Dump Nostalgia

The St. John’s Christmas Bird Count (CBC) takes place on Boxing Day (December 26) every year; rain, snow or shine. This season’s count was met with relatively warm (above freezing) temperatures, early morning rain/fog, and then beautiful clear weather. It was stark contrast to last years which saw more than 50cm of standing snow on the ground and frigid temperatures! This was the 49th year for this particular count, and I’ve been taking part for the past six (ever since I got married and stopped spending the holidays in my hometown of Lewisporte).

I look forward to every CBC that I’m able to participate in, but there is something special about this count … the dump! Each year I join my good friends Bruce Mactavish & Ken Knowles to cover the gull hotspots in east St. John’s – the local landfill (dump), Quidi Vidi Lake and the harbour. The dump is especially important and very nostalgic for me – bringing back memories of some great gull-watching that I used to enjoy with Bruce almost every Sunday morning in winter. There have been many changes at the St. John’s dump in the past six years, including increased security and inaccessibility to birders. Nowadays, our visits to the dump are limited to just one day a year when the city allows us entry for the CBC.

Dump_1774 Dump_1780While world-class gull-watching is not limited to the dump (it is in fact available at many locations across the city), it always offered the best opportunities to view large numbers of gulls at very close proximity and was great for photography. New gull deterrence programs at the dump have resulted in the gulls being much more wary of people and those close-up photography opportunities might be a thing of the past, but the sheer number and great looks at gulls haven’t changed much. We tallied approximately 9000 gulls at the dump alone, the majority of which were Herring Gulls but also included thousands of Great Black-backed Gulls, hundreds of Glaucous Gulls, dozens of “Kumlien’s” Iceland Gulls and nine Lesser Black-backed Gulls, along with a few interesting hybrids. Thousand of Starlings, hundreds of American Crows, a few dozen Common Ravens,  several Bald Eagles and two very unexpected Lapland Longspur added to the mix. Unfortunately no real rarities showed up during our three hours of intensive looking. But just being there was a real treat and whets my appetite for the best part of gull season ahead!

Glaucous Gulls are a sure sign of winter in Newfoundland ... even if the weather says different. This adult was photographed at the dump back in the days when we were able to get in more regularly.

Glaucous Gulls are a sure sign of winter in Newfoundland … even if the weather says different. This adult was photographed at the dump back in the days when we were able to get in more regularly.

Moving on to Quidi Vidi Lake and the harbour, we tallied many more of the same species (especially Iceland Gulls, which love our harbour), plus 75 Black-headed Gulls, three Ring-billed Gulls and two Common (European Mew) Gulls. We also tallied plenty of waterfowl, including eight Eurasian Wigeon and six American Wigeon grazing on a golf course, a lone Bufflehead (unusual in the city), two American Coots and the regular crowd of dabbling ducks. With mild weather and plenty of open water, the diving ducks were spread out over other parts of the city. A single Black Guillemot and seven Great Cormorants were also hanging out in the harbour.

The complete lack of snow in St. John's this Christmas is unusual, especially compared to the deep freeze we experienced last December!

The complete lack of snow in St. John’s this Christmas is unusual, especially compared to the deep freeze we experienced last December!

Great Cormorants are regular in St. John's during winter, but with such nice weather we were almost lucky to still find some in the harbour!

Great Cormorants are regular in St. John’s during winter, but with such nice weather we were almost lucky to still find some in the harbour! (This one photographed last winter)

Our beat turned up nothing but the most expected passerines – Dark-eyed JuncosAmerican Goldfinch, Boreal & Black-capped Chickadees, a couple Song Sparrows and one Golden-crowned Kinglet. Even a walk in the forested White Hills cam up pretty much empty. Perhaps the weather has been just a little “too nice”, allowing the birds to remain spread out rather than concentrated in areas like ours.

BTR_ChristmasBannerAnother Christmas, and another Christmas Bird Count, has zipped by. We’ll be spending the rest of the holidays visiting family in Lewisporte – maybe I’ll bump into a good bird or two along the way!

Happy New Year!!

 

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Counting – It’s Good for the Soul

This time of year can be hectic … family activities, shopping, crowded places. A guy can use a little fresh air & solitude, and sometimes a good Christmas Bird Count (CBC) can deliver just that.

This past weekend saw the resurrection of a great count that hasn’t taken place for several years now – the Cape St. Mary’s CBC. The count circle takes in some very isolated areas, especially in winter when tourists are not exactly swarming to this beautiful ecological reserve. My team (consisting of John Wells, Ed Hayden and I) were tasked with checking Cape St. Mary’s itself, the road leading to it, and the nearby communities of St. Bride’s and Cuslett. After a 2.5 hours drive from “town”, we met a rising sun at the lighthouse – overlooking some stunning coastline, rugged cliffs and a flock of ~600 Common Eider on the water below. What a great, peaceful way to start our day!

A beautiful sight to start our morning - the breathtaking cliffs and coastline of Placentia Bay, looking west from the lighthouse.

A beautiful sight to start our morning – the breathtaking cliffs and coastline of Placentia Bay, looking west from the lighthouse.

We birded around the lighthouse and entrance to Placentia Bay (west side of the cape), picking up more Common Eiders, Long-tailed Ducks, Common Loons, Dovekie and a few other odds & ends, including three Black-legged Kittiwake which are scarce in winter. The barrens just north of the lighthouse were hosting several Snowy Owls – not too unexpected given reports from around the island recently, although they ended up being the only owls reported all day!

It's been another good year for Snowy Owls, and were were greeted by several as we arrived at Cape St. Mary's for dawn.

It’s been another good year for Snowy Owls, and were were greeted by several as we arrived at Cape St. Mary’s for dawn.

SNOW_Dec202014_1283 Hiking east to Bird Rock (one of the world’s largest Northern Gannet colonies) was a surreal experience. In contrast to summer when the entire coast and surrounding waters are teeming with tens of thousands of breeding seabirds, it was virtually devoid of life. The cliffs were eerily quiet and  abandoned, the upland tundra was completely still and the crunch of the rocky path under feet was often the only sound. A few dozen Common Eider and Long-tailed Duck dotted the waters below and six Great Cormorants stood watch on a rocky outcrop, but otherwise there were very few birds. But the cold salty air and moments of solitude did my soul a world of good.

It is surreal to see Bird Rock (left) completely devoid of birds this time of year, when it is bustling with thousands of gannets during spring and summer. Here, John & Ed enjoy a mid-morning seawatch while I hiked over the eastern ridge.

It is surreal to see Bird Rock (left) completely devoid of birds this time of year, when it is bustling with thousands of gannets during spring and summer. Here, John & Ed enjoy a mid-morning seawatch while I hiked over the eastern ridge.

Scanning over the barrens, I located a couple Snowy Owls, an adult Bald Eagle and a lone American Kestrel hunting over the tundra (a very good bird for this count, actually!). While John & Ed did another seawatch from Bird Rock overlook (scoring four Starlings for their trouble!), I hiked over the eastern ridge for a view of Golden Bay, flushing two Northern Pintail (first records for this count) along the way. This area, and especially this bay, is an important wintering area for Harlequin Duck. While we didn’t see any in our assigned area, a record number of 374 individuals were spotted along more eastern parts of the coastline – an uplifting sign for this threatened species!

A view over Golden Bay, which lies just east of Cape St. Mary's. It is an important wintering area for the threatened Harlequin Duck.

A view over Golden Bay, which lies just east of Cape St. Mary’s. It is an important wintering area for the threatened Harlequin Duck.

The rest of the day was relatively uneventful as we birded St. Bride’s and Cuslett – two beautiful little communities on the Placentia Bay side of the peninsula. Dark-eyed Juncos were seen in excellent numbers, but few other passerines were recorded. In fact, we came up with ZERO sparrows (uncommon in winter, but a few are usually expected) and nothing out of the ordinary. A Red-necked Grebe was a decent find, while three Purple Sandpipers and a somewhat cooperative drake Long-tailed Duck gave me a short photography break.

Purple Sandpipers are among my favourite shorebirds ... they eke out their winters here in some of the most unforgiving habitats you can imagine.

Purple Sandpipers are among my favourite shorebirds … they eke out their winters here in some of the most unforgiving habitats you can imagine.

This drake Long-tailed Duck (locally called "hounds") was feeding at the end of a breakwater in St. Bride's. Between dives, I managed to sneak up quite close by edging along on the piled boulders.

This drake Long-tailed Duck (locally called a “hound”) was feeding at the end of a breakwater in St. Bride’s. Between dives, I managed to sneak up quite close by edging along on the piled boulders.

LTDUtail_Dec20_1515

Ciao for now. Merry Christmas!!

All in all it was a great day, spent with some great people and at one of my favourite places on the island. And the break from the holiday hustle was the best part of it all! You can see a summary of the entire count here.

A Little Break from the Holiday Hustle

December has been (and always is!) a busy month. Faced with several work-related deadlines, Christmas preparations, and an even more hectic family schedule than usual (how can two little girls be involved in SO many things?!?!), there isn’t much time left over for birding. Or anything else, really.

Fortunately, winter can also be a busy time for visiting birders in Newfoundland, drawn by the lure of northern migrants, finches, and rare gulls. And sometimes that means an excuse for me to join them. My first real “break” this month came last week when birder Paul Lagasi (Ottawa, ON) requested my help for a short two-day visit, aimed primarily at seeing the elusive Yellow-legged Gull but also a variety of other local specialties. Paul flew in on Monday, December 8 and had a few hours to poke around on his own. With a few simple directions, he scored an ABA lifer right away – Black-headed Gull. He also enjoyed his first ever views of adult Iceland Gulls … loads of them!

Thousands of "Kumlien's" Iceland Gulls spend the winter in St. John's, providing world-class opportunities to see and study this very northern species. The variation within this "complex" can be ... well, complex. But fun!

Thousands of “Kumlien’s” Iceland Gulls spend the winter in St. John’s, providing world-class opportunities to see and study this very northern species. The variation within this “complex” can be … well, complex. But fun!

While gulls would remain the focus of the next two days, our first stop on Tuesday morning was Cape St. Francis at the northern tip of the peninsula — in search of seabirds. Although things were pretty quiet, we did find several dozen Common Eider, small groups of Long-tailed Duck, three Common Murre and a handful of Black Guillemot. A Bald Eagle kept watch from atop some offshore rocks, and Great Cormorants buzzed by from time to time. But the highlights, and our main purpose for heading out there, were several Dovekie flying around and actively feeding right off the point. They played hide & seek with us for more than an hour (mostly winning!) before we headed back to town. An early morning trip to Cape Spear on Wednesday morning was a bust for seabirds, although the scenery was awesome as always and a few small flocks of Purple Sandpipers were fun to watch.

Purple Sandpipers (like this one photographed a few years ago) also winter along our coast. They are very hardy shorebirds, eking out an existence in the toughest of habitats.

Purple Sandpipers (like this one photographed a few years ago) also winter along our coast. They are very hardy shorebirds, eking out an existence in the toughest of habitats.

During the course of those two days, we visited all the major lakes, ponds and gull fields around St. John’s. We scrutinized close to 10,000 gulls during that time — something I do with great delight and Paul learned to appreciate on a much deeper level. Thousands of Herring, Great Black-backed and “Kumlien’s” Iceland Gulls plus a couple hundred Glaucous Gulls made up most of the flocks. At least a dozen Lesser Black-backed Gulls were noted, along with dozens of Black-headed Gulls, a handful of lingering Ring-billed Gulls and three adult Common (Eurasian Mew) Gulls. And although a few intriguing gulls (mostly hybrids) caused some momentary excitement, the elusive Yellow-legged Gull remained just that … it didn’t show. Besides gulls ,we were entertained by lots of great ducks – Tufted Duck, American & Eurasian Wigeon, and Common (Eurasian Green-winged) Teal being the most notable. However, a photogenic Bufflehead and drake Gadwall were more unusual for the city. It was a great two days, Paul Lagasi was a lot of fun to go birding with, and we enjoyed lots of cool birds! (You can read more on Paul Lagasi’s blog here.)

This female Bufflehead was a bit of a treat for me ... pretty uncommon within the city and not so easy to photograph. I think Paul (from Ottawa) was entertained by the fact I paid more attention to it than the many European ducks we also enjoyed!

This female Bufflehead was a bit of a treat for me … pretty uncommon within the city and not so easy to photograph. I think Paul (from Ottawa) was entertained by the fact that I paid more attention to it than the many European ducks!

My second little break was Sunday morning, when I managed to sneak away for less than an hour between family engagements! A Yellow-throated Warbler had been found at Kelly’s Brook earlier in the week by local birder Peter Shelton, and I hoped to catch up with it. Surprisingly, this southern warbler shows up in Newfoundland pretty much every year and are regularly reported in early December (often visiting suet feeders). It was dull and overcast when I arrived, making for for pretty low light. It was also incredibly warm for December, with temperatures well above freezing. There were already a handful of birders/photographers there and the warbler was being quite cooperative, busily gleaning insects in the tangly understory that lines this neat little brook. The looks were great, but the bird was active, the habitat so tangly and the light so low that great photos were nearly impossible. Here are a few of my better captures during the mere 45 minutes of freedom I had to share with it.

YTWA_Dec142014_0984 YTWA_Dec142014_0993 YTWA_Dec142014_1038 YTWA_Dec142014_1069Christmas Bird Count season has begun, so I’m expecting another “break” this weekend when I participate in the Cape St. Mary’s CBC. Can’t wait …

And the Winner is …

Our contest in over, and my lovely assistants (Emma & Leslie) picked a winner last night …

We went traditional, with names/numbers in a hat (well, a birdhouse, just for fun):

PickingaWinnerThe winner of a beautiful 16″x20″ gallery-wrapped canvas is Diane Burton (Glovertown, NL)!! Congratulations!!

TheWinnerDiane now has the difficult task of choosing which photo she would like to see hanging on her wall. To get started, she indicated her favourite birds are Owls, Northern Gannets, and Chickadees. With that in mind, here are a few of her initial options (plenty more available). Which might she choose??

Which would YOU choose??

Boreal Owls are definitely one of my favourite birds. They are known for visiting residential neighbourhoods in mid-winter, when deep snow has impacted their traditional hunting areas in "the bush". - Photo: Jared Clarke (February 6, 2014)

SNOW_Dec7_8284

Boreal Chickadee

Northern Gannets arrive at Cape St. Mary's in May and stay until mid-September.

NOGA_8065

A typical view in rural Newfoundland.

Iceberg_June192014_1748

A few expected species, like this Boreal Owl, might help this year's winter tally break an amazing record of 150 set just two years ago!!