Birding (and Dining!) In Style

Birders are cultured people. You know it, I know it, and increasingly the world of eco-tourism is recognizing that. We all love birds and spending countless hours looking for and at them. But most of us also love art, music, history … and especially food. Good food. REALLY good food! And if you’re one of those many birders and considered visiting Newfoundland, then you’re in luck.

St. John’s has undergone a culinary revolution in the past few years, and is quickly becoming a “foodie” destination. In fact we are now home to some of the top ranked restaurants in Canada, staffed by more than our share of award-winning chefs & sommeliers, and offering a diversity of dining experiences. And increasingly, clients and visiting birders are asking me to recommend fine restaurants and unique dining opportunities. Sure, there are still plenty of us who can (and sometimes do) survive on burgers & donuts or don’t want to stop exploring long enough for a sit-down meal, but it’s no longer the norm. Good food and comfortable restaurants are now an essential part of most tours … and why not?? If you’re going to spend your hard-earned cash to visit a far-flung place, why not take in the culture and food as well as the amazing birds?!?!

This vintage (though undated) photo shows an historic part of St. John's, with Mallard Cottage on the right. That building, one of the oldest wooden structures in North America, is now home to a fabulous restaurant that was recently named on of the Top New Restaurants in Canada!

This vintage (though undated) photo shows a section of historic St. John’s, with Mallard Cottage on the right. That building, one of the oldest wooden structures in North America, is now home to a fabulous restaurant that was recently named on of the Top New Restaurants in Canada!

That’s got me thinking about the potential for an exciting new Birding and Food/Culinary Tour. Amazing but leisurely birding mixed with culture and history, as well as some of the best restaurants that Newfoundland (and Canada) has to offer! Consider spending the day enjoying a rare mix of North American & European waterfowl around St. John’s, followed by succulent dinner and wine with the award winning chefs at Raymond’s – recently ranked “The Best Restaurant in Canada“! Or the exhilaration of ticking some of North America’s most sought-after gulls, capped off with an evening by the fire at Mallard Cottage – just listed among the “Top 5 New Restaurants in Canada” by EnRoute Magazine! Birding at the most easterly point of land on the continent. Lunch at The Rooms Cafe, with an incredible view over historic St. John’s. Hiking across some of the most breathtaking landscapes in the world, looking for subarctic gems like Willow Ptarmigan or Snowy Owl. Enjoying local and traditionally-inspired food at the very unique Bacalao, which takes its name from the salt-fish that helped forge our very culture and economy. A visit to one of the world’s largest Northern Gannet colonies at Cape St. Mary’s Ecological Reserve, where a dozen other sea and tundra species abound. Celebrating life birds with a beer-tasting at Quidi Vidi Brewery, located in a quaint little fishing harbour. For nostalgia’s sake, we can even throw in some of the best fish & chips on this side of the Atlantic 😉

Quaint and historic, this little fishing harbour in St. John's is also home to an award-winning microbrewery - Quidi Vidi Brewing Co (right).

Quaint and historic, this little fishing harbour in St. John’s is also home to an award-winning microbrewery – Quidi Vidi Brewing Co (right). It was recently named one of the “Top 10 Breweries to Explore in Canada” by Cottage Life Magazine.

And the culinary delights aren’t restricted to St. John’s. In summer, a visit to the wonderful Atlantic Puffin colony of Elliston and stunning cliffs of Bonavista can be followed by lunch at the Bonavista Social Club. Located in the tiny hamlet of Upper Amherst Cove, this unique restaurant grows almost all its own ingredients on site, cooks using a traditional wood-fired oven, and offers up some of the freshest & tastiest treats you can imagine.  We’ve even seen icebergs and watched whales frolic right from our table — all in a town of less than 50 people!

I’d love to hear people’s thoughts or interest in this type of tour … and I’d love even more to make it a reality! Newfoundland is currently one of the best food and birding destinations in Canada, so why not make the best of both worlds!!

One of my favourite lunches - a mouth-watering moose burger served on homemade bread with delicious partridgeberry ketchup at the Bonavista Social Club. Note the traditional wood-fired oven in the background!

One of my favourite lunches – a mouth-watering moose burger served on homemade bread with delicious partridgeberry ketchup, garlic aioli and kettle-cooked chips at the Bonavista Social Club. Note the traditional wood-fired oven in the background!

Willow Ptarmigan ... just because I figured I HAD to have a bird photo in here somewhere (Not to mention, they're delicious!).

Willow Ptarmigan … just because I figured I HAD to have a bird photo in here somewhere (Not to mention, they’re delicious!).

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We’re Having a Contest!

Win a Beautiful Gallery-Wrapped Canvas Print from bird⋅the⋅rock

It’s been an exciting month for bird⋅the⋅rock!! A new website, new Facebook page, and LOTS of new friends!!
To celebrate, bird⋅the⋅rock is hosting a great contest in honour of my many friends and clients – past, present and future! Enter to win a 16″x20″ gallery-wrapped canvas print featuring one of my best Newfoundland photographs (birds, wildlife, and/or scenery). I also invite you to explore the new website, and would be delighted if you followed my blog or Facebook updates.

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November = Extreme Warbler Time

Most Newfoundlanders, and Canadians, think of November as the vanguard of winter. Temperatures plummet, trees lose the last of their summer leaves, and even a little snow can be expected before the month is out. Sure seems like a strange time to be looking for warblers – but here on “the rock”, November warblers are an integral part of the fall birding scene.

Orange-crowned Warblers, which breed in southern Labrador yet not the island, are one of our routine November warblers. There have been a healthy handful reported so far this month.

Orange-crowned Warblers, which breed in southern Labrador yet not the island, are one of our routine November warblers. There have been a healthy handful reported so far this month.

Granted, warblers are scarce this late in the year. A few late and lingering individuals can be found, often in the company of tougher, year-round species like Black-capped Chickadees and Dark-eyed Juncos. That just makes the otherwise “expected” ones a tad more exciting. And of course there are the vagrants – warblers that do not normally breed in or migrate through Newfoundland but have somehow gotten off-track and ended up here anyways. By November, some of those vagrants may have traveled a long way from home. This is the month when most western warblers, such as Black-throated Gray, Hermit and Virginia’s Warbler, have been discovered here. All in all, nearly 30 species of warbler have been recorded in Newfoundland during November – many, like those listed above, are the rarest ones on our checklist having been seen only once or twice in our storied birding history.

This Virginia's Warbler, the only one ever recorded in Newfoundland, was discovered on November 14, 2013. It was an exciting day for local birders!

This Virginia’s Warbler, the only one ever recorded in Newfoundland, was discovered on November 14, 2013. It was an exciting day for local birders!

Yellow-throated Warblers have a funny habit of showing up in Newfoundland in late fall and early winter, despite the fact their normal range is much further south. During cold weather, these beautiful birds will sometimes visit suet feeders, delighting backyard birders lucky enough to find one in their neighbourhood!

Yellow-throated Warblers have a funny habit of showing up in Newfoundland in late fall and early winter, despite the fact their normal range is much further south. During cold weather, these beautiful birds will sometimes visit suet feeders, delighting backyard birders lucky enough to find one in their neighbourhood! (This one was photographed in Cape Broyle a few years ago)

Townsend’s Warbler, an enigmatic little critter from west of the Rockies, has an unusual history of showing up here in late fall and early winter. With 17 individuals (the latest just last week!), Newfoundland has more records than almost any other province or state in eastern North America! More amazing still, almost all of those have been in St. John’s. And a total of eleven records come from one small river valley spanning just a few square kilometres! Odd things happen in the easternmost reaches of the continent.

Townsend's Warbler - while very rare in eastern North America, has been recorded an incredible 17 times in eastern Newfoundland! (This one, photographed on January 1 2013, was the 16th.)

Townsend’s Warbler – while very rare in eastern North America, has been recorded an incredible 17 times in eastern Newfoundland! (This one, photographed on January 1 2013, was the 16th.)

This "mystery bird" was photographed by Cliff Doran on November 14th. Can you guess what it is?

This “mystery bird” was photographed by Cliff Doran on November 12th. Can you guess what it is?

In November, every flash of yellow in the bushes or non-descript warbler needs to be scrutinized. This is the month when almost anything can happen. Cliff Doran, lighthouse keeper and rare bird magnet, photographed a dull looking bird in a pile of spruce boughs at Cape Race on November 12. Not knowing exactly what it was, he posted the photos online and piqued the interest of several birders – yours truly included. The initial suggestion of Common Yellowthroat just didn’t seem right, and thoughts of several much rarer candidates began to dance in our heads. Something about the bird, though, seemed familiar …

The photos showed only the head and extreme upper breast of the bird – the rest obscured by branches. It showed a dull olive brown head, bright white eye-arcs and apparent pale yellow wash on the breast. The bill was on the large end for a warbler (prompting some people to consider a very rare vireo), but didn’t appear to be hooked. After a few minutes pondering the possibilities, and then confirming my suspicions with Bruce Mactavish (who is currently at sea and craving terrestrial distractions) and Alvan Buckley, the conclusion became clear … Pine Warbler! An excellent, but fairly regular, visitor to Newfoundland at this time of year. Identifying dull fall warblers can be a challenge, but its often worth the effort!

PIWA head comparison

This Pine Warbler, photographed in St. Shott's a few years ago, was making good use of the late fall flies. Pine Warblers are another hardy warbler that get reported more often in November than any other month in Newfoundland.

This Pine Warbler, photographed in St. Shott’s a few years ago, was making good use of the late fall flies. Pine Warblers are another hardy warbler that get reported more often in November than any other month in Newfoundland.

Keep an eye out for November Warblers in your own backyard! The next rarity is just around the corner …

November – Good Birds, Terrible Photos

November is always an exciting month in Newfoundland birding. While most of the busy migration season is behind us, this is the time of year when the “real” rarities often show up. The list of “megas” that have been recorded here in November is staggering and includes real gems like Corn Crake, Wood Sandpiper, Curlew Sandpiper, Long-billed Dowitcher, Slaty-backed Gull, Cave Swallow, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Redwing, Townsend’s Solitaire, Black-throated Gray Warbler & Hermit Warbler — just to name a few!

This November has started off quite hot … no “megas” yet, but lots of quality birds. One of the most intriguing so far has been a Meadowlark discovered near Kenny’s Pond, St. John’s on November 7. I arrived less than an hour after Alvan Buckley initially found it, hoping for a glimpse and maybe a few photos. True to form, it was very secretive and almost impossible to see on the ground as it skulked in the grass of an abandoned, overgrown soccer field. Over the next hour we saw it in flight several times, and several cameras were able to snap some poor photos as it sailed from one side of the field to the other. My photos were far from stellar, but c’est la vie!

Terrible Photo(s) #1 - A Meadowlark (Eastern? Western?) that was discovered in St. John's on November 7. It was seen over the next few days, but the cryptic nature of this bird and its plumage means we may never know which species it was!

Terrible Photo(s) #1 – A Meadowlark (Eastern? Western?) that was discovered in St. John’s on November 7. It was seen over the next few days, but the cryptic nature of this bird and its plumage means we may never know which species it was!

Meadowlark is only reported in Newfoundland every five years or so, and all previous records have been presumed Eastern Meadowlark by default — since the two species are extremely difficult to tell apart in fall and without hearing their voice. Yet, initial photos of this bird indicated that Western Meadowlark (!!!) had to be considered more carefully. The tail pattern seemed to fit this species better, although the information varied between different field guides and reference books. We have even tried to record it calling, with little to no luck. Long story short, the jury is still out on this bird — and may remain so. But we are still awaiting some expert comments. (For a more detailed summary and better photos, check out the excellent post on Alvan Buckley’s blog.)

With a little extra freedom this holiday weekend, Alvan Buckley and I decided to get together for a full day of birding on November 11. I have a little tradition of birding “underbirded” places on the southeast Avalon in early November – a day I jokingly refer to as my “Off The Beaten Track Tour”! Sticking to that plan, we thoroughly birded small communities from Brigus South to Renews. We started off on firm footing, finding Red Crossbills, an Orange-crowned Warbler and Baltimore Oriole in the little hamlet of Brigus South (which probably doesn’t get looked at any other day of the year!). Our next stop in Cape Broyle produced a Black & White Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Lincoln’s Sparrow, and Evening Grosbeak … nothing too exciting, but all quality birds for the time & place. Then Alvan spotted our first (minor) rarity of the day – a Northern Mockingbird hanging out in the tangles of a damson tree. It flew off before we could get too close, although I managed a few mediocre record photos when it returned a while later.

Terrible Photo #2 - A Northern Mockingbird in Cape Broyle. This is an annual rarity in Newfoundland, although I certainly don't see one every year.

Terrible Photo #2 – A Northern Mockingbird in Cape Broyle. This is an annual rarity in Newfoundland, although I certainly don’t see one every year.

(Not Quite) Terrible Photo #3 - Killdeer. I even struggled to get a nice picture of a relatively tame bird!

(Not Quite) Terrible Photo #3 – Killdeer. I even struggled to get a nice picture of a relatively tame bird!

Next on our route was Calvert, which produced another Orange-crowned Warbler. Ferryland, filled with potential but rarely checked during fall, always seems to deliver in November. On this day, we found a lingering Yellow-rumped Warbler and Killdeer in the northern part of town. After splitting up to cover more area, Alvan and I converged in a lush area known as the “pig farm delta” which has seen its share of good birds over the years. We soon spotted an interesting bird tucked into some distant alders … and when it flew we both exclaimed “KINGBIRD!” at the same time. It was a Western Kingbird … an excellent (though nearly annual) bird in Newfoundland! It hung around long enough for a few other birders to arrive and see it, although distance and tough light made it impossible to photograph. But terrible photos are better than none, I guess!

Terrible Photo # 4 - Western Kingbird, Ferryland. This is an excellent bird in Newfoundland, and "probably" our bird of the day. Too distant, tough light ... all the regular excuses.

Terrible Photo # 4 – Western Kingbird, Ferryland. This is an excellent bird in Newfoundland, and “probably” our bird of the day. Too distant, tough light … all the regular excuses.

COTE_Nov112014_0294

Terrible Photo #5 – Common Tern

Motivated to keep birding, Alvan and I headed south to Renews (driving past some other great, underbirded places on the way!). I had hardly stopped the car on the south side of the harbour when Alvan pointed out a tern over the water. Any tern is rare in November, and there was momentary excitement as we fumbled for our scopes and cameras. It was fleeting, however, as we soon realized it was a Common Tern … still rare at this late date, but not as exciting as we had hoped. (Another had been seen at Cape Race two days earlier, suggesting they may have arrived on the very strong southerly winds of the weekend).

Terrible Photo # 6 - Common Terns are long gone from Newfoundland  in November. This one must have arrived on the strong southerly winds of the past few days. It didn't look happy.

Terrible Photo # 6 – Common Terns are long gone from Newfoundland in November. This one must have arrived on the strong southerly winds of the past few days. It didn’t look happy.

We moved on to check the rest of town, not seeing much of note. Then we split up again, and I searched out some junco flocks at the edge of town. Another Orange-crowned Warbler popped in with one small flock … followed by another pale, non-descript bird that peaked my interest. After getting a few good glimpses through the alders, it appeared to be a vireo … and a good one! It (and the entire flock) dissolved into the trees and disappeared before I could get the confirming looks I wanted, and I knew one of (if not “the”) best birds of the day had just slipped through my fingers. Was it a Warbling Vireo, or something even rarer?? I guess I’ll never know for sure, but that image is burned into my head and will nag me for the next few days. Arrrgh … If only I’d been able to get just a few terrible photos!!