Eurasian Oystercatcher — another mega-rarity nailed!!

I was thousands of kilometres from home, leading an Eagle-Eye Tours trip in southern Ontario, when I got the news … a EURASIAN OYSTERCATCHER had been confirmed at home on “the rock”. It was painful enough that my “most wanted” bird for Newfoundland decided to show up while I was away, but it was also ~7hrs way from St. John’s and would be a challenge for me to see even if it stayed long enough for me to return home. Only a birder can understand the anxious feelings that tingled through me during the last few days of the Ontario tour 😉

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I returned home and enjoyed a much-needed holiday weekend — icebergs, ice cream, and family time. The oystercatcher was still hanging in there … but with tours booked for early in the week, it would need to hang on a little longer. It did! On Wednesday evening (May 22), long-time birding buddy Chris Ryan and I packed up and started the journey – driving as far as my parents’ house in Lewisporte for the night and continuing on to catch the first ferry to Long Island the next morning. After a very short crossing (complete with an iceberg and two humpback whales!), we arrived at Lushes Bight and scoured the small harbour. The fear of “dipping” (missing a bird) were beginning to mount after 15 minutes of not seeing it — but then it happened. I spotted a small black headed bobbing up and down behind a rock … it HAD to be!! And it was!!

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A very exciting bird to see, this Eurasian Oystercatcher is a mega Code-5 rarity in North America. A huge thanks to Marilyn Gillingham of Lushes Bight for finding it and getting the word out to the birding community! I think our visits have provided some entertainment for residents of this beautiful, isolated community!

We spent the rest of the morning sitting, watching, enjoying and photographing this ultra-rare visitor from Europe. This individual marks just the 5th North American record (all but one were here in Newfoundland; the other on the very isolated Buldir Island in the Aleutian Islands off Alaska), and the first “gettable” one in more than 20 years! Our 1100 km (return) “twitch” had panned out with incredible views of this magnificent bird!!

I guess I have to find a new bird to top my “most wanted” list   😉

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As the tide was high, the oystercatcher was often on the shoreline or rock jetties quite close to the road. We were able to enjoy fantastic looks without ever having to get out the car (which tended to make it wary). That was good news — because it was coooold!!

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The bird actually spent most of the morning sleeping — probably waiting for the tide to drop and expose some tidal pools/flats for feeding. It seemed to be getting more active just as we were leaving to start our journey home.

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On three occasions (over the course of 4 hours), the oystercatcher lifted its head, called a few times, and took to the air. It circled the harbour a few times, usually coming back to its favourite perch on a small rock jetty (but at least once disappearing for several minutes before doing so).

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Taking a short break from enjoying the bird, we also explored the little towns of Lushes Bight and Beaumont (Long Island). Beautiful Newfoundland outports, and so reminiscent of my childhood home here in Notre Dame Bay.

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It’s been a fantastic iceberg season this spring, and we spotted several on our visit to Long Island. This one was in the “tickle” as we crossed on the ferry. See the hole?? Top it off with the two humpback whales and a moose we spotted on the way home — and it was an incredible “twitch” through and through!!

 

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A Tale of Two (Extreme) Cardinals …

… and some very bad photos 😉

Last weekend, I found myself sitting in my car, staring at a feeder outside a house in Pouch Cove (~25 minutes from my own house) — for the third time that week. I was waiting for a visitor that eluded me the previous two trips, and starting to feel that my newest nemesis bird was about to have the last laugh yet again.

Then it happened … a female NORTHERN CARDINAL flew in out of nowhere, landed on the feeder for a few brief seconds, then disappeared behind a tangle of bare twigs in a nearby shrub. It was a brisk -25C (windchill) outside, but I rolled down my window, watched and snapped off some really poor photos during the next few minutes. It was rarely unobscured by something (branches, twigs, snow or even the feeder), but it was there — and it was a long-awaited “tick” on my Newfoundland bird list!

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Northern Cardinals are surprisingly rare in Newfoundland. There was just one (undocumented) record prior to 2005 when one over-wintered on the island’s Great Northern Peninsula, and just two more confirmed records in the following ten years. However, the past few months may have signalled a change to that claim, as there have been more records (at least five!) this fall and winter than ever before. In fact, two (one male, one female) have been frequenting feeders on the Burin Peninsula for the past few months. This female in Pouch Cove is the easternmost so far, and close enough to St. John’s that most of the local birders (like me!) have been able to add it to their coveted lists.

Ten days prior to seeing this extreme Northern Cardinal (perhaps the most northeastern record ever?), I was watching another at the very opposite end of its breeding range – in the decidedly warmer weather (+30C) of northern Belize! And while I have only poor photos of both to share, I have the very cool memory of seeing them at their extremes this February!

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** Below are a few of my favourite memories from the Eagle-Eye Tours trip to Belize & Tikal — pardon the quality, as they were quick edits on my phone during the tour. I hope to post a summary of the trip, with lots more photos, soon —- but in the meantime you can check it out on my Facebook, Twitter and/or Instagram accounts. **

Very Lost! A Purple Gallinule in Newfoundland

I was leading an Eagle-Eye Tours trip in Ontario (Point Pelee, Rondeau, Long Point & Algonquin) when I first heard the news … a brilliant adult PURPLE GALLINULE was discovered roaming on the Waterford River in St. John’s – just minutes from my house!! Despite the fact I was enjoying awesome birds & birding in some wonderful places, there was still a sting to knowing I was missing such a great bird on my home “patch”.

As luck should have it, this colourful visitor from the south decided to stick around — and I arrived home in plenty of time to catch up with it on May 16. What a stunner!

After missing this bird on my first attempt to see it on May 15, I was very happy to spot this bright purple head poking out of the grass the following morning. What a sight in urban St. John’s!

After a few minutes, this beautiful bird graced me by wandering out of the grass to forage along the river bank, sometimes in plain view and other times disappearing into the grass. It was wary, but not frightened by my presence as I sat quietly nearby.

Purple Gallinules are residents of marshes and other grassy wetlands from the southern United States to South America, so very much out of place on a river in eastern Newfoundland. In fact, before this I had only seen this species in Honduras and Trinidad & Tobago! This individual may have arrived on strong southerly winds of late April, which also brought warm weather and numerous herons/egret to Newfoundland at that time. With its secretive habits, it could easily have went unnoticed for the next few weeks until it was reported by some fishermen on May 12. It seems to be healthy and doing well, still present as of at least May 23 (although I imagine it has struggled with the cold weather of the past 24 hrs as I write this).

Surprisingly, the gallinule even flew up and perched in a tree above the river for several minutes – something I haven’t heard other observers report during its nearly two weeks so far. What a wonderful experience!

Incredibly, Purple Gallinule is a more regular vagrant to our shores than you might expect. This bird represents ~30th record for the island, but the first that has “chasable” by local birders and/or has been seen for more than one day. Most records are in late fall or winter, and the majority of those immature birds that are more prone to vagrancy. Many have been found moribund or already succumbed to the elements and its long journey north. A bright spring adult was a real treat — and a great “welcome home” surprise after my own wanderings!

Winter Birding – It’s Here!!

Some years ago, a tradition was started to keep tabs on the species of birds seen during the “official” winter bird season (December 1 – February 28) — now, most Canadian provinces (and many states) keep one. I began keeping a list for Newfoundland ten years ago, and look forward to seeing what awesome birds the coldest, snowiest months will bring each year! Not only do some surprising and very rare things tend to show up in winter, but many of our regular and expected birds are just as cool and exciting.
Newfoundland is one of the few places in North America where you can see Dovekie from land, and in many ways it is a symbol of winter for both local and visiting birders alike.

Newfoundland is one of the few places in North America where you can see Dovekie from land, and in many ways it is a symbol of winter for both local and visiting birders alike.

Sometimes something completely unexpected shows up to brighten the season. This Anna's Hummingbird was one of the amazing records that highlighted the incredible winter of 2010-11! It was a first provincial record and survived frigid temperatures well into February at a feeder in Brownsdale, Trinity Bay.

Sometimes something completely unexpected shows up to brighten the season. This Anna’s Hummingbird was one of the amazing records that highlighted the incredible winter of 2010-11! It was a first provincial record and survived frigid temperatures well into February at a feeder in Brownsdale, Trinity Bay.

Most winters we record ~130-140 species, but a record of 153 was set in 2012-13 when a rash of rarities big and small showed up all over the island. Overall, a grand total of more than 250 species have been recorded in Newfoundland during winter – pretty amazing! You can see a summary of all those records here.

I will keep a running list of of species seen on my website here (also see link in menu bar above). Please send reports to me using one of the methods below, and let me know if you have seen something that isn’t on the list. I’ll post the first reports on December 1 and update as regularly as I can.

Ways to send winter bird reports to me:

– Through the contact page on this website

– Email (jared_jjc AT hotmail.com) using the subject Winter Bird Report

– Post your report on the Newfoundland bird newsgroup (nf.birds)

– Using Facebook or Twitter (tag @birdtherock and/or #NLwinterbirds)

NOTE: I may be traveling outside of the province in early December, so updates could be limited and/or very occasional during that time … but I WILL catch up as soon as I return, so keep the reports coming!

So – get out there and check those ponds and woods roads and keep your feeders filled. Winter birding is here

 

Happy birding!

Mother Carey’s Chicks

For a place that boasts the world’s largest colonies of Leach’s Storm-Petrels, it is surprising how rarely most Newfoundland birders get to enjoy them. More than 3 million pairs (yes – pairs!) are estimated to breed on Baccalieu Island at the northern tip of the Avalon Peninsula and 600,000+ pairs in the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve alone! However, Leach’s Storm-Petrels spend the daylight hours far out to sea, feeding on plankton and small fish. Storm-petrels themselves are perfect meals for larger predatory birds like gulls, so they prefer the extra safety that comes with staying far away from land. Only at night, under the cover of darkness, do these robin-sized seabirds come back to their island abode and sneak into the safety of their underground burrows.

The best times to catch a glimpse of these mysterious birds are during strong onshore winds, when some get blown closer to shore than they would usually bother coming. Occasionally, during a really good windstorm, large numbers get driven onto shore or into large bays. Late last week, a night of northerly gales did just that – and I headed out the next morning to check for seabirds at bottom of Conception Bay. Arriving at Holyrood, I immediately saw dozens of Leach’s Storm-Petrels flying around offshore, mostly into the wind (which by this point had lessened a bit, with gusts of ~70km/h). Setting up my scope, I began to see hundreds of them coursing over the water further out in the bay. Although these winds sometimes bring in other seabirds such as jaegers and shearwaters, I saw nothing else unusual in my two hours of scanning. But it was still an awesome chance to watch, learn and appreciate the enigmatic little Storm-petrel.

I managed to find one place where Leach's Storm-Petrels were filing by occasionally within camera range, but bright sunshine and strong winds made photography difficult.

I managed to find one place where Leach’s Storm-Petrels were filing by occasionally within camera range, but bright sunshine and strong winds made photography difficult.

The bright sun and strong shadows ruined would otherwise have been a great photo opportunity.

The bright sun and strong shadows ruined would otherwise have been a great photo opportunity.

Thousands of Lach's Storm Petrels fluttered over Conception Bay, driven there by the strong wrap-around winds from Tropical Storm Cristobal (August 29).

This photo was taken at the same location two years ago, during strong wrap-around winds from Tropical Storm Cristobal (August 29, 2014). Winds like these make for interesting birding in September and October.

Leach’s Storm-Petrels are more familiar to fishermen and sailors who also spend much of their lives on the open ocean, and are known by many as “Mother Carey’s chicks”. I have always wondered the origins of this colourful name, which seemed nearly as mysterious as the birds themselves. I recently saw an intriguing old drawing of a witch flying on a broomstick, surrounded by storm petrels and overlooking a sailing ship in a raging storm. It turns out that, according to some folklore, Mother Carey is a name attributed to an old hag that brings about cruel and dangerous seas. Some even claim she is the wife of “Davy Jones”, the mythological figure who is blamed for causing shipwrecks and claiming the bodies of drowned sailors. It is no surprise, then, that such an otherwise innocent-sounding name has been given to a seabird that is often associated with stormy winds and weather.

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“Mother Carey and Her Chickens” (JG Keulemans, 1877)

Leach’s Storm-Petrels are also well known for getting stranded on land at this time of year. With millions of young birds fledging for the first time, and parents following suit to abandon their burrows until next year, there are lots of opportunity for mishaps. Storm-Petrels can get disoriented by the bright, artificial lights that are so common around our communities – especially on damp, foggy nights when visibility is limited. Like many seabirds, Storm-Petrels are unable to take flight from flat land (they usually launch off their sloped burrow entrance), and are easily stranded if they land. If you find one, gently pick it up, place it in a dark ventilated space (a small box works well) and release it over the water that evening. Doing so after sunset is best, since there is far less chance it will get predated on by larger birds.

We rescued this Leach's Storm-Petrel after finding it stranded at the base of Cape Race lighthouse on September 25. Although stranded birds may "appear" injured as they sit motionless or sometime flop around on the ground, in most cases they are healthy and simply cannot take off from land. We released this one over the water at nearby Cripple Cove.

We rescued this Leach’s Storm-Petrel after finding it stranded at the base of Cape Race lighthouse on September 25. Although stranded birds may “appear” injured as they sit motionless or sometime flop around on the ground, in most cases they are healthy and simply cannot take off from land. We released this one over the water at nearby Cripple Cove.

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Getting a Little “Spring” in My Step

Spring rarely comes easy in Newfoundland … most years, it is an uphill battle as it struggles against “old man winter” trying to keep its icy/snowy/slushy grip on our island. This year was no exception, and we saw more total snowfall in April than in any other month this winter! But nature has a way of keeping its balance, and migration chugged on pretty much on schedule. A few mild interludes, and a relatively nice May, has certainly helped put a spring back in the step of most Newfoundlanders (especially the birders!).

Feeling a little stir-crazy after weeks of “office” work, I was looking for an excuse to get out and experience a little spring for myself. So when Irish birders Niall Keough and Andrew Power asked if I could join them for a day of all-out birding in early May, I jumped on it. It was Andrew’s first visit to North America, and one of just a few for Niall — so there were lots of exciting things to look for and see. Heading south from St. John’s, we started with a female Purple Martin in Mobile – a local rarity that was only my third for island. A breeding plumaged Black-headed Gull was sitting on the rocks nearby – ho-hum for my friends, but always a treat to see on this side of the Atlantic. Roadside ponds offered a group of Ring-necked Ducks and a Beaver (which was especially exciting for Andrew). At La Manche we nailed one of the duo’s target species – a pair of Black-backed Woodpeckers acting very territorial. Several species of finch and both chickadees flitted around some cabins, and a Ruffed rouse drummed away in the forest cover. We soon found another local rarity – a subadult Franklin’s Gull dip-feeding in Cape Broyle harbour. Totally unexpected, and just my second for the province.

This Purple Martin had been hanging around for several days - recorded less than annually in Newfoundland, but one of a number seen so far this spring.

This Purple Martin had been hanging around for several days – recorded less than annually in Newfoundland, but one of a number seen so far this spring.

Black-headed Gulls are regular (though uncommon) in Newfoundland during winter, but it is always a treat to find one in spring sporting its fine breeding plumage.

Black-headed Gulls are regular (though uncommon) in Newfoundland during winter, but it is always a treat to find one in spring sporting its fine breeding plumage.

An even bigger treat was to find this Franklin's Gull - a rare visitor to Newfoundland and totally unexpected.

An even bigger treat was to find this Franklin’s Gull – a rare visitor to Newfoundland and totally unexpected.

The long drive along Cape Race road was shrouded in fog and very quiet, but the one bird we did bump into was another big target – a pair of Willow Ptarmigan right alongside the road, giving awesome views! Similarly, a Snowy Owl lingering near the road in St. Shott’s was a great highlight, though it soon lifted off an disappeared in the thick fog. At St. Vincent’s beach we spotted more than a dozen Pomarine Jaegers battling the very high winds that had suddenly picked up, and then the biggest surprise of the day — a grey-phased Gyrfalcon coursing the beach. We watched it for several minutes before it disappeared over the seawall and never resurfaced (although I never managed to get my camera locked in it!).

This male Willow Ptarmigan was very cooperative, even if the weather wasn't. The female was spotted sitting on a rock just a few yards further up the road.

This male Willow Ptarmigan was very cooperative, even if the weather wasn’t. The female was spotted sitting on a rock just a few yards further up the road.

The winds were suddenly VERY strong and blowing onshore when we arrived at St. Vincent's beach - so maybe the dozen or so Pomarine Jaegers shouldn't have been such a surprise. But seeing them from land in spring is pretty unusual.

The winds were suddenly VERY strong and blowing onshore when we arrived at St. Vincent’s beach – so maybe the dozen or so Pomarine Jaegers shouldn’t have been such a surprise. But seeing them from land in spring is pretty unusual.

The final highlight was not a bid, but a marine mammal that neither of my Irish friends had even dreamed of seeing in Newfoundland – a young Beluga Whale that had been hanging out near the community wharf in Admiral’s Beach! We also saw two Manx Shearwater in the bay there, although they hardly garnered a second look as the guys fawned over the little whale. It was the start of a great marine adventure for these two – a couple days later they boarded the research vessel RV Celtic Explorer and sailed back to Ireland, seeing lots of other whales and seabirds along the way!

This young Beluga Whale was easy to find at Admiral's Beach, where it had been hanging out for several weeks. It turned out to be a huge highlight for my Irish friends, and an excellent end to an awesome day out in the wind & fog!

This young Beluga Whale was easy to find at Admiral’s Beach, where it had been hanging out for several weeks. It turned out to be a huge highlight for my Irish friends, and an excellent end to an awesome day out in the wind & fog!

This week is the beginning of a busy few months of birding and sharing Newfoundland’s amazing wildlife, nature and scenery with dozens of visitors … and I couldn’t be more excited!! Stay tuned for updates on a busy Bird⋅The⋅Rock summer!

Winter 2015-16: Surprises & Usual Suspects

Well – another season of “official” winter birding (Dec 1 – Feb 29) has ended, and another Newfoundland winter bird list is complete. It has been an unusual winter weather-wise, with periodic warm spells and the snow coming and going like the tide in many parts of the island. In fact, looking out my St. John’s window this past week, it looked an awful lot like spring – hardly a patch of snow to be seen anywhere! But despite what the “official” season might say, I’m sure we’re not done with winter just yet – and there are probably more birds to discover before spring actually arrives!

The final tally of 140 species reported across Newfoundland (excluding Labrador) this winter was pretty much right on average. As always, there were lots of exciting surprises and a few (though not many) expected species that failed to make the list. The final list can be found here (while a cumulative list of previous winters can be found here).

Intrepid birder Alvan Buckley produced some of the earliest highlights during a school-related stint on the southwest coast – including the province’s second winter record of Field Sparrow and an equally rare Red-tailed Hawk. A stunning Summer Tanager was frequenting a feeder in nearby Codroy Valley in early December, while a very rare Western Tanager was photographed on the southern Avalon Peninsula on December 6. Unfortunately, the latter was a one-day wonder and disappoint birders who had hoped to connect with it in following days. An Eastern Towhee and Townsend’s Warbler rounded off some locally exciting birds for the first few days of winter birding.

Beverley Hinks shared this photo of a beautiful male Summer Tanager that frequented her yard in late November and early December ... what a stunning winter bird!

Beverley Hinks shared this photo of a beautiful male Summer Tanager that frequented her Codroy Valley yard in late November and early December … what a stunning winter bird!

Around St. John’s, a few dedicated birders managed to keep lingering migrants alive with an incredible effort to keep feeders stocked in strategic locations. A Blue-headed Vireo, Wilson’s Warbler and Yellow Warbler all survived into the cold January weather, while a Pine Warbler, Yellow-breasted Chat, Orange-crowned Warbler and Ruby-crowned Kinglet were still doing well when the end of February rolled by! A Northern Mockingbird and several Baltimore Orioles were also present around the city for parts of the season.

Although rare in Newfoundland, Pine Warbler makes the winter list most years. However, it is unusual for one to make it through the winter. This is the second year in a row that diligent caretakers have helped one survive the coldest season with a generous supply of high-energy food!

Although rare in Newfoundland, Pine Warbler makes the winter list most years. However, it is unusual for one to make it through the winter. This is the second year in a row that diligent caretakers have helped one survive the coldest season with a generous supply of high-energy food!

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This first-winter Sabine’s Gull was a very unexpected surprise … extremely rare anywhere in North America during winter, and pretty much anytime along the coast of Newfoundland.

A Pacific Loon that has been hanging out near St. Vincent’s was relocated several times throughout the winter. Completely off-the-wall was a Sabine’s Gull that was found in the same area on January 31 and lingered for more than a week. This is quite rare from land in Newfoundland, and almost unheard of anywhere along the North American coast in winter! This exciting find was closely followed by a Fieldfare in Lumsden on the island’s northeast coast, and a beautiful Varied Thrush in Rocky Harbour. Both are mega rarities, although the Old World origins of the Fieldfare gave it a slight edge on the excitement scale.

The business end of a mega-rare Fieldfare that has been hanging out in Lumsden on the northeast coast. While we did get some slightly better looks this morning, this was the only photo I managed to get! "Arse-on", as we might say in Newfoundland.

This Fieldfare was discovered enjoying late-season Mountain Ash berries (akak “dogberries”) in Lumsden on February 6. Though elusive, several keen birders were able to refind it over the next few days. And don’t worry – I did enjoy better looks than my one poor photo might suggest!

Darroch Whitaker captured this great photo of a female Varied Thrush that had been frequenting his (and a neighbour's) yard in Rocky Harbour in mid-February.

Darroch Whitaker captured this great photo of a female Varied Thrush that had been visiting his (and a neighbour’s) yard in Rocky Harbour in mid-February.

After being “missing-in-action” since mid-November, a/the Yellow-legged Gull returned to its regular haunts in east St. John’s in mid-February and was seen daily for more than a week. A period of unusually warm weather caused ALL the ice on Quidi Vidi Lake (and many other city ponds) to disappear, making gull-watching a little tough for the last week of February. (Narrowly missing the winter list was an adult Thayer’s Gull discovered on March 1 – such solid-looking candidate are actually quite rare in Newfoundland!)

After an unexplained (but not unprecedented) absence, this Yellow-legged Gull showed up in mid-February and was a fixture for local gull-watchers for a few days. It is likely still around.

After an unexplained (but not unprecedented) absence, this Yellow-legged Gull returned in mid-February and was a fixture for local gull-watchers for a few days. It is likely still around.

Several Gyrfalcons were spotted in February – probably the biggest influx in a number of years. Hopefully they continue a bit longer, since it’s been a while for this birder! Snowy Owls were reported in moderate numbers all season, also with an apparent influx in the last half of February.

Plenty of our winter regulars put in great showings this season, too. Tufted Ducks and Eurasian Wigeon were found at their regular locations, while Dovekie were spotted in excellent numbers through most of January. Northern finches such as Common Redpoll and White-winged Crossbill descended on several parts of the island, as did big flocks of Bohemian Waxwings. While resident, Pine Grosbeaks were especially notable as big gatherings were found gorging on late season berries. Missing from the list, but undoubtedly on the island somewhere, were species such as Boreal and Northern Saw-whet Owls, Rock Ptarmigan and Northern Three-toed Woodpecker. One major change from previous years was a huge decrease in the number of Black-headed Gulls wintering in St. John’s – the recent closure of several sewer outflows has had a significant impact on their distribution.

All in all, it was another excellent winter in one of the best places to go winter birding!