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?