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.

Check out those eyes!

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!

LakeYojoa_Honduras_1323

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.

YellowBreastedCrake_Honduras_1155

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!

WhiteTailedKite_Honduras_1236

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.

BeaksPeaks_Hondruras

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!

NorthernJacana_Honduras_9275

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!

SnailKite_Honduras_1311

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)

SnailKite_Honduras_1282

Tilapia_Honduras

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!

FruitStand_Honduras.jpg

KeelBilledToucan_Honduras_2730

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.

BasiliskLizard_Honduras_3100

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.

CentralAmericanAgouti_Honduras_3085

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.

TrolleyCyS_Honduras_1716

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!

BlackHeadedTrogon_Honduras_1731

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.

LaughingFalcon_Honduras_2079

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

WhiteFacedCapuchin_Honduras_1661

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.

CueroYSalada_Honduras_1954

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.

BareThroatedTigerHeron_Honduras_1818

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!

GreenKingfisher_Honduras_1861

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.

ProthonotaryWarbler_Honduras_1788

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.

WhiteLinedBats_Honduras_1908

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!)

CueroYSalada2_Honduras_1990

CrownedWoodNymph_Honduras_2266

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.

ScalyBreastedHummingbird_Honduras_2214

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.

SlatyTailedTrogon_Honduras_2595

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.

SpectacledOwl_Honduras_2419

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!

SpectacledOwl_Honduras_2475

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”.

LongBilledHermit_Honduras_2498

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!

Cevice_PicoBonito_Honduras

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.

WhiteCollaredMannikin_Honduras_2981

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.

RedCappedMannikin_Honduras_3042

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

Group_PicoBonito_Honduras_2965

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.

LessonsMotmot_Honduras_9074

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!!

SanPedroSula_Honduras_8801

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.

CollaredAracari_Honduras_8787

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).

BlueGreyTanager_Honduras_8454

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.

Baleadas_Honduras

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!

CollaredTrogon_Honduras_8884

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!

VioletSabrewing_Honduras_9021

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!

BlackCrestedCoquette_Honduras_9662

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!

OliverKomar_Honduras

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.

KeelBilledMotmot_Honduras_9719

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.

Scenery_PANACAM_Honduras

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.

Scenery2_PANACAM_Honduras

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.

MontezumaOropendula_Honduras_9532

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.

EcoFincaDeLuna_Honduras

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!

NorthernPotoo_Honduras_0242

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.

GreenJay_Honduras_9965

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.

BownCrestedFlycatcher_Honduras_9985

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.

Cocoa_EcoFinca_Honduras

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!

CocoaComp_EcoFinca_Honduras

FoggyForest_Honduras

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.

EmeraldToucanette_Honduras_0587

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!

ElegantEuphonia_Hondiuras_0664

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.

Butterfly_Honduras

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

Scenery3_Honduras

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.

Birding2_Honduras

BlackNeckedStilt_Honduras_0878

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.

PinnatedBittern_Honduras_0541

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.

SnailKite_Honduras_0969

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 😉

 

Counting – It’s Good for the Soul

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!

A beautiful sight to start our morning - the breathtaking cliffs and coastline of Placentia Bay, looking west from the lighthouse.

A beautiful sight to start our morning – the breathtaking cliffs and coastline of Placentia Bay, looking west from the lighthouse.

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!

It's been another good year for Snowy Owls, and were were greeted by several as we arrived at Cape St. Mary's for dawn.

It’s been another good year for Snowy Owls, and were were greeted by several as we arrived at Cape St. Mary’s for dawn.

SNOW_Dec202014_1283 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.

It is surreal to see Bird Rock (left) completely devoid of birds this time of year, when it is bustling with thousands of gannets during spring and summer. Here, John & Ed enjoy a mid-morning seawatch while I hiked over the eastern ridge.

It is surreal to see Bird Rock (left) completely devoid of birds this time of year, when it is bustling with thousands of gannets during spring and summer. Here, John & Ed enjoy a mid-morning seawatch while I hiked over the eastern ridge.

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!

A view over Golden Bay, which lies just east of Cape St. Mary's. It is an important wintering area for the threatened Harlequin Duck.

A view over Golden Bay, which lies just east of Cape St. Mary’s. It is an important wintering area for the threatened Harlequin Duck.

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.

Purple Sandpipers are among my favourite shorebirds ... they eke out their winters here in some of the most unforgiving habitats you can imagine.

Purple Sandpipers are among my favourite shorebirds … they eke out their winters here in some of the most unforgiving habitats you can imagine.

This drake Long-tailed Duck (locally called "hounds") was feeding at the end of a breakwater in St. Bride's. Between dives, I managed to sneak up quite close by edging along on the piled boulders.

This drake Long-tailed Duck (locally called a “hound”) was feeding at the end of a breakwater in St. Bride’s. Between dives, I managed to sneak up quite close by edging along on the piled boulders.

LTDUtail_Dec20_1515

Ciao for now. Merry Christmas!!

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.

And the Winner is …

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):

PickingaWinnerThe winner of a beautiful 16″x20″ gallery-wrapped canvas is Diane Burton (Glovertown, NL)!! Congratulations!!

TheWinnerDiane 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??

Boreal Owls are definitely one of my favourite birds. They are known for visiting residential neighbourhoods in mid-winter, when deep snow has impacted their traditional hunting areas in "the bush". - Photo: Jared Clarke (February 6, 2014)

SNOW_Dec7_8284

Boreal Chickadee

Northern Gannets arrive at Cape St. Mary's in May and stay until mid-September.

NOGA_8065

A typical view in rural Newfoundland.

Iceberg_June192014_1748

A few expected species, like this Boreal Owl, might help this year's winter tally break an amazing record of 150 set just two years ago!!

We’re Having a Contest!

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.

Promo_generalYou can enter the contest here!

November = Extreme Warbler Time

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.

Orange-crowned Warblers, which breed in southern Labrador yet not the island, are one of our routine November warblers. There have been a healthy handful reported so far this month.

Orange-crowned Warblers, which breed in southern Labrador yet not the island, are one of our routine November warblers. There have been a healthy handful reported so far this month.

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.

This Virginia's Warbler, the only one ever recorded in Newfoundland, was discovered on November 14, 2013. It was an exciting day for local birders!

This Virginia’s Warbler, the only one ever recorded in Newfoundland, was discovered on November 14, 2013. It was an exciting day for local birders!

Yellow-throated Warblers have a funny habit of showing up in Newfoundland in late fall and early winter, despite the fact their normal range is much further south. During cold weather, these beautiful birds will sometimes visit suet feeders, delighting backyard birders lucky enough to find one in their neighbourhood!

Yellow-throated Warblers have a funny habit of showing up in Newfoundland in late fall and early winter, despite the fact their normal range is much further south. During cold weather, these beautiful birds will sometimes visit suet feeders, delighting backyard birders lucky enough to find one in their neighbourhood! (This one was photographed in Cape Broyle a few years ago)

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.

Townsend's Warbler - while very rare in eastern North America, has been recorded an incredible 17 times in eastern Newfoundland! (This one, photographed on January 1 2013, was the 16th.)

Townsend’s Warbler – while very rare in eastern North America, has been recorded an incredible 17 times in eastern Newfoundland! (This one, photographed on January 1 2013, was the 16th.)

This "mystery bird" was photographed by Cliff Doran on November 14th. Can you guess what it is?

This “mystery bird” was photographed by Cliff Doran on November 12th. Can you guess what it is?

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!

PIWA head comparison

This Pine Warbler, photographed in St. Shott's a few years ago, was making good use of the late fall flies. Pine Warblers are another hardy warbler that get reported more often in November than any other month in Newfoundland.

This Pine Warbler, photographed in St. Shott’s a few years ago, was making good use of the late fall flies. Pine Warblers are another hardy warbler that get reported more often in November than any other month in Newfoundland.

Keep an eye out for November Warblers in your own backyard! The next rarity is just around the corner …

November – Good Birds, Terrible Photos

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!

Terrible Photo(s) #1 - A Meadowlark (Eastern? Western?) that was discovered in St. John's on November 7. It was seen over the next few days, but the cryptic nature of this bird and its plumage means we may never know which species it was!

Terrible Photo(s) #1 – A Meadowlark (Eastern? Western?) that was discovered in St. John’s on November 7. It was seen over the next few days, but the cryptic nature of this bird and its plumage means we may never know which species it was!

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.

Terrible Photo #2 - A Northern Mockingbird in Cape Broyle. This is an annual rarity in Newfoundland, although I certainly don't see one every year.

Terrible Photo #2 – A Northern Mockingbird in Cape Broyle. This is an annual rarity in Newfoundland, although I certainly don’t see one every year.

(Not Quite) Terrible Photo #3 - Killdeer. I even struggled to get a nice picture of a relatively tame bird!

(Not Quite) Terrible Photo #3 – Killdeer. I even struggled to get a nice picture of a relatively tame bird!

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!

Terrible Photo # 4 - Western Kingbird, Ferryland. This is an excellent bird in Newfoundland, and "probably" our bird of the day. Too distant, tough light ... all the regular excuses.

Terrible Photo # 4 – Western Kingbird, Ferryland. This is an excellent bird in Newfoundland, and “probably” our bird of the day. Too distant, tough light … all the regular excuses.

COTE_Nov112014_0294

Terrible Photo #5 – Common Tern

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).

Terrible Photo # 6 - Common Terns are long gone from Newfoundland  in November. This one must have arrived on the strong southerly winds of the past few days. It didn't look happy.

Terrible Photo # 6 – Common Terns are long gone from Newfoundland in November. This one must have arrived on the strong southerly winds of the past few days. It didn’t look happy.

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!!