As for many birders across Canada & the USA, Christmas Bird Counts have become an integral part of my holiday season. Since the idea was first introduced in 1900, these counts have become a pinnacle of citizen science, with more than 2000 taking place across North America and a huge database of important data dating back decades in many locations. There are a handful of such counts held across Newfoundland each year, and I have taken part ever since I started birding – often here on the Avalon Peninsula but also in central Newfoundland (where I usually spent the holiday season with my family before recently starting my own).
As every year, the St. John’s Christmas Bird Count was held on Boxing Day (December 26). However, unlike many years, the relatively cold and snowy weather of the past few weeks had a major impact on the results. The actual count day was beautiful – cold, crisp and perfectly clear. The sun shimmered off the fresh white snow and choppy ocean water. There was more than a foot of snow cover in most locations, and all the ponds, lakes and slow moving streams were frozen solid. It was definitely winter, and everything about the birds that were reported at the end of the day said just that. There were no real rarities, no southern stragglers like the few warblers that often get spotted on this count, and very few finches or berry-eating birds (despite great crops of cones & mountain ash).
One highlight, however, was the excellent tally of 78 Tufted Ducks – a new record for this otherwise very rare species in North America! They have become a regular wintering duck in the city ponds of St. John’s, with growing numbers arriving each fall. This winter may prove to be a challenging one, however, as they compete with increasing numbers of other ducks around town in what appears to be less open water than most years. Space and food may be at a premium unless a mild spell opens up a bit more of the city’s many ponds.
Other mediocre highlights came from our own team (Bruce Mactavish, Ken Knowles and I), which covered the St. John’s landfill, Quidi Vidi lake, the harbour (the three hot spots for the city’s usually massive gull flocks) and some neighbourhoods in those areas. While overall gull numbers were a bit low, there were hundreds of Glaucous Gulls enjoying the cold winter weather, three Common Gulls hanging out at the harbour along with a couple thousand Iceland Gulls and several dozen Black-headed Gulls. The landfill also held a surprise in the form of eight Lapland Longspurs foraging on the snow-covered ground – a good bird for winter in Newfoundland, and giving amazing looks! Even more interesting was a Red-throated Loon in St. John’s harbour – it, too, was giving great looks as it loafed in the water quite close to shore.
While total numbers of individual birds and species were down this year, it felt like a “proper” day of winter birding – and great way to spend part of my Christmas holiday!