Well … wasn’t that a ride?? Looking back on 2021, I’m not quite sure what to say about it. It was certainly challenging and disappointing for many of us, in many ways. COVID (a word I’d be happy to never hear again) continued to create uncertainty, impart tragedy, and mess with lives & livelihoods around the world. I feel fortunate to live in a place that was sheltered from the worst of the health crisis, but I sure as heck missed travel, leading tours and sharing some incredible nature with other passionate people. (And the most recent wave of omicron and travel restrictions hasn’t helped.) On the other hand, 2021 was still
with wonderful moments and experiences — birding adventures, exciting finds and lots of very special family time. filled
And so … here are just a few reflections on the year that was. 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 & 2020). Here are twenty-one images/memories from 2021:
Winter birding was pretty fantastic in 2021, and one of the stars was this REDWING that spent a few weeks hanging out in a St. John’s neighbourhood. It turned out to be part of an influx to North America, with two others reported in other parts of Newfoundland and others in Atlantic Canada and New England. We ended up setting a new record for the most species recorded in Newfoundland during winter — you can read more about that in another blog post here.
We were very fortunate in Newfoundland & Labrador to have “most” of our kids’ school year take place in the classroom, but a few weeks of virtual classes in Feb/Mar provided me with an unexpected opportunity. I was invited to present (virtually) to more than a dozen Grade 4 & 6 classes about birds, flight and light pollution among other topics. It was one of the most rewarding parts of my year, and I was honoured to both connect kids with nature AND help out so many amazing teachers during a challenging time.
In March, I was stoked to find out about this SPOTTED TOWHEE that showed up at a backyard feeder near Marystown – just the third provincial record of this western species and my first “new bird” (for Newfoundland) of the year. Despite the shadow of COVID hanging over the province at the time, we were able to drive down and enjoy this bird safely/responsibly from our vehicle.
VIDEO The very next day, a FIELDFARE (a very rare visitor from Europe) was found in Bowring Park, just 5 minutes from my house. My daughter Emma & I spent nearly an hour watching it forage in a hawthorn tree and even captured a couple short videos (shot using my phone and Kowa TSN-883 spotting scope). Another photo is included in our eBird checklist.
March just kept delivering, with this very cooperative BEARDED SEAL hanging out on a slipway in St. John’s. It attracted plenty of onlookers and didn’t seem to mind the attention at all. Bearded Seals are a northern species and relatively rare in this part of the province (although I’ve had the good luck of seeing several in recent years). Just a few months later, we also enjoyed watching a Yellow-crowned Night Heron stalking around on this very slipway 🙂
VIDEO With a bit more focus on birding near home (again) this year, there were definitely a few unexpected finds. Emma & went to see a pair of MERLIN that had set up shop at a pond not far from our neighbourhood. The female sat out and posed for a short video (shot using my phone and Kowa TSN-883 spotting scope). Listen to that tell-tale call at the end 🙂
I also enjoyed opportunities to talk about various aspects of Newfoundland birds & birding with several audiences – including Learn The Birds, the Newfoundland Public Libraries, The Canadian National Institute for the Blind and the Rochester Birding Association among others. Each presentation is always a little different, and I love the great questions and conversations that ensue. Hopefully a few people learned something new, and many now have a visit to Newfoundland & Labrador on their bucket list!
VIDEO In birding (as in life), there are moments that stand out above the rest as very special. In June, I went to the MUN Botanical Gardens (near my house) where a NORTHERN SAW-WHET OWL nestling had been spotted poking its head out of a trailside nest box. This tiny owl has been increasing/expanding across the island in recent years, and this was one of just a handful of confirmed breeding records. I waited and waited for the baby owl to show its cute little face in the nest box hole … but it didn’t. After a while, I decided to look around and realized the owl had fledged (left the nest) the night before – because there it was, sitting quietly on a branch just 15 feet away, watching me the whole time I had been watching the nest box. Nature rocks!
Sticking close to home has also reminded me to step back and enjoy the everyday birds and experiences. I took some time to appreciate local breeding birds this summer, and to help gather data for the Newfoundland Breeding Bird Atlas – the second season of this very important citizen science project. Birds like this YELLOW-BELLIED FLYCATCHER are a regular part of my birding world, but the more we know about them the more we can do to protect their habitats and populations for generations to come.
The silver lining of pandemic life (because I’m an optimist!) has without a doubt been the extra time spent with my family. Once again we made the most of our “staycation” days – family hikes & outings, an excursion to Fogo Island, whale watching, berry picking, and quality time spent in some of our favourite places like Grates Cove and Lewisporte. I sure missed sharing my summer with lots of visiting birders but I didn’t take the gift of extra family time for granted.
576 days. 19 months. That’s how long COVID kept me from leading group tours. So you can only imagine how happy & excited I was in August to hop a plane and lead the annual Eagle-Eye Tours trip to New Brunswick & Grand Manan! Back in the saddle, it was fun to spend nine days exploring beautiful parks, forests, wetlands and coastlines with a wonderful group of birders who were just as elated as me to travel again. The birding was excellent and I managed to see two “lifer” critters myself – Smooth Green Snake and Laurentian Skipper (a butterfly).
My second “new bird” of the year for Newfoundland didn’t appear until early September, when this GREEN HERON was spotted by a local birder on the upper Waterford River in Mount Pearl. A few of us were able to relocate it later that day, and it continued to show well for birders over the next couple days. Green Herons has been an especially rare visitor in recent years, with just a few records in the past 20+ years.
We are used to strong wind in Newfoundland – it’s a regular part of our weather. But when Hurricane Larry rolled through eastern parts of the island on September 10-11, the big winds combined with high tides and the fact that trees were still in full leaf meant there was plenty of damage left in its wake. Fortunately our neighbourhood escaped anything major – just some downed trees and damaged power lines to keep it interesting. Several hopefully birders (me included) followed its path in Placentia & St. Mary’s Bays in hopes of finding rare birds in the wake … but came up empty. It was just a weather story, not a birding story, in the end.
It’s hard to say if this immature PURPLE GALLINULE was related to Hurricane Larry or not. It was found at Virginia Lake (St. John’s) just a few days later, however given the “pelagic” path of the storm it wasn’t something we would have expected to be carried along by it. In any case, it stuck around for several weeks and entertained local birders – oftentimes walking in the open and becoming unusually cooperative.
Our birding community also lost a legend in 2021. John Wells had been birding in Newfoundland since childhood, and contributed to the building the local birding scene in ways we may never fully appreciate – amazing records, countless hours doing research in his early career, and the encouragement of many younger/newer birders that followed in his big footsteps (I am one of those and will never forget him for it). John was also a consummate world traveler – he spent lengthy periods living and exploring in some of the most exotic and often inaccessible places on earth, getting to know the people, the country and its birds intimately. His life list must have been massive, but he never boasted about it. He had a unique but very big sense of humour — he loved to tell stories and put smiles on faces. I enjoyed many wonderful moments birding and talking with John over the ~20 years I know him, but somehow not nearly enough. The image above is from one of numerous Sunday mornings we spent watching gulls in the local landfill 🙂 John’s departure leaves a huge hole in our birding community and the lives of his friends.
Not my best photo of the year, but this BLUE-WINGED WARBLER (October 3) was just my second ever for Newfoundland and part of a fun fall of birding. With life returning to somewhat more normal routine, I was able to get out birding a bit more and enjoyed my favourite season – migration, when you never know what you might find!
My second trip outside the province, and first international, since the pandemic began was also in October – to the Cape May Fall Birding Festival in New Jersey. I was invited by friends & colleagues at Kowa Optics to help out with their sales booth at one of the United States biggest birding festivals. I had a busy few days meeting LOTS of other birders, seeing friends (many of whom I’ve known for years on social media but had never met in person), talking optics, and of course raving about Newfoundland & Labrador whenever I could! The birding was limited but exciting, especially since this is a place I have heard so much about. Lots of fun birds and experiences, including two “lifers” – Saltmarsh & Seaside Sparrows. I’m pictured here with my friends Jeff Bouton (Kowa Optics) & Jim Kimball ( Tranquilo Bay Lodge, Panama).
VIDEO November was firing on all cylinders, and started with this LONG-BILLED DOWITCHER discovered at Virginia Lake (St. John’s) — a location that has been very “hot” in recent years. This was just the third record of this species for the province, and a much anticipated addition to my Newfoundland list (after I missed the first record while living abroad in 2005). It turned out to be a very confiding bird and stayed for 11 days! This short video was shot using my phone and Kowa TSN-883 spotting scope.
In a fine example of the legendary “Patagonia Picnic Table Effect” (google it!), an equally rare WESTERN TANAGER was found on the trail to Virginia Lake two days later (November 9). When I refound the bird, it was just 30m from the Long-billed Dowitcher! I even managed a panoramic photo that, with a little scrutiny and imagination, shows them both 🙂 Just the fourth record for Newfoundland (plus two for Labrador), it was a species I’ve long hoped to see here and I was not disappointed as it fed obligingly on the abundant dogberry (mountain ash) crop. This was the fourth and final “new bird” (#343) for my Newfoundland list in 2021.
My oldest daughter regularly accompanies me on short birding trips or to see a rare species that is found close to home. And when Snowy Owls started to show up in numbers last fall, I knew this would be a fun opportunity to bring BOTH my girls out to see them. My youngest daughter Leslie (10) is obsessed with foxes but rarely gets to see one in real life — so when we spotted this very friendly RED FOX along the road to Cape Race she was ecstatic to spend some time watching it. Seeing kids (especially my own) connect and fall in love with nature is important to me, especially in today’s world where digital entertainment competes for their attention so much of the time. Moments like these should never be passed up.
As always, sharing my experiences, adventures and favourite moments with others was an important part of my year. For the second year in a row, 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 certainly made 2021 happier for me. Above are my “Top 9” photos/posts (at least based on “likes”, which is not really the reason I do it) of 2021. While some of these may not be my “best” photos in any technical sense, they do reflect a lot of fun and interesting moments in topsy turvy year – rare birds, interesting encounter, berry-picking with my dad, and even a “lifer” Saltmarsh Sparrow that was a highlight of my limited travels. It’s fun to look back the year that was (and often wasn’t), but I’m also hoping that next year’s photos includes a lot more travel, tours and happy clients!
So there you have it — a reflection on just some of the many highlights and fun memories from an otherwise very strange year. And while I look forward to lots more exciting birding, great encounters in nature and wonderful family time in 2022, I could do with it being a little less “weird”! Stay well, be safe and keep looking forward to that next adventure.
I don’t post to this blog as often as I’d like to, but be sure to follow me on , Facebook and/or Twitter for LOTS more photos, regular highlights and updates from ongoing adventures! Fingers crossed, I’ll be back on the road with lots of tours this summer 🙂 Instagram