Bearded Seals are unusual visitors to most of Newfoundland – especially the Avalon Peninsula – but it does happen from time to time as a wayward individual wanders down from further north or hitches a ride on the arctic ice that drifts our way every winter/spring. The name “bearded” comes from their long, white whiskers (which are very sensitive and used to detect food on the mirky ocean floor) – although many people know them by a different name derived from another characteristic feature – “square flipper”. The largest of the arctic seals, adults can reach 8 feet in length and weigh an astounding 750 pounds.
This Bearded Seal was hanging out in Renews a few years back … the furthest south of the five I’ve seen on the Avalon Peninsula. Check out those long whiskers!
Although I’ve been fortunate to spot four Bearded Seals on the Avalon Peninsula over the past decade or so, I was still surprised when my friend Andrew McCarthy posted a photo of one on Twitter yesterday afternoon – from right here in St. John’s. This morning my daughter, nephew and I headed down the harbour to look for it … and sure enough, there it was looking very comfortable on the ice that had formed in the shelter of the city’s boat basin.
It was relatively unperturbed as we stood on the nearby wharf, snapping photos and enjoying this visitor from “upalong”. Although still a big animal, the relative small size (for a Bearded Seal) and the dark stripe on the forehead identify this one as an immature — maybe just a year old.
You never know what you’ll spot when you’re out & about!!
This was the first Bearded Seal I ever saw – a much larger individual chilling out in Fermeuse during a Christmas Bird Count.
This fella was hanging out in Bay Bulls a couple springs ago – delighting tourists (and tour guides alike!) as they boarded a nearby tour boat. I wonder if they realized how unusual a sighting it was?!?!
Spring rarely comes easy in Newfoundland … most years, it is an uphill battle as it struggles against “old man winter” trying to keep its icy/snowy/slushy grip on our island. This year was no exception, and we saw more total snowfall in April than in any other month this winter! But nature has a way of keeping its balance, and migration chugged on pretty much on schedule. A few mild interludes, and a relatively nice May, has certainly helped put a spring back in the step of most Newfoundlanders (especially the birders!).
Feeling a little stir-crazy after weeks of “office” work, I was looking for an excuse to get out and experience a little spring for myself. So when Irish birders Niall Keough and Andrew Power asked if I could join them for a day of all-out birding in early May, I jumped on it. It was Andrew’s first visit to North America, and one of just a few for Niall — so there were lots of exciting things to look for and see. Heading south from St. John’s, we started with a female Purple Martin in Mobile – a local rarity that was only my third for island. A breeding plumaged Black-headed Gull was sitting on the rocks nearby – ho-hum for my friends, but always a treat to see on this side of the Atlantic. Roadside ponds offered a group of Ring-necked Ducks and a Beaver (which was especially exciting for Andrew). At La Manche we nailed one of the duo’s target species – a pair of Black-backed Woodpeckers acting very territorial. Several species of finch and both chickadees flitted around some cabins, and a Ruffed rouse drummed away in the forest cover. We soon found another local rarity – a subadult Franklin’s Gull dip-feeding in Cape Broyle harbour. Totally unexpected, and just my second for the province.
This Purple Martin had been hanging around for several days – recorded less than annually in Newfoundland, but one of a number seen so far this spring.
Black-headed Gulls are regular (though uncommon) in Newfoundland during winter, but it is always a treat to find one in spring sporting its fine breeding plumage.
An even bigger treat was to find this Franklin’s Gull – a rare visitor to Newfoundland and totally unexpected.
The long drive along Cape Race road was shrouded in fog and very quiet, but the one bird we did bump into was another big target – a pair of Willow Ptarmigan right alongside the road, giving awesome views! Similarly, a Snowy Owl lingering near the road in St. Shott’s was a great highlight, though it soon lifted off an disappeared in the thick fog. At St. Vincent’s beach we spotted more than a dozen Pomarine Jaegers battling the very high winds that had suddenly picked up, and then the biggest surprise of the day — a grey-phased Gyrfalcon coursing the beach. We watched it for several minutes before it disappeared over the seawall and never resurfaced (although I never managed to get my camera locked in it!).
This male Willow Ptarmigan was very cooperative, even if the weather wasn’t. The female was spotted sitting on a rock just a few yards further up the road.
The winds were suddenly VERY strong and blowing onshore when we arrived at St. Vincent’s beach – so maybe the dozen or so Pomarine Jaegers shouldn’t have been such a surprise. But seeing them from land in spring is pretty unusual.
The final highlight was not a bid, but a marine mammal that neither of my Irish friends had even dreamed of seeing in Newfoundland – a young Beluga Whale that had been hanging out near the community wharf in Admiral’s Beach! We also saw two Manx Shearwater in the bay there, although they hardly garnered a second look as the guys fawned over the little whale. It was the start of a great marine adventure for these two – a couple days later they boarded the research vessel RV Celtic Explorer and sailed back to Ireland, seeing lots of other whales and seabirds along the way!
This young Beluga Whale was easy to find at Admiral’s Beach, where it had been hanging out for several weeks. It turned out to be a huge highlight for my Irish friends, and an excellent end to an awesome day out in the wind & fog!
This week is the beginning of a busy few months of birding and sharing Newfoundland’s amazing wildlife, nature and scenery with dozens of visitors … and I couldn’t be more excited!! Stay tuned for updates on a busy Bird⋅The⋅Rock summer!
Winter is a fun and special time to go birding in Newfoundland – which is why a group of WINGS tour participants brave the cold weather to visit here every January. This year, four birders (one from Maryland and three friends from California) made the voyage north to explore our rugged island! And I had the pleasure of sharing the wonderful birds & beautiful scenery of the eastern Avalon Peninsula with them. (This is my third year leading this adventure – and it always a great time! Follow these links to read blog posts about the 2014 and 2015 tours.)
WINGS tour participants scan for seabirds at wintery St. Vincent’s beach on January 15.
The tour is based out of St. John’s – one of the oldest cities in North America and located at its easternmost reaches. A variety of interesting and exciting species can be found around St. John’s during winter, and this year did not disappoint. Among the nine species of gulls found were Black-headed, Lesser Black-backed and European Mew (Common) Gulls. Rare anywhere else on the continent, we enjoyed dozens of Tufted Ducks, several Eurasian Wigeon and two beautiful Eurasian (Common) Teal amid an array of the more expected North American waterfowl.
Traveling outside the city on several occasions, we enjoyed more exciting birds and stunning coastal scenery. Dovekie is always a key target during this tour and were present in excellent numbers, including a few cooperative birds that lingered just metres away. We also encountered Black-legged Kittiwakes during strong onshore winds – a species not often seen from shore in winter. Purple Sandpipers and Great Cormorants put in an excellent showing, posing on the coastal rocks. Boreal Chickadees, White-winged Crossbills and Pine Grosbeaks gave us amazing looks, as did at least two Northern Goshawks and a very surprised Willow Ptarmigan. It was a fantastic tour with exciting birds, great people, and a wonderful setting!
We spent a lot of time along the Avalon’s rugged but beautiful coast during the week – lots of birds and stunning scenery!
Dovekie were no trouble to find this year, which is not always the case! We saw dozens most days, often flying past but sometimes obliging us with great looks as they fed close by.
This photo, from last year’s WINGS tour, shows just how cooperative Dovekie can be. We enjoyed several like this during the week.
Purple Sandpipers were also stars of this year’s tour – we found three flocks of 50+ birds, all of which provided excellent views.
When not seaside, we enjoyed some beautiful walks in the local boreal forest and along streams & rivers.
White-winged Crossbills have been arriving on the Avalon this month, and proved to be a crowd-pleaser for our participants.
The classy looking Tufted Duck is another popular bird for visitors, and we saw more than 40 this past week!
This drake Eurasian Green-winged (aka Common) Teal was one of two drakes hanging out along a sheltered brook in St. John’s. Maybe one day they will be “split” into separate species, as some authorities currently consider them.
Another uncommon duck (though of North American origins) was this drake Barrow’s Goldeneye spotted amid a flock of Common Goldeneye in Spaniard’s Bay (CBN).
Lovely day for a picnic 😉
We also enjoyed several sightings of three species of seal, including this group of Harp Seals.
Gulls are an integral part of the tour, and we spent some time studying the various flocks around St. John’s.
This photo includes four of the most numerous gull species seen around the city – Herring, “Kumlien’s” Iceland, Great Black-backed and Lesser Black-backed (1w, front centre) Gulls. All in all, we found nine species and several interesting hybrids to enjoy!
Black-headed Gulls have suddenly become less abundant following the closure of a large sewer outflow in St. John’s, although we had no trouble finding some at other locations.
We also rediscovered an adult Common (European Mew) Gull at a sewer outfall in Conception Bay South – it had been missing from its regular haunts in the city for several days.
While Great Cormorants are far more abundant here during winter, we also managed to find a couple Double-crested Cormorants lingering around the region.
It was a wonderful week filled with great birds, interesting weather, beautiful scenery and (most importantly) a fantastic group of people. I’m already looking forward to next year’s WINGS Tour!
It’s hard to believe Christmas is drawing near, and I’m still catching up on photos and stories from summer!
This was a very busy summer at BirdTheRock … sharing Newfoundland’s incredible birds & nature with visitors from all over the world. I led two wonderful tours of the Avalon Peninsula for Eagle Eye Tours, three “Newfoundland Adventures” for my friends at Wildland Tours, and hosted plenty of other guests in between. We regaled in the spectacle of amazing seabird colonies; scoured forests for reclusive northern songbirds; tramped over barren headlands in search of special butterflies; admired beautiful orchids and other wildflowers; cruised on the ocean (both calm and rough!) as whales frolicked around our boat; and enjoyed lots of stunning scenery & landscapes along the way!
Below is the first installment of photo highlights from a wonderful summer in Newfoundland (and these are just a sampling!). Thank you to all the wonderful people who shared these experiences with me!
This Black Guillemots proved to be among my favourite photo subjects this summer. We see many of them on tours, but not often on land at such close range.
Common Murres breed in several large colonies around the Newfoundland coast, especially at Witless Bay Ecological Reserve where several hundred thousand can be seen on boat tours!
There were a smaller number of icebergs around the Avalon compared to last year, but still a few beauties to be enjoyed.
Whales are always a highlight during summer tours in Newfoundland. This Minke Whale shirked its reputation as being elusive and put on a great show for us.
Of course, Humpback Whales are the real showboats of the North Atlantic, and they didn’t disappoint.
Northern Fulmar are regular off our coast, but only breed here in small numbers. We were fortunate to observe a few pairs on every trip this summer!
Butterflies make a wonderful addition to a day on the headlands – especially the beautiful Short-tailed Swallowtail. These critters have a very restricted range, making Newfoundland the best place in the world to find them.
Lots of wonderful scenery and culture to be found on our tours … these lobster pots were sitting on a wharf in beautiful King’s Cove, Bonavista Bay.
Northern Gannets are among the most majestic seabirds in the world, and we enjoyed stunning looks at thousands of them at Cape St. Mary’s Ecological Reserve.
Bakeapples are prized in Newfoundland. Later in the summer, this little flower will have turned into a delicious (though difficult to pick) berry that brings a smile to many faces in this province. You have to try a Bakeapple tart if you’re visiting!
Caplin may be a little fish, but they are a big cog in the wheel of life here.
Caplin school along the coast and spawn on our beaches every summer. They are an essential food source for larger fish, whales, and the many many breeding seabirds that call Newfoundland home this time of year.
Caplin are also harvested as food by people, and many that have washed up on the beaches are collected for use as fertilizer in vegetable gardens. The little fish that gives a lot!
A scene from the big barachois at St. Vincent’s, where whales often gather to chase Caplin and put off a great show right along the beach!
Here, a young Humpback does a sounding dive with the historic town of Trinity in the background.
Newfoundland has a wide variety of wildflowers throughout the summer, but few are as popular as the Blueflag Iris.
Traditional bread sits on a table at the Colony of Avalon, freshly baked the old-fashioned way in the wood-fired oven behind it.
A wattled fence, also built the old-fashioned way, surrounds a traditional vegetable garden.
A Northern Waterthrush poses for a photo during one of our morning bird walks.
Privacy please! This dragonfly nymph is caught in the act of shedding its skin.
Fog sits over the cit of St. John’s on an otherwise beautiful, sunny day. Fog is never far away along our coast, and can add a touch of character to our already stunning scenery!
A Common Yellowthroat announces its territory – probably trying to “shoo” away the humans that are traipsing along the trail.
Our groups are always on an adventure! Try finding a face without a smile 😉
Our family usually spends Labour Day weekend (and plenty of other time) in beautiful Grate’s Cove, at the northern tip of Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula. It is my mother-in-law’s childhood home and she still owns the old family house, which is nestled in the heart of this quaint, historic village and overlooks the stunning little harbour.
I was more excited than usual as we headed up there this weekend … a Beluga Whale had been hanging out there for the past two weeks or so, and I was looking forward to seeing it for myself. Belugas are uncommon but regular visitors to Newfoundland waters, wandering south from their arctic and subarctic range. A few individuals are reported somewhere around the island most years, but I’ve never had the luck of bumping into one. Having one conveniently located right at our doorstep in Grate’s Cove was a welcome opportunity …
Grates Cove is a beautiful and endearing little community. Nestled at the very northern tip of the Avalon Peninsula, its stark beauty and incredible vista make it a hit with anyone lucky enough to visit!
My wife’s family owns a century old house overlooking the harbour in Grate’s Cove, and we spend time there every summer and fall. And yes – I was even able to watch the Beluga while having a coffee at the kitchen table!
It was almost dusk when I arrived at Grate’s Cove Thursday evening, but I had a quick scan over the harbour before heading into the house. There was no sign, and I had a sinking feeling that I might have missed my chance (at this point, I hadn’t heard any reports for a few days). The next morning I scoured the harbour from our upstairs window with the same result, and was just expressing my disappointment to Susan when I spotted it surfacing in “the gulch”. My spirits soared, and I skipped breakfast to go get better looks. I spent most of the next four hours watching as it swam, surfaced and sometimes (though rarely) spy-hopped or lunged out of the water. Much of the time it seemed intent on swimming in increasingly tight circles and then diving for minutes at a time – presumably it was corralling and feeding on fish (likely herring, which reportedly have been abundant in the cove lately). My family joined me to enjoy this rare visitor for a while – scrambling over the breakwater and a rocky point to get better looks.
My first views of the Beluga Whale were over the breakwater that protects the community wharf, as it swam around in the nearby “gulch”. I eventually climbed out to a rocky point where I could enjoy a closer vantage point.
Like most whales, more than 90% of my views (and photos) were of the back as it surfaced to breathe. When acting like this, the lack of a dorsal fin helps distinguish a Beluga from similar sized dolphins and porpoises.
Beluga Whales have a lifespan of 35-50 years. Young Belugas start out dark grey and gradually lighten, becoming white when they reach maturity at about age five. The light grey colour of this individual suggests it is a young whale of maybe 3-4 years old.
Occasionally, this young whale got playful and I saw it spy-hopping several times … It took several hours of watching and waiting to finally get some “action shots”, especially since you could never anticipate when or where it might decide to stick its head out of the water. Patience (and a lot of practice with my camera) pays off!
Here I am … catch me if you can!
Beluga rarely have to expose their tails, even when diving, but I did enjoy the very times it decided to do a little tail-lobbing.
Apparently Beluga Whales can even do the backstroke! Unlike other whales (but similar to dolphins), Belugas have flexible necks which allow them to turn their heads in multiple directions.
A few birds, including this Red-necked Phalarope, tried to distract me – but it was hard to look at anything but that beautiful whale!
Later I heard that the Beluga had come right in to the wharf and entertained some onlookers at very close range … something it hadn’t done during the morning or early afternoon. I struck out earlier on Saturday morning, spotting my new friend at its familiar spot on the other side of the breakwater. After an hour or so, it disappeared – so I headed back to the wharf and sure enough, there it was swimming in the shallow water. It spent a lot of time at the bottom, where I could see it digging with its snout and, at times, “playing” with a pump hose that was dangling there. My family had spotted me from the house and were soon by my side, the kids (my daughters, nephews and niece) especially enjoying the whale as it swam just metres away.
When swimming near the wharf, it was easier to appreciate the full shape and size of this young Beluga. It seemed to be ~8 feet in length, which is only half the size of a full grown adult male.
A few small scars were already visible on this young animal – including one on its head (seen here) and a longer one on its left flank behind the flipper. Because of their innate curiosity, one of the biggest dangers to Beluga Whales are injury and death from boat propellers as they approach to investigate. People interacting with these very social animals often, unwittingly, lead to more such unfortunate encounters. I hope this whale avoids such a sad fate.
We soon discovered its playful nature, as it grabbed a short piece of rope that was floating on the surface and pushed it with its snout all around the area. Often times it went to the bottom and came up with a piece of seaweed on its head, trying to balance it as it swam around, and retrieving it when it fell off! I’m not sure if it was trying to entertain itself or us.
A small length of rope floating near the wharf provided several minutes of entertainment for this young Beluga.
Perhaps the most fun was watching the whale balance pieces of kelp on its head … there was an obvious air of playfulness about this animal.
It would collect kelp from the bottom and bring it to surface, making a real game of trying to keep it on its head for as long as possible and retrieving it when it fell off.
This wonderful little whale had apparently been featured on local news several times in the past few days, so a number of curious onlookers and visitors arrived at the wharf during the day on Saturday … some of them treated to close looks while it played around the wharf, and others having to settle for slightly more distant looks as it hung out in the gulch on the other side (presumably where it feeds). A group of divers even showed up and were able to enjoy a great underwater visit with the whale, which seemed to appreciate the company.
We also enjoyed a couple great visits with our friends at Grate’s Cove Studios – an wonderful restaurant with excellent food that is a unique mix of Newfoundland & Cajun cuisine. If you’ve never been, I suggest you go – it’s a great excuse to visit Grate’s Cove – rare whale or not!
I went back to say good-bye to the little Beluga on Sunday morning before hitting the road back to St. John’s, although my family who were able to stay a little longer were treated to another wharf-side visit later in the day. What a wonderful addition to another great holiday weekend!
** It seems Labour Day weekend has been all about marine mammals for me lately – just last year I was able to see an even rarer Walrus – check out that story here. **