Jaegers in the Fog

I often associate Jaegers with fog. Here in Newfoundland, we most often see them in late summer as they harass the swarms of Black-legged Kittiwake feeding on capelin along our coast – often accompanied by ample fog. In my mind’s eye, I imagine them on their breeding grounds on the sub-arctic tundra, shrouded in moody mist. Heck – I can hardly even picture a jaeger in nice, sunny weather.

So I should not have been surprised to find myself photographing an adult Pomarine Jaeger in the fog this morning. BUT I was surprised … mostly since it was standing just metres away in the middle of a city ballfield, and was the seventh Jaeger I had seen in the city this week!! Very odd, indeed.

This adult Pomarine Jaeger was sitting out the fog in St. John's ballfield, munching on a dead gull. It was one of several around the city and part of much bigger, very odd event taking place the past few days.

This adult Pomarine Jaeger was sitting out the fog in a St. John’s ballfield, munching on a dead gull. It was one of several around the city and part of a much bigger, very odd event taking place the past few days.

It is rare opportunity to see this majestic bird so up close and personal in Newfoundland ... most sightings are distant birds harassing gulls over the ocean.

It is rare opportunity to see this majestic bird so up close and personal in Newfoundland … most sightings are distant birds harassing gulls over the ocean.

The first sign that something unusual was happening came in the form of an email on April 25 … a photograph, taken by Lillian Walsh in St. Lawrence (Burin Peninsula) showing an adult Pomarine Jaeger. It was one of two that she said had been cavorting with gulls in the town harbour that morning. Seeing jaegers at such close range is odd at any time of year in Newfoundland, and especially in early spring when they are usually migrating well out to sea. We have had some moderate onshore (northeasterly) winds this week, but certainly not enough to bother these very seaworthy birds. Maybe this was just one of those strange, one-off occurrences??

Nope. Later that same day we got word of a grounded jaeger in a small green space right in the middle of St. John’s. It must have gotten disoriented in the morning fog and arrived at this unusual location. I relocated the bird an hour or so later … appearing exhausted and possibly with an injured leg. It flew short distances if approached too closely (we attempted to capture it twice, hoping to release it near the ocean), but otherwise seemed unwell. It did fly off on its own accord around dusk, but was unfortunately found dead the next morning.

This unfortunate Pomarine Jaeger appeared exhaisted and/or injured when discovered in a city green space on April 25. It eventually succumbed to its troubles and is now part of Memorial University's ornithology collection.

This unfortunate Pomarine Jaeger appeared exhausted and/or injured when discovered in a city green space on April 25. It eventually succumbed to its troubles and is now part of Memorial University’s ornithology collection.

Since then, more than two dozen jaegers have been reported at widespread locations all over the island’s northeast coast – and there must be many others unnoticed or unreported. At least five jaegers (3 Pomarine, 2 Parasitic) have been hanging out in St. John’s harbour the past two days, resting on gravel flats near an industrial wharf and occasionally harassing the gulls feeding at a nearby sewer outlet. Another was spotted in a mid-city pond and feeding on a Ring-billed Gull carcass (did it kill it???) at a ballfield across the road. Several (including at least one Parasitic, which is even more unusual than Pomarine in April) were hanging out near a fish plant in Witless Bay, sometime appearing sickly. At least one was killed and eaten there by an otter, while another killed by a mink in Port Union (Trinity Bay North).

At least five jaegers were hanging out in St. John's harbour, including these two conspirators making a fuss with the local gulls.

At least five jaegers were hanging out in St. John’s harbour, including these two conspirators making a fuss with the local gulls.

Most of the birds reported have been Pomarine Jaegers ...

Most of the birds reported have been Pomarine Jaegers …

however, at least three Parasitic Jaegers have been identified. This species is much less expected at this time of year and may even represent the first April records for Newfoundland.

however, at least three Parasitic Jaegers have been identified. This species is much less expected at this time of year and may even represent the first April records for Newfoundland.

Why this is happening remains a mystery. The weather alone cannot explain it, since winds have certainly not been “that” strong, and these birds can easily handle much stronger gales. Pomarine Jaegers are regular migrants at sea in April, but Parasitic are not. There has been no sign of starvation in other seabirds such as Black-legged Kittiwake (which jaegers most often harass to steal food from), so a shortage of food is not obvious. The widespread nature of their arrival does not support the idea of a singular environmental incident (e.g. contamination/poisoning). Some of the birds appear relatively healthy, while others quite sick and/or exhausted. Whatever the cause, it is unprecedented in Newfoundland’s birding history, and will go down in the books as “very odd, indeed”.

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Say “Ahhhhhhh”. After a thorough check-up, I concluded that this bird was much healthier than some of the others I had seen this week. Maybe it was the nutritious gull it was eating!

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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 😉

 

The Trickling Back of Spring

To most people, spring doesn’t simply “arrive” in Newfoundland. It fights and claws its way back, while winter works like the dickens to maintain its icy grip. April can be like purgatory here on the island – somewhere in between two battling seasons, deceptively mild and promising one minute and bitter cold the next. And this year has been no exception!

WinterStages_9731But to birders, signs of spring start popping up long before the promise of warm weather. Black-legged Kittiwakes and Ring-billed Gulls begin returning to our coast in late March, looking fresh and bright after a long winter abroad. Horned Larks can often be found on coastal headlands and kelpy beaches, waiting for the last patches of snow to disappear on the grassy barrens. Northern Gannets head north from more temperate waters in early April, catching their first glimpse of Newfoundland in more than five months. Common & Thick-billed Murres start rallying for their precious few inches of personal space on the steep breeding cliffs, while Atlantic Puffins begin spring repairs on their family burrows. American Robins, the first harbinger of spring that most people will notice, arrive in the first week of April to show off their bright red breasts and spring melodies. Not to be outdone, Fox Sparrows come in on the same winds and belt out their ethereal tunes. Spring has sprung, despite the lingering snow and yo-yo temperatures. Each and every bird that arrives, unseen as they might be, helps peel back the icy fingers of winter. And I’m ready for that.

The return of Black-legged Kittiwakes is probably the very first sign of spring in Newfoundland, even if they go unnoticed by most people who are still occupied with shoveling snow in late March.

The return of Black-legged Kittiwakes is probably the very first sign of spring in Newfoundland, even if they go unnoticed by most people who are still occupied with shoveling snow in late March.

Horned Lark also begin returning at the very first crack of spring - often the first migrant songbird to return.

Horned Lark also begin returning at the very first crack of spring – often the first migrant songbird to return.

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A growing number of Northern Gannets can be spotted migrating along the coast by the first week of April.

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Spring is a busy time of building and repairing nests, from the smallest songbird to the largest seabird.

Murres may have less distance to travel after a long winter out at sea, but their return is no less notable.

Murres may have less distance to travel after a long winter out at sea, but their return is no less notable.

Real estate is hard to come by in the crowded murre colonies, and spring must be crazy as each pair establishes just a few inches space on a narrow cliff ledge!

Real estate is hard to come by in the crowded murre colonies, and spring must be crazy as each pair establishes just a few inches space on a narrow cliff ledge!

Soon, the famous Atlantic Puffin colonies along our coast will look like this again - alive and colourful.

Soon, the famous Atlantic Puffin colonies along our coast will look like this again – alive and colourful.

Even to non-birders, the return of bright and vocal American Robins is a hallmark of spring in Newfoundland.

Even to non-birders, the return of bright and vocal American Robins is a hallmark of spring in Newfoundland.

For serious birders, spring also bring the potential for rarities that have strayed off the beaten path during migration ... and in Newfoundland, European stragglers make for the most excitement. In 2014, more than 300 European Golden Plovers were reported across Newfoundland in early May - a huge (though not quite record!) invasion of this nearly annual rarity. Will we see any this year??

For serious birders, spring also brings the potential for rarities that have strayed off the beaten path during migration … and in Newfoundland, European stragglers make for the most excitement. In 2014, more than 300 European Golden Plovers were reported across Newfoundland in early May – a huge invasion of this nearly annual rarity. Will we see any this year??

Long Necks & Bills

Winter is still trying to hang on here in Newfoundland, and its icy grip was felt with a little fresh snow, ice and freezing rain during the first two days of April. But signs of spring ARE starting to pop up – the first bright American Robins singing from the treetops, a handful of refreshed-looking Ring-billed Gulls joining the bedraggled few that stayed around for winter, and the arrival of Black-legged Kittiwakes all along the coast.

One unusual, but not unexpected, sign of spring was a Great Egret spotted on Friday (wayward as they are, a few sometimes arrive on April winds – probably wondering where and how they made such a wrong turn!). The location wasn’t too surprising, either … Long Pond, just a few blocks from our house, is one of the few marshy ponds that are partly open this time of year and has probably seen more egrets than most places in Newfoundland. I managed to find an hour in the late afternoon to go check it out …

Ouch! Cccccold feet! How did I end up here??

Ouch! Cccccold feet! How did I end up here??

Despite the ice and snow, this fella seemed to be doing quite fine and catching plenty of small fish. Like most egrets that arrive here in early spring, it will likely make its way back south once the winds cooperate.

Despite the ice and snow, this fella seemed to be doing quite fine and catching plenty of small fish. Like most egrets that arrive here in early spring, it will likely make its way back south once the winds cooperate.

Long Pond, in the centre of St. John's, has seen it's share of wayward egrets. I photographed this one there in mid-April several years ago.

Long Pond, in the centre of St. John’s, has seen it’s share of wayward egrets. I photographed this one there in mid-April several years ago.

My birding time has been limited lately, but I did take some time out last week to go look for a very probable Common Snipe that had been found in Ferryland, hanging out with up to three Wilson’s Snipe. I must have picked the wrong day, since during my four hour stakeout, only two of the four snipe could be found at any of the places I checked – and both were clearly Wilson’s Snipe. The suspicious snipe has been seen since, but remains unconfirmed since confident identification of these two species is complicated and requires photos of underwing details that they are not prone to showing. (Some informative photographs and great discussions about this individual are available on the blogs of Bruce Mactavish and Alvan Buckley, who both spent some time with it.)

Here are the two Wilson's Snipe that made an appearance during my visit to Ferryland last week. A far more interesting snipe failed to show up for the party!

Here are the two Wilson’s Snipe that made an appearance during my visit to Ferryland last week. A far more interesting snipe failed to show up for the party!

Another bird wondering why on earth it decided to spend the winter "here" ...

Another bird wondering why on earth it decided to spend the winter “here” …

I managed to spot two more Wilson’s Snipe on the drive home – one at Tors Cove and another at Bay Bulls. Four snipe on the day, but all of them a tad disappointing!

Common Redpolls have been scarce on the Avalon in recent years, so I was happy to encoutner a few during a recent visit to my parents' house in Notre Dame Bay. I almost forgot how much I like them!

Common Redpolls have been scarce on the Avalon in recent years, so I was happy to encounter a few during a recent visit to my parents’ house in Notre Dame Bay. I almost forgot how much I like them!

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These photos were taken during a lull in a mid-March snowstorm … weather that suits these birds, but not photography.

Winds, Waves & Winter Birds

January was a whirlwind of birding. Since the WINGS tour, I’ve had the pleasure of sharing the amazing scenery and wildlife of eastern Newfoundland with visiting birders from Texas (Jan 18-20), Ontario (Jan 23-27) and British Columbia (Jan 29). They all came with slightly different goals and targets, but everyone was keyed up to see the wonderful variety of birds that call this place home in winter.

The weather we experienced during those two weeks was also a whirlwind of sorts, spanning the gamut of the Avalon Peninsula’s infamously variable climate. January 18 was the coldest day of winter so far, and two birders from Texas (John & Tom) and I found ourselves facing very bitter winds on the edge of North America at Cape Spear. The stinging faces and numb fingertips were all worth it though, as we enjoyed watching a lone Dovekie feeding just offshore — a major target in the pocket. Throughout the next few days we enjoyed great views of other sought-after birds like Great Cormorants “sunning” on rock, dozens of Tufted Ducks at point-blank range, Black-headed Gulls bathing in small patches of open water, and beautiful Eurasian Wigeon dabbling with the local ducks. We even managed to relocate three White-winged Crossbill in Ferryland (scarce this year!) and a Snowy Owl keeping watch over the tundra south of Cappahayden.

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Dovekie is among the most sought-after species by visiting birders – and January is prime time to see them.

Eurasian Wigeon are uncommon visitors to Newfoundland, but they sure do add a little spice to our winters!

Eurasian Wigeon are uncommon visitors to Newfoundland, but they sure do add a little spice to our winters!

American Wigeon, the more expected species on this side of the Atlantic, aren't too shabby themselves.

American Wigeon, the more expected species on this side of the Atlantic, aren’t too shabby themselves.

Much of January was punctuated with high winds, including a storm on January 25 that brought gusts of well over 130 km/h and two days of storm surges along the island’s coast. Hoping for a rush of seabirds being blown onshore, visiting birder Judith and I met the storm along the Avalon’s southern shore. Black-legged Kittiwakes, which are usually far offshore in January, glided by and Dovekie zipped past as if it were a perfectly nice afternoon, while small groups of Common Eider bobbed up and down on the breakers. Unfortunately, many of the more pelagic species we were gunning for failed to show up, but the incredible winds, waves and angry seas made for a memorable experience!

Waves_Jan25_3997 Waves_Jan25_4009 Waves_Jan25_4048By month’s end, a mild spell and generous rains had opened up a bit of extra standing water and cleared away most of the snow cover. Testament to that is the fact that we were able to drive all the way to Cape Race several times – very unusual for this time of year. The open road opened a door to some excellent birding – at least two Snowy Owls, rafts of Common Eider, dozens of Red-necked Grebe, all three species of Scoter, and a pair of Harlequin Ducks. Even more interesting was a group of 32 Woodland Caribou traversing the barrens – an encouraging sign for this struggling herd.

It's been another great season for Snowy Owls. As usual, most tend to young ones - so this adult male was a nice surprise!

It’s been another great season for Snowy Owls. As usual, most tend to be young ones – so this adult male was a nice surprise!

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Note the dark barring on this owl, identifying it as either young or female.

The Avalon herd of Woodland Caribou has seen incredible decline over the past few decades, so seeing a group of 32 was very heartwarming. Lovely animals!

The Avalon herd of Woodland Caribou has seen incredible decline over the past few decades, so seeing a group of 32 was very heartwarming. Lovely animals!

Caribou_Jan272015_4139Walking trails had turned to ice, feeling more like skating rinks than paths – but that didn’t stop Fran (from British Columbia) from making the best of our day out. We crept along the north side of Long Pond, stopping to enjoy the company of several Boreal Chickadees and Red-breasted Nuthatches as they took seeds right from my hand. Tufted Ducks, Greater Scaup and even an American Coot entertained at us at several ponds, while a lone Purple Sandpiper, Long-tailed Ducks and dozens of Common Eider were among the highlights at Cape Spear.

Of course, birds aren't the only stars of our show! We also enjoyed seals, otters and even a humpback whale this January.

Of course, birds aren’t the only stars of our show! We also enjoyed seals, otters and even a humpback whale this January.

A Great Cormorant drying its wings in the heart of historic St. John's.

A Great Cormorant drying its wings in the heart of historic St. John’s.

SNOW_Jan272015_4171What a great month! I wish they all could be like January 😉

Winter Bird Photography (A Guest Post!)

Winter in Newfoundland offers some incredible opportunities for bird photography — a passion enjoyed by more and more birders. Newfoundland also has its share of great wildlife photographers, not the least of which is my good friend Brad James. Brad has been kind enough to write a guest post for Bird⋅The⋅Rock about some of his favourite winter subjects. (Be sure to check out his website, at the bottom of this post, to see more of his amazing work!!)

** I’m excited to say that Bird⋅The⋅Rock and Brad James Wildlife Photography are planning some joint birding/photography tours (winter & summer) in the near future!!! These tours will include some great birding, lots of photography opportunities, along with tips, instructions and field lessons from Brad himself! I know I’m excited!! Let me know if you’re interested in hearing more!

Winters in Newfoundland  by Brad James

Winters in Newfoundland can be nasty. Growing up in Gander (central Newfoundland) it seemed the snow would pile up as high as skyscrapers; people would drive up and down the streets on skidoo since there was so much snow and vehicle access on side roads was near impossible. Times have changed, or maybe I’ve grown up and my childhood imagination has diminished but winters here on the island don’t seem as bad…well until last year. Last year’s winter froze every body of water basically solid. Conception Bay behind my house was like a large ice cube. It was the first time since moving home five years ago that the bay had frozen over. Even though our winters can be nasty, they bring with it some amazing photo opportunities! One of my favourite subjects during the winter months are the diving ducks. They can be found throughout the various ponds around St. John’s but once the temperatures drop and those ponds freeze over they move to the remaining open waters of Quidi Vidi lake. This provides some amazing photo opportunities. Our mix of divers is comprised of Tufted, Greater & Lesser Scaup, and Ring necked ducks. Here are a few of my images from the past few years.

Tufted Duck Tufted1As you can see, we can get really close to our diving ducks here. 2014_TuftedDuck_March_3Greater Scaup GreaterScaup1Ring-necked Duck RingNeckDuckDuring last year’s freeze we were lucky to have a small group of seven Common Mergansers that moved into the lake and provided many birders and bird photographers with some excellent sightings.

Common Merganser CommonMerganser1 CommonMerganser2Winter months might also bring other waterfowl like Ruddy Duck, Bufflehead, Northern Shovelers, etc. to our waters and with little remaining water for them to feed in they usually end up at Quidi Vidi or small open pockets of water near streams and rivers. This allows for some wonderful photos!

Bufflehead BuffleHeadPied-billed Grebe 2013_PiedGrebe_Nov_3Over the past few years we have been lucky to have a Peregrine Falcon take up residence along the waters edge of Quidi Vidi. He can be seen hanging out in his usual tree scanning the lake for food.

Peregrine Falcon PeregrineFalconThe peregrine isn’t the only raptor on the lake as many Bald Eagles can be seen trying to make a meal out of the thousands of gulls that roost on the frozen waters.

Bald Eagle 2014_Eagle_Mar_3I rarely spend much time photographing gulls, despite the large number of Gulls species on the island (I should be shamed of myself!). However, over the past year my interest has begun to grow. One gull in particular that we are lucky to have is the Yellow-legged Gull which is sought after by many birders. Here are a few of the gulls I’ve photographed at Quidi Vidi during winter.

Black headed Gull BlackHeadGullLesser Black-backed Gull LesserBlackbackGullAnother species which gets a lot of my attention during winter are Dovekies. These tiny seabirds aren’t always easy to find near shore but when you do its a real treat and a great bird to study.

Dovekie Dovekie1 Dovekie2Another photogenic bird during winter is the Purple Sandpiper. There is a group of about 80 – 100 that show up each year at Cape Spear and feed along the rocks near the ocean.

Purples Sandpiper Purple_Sandpiper1 Purple_Sandpiper2These are only a few of the many species you can see on the island during the winter. If you’re really lucky you might get to see an Ivory Gull, Gyrfalcon and many other uncommon species that have shown up to the island and have even been spotted right here in the city! Newfoundland is an amazing place with friendly people and a warm welcoming atmosphere (even in the dead of winter). The island has much to offer during the winter months and provides some unique photo opportunities.

Check out more of Brad James’ amazing photography on his website & Facebook page below:
Website: http://www.bradjameswildlifephotography.com
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/bradjameswildlifephotography

Dump Nostalgia

The St. John’s Christmas Bird Count (CBC) takes place on Boxing Day (December 26) every year; rain, snow or shine. This season’s count was met with relatively warm (above freezing) temperatures, early morning rain/fog, and then beautiful clear weather. It was stark contrast to last years which saw more than 50cm of standing snow on the ground and frigid temperatures! This was the 49th year for this particular count, and I’ve been taking part for the past six (ever since I got married and stopped spending the holidays in my hometown of Lewisporte).

I look forward to every CBC that I’m able to participate in, but there is something special about this count … the dump! Each year I join my good friends Bruce Mactavish & Ken Knowles to cover the gull hotspots in east St. John’s – the local landfill (dump), Quidi Vidi Lake and the harbour. The dump is especially important and very nostalgic for me – bringing back memories of some great gull-watching that I used to enjoy with Bruce almost every Sunday morning in winter. There have been many changes at the St. John’s dump in the past six years, including increased security and inaccessibility to birders. Nowadays, our visits to the dump are limited to just one day a year when the city allows us entry for the CBC.

Dump_1774 Dump_1780While world-class gull-watching is not limited to the dump (it is in fact available at many locations across the city), it always offered the best opportunities to view large numbers of gulls at very close proximity and was great for photography. New gull deterrence programs at the dump have resulted in the gulls being much more wary of people and those close-up photography opportunities might be a thing of the past, but the sheer number and great looks at gulls haven’t changed much. We tallied approximately 9000 gulls at the dump alone, the majority of which were Herring Gulls but also included thousands of Great Black-backed Gulls, hundreds of Glaucous Gulls, dozens of “Kumlien’s” Iceland Gulls and nine Lesser Black-backed Gulls, along with a few interesting hybrids. Thousand of Starlings, hundreds of American Crows, a few dozen Common Ravens,  several Bald Eagles and two very unexpected Lapland Longspur added to the mix. Unfortunately no real rarities showed up during our three hours of intensive looking. But just being there was a real treat and whets my appetite for the best part of gull season ahead!

Glaucous Gulls are a sure sign of winter in Newfoundland ... even if the weather says different. This adult was photographed at the dump back in the days when we were able to get in more regularly.

Glaucous Gulls are a sure sign of winter in Newfoundland … even if the weather says different. This adult was photographed at the dump back in the days when we were able to get in more regularly.

Moving on to Quidi Vidi Lake and the harbour, we tallied many more of the same species (especially Iceland Gulls, which love our harbour), plus 75 Black-headed Gulls, three Ring-billed Gulls and two Common (European Mew) Gulls. We also tallied plenty of waterfowl, including eight Eurasian Wigeon and six American Wigeon grazing on a golf course, a lone Bufflehead (unusual in the city), two American Coots and the regular crowd of dabbling ducks. With mild weather and plenty of open water, the diving ducks were spread out over other parts of the city. A single Black Guillemot and seven Great Cormorants were also hanging out in the harbour.

The complete lack of snow in St. John's this Christmas is unusual, especially compared to the deep freeze we experienced last December!

The complete lack of snow in St. John’s this Christmas is unusual, especially compared to the deep freeze we experienced last December!

Great Cormorants are regular in St. John's during winter, but with such nice weather we were almost lucky to still find some in the harbour!

Great Cormorants are regular in St. John’s during winter, but with such nice weather we were almost lucky to still find some in the harbour! (This one photographed last winter)

Our beat turned up nothing but the most expected passerines – Dark-eyed JuncosAmerican Goldfinch, Boreal & Black-capped Chickadees, a couple Song Sparrows and one Golden-crowned Kinglet. Even a walk in the forested White Hills cam up pretty much empty. Perhaps the weather has been just a little “too nice”, allowing the birds to remain spread out rather than concentrated in areas like ours.

BTR_ChristmasBannerAnother Christmas, and another Christmas Bird Count, has zipped by. We’ll be spending the rest of the holidays visiting family in Lewisporte – maybe I’ll bump into a good bird or two along the way!

Happy New Year!!

 

Hurricane Gonzalo – Big Waves, No Birds

Hurricane birding at Cape Race. The weather cleared quickly as Gonzalo churned past just east of us, but the waves were spectacular!

Hurricane birding at Cape Race. The weather cleared quickly as Gonzalo churned past just east of us, but the waves were spectacular!

It was 0530 this morning when Ian Jones and Bruce Mactavish (aka “one of North America’s most renowned birders”!) picked me up at home. Hurricane Gonzalo was churning just SE of Newfoundland and radar indicated it would zip past Cape Race in just over an hour. Our plan was to meet it there!

Gonzalo, still a Category 1 hurricane, ripped by just miles east of Cape Race in the early morning hours of Sunday, October 20. We were there to meet it.

Gonzalo, still a Category 1 hurricane, ripped by just miles east of Cape Race in the early morning hours of Sunday, October 20. We were there to meet it.

It was a two hour run, and we made great time considering the driving, horizontal rain. The winds were picking up fast, first gusting from the east and north east as the storm approached us, but by the time we reached Portugal Cove South (just 21 km from Cape Race), they had switched around to the northwest – a clear indication that the eye had passed north of us.

Long story short, we arrived at Cape Race to clearing weather and high winds (gusting to 100km/h). We spent the next few hours scanning the water hoping for subtropical seabirds dragged up by Gonzalo, but were sadly disappointed. Good numbers of local seabirds like Northern Gannet, Black-legged Kittiwake and White-winged Scoter were battling the wind and waves, but nothing out of the ordinary. Later in the day we checked out points further west and southwest – Cripple Cove, Portugal Cove South, Trepassey, St. Shott’s and Point LaHaye — all offering up the same disappointing results.

Two significant, and disappointing, factors made Hurricane a bust when it came to birds. First, they eye of the hurricane passed by just east of Cape Race instead of making landfall. Any subtropical seabirds in its midst may have carried on NE with the storm rather than falling out along our coast. Secondly, while the winds looked good initially (see the 3am windmap above), they quickly turned to the northwest as the eye passed Cape Race (see 9am windmap), resulting in offshore winds that would have kept seabirds offshore and out of our sight.

Two significant, and disappointing, factors made Hurricane a bust when it came to birds. First, they eye of the hurricane passed by just east of Cape Race instead of making landfall. Any subtropical seabirds in its midst may have carried on NE with the storm rather than falling out along our coast. Secondly, while the winds looked good initially (see the 3am windmap above), they quickly turned to the northwest as the eye passed Cape Race (see 9am windmap), resulting in offshore winds that would have kept seabirds offshore and out of our sight.

However, the wave action was incredible, with waves that must have been 15+ metres at times rolling, breaking and crashing in spectacular fashion. This is one of the most amazing coastlines in the world, and seeing it in this way just made it better!

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Cape Race shortly after sunrise and the passing of Hurricane Gonzalo.

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Bruce Mactavish (“one of North America’s most renowned birders”) enjoys the action.

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Ian Jones trying to see some rare seabirds through a wall of water!

These pics may be a bit deceiving – but our vantage for these photos was actually on a clifftop probably 10+ metres above sea level, and the waves were often crashing above our eye level!!IMG_9448 IMG_9456 IMG_9457 IMG_9473 IMG_9491 IMG_9492 IMG_9502 IMG_9512 IMG_9518 IMG_9525 IMG_9531 IMG_9543 IMG_9545 IMG_9554 IMG_9571 IMG_9575 IMG_9580 IMG_9604 IMG_9607 IMG_9629 IMG_9637 IMG_9662 IMG_9676 IMG_9677 IMG_9687 IMG_9695 IMG_9698 IMG_9737 IMG_9754

Storm a-brewin’ (Gonzalo)

B0JBa6OIQAA8dKQLike most places, weather is often the topic of conversation in Newfoundland. And never more than when a storm is barreling at us. Gonzalo, which as I write is currently a Category 4 hurricane bearing down on Bermuda ~2000 km SSW of us, is the talk of the town this week.

Forecast track of Hurricane Gonzalo (as of this morning, Fri Oct 17).

Forecast track of Hurricane Gonzalo (as of this morning, Fri Oct 17).

Hurricane Gonzalo is the largest hurricane this season, and the first to reach Category 4 status since 2011 (Ophelia). It is a monster that is forecast to continue churning NNE, with most models predicting it will weaken to a Category 1 hurricane or tropical storm before passing just SE of Cape Race early Sunday morning. That track will likely spare us the worst of the damaging winds (which are east of the eye), but we can still expect substantial rain. With memories of the damage caused by Hurricane Igor still fresh in most people’s minds, many people in eastern Newfoundland are feeling a little trepidation. Igor took an eerily similar path as Gonzalo is predicted to make, making landfall near Cape Race on September 21, 2010. At least one model is still holding out on a more westerly path, taking the eye of Gonzalo over land, as well. (Fortunately, some meteorological difference between these two storms suggest that Gonzalo may not pack the same destructive punch as Igor even if it does make landfall.)

According the the National Hurricane Centre (NHC), there is currently a 20-40% chance of tropical storm-force winds over the Avalon Peninsula on Sunday morning. Combined with heavy rain, we could be in for some nasty weather!

According the the National Hurricane Centre (NHC), there is currently a 20-40% chance of tropical storm-force winds over the Avalon Peninsula on Sunday morning. Combined with heavy rain, we could be in for some nasty weather!

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The track taken by Hurricane Igor in September 2010. This was the most destructive hurricane on record in Newfoundland, causing one death and resulting in ~$200 million in damages.

While no one in their right mind (or me, for that matter!) would hope for a threatening storm like this to hit the island, hurricanes do peak the interest of birders. The strong cyclonic winds are known for picking up and carrying birds to far-flung places, and the remnants of hurricanes and tropical storms have a history of dropping off major rarities in the Maritimes and Newfoundland. In terms of potential for rare birds, I would probably prefer a hurricane that swings much further west before reaching Newfoundland, skimming the eastern seaboard of the United States and picking up an abundance of birds like gulls, terns and seabirds. (Larger, strong flying birds like these are best known for arriving after a hurricane … smaller birds are not likely picked up as easily, or at least do not survive the wicked ride). Hurricane Helene took such a path in September 1958, dropping off dozens of Black Skimmers at Burgeo – the only record for the province. Hurricane Wilma (October 2005) was credited with bringing large numbers of Chimney Swift, Swallows, two dozen Laughing Gulls, two Franklin’s Gulls, a Gull-billed Tern and a Black-necked Stilt to southern portions of the island. As often happens, the Maritimes received an even larger number and array of storm waifs – including several Magnificent Frigatebirds!

The more westerly track of Hurricane Helene, which brought dozens of Black Skimmers to Newfoundland ... and who knows what else?!?! Very few hurricanes have a trajectory like this.

The more westerly track of Hurricane Helene, which brought dozens of Black Skimmers to Newfoundland … and who knows what else?!?! Very few hurricanes have a trajectory like this.

Hurricanes like Gonzalo, which stay well out to sea, have less potential for bringing large numbers of such birds. They do, however, have an opportunity to pick up a variety of seabirds that would make my mouth water. Passing over Bermuda and tropical Atlantic waters, gems like Tropicbirds (White-tailed and Red-billed), pterodroma Petrels, and pelagic terns are not out of the question. Hurricane Florence, which took a path similar to Gonzalo’s in 2006, brought a White-tailed Tropicbird (found dead just 300m from my university office at the time!) and the province’s third ever Least Tern (found by a team of birders that included yours truly!). Other storm taking similar paths have turned out to be a bust, producing little or nothing in the way of unexpected birds.

I think I'd vomit if I saw one of these fly over my head following the hurricane on Sunday, but it's a real possibility. Whether I'll get out to look for one is another question! (Photo taken in Hawaii)

I think I’d vomit if I saw one of these fly over my head following the hurricane on Sunday, but it’s a real possibility. Whether I’ll get out to look for one is another question! (Photo taken in Hawaii)

What will Gonzalo bring?!?! Let’s hope for great birds and no damage, eh?