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.
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!!
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.
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 😉
This time of year can be hectic … family activities, shopping, crowded places. A guy can use a little fresh air & solitude, and sometimes a good Christmas Bird Count (CBC) can deliver just that.
This past weekend saw the resurrection of a great count that hasn’t taken place for several years now – the Cape St. Mary’s CBC. The count circle takes in some very isolated areas, especially in winter when tourists are not exactly swarming to this beautiful ecological reserve. My team (consisting of John Wells, Ed Hayden and I) were tasked with checking Cape St. Mary’s itself, the road leading to it, and the nearby communities of St. Bride’s and Cuslett. After a 2.5 hours drive from “town”, we met a rising sun at the lighthouse – overlooking some stunning coastline, rugged cliffs and a flock of ~600 Common Eider on the water below. What a great, peaceful way to start our day!
We birded around the lighthouse and entrance to Placentia Bay (west side of the cape), picking up more Common Eiders, Long-tailed Ducks, Common Loons, Dovekie and a few other odds & ends, including three Black-legged Kittiwake which are scarce in winter. The barrens just north of the lighthouse were hosting several Snowy Owls – not too unexpected given reports from around the island recently, although they ended up being the only owls reported all day!
Hiking east to Bird Rock (one of the world’s largest Northern Gannet colonies) was a surreal experience. In contrast to summer when the entire coast and surrounding waters are teeming with tens of thousands of breeding seabirds, it was virtually devoid of life. The cliffs were eerily quiet and abandoned, the upland tundra was completely still and the crunch of the rocky path under feet was often the only sound. A few dozen Common Eider and Long-tailed Duck dotted the waters below and six Great Cormorants stood watch on a rocky outcrop, but otherwise there were very few birds. But the cold salty air and moments of solitude did my soul a world of good.
Scanning over the barrens, I located a couple Snowy Owls, an adult Bald Eagle and a lone American Kestrel hunting over the tundra (a very good bird for this count, actually!). While John & Ed did another seawatch from Bird Rock overlook (scoring four Starlings for their trouble!), I hiked over the eastern ridge for a view of Golden Bay, flushing two Northern Pintail (first records for this count) along the way. This area, and especially this bay, is an important wintering area for Harlequin Duck. While we didn’t see any in our assigned area, a record number of 374 individuals were spotted along more eastern parts of the coastline – an uplifting sign for this threatened species!
The rest of the day was relatively uneventful as we birded St. Bride’s and Cuslett – two beautiful little communities on the Placentia Bay side of the peninsula. Dark-eyed Juncos were seen in excellent numbers, but few other passerines were recorded. In fact, we came up with ZERO sparrows (uncommon in winter, but a few are usually expected) and nothing out of the ordinary. A Red-necked Grebe was a decent find, while three Purple Sandpipers and a somewhat cooperative drake Long-tailed Duck gave me a short photography break.
All in all it was a great day, spent with some great people and at one of my favourite places on the island. And the break from the holiday hustle was the best part of it all! You can see a summary of the entire count here.
Our contest in over, and my lovely assistants (Emma & Leslie) picked a winner last night …
We went traditional, with names/numbers in a hat (well, a birdhouse, just for fun):
Diane now has the difficult task of choosing which photo she would like to see hanging on her wall. To get started, she indicated her favourite birds are Owls, Northern Gannets, and Chickadees. With that in mind, here are a few of her initial options (plenty more available). Which might she choose??
Which would YOU choose??
Win a Beautiful Gallery-Wrapped Canvas Print from bird⋅the⋅rock
It’s been an exciting month for bird⋅the⋅rock!! A new website, new Facebook page, and LOTS of new friends!!
To celebrate, bird⋅the⋅rock is hosting a great contest in honour of my many friends and clients – past, present and future! Enter to win a 16″x20″ gallery-wrapped canvas print featuring one of my best Newfoundland photographs (birds, wildlife, and/or scenery). I also invite you to explore the new website, and would be delighted if you followed my blog or Facebook updates.
You can enter the contest here!
Most Newfoundlanders, and Canadians, think of November as the vanguard of winter. Temperatures plummet, trees lose the last of their summer leaves, and even a little snow can be expected before the month is out. Sure seems like a strange time to be looking for warblers – but here on “the rock”, November warblers are an integral part of the fall birding scene.
Granted, warblers are scarce this late in the year. A few late and lingering individuals can be found, often in the company of tougher, year-round species like Black-capped Chickadees and Dark-eyed Juncos. That just makes the otherwise “expected” ones a tad more exciting. And of course there are the vagrants – warblers that do not normally breed in or migrate through Newfoundland but have somehow gotten off-track and ended up here anyways. By November, some of those vagrants may have traveled a long way from home. This is the month when most western warblers, such as Black-throated Gray, Hermit and Virginia’s Warbler, have been discovered here. All in all, nearly 30 species of warbler have been recorded in Newfoundland during November – many, like those listed above, are the rarest ones on our checklist having been seen only once or twice in our storied birding history.
Townsend’s Warbler, an enigmatic little critter from west of the Rockies, has an unusual history of showing up here in late fall and early winter. With 17 individuals (the latest just last week!), Newfoundland has more records than almost any other province or state in eastern North America! More amazing still, almost all of those have been in St. John’s. And a total of eleven records come from one small river valley spanning just a few square kilometres! Odd things happen in the easternmost reaches of the continent.
In November, every flash of yellow in the bushes or non-descript warbler needs to be scrutinized. This is the month when almost anything can happen. Cliff Doran, lighthouse keeper and rare bird magnet, photographed a dull looking bird in a pile of spruce boughs at Cape Race on November 12. Not knowing exactly what it was, he posted the photos online and piqued the interest of several birders – yours truly included. The initial suggestion of Common Yellowthroat just didn’t seem right, and thoughts of several much rarer candidates began to dance in our heads. Something about the bird, though, seemed familiar …
The photos showed only the head and extreme upper breast of the bird – the rest obscured by branches. It showed a dull olive brown head, bright white eye-arcs and apparent pale yellow wash on the breast. The bill was on the large end for a warbler (prompting some people to consider a very rare vireo), but didn’t appear to be hooked. After a few minutes pondering the possibilities, and then confirming my suspicions with Bruce Mactavish (who is currently at sea and craving terrestrial distractions) and Alvan Buckley, the conclusion became clear … Pine Warbler! An excellent, but fairly regular, visitor to Newfoundland at this time of year. Identifying dull fall warblers can be a challenge, but its often worth the effort!
Keep an eye out for November Warblers in your own backyard! The next rarity is just around the corner …
November is always an exciting month in Newfoundland birding. While most of the busy migration season is behind us, this is the time of year when the “real” rarities often show up. The list of “megas” that have been recorded here in November is staggering and includes real gems like Corn Crake, Wood Sandpiper, Curlew Sandpiper, Long-billed Dowitcher, Slaty-backed Gull, Cave Swallow, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Redwing, Townsend’s Solitaire, Black-throated Gray Warbler & Hermit Warbler — just to name a few!
This November has started off quite hot … no “megas” yet, but lots of quality birds. One of the most intriguing so far has been a Meadowlark discovered near Kenny’s Pond, St. John’s on November 7. I arrived less than an hour after Alvan Buckley initially found it, hoping for a glimpse and maybe a few photos. True to form, it was very secretive and almost impossible to see on the ground as it skulked in the grass of an abandoned, overgrown soccer field. Over the next hour we saw it in flight several times, and several cameras were able to snap some poor photos as it sailed from one side of the field to the other. My photos were far from stellar, but c’est la vie!
Meadowlark is only reported in Newfoundland every five years or so, and all previous records have been presumed Eastern Meadowlark by default — since the two species are extremely difficult to tell apart in fall and without hearing their voice. Yet, initial photos of this bird indicated that Western Meadowlark (!!!) had to be considered more carefully. The tail pattern seemed to fit this species better, although the information varied between different field guides and reference books. We have even tried to record it calling, with little to no luck. Long story short, the jury is still out on this bird — and may remain so. But we are still awaiting some expert comments. (For a more detailed summary and better photos, check out the excellent post on Alvan Buckley’s blog.)
With a little extra freedom this holiday weekend, Alvan Buckley and I decided to get together for a full day of birding on November 11. I have a little tradition of birding “underbirded” places on the southeast Avalon in early November – a day I jokingly refer to as my “Off The Beaten Track Tour”! Sticking to that plan, we thoroughly birded small communities from Brigus South to Renews. We started off on firm footing, finding Red Crossbills, an Orange-crowned Warbler and Baltimore Oriole in the little hamlet of Brigus South (which probably doesn’t get looked at any other day of the year!). Our next stop in Cape Broyle produced a Black & White Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Lincoln’s Sparrow, and Evening Grosbeak … nothing too exciting, but all quality birds for the time & place. Then Alvan spotted our first (minor) rarity of the day – a Northern Mockingbird hanging out in the tangles of a damson tree. It flew off before we could get too close, although I managed a few mediocre record photos when it returned a while later.
Next on our route was Calvert, which produced another Orange-crowned Warbler. Ferryland, filled with potential but rarely checked during fall, always seems to deliver in November. On this day, we found a lingering Yellow-rumped Warbler and Killdeer in the northern part of town. After splitting up to cover more area, Alvan and I converged in a lush area known as the “pig farm delta” which has seen its share of good birds over the years. We soon spotted an interesting bird tucked into some distant alders … and when it flew we both exclaimed “KINGBIRD!” at the same time. It was a Western Kingbird … an excellent (though nearly annual) bird in Newfoundland! It hung around long enough for a few other birders to arrive and see it, although distance and tough light made it impossible to photograph. But terrible photos are better than none, I guess!
Motivated to keep birding, Alvan and I headed south to Renews (driving past some other great, underbirded places on the way!). I had hardly stopped the car on the south side of the harbour when Alvan pointed out a tern over the water. Any tern is rare in November, and there was momentary excitement as we fumbled for our scopes and cameras. It was fleeting, however, as we soon realized it was a Common Tern … still rare at this late date, but not as exciting as we had hoped. (Another had been seen at Cape Race two days earlier, suggesting they may have arrived on the very strong southerly winds of the weekend).
We moved on to check the rest of town, not seeing much of note. Then we split up again, and I searched out some junco flocks at the edge of town. Another Orange-crowned Warbler popped in with one small flock … followed by another pale, non-descript bird that peaked my interest. After getting a few good glimpses through the alders, it appeared to be a vireo … and a good one! It (and the entire flock) dissolved into the trees and disappeared before I could get the confirming looks I wanted, and I knew one of (if not “the”) best birds of the day had just slipped through my fingers. Was it a Warbling Vireo, or something even rarer?? I guess I’ll never know for sure, but that image is burned into my head and will nag me for the next few days. Arrrgh … If only I’d been able to get just a few terrible photos!!