Gearing Up for Winter Birding

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.

Nothing like a good snowshoeing adventure in  beautiful Newfoundland - this one in February 2011. - Photo: Susan Clarke

Nothing like a good snowshoeing adventure in beautiful Newfoundland – this one in February 2011.
– Photo: Susan Clarke

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.

Winter is also prime gull season in St. John's. Hopefully the Yellow-legged Gull that has been seen recently hang out - it's always a winter highlight for local and visiting birders alike! - Photo: Jared Clarke (February 14, 2009)

Winter is also prime gull season in St. John’s. Hopefully the Yellow-legged Gull that has been seen recently will hang out – it’s always a winter highlight for local and visiting birders alike!
– Photo: Jared Clarke (February 14, 2009)

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!!

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A Yaffle of Snowy Owls

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!).

This young Snowy Owl was one of several I had the pleasure of enjoying on Cape Race road in November 2008. Beautiful!! - Photo: Jared Clarke (November 14, 2008)

This young Snowy Owl was one of several I had the pleasure of enjoying on Cape Race road in November 2008. Beautiful!!
– Photo: Jared Clarke (November 14, 2008)

Keep your eyes open for these majestic white visitors … they can show up almost anywhere!!

Virginia’s Vindication

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 !!

VIWA_Nov162013_8032

I finally caught up with Newfoundland’s first Virginia’s Warbler in east St. John’s, after 2.5 days of agonizing misses. Taken at a measly 1/100 second and ISO800, the pic is grainy — but pure, sweet vindication.
– Photo: Jared Clarke (November 16, 2013)

It was very difficult to see the bird in the open, let alone capture a photo, as it foraged in the deepest, thickest parts of an apple tree. - Photo: Jared Clarke (November 16, 2013)

It was very difficult to see the bird in the open, let alone capture a photo, as it foraged in the deepest, thickest parts of an apple tree.
– Photo: Jared Clarke (November 16, 2013)

A Mega “Dip”

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!!”

This range map (borrowed from whatbird.com) shows why Virginia's Warbler is such a rarity in these parts. While it has never been recorded on the island before, there is one record from Labrador.

This range map (borrowed from whatbird.com) shows why Virginia’s Warbler is such a rarity in these parts. While it has never been recorded on the island before, there is one record from Labrador.

“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 …

Photo Shoot: Pied-billed Grebe

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.

Cape Spear - the easternmost point in North America.

Cape Spear – the easternmost point in North America.

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.

PBGR_Nov102013_7860Pied-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.

PBGR_Nov102013_7839 PBGR_Nov102013_7855 PBGR_Nov102013_7900PBGR_Nov102013_7800 PBGR_Nov102013_7876 PBGR_Nov102013_7906 PBGR_Nov102013_7911 PIGR_Nov102013_7867