Getting a Little “Spring” in My Step

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 😉

Public Presentation: The Snowy Owl Invasion

While the cold weather and heavy snow may have driven many of the Snowy Owls observed in Newfoundland earlier this winter into hiding, signs of this year’s massive invasion are still very evident in other parts of eastern North America. The extraordinary irruption was first noticed here on “the rock”, but it is the unprecedented number of owls reaching further south into the Great Lakes, New England and the midwestern United States that seem to have taken all the headlines. And they are still being seen in big numbers today. In fact, preliminary results for the Great Backyard Bird Count suggest that more than 2500 Snowy Owls were reported across 25 states and 7 provinces this past weekend!!

Photo: Jared Clarke (January 6, 2014)

Photo: Jared Clarke (January 6, 2014)

Join me for a discussion of this incredible incursion at the upcoming public presentation entitled “Arctic Invasion: The Snowy Owl Event of 2013-14” (sponsored by NatureNL).

Date: Thursday, February 20, 2014
Location: SN-2101, Memorial University (Science Building)
Meeting Time: 7:30pm
Note: Parking is available in the Science Building car park.

The “First Day of Winter”

Is the relatively early onset of winter weather this year a harbinger of a long, snowy season ahead??

Is the relatively early onset of winter weather this year a harbinger of a long, snowy season ahead??

Today may traditionally be known as the “first day of winter”, but winter truly descended on Newfoundland weeks ago. Cold weather moved in during the first three days of December, and temperatures have been at or below freezing most of the time since. We have had several significant snowfalls in the first three weeks of December, and the entire island is blanketed in snow – even in relatively milder St. John’s which has seen plenty of green Christmases since I moved here sixteen years ago. In fact, this has been the snowiest December (most snow on the ground) since the winter of 2000-2001, which saw record-smashing snowfalls here on the Avalon peninsula.

An early morning with snow and ice on North America's easternmost rocks at Cape Spear.

An early morning with snow and ice on North America’s easternmost rocks at Cape Spear.

And while the Newfoundland winter bird list is almost on par with other years, actual bird reports for most of the month have been more like February than December when compared to recent years. Frigid weather has resulted in very few lingering migrants, especially warblers, that often get recorded in early winter. Early snow has blocked access to some locations including Cape Race and Cape St. Mary’s, forcing the cancellation of two key Christmas Bird Counts.

SNOW_Dec7_8284In true winter fashion, the biggest birding news so far has been the incredible invasion of Snowy Owls, with as many as 300 having been reported on the southeast Avalon in a single weekend. Newfoundland’s first Virginia’s Warbler survived long enough to make the winter list (last reported December 2), while a lingering Great Egret in northeast St. John’s braved freezing temperatures until at least December 11. And a Purple Gallinule found recently dead in a Clarenville backyard was about as close to southern flavour as we’ve gotten so far this season … and its untimely arrival was likely due to wintery weather in its own backyard. A Forster’s Tern at Renews on December 7 was only the seventh for Newfoundland, and just the second winter record. Despite being fairly elusive, the Yellow-legged Gull has been seen twice the past few weeks and should become more reliable now as the local ponds have frozen over and snow has covered other regular loafing locations for the huge flocks of gulls.

So, as the hustle and bustle of the season continues and we head into Christmas, winter birding trudges on. Despite the cold weather and snow, there is plenty of hope and potential for exciting rarities yet to be discovered, the joy of winter birds returning to spice up our days, and the unwavering beauty of Newfoundland’s spectacular scenery to keep us smiling. Here’s to the magic of the season ahead!!

Winter brings with it the return of some spectacular birds - including one of my favourites, the Bohemian Waxwing. - Photo: Jared Clarke (February 14, 2011)

Winter brings with it the return of some spectacular birds – including one of my favourites, the Bohemian Waxwing.
– Photo: Jared Clarke (February 14, 2011)

Snowy Owls … on the edge of North America

Nature news, social media and photography websites have been abuzz about the incredible Snowy Owl invasion happening in eastern North America the past few weeks. While the fallout has seen unprecedented numbers of owls reported across much of southern Canada and the northeastern states (with a few owls turning up much further south than usual), nothing compares to the explosion of these majestic arctic birds as Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula. Some keen observers have seen well over a hundred in the Cape Race area alone, while Bruce Mactavish tallied a mind-boggling 206 this past weekend.

Snowy Owls have been making waves among birders all across eastern North America lately. A few, like this one sitting on the easternmost rocks in North America, having been entertaining birds and non-birders alike at Cape Spear. - Photo: Jared Clarke (December 7, 2013)

Snowy Owls have been making waves among birders all across eastern North America lately. A few, like this one sitting on the easternmost rocks in North America, having been entertaining birders and non-birders alike at Cape Spear.
– Photo: Jared Clarke (December 7, 2013)

Between work and family commitments, I haven’t had time to get out and enjoy this amazing spectacle myself. With that in mind, I decided to sneak away for just two hours on Saturday morning and head to Cape Spear in hopes of seeing and maybe photographing an owl or two. Cape Spear is the easternmost point in North America and just 15 minutes from St. John’s. A handful had been reported there daily for almost two weeks. I arrived and shortly discovered two owls hanging out near the point. A couple photographers were milling around, occasionally flushing the owls as they stood on the trail above them trying for photos (but, I’m happy to say, not harassing them – although I’m certain this has happened).

Looking out to sea after a long journey south. "Where to next?" - Photo: Jared Clarke (December 7, 2013)

Looking out to sea after a long journey south. “Where to next?”
– Photo: Jared Clarke (December 7, 2013)

Taking my own approach, I watched the owls for a few minutes and made note of their habits. After they had flown around the corner and the other guys followed them along the trail, I climbed down and positioned myself strategically between a couple perches I thought they’d like. And waited. After about fifteen minutes of enjoying the wave action and sounds of the ocean below me, one of the owls flew back around the corner and (just as I had hoped!) landed about 10-12m away. I didn’t have to move a muscle or disturb the owl in any way … it stayed for 20 minutes or so, posing and changing perches a couple times. What a wonderful experience!

In the end, I saw a total of 7-8 owls in the area – most of those distantly as I scanned south along the cliffs and barrens leading away from the cape.

The majority of the owls being seen appear to be hatch-year birds, indicating an excellent breeding season for the species this past spring. While I haven’t heard any confirmations, it is assumed that the populations of at least some small arctic mammals (e.g. lemmings) that Snowy Owls depend on for survival must have experienced an abysmal crash, sending the owls south in search of food. No doubt many of the owls being seen in eastern Canada and the United States originated in our own arctic, however there has been some question as to whether or not some or all of those being seen here on the Avalon might have come from breeding populations in (relatively) nearby Greenland. It’s an interesting idea. Either way, there is genuine concern that the barrens of eastern Newfoundland may not host a large enough rodent population to support the onslaught of these beautiful creatures, and their fate may not be so bright and rosy as we would like. At least one found dead this weekend looked emaciated and likely starved. A sad state of events, but also a somewhat natural part of the Snowy Owl’s population cycle (albeit often on a smaller scale than we might be witnessing at the moment).

- Photo: Jared Clarke (December 7, 2013)

– Photo: Jared Clarke (December 7, 2013)

In the end, there is not much we can do but enjoy the beauty of these animals, appreciate what nature has given us, and let her take her course (even if that means trying not to think too much about it!).

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A Yaffle of Snowy Owls

I’m not sure how many Snowy Owls it takes to make a yaffle (a traditional Newfoundland English word meaning “a load” or “an armful”), but no doubt there are yaffles abundant around the Avalon Peninsula right now. Snowy Owls started getting reported at Cape Race last weekend, with as many as eight being reported on November 17. That total climbed to a mouth-watering eighteen today, while other individuals were at Cape Spear and Ramea the past few days. There has certainly been a fallout of these beautiful arctic owls the past few days, and chances are we are in for a banner year like we haven’t seen for quite some time (though certainly not unprecedented in eastern Newfoundland, where dozens have sometimes been recorded in a relatively small area and on single Christmas Bird Counts in the Cape Race area!).

This young Snowy Owl was one of several I had the pleasure of enjoying on Cape Race road in November 2008. Beautiful!! - Photo: Jared Clarke (November 14, 2008)

This young Snowy Owl was one of several I had the pleasure of enjoying on Cape Race road in November 2008. Beautiful!!
– Photo: Jared Clarke (November 14, 2008)

Keep your eyes open for these majestic white visitors … they can show up almost anywhere!!