This site is the beginning of something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. It’s much more than a blog – it’s an information center about birds and birding in Newfoundland (Canada), geared towards both local birders and those planning/wishing to visit from abroad. For now, I’ve added a few features that you might find helpful, but I’m hoping to add more. So … explore, and let me know what you think.
Expect me to write plenty more about gulls over the next few months – they are a mainstay of winter birding here in St. John’s, a draw for visiting birders, and possibly my favourite group of birds.
Watching gulls requires a lot of patience and a good sprinkling of skill & experience. The ten or more species seen here most winters appear in mind-boggling arrays of white, greys, blacks and browns (yes – the young ones only add confusion) – not to mention the varying pinks, yellows and greens of bills and legs. Identifying them can be tricky for the inexperienced, and finding those “special” ones can be downright difficult. Especially in the case of the elusive Yellow-legged Gull, one or two of which show up here most winters. But one or two tricky birds in a city with tens of thousands of gulls — well, it can also be a needle in a haystack!!
Such was the case these past few days, as a visiting birder from British Columbia and I combed through many masses of gulls to find just one. He had contracted my services as a birding guide to help him find the Yellow-legged Gull – it was head and shoulders the top of his priority list, with anything else just being gravy. Fortunately he had a few days, since I told him up front that finding it was far from guaranteed, and the chance of poor weather was always a threat.
We ended up spending three fulls days in dogged pursuit. The first day (Sunday, December 1) was a lovely one to be outside … cool, calm and slightly overcast. But where were the gulls?!?!? We birded the standard areas from sunrise to sunset, with so few gulls being seen that I felt like a bit of a hustler — I was certain he thought I was pulling his leg when I said I had never seen such a lack of gulls in St. John’s at this time of year! But he bit the bullet and we went out again the next day – a cold, crisp one with just a slight breeze. There were lots more gulls … but they were spending their time loafing on the roofs of building around Pleasantville and bathing in Quidi Vidi Lake. Fortunately, I knew vantage points where we could see them and we ran the circuit – checking and re-checking the best spots all day. Not a hint of the bird. I could almost hear him thinking “Who does this guy think he’s fooling?” So, admittedly, I was a bit surprised when he called me up that night to arrange yet another day of searching on Wednesday – a day with a dismal forecast of high winds and rain!!
The forecasters seemed to have it right when I woke up Wednesday morning – the wind and rain was lashing the back of the house. But by the time I got the girls off to preschool and we headed out to go birding at 9:45am, the rain had dissipated. I knew from experience that the wet, windy weather would keep the gulls off the the roofs and encourage them to flock on local grassy fields and ballparks. Sure enough, that’s where we started finding them. We scrutinized thousands of gulls over the next few hours, both on the fields and at the lake … but no sign of our elusive target. To my surprise, the clouds parted, blue sky emerged and at times bright sun shone down on us — and the gulls! As lovely as it sounds, bright sun makes gull-watching all the more difficult, casting hard shadows on the grass, bright glare on the water, and changing the all important shades of grey needed to pick out our bird.
Still … we persevered, scrutinizing the gulls at each location from as many angles as we could. Sometime after 1:00pm we took our place on a hillside overlooking Bally Haly golf course, where (by my estimation) 7000+ gulls had set down for a rest. A small flush erupted as I set up my scope, and I noticed someone with binoculars walking across the golf course to scan the flock (someone I did not recognize). I rushed to scan the flock in case he continued to disturb them — about fifteen second and 500 birds later, that “magic shade of grey” caught my attention. Then the gleaming white head!! I HAD IT!! I was just getting our visitor on the bird when the guy on the field began to walk away, waving his arms as he went in an attempt to flush the gulls!!! Fortunately, only those closest to him paid any heed and the gull stayed put. Although it slept most of the time, we got prolonged looks and ample time to to study the unique shade of grey and white head, and occasionally the head and bill shape as it lazily lifted its head. It stood up just a couple times (once as an unknown presence caused a mass flush that filled the sky with every gull on the field!) — enough for us to see and appreciate those magnificent yellow legs for which the bird is named.
Yellow-legged Gull !! And another happy customer who now understands the value of patience and persistence when hunting for those hard-to-find, tricky-to-identify rare gulls of St. John’s!!
BTW – The only other sightings of this gull in the past number of weeks were two ABA Big Year birders Neil Hayward and Jay Lehman, who also spent much time and effort in finding it. They were fortunate!!
During the past week, most of Newfoundland has experienced a little taste of the inevitable … winter. Granted, the Avalon Peninsula was spared the snow that was dropped on the west coast and central Newfoundland – but the temperatures have definitely taken a little nose-dive and the ground has been speckled in white.
And while I’m none to fond of digging the snow shovels back out from under the recently stored lawn-mower and kiddy pools in the shed, I do look forward to winter. Mostly for the birding … I’ve always had a soft spot for winter birds & birding. Mind-boggling shades of grey as gulls flock on frozen ponds. Rafts of ducks floating past headlands coated in ice. Rainbows of birds brightening up snowy backyards. And rarities … there’s always room for rarities!
And so begins the season of the “Winter List“. Winter bird lists have become popular across Canada, with most provinces keeping a cumulative list of which species have been reported during the “official” winter season (December thru February). I began doing that for Newfoundland seven years ago (Winter 2006-2007) and will be doing it again this year.
Most winters, about 130-140 species are reported around the island (plus a few more from Labrador). Just last year, we set a spectacular record of 153 species – one that will be tough to beat. Overall, a grand total of 251 species have been recorded here during the winter period – an incredible number considering our geographic location and often challenging weather.
So … starting December 1, birders in this beautiful province will start birding with a fresh, new perspective – “winter birding”!! In fact, the first few days of December are key for finding and/or seeing some lingering birds that otherwise shouldn’t be here at this time of year – birds that are unlikely to be seen as winter weather sets in. A few that will be high on the priority list for local birders include any late warblers, which should be well south of here by now. A few have been reported lately, including Newfoundland’s first Virginia’s Warbler, but won’t likely be around much longer. A Great Egret that has been hanging out in east St. John’s the past few days will be another target. Unusual at any time in Newfoundland, there have been only a handful of winter records at best. This one should make the cut.
Keep tabs on the “Winter List 2013-14“ link at the top of the page for regular updates to the Newfoundland winter list .. and if you see something interesting and/or not currently on the list, let me know!!
I’m not sure how many Snowy Owls it takes to make a yaffle (a traditional Newfoundland English word meaning “a load” or “an armful”), but no doubt there are yaffles abundant around the Avalon Peninsula right now. Snowy Owls started getting reported at Cape Race last weekend, with as many as eight being reported on November 17. That total climbed to a mouth-watering eighteen today, while other individuals were at Cape Spear and Ramea the past few days. There has certainly been a fallout of these beautiful arctic owls the past few days, and chances are we are in for a banner year like we haven’t seen for quite some time (though certainly not unprecedented in eastern Newfoundland, where dozens have sometimes been recorded in a relatively small area and on single Christmas Bird Counts in the Cape Race area!).
Keep your eyes open for these majestic white visitors … they can show up almost anywhere!!
Just minutes after writing my last post about “dipping” on the Virginia’s Warbler for the past two days, I got a text saying it was being seen off-and-on and currently (somewhat) well. It was 11:50am … I was stoked, but now had SIX kids under my care and had to wait for relief!!
I had my gear ready and met Susan in the driveway as she pulled in at 12:39pm … I gave her a knowing wink as I rushed past her and jumped in the old car. Engine ignited … gear shift to “drive” … and BAM!! Something under my feet snapped very loudly and started lashing around!!! Not sure what it was yet, but the car was as good as dead!
I quickly switched keys with Susan and tore off down the rode in the other car … getting a message as I left that the bird was not being seen at the moment. I arrived a short while later to find a handful of people and cameras pointed at an apple tree where it had been two days ago. After 20+ minutes of chatting about the bird and the circumstances of recent observations, some Juncos & Goldfinch starting moving in around us. I honed in on every glimpse of movement in the dense apple tree … minutes passed … then, we heard the distinctive “chip” across the road. It was coming in!! Now I just had to see it!
I changed locations for what I felt was a better angle on the tree, settled in and waited … a few minutes later a dainty bird with a small flash of yellow in the rear end zipped in!! I got several short but clear glimpses as it foraged in the back of some thick, tangly branches … VIRGINIA’S WARBLER!! I was wishing I had thought to tuck a bottle of good whiskey in my camera bag!! A few celebratory handshakes and high fives later, it came back in. I took out the camera and followed it through the thick foliage for the next five minutes, snapping off mostly obscured and/or out of focus photos … but I did manage to walk away with four that show the bird relatively well. And, most importantly, I walked away HAPPY !!
It’s winter tire time in Newfoundland, and I had just arrived home from dropping our car off at the garage at 9:00am Thursday morning when my cell phone rang. My heart rate picked up a bit when I saw who was calling me — Dave Brown. There’s only one reason he’d be calling me at this hour — a rare bird alert. But there was no expecting the words I heard when I answered the phone … “Jared, I think I’ve got a VIRGINIA’S WARBLER!!”
“What?!?! Where are you??” I said, trying to measure my words. Virginia’s Warbler is a mega-rarity anywhere in northeastern North America, but I know Dave and didn’t doubt for a minute he knew what he was seeing. It turns out he had quick looks at the bird feeding below an apple tree at the base of the White Hills (near Quidi Vidi Lake) and had all but ruled out a dull Nashville Warbler. He was looking for help to confirm the sighting before the troops were called in, although Bruce Mactavish was already enroute. Fortunately, I had the freedom ( and support – thanks to my mother-in-law for watching the girls!) to drop everything and race to Quidi Vidi. Dave called again as I was pulling out of the driveway – he’d seen it again and was convinced!!! I arrived an agonizing ten-minutes later, hot on Bruce’s heels. The bird had disappeared, but hopes were high it would be re-seen.
Long story short, about 45 minutes later Bruce spotted it again briefly with a large flock of Juncos about 200m up the old dirt road we were searching and reinforcements were showing up. We scoured the area all morning without another sighting, and I left to take up family responsibilities at noon. I got a text an hour later that it had been seen again by a handful of people and raced back … just a few minutes too late. The bird was spotted again just before 8:00am the next morning at the original location, but flew off after just a few moments. A dozen or more birders, myself included, were birding the area all day yesterday to no avail. I went back for an hour early this morning, but no luck. It is likely still around, especially in this relatively mild weather that has moved in, but it is being very elusive.
I am home the rest of this morning, minding a flock of five children while all the women in my family attend some kind of holiday breakfast event — but my mind is on that bird. Chances are I’ll be back there in a few short hours!! And hopefully my next posting will be a celebratory one …
Despite the perfect November weather (bright, cool & calm!), birding was pretty slow this morning. I birded scenic Cape Spear and checked wandering flocks of juncos & chickadees in Blackhead and the Waterford Valley without finding anything of note. A Lincoln’s Sparrow and two Brown Creepers were my lacklustre highlights.
Swinging by Quidi Vidi on my way home, I noticed the Pied-billed Grebe that has been there this week was hanging out pretty close to shore. It was my first chance to “really” photograph this species (record photos don’t count!), so I enjoyed the few moments I had with this little guy.
Pied-billed Grebe is an uncommon species in Newfoundland – mostly occurring during fall & early winter (although a pair has bred regularly at a single location in the Codroy Valley for a number of years). I often see one or two a year, but they have always been skittish or hanging out in poor locations for photography. This one was a real treat.