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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Coming down, catching up …

I know, I know … you don’t need to remind me. It’s been a while since I updated this blog.

This summer was incredibly fun … and busy … and fun. Once again, I was privileged to share beautiful birds, nature, places and experiences with many visitors — from spectacular seabird colonies to quiet walks in the forest; from the rugged shores of Newfoundland to migration hot spots in the southernmost reaches of Ontario. Since the beginning of May I’ve led tours in three different provinces (Ontario, New Brunswick and Newfoundland), spent a week exploring our beautiful coast and isolated communities aboard an expedition cruise ship, and of course spent many days showing off the amazing birds, wildlife and scenery of my island home to dozens of BirdTheRock clients and guests. It’s a blessed life.

As the busy summer comes to an end, I’m looking forward to catching up on my photos, sharing the stories, reliving the memories, and planning for many more adventures. Stay tuned! For now, here are just a few of my favourite photos from Summer 2018:

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In early June, I was invited to join the crew of the Hebridean Sky as it circumnavigated Newfoundland – visiting beautiful, quaint and often isolated communities along the way. June can still be a volatile time in the waters off northern Newfoundland – and this year was no exception. Arctic ice and rough weather toyed with our plans at every turn, but we didn’t let it stop our adventure! Here I’m standing on the arctic ice floe in the Strait of Belle Isle, with Labrador (and our ship) in the background.

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There were so many amazing birding experiences, it’s hard to choose even a few top highlights … but a close encounter with this Short-eared Owl has to be one of them. This magnificent bird circled around us just a few miles north of Cape St. Mary’s Ecological Reserve. What a looker!

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Speaking of Cape St. Mary’s — as always, this spectacular seabird reserve was a favourite with our guests. Words and photos cannot truly capture the awe that I experience every time I visit. If you’ve never been there (or even if you have!), be sure to join me sometime. Our Summer 2019 schedule will be available soon.

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Nothing can prepare you for a visit to Newfoundland’s largest seabird colonies, and I never tire of seeing the look on my guests’ faces as they soak in the spectacle of Witless Bay Ecological Reserve. Hundreds of thousands of Atlantic Puffins, Common Murre, and many other seabirds swarm around us. The incredible numbers in the air and/or on the water is often just as amazing as the  close-up views we enjoy while cruising past the islands.

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Of course, Newfoundland birding is not “just” about the seabirds. Our boreal forests are home to a diversity of birds, and we spent lots of time enjoying them this summer. Some, like this Wilson’s Warbler, only grace us for a few short months and are already heading south for another winter – while many others stay year-round to keep us company in the colder (but equally exciting) months.

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I was especially fortunate this year to co-lead an Eagle-Eye Tours trip in southern Ontario in early May. This tour is timed to coincide with peak songbird migration across the Great Lakes, and we visited migration hot spots such as Point Pelee, Rondeau and Long Point, as well as Algonquin Park. We encountered many migrants and a number of scarce/rare breeding birds in Canada — including several Prothonotary Warblers like this one. A very, very fun birding trip for everyone involved!

Stayed tuned for more photos and updates. In the meantime, follow along on Twitter, Facebook and/or Instagram for regular photos.

And … be sure to join me for an adventure real soon!

 

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!

Trinidad & Tobago 2017: Part 2

This past December, I returned to Trinidad & Tobago to lead my second birding tour there with Eagle-Eye Tours. These two islands, located off the coast of Venezuela, provide a great introduction to the incredibly diverse birds and other wildlife of South America. Given the relative small size of the islands, we are able to stay at just two places for the entire tour and enjoy a relaxed pace – but with no shortage of great birds and other highlights!

Below are yet another sample of photos & highlights from our 2017 adventure. If you haven’t already, be sure to check Part 1 of this blog post here. Details about upcoming trips can be found on the Eagle-Eye Tours website (link above).

As I mentioned in my last post, I remember first learning about Trinidad & Tobago when I discovered some stamps from there in a collection given to me by my grandfather. Here is another one of those beautiful stamps (c. 1969). I never became much of a stamp collector, but also never imagined at the time that I’d find myself wandering exotic places all over the world searching out birds and nature!

For most people, parrots are an iconic image of the tropics … and we encountered several species during the tour. Orange-winged Parrots were both the most common and the most noisy. This was a part of a small group that hung out around Asa Wright Nature Centre, sometimes giving great views off the verandah (This photo, and the video below, was taken using my phone and Kowa scope).

While it wouldn’t be easy to choose the “most” beautiful of all the birds that we enjoyed from the verandah at Asa Wright Nature Centre, no doubt the male Violaceous Euphonia is a top contender. These brilliant birds were a regular, if not constant, visitor at the feeders and fruiting trees that surrounded us there.

And of course, it’s not just the birds but other wildlife that makes a visit to Trinidad & Tobago so much fun. Keen eyes can spot a huge diversity of life, such as this male Ameiva – perhaps the most common lizard on the islands.

A lot of life in the tropics comes out after the sun goes away, so we took several evening strolls to look for a variety of wildlife. This Ratonel (aka Moon Snake; Pseudoboa neuwiedii) was a special treat during one of our night walks along the driveway at Asa Wight Nature Centre. Snakes are not always easy to find, so we were fortunate to spot this one before it disappeared into the underbrush.

One of the scarcer, but spectacular, hummingbirds we encountered during the trip was this Long-billed Starthroat. Even though we only saw one most days, this individual was a reliable visitor to the feeders at Asa Wright Nature Centre and always a joy to watch.

Despite all the brilliant colours of the tropics, some birds really do rock the black & white palette – and White-headed Marsh Tyrant is a shining example. These beautiful birds were one of many highlights during our excursions to wet, lowland habitats on Trinidad.

Many of the birds in these grassy, marshy habitats tended to be drab – but no less lovely. This Yellow-chinned Spinetail was part of a pair that gave us uncharacteristically great views at one of our stops.

We did find a splash of colour in the same marsh, when several Yellow-hooded Blackbirds emerged from the grass to check us out. How’s that for golden locks?!?!

Coastal birding made for an interesting change after several days in the mountains and rain forest. Here my co-leader Ernesto and some of our guests check out the shorebirds and pelicans at Waterloo, on the Caribbean coast of Trinidad.

With high tide greeting our arrival, hundreds of shorebirds were gathered on a small point of land and allowed us some amazingly close looks. This flock of “peeps” (mostly Western Sandpipers, but also several others) burst into flight when a Peregrine Falcon whipped through in search of lunch.

This lone Wilson’s Plover (right) was a great find – unusual enough that it was a “lifer” for one of our very experienced local guides (Charan). Yet, it was just a stone’s throw from where I saw my own first just two years earlier! (Semipalmated Plover, to the left)

Ever get that feeling you’re being watched?? We spotted several mudskippers in the shallow waters around Waterloo. As amphibious fish, we also saw a number of them “crawling” on the beach at another nearby location – such cool critters!

This very obliging Bicolored Conebill was a nice surprise – coming in very close in a small patch of trees at the water’s edge. This was by far my best ever looks at this often skulky mangrove specialist.

Several immature Scarlet Ibis were feeding on a beach at one of our stops – the closest views we had of this incredible bird. Of course, even these close views had nothing on the spectacle we would enjoy at the end of this day (keep reading below).

This Hanuman Statue and its associated temple was a popular cultural stop during our excursion to the coast. Standing 85ft tall, this is the tallest monument to this Hindu god outside of India and beautiful place to visit. (It didn’t hurt that we saw Fork-tailed Palm Swifts flying around the statue and a Pale-breasted Spinetail around the corner!)

Our last afternoon on Trinidad was spent exploring the famous mangroves of Caroni Swamp – a highlight of each and every trip. The great birding began right in the parking lot and included several mangrove species such as this Masked Cardinal.

We also spotted this Straight-billed Woodcreeper and a Greater Ani from the roadside – although we did see one or two more of each while cruising through the mangroves on the boat.

Caroni Swamp is a huge and internationally important wetland – more than 5600 hectares of mangrove forest, marsh and beautiful estuaries. Cruising through the inner channels, under the canopy of red mangroves, is just the beginning of a surreal experience.

Several species of heron and egrets are encountered in these mangroves – including Snowy Egret, Little Blue Heron (pictured), Tricoloured Heron, Night Herons, and even the amazing Boat-billed Heron (which we did find tucked away in a very sheltered spot!).

The absolute, hands-down highlight of the day (and maybe the trip?) was the spectacle of thousands of brilliant Scarlet Ibis (along with several species of herons) coming in to roost. The serenity of relaxing on a boat in the middle of a beautiful estuary with the stunning Northern Range mountains as background to this “National Geographic” moment was just icing on the cake. Guests always count this among the most amazing experiences of their birding lives, and with very good reason!

After a magical end to our time in Trinidad, we took a quick hop over to Tobago for the last three days of our tour. Our first stop at some local lagoons immediately produced several species we hadn’t seen on Trinidad – including this Least Grebe pretending to be an aquatic plant. The lagoons were also home to numerous Common Gallinules and Wattled Jacanas, among others.

Golf clubs can also be excellent places for birds, so we stopped briefly to check out the ponds at one local club. The highlight was definitely a group of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, although several Anhinga, Southern Lapwings and a Spectacled Caiman were also fun to watch.

After lunch on a local beach (beaches are a big part of culture and life in Tobago!), we spent the afternoon at Adventure Farms – a private farm and nature preserve known both for its busy feeders and its leisurely birding. The fresh mango smoothies were an added perk! This is the Tobago life.

Dozens of hummingbirds were coming and going from the feeders all afternoon. White-necked Jacobins are certainly among my personal favourites, and were a fixture both here and back at Asa Wright Nature Centre.

That being said, the showy (and usually harder-to-see) Ruby Topaz Hummingbird was a crowd pleaser, with several zipping around and showing off those amazing colours. These otherwise understated birds have to be at just the right angle to the sun for their bright iridescence to shine – and when they are, its spectacular. (But it’s also VERY hard to capture with a camera!)

A lot more than just hummingbirds visit the garden at Adventure Farms. With plenty of flowers and fruiting trees, many other birds drop in for a taste. This was the first of several Red-crowned Woodpeckers we encountered – one of several species that occur here but not on Trinidad.

Another such species is White-fringed Antwren. We found a pair of them during a stroll around the Adventure Farms property – the male showed exceptionally well for such a skulky species.

One of our group’s favourite birds to see and watch was the beautiful Rufous-tailed Jacamar – of which we found several. This one was very obliging as a small group of us strolled through the Adventure Farms property, even flying towards us and landing quite close. Relatives of Kingfishers and Bee-eaters, these birds can be a lot of fun to observe.

Our accommodations on Tobago offered very different, yet equally beautiful, views than our mountain perch back on Trinidad. Our rooms and restaurant overlooked this lovely beach, glistening ocean and beautiful islands off the northeast coast – perfect for relaxing, swimming, snorkeling and (of course) birding.

Our hotel grounds also provided some excellent birding … including several unmistakable Rufous-vented Chachalacas. Another species that occurs here but not on Trinidad, we enjoyed their antics and even their raucous calls. Here, you can also see the large & colourful Frangipani Hornworms (caterpillars of the Frangipani Sphinx Moth) that were also fun to find.

Trinidad Motmot, a species endemic to this country, does occur on both islands – but are much less shy and easier to see on Tobago. They were a regular sight around the hotel property, although we could never get bored of them!

Another fun critter to spot around the grounds was Richard’s Anole – a relatively large anole that is endemic to the Caribbean and was introduced to Tobago from the Grenadine Islands.

We found several Black-faced Grassquits during our meanders on Tobago – including this male on the “Starwood Track” above our hotel. From a North American perspective, I’ve always found that these birds give a very “junco” impression.

Our next excursion was to go birding at Gilpin Trace – a popular hiking trail in the Main Ridge Forest Reserve. Check out that lush rainforest!

The Main Ridge Forest Reseerve was first proclaimed in 1776, making it the oldest protected area in the world! Several hiking trails makes this tract of pristine, native rain forest very accessible.

One of our targets here was the Blue-backed Manakin (absent on Trinidad), like this male that showed surprisingly well in a fruiting fig tree. You can see that it was banded – likely part of ongoing research to help understand, monitor and protect this interesting species.

This vista from the “Starwood Track” (above our beachside hotel) shows the beautiful view over the water and two nearby islands – Goat Island and Little Tobago, the latter of which was our destination later that day.

A visit to Little Tobago island is always a highlight of our trip. We made the short crossing on a glass-bottomed boat, stopping to check one of the coral reefs and its abundant marine life along the way.

Seabirds were the main reason for our trip, and we weren’t disappointed. We saw dozens each of Magnificent Frigatebird (pictured), Brow Pelican, Brown and Red-footed Boobies.

The crown jewel of Little Tobago, however, is a spectacular colony of Red-billed Tropicbirds. From our perch near the top of the island, we overlooked a glistening bay and dozens of these beautiful birds soaring above, below and right in front of us. Both species of booby were also nesting there.

Several Red-billed Tropicbirds could be seen nesting on the ground just metres from our lookout, while another resourceful individual was nesting directly under the wooden platform we were standing on – just inches from our feet and apparently unfazed.

Another, often overlooked, treat on Little Tobago is a chance to spot Ocellated Gecko. These small and very cryptic geckos are considered endemic to this tiny island. We spotted two (both apparent females) on our hike back down to the boat.

And with that, the sun set on yet another amazing tour to Trinidad & Tobago. It was a wonderful adventure, with wonderful birds & wildlife and an even more wonderful group of participants. I can’t wait to return again! Who’s coming with me??

We finished our tour having observed an incredible 216 species of birds, lots of other exciting wildlife and highlights of nature, as well as a ton of fun! I’m already looking forward to our next adventure there! Check out the details on the Eagle-Eye Tours website, and/or let me know if you have any questions.

 

 

 

Trinidad & Tobago 2017: Part 1

I remember the first time I ever heard about Trinidad & Tobago. When I was a young boy, my grandfather gave me a stamp collection that he had started … the pages of those albums contained mementos from countries all over the world, many of which I had never known existed and I could only guess where they were or what they were like. For some reason (fate?), the island nation of Trinidad & Tobago caught my attention in a way most others didn’t. I remember letting the name roll off my tongue, then looking it up in a copy of the 1987 World Almanac that I kept in my room – learning all kinds of interesting facts that formed the first picture of this exotic place in my imagination. Little did I ever think that I might one day travel to these beautiful islands – let alone lead regular birding tours there!!

This is just one of the stamps from Trinidad & Tobago (1969) that caught my attention as young boy (not all of them had birds!). It’s amazing that this birding paradise is now a regular destination for this lucky tour leader!

This past December, I returned to Trinidad & Tobago for my second birding tour with Eagle-Eye Tours. These two islands, located off the coast of Venezuela, provide a great introduction to the incredibly diverse birds and other wildlife of South America. Given the relative small size of the islands, we are able to stay at just two places for the entire tour and enjoy a relaxed pace – but with no shortage of great birds and other highlights! Below are some of the photo highlights from our 2017 adventure – and check out Part 2 of this blog post here.     (You can also check out lots more photos and details from our 2015 tour on an earlier blog post here.)

For the first week of the tour, we stayed at the world-famous Asa Wright Nature Centre. The view from the verandah, looking down over a mountain valley and the distant town of Arima, becomes the backdrop to so many of our great birding experiences.

The incredible number, diversity and brilliant colours of the birds visiting the gardens and feeders all around the verandah can be overwhelming at first. Purple Honeycreepers are one of the first birds that most guests notice – and for obvious reasons!

Dozens of hummingbirds can be spotted buzzing around the many feeders and flowers – often just inches from the happy faces of birders. Copper-rumped Hummingbirds are the most abundant and while they may seem a little less flamboyant than some of the other species, they sure can look amazing in the right light.

Here, my co-leader Ernesto Carman holds a Copper-rumped Hummingbird that I “rescued” from the verandah. There are lots of fun learning opportunities in the tropics!

Bananaquits are no doubt the most common bird we see in Trinidad & Tobago. Here they are enjoying some fresh fruit provided by the AWNC staff. Many birds come to partake in these sweet offerings.

And it’s not just the birds … butterflies, Red-rumped Agoutis and menacing-looking Golden Tegu Lizards (like this one) can often be found hanging out around the feeders looking for fallen treats.

The abundance of flowering plants around the property also attract many birds – some of which avoid feeders altogether. The tiny (yet showy!) Tufted Coquette is one of the most sought-after hummingbirds in South America, and we encountered several visiting the abundant vervain flowers at Asa Wright – perhaps the best and most reliable place to see them anywhere.

Somewhat less expected, but equally stunning, was this brilliant Ruby Topaz Hummingbird we discovered just outside our cabins. This incredible species is uncommon on Trinidad at this time of year, although we do expect to see it on Tobago. This one is showing off its amazing colours on a very sunny afternoon.

The lodge and property also has great walking trails through the forest. Here you can see our wonderful group taking a  break after some fantastic birding on the Discovery Trail (and yes – we found the Bearded Bellbird!).

Bearded Bellbird is one of the most exciting birds that can be found on the AWNC trails. Considered the loudest bird in the world, their deafening “gong” calls travel for miles and can often be heard echoing up the valley. We had the great fortune of finding this one on a relatively low perch, where we learned just how loud its voice could be!

Check out this short video I took of the Bearded Bellbird giving its loud call:

Another fun bird that can be found on the local trails is Bearded Manakin. Like other manakins, these spunky little birds have very entertaining courtship displays, and we really enjoyed watching several males making their “click” sounds (like fingers snapping) and buzzing around the local lek.

We also found several Golden-headed Manakins nearby, but they stayed in thick cover and were a challenge to photograph. Next time 😉

There are always lots of interesting plants and flowers to see, as well. One of my favourite flowers found along the trails is Psychotria poeppigiana – playfully called “hot lips”. Can you see why?

When birding in the tropics, we are always on the lookout for army ants. The frenzy of other little critters trying to escape an army ant swarm often attracts a variety of birds – so besides the already cool experience of watching these tiny gladiators at work, it can also lead to a great birding experience. I ran into two such swarms this trip – and one of them was being attended by some great birds.

Here’s a short clip of another Army Ant swarm that I found myself nearly stepping in:

One of the many tropical bird species that specialize in following ant swarms is the Great Antshrike. This male was part of a pair hanging out near the main lodge at Asa Wright Nature Centre.

Another common hummingbird at the ever-busy verandah was White-chested Emerald. Beauty in simplicity.

This short video gives a glimpse of how busy the hummingbird feeders are — all the time!

Even after dark, the verandah can be a great place to hang out. As the birds disappear, Long-tongued Bats show up to take the night shift at the hummingbird feeders. Check out that tongue!! It’s amazing how adept these bats are getting at the sugar-water.

Exploring after dark in the tropics can be just as exciting as daytime. One great find was this large (probably female) Trinidad Chevron Tarantula – an endemic species to the island.

Among several species of frogs seen at night was this tree frog (species TBD) – a tiny little thing no bigger than 15mm.

Lunchtime! A Harvestman is enjoying a late night snack.

The Trinidad Motmot is an endemic species, and its “whoop” calls are very recognizable when heard. These shy birds can be a challenge to spot on Trinidad itself, but are surprisingly much more cooperative on Tobago (although we encountered them in both places). Check out that tail … and the serrated bill! Motmots can and will eat just about anything from fruit to snakes.

Another common (and noisy!) visitor to the gardens at AWNC is the Crested Oropendola. These raucous birds are named for their hanging “pendulum” nests, which we spotted at several locations during the week.

The varied and bubbly calls of Tropical Mockingbirds were also a common sound during the trip – not just at Asa Wright, but pretty much everywhere.

We found eight different species of tanager throughout the trip – six of which could be spotted right from the AWNC verandah. While White-lined Tanagers were not the most colourful, they were certainly the most common and widespread.

One of the most unique experiences of the tour was our trek to the Dunstan Caves, which are home to a colony of amazing Oilbirds. The hike itself is beautiful, but the surreal birding experience that awaits is unlike any other.

Using a flashlight, we were able to spot several Oilbirds roosting just inside the cave entrance. These almost mythical birds are the only nocturnal fruit-eating birds in the world, using a combination of echolocation (just like bats!) and specially adapted eyesight to navigate in the dark. They live in caves, and produce the most guttural, haunting sounds you can imagine. What a surreal experience – and a highlight of any visit to Asa Wright Nature Centre.

Just outside the cave, we spotted numerous Trinidad Stream Frogs. This is an endemic species, and always a treat to find. It was our second sighting of the week!

Trogons are highly prized by birders, and we were fortunate to see all three species that live in Trinidad & Tobago. By far the most photogenic was this male Guianan Trogon which sat out in the open for several minutes, probably just as curious about us as were of it.

Green Honeycreepers might be overlooked amid a flock of more brightly coloured birds, but they certainly hold their own in the “classy” department. These beautiful birds were daily visitors throughout the tour.

A Ferruginous Pygmy Owl could be heard calling around the Asa Wright Nature Centre every night and early morning, but it wasn’t until one of our excursions that we saw our first one. This little owl seemed completely unfazed by the frenzy of smaller birds mobbing it – a flurry of activity that helped us find it hiding in the trees.

We also encountered stately Savannah Hawks during our excursions to lower elevations. As their name suggests, these lovely raptors are denizens of large open areas and grassy fields, often associated with agricultural operations.

Much more difficult to spot was this female Silvered Antbird. This is a very shy bird of the mangroves, and we were very fortunate to have a pair show themselves for us on Trinidad’s eastern coast at Nariva Swamp.

Just across the road, we found this other mangrove specialist – Northern Scrub Flycatcher. This section of mangrove produced a number of other great birds during our visit – Red-rumped Woodpecker, American Pygmy Kingfisher, and Black-crested Antshrike among them!

It was hard to ignore the butterflies, including this Two-banded Satyr that we found on one of our hikes along the Discovery Trail. Life abounds everywhere you look in the tropics.

One of the most spectacular butterflies we found was the large Illioneus Giant Owl – aptly named not only because of the large “false eye” it uses for disguise, but also because it emerges mostly during the dark hours between dusk and dawn.

Check out Part 2 of this blog post for lots more photos and highlights from the rest of our amazing tour!

 

 

 

SEVENTEEN

Whoa … does time ever fly?!?! It’s hard to believe another year has come and gone … but not without lots of adventures. The year 2017 was a very exciting one here at BirdTheRock – I was blessed beyond words to share the natural wonders of Newfoundland & Labrador with so many visitors, travel to amazing places both near and far, and experience countless special moments along the way. I have so much to tell … but as they say “a picture is worth a thousand words“, and maybe that’s the best way to share this long overdue summary of the year that was. Below are 17 photos from 2017; chosen to represent just a fraction of the many, many highlights from my year.

I apologize for my lapse in blog posts over the last few months – but be sure to follow me on Facebook, Twitter and/or Instagram for more regular highlights and often daily updates from ongoing tours! I’ll continue to update this blog as often as I can 😉

Like every year, 2017 started off with some excellent winter birding right here in eastern Newfoundland. I had the pleasure of sharing great winter birds such as Dovekie, Thick-billed Murre, White-winged Crossbill, Bohemian Waxwing, Boreal Chickadee and friendly Gray Jays with a number of visiting birders. This photo was taken during the annual WINGS Birding Tour – and you can read more about that in an earlier blog post here.

I also joined Instagram this past winter –  yet another great way to share photos and highlights with people from all over the world. THIS photo of a Dovekie (taken several winters ago) turned out to be my most popular photo of 2017 – not surprising given how much people tend to love these cute little seabirds! Newfoundland is the most reliable place in North America to see Dovekie and a big part of the reason why birders visit here in winter.

I was honoured this year to earn the support of Kowa Optics, and upgraded my worn-out gear with their top quality equipment. I’ve had so much fun using this Prominar TSN-883 spotting scope and Genesis binoculars – and sharing the experience with so many of my guests. The optics are amazing! Stay tuned for an upcoming review of this Kowa swag here on the blog very soon.

In March, I joined Kisserup International Trade Roots and a handful of other Canadian birding and eco-tourism experts on an exploratory “mission” to Honduras (Read the two-part blog series and see LOTS of photos here!!). What I discovered was an incredibly beautiful place with wonderful people, amazing nature and especially birds, and so many opportunities for visiting birders and nature-lovers to soak it all in. Oh … AND we observed more than 250 species of birds along the way! I’m scheming up a Honduras birding tour for the near future – so stay tuned for details!!   (Photo: Spectacled Owl, Rio Santiago Nature Resort, Honduras)

I returned home from Honduras to find Newfoundland in the cold, icy grip of the Arctic. Prolonged northerly winds were pushing Arctic pack ice much further south than usual – encasing the entire northern and eastern coasts, and even wrapping around to fill bays and coves in the southeast. While spring pack ice was a normal part of my childhood growing up on the northeast coast, it rarely reached this far south and some communities were seeing it for the first time in living memory. With the ice came lots of seals (including more northerly Hooded Seals), Polar Bears and even a very wayward Arctic Fox to far-flung places around the island. Birds were impacted too — ducks, loons and other seabirds were corralled into small sections of open water waiting for the ice to move off. The ice lingered so long on parts of the northeast coast that fisheries were delayed or even canceled, adding a very human aspect to this unusual event.

Late winter and early spring can be a challenging time for birding – many of the winter species are beginning to move on, and migration has yet to start. But there are always wonderful things to see, and a mid-March excursion to Cape Race with one group of intrepid clients paid off with this — great looks at one of their “target” birds! This Willow Ptarmigan, sporting transitional plumage, allowed us to get up-close-and-personal right from the car!

Another highlight of early spring was an exceptional few days of gull-watching in St. John’s. Not only did the elusive Yellow-legged Gull (which can be seen here sporadically most winters) become a very regular visitor at Quidi Vidi Lake, but a Slaty-backed Gull was also discovered there. The two images above were captured just minutes (and metres) apart … two very rare gulls entertaining some very happy birders! (March 25, 2017)

The pack ice may have receded as spring wore on, but other visitors from the north took their place. Newfoundland had an excellent iceberg season in 2017 – and one of the early highlights was this mammoth berg that perched itself in Ferryland (an hour south of St. John’s). Photos of this iceberg (including my own) went “viral”, showing up in newsfeeds, newspapers and TV newscasts all over the world. It was just one of many awesome bergs I saw this year … including with many of my clients!

While there was no “huge” influx of European rarities into Newfoundland this spring, there was also no shortage. This European Golden Plover was one of several reported in early May. I was also fortunate to see a Ruff, two Eurasian Whimbrel, and two Common Ringed Plovers this year – AND happy to say that I had clients with me for each and every one! How’s that for good birding?!?!

Perhaps the most exciting bird of the spring (or even year) also came from Europe. This COMMON SWIFT was discovered by Jeannine Winkel and Ian Jones at Quidi Vidi Lake, St. John’s on May 20 – just the second record for Newfoundland and one of only a handful for all of North America. Cool, damp weather worked in our favour throughout the week, with this extremely rare bird sticking around until May 26 and entertaining both local birders and a number of “ABA listers” who flew in from all over North America to see it. Amazing! (Photo: May 23, 2017)

Spring slipped into summer, which of course is the busiest time of year for BirdTheRock Bird & Nature Tours. I was fortunate to host dozens of visiting birders and nature-lovers throughout the summer, sharing the many wonderful sights and spectacles that our province has to offer. This photo of Northern Gannets was taken during the excellent Eagle-Eye Tours “Grand Newfoundland” trip – one of many times I visited Cape St. Mary’s Ecological Reserve this year. This particular tour is a great way to experience the birding and natural highlights of Newfoundland, from St. John’s to Gros Morne National Park and many points in between. I look forward to leading it again in 2018! (Read more about this tour in a blog post from 2016.)

Of course, it’s not “always” just about the birds. During every tour or outing, I make time to stop and enjoy the abundance of other gems that nature has in store. I especially like the wild orchids of mid-summer, and this Showy Ladyslipper was one of nine species we encountered during a fantastic Massachusetts Audubon tour. What an awesome time we had!

Of course, summer can’t be ALL work and no play! (Who am I kidding – my work is always fun!) I made sure to steal some time to explore both new places and old favourites with my family – including the rugged coastlines of Notre Dame Bay where I grew up and my passion for nature first took root!

In August, I had the pleasure of once again leading the Eagle-Eye Tours trip to New Brunswick & Grand Manan. While there are many wonderful places and birding experiences on this tour, one key highlight is seeing the huge gathering of Semipalmated Sandpipers in the world-famous Bay of Fundy. More than 3/4 of the world’s population stop here during migration, and flocks of tens of thousands can often be found roosting on the narrow beach at high tide or swirling over the water. This was my third time leading this tour, and you can read more about it on an earlier blog post here.

As summer fades to fall in Newfoundland, I often turn my attention to migration and the opportunity to find wayward and locally rare species right here on “the rock”. One of the most interesting birds was this very late empidonax flycatcher that showed up in November — well beyond the expected date of normal migrants and reason enough to scrutinize it. Originally found by crack birder Lancy Cheng, I arrived soon after and spent several hours trying to capture diagnostic photos amid the fleeting glimpses it gave. Based on photos from several birders and Lancy’s very important sound recording, this bird was eventually identified as Newfoundland’s first ever Willow Flycatcher! Chalk one up for the perseverance and cooperation of our local birding community!

Winter also started off with a bang, when veteran birder Chris Brown discovered the province’s first Eared Grebe on December 1. Time for birding can be tough to come by for me at this busy time of year – but I managed to sneak in a “chase” to see this mega-rarity. Read more on my blog post here.

My birding year ended on yet another high note: leading my third Eagle-Eye Tours adventure of the year – this time in Trinidad & Tobago! This was my second time leading this amazing tour, and I admit to being totally enamored with this beautiful place. The lush forests, open grasslands, intriguing coastlines … and, of course, the incredible birds and wildlife! This Guianan Trogon was just one of more than 200 species we encountered during the trip – many of which were equally stunning. Stay tuned for an upcoming blog post about my most recent trip — but in the meantime you can check out this three-part series from my last adventure in Trinidad & Tobago. And better yet – join me when I return at the end of 2018!

What a fantastic year! Thanks to the many friends and visitors who shared all these special moments (and many more!) with me in 2017. I’m excited for 2018 and can’t imagine what wonderful experiences it might have in store! Why not join me to find out for yourself?!?!

Wishing you all a happy, prosperous and fun-filled 2018!!

2016: A Year in Review

I’m happy to say that 2016 was a fun, productive and busy year both for BirdTheRock Bird & Nature Tours and for my own birding adventures. I was fortunate to share my province’s amazing birds and nature with more than 70 visiting birders (!), added five new species to my own Newfoundland “life list”, and found myself on an impromptu excursion to Hawaii at the end of the year. Below are a few of the many highlights from 2016:

I always look forward to hosting the annual WINGS winter birding tour, and last year was no exception. A group of four visiting birders from the southern USA enjoyed some great “cold weather” birding and lots of excellent winter birds. An abundance of Dovekie, finches and of course a great selection of northern gulls were all part of a fantastic week! Check out this blog post to see more highlights.

WINGS tour participants scan for seabirds at wintery St. Vincent's beach on January 15.

WINGS tour participants scan for seabirds at wintery St. Vincent’s beach on January 15.

The first big rarity of 2016 was an unexpected one … an immature Sabine’s Gull discovered at St. Vincent’s on January 31. This species is virtually never recorded in the northern hemisphere during winter, let alone Newfoundland. I had never seen a Sabine’s Gull, so after a few painful days I finally made the trip to see it on February 4 – enjoying it immensely despite some wicked weather! You can read more about my encounter with a “Sabine’s in the Snow” here.

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This Sabine’s Gull was not only unexpected but “off the charts” for January in Newfoundland. It should have been somewhere far, far away from the snow squall I was watching it in!

The winter excitement continued when a Fieldfare was discovered in Lumsden (northeast coast) on February 6. This mega-rare European thrush was a bird I had been waiting to see here (I saw TONS when I lived in Finland in 2005), so I once again braved some nasty and very cold weather to track it down. We worked hard for this one, and the end result was a not only a new “tick” but a lot of time invested for a lone obscure photo of its rear-end. Read more about this eventful chase here.

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 (and very elusive!) Fieldfare in Lumsden on the northeast coast. While we did get some slightly better looks, this was the only photo I managed to get! “Arse-on”, as we might say 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.

Mid-February saw me catching up with an old, familiar friend – a Yellow-legged Gull which had been elusive the past few winters.

This female Bullock's Oriole (2nd provincial record) was visiting a private feeder sporadically during late winter 2016. I finally caught up with it on March 23 - a great bird!

This female Bullock’s Oriole (2nd provincial record) was visiting a private feeder sporadically during late winter 2016. I finally caught up with it on March 23 – a great bird!

Spring birding is always a “mixed bag” here in Newfoundland – you never know what you’ll see. I enjoyed one very interesting day of birding with Irish birders Niall Keough and Andrew Power in early May – finding great local birds such as Black-backed Woodpecker and Willow Ptarmigan, as well as rarities such as Purple Martin, Franklin’s Gull and a very unexpected Gyrfalcon! You can check out more the day’s highlights here.

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.

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 Cave Swallow, discovered at Quidi Vidi Lake (St. John's) by Alvan Buckley on May 29, was not only the province's second record but also one of just a few spring records for eastern North America.

This Cave Swallow, discovered at Quidi Vidi Lake (St. John’s) by Alvan Buckley on May 29, was not only the province’s second record but also one of just a few spring records for eastern North America.

In early June, BirdTheRock hosted its first tour to the Codroy Valley. Nestled away in the southwest corner of Newfoundland, this lush valley is easily one of the island’s most beautiful places – and it is also home to the province’s greatest diversity of landbirds. A number of species wander there regularly that are otherwise very uncommon or rare in the rest of Newfoundland, and a few have pushed the limits of their breeding range to include this small region of our island. There are many species that you can expect to find here but nowhere else in Newfoundland! Read more about our very fun tour here (and contact us if you’re interested in the 2017 trip which will be advertised soon).

The Piping Plover has experienced drastic population declines in recent decades, due mostly to habitat disturbance. Unfortunately, human activity on sandy beaches (and especially the use of ATVs on local beaches) has created a lot of problems for these little birds.

The Codroy Valley is one of the last footholds of the endangered Piping Plover in Newfoundland & Labrador. We enjoyed seeing several during the tour – a good sign for this vulnerable species.

The view from our accommodations included not only the internationally recognized Great Codroy estuary, but also rolling fields, lush forests and the majestic Long Range Mountains (a northern extension of the Appalachians!). It was a treat to start and end each day with this beautiful vista.

The view from our accommodations included not only the internationally recognized Great Codroy estuary, but also rolling fields, lush forests and the majestic Long Range Mountains (a northern extension of the Appalachians!). It was a treat to start and end each day with this beautiful vista.

The rest of summer was blocked full of tours and adventures with friends and visitors from all over the world. One of the biggest highlights was the “Grand Newfoundland” tour I designed and hosted for Eagle-Eye Tours. This epic, 11-day tour started in St. John’s and hit many great birding and natural history sites across the province, before ending in Gros Morne National Park. This was hands down one of the best tours and most amazing, fun-loving groups I have ever led – I can’t say enough about the great time and experiences we all had! Read more about this fantastic tour here (and check out the Eagle-Eye Tours website if you’d like to find out more about the upcoming 2017 trip).

While I've always been blessed with excellent groups, this one was especially great - energetic, easy-going and always up for some fun!

While I’ve always been blessed with excellent groups, this one was especially great – energetic, easy-going and always up for some fun!

One obvious highlight was our boat tour to the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, where we experienced (not just "saw"!) North America's largest colony of Atlantic Puffins. It never disappoints.

One obvious highlight was our boat tour to the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, where we experienced (not just “saw”!) North America’s largest colony of Atlantic Puffins. It never disappoints.

The beautiful sunset even provided nice light for a quick game of twilight mini-golf. Here's Jody honing his his other set of skills.

I was happy to be joined by my friend and co-leader Jody Allair – someone who has no trouble finding a way to have fun on every day of every tour!

After the tour, Jody and I joined Darroch Whitaker for a climb to one of Gros Morne National Park's lesser visited summits. Here we found several Rock Ptarmigan - a new species for both of us, and one of just a few breeding species I had left to see in Newfoundland.

After the tour, Jody and I joined Darroch Whitaker for a climb to one of Gros Morne National Park’s lesser visited summits. Here we found several Rock Ptarmigan – a new species for both of us, and one of just a few breeding species I had left to see in Newfoundland.

Two rare terns shows up on the southeast Avalon in late July. Although I missed one (Royal Tern), I did catch up with a Sandwich Tern – my fourth new species of the year! On the way back, Alvan Buckley and I discovered another great and unexpected rarity – a Eurasian Whimbrel! Although not my first, the mid-summer date made it especially notable. You can see more photos of these unusual visitors here.

This SANDWICH TERN was just the sixth record for Newfoundland, and a first for me! There is an ongoing discussion about its origins - is it American or European? (My very instant photo doesn't add much to that conversation - but it sure was great to see!). July 28, 2016, St. Vincent's NL.

This Sandwich Tern was just the sixth record for Newfoundland, and a first for me!

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The European race of Whimbrel (centre) is most easily distinguished from it North American cousin (left and right) by its large white rump.

One iconic Newfoundland species that I had several wonderful encounters with this year was Leach’s Storm-petrel. Despite being very abundant breeders and at sea, it is actually quite unusual to encounter them from land. This year I was fortunate to help several clients see this elusive bird, enjoy hundreds myself during a northeast gale, and even rescue one stranded at Cape Race lighthouse. If you’d like to learn more about these enigmatic little seabirds, check out this blog post I recently wrote about them.

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.

Few birds are as legendary in Newfoundland as far-flung western warblers, and Hermit Warbler is one of those gems that I’ve been wishing (though hardly expecting) to see here. But even more surprising than the fact that one was found on November 11, exactly 27 years after the one and only previous record, was that I had virtually conjured it just 12 hours earlier! It was my fifth and final new species for 2016. Read more about this incredible rarity and my wild prediction here.

This HERMIT WARBLER will no doubt be the highlight of November - and maybe of the year. Bruce Mactavish discovered it in Mobile on November 11 Newfoundland's one and only other record (Nov 11 1989)!

This Hermit Warbler was no doubt the highlight of November – and maybe of the year. Bruce Mactavish discovered it in Mobile on November 11.

I wrapped up my birding year with a fun and very impromptu adventure in Hawaii. I had the very great pleasure of helping ABA Big Year birders Laura Keene and John Weigel “clean up” on the amazing birds of Hawaii last month. Although the recent addition of Hawaii to the ABA region didn’t take effect until 2017, these intrepid birders decided to include it in their own big year adventures. We had an amazing time, saw virtually all the species one could expect in December, AND set a strong precedent that future Big Year birders will have a tough time topping! I’ll post a short write-up about that adventure, and its deeper meaning for me, in the very near future – so stay tuned!

Palila is just one of several endemic (and critically endangered!) species we encountered while visiting the Hawaiian islands. This particular bird is among my worldwide favourites, and the time we spent with this one is an experience I'll forever cherish.

Palila is just one of several endemic (and critically endangered!) species we encountered while visiting the Hawaiian islands. This particular bird is among my worldwide favourites, and the time we spent with this one is an experience I’ll forever cherish.

Best wishes for a healthy, happy and adventure-filled 2017!!