Island-hopping: From Newfoundland to Hawaii!

Three packages arrived in my mailbox yesterday – from three very different parts of North America, but all chinched full of exciting information about the same upcoming adventure …

I opened the first package and pulled out a small, glossy book – its cover graced with photos of some very exotic looking birds. I flipped through the pages, reading about birds I have only dreamt about seeing and with names I struggle to pronounce: ‘Akiapola’au; Maui ‘Alauahio; Puaiohi; Kauai ‘Elepaio. The second package, from my friend Jody Allair in Ontario, contained a set of CDs loaded down with the beautiful voices of these equally stunning birds. And the third package, from British Columbia, included a list of the twelve participants from across the world who will be joining Jody and I on the upcoming Eagle Eye Tours trip to Hawaii !!

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This pocket-sized book is fantastic publication of the Hawaii Audubon Society, and provides a great introduction to the birds and avian ecology of the fabled archipelago.

Jody has led this tour several times already, and regaled me with wonderful stories and descriptions when we worked together in New Brunswick this past summer. So, for that and many other reasons, I was thrilled when I received an email from Eagle Eye Tours earlier this month asking me to join him as co-leader this time around! (Heck – I would have signed on as a pack mule if they’d asked!)

The natural history of Hawaii is itself an intriguing story – a chain of volcanic islands spewed forth from the ocean and developing its own unique ecology over millions of years. It is home to dozens of endemic bird species, including the bizarre and beautiful honeycreepers – some of which occur on only one island. The evolution of these birds, from just one or two ancient ancestors into an array of species highly specialized to their own niche, is considered by some to be an even better example of adaptive radiation than Darwin’s famous Galapagos finches!

But the story of Hawaii’s amazing birds is a bittersweet one, illustrating one of the saddest environmental disasters of all time. Following the arrival of humans (first Polynesians, then Europeans) the introduction of foreign predators, avian diseases and competitive species (bird and mammal) has led to a rapid decline and extinction of the islands’ native birds. In fact, of the 109 species of bird known to have been endemic to Hawaii, all but 37 have already disappeared!! And 33 of those remaining are on the U.S. endangered list, clinging to continued existence under the massive pressure of human interference. In fact, Hawaii is considered to have the highest number of endangered species per square kilometre in the world!!

This illustration, from a recent cover of the journal Current Biology (November 2011) shows a selection of the very unique and specialized honeycreepers that evolved on and are/were endemic to the Hawaiian archipelago. - Image: H. Douglas Pratt

This illustration, from a recent cover of the journal Current Biology (November 2011) shows a selection of the very unique and specialized honeycreepers that evolved on and are/were endemic to the Hawaiian archipelago.
– Image: H. Douglas Pratt

I am, without a doubt, looking forward to our visit and to sharing this amazing place and incredible birds with a group from all over North America and Japan – but I also expect it to be eye-opening to the fragility of nature and the perils of introduced species. Expect a bunch of blog posts about my experiences when I get back!

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Snipes, Bullbirds & Weather Delays

Just five days after the fantastic WINGS tour, I was already getting tired of paperwork and looking forward to getting back out there. Peter Gilchrist, from Toronto, ON was set to arrive late Wednesday night, with Dovekie firmly in his sights. A long-time birder with an extensive Canada (and ABA) list, Peter was gunning for this diminutive little seabird that is regularly seen along the coast of Newfoundland but hardly anywhere else in North America (I grew up calling these little guys bullbirds – one of many colourful bird names unique to Newfoundland!)

Dovekie (known locally as "bullbirds") are often found along our coast during winter. - Photo: Jared Clarke (December 17, 2011)

Dovekie (known locally as “bullbirds”) are often found along our coast during winter.
– Photo: Jared Clarke (December 17, 2011)

But the crazy winds that have been buffeting Newfoundland so much this January weren’t going to make it easy! Strong gusts of about 120km/h blew up overnight and throughout Thursday, cancelling many flights and delaying his arrival by more than 24 hours.

Despite spending far too much time in airports and not seeing his hotel until the wee hours of the night, Peter was rearing to go when I picked him up Friday morning. The winds were still blowing hard & cold when we arrived at Cape Spear twenty minutes later, biting at us as we headed out to the tip. And they weren’t done wreaking havoc on our plans just yet! The strong offshore winds of the past few days had apparently moved all the Dovekie well away from land … we couldn’t find a single one in our 2-3 hours of scanning the waters both near and far. Black Guillemots bobbed around the point, Common Eider and Long-tailed Ducks loafed further out, and Great Cormorants drifted by every few minutes. But no bullbirds!! Concerns started to gnaw away at my confidence … knowing that Dovekie often head back out to sea and become difficult to find by early February, I wondered if these winds might have spelt an early end to their gracing of our shores this year?!?!

After taking a short break to check for the elusive Yellow-legged Gull at various places around the city (it has not been reported in over a month), we headed north to check other coves and harbours for Dovekie – Flatrock, Torbay and Outer Cove. No such luck! Common Loons, Red-breasted Mergansers, Greater Scaup, and even a Red-necked Grebe were present and accounted for – but no bullbirds. And so ended our first (frustrating) day.

This COMMON SNIPE at Ferryland marks the third record of this European species for the province and all of eastern North America! - Photo: Jared Clarke (January 25, 2014)

This COMMON SNIPE at Ferryland marks the third record of this European species for the province and all of eastern North America!
– Photo: Jared Clarke (January 25, 2014)

With most of Saturday to go birding before his flight back to Toronto, Peter and I headed out at first light – straight to Ferryland to look for the COMMON SNIPE that has been hanging out there. This species is extremely rare anywhere but the westernmost reaches of Alaska, with this one being just the third record for all of North America away from the Pacific coast (all of which have occurred in this province!). Since we came up empty-handed at several stops to look for Dovekie on the drive south, I was happy to find the Snipe (along with two of its North American cousin, Wilson’s Snipe) at the usual location, allowing good views as it huddled in the mud & snow.

- Photo: Jared Clarke (January 25, 2014)

– Photo: Jared Clarke (January 25, 2014)

- Photo: Jared Clarke (January 25, 2014)

– Photo: Jared Clarke (January 25, 2014)

Next, we headed further south to Bear Cove … hoping that at least one Dovekie had held strong and stayed for our viewing pleasure. Sure enough, we found one (and just one!) feeding about 100 metres offshore. It toyed with us for the first few minutes, coming up for air only momentarily before diving again – but then we were able to enjoy great looks through the scope as it sat on the surface, toying instead with a fish it had just caught. We looked for more as we headed back toward the city, finding none!! We did, however, enjoy even better views of the Common Snipe!

Two excellent birds and two happy birders! What’s that they say – all is well that ends well? Think about that next time you’re stuck in an airport for 24 hours 😉

WINGS: Winter in Newfoundland

Four enthusiastic birders from across the United States visited St. John's last week as part of the WINGS winter tour. Here they can be seen at Cape Spear, smiling after scoring great looks at two prime targets - Purple Sandpipers and Dovekie!!

Four enthusiastic birders from across the United States visited St. John’s last week as part of the WINGS winter tour. Here they can be seen at Cape Spear, smiling after scoring great looks at two prime targets – Purple Sandpipers and Dovekie!!

It’s become an annual tradition that a group of WINGS tour participants descend on St. John’s in January, excited to get out and enjoy the wonderful birds of “Newfoundland in Winter” (if not the weather!). This year, I had the distinct pleasure of leading four eager visitors on a five-day birding bonanza around the city and parts of the eastern Avalon Peninsula.

We started the tour with a bang – heading straight to Ferryland on the very first morning where we were rewarded with amazing looks at a COMMON SNIPE that had been discovered two days earlier. It was just the third confirmed record for the province (including one from Labrador) and eastern North America! To sweeten the deal even further, a Wilson’s Snipe was also hanging out just a few metres away, allowing for a great comparison of these formerly conspecific cousins.

A comparison of the mega-rare COMMON SNIPE and the more expected Wilson's Snipe, it's North American cousin. Both were seen and photographed just metres apart in Ferryland on the very first morning of the tour! - Photos: Jared Clarke (January 13, 2014)

We spent the remainder of the first four days birding in and around St. John’s, enjoying some unusually mild weather and ignoring periods rain, wind and fog. The group’s spirits refused to be dampened as we enjoyed stunning views of great birds, including record-high numbers of Tufted Ducks, both Eurasian & American Wigeon, and some very confiding Great Cormorants. Even a northern River Otter got in on the action, posing for us amidst the quaint scenery of the Quidi Vidi’s famous fishing village.

Great, close-up views at thousands of gulls were just part of the fun during this tour. Ten species were seen, including well over 2000 of these stunning "Kumlien's" Iceland Gulls. - Photo: Jared Clarke

Great, close-up views of thousands of gulls were just part of the fun during this tour. Ten species were seen, including well over 2000 of these stunning “Kumlien’s” Iceland Gulls.
– Photo: Jared Clarke

An important part of winter birding in St. John’s, the massive gull flocks showed off an array of birds – thousands of Herring, Great Black-backed and “Kumlien’s” Iceland Gulls, several hundred Glaucous Gulls, dozens of Black-headed Gulls (a key target for the tour!), a handful of Lesser Black-backed Gulls, and three Common (aka European Mew) Gulls! Everyone learned a lot about these often “under-appreciated” birds 😉

Purple Sandpipers were a prime target for all four participants ... and they did not disappoint! - Photo: Jared Clarke

Purple Sandpipers were a prime target for all four participants … and they did not disappoint!
– Photo: Jared Clarke

Bald Eagles regularly dropped in to show off, while a Northern Goshawk buzzed our heads during a morning walk in Pippy Park.

A major highlight of the tour was a visit to Cape Spear, the easternmost point in North America. It was one of the most beautiful January mornings I have ever experienced there, with mild temperatures, light wind and perfectly clear viewing. We were thrilled with killer views of two key targets for the tour – dozens of Purple Sandpipers resting and feeding among the rocks, and eight Dovekie putting on a show in the foamy white water right off the tip!On our fifth & final day, we headed south along the “Irish Loop”, enjoying the amazing scenery, historic communities and many great birds. Long-tailed Ducks, Red-breasted Mergansers and Common Eiders entertained us at several stops, while a female King Eider at Bear Cove was an unexpected highlight for everyone. A family group of five Gray Jays were apparently entertained by us, dropping in along the roadside to check us out. Common & Red-throated Loons and Red-necked Grebes were found in excellent numbers, often in sheltered coves buffeted by stark, beautiful cliffs. And several Boreal Chickadees finally made an appearance, after proving elusive all week.

Common Loons winter along the coast of Newfoundland - we saw many of them during our week. - Photo: Jared Clarke

Common Loons winter along the coast of Newfoundland – we saw many of them during our week.
– Photo: Jared Clarke

Tufted Duck are a regular part of the winter in St. John's, likely originating in Iceland. - Jared Clarke

Tufted Duck are a regular part of the winter in St. John’s, likely originating in Iceland.
– Photo: Jared Clarke

Great Cormorants were seen daily, often at very close range. - Photo: Jared Clarke

Great Cormorants were seen daily, often at very close range.
– Photo: Jared Clarke

Cape Spear - the easternmost point in North America.

Cape Spear – the easternmost point in North America.

It was a fantastic week spent enjoying great birds with some great people. And, needless to say, amidst some truly great scenery.

2013 – A Birding Year in Retrospect

We have been spending the New Year with my family in central Newfoundland – enjoying lots of fun, food and some very wintery weather. The ground is already under several feet of “the white stuff” following a very snowy December and yesterday’s storm. The forests are laden in snow, looking like intricately decorated Christmas trees adorning the countryside. And the record-breaking cold snap that has been going on all week has seen temperatures plunge to well below “frigid”, with windchills well below -30C. Sticking close to home in this cold, snowy weather has given me a chance to reflect on the past year – one that was wonderful in so many ways, including birding.

Townsend's Warbler - while very rare in eastern North America, this was an incredible 14th record for Newfoundland! - Photo: Jared Clarke (January 1, 2013)

Townsend’s Warbler – while very rare in eastern North America, this was an incredible 14th record for Newfoundland!
– Photo: Jared Clarke (January 1, 2013)

The cold, snowy weather of the first few weeks of THIS winter is a stark contrast to the much milder weather this time last year. At least five species of warbler were still kicking around in St. John’s when January 2013 rolled in, compared to just three species seen in December 2013! In fact, one of my birding highlights of last year was spending some quality time with a rare TOWNSEND’S WARBLER (first found on the St. John’s CBC) on New Year’s Day.

Pink-footed Goose. This popular bird marked an impressive eighth record for Newfoundland. - Photo: Jared Clarke (April 20, 2013)

Pink-footed Goose. This popular bird marked an impressive eighth record for Newfoundland.
– Photo: Jared Clarke (April 20, 2013)

One of the highlights as winter continued was the PINK-FOOTED GOOSE that took up residence in a local St. John’s park after being originally discovered in nearby farm fields back in November. It became popular with the many walkers who visit the area daily and was likely one of the most-photographed birds ever in the province. It was the eighth record for Newfoundland, but first in winter.

The immature Gray Heron arrived at Little Heart's Ease in early March, marking the second record for the province. - Photo: Jared Clarke (March 10 2013)

The immature Gray Heron arrived at Little Heart’s Ease in early March, marking the second record for the province.
– Photo: Jared Clarke (March 10 2013)

March, which is often one of the more “boring” months for birders in this province, was punctuated by very exciting news – a mega-rare GRAY HERON was hanging out in an open estuary at Little Heart’s Ease!! It was the second for Newfoundland and only the third or fourth for all of North America! Amazingly, it stuck around for many weeks, and was enjoyed by many birders from all over the continent who trekked out to see it. I also had another personal highlight at the very end of March when I was able to enjoy and photograph an IVORY GULL in my hometown of Lewisporte while visiting my parents for Easter. Such a great bird!

The iconic Ivory Gull - one of my favourite birds! - Photo: Jared Clarke (March 31, 2013)

The iconic Ivory Gull – one of my favourite birds!
– Photo: Jared Clarke (March 31, 2013)

A "Greenland" Greater White-fronted Goose that dropped in at Biscay Bay. - Photo: Jared Clarke (April 17, 2013)

A “Greenland” Greater White-fronted Goose that dropped in at Biscay Bay.
– Photo: Jared Clarke (April 17, 2013)

Around the same time, strong northeasterly winds brought two “Greenland” GREATER WHITE-FRONTED GEESE to Twillingate on the northeast coast. While I didn’t get a chance to go see these, I did manage to catch up with another that arrived in Biscay Bay a few days later (early April). Spring continued to heat up, with two LITTLE EGRETS being discovered at Fair Haven, at the northern end of Placentia Bay. While this was the ninth record for this primarily European species, it was the first opportunity I had to see one on this side of the Atlantic.

This Little Egret, one of two that spent some time in Fair Haven this spring, was a great addition to my Newfoundland list. - Photo: Jared Clarke (May 18, 2013)

This Little Egret, one of two that spent some time in Fair Haven this spring, was a great addition to my Newfoundland list.
– Photo: Jared Clarke (May 18, 2013)

Pine Grosbeaks were especially obliging at several locations during our tour, including this stunning male at Gros Morne National Park.

Pine Grosbeaks were especially obliging at several locations during our tour, including this stunning male at Gros Morne National Park.

I was very fortunate in June to lead two bird & nature tours in Newfoundland – sharing the incredible beauty and wonder of my province with visitors from across Canada, Europe and the United States. The first excursion, for Eagle Eye Tours, enjoyed great birds in the form of Boreal Owl, Black-backed Woodpecker, and Grey-cheeked Thrush, along with the amazing spectacles of Witless Bay and Cape St. Mary’s Ecological Reserves (read more here). The second trip, for Massachusetts Audubon, continued all the way across Newfoundland to beautiful Gros Morne National Park, enjoying great birds, whales, and wildflowers along the way (read more here).

KILL_July20_1115Late summer included a fun photography session with a family of Killdeer at a private horse stables in Logy Bay – they have bred there the past few years, and I was kindly invited to spend a morning with them once the young had fledged and were running around the fields. One of the biggest highlights of my entire year was the Eagle Eye tour that I co-led in New Brunswick — visiting great places like Kouchibouguac National Park and Grand Manan Island. Our group soaked in an amazing shorebird spectacle at Johnson Mills, the stunning forests of Acadia, and wonderful seabirds & whales in the Bay of Fundy.

Tens of thousands of Semipalmated Sandpipers were roosting at Johnson Mills at high tide. An estimated three-quarters of the world's population of this small shorebird stop over at the Bay of Fundy during southward migration every year.

Tens of thousands of Semipalmated Sandpipers were roosting at Johnson Mills at high tide. An estimated three-quarters of the world’s population of this small shorebird stop over at the Bay of Fundy during southward migration every year.

This stunning Yellow-throated Vireo was the big highlight of this year's BMI birding. It is quite rare in Newfoundland, with maybe a dozen or so records. Photo: Jared Clarke (Bear Cove, September 21, 2013)

This stunning Yellow-throated Vireo was the big highlight of this year’s BMI birding. It is quite rare in Newfoundland, with maybe a dozen or so records.
Photo: Jared Clarke (Bear Cove, September 21, 2013)

Fall is always an exciting time for birding in Newfoundland, when we spend our time searching for wayward migrants and wanderers that we rarely see. One of my earliest rewards this season was a YELLOW-THROATED VIREO I discovered during our annual “big day” event in late September. This bright little stunner is found less than annually in Newfoundland and was only my second ever, despite lots of time spent looking. Check out this post to see what other gems were found during the day!

This Northern Wheatear was part of mini-invasion into Newfoundland this fall. - Photo: Jared Clarke (October 10, 2013)

This Northern Wheatear was part of mini-invasion into Newfoundland this fall.
– Photo: Jared Clarke (October 10, 2013)

As usual, October turned out to be one of the most happenin’ months of the year. Highlights included at least 10 NORTHERN WHEATEARS that dropped in around the Avalon and northeast coast, a PINK-FOOTED GOOSE photographed in Bonavista, and a long-staying YELLOW-CROWNED NIGHT HERON in a Torbay neighbourhood. However, the clear-cut star of the month was a SCISSOR-TAILED FLYCATCHER also discovered in Torbay, where it hung out for about ten days and was seen by many birders! Not surprisingly, it was just the second record for Newfoundland.

This moulting adult Scissor-tailed Flycatcher marked the second record for the province, but the first that was able to be enjoyed by birders. And enjoyed, it was! - Photo: Jared Clarke (Torbay; October 10, 2013)

This moulting adult Scissor-tailed Flycatcher marked the second record for the province, but the first that was able to be enjoyed by birders. And enjoyed, it was!
– Photo: Jared Clarke (Torbay; October 10, 2013)

This Virginia's Warbler, originally discovered on November 14, 2013 marked the first (and very exciting) record for the island if Newfoundland. It remained elusive during the first few days, frustrating a number of birders - myself included! - Photo: Jared Clarke (November 16, 2013)

This Virginia’s Warbler, originally discovered on November 14, 2013 marked the first (and very exciting) record for the island if Newfoundland. It remained elusive during the first few days, frustrating a number of birders – myself included!
– Photo: Jared Clarke (November 16, 2013)

Possibly the most exciting bird of 2013 was discovered in mid-November – the island’s first VIRGINIA’S WARBLER. Despite hanging out in a relatively small area, this very unexpected visitor from across the continent was very elusive and it took me three stressful days to finally catch up with it! It braved some very cool temperatures until at least December 2, furnishing an excellent record for the winter list. I also caught up with another elusive bird – the YELLOW-LEGGED GULL that has been sneaking around St. John’s since late October. I was happy to see this Newfoundland specialty after nearly two years absence!

November also brought with it the first signs of what would turn out to be a massive invasion of SNOWY OWLS. These majestic, almost mythical birds from the north descended on much of eastern North America in late November and early December – but nowhere like the southeast Avalon, where as many as 300 were counted in a single day! I was fortunate enough to enjoy an intimate photo session with one of the beautiful owls at Cape Spear in early December.

- Photo: Jared Clarke (December 7, 2013)

– Photo: Jared Clarke (December 7, 2013)

And while 2013 was also peppered with some major dips and misses (Tundra Swan? Sandwich Tern?!?! Tricolored Heron!!!), I can easily look back at it as a year filled to the brim with exciting birds, wonderful experiences and even a few great adventures. I shared many of those birds and adventures with some equally great people – birders from near and far! And what more can I ask?? Only that 2014 is just as fun and rewarding …

Happy New Year!