A Year with KOWA Gear

“Optics” are an integral part of a birder’s life. Binoculars and (for many) spotting scopes are without a doubt the most important pieces of equipment we use … essential for almost every birding excursion or outing we make. And the more birding we do, the more important “quality” equipment becomes. We all want optics that are durable, weather-resistant, comfortable to use and, above all else, provide a bright & sharp image for our enjoyment.

I’ve owned and used several pairs of binoculars during my ~20 years of birding … starting with my father’s old Tasco tanks, which he used mostly for the occasional moose hunting trip. I bought my own first pair in university, when my birding hobby got serious, and moved up to a “mid-range” pair a few years later. I purchased my first scope in 2003 – a quality, second-hand one that had been only used a few times and was going for a “steal”. Those optics saw me through a lot of wonderful experiences – beautiful birds, rare sightings, and travel to some very cool places.

But last winter, I found myself needing to replace both my binoculars and my trusty scope. What better time for an upgrade to top-of-the-line equipment?!?! After a little research (reading reviews, chatting with a lot of birders in my network), it didn’t take long to decide that Kowa was the way to go. Kowa scopes are consistently rated at or near the top of the market for image and performance, and their new high-end line of binoculars were getting great reviews (although they hadn’t become popular in North American markets yet, so I knew very few birders who had them!). After talking with some of the lovely people at their North American offices, Kowa very generously offered to provide me with the gear I needed at a price I could appreciate. As a guide and tour leader, many birders from all over the world would enjoy an opportunity to try out, and likely be impressed by, their equipment every year.

I was like a kid on Christmas morning when the package arrived last March … and first impressions were everything I knew they would be. The sleek shape and elegant casing on both the scope and binoculars were a treat to look at, and the feel when I first picked them up were a real joy. These optics were made for my hands 😉  They had arrived just in the nick of time … I was leaving for a birding trip to Honduras the very next day, and the brand new Genesis 10.5×44 binoculars were going to get their first real test in that tropical paradise (I left the scope home for that adventure, but it has traveled everywhere with me since).

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I was honoured last year to earn the support of Kowa Optics, and upgraded my worn-out gear with their top quality equipment. I’ve had so much fun using this Prominar TSN-883 spotting scope and Genesis binoculars – and sharing the experience with so many of my guests. The optics are amazing!

I’ve been using my Kowa gear for well over a year now, so it’s time to tell you what I think. And, overall, I think it’s great! My new scope is a Kowa TSN-883 Prominar … an 88mm spotting scope that is often ranked the best in market by professional reviewers. I opted for the angled version – a switch from my old straight scope I loved so much – mostly because of  the flexibility it offers when birding with groups, as I almost always do. Angled scopes can be set up a lower level and still be accessible to people of most heights, and many birders insist that angled scopes are in general more comfortable and result in less neck strain when using it for long periods of time. It did take me a while to get used to the new perspective, but I have to say it’s been a positive change overall. That being said, the TSN scopes are available in both angled and straight models, and it’s really a matter of preference.

Despite the large objective size (88mm), the scope itself is relatively compact and light – making it easier than my previous model for both carrying and traveling. Without the eyepiece, it measures just 13.5 inches and was even able to fit in my carry-on satchel or camera bag when taking a flight (Note that Kowa also makes Prominar models in 77mm and compact 55mm sizes if travel and transport outweigh your need for a large objective). The TSN-883 has a magnesium alloy casing – making it lighter but reportedly just as strong as other brands in its class. The green finish on the casing is quite nice, although the lack of a rubber coating may leave it a little vulnerable to the elements. For added protection, I opted for a Kowa fitted scope cover which does a nice job of shielding the entire scope without making it impractical to use and has a very useful carrying strap. Of course, the scope itself is nitrogen purged and waterproof – like any optics at this end of the market should be.

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Kowa TSN-883 Prominar proudly at work … helping me score an increasingly rare “Newfoundland lifer”. Even the tiny Eared Grebe couldn’t hide on the open ocean with this beauty at my side 😉

All scopes in the Kowa Prominar line have one important thing in common – the objective lens is made of pure fluorite crystal, the standard in optical quality, and has a blend of Kowa’s special coatings to enhance both image and resilience. The result is a wonderful viewing experience – very bright, sharp and excellent colour resolution. Compared to my old scope, and most others that I’ve tried, the brightness of image really stands out when using my TSN-883 — and that matters! I’ve been able to use this scope at dusk and dawn, when many other scopes would have been all but useless. Brightness is also important when looking out over the dark waters of the ocean or on a grey foggy day (things we do a lot in Newfoundland). Birds and details appear very sharp in the scope, and focusing is fast and easy using the dual focusing wheel. Depth of field has been deep (wide?) enough that honing in on a subject isn’t impossible, but narrow enough that foreground and/or background are not too distracting. That sounds simple enough, but not every piece of optics can claim that “sweet spot” in the field of focusing. Notably, the image stays bright and sharp to the very edges of the image – something that can be annoying with lower quality lenses.

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Like all good birding buddies, my Kowa TSN-883 Prominar has been tagging along on all my adventures. Here it is trained on a Red-billed Tropicbird off the verandah of our hotel on Tobago (Trinidad & Tobago 2017)

I love the flexibility of zoom lenses, so I opted for the Kowa 20-60x eyepiece when choosing my gear. The ability to scan an area and look for birds at low magnification but zoom in on a distant target when necessary is a very useful thing – especially when you’re like me and spend a lot of time watching seabirds and shorebirds. Like the scope body, Kowa eyepieces are also nitrogen purged and waterproof – an important feature considering it is one part of the system that is always exposed to the weather when in use. The eyepiece connects easily to the body, but has a push-button release mechanism that keeps it safely in place until you actually “want” it to come off. Zooming occurs smoothly with a twist of the eyepiece, meaning its easier to stay on a target (even a moving one) when doing so. The image of course loses a little brightness at high magnifications, but less than I was used to with my old scope and zoom eyepiece … and sharpness remains surprisingly good even at 60x. I haven’t for a moment regretted my choice of eyepiece – but for those interested, there are several other options including a 30x wide angle and 25x long eye-relief models.

* Don’t just take my word for it … Many of my tour guests over the past year have commented on the clear, sharp and bright views they enjoyed while using my scope; including experienced birders who own or have used other top brands. Sometimes, it was as much a conversation piece as it was a piece of equipment 😉

As much as I use and enjoy my scope, it should come as no surprise that I (along with most birders) use my binoculars far more often. Binoculars are the essential, if not diagnostic, trademark of a birder — the one piece of equipment that makes us recognizable in the outdoors world, and allows us to enjoy our sport to its fullest. I “need” a quality pair of binoculars, and my new Kowa Genesis XD 10.5×44 did not disappoint.

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My Kowa Genesis 10.5x44s got their baptism by fire — joining me on a birding trip to Honduras just 24 hrs after they arrived. They performed exceptionally well in the humid climate and often dull understories we explored. And the birds we enjoyed together?? Wow.

The key feature of the Genesis XD binoculars is that they use the same extra low dispersion glass as the Prominar scopes, resulting in a very sharp, bright and colour-correct image. The improved viewing compared to my old binoculars was amazing – and easily compared to my experiences looking through similar high-end binoculars belonging to friends and colleagues (including Swarovski and Zeiss). I chose to go with the 10.5×44 model since I was already using 10x binoculars, and prefer the higher magnification for the amount of seawtaching I tend to do. That being said, many birders prefer 8x models for various reasons (wider field of view, less visible shake, etc.) and the Genesis 8.5×44 are equally well reviewed.

Another notable feature of these binoculars is the 44mm objective lenses (vs 42mm in most similar models). The difference may seem minimal, but is actually quite significant – the additional light produces a brighter image that really adds to the overall viewing experience and makes the binoculars usable in slightly dimmer situations (dawn, dusk and foul weather) than they might otherwise be. Interestingly, the objective lenses are threaded to allow the use of 46mm filters – not something that birders tend to do, but could very useful for those who (also?) use their binoculars for viewing the night sky. Combined with the larger magnification and objective size, I imagine these are ideal binoculars for people who dabble in both birding and stargazing.

The one down-side of the increased magnification and objective lenses is that it results in a somewhat larger, heavier pair of binoculars – in fact, they are notably heavier than most similar models. To be honest, I knew this before choosing them and was expecting it to be an issue (if minor), but have to admit that it has not. Even though I still use a traditional neckstrap, I have not noticed any neck strain from long period of use (note that I use an off-brand, cushioned strap that I have loved for years, and have not actually tried the Kowa strap that came with the binoculars). They do feel a bit heavy after holding them up for long periods, but they are so well shaped and comfortable to hold that the weight becomes an after-thought. All that beings said, the additional weight might be consideration for those who prefer lightweight optics, have strength/endurance issues with their arms, or tend to experience some shaking when using binoculars (I don’t like to say it, but especially “older” birders). Like the Kowa scopes and most high-end brands, the binoculars themselves are nitrogen purged and fully water/fog-proof for use in the real world.

Focusing with these binoculars is impressively smooth and comfortable – the central focusing wheel is large, well textured for gripping your finger, and adjusts both quickly and easily. Fine adjustments are easily made, but at the same time I don’t find it “too” sensitive – which can sometimes lead to frustration as you try to get the focus just right. As a birder with interests in broader aspects of nature, I often use my binoculars to look at wildflowers, butterflies and other things during my explorations — things that are sometimes relatively close. I have been very impressed with the “close focus” of these binoculars – coming in at well under 6ft (5.5ft in the specs) and as good as any binoculars I’ve used. In my opinion, this is a very important (and often under-rated) feature that helps set the best binoculars apart from others. If you’ve never enjoyed a colourful spring warbler at full frame in your binoculars, you’re missing out!

The Genesis binoculars have sturdy twist-up eye cups, which I have found to be very useful and stay in place when I’ve set them (an issue I have had with other pairs, when I would sometimes raise them to my eyes and discover one eye cup in the wrong position – occasionally making me miss a flitting bird!). The diopter (used for individually focusing each eye) also has a locking system that prevent it from changing unexpectedly – an issue I have also had with many other pairs. The reported eye relief on this model is 16mm – just on the verge of what most manufacturers/users would consider to be “long eye relief”. This makes them quite comfortable to use with the eye cups fully extended (which I prefer to block out peripheral light), and should be fine for users wearing eyeglasses (something I’ll learn more about over the next few months as I have just started wearing my first pair).

Kowa has also put a lot of thought and effort into the field of “digiscoping” (i.e. using their high-end scopes in combination with digital cameras and phones for photography and/or video). I hope to experiment with this more in the future!

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My Kowa gear has made a huge difference not only to my birding experience, but especially to that of my many clients throughout the past year. Many dozens of birders and nature-lovers enjoyed seeing some pretty fantastic things through my scope & binoculars — including life birds & spectacular displays of nature! A huge thanks to my friends at Kowa for helping me provide them with a top-notch experience.

Finally, a quick comment on customer service with Kowa – which I’ve had opportunity to experience twice since receiving my new optics. Although they have no Canadian offices (a slight inconvenience for us Canadian customers), folks working at their North American offices in California were quick to answer my questions and help in any way. After realizing a small piece (diopter ring) on my new binoculars arrived broken, they expedited a replacement piece to me that arrived within a few days. I also had a very unfortunate incident with my scope, causing the mount to break (due to a significant impact, and not due to any defect or shortfall in the scope itself). The service department at Kowa took care of it quickly, receiving and returning the perfectly repaired scope in excellent time (considering it had to go all the way to California). They have been wonderful to deal with when I need to (although I always hope I don’t!).

 

 

 

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SEVENTEEN

Whoa … does time ever fly?!?! It’s hard to believe another year has come and gone … but not without lots of adventures. The year 2017 was a very exciting one here at BirdTheRock – I was blessed beyond words to share the natural wonders of Newfoundland & Labrador with so many visitors, travel to amazing places both near and far, and experience countless special moments along the way. I have so much to tell … but as they say “a picture is worth a thousand words“, and maybe that’s the best way to share this long overdue summary of the year that was. Below are 17 photos from 2017; chosen to represent just a fraction of the many, many highlights from my year.

I apologize for my lapse in blog posts over the last few months – but be sure to follow me on Facebook, Twitter and/or Instagram for more regular highlights and often daily updates from ongoing tours! I’ll continue to update this blog as often as I can 😉

Like every year, 2017 started off with some excellent winter birding right here in eastern Newfoundland. I had the pleasure of sharing great winter birds such as Dovekie, Thick-billed Murre, White-winged Crossbill, Bohemian Waxwing, Boreal Chickadee and friendly Gray Jays with a number of visiting birders. This photo was taken during the annual WINGS Birding Tour – and you can read more about that in an earlier blog post here.

I also joined Instagram this past winter –  yet another great way to share photos and highlights with people from all over the world. THIS photo of a Dovekie (taken several winters ago) turned out to be my most popular photo of 2017 – not surprising given how much people tend to love these cute little seabirds! Newfoundland is the most reliable place in North America to see Dovekie and a big part of the reason why birders visit here in winter.

I was honoured this year to earn the support of Kowa Optics, and upgraded my worn-out gear with their top quality equipment. I’ve had so much fun using this Prominar TSN-883 spotting scope and Genesis binoculars – and sharing the experience with so many of my guests. The optics are amazing! Stay tuned for an upcoming review of this Kowa swag here on the blog very soon.

In March, I joined Kisserup International Trade Roots and a handful of other Canadian birding and eco-tourism experts on an exploratory “mission” to Honduras (Read the two-part blog series and see LOTS of photos here!!). What I discovered was an incredibly beautiful place with wonderful people, amazing nature and especially birds, and so many opportunities for visiting birders and nature-lovers to soak it all in. Oh … AND we observed more than 250 species of birds along the way! I’m scheming up a Honduras birding tour for the near future – so stay tuned for details!!   (Photo: Spectacled Owl, Rio Santiago Nature Resort, Honduras)

I returned home from Honduras to find Newfoundland in the cold, icy grip of the Arctic. Prolonged northerly winds were pushing Arctic pack ice much further south than usual – encasing the entire northern and eastern coasts, and even wrapping around to fill bays and coves in the southeast. While spring pack ice was a normal part of my childhood growing up on the northeast coast, it rarely reached this far south and some communities were seeing it for the first time in living memory. With the ice came lots of seals (including more northerly Hooded Seals), Polar Bears and even a very wayward Arctic Fox to far-flung places around the island. Birds were impacted too — ducks, loons and other seabirds were corralled into small sections of open water waiting for the ice to move off. The ice lingered so long on parts of the northeast coast that fisheries were delayed or even canceled, adding a very human aspect to this unusual event.

Late winter and early spring can be a challenging time for birding – many of the winter species are beginning to move on, and migration has yet to start. But there are always wonderful things to see, and a mid-March excursion to Cape Race with one group of intrepid clients paid off with this — great looks at one of their “target” birds! This Willow Ptarmigan, sporting transitional plumage, allowed us to get up-close-and-personal right from the car!

Another highlight of early spring was an exceptional few days of gull-watching in St. John’s. Not only did the elusive Yellow-legged Gull (which can be seen here sporadically most winters) become a very regular visitor at Quidi Vidi Lake, but a Slaty-backed Gull was also discovered there. The two images above were captured just minutes (and metres) apart … two very rare gulls entertaining some very happy birders! (March 25, 2017)

The pack ice may have receded as spring wore on, but other visitors from the north took their place. Newfoundland had an excellent iceberg season in 2017 – and one of the early highlights was this mammoth berg that perched itself in Ferryland (an hour south of St. John’s). Photos of this iceberg (including my own) went “viral”, showing up in newsfeeds, newspapers and TV newscasts all over the world. It was just one of many awesome bergs I saw this year … including with many of my clients!

While there was no “huge” influx of European rarities into Newfoundland this spring, there was also no shortage. This European Golden Plover was one of several reported in early May. I was also fortunate to see a Ruff, two Eurasian Whimbrel, and two Common Ringed Plovers this year – AND happy to say that I had clients with me for each and every one! How’s that for good birding?!?!

Perhaps the most exciting bird of the spring (or even year) also came from Europe. This COMMON SWIFT was discovered by Jeannine Winkel and Ian Jones at Quidi Vidi Lake, St. John’s on May 20 – just the second record for Newfoundland and one of only a handful for all of North America. Cool, damp weather worked in our favour throughout the week, with this extremely rare bird sticking around until May 26 and entertaining both local birders and a number of “ABA listers” who flew in from all over North America to see it. Amazing! (Photo: May 23, 2017)

Spring slipped into summer, which of course is the busiest time of year for BirdTheRock Bird & Nature Tours. I was fortunate to host dozens of visiting birders and nature-lovers throughout the summer, sharing the many wonderful sights and spectacles that our province has to offer. This photo of Northern Gannets was taken during the excellent Eagle-Eye Tours “Grand Newfoundland” trip – one of many times I visited Cape St. Mary’s Ecological Reserve this year. This particular tour is a great way to experience the birding and natural highlights of Newfoundland, from St. John’s to Gros Morne National Park and many points in between. I look forward to leading it again in 2018! (Read more about this tour in a blog post from 2016.)

Of course, it’s not “always” just about the birds. During every tour or outing, I make time to stop and enjoy the abundance of other gems that nature has in store. I especially like the wild orchids of mid-summer, and this Showy Ladyslipper was one of nine species we encountered during a fantastic Massachusetts Audubon tour. What an awesome time we had!

Of course, summer can’t be ALL work and no play! (Who am I kidding – my work is always fun!) I made sure to steal some time to explore both new places and old favourites with my family – including the rugged coastlines of Notre Dame Bay where I grew up and my passion for nature first took root!

In August, I had the pleasure of once again leading the Eagle-Eye Tours trip to New Brunswick & Grand Manan. While there are many wonderful places and birding experiences on this tour, one key highlight is seeing the huge gathering of Semipalmated Sandpipers in the world-famous Bay of Fundy. More than 3/4 of the world’s population stop here during migration, and flocks of tens of thousands can often be found roosting on the narrow beach at high tide or swirling over the water. This was my third time leading this tour, and you can read more about it on an earlier blog post here.

As summer fades to fall in Newfoundland, I often turn my attention to migration and the opportunity to find wayward and locally rare species right here on “the rock”. One of the most interesting birds was this very late empidonax flycatcher that showed up in November — well beyond the expected date of normal migrants and reason enough to scrutinize it. Originally found by crack birder Lancy Cheng, I arrived soon after and spent several hours trying to capture diagnostic photos amid the fleeting glimpses it gave. Based on photos from several birders and Lancy’s very important sound recording, this bird was eventually identified as Newfoundland’s first ever Willow Flycatcher! Chalk one up for the perseverance and cooperation of our local birding community!

Winter also started off with a bang, when veteran birder Chris Brown discovered the province’s first Eared Grebe on December 1. Time for birding can be tough to come by for me at this busy time of year – but I managed to sneak in a “chase” to see this mega-rarity. Read more on my blog post here.

My birding year ended on yet another high note: leading my third Eagle-Eye Tours adventure of the year – this time in Trinidad & Tobago! This was my second time leading this amazing tour, and I admit to being totally enamored with this beautiful place. The lush forests, open grasslands, intriguing coastlines … and, of course, the incredible birds and wildlife! This Guianan Trogon was just one of more than 200 species we encountered during the trip – many of which were equally stunning. Stay tuned for an upcoming blog post about my most recent trip — but in the meantime you can check out this three-part series from my last adventure in Trinidad & Tobago. And better yet – join me when I return at the end of 2018!

What a fantastic year! Thanks to the many friends and visitors who shared all these special moments (and many more!) with me in 2017. I’m excited for 2018 and can’t imagine what wonderful experiences it might have in store! Why not join me to find out for yourself?!?!

Wishing you all a happy, prosperous and fun-filled 2018!!

Eared Grebe – a Newfoundland first!

Nothing gets a birder more excited than a really rare bird … but sometimes, timing can be problematic. This is a busy time of year … and I’ve been splitting my time between preparing for Christmas (always busier when you have a young family) and preparing for my Eagle-Eye Tours trip to Trinidad & Tobago beginning later this week. I was kind of hoping to sneak away without any local birding distractions.

But when fate deals her hand, there’s not much we can do about it. Just two weeks ago, reports came to light of Newfoundland’s first ever Black Vulture – an unexpected vagrant, but well photographed in Burgeo on the island’s SW coast. Fortunately (?), it was a little too far to really tempt me at a busy time like this. BUT THEN, on Friday December 1, veteran birder Chris Brown spotted yet another provincial first – and this one was just 1.5 hours away. He had found an EARED GREBE at Peter’s River – a real hot area for rare birds in the past few years. While a common bird of the Canadian prairies and parts of central and western USA, it is a rare wanderer to eastern North America and until now had never been recorded in Newfoundland & Labrador.

But what a busy weekend we had planned!! After sitting on my hands all night, I decided to forego the chase and spend some quality time with my family at a Christmas event on Saturday morning — all the more important since I’d soon be leaving for two weeks. But by lunchtime, reports confirmed the grebe was being seen at the very same spot — and I decided to make the pilgrimage and see it for myself.

Peter’s River and nearby St. Vincent’s beach have been host to many rare birds over the past few years – including a variety of terns, gulls, shorebirds and seabirds. Here, my new Kowa scope stands pointed at the most recent jewel – Newfoundland’s first Eared Grebe!

After losing 30 minutes of precious time being stuck behind a Christmas Parade in Riverhead-St. Mary’s (can’t say that did much for my holiday spirit!), I finally arrived at Peter’s River a little frustrated and well behind schedule. Luckily, it only took 5 minutes for me to spot the diminutive Eared Grebe, swimming a short distance off the beach exactly where it had been seen earlier in the morning. I first enjoyed some great scope looks, then walked a few hundred metres down the cobblestone beach, rocks grinding and scrunching under my feet. Although the grebe was a little wary, some patience and stealth paid off and I eventually took in some very close looks and photo opportunities. What an amazing bird! It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas 😉

This beautiful Eared Grebe marks the first record for Newfoundland and Labrador. It is a rare wanderer to eastern North America, and should be headed for wintering grounds in the southwestern United States or Mexico instead of the cold North Atlantic.

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Pretty soon I’ll be thousands of miles south of Newfoundland, soaking in the tropical heat and exotic birds of Trinidad & Tobago. How quickly the tides turn in the life of a birder.

Off the Rock: Honduras 2017 (Part 2)

Click here to read Part 1 of my Honduras adventure.

In March 2017, I joined Kisserup International Trade Roots and a handful of other Canadian birding and eco-tourism experts on an exploratory “mission” to Honduras. The goal of this mission was to experience some of this Central American country’s fantastic birds and nature; meet local tour guides; check out lodges, accommodations, restaurants, etc.; and explore the potential for its growing birding and eco-tourism industry. What I discovered was an incredibly beautiful place with wonderful people, amazing nature and especially birds, and so many opportunities for visiting birders and nature-lovers to soak it all in. One of the challenges for Honduras’ eco-tourism sector is that it remains largely undiscovered and tourism traffic is relatively low compared to neighbouring nations. This is also one of its draws — the experiences are authentic, the wilderness still wild, and no hordes of people and tour buses at every turn. I relished in not just the birds and wildlife, but also the opportunity to enjoy it in peace and quiet and with the full attention of our excellent local guides.

All that being said, the experience was far from rustic or lack-lustre in any way. The regions we visited had excellent lodges, hotels and other accommodations to choose from. Several of the eco-lodges exceeded my expectations when it came to their facilities and accommodations (while others already had excellent reputations and delivered on them). Local tour operators and especially the birding guides we met were knowledgeable, very friendly and enthusiastic – eager to share their lives and the amazing place they live with us. Restaurants and the food they served were great – with menus variable enough to fit the needs and wants of most visitors and tour groups. So while the tourism industry has a lot of growth and development ahead, Honduras is more than ready for us Canadian birders to start making it a destination. Quick – before the others catch on!

As described in Part 1 of this blog post, we spent the first few days of our visit in San Pedro Sula, followed by the Lake Yojoa region (including surrounding areas of Santa Barbara and Cerro Azul Meambar National Parks). So, we pick up now where we left off – at beautiful Lake Yojoa and its awesome birding!

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Lake Yojoa is the largest lake in Honduras, and at an altitude of 700m it is also relatively high. Not only is the birding on and around the lake itself excellent, but it is bordered on each side by National Parks (Santa Barbara to the west and Cerro Azul Meambar to the east) – making it an ideal base for birding expeditions.

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One of the trip highlights was seeing this very (very!) secretive Yellow-breasted Crake in the marsh at Lake Yojoa. We heard it calling when we arrived on the first evening but were unable to spot it. Two mornings later, several of us made an early morning return to try again — this time (after much waiting & patience), it gingerly strolled out from the grass and within a few feet of where we were standing on a little pier. At just 5 inches, this is one of the smallest and most difficult to spot rails you can imagine!

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While waiting for the crake to emerge, this White-tailed Kite did its best to distract us. Pretty amazing to watch it expertly hovering over the marsh for minutes at a time, as if suspended by string.

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We met several local (and very excellent) guides throughout the week. William Orellana and Katinka Domen (Beaks & Peaks Birding & Adventure Tours) were with us for several days, and were fabulous hosts. Their birding skills were world-class, topped only by their kind ways and hard work to make sure everyone saw as much as possible. Thanks, guys!

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Northern Jacana were common in the marshes of Lake Yojoa, and indeed wetlands throughout the regions we visited. But it’s impossible to get bored of their flashy colours and antics. Such entertaining birds!

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Also very common around the lake were Snail Kites, like this roosting female (above). Check out the long hooked bill, suited perfectly for extracting food from the large snail shells they collect around the marsh. (Male below)

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The lake has incredible biodiversity, and more than birds are plentiful here. Fishing is an important part of the local economy, and tilapia (like this one) is a staple. Local markets are a treat for the senses – full of colourful fruits and vegetables, wonderful aromas and something to whet every appetite!

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Leaving the wonders of Lake Yojoa behind, we headed north to La Ceiba in the Atlantida region. Here, the Nombre de Dios Mountains rise steeply from the Caribbean coast and habitats ranging from coastal mangroves to lowland forests and  lush, high elevation rainforests are all easily accessible. Our base for the next few days was the beautiful Lodge & Spa at Pico Bonito. While I might not have taken time to indulge in the spa services (not really my style!), the birding and wildlife experiences were incredible. I could spend weeks here alone, enjoying nature’s jewels – such as this Keel-billed Toucan.

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Pico Bonito also offered more opportunity for seeing other wildlife compared to other regions we visited. This Basilisk Lizard was sitting right alongside the verandah and basking in the sun after a a night of rain.

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Central American agoutis were often found taking advantage of fruit fallen from the lodge’s trees and feeders. Although a little harder to spot, other exotic mammals such as kinkajou, coatis and peccaries are regularly spotted around the lodge’s property and trails, and very lucky hikers might get to spot an ocelot or even one of the jaguar that are known to frequent the area.

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A short drive from the lodge is the beautiful Cuero y Salada Wildlife Refuge. As one of Honduras’ first protected areas, it encompasses a variety of habitats including lowland forest, old coconut plantations, and the huge mangrove swamps and waterways for which it is most famous. The reserve is accessed by a small trolley line – which not only adds great fun to the visit, but also provides some interesting birding and wildlife opportunities along the way!

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Our trolley drivers stopped several times for us to watch and enjoy the birds we spotted – including this Black-headed Trogon sitting quietly not far from the tracks.

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The coconut plantation was surprisingly hot for raptors, including Common Black Hawks, Crested Caracaras and (a personal highlight) this Laughing Falcon, among others.

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We also spotted this White-faced Capuchin during the trolley ride. It checked us out for just a few moments, then went back to eating fruit and ignoring us altogether. The mangroves are also home to Howler Monkeys, and while our group heard their eerie, guttural howls the others actually had a brief visit from one as they floated along the canal.

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The mangroves themselves are best visited by boat, and local tour operators are there to provide just that. Aboard small boats, we navigated the network of canals and calm waters, spotting a great variety of birds and wildlife along the way. The mangroves are also home to the endangered Caribbean manatee, which can be challenging to find and unfortunately eluded us on this visit.

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Numerous species of heron and egret can be found in the reserve, but my personal favourite was this Bare-throated Tiger Heron. Check out that funky patterning and “standing my ground” attitude!

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The mangroves are also a great place to find several species of kingfisher, including this Green Kingfisher. We also found Ringed, Belted and Amazon Kingfishers throughout our visit.

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Prothonotary Warblers are neotropical migrants – breeding in North America and wintering in the tropics. They are exciting to spot wherever you might be, but seeing them here in their winter digs was especially fun.

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It was also pretty fun to spot these White-lined Bats roosting on a large trunk at the edge of the mangroves. Just a few moments later, a Roadside Hawk came jetting through and nabbed one of the bats right off the tree! (Wish I’d been ready for that with the camera!)

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Our next stop was the amazing Rio Santiago Nature Resort, which borders both the Rio Santiago river and Pico Bonito National Park. It is a birder’s dream, with incredible biodiversity, excellent walking trails and one of the most amazing hummingbird spectacles you can imagine! We enjoyed dozens of hummingbirds and 11 species just during our short visit – all buzzing around the myriad of feeders and flowering plants around the property. This Crowned Woodnymph was an obvious crowd pleaser.

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Not all the hummingbirds are quite as flashy, but equally beautiful. The understated Scaly-breasted Hummingbird is local and far less common in Honduras, with Rio Santiago being among the best places to find it. Other hummingbird highlights during the afternoon included Brown Violetear, Stripe-throated Hermit and Band-tailed Barbthroat among others.

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This Slaty-tailed Trogon was a neat find during a hike along one of Rio Santiago’s trails. It sat obligingly but under the dark canopy of the surrounding rainforest, keeping an eye on us as we did the same with it.

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Perhaps the best part of our visit to Rio Santiago was spotting this Spectacled Owl – a species I had heard but never seen during my previous time in the tropics. What a fabulous looking bird!

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The Spectacled Owl was part of a resident pair at Rio Santiago, and was keeping a close eye on this juvenile sitting nearby. Initially hiding in the broad leaf trees, junior soon flew out to sit in the open and show off its overwhelming “cuteness”.

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We also enjoyed lunch at Rio Santiago, surrounded by dozens of hummingbirds (like this Long-billed Hermit) coming and going to the many feeders. This wonderful resort quickly joined my list of places to see again!

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And speaking of food … this ceviche (made with sea bass) at Pico Bonito was possibly my favourite dish of the entire trip. Overall the food was very good, and I took the opportunity to try local cuisine whenever I could.

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Back at Pico Bonito, we spent our last morning birding around the property and along a couple of its most popular trails. This White-collared Mannikin gave us a bit of a run-around but eventually sat still under cover of the forest canopy. Other highlights included distant views of the highly prized Lovely Cotinga, a pair of roosting Great Potoo, Violet-headed Hummingbird and Buff-throated Foliage-cleaner – just to name a few.

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We also enjoyed this Red-capped Mannikin, which despite being relatively common around the property was a challenge to see!

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The hardcores, birding at one of Pico Bonito’s observation towers. L-R Me, Jean Iron (Ontario), Oliver Komar (Honduras), Adolfo Fonseca (Kisserup International Trade Roots) and Angel Fong (Go Bird Honduras, Birding & Eco-Adventure Tours). A huge thanks to Angel who was a wonderful birding guide and host during our time in the Atlantida region. *The full group included several other Canadian tourism operators and representatives of Kisserup International Trade Roots.

By the end of our short week in Honduras, we had tallied 267 species of birds (!), along with other great wildlife and nature experiences and incredible scenery. We also met and made many new friends – both local Hondurans and the other Canadians I was lucky enough to travel with all week long.

I REALLY hope to get back soon, revisiting these places and people and exploring even more of this wonderful place – and especially its bird life. For now,  I hope you enjoyed my reflections. STAY TUNED as I am scheming a small-group tour that could be announced in a few months time!! If you’re interested in details, drop me a line.

Special thanks to Kisserup International Trade Roots for not only inviting me along on this excellent “mission”, but also for their hard work and planning to make it such an amazing adventure. It couldn’t have been more fun or eye-opening. I am especially thankful to our local birding guides Oliver Komar (professor, birder extraordinaire, and co-author of the essential “Peterson Field Guide to the Birds of Northern Central America”); William and Kotinka of Beaks & Peaks Birding and Adventure Tours; and Angel Fong of Go Honduras Birding & Eco-Adventure Tours. Their world-class birding skills, exceptional friendliness, and eagerness to share all things Honduras made this trip the wonderful experience that it was. It was a huge pleasure to meet James Adams at Pico Bonito Lodge – his help and generousity during my time there was outstanding, and the depth of both his knowledge of and respect for nature left a huge impression on me (and continues to do so as I follow his own adventures on social media!). We met many other wonderful people along the way – all of whom have left me with warm memories and a strong desire to return, revisit and explore some more. Thank you!

Off The Rock: Honduras 2017 (Part 1)

It was March 2017, but instead of being bundled up and shoveling snow like I might usually be found at this time of year, I was adjusting to a tropical heat and enjoying the flurry of brightly coloured birds flitting around me.

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Motmots are iconic birds of Central and South America, and this Lesson’s Motmot was no exception. Relatively common in most of Honduras, the beautiful colours and flashy tails of this species is always worth a stop. We encountered three other species of Motmot during our week, including the Turquoise-browed, Keel-billed and Tody.

I was honoured this past winter to be invited on a Canadian “trade mission” to Honduras by the consulting firm “Kisserup International Trade Roots“. As part of their project, and the Canadian free trade agreement, the aim of this mission was to explore potential for growing the eco-tourism and birding tourism industry in Honduras – a country that has seen significant economic and political challenges over recent decades, and is now focused on rebuilding its economy. Like other Central American nations, Honduras has a wealth of stunning nature, wildlife and especially birds to showcase – but unlike several of their neighbours the tourism (and conservation) potential of this amazingly beautiful place remains grossly untapped. This is changing now, and I was excited to join a handful of other birding and eco-tourism experts from across Canada to experience some of its magic.

Honduras is a relatively large country, so our week-long “mission” focused on just two  regions – Lake Yojoa and surrounding areas (western Honduras), as well as La Ceiba in Atlantida (north/Caribbean coast). Both regions offer rich and dynamic birding opportunities and have great potential for a growing tourism industry.

This two-part blog series is a brief (mostly photographic) summary of what I can only describe as an amazing week in a beautiful country. I REALLY hope to get back soon, revisiting these places and people and exploring even more of this wonderful place – and especially its bird life. For now, enjoy my reflections and STAY TUNED as I am scheming a small-group tour that could be announced in a few months time!!

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Our visit began in San Pedro Sula – a sprawling city in northeast Honduras and described by locals as its economic (though not political) capital. Although we spent just one day here, local birding and a visit to the city centre were both eye-openers to this intriguing place that I admit to knowing very little about prior to this trip.

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We didn’t have to leave city limits to find some of Honduras’ most endearing and exotic species. This Collared Aracari was hanging out along one of San Pedro’s most popular walking trails (leading up to the city’s famous “Coca Cola” sign and some stunning views).

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Another common but jaw-dropping bird of the region is Blue-Gray Tanager – a species I was familiar with from visits to other parts of the Americas. This lovely fella was hanging out right in a city neighbourhood where our guide/driver lived and took us for some city birding.

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This trip also provided opportunities to experience local culture and traditions – and food happens to be one of my favourite lenses through which to see a new place! My first truly local food was this “baleada” – a traditional Honduran dish made with mashed red beans, cheese and spices folded in a flour tortilla. Hardy and delicious!

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Trogons are among the most prized species by birders, and always a treat. This Collared Trogon was one of many highlights of our visit to PANACAM Lodge. This beautiful eco-lodge is situated in a national park (Parque Nacional Cerro Azul Meámbar) near Santa Cruz de Yojoa, and has incredible potential as a premiere birding stop. The lush rainforests, agricultural land and protected habitats right on its doorstep offer some amazing birds and wildlife. Great hiking trails, a wonderful observation tower and excellent on-site birding all add up to a birder’s dream. The lodge itself is not only beautiful but clean and modern. I could have spent a week at this location alone!

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This gorgeous Violet Sabrewing was one of several hummingbird species buzzing around the verandah feeders at PANACAM Lodge. The many natural perches provided excellent photo opportunities, and I certainly wish I had more time here to have enjoyed them. Other highlights on the PANACAM property included Mottled Owl, Crested Guan and a very unexpected Pheasant Cuckoo – among many others!

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Perhaps one of my more disappointing photos, but certainly NOT a disappointing experience, was this Black-crested Coquette at PANACAM Lodge. Since it doesn’t tend to visit feeders, finding one of these very tiny (but also very showy) hummingbirds in a big forest isn’t easy – but fortunately our guides had a good area in mind and with some patience we were able to track it down and enjoy excellent views through binoculars and scopes as it sat on high but open perches. Score!

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It was here that we first met up with Oliver Komar – not only one of the most talented birders I’ve ever met, but also the author of the (then) brand new “Peterson Field Guide to the Birds of Northern Central America” (this excellent field guide is the new essential for birders visiting or even living in the region). We were blessed to have Oliver join us for the remainder of the week – his birding expertise, amazing skill, fun personality (evident in this photo!) and strong drive to build and promote birding tourism in Honduras was perhaps the most enlightening part of the entire trip. Oliver is a Professor of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at Honduras’ Zamorano University.

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Another specialty of the PANACAM Lodge was the Keel-billed Motmot. Although not quite as confiding as the more common Lesson’s and Turquoise-browed Motmots, this one finally popped out for some excellent views in the early morning light as we prepared for the day’s outing.

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Beautiful scenery and lush habitats were not hard to find in Honduras, and this beautiful stop was just minutes away from PANACAM Lodge. Fabulous birding in unbelievable settings.

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Of course, not all of Honduras is “untouched” but the opportunity to see local industries and especially agriculture in action is always an important part of visiting new places. Farming is an integral part of the local economy, and continues to be amid the immense challenges and pressures of the times. Bananas and coffee represent Honduras’ main exports, along with pineapples and palm fruit/oil; while corn, rice and sorghum are among the most important subsistence crops.

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I always enjoy seeing birds with unique nesting behaviours – and oropendolas definitely have that! Here we came across a colony of Montezuma Oropendola showing off their ridiculously cool hanging (“pendulum”) nests.

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As a lover of both coffee and chocolate, I relished our chance to visit the wonderful EcoFinca Luna del Puente. This sustainable coffee and cacao plantation not only produces excellent treats (did I mention the coffee & chocolate?!?!), but has a strong environmental mandate and maintains a large nature preserve as part of its estate. The owners welcome birders and even offer guided bird walks along the trails. The diversity of birds found in the mixed forest and plantation habitats was astounding!

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This Northern Potoo was hands-down the highlight of my morning at EcoFinca de Luna Puente — what an insanely weird and wonderful bird! As nocturnal birds, potoos spend their day roosting quietly and use their uniquely camouflaged plumage to hide themselves in plain sight. I could easily have walked past this fella, who in real life looked just like part of the branch it was sitting on.

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On the other hand, these Green Jays were anything but quiet or camouflaged. Gaudy and raucous, these brightly coloured birds looked like decorations sitting in a bare treetop.

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This Brown-crested Flycatcher sat overlooking our group as we hiked through the cacao plantation. It was just one of 11 flycatcher species we enjoyed on the estate – including Yellow-bellied Eleania, Dusky-capped Flycatcher, Yellow-olive Flycatcher, Piratic Flycatcher, and Boat-billed Flycatcher among others. Surprisingly, despite the abundance of insect-eating birds, I hardly noticed the presence of any bothersome flies during our travels.

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An added bonus to our EcoFinca visit was the experience of “making chocolate”. The owners walked us through the entire process of harvesting, fermenting, roasting and preparing cacao to produce chocolate. It was a fun, hands-on experience and we ended up with fresh hot cacao to celebrate the morning’s birds and the new friendships we were forging. Authentic experiences such as this are integral to growing a unique & successful eco-tourism sector – and this family is getting it right!

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One of our next adventures was in the Santa Barbara Mountains, where our excellent guides from Beaks & Peaks Birding Tours (more about them in the next post) took us for some higher elevation rain forest birding. Despite some early morning rain, it turned out to be a beautiful morning with LOTS of great birds and stunning scenery. We also met local community leaders who are working with farmers to try and conserve native forests and achieve a balance between the ever-important coffee growing industry and the blossoming eco-tourism sector.

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This Northern Emerald-Toucanette was one of the very first birds we encountered, keeping us entertained as we waited out a heavy rain shower under the shelter of a local farmer’s utility shed. Making the wait worth it, we also found our first Emerald-chinned Hummingbird at the same place!

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Although somewhat distant, this elusive Elegant Euphonia showed extremely well and was a huge treat to see. Residents of the higher elevations, they can be difficult to find and much of their movements within the area are poorly understood. This brightly coloured male stood out like a shining gem across the valley. Other regional endemics seen during this hike were Bushy-crested Jay and Blue-and-White Mockingbird, and other highlights included Blue-crowned Chlorophonia, Prevost’s Ground Sparrow and White-naped Brush-finch.

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With so many new and exciting birds, it was easy for me to overlook the abundance of butterflies that we encountered.

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The lovely scenery and opportunities (however brief) to see how local farming families lived  in this mountain region was a valuable addition to our visit. While life is undoubtedly challenging for these hard-working people, they are at the same time blessed to be living in such an amazing place.

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Our home base for the next two days was alongside beautiful, and birdy, Lake Yojoa. We took some time to explore the rich marshes and coastlines of this lake, and enjoy the great variety of birds that call it home. These Black-necked Stilts may spend the winter here, but would soon be heading north to breeding grounds in North America.

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One of the more secretive and cryptic species found at Lake Yojoa, we were fortunate to spot this Pinnated Bittern fly past and land in the tall grass. We watched it stalk slowly through the marsh for a few moments before disappearing completely right under our noses.

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Snail Kites, like this classy-looking male, are common around Lake Yojoa and always fun to watch.

Click here to check out Part 2 of my visit to Honduras. We pick up right where we leave off, here at Lake Yojoa, before heading north to the Atlantida region (including the famous Pico Bonito Lodge) for more awesome birding and wildlife experiences!

 

 

Happy New Year !!

Wishing a very happy New Year to all our friends near and far. 2016 brought with it many great adventures, exciting birds and birding, and opportunities to share wonderful experiences with friends new & old. Here’s to an even better 2017! May it find you well and bring lots of health, happiness, fun and adventure your way!

hny

Tweets, Terns & Plover Winds

Keen birders are often watching the forecast, especially the winds. And here in Newfoundland, April is a time to be looking east, waiting for trans-Atlantic winds that might deliver wayward migrants from Europe & Iceland. Winds have been excellent for the past 48 hours or so, and are still blowing onshore along the northeast coast as I write this … prime for the arrival of exciting vagrants like European Golden Plover, Northern Wheatear (both nearly annual here) or something even rarer.

Winds like these have been blowing almost directly across the Atlantic the past few days ... perfectly aligned to bring us some wayward European/Iceland migrants (Screenshot: April 22).

Winds like these have been blowing almost directly across the Atlantic the past few days … perfectly aligned to bring us some wayward European/Iceland migrants (Screenshot: April 22).

Earlier today, I was alerted to tweet from Nial Keogh aboard the RV Celtic Explorer (a research vessel), indicating that some Golden Plovers (preumably European) were spotted flying west in the mid-Atlantic this morning … way out to sea and headed in our direction. Despite the fact it was more than 1000km away, Newfoundland was still the closest landfall and they were headed this way. Heads up … check your fields and coastal grasslands!!

European Golden Plover is one of the most expected Icelandic birds to show up in Newfoundland ... almost annual here, but almost unheard of anywhere else in North America. Last spring saw a huge invasion ... could these winds be bringing us a few more??

European Golden Plover is one of the most expected Icelandic birds to show up in Newfoundland … almost annual here, but almost unheard of anywhere else in North America. Last spring saw a huge invasion … could these winds be bringing us a few more??

I also received a text from the unstoppable Alvan Buckley, who had just spotted two Arctic Terns in Renews harbour. This is several weeks early for our usual arrivals, but pretty much on time for those arriving in Iceland. Previous April records (there aren’t many!) have usually coincided with trans-Atlantic winds and were thought to be of European/Icelandic origin, and I expect the same of these.

Arctic Terns don't usually arrive back in Newfoundland until May. Previous April records, including two seen today, are probably Icelandic birds which tend to migrate earlier.

Arctic Terns don’t usually arrive back in Newfoundland until May. Previous April records, including two seen today, are probably Icelandic birds which tend to migrate earlier. (This photo, however, is from last summer)

Interesting winds continue for the next few days … maybe we’re in for a few surprises!! I myself could use a Eurasian Oystercatcher or Meadow Pipit to brighten up the month 😉