A “Thrashing” Good Valentine’s Day

With two young children, Valentine’s Day has become yet another busy holiday for us. Susan and I are both madly in love, but also practical people … so after surprising her with chocolates and making a heart-themed breakfast for both her and the kids, I settled in to catch up on some work while she took the girls to a Valentine’s party. Some quiet time to be productive …

Until my cell phone whistled with an incoming text message from unstoppable birder Alvan Buckley: “Brown Thrasher at the fluvarium. Now.” Three minutes later, with my work sitting idle on the desk and a freshly poured cup of tea still steeping on the counter, I was out the door. Productivity be damned!

This Brown Thrasher, hanging out at Long Pond in Pippy Park, is a rare visitor to Newfoundland and the first "gettable" one in more than a decade.

This Brown Thrasher, hanging out at Long Pond in Pippy Park, is a rare visitor to Newfoundland and the first “gettable” one in more than a decade.

Brown Thrasher is a rare visitor to Newfoundland, with only three or four reports in the last ten years … and it was one I have never managed to see here. Luckily, this one was just five minutes of high-speed driving from my house. I arrived to find a few people milling around on the trail near the fluvarium (at the northeast corner of Long Pond). The bird had been seen a few times but had just flown off. A few more people showed up and we spread out in search of what we knew could be a very elusive bird. Thirty minute later, I saw it flying in over the treetops … it landed briefly alongside the trail before slipping into thick cover and disappearing. Just long enough for an identifying look (tick!), but certainly not satisfying. On borrowed time, I had to leave with hopes of coming back later.

And that I did. After actually accomplishing a little bit of work, I headed back to Long Pond mid-afternoon. Only a few people remained, but they had just located the Thrasher and it was being somewhat cooperative. My first looks were typical of this secretive species – sitting in a tangle of limbs and branches. Eventually it flew in to an area of shoveled deck under the fluvarium, where some feeders had been set up and some seed/mealworms scattered … providing close and wonderful looks. The light was pretty difficult for photography, but over the next hour or so I managed to get some mediocre shots as it came and went. According to a staff member at the fluvarium, it has been around (noticed but unidentified) for a few weeks – so maybe it is settled in and I’ll get another chance for better photos!

BRTH_Feb142015_4229 BRTH_Feb142015_4283 BRTH_Feb142015_4308Maybe not romantic, but still a great treat!  Susan and I ended the day with an impromptu excursion downtown for a hockey game, some live music and a few relaxing drinks with friends. In my books, that all adds up to a wonderful Valentine’s Day.

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Winds, Waves & Winter Birds

January was a whirlwind of birding. Since the WINGS tour, I’ve had the pleasure of sharing the amazing scenery and wildlife of eastern Newfoundland with visiting birders from Texas (Jan 18-20), Ontario (Jan 23-27) and British Columbia (Jan 29). They all came with slightly different goals and targets, but everyone was keyed up to see the wonderful variety of birds that call this place home in winter.

The weather we experienced during those two weeks was also a whirlwind of sorts, spanning the gamut of the Avalon Peninsula’s infamously variable climate. January 18 was the coldest day of winter so far, and two birders from Texas (John & Tom) and I found ourselves facing very bitter winds on the edge of North America at Cape Spear. The stinging faces and numb fingertips were all worth it though, as we enjoyed watching a lone Dovekie feeding just offshore — a major target in the pocket. Throughout the next few days we enjoyed great views of other sought-after birds like Great Cormorants “sunning” on rock, dozens of Tufted Ducks at point-blank range, Black-headed Gulls bathing in small patches of open water, and beautiful Eurasian Wigeon dabbling with the local ducks. We even managed to relocate three White-winged Crossbill in Ferryland (scarce this year!) and a Snowy Owl keeping watch over the tundra south of Cappahayden.

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Dovekie is among the most sought-after species by visiting birders – and January is prime time to see them.

Eurasian Wigeon are uncommon visitors to Newfoundland, but they sure do add a little spice to our winters!

Eurasian Wigeon are uncommon visitors to Newfoundland, but they sure do add a little spice to our winters!

American Wigeon, the more expected species on this side of the Atlantic, aren't too shabby themselves.

American Wigeon, the more expected species on this side of the Atlantic, aren’t too shabby themselves.

Much of January was punctuated with high winds, including a storm on January 25 that brought gusts of well over 130 km/h and two days of storm surges along the island’s coast. Hoping for a rush of seabirds being blown onshore, visiting birder Judith and I met the storm along the Avalon’s southern shore. Black-legged Kittiwakes, which are usually far offshore in January, glided by and Dovekie zipped past as if it were a perfectly nice afternoon, while small groups of Common Eider bobbed up and down on the breakers. Unfortunately, many of the more pelagic species we were gunning for failed to show up, but the incredible winds, waves and angry seas made for a memorable experience!

Waves_Jan25_3997 Waves_Jan25_4009 Waves_Jan25_4048By month’s end, a mild spell and generous rains had opened up a bit of extra standing water and cleared away most of the snow cover. Testament to that is the fact that we were able to drive all the way to Cape Race several times – very unusual for this time of year. The open road opened a door to some excellent birding – at least two Snowy Owls, rafts of Common Eider, dozens of Red-necked Grebe, all three species of Scoter, and a pair of Harlequin Ducks. Even more interesting was a group of 32 Woodland Caribou traversing the barrens – an encouraging sign for this struggling herd.

It's been another great season for Snowy Owls. As usual, most tend to young ones - so this adult male was a nice surprise!

It’s been another great season for Snowy Owls. As usual, most tend to be young ones – so this adult male was a nice surprise!

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Note the dark barring on this owl, identifying it as either young or female.

The Avalon herd of Woodland Caribou has seen incredible decline over the past few decades, so seeing a group of 32 was very heartwarming. Lovely animals!

The Avalon herd of Woodland Caribou has seen incredible decline over the past few decades, so seeing a group of 32 was very heartwarming. Lovely animals!

Caribou_Jan272015_4139Walking trails had turned to ice, feeling more like skating rinks than paths – but that didn’t stop Fran (from British Columbia) from making the best of our day out. We crept along the north side of Long Pond, stopping to enjoy the company of several Boreal Chickadees and Red-breasted Nuthatches as they took seeds right from my hand. Tufted Ducks, Greater Scaup and even an American Coot entertained at us at several ponds, while a lone Purple Sandpiper, Long-tailed Ducks and dozens of Common Eider were among the highlights at Cape Spear.

Of course, birds aren't the only stars of our show! We also enjoyed seals, otters and even a humpback whale this January.

Of course, birds aren’t the only stars of our show! We also enjoyed seals, otters and even a humpback whale this January.

A Great Cormorant drying its wings in the heart of historic St. John's.

A Great Cormorant drying its wings in the heart of historic St. John’s.

SNOW_Jan272015_4171What a great month! I wish they all could be like January 😉