young adults to seek their futures in Boston.  As PEI transplants in urban America they found each other, and as the saying goes, the rest is history.