TWENTY TWENTY

It’s that time when I sit back to review the year that was. Or maybe wasn’t? 2020 was …. ummm … “interesting”. To say the least. (And since I’m writing this on January 7, I have to admit that 2021 is off to an “interesting” start).

I thrive on visuals, so it’s become my tradition to reflect on each passing year with a series of photos that represent highlights (check out my posts for 2017, 2018 & 2019). And as weird as 2020 was, there were many (many!) highlights to choose from. Here are twenty images/memories from 2020:

January started off great! I often extol the wonders of winter birding here in Newfoundland, and I was excited that my entire month was booked up leading tours with birders visiting from all over North America. It started with the annual WINGS tour and a very fun group of intrepid explorers, and continued with a line-up of private tours for birding friends new and old. January birding was at its best! Most notably, we had several amazing and very intimate experiences with Dovekie (arguably our most sought-after winter bird), and often elusive Willow Ptarmigan (above) were seen almost daily.
** NOTE: After a hiatus for much of 2020, I am once again offering winter tours – and you can find out more here. **
My guests and I spotted this Turkey Vulture on January 16. No doubt it wasn’t too exciting for my visitors from California, but it was a mega-rarity for Newfoundland – just my second ever for the province, and an exciting bird to discover on my own. We had a wonderful marathon of birding that day, trying to squeeze in as many of their targets as we could before an approaching storm (and we did with great success!!). Little did I know the impact that storm would have …

The “weather bomb” that hit the northeast Avalon that night and raged through January 17 dropped an amazing 90cm of snow on St. John’s — on top of 100cm already sitting on the ground. It crippled the city, caused a week-long shutdown and “state of emergency” as people and city crews dug out, and was later dubbed “snowmageddon” in popular media. My clients, who had managed just one day of birding, were marooned in their hotel for days and stuck in St. John’s for more than a week before flights resumed. And, of course, the rest of my January clients were forced to cancel their visits for the same reason. While snowstorms and travel delays do happen here in winter, this was the “storm of a century” and not something that people considering a visit here in the future should be worried about ;). (We never could have realized at the time that the weeklong “lockdown” we experienced then was just a trial-run for a pandemic that would hit our shores a few weeks later!!)

Great winter birding continued into February, and a personal highlight was this Northern Saw-whet Owl found roosting in a city backyard. This species has been increasing across Newfoundland over the last 20 years, and the first confirmed breeding was just a few springs ago. Surprisingly, this was the first one I had been able to study and photograph – my only previous sighting was a fleeting one in my own yard as one passed through in the dark.
February is also a great time for gull-watching … an integral part of winter birding in St. John’s. Once again, I co-hosted NatureNL‘s annual Gull Workshop which included a short introductory slideshow followed by an outing to Quidi Vidi Lake. The turnout for this event has been growing each year, and 2020 was no exception. I’m always glad when people show an interest in gulls 🙂
The world was shaken in late winter as the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the world causing sickness, fear and unprecedented “lockdowns”. People across the planet were asked to stay close to home, travel plummeted and (for many birders) a disconnect with birds, birding and nature began to set in. At the same time, I was experimenting with “videoscoping” (using my phone and an adaptor to shoot video with my trusty Kowa TSN-883 spotting scope) and realized that I could use that technology to share my outings with birders all over the world. Facebook LIVE even allowed me to bird “with” (virtually) others in real time! You can watch some of those videos and spring birding sessions here on my Facebook page … and I’m looking forward to doing more this winter 🙂
As spring arrived and we settled into the new routines (or lack thereof!) of pandemic living, our family embraced the outdoors and opportunities to explore together. Like oh so many other people, we enjoyed some of the incredible trails and hiking that we are blessed to have here in Newfoundland – especially the East Coast Trail. As challenging as 2020 was, and the heavy toll it took on tourism and my own business, I’ll never take for granted the opportunity to spend more quality time with the people I love and doing the things we love. I hope we can all carry that appreciation forward to 2021 and beyond.
COVID-19 also forced many aspects of our lives to move online — from “Zoom” birthday parties to online meetings and virtual learning. Sometimes it was a struggle, but sometimes it provided opportunities to reach out in ways we never did before. In June, I delivered the first of several online presentations about birding that I would do throughout the year — this one for my friends at Kowa whose amazing optics I use pretty much every day. You can still check out this virtual birding trip to Newfoundland & Labrador on their YouTube channel, and feel free to drop me a line anytime if you’re interested in learning more.
While our world often felt like it was turned upside down and inside out, mother nature moved on unfazed. Our spring migrants arrived as usual, set up shop and started the annual breeding rituals. It was also the first year of Newfoundland’s first ever Breeding Bird Atlas – a long awaited project, and an added motivation for me to get out and explore new areas. I especially enjoyed birding some “atlas squares” near my hometown of Lewisporte, where birds like this beautiful eastern Palm Warbler brightened my morning walks. Several species (like this one) do not breed on the Avalon where I live now, so it was a treat getting to know them just a little bit better.
It felt weird in 2020 to not visit many of the birding spots that are normally a big part of my summer tours. But that didn’t stop me from writing about them! Throughout the year I wrote several articles and guest blog posts about birds & birding, including one about the beautiful Witless Bay Ecological Reserve (“Birdwatch Canada” magazine, Summer 2020). I also gushed about Cape St. Mary’s Ecological Reserve and some of my other favourite places in a series of articles for Destination St. John’s.
Coincidentally (or not?), 2020 also seemed to be full of astrological wonders. Or maybe we just took the time to notice them more. In any case, our family spent more time than usual staring up at the night sky to enjoy a “supermoon”, meteor showers, visible plants and most recently the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter. We especially enjoyed our views of Comet NEOWISE during a camping trip in July, when I captured this image of it hanging just above our tent. How cool! (Image is best viewed full size in a dark room)
Despite excellent birding all spring & summer I didn’t add a new bird to my Newfoundland life list until August, when I encountered this Great Skua during an exploratory boat trip with Hare Bay Adventures in Bonavista Bay. Although they are relatively common at sea, this can be a touch bird to spot close to land – and I was stoked when this one came in to check out our boat. I was especially excited when, looking at my photos, I discovered it was banded! It didn’t take long to find out that it was banded as a chick in Shetland (Scotland) in 2018 — the first of their banded individuals to be spotted in North America.
Of course, that Great Skua was just one of THOUSANDS of pelagic seabirds spotted during my boat trip with my friends at Hare Bay Adventures. Huge numbers of Great and Sooty Shearwaters, a few Manx Shearwaters along with Northern Gannets, Common Murre, Atlantic Puffins, Black-legged Kittiwakes and many others were enjoyed during our outing. Check out the eBird list here. There were also dozens of Humpback Whales, often many in view at one time. In fact, it was hard to photograph the birds (like this Great Shearwater) without a whale getting in the way 😉
Shorebird migration starts in late summer, when the forests have gone quiet and most breeding birds are focused on raising/fledging their young. It’s a perfect way to add spice to a day of birding at that time of year. There was a good showing of Buff-breasted Sandpipers this year — a very uncommon but annual visitor, and definitely one of the best looking shorebirds out there. This one was near Cape Race was especially cooperative, often coming quite near while I crouched quietly in the grass.
Autumn is a fantastic time for birding, and you never know what you’ll see during the chaotic fall migration. My next new bird for Newfoundland was this Great-crested Flycatcher in early October — one of three we ended up seeing that day, more than were reported in the province for the previous 10 years.
Fall is also berry-picking time across Newfoundland & Labrador — and with the extra time on my hands, I did more of that than usual. Blueberries in September, Partridgeberries (above) in October, and even Marshberries (aka Small Cranberry) in November. The highlight was a three-day trip to Grates Cove with my dad, who I don’t get to spend as much time with as I’d like. We had beautiful fall weather, leisurely days, perfect “around the bay” meals (fresh grilled tuna; sweet & sour moose!) and spirited card games. Quality time with family was definitely the silver lining on the challenges of 2020.
Going a little stir-crazy and missing travel, Bruce Mactavish & I decided to take a long November weekend (Nov 19-22) and go birding in the Codroy Valley at the very opposite corner of Newfoundland (this is a big island, so that’s not as close as you may think!). Among other things, one of my goals was to see this Tundra Swan that had been hanging out there since October – a provincial rarity and my third new bird for the province in 2020. Although it was always distant, we were able to enjoy some very good scope views as it fed in the Codroy estuary (an internationally significant wetland). As it turned out (see below), it wouldn’t even be the best bird of the trip 🙂
My fourth and final new bird for Newfoundland, and hands down “bird of the year”, was this immature male Vermilion Flycatcher in Stephenville (~7 hours west of St. John’s). Originally discovered on November 18, word got out just hours before Bruce Mactavish & I were set to drive across the province anyways — pure serendipity. Although we had poor luck seeing it the following day (after driving all morning), we finally got amazing views, and mediocre photos, the next day. A huge relief and a mega bird!! Despite the fact it should be in the arid climate of Arizona or Mexico rather than the November snow of Newfoundland, the bird look surprisingly well and continued to be seen sporadically into mid-December when the weather worsened.
December was mild with a notable lack of snow (especially here on the Avalon), leading to a much “greener” Christmas Bird Count (CBC) season than last year. Compare the photos from St. John’s CBC 2020 and 2019 above! In fact, as I’m writing this we are well into January and still experiencing unseasonably warm weather. At risk of being chased out of town — bring on some winter weather 🙂
As always, sharing my experiences, adventures and favourite moments with others was an important part of my year. This year, I wasn’t able to share with as many of you in person (boo!), but I continued to do so over social media. I hope my posts have have helped brighten a few days and elicit a few smiles during these challenging months — because I know that other people’s posts have certainly made the year more bearable for me. Above are my “Top 9” photos/posts (at least based on “likes”, which is not really the reason I do it) of 2020. In a year that was most certainly “different”, I’m glad to see that my most popular images were as well. I’m glad that some of the quirks are represented – including my ice-covered face during “Snowmageddon” , a “supermoon” (representing the fact that our family spent more time than usual stargazing this year), and of course a fun poke I took at the pandemic and the (then) novel idea of social distancing. It’s fun to look back the year that was (and often wasn’t), but I’m also hoping that next year’s photos include a lot more birds, travel and happy clients 🙂

Well, there you have it. There is so much more we could say (good, bad and ugly!) about 2020, but in the end I’m glad to look back and remember so many good times and highlights. I recognize that we were very fortunate here in Newfoundland & Labrador to get out in front of the COVID-19 situation relatively quickly and have managed to keep it mostly at bay. After a few challenging months, life returned much closer to normal here than in many places around the country and world – and our hearts go out to those who are still struggling with this virus and the unprecedented impacts on society. It also goes out to my many friends and colleagues in tourism, who have been pushed to the brink by travel restrictions and a catastrophic loss of work.

I think we can see the faint glow of the light at the end of the tunnel and, while it will be a tough few months yet, I firmly believe we can come out of this with a renewed energy, focus and appreciation for the things that matter most. Be safe, be kind, and keep looking forward that next adventure.

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