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.
It was 0530 this morning when Ian Jones and Bruce Mactavish (aka “one of North America’s most renowned birders”!) picked me up at home. Hurricane Gonzalo was churning just SE of Newfoundland and radar indicated it would zip past Cape Race in just over an hour. Our plan was to meet it there!
It was a two hour run, and we made great time considering the driving, horizontal rain. The winds were picking up fast, first gusting from the east and north east as the storm approached us, but by the time we reached Portugal Cove South (just 21 km from Cape Race), they had switched around to the northwest – a clear indication that the eye had passed north of us.
Long story short, we arrived at Cape Race to clearing weather and high winds (gusting to 100km/h). We spent the next few hours scanning the water hoping for subtropical seabirds dragged up by Gonzalo, but were sadly disappointed. Good numbers of local seabirds like Northern Gannet, Black-legged Kittiwake and White-winged Scoter were battling the wind and waves, but nothing out of the ordinary. Later in the day we checked out points further west and southwest – Cripple Cove, Portugal Cove South, Trepassey, St. Shott’s and Point LaHaye — all offering up the same disappointing results.
However, the wave action was incredible, with waves that must have been 15+ metres at times rolling, breaking and crashing in spectacular fashion. This is one of the most amazing coastlines in the world, and seeing it in this way just made it better!
Like most places, weather is often the topic of conversation in Newfoundland. And never more than when a storm is barreling at us. Gonzalo, which as I write is currently a Category 4 hurricane bearing down on Bermuda ~2000 km SSW of us, is the talk of the town this week.
Hurricane Gonzalo is the largest hurricane this season, and the first to reach Category 4 status since 2011 (Ophelia). It is a monster that is forecast to continue churning NNE, with most models predicting it will weaken to a Category 1 hurricane or tropical storm before passing just SE of Cape Race early Sunday morning. That track will likely spare us the worst of the damaging winds (which are east of the eye), but we can still expect substantial rain. With memories of the damage caused by Hurricane Igor still fresh in most people’s minds, many people in eastern Newfoundland are feeling a little trepidation. Igor took an eerily similar path as Gonzalo is predicted to make, making landfall near Cape Race on September 21, 2010. At least one model is still holding out on a more westerly path, taking the eye of Gonzalo over land, as well. (Fortunately, some meteorological difference between these two storms suggest that Gonzalo may not pack the same destructive punch as Igor even if it does make landfall.)
While no one in their right mind (or me, for that matter!) would hope for a threatening storm like this to hit the island, hurricanes do peak the interest of birders. The strong cyclonic winds are known for picking up and carrying birds to far-flung places, and the remnants of hurricanes and tropical storms have a history of dropping off major rarities in the Maritimes and Newfoundland. In terms of potential for rare birds, I would probably prefer a hurricane that swings much further west before reaching Newfoundland, skimming the eastern seaboard of the United States and picking up an abundance of birds like gulls, terns and seabirds. (Larger, strong flying birds like these are best known for arriving after a hurricane … smaller birds are not likely picked up as easily, or at least do not survive the wicked ride). Hurricane Helene took such a path in September 1958, dropping off dozens of Black Skimmers at Burgeo – the only record for the province. Hurricane Wilma (October 2005) was credited with bringing large numbers of Chimney Swift, Swallows, two dozen Laughing Gulls, two Franklin’s Gulls, a Gull-billed Tern and a Black-necked Stilt to southern portions of the island. As often happens, the Maritimes received an even larger number and array of storm waifs – including several Magnificent Frigatebirds!
Hurricanes like Gonzalo, which stay well out to sea, have less potential for bringing large numbers of such birds. They do, however, have an opportunity to pick up a variety of seabirds that would make my mouth water. Passing over Bermuda and tropical Atlantic waters, gems like Tropicbirds (White-tailed and Red-billed), pterodroma Petrels, and pelagic terns are not out of the question. Hurricane Florence, which took a path similar to Gonzalo’s in 2006, brought a White-tailed Tropicbird (found dead just 300m from my university office at the time!) and the province’s third ever Least Tern (found by a team of birders that included yours truly!). Other storm taking similar paths have turned out to be a bust, producing little or nothing in the way of unexpected birds.
What will Gonzalo bring?!?! Let’s hope for great birds and no damage, eh?
It was 10:30am yesterday morning when I noticed the missed call and text message on my phone, which had been left home while I was out running an errand. The messages were from Bruce Mactavish, and the three words that popped up on the screen were all I needed: “CANVASBACK Kenny’s Pond”.
Like most city ponds, Kenny’s Pond is less than a ten minute drive from my house. A small pond in the centre city, it tends to attract a lot of ducks in the fall and spring – before and after the winter freeze-up. Divers seem to especially like it, and a handful of Tufted Duck had already been found there the past two weeks – brand new arrivals that are likely the vanguard of our annual wintering flock which numbers in the dozens. Greater and a few Lesser Scaup were also gathering there after a summer hiatus out on the breeding grounds. But a Canvasback?!?!? Here?? There had only ever been one Canvasback reported in Newfoundland, and that was more than 40 years ago! Even when a bird like that is long overdue and firmly on our radars, it still comes with a smack of surprise. And a little panic.
It was another hour or more before I could slip away from my morning obligations. My initial panic had settled a bit once I considered the fact that the diving ducks at Kenny’s Pond are used to people (there is a popular walking trail surrounding the pond), and there was no reason to think they (or the Canvasback) would be going anywhere soon. But I was still feeling itchy, and found myself pulling into the pond’s parking lot at noon. It took just a minute or two find the bird, an immature, on the far side of the pond. Even asleep with its bill tucked in, the telltale headshape and light brown plumage gave it away. After chatting with Bruce who was just leaving, I walked around to the other side and settled in for some great looks. Eventually it woke up and started feeding — what a great bird!! The rarest duck on the Newfoundland list, and treat to finally see (and “tick“!).
There were five species of aythya diving ducks on the pond yesterday (Canvasback, Tufted Duck, Great Scaup, Lesser Scaup and at least one Ring-necked Duck). The dull, rainy weather didn’t make for great photography, but the looks were fantastic. And who knows — maybe it will hang around and I’ll get some more chances.
“This stone gouge may have been used by someone right here in Newfoundland at the same time that the pyramids were being built in ancient Egypt”.
From as early as I can remember, there was an odd-looking rock sitting on a bookshelf in the basement of my grandparents’ house. I always took an interest in it, and eventually found out it was an old “Indian” tool that my grandfather (who passed away when I was seven) had found on Ochre Pit Island in Notre Dame Bay (not far from Exploits Islands, where he lived and which played a big part in my family history).
Years later, when my grandmother left that house for a more manageable place, I inherited that “rock”. It has always held a special place for me, and has always been displayed prominently in my space – my bedroom at my parents’ house, bookshelves in my various student apartments, and now a display cabinet in my family home. It probably helped trigger my interest in history (and prehistory), as well as providing a sentimental connection to my grandfather who, despite his absence, has impacted my life in many ways.
Over the years, I did a little research and determined that it was stone gouge, likely made and used by the Maritime Archaic Indians who lived here long before the Europeans arrived. Long before even the Beothuk, who were the only native people living on the island by the time John Cabot arrived in 1497. But I was always reluctant to report this lovely artifact, worried that I might be expected to hand it over to the government or a museum under the Historical Resource Act.
I recently read about the new Community Collections program, developed by the Newfoundland and Labrador Archaeological Society (NLAS), which aims to locate and record artifacts currently held in private collections or by private citizens. I immediately contacted the society, and president Tim Rast asked to come see, photograph and catalog the gouge.
I had a great visit with Tim, who seemed genuinely excited to see the gouge and talk about its origins. He confirmed that it was indeed a Martime Archaic artifact, dating back approximately 3500 years and possibly more. The Maritime Archaic Indians were the first people to settle in Newfoundland, arriving from Labrador more than 5000 years ago (their history in Labrador goes back at least another two millennia!). They lived on the island for almost 2000 years, eventually spreading all over the coast before mysteriously disappearing from the archaeological record 3000-3500 years ago. Their presence in Notre Dame Bay has been illustrated by several other finds in the area, but my grandfather’s stone gouge now adds a new piece to the puzzle. It confirms that the Maritime Archaic people visited Ochre Pit Island (previous finds on that island were impossible to date or attribute to specific group).
For most people, myself included, it is easy to forget that people have lived here for so long. Our notion of human history on this island all too often begins with the arrival of European explorers and fishermen just over five centuries ago, or with the Beothuk people who lived, and so sadly died, here at that time. Yet, sitting on a shelf in my own living room is a vivid reminder that people thrived here long, long before.
This rock was carefully chosen, artfully sculpted, and skillfully used by someone’s hands more than 3000 years ago – someone living a life I can never imagine. As Tim Rast so poignantly reminded me, this stone gouge “may have been used by someone right here in Newfoundland at the same time that the pyramids were being built in ancient Egypt”. Now that’s a history! And not just any rock …
Gull season started a tad early this year – and with a bit of a bang. Bruce Mactavish first reported an adult Yellow-legged Gull in Pleasantville (east St. John’s) on September 7. Alvan Buckley upped the ante by photographing a presumed third-year Yellow-legged Gull on the same field on September 11 (relocated and photographed again by Bruce a few days later).
However, the star of the show turned out to be an odd-looking gull that Alvan photographed on September 16 while trying to relocate the Yellow-legged Gulls. Most of the features pointed to it being a Common Gull (Larus canus), which in itself is not that unusual in Newfoundland. We get a few every winter. But this one was a headscratcher because, compared to nearby Herring Gulls, it appeared too big and dark for our typical Common Gull (the nominate canus race that originates in western Europe). The size, dark mantle shade, relatively bulky structure and wingtip pattern seemed to suggest that this Common Gull was not so common — in fact, it may be a member of the kamchatka race that occurs in east Asia (Siberia, Japan). See Alvan’s blog for some more discussion.
Those of us looking failed relocate this gull over the next ten days. Yesterday morning, after a solid morning of birding around Signal Hill, Bruce Mactavish and I checked the regular gull locations in that area of town – unable to find it (or anything else exciting) yet again. Switching gears, we decided to head out to Goulds where a flock of American Golden Plover, and tons of gulls, had been hanging out in a freshly plowed field. After a few minutes, I spotted a mid-sized gull with a dark grey mantle sitting on the field — it hadn’t been there moments before. I could easily have passed it off as a Lesser-Black-backed Gull (of which there were several around), but something about the pattern of head streaking gave me pause. Then the dark eye. And the bill. There it was — the “odd” Common Gull!! (Note – this was 20+ km from the original spot, so it wasn’t really on our radar for this location).
Fortunately, Bruce was just as excited as me to have found this bird, and we quickly organized so that he could photograph the heck out of it (he having the far better lens & camera!). Light was really harsh with bright sunlight and poor angles, but the gull did cooperate by approaching fairly close to our position, parked on the side of a busy road. Over the next hour it made its way to the south end of the field, where we were able to reposition for better (though still very bright) light, and I even snapped off a few mediocre pics of my own.
Check out Bruce Mactavish’s blog for more of his excellent photos and further discussion. Alvan Buckley also posted some excellent discussion on his blog following his original discovery of the gull two weeks ago.
The jury is still out while we do a bit more research — gull identification, especially to subspecies level, is never as straightforward as we’d like. But all things considered, this certainly appears to be an excellent candidate for Kamchatka Gull.
While it certainly wasn’t on our radar, there have been a few other claims from the northeast (some of them rather convincing) to set a bit of a precedence. And hell – if we can get Slaty-backed Gulls, which originate in the same part of the world, then maybe a Kamchatka Gull isn’t so far-fetched afterall!
Family obligations have been keeping me close to home a lot the past few weeks – especially this week when I found myself with full-time parenting duties during the day. But while I haven’t been able to get out birding, I did spend a bit of time poking around at some small projects that have been bouncing around in my head.
One of those projects was to come up with a logo for “birdtherock” … especially since I have been toying with the idea of developing it into a small part-time business. Plus, I wanted something recognizable to be able to put on the blog, calling cards, and even as a watermarks on some of my photos. I envisioned working from one of my own photos, incorporating a recognizable Newfoundland bird into a classy, silhouette style logo. Here’s the photo I chose:
I thought the head-on flight angle and distinctness of the bird would make for a nice silhouette. Here is the extracted hagdown, ready to be immortalized in my attempt at artwork.
I liked this version, but felt it could use a little more spunk, so used some gradients to give it a more metallic type look. Then, for added measure, I inverted the colour scheme to make the logo white-on-black. I was definitely getting there.
As luck should have it, one of my little girls (age 5) had been watching me work on the image throughout the day and badgered me into helping her make her own Photoshop art. Turns out our little project gave me another idea, so I applied a couple filters to the last image and came up with this one — which I like a lot! (Best viewed large)
Turned out to be a pretty fun few hours “playing with” Photoshop, and a pretty decent new logo to boot! Different versions for different uses. I’m even toying with a simplified version of the logo as a watermark on some photos. I’d love to hear what people think …
There’s an old adage in St. John’s that summer ends after Regatta Day (the famous rowing races held here on the first Wednesday of August). While that hasn’t really been my experience, this year it held true. Very true. While July was one of the hottest (and driest) months on record for the city, August turned out to be among the wettest and coolest! The rain started on Regatta Day (Aug 6) and hardly let up for the next few weeks. Temperatures rarely climbed out of the teens and sometimes dipped down to single digits, and there were only 5 days without rain the entire month!
But what odds? A little rain, drizzle & fog hasn’t stopped me from enjoying life before, and neither would it now. I started the month by spending some quality time with my father and two little girls (while all the women in our family were traveling in Ireland!), including a few days in Grates Cove, a visit to beautiful Cape Spear and lots of other fun. In fact, those first few days of August were the hottest days of summer, with temps in the mid-thirties!
On August 5, I headed off to start my last tour of the season — a Wildland’s “Newfoundland Adventure” Tour that had just one guest, a Canadian currently living abroad in Holland and making her first foray to Newfoundland. It was a great week as we enjoyed amazing scenery, tons of whales, historical walks, and even a close-up moose … all while dodging the fog and rain that had begun its big invasion!
The rest of the month was family-time – much of it spent hanging out together in Grates Cove. We are fortunate that my wife’s family has an old home there, at the northern tip of the Avalon Peninsula, where we can get back to basics and connect a little with nature, history and each other.
We also visited the Mini Aquarium at Petty Harbour. Although the girls have been there twice with their aunt (my sister), it was my first time … and it was fun. I’ll include some more photos and details in another post … Finally, August ended with more rain as Tropical Storm Cristobal passed south of Newfoundland. More importantly, the wrap-around winds produced by this storm came from the northeast, blowing thousands of Leach’s Storm Petrels into the bottom of Conception Bay. I arrived at Holyrood late in the day, finding the bay alive with fluttering petrels, and a steady stream of them buzzing by at close range as the blasting winds forced them right in over the beach and road. (I’ll do a separate post on this event soon!)