Dreaming about Icelandic rarities!

The iconic Bob Dylan was tapping into one of my dreams when he sang “The Anser, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind”.

Apologies to those of you who might not have “gotten” my [poor?] attempt at humour there, but I do dream about geese more often than I like to admit. And maybe, just maybe, I could smell a few in the wind this morning.

A quick look at some surface pressure maps for today show that a big low pressure system is sitting in the middle of the north Atlantic right now, and the resulting winds are lined up nicely between Iceland and Newfoundland. These are the kind of winds that birders here on “the rock” dream about in spring … the kind of winds that bring European rarities to this side of the ocean. Granted, it is a tad on the early side and I might be more excited if I saw these same maps in mid-late April when Icelandic migration is at its peak — but a guy can dream, can’t he?

The weather map for today (March 20) shows a wide low pressure system advancing up the mid-Atlantic. The tight isobars north of that system indicate moderate-strong winds blowing directly from Iceland to Newfoundland & Labrador. Maybe I should be embarrassed to say it, but those curves are the stuff my dreams are made of!!

The weather map for today (March 20) shows a wide low pressure system advancing up the mid-Atlantic. The tight isobars north of that system indicate moderate-strong winds blowing directly from Iceland to Newfoundland & Labrador. Maybe I should be embarrassed to say it, but those curves are the stuff my dreams are made of!!

The pattern holds strong for tomorrow (March 21), when the winds produce a perfect trans-Atlantic highway from western Europe - Iceland - Newfoundland. Oystercatcher, anyone??

The pattern holds strong for tomorrow (March 21), when the winds produce a perfect trans-Atlantic highway from western Europe – Iceland – Newfoundland. Oystercatcher, anyone??

With a low pressure system continuing to churn off the west coast of Europe, favourable winds will continue ot blow from Iceland for the remainder of this week - as shown by this map for Saturday, March 23.

With a low pressure system continuing to churn off the west coast of Europe, favourable winds will continue to blow from Iceland for the remainder of this week – as shown by this map for Saturday, March 23.

For a more detailed discussion of Icelandic/European vagrants that have been recorded here in spring, check out this earlier post.

A number of species begin to arrive in Iceland in March, including Whooper Swan, Common Shellduck, Eurasian Oystercatcher, European Golden Plover, and (yes!!) Graylag Goose. It’s time to turn our attention east once again, and keep our eyes peeled for wayward visitors along our shores. I could do with one of those dreams coming true right about now.

You??

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COMMON CHAFFINCH in western Newfoundland

The unique location of Newfoundland, combined with the fact that Common Chaffinch is a very regular visitor to nearby Iceland, suggests that it could/should be expected as a vagrant to Newfoundland on rare occasions.

I was surprised lunchtime Saturday when I checked the local bird news – a COMMON CHAFFINCH (ABA Code 4, 4th record for Newfoundland) was reported coming to a feeder in Corner Brook. I immediately went looking for details, and was soon rewarded when Jeff Siddal (a west coast birder/naturalist) sent me a grainy but very identifiable photograph taken by the homeowners, Hearder and Louise Butler. The Butlers have been actively watching their feeders for many years and are long-time FeederWatch participants – needless to say, they were very excited to be adding this to their list of backyard visitors!

Common Chaffinch is considered one of the most abundant songbirds of Europe, breeding widely across the continent. Northern populations are highly migratory, making it a good candidate for vagrancy outside its normal range. However, the provenance of Common Chaffinch in North America is always questionable since they are commonly kept as cagebirds, and the vast majority of records in Canada and the United States are easily passed off as probable escapees. That being said, the unique location of Newfoundland combined with the fact that Common Chaffinch is a very regular visitor to nearby Iceland (where it does not breed, but occurs often enough that is has become hardly notable) suggests that it could/should be expected as a vagrant to Newfoundland on rare occasions. Our three previous records (two of which have also been in late winter) have generally been considered as wild, and the recent discoveries of a Gray Heron and Fieldfare (the latter having been just 50km away from the current Chaffinch location!) add to the feeling that this may also be a bona fide European vagrant.

The next day (Sunday, March 17) Darroch Whitaker stopped by to visit the Butlers and was able to watch the Common Chaffinch for several minutes. He managed to capture a few excellent photographs, and described the bird as being “extremely skittish … [it] never paused under the feeder, rather would drop in, grab a seed, and dart back to the trees.” The photos seem to show a bird resembling the “coelebs” race typical of western Europe, which of course would be most expected as a natural vagrant to Newfoundland.

This male Common Chaffinch was first reported in Corner Brook on March 16, but has apparently been visiting the backyard for several weeks. This marks a fourth record for Newfoundland!- Photo: Darroch Whitaker (March 17, 2013)

This male Common Chaffinch was first reported in Corner Brook on March 16, but has apparently been visiting the backyard for several weeks. This marks a fourth record for Newfoundland!
– Photo: Darroch Whitaker (March 17, 2013)

An exciting find!! And one that should entertain some of the birding community on the west coast of Newfoundland for the next little while, and torment those of us here on the Avalon Peninsula who just can’t justify the drive. Fortunately, many of us enjoyed the previous Common Chaffinch near Placentia in February 2011, or else there might have been a minor stampede across the highway.

Stay tuned to the Rarity Round Up for regular updates, or feel free to drop me a line.

Photo: Darroch Whitaker (March 17, 2013)

Photo: Darroch Whitaker (March 17, 2013)

GRAY HERON !!!!

This is one we’ve been waiting for … one of those mega-rarities that we KNEW was going to happen someday, yet dared not dream about. A GRAY HERON has landed! (Our one previous record was of a bird found moribund on a beach in 1996 – it later succumbed at a rehab centre. Another bird arrived live onboard a ship in 2002, after landing there north of the Azores – two others had died enroute.)

A “Great Blue Heron” was reported in Little Heart’s Ease on Saturday – a very early date for any heron in Newfoundland, and especially on the northeast coast. Fortunately, Bruce Mactavish was on the receiving end of that report, and alarm bells started going off in his head. It was only ~10 days ago that he had sent me an email about the “killer winds from Iceland” … and we knew that some early Gray Herons has begun showing up there. Could it be?!?!?

GRHE_Mar102013_4096Bruce Mactavish, Ken Knowles and John Wells set out early Sunday morning to check it out. I stayed home (very close to the phone), keeping some family commitments. But when Bruce called to say they had found the bird and were “99.99% sure” it was a Gray Heron … well, let’s just say I broke the news to my VERY understanding wife, helped her get the kids ready for an outing, spread the news and (finally!) hit the road. Two hours later, Paul Linegar and I were on the spot, looking hard … we KNEW it had to be there, but it was playing hard to get. After 30+ minutes, it flew in and landed on the ice. We had good looks for the next 15 minutes as it flew around the estuary and fed along the ice edge – allowing us good looks at all the important field marks – including the all white thighs and leading edge of the wing (both rufous in Great Blue Herons). KILLER!!

GRHE_Mar102013_4046The heron then flew off and disappeared, only to be found tucked inconspicuously against the shore on the opposite side of the water. And that’s where it stayed for the next hour and half until we left. As can be expected after a long trans-Atlantic flight (only to find itself in the cold, icy Newfoundland of early March), this Gray Heron looks and acts a bit exhausted. Nevertheless – it was a beautiful bird and an awesome experience. Let’s hope it sticks around for a while!!!

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