Geese, Herons & Quality Time

I was thrilled this weekend to spend a fun morning birding with my oldest daughter, Emma (9) … a morning which quickly turned “epic” as we ended up scoring two ABA (North American) rarities together!

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Emma enjoying the second of two ABA (North American) rarities of our morning – a Gray Heron hanging out in Renews. A lifer for her, my second for Newfoundland, and just the ~5th record for the province and Canada.

It’s not always easy to find balance in life as a birder, professional nature guide and a parent of two busy girls. I have no shame admitting that I spend far less time birding “recreationally” for myself these days (I do, of course, spend a lot of time birding with tours and clients – but as fun as that is, it’s not quite the same) … and I spend most of my other weekends involved in an array of family activities. I encourage my girls to appreciate and explore nature and (especially) birds, but I have never pushed it on them. Much to my glee, Emma has been expressing lots of interest lately and has even been asking me to take her to see two rare PINK-FOOTED GEESE that showed up in St. John’s recently — something I was excited to make happen. We got up early on Saturday, grabbed a “birder’s breakfast” (Tim Horton’s muffin and coffee/hot chocolate!) and made the short drive across town under cover of darkness. The geese have been spending nights in a city pond, but consistently fly off within minutes of sunrise to spend the day at a currently unknown location — so the key to seeing them is to be early.

We were able to spot the two Pink-footed Geese, along with more than a dozen Canada Geese, through my Kowa scope while it was still quite dark. Joined by another local birder, we walked along the trail for a closer vantage point and waited for the light to trickle in, eventually enjoying longer and better looks. True to form, the entire flock of geese picked up shortly after sunrise and flew off over the nearby neighbourhood – no doubt to a farm field in nearby Kilbride or Goulds. The hadn’t stayed long enough to allow for decent photos, but our views has been excellent!

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Two Pink-footed Geese have been hanging out with a small flock of Canada Geese in Mount Pearl (just outside St. John’s) since at least October 24. As on most mornings, they flew off before the light got nice enough for decent photos, but still provided some great views.

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Emma celebrating her “lifer” Pink-footed Geese, spotted with the help of my Kowa scope well before the sun came up.

We still had the full morning ahead of us as we arrived back at the car, and were looking forward to some more birding … maybe driving around the local fields looking for the geese or a wayward Cattle Egret (numerous had been reported in eastern Newfoundland the past two days). Suddenly my phone buzzed with a message that an intriguing heron in Renews from the evening before had been confirmed as a mega-rare GRAY HERON and was still there this morning. Emma was gung-ho for the adventure, so we hit the highway south for what has always been one of my favourite birding locations. We chatted non-stop for the 1.5 hour drive (mostly about birds), and Emma even honed her eBird skills by entering a checklist all on her own.

We arrived at Renews to find fellow birder Peter Shelton looking at the Gray Heron on a rock across the inner bay – distant, but well within scope range. Emma was also thrilled to find a Harbour Seal on the rocks much closer to us. Eventually the heron picked up and flew around the harbour, eventually landing a little closer to the road on the other side where we enjoyed somewhat closer views … and met up with lots of other birders as they began to appear. Emma was in her glee enjoying the birds, meeting the other birders (although a little shy, I think she liked the attention she garnered as they youngest birder there!) and trying to photograph a very rare heron.

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My poor record shot of this huge rarity from Europe – a Gray Heron. Very similar to its North American cousin, the Great Blue Heron, it is distinguished using several key features such as clean white (versus rusty) thighs, lack of rufous in the leading edge of the wing, and even more subtle differences in bill and plumage patterns. Even in my less-than-ideal photos you can see the overall gray appearance of this bird, lacking the bluish tones of Great Blue Heron.

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Though pressed for time (afternoon obligations – did I mention our girls are busy?!?!), we made a few quick stops on the drive home enjoying other notable birds such as a beautiful Bald Eagle sitting right beside the road, a late Greater Yellowlegs, and even Emma’s first ever Mourning Dove (not overly common in these parts). All in all, it was incredible morning of birding and one of the most memorable adventures I’ve had the pleasure of sharing with Emma. I think she’s hooked, so I look forward to many more 😉

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Arse On: Tale of an Elusive Fieldfare

Nine hours of driving. Four hours of bitter cold birding. And five minutes of THIS:
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.

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.

Trace Stagg noticed an unusual visitor in her Lumsden yard on Saturday, February 6 … it turned out to be a FIELDFARE! This European thrush is a cousin to our familiar American Robin, and a very rare visitor to North America. Newfoundland has more records than most places on this continent, with this one making nine — and all but one of those was “before my time” as a birder. I was itching to go see it, but Lumsden is located on the northeast coast and more than four hours from my home in St. John’s. A handful of birders made the trek on Sunday, but I was busy and had to wait. Oh, that wait!

I made last-minute plans on Sunday evening, and hit the road at 5am Monday morning.  I met up with fellow birder Diane Burton near her home in Glovertown (~2/3 of the way along) at 8am, and we made the rest of our hopeful drive together over snow-covered roads. A handful of other birders had been looking for about 20 minutes when we arrived, with no luck. Despite the cold (-18C windchill), we zipped up our coats and started searching the neighbourhoods on foot – knowing that it had been somewhat elusive and wide-ranging the previous day. We found a few dozen American Robins spread around feeding on frozen dogberries (mountain ash), an incredible number of Pine Grosbeaks, lots of Purple Finch, American Goldfinch, Chickadees, White-winged Crossbills and even some Common Redpolls … but no Fieldfare.

The bumper crop of "dogberries" (mountain ash) this year has been attracting a variety of birds, including big numbers of Pine Grosbeak in some areas. They were everywhere in Lumsden this morning. I would have taken advantage of the many great photo opportunities had I not been hunting for something rarer - and more elusive!

The bumper crop of “dogberries” (mountain ash) this year has been attracting a variety of birds, including big numbers of Pine Grosbeak in some areas. They were everywhere in Lumsden this morning. I would have taken advantage of the many great photo opportunities had I not been hunting for something rarer – and more elusive!

There is also a great crop of White Spruce cones ... a favourite food for White-winged Crossbills.

There is also a great crop of White Spruce cones … a favourite food for White-winged Crossbills.

After an hour, I saw two Robins fly over – then another bird that looked suspicious as it dipped behind some houses and out of sight. I stayed in the area for several minutes, hoping to see the mystery bird again. Suddenly, I saw the Fieldfare flying high overhead and across the road, and heard its distinctive “tchack” call (a sight and sound I was familiar with from my time living in Finland!). Running full speed down the road, I managed to see it drop down behind some houses and called out to the other nearby birders. A few minutes later, Diane spotted the Fieldfare feeding in a large dogberry tree behind one of those houses, and we all had distant but more or less clear looks for several minutes. We walked to the far corner of the unoccupied house, but the Fieldfare remained mostly hidden on the far side of the tree for several minutes – then promptly flew off and out of sight. I had managed to snap just one photograph — of its distinctive rump through a tangle of twigs & branches! It was the only one I’d get all day. Despite another three hours of combing the neighbourhood, we never really saw it again. I “may” have seen it fly over at least once, and am certain I heard it calling about two hours later, but it never gave us another look. Feeling happy (yet somehow a little unsatisfied!), we hit the highway and started the long drive home.

Was it worth it? Every single second! What an amazing bird.