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!!

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Mother Carey’s Chicks

For a place that boasts the world’s largest colonies of Leach’s Storm-Petrels, it is surprising how rarely most Newfoundland birders get to enjoy them. More than 3 million pairs (yes – pairs!) are estimated to breed on Baccalieu Island at the northern tip of the Avalon Peninsula and 600,000+ pairs in the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve alone! However, Leach’s Storm-Petrels spend the daylight hours far out to sea, feeding on plankton and small fish. Storm-petrels themselves are perfect meals for larger predatory birds like gulls, so they prefer the extra safety that comes with staying far away from land. Only at night, under the cover of darkness, do these robin-sized seabirds come back to their island abode and sneak into the safety of their underground burrows.

The best times to catch a glimpse of these mysterious birds are during strong onshore winds, when some get blown closer to shore than they would usually bother coming. Occasionally, during a really good windstorm, large numbers get driven onto shore or into large bays. Late last week, a night of northerly gales did just that – and I headed out the next morning to check for seabirds at bottom of Conception Bay. Arriving at Holyrood, I immediately saw dozens of Leach’s Storm-Petrels flying around offshore, mostly into the wind (which by this point had lessened a bit, with gusts of ~70km/h). Setting up my scope, I began to see hundreds of them coursing over the water further out in the bay. Although these winds sometimes bring in other seabirds such as jaegers and shearwaters, I saw nothing else unusual in my two hours of scanning. But it was still an awesome chance to watch, learn and appreciate the enigmatic little Storm-petrel.

I managed to find one place where Leach's Storm-Petrels were filing by occasionally within camera range, but bright sunshine and strong winds made photography difficult.

I managed to find one place where Leach’s Storm-Petrels were filing by occasionally within camera range, but bright sunshine and strong winds made photography difficult.

The bright sun and strong shadows ruined would otherwise have been a great photo opportunity.

The bright sun and strong shadows ruined would otherwise have been a great photo opportunity.

Thousands of Lach's Storm Petrels fluttered over Conception Bay, driven there by the strong wrap-around winds from Tropical Storm Cristobal (August 29).

This photo was taken at the same location two years ago, during strong wrap-around winds from Tropical Storm Cristobal (August 29, 2014). Winds like these make for interesting birding in September and October.

Leach’s Storm-Petrels are more familiar to fishermen and sailors who also spend much of their lives on the open ocean, and are known by many as “Mother Carey’s chicks”. I have always wondered the origins of this colourful name, which seemed nearly as mysterious as the birds themselves. I recently saw an intriguing old drawing of a witch flying on a broomstick, surrounded by storm petrels and overlooking a sailing ship in a raging storm. It turns out that, according to some folklore, Mother Carey is a name attributed to an old hag that brings about cruel and dangerous seas. Some even claim she is the wife of “Davy Jones”, the mythological figure who is blamed for causing shipwrecks and claiming the bodies of drowned sailors. It is no surprise, then, that such an otherwise innocent-sounding name has been given to a seabird that is often associated with stormy winds and weather.

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“Mother Carey and Her Chickens” (JG Keulemans, 1877)

Leach’s Storm-Petrels are also well known for getting stranded on land at this time of year. With millions of young birds fledging for the first time, and parents following suit to abandon their burrows until next year, there are lots of opportunity for mishaps. Storm-Petrels can get disoriented by the bright, artificial lights that are so common around our communities – especially on damp, foggy nights when visibility is limited. Like many seabirds, Storm-Petrels are unable to take flight from flat land (they usually launch off their sloped burrow entrance), and are easily stranded if they land. If you find one, gently pick it up, place it in a dark ventilated space (a small box works well) and release it over the water that evening. Doing so after sunset is best, since there is far less chance it will get predated on by larger birds.

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. 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.

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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!

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?

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!!

Yellow-throated Vireo … and the Fall “Big Day”

It felt like Christmas when I woke up on Saturday, September 21.

This was the day of the 21st Annual BMI  (Blake Maybank Invitational) – one of my favourite days of the year!! The event was originally named in honour of the man who started the tradition by inviting local birders out on Thanksgiving weekend and, while it no longer has anything to do with Blake (who now lives and birds in Nova Scotia) and isn’t always held on Thanksgiving, the name has stuck. The event sees teams of birders spread out over the Avalon peninsula to try and see as many species as possible, especially the rare ones!! (Think of it like a big Christmas Bird Count, but with a bigger focus on finding rarities than counting).

It felt like Christmas in another way, too — the temperature was hovering just above freezing as I carried my gear to the car and set out. It had been a cold, clear night with light northerly winds – raising the distinct possibility that many of the birds we had been hoping to find may have caught the breeze south and out of Newfoundland. But whatever the day might bring, it was going to be great one for being out and enjoying it.

I picked up my buddy and “teammate” Dave Brown, stopped for the obligatory coffee and breakfast sandwich, and headed south along the east coast to Renews. It was light when we got there at 7:00am, with the low sun sparking on the first frost of the year. We started birding in some of the alder-lined gravel pits north of Renews – such “pits” are well known for attracting and holding migrants (both local and wayward) during fall. At first we saw mostly sparrows (Swamp, Savannah, and White-throated), but 30 minutes and two stops later the activity levels exploded. Yellow-rumped Warblers were popping up all over the pace, with double digits at most stops. Among the dozens of Yellow-rumpeds we also found a few other “local” warblers – Blackpoll, Wilson’s, Yellow, Palm and Common Yellowthroat. A Tennessee Warbler was our first little taste of something that doesn’t usually occur on the Avalon (although they breed commonly in other parts of the island and Labrador).

While the activity remained high as we worked our way south to Renews, the variety was low. Everything we were seeing could be considered “local” species, and the big number of Yellow-rumped Warblers indicated that they were gathering on the southeast coast in preparation for a mass exodus. How many birds had left ahead of them during the north winds of the past 24 hours?? We stopped only briefly at Renews since the tide was high and another “team” was expected to cover it later in the day. A flock of 13 Northern Flickers was an odd spectacle, with eight on a single dead tree. At the beach, I only saw two Yellowlegs (one Greater, one Lesser), and we heard one Lapland Longspur flying over. It would be the only one of the day.

Activity remained high as we approached Bear Cove – a well known “migrant trap” that we bird on a regular basis. A recent program to clear all the roadside alders in that area has changed the landscape, but fortunately (and somewhat to our surprise) birds still seem to gather there. While Dave birded his way down the hill descending into Bear Cove itself, I headed to the area of a large gravel pit that was still home to lots of alders. Just metres from the car, a bright bird popped out of the trees. I knew it was going to be good, but struggled to get a clear look. Then it crept into the open — YELLOW-THROATED VIREO!!!

This stunning Yellow-throated Vireo was the big highlight of this year's BMI birding. It is quite rare in Newfoundland, with maybe a dozen or so records. Photo: Jared Clarke (Bear Cove, September 21, 2013)

This stunning Yellow-throated Vireo was the big highlight of this year’s BMI birding. It is quite rare in Newfoundland, with maybe a dozen or so records.
Photo: Jared Clarke (Bear Cove, September 21, 2013)

This very dull Dickcissel was another good bird, especially for this date. It was found just metres from the vireo. Photo: Jared Clarke (Bear Cove, September 21, 2013)

This very dull Dickcissel was another good bird, especially for this date. It was found just metres from the vireo.
Photo: Jared Clarke (Bear Cove, September 21, 2013)

I yelled out to Dave, but he was too far up the road to hear me. I ran for the camera, but the vireo had disappeared in the 30 seconds I was gone. But more birds were moving through, and I soon picked out a very dull Dickcissel low down in the vegetation. I snapped a few photos as Dave was cresting the hill – he had found a Bobolink (the first of at least two we would see during the day). Together we worked the area where I had seen the vireo. A few minutes later we heard a grating chatter reminiscent of an oriole — that was IT! We soon got on the bird again – this time Dave got great looks, and I got some distant record shots. We also found a WARBLING VIREO – another great bird for Newfoundland, although pretty much annual and far less exciting. Through the next hour of working south through Bear Cove and Cappahayden we found two more Warbling Vireos, a Blue-headed Vireo, and another BobolinkBear Cove beach had the regular assortment of shorebirds, including several dozen Semipalmated Plover and Semipalmated Sandpiper, four Dunlin, three Sanderling, two White-rumped Sandpipers and one Ruddy Turnstone. Lone Black and Surf Scoters loafed on the water just offshore.

This adult male Blue Grosbeak was among the best birds seen all day, although it had been present for a few days so lacked the "exciting discovery" factor  ;)  However, we rarely see them in this plumage. Photo: Jared Clarke (Cape Race, September 21, 2013)

This adult male Blue Grosbeak was among the best birds seen all day, although it had been present for a few days so lacked the “exciting discovery” factor 😉 However, we rarely see them in this plumage.
Photo: Jared Clarke (Cape Race, September 21, 2013)

The activity had petered out by noon, so we finished covering “our” area and headed further afield to Cape Race (where another “team” had started at first light). It was very quiet along the road, and we later learned it had been so all day. At the lighthouse we saw a brilliant adult male BLUE GROSBEAK – an exciting bird but it had been present and known for several days, so not a surprise. We also saw two LARK SPARROWS at the lighthouse and yet another at nearby Long Beach – an unprecedented total for that species. Along the way home we picked up a Baltimore Oriole for the day, and Dave flushed another (probable) Bobolink. And while I was watching the small flock of shorebirds at Long Beach, a Merlin swooped in and grabbed a Semipalmated Plover just metres in front of me — if only I had been a bit more ready with the camera!

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I narrowly missed an awesome (albeit brutal) photo opportunity when this Merlin snagged a plover just metres in front of me -- this is the best I could muster. Photo: Jared Clarke (September 21, 2013)

I narrowly missed an awesome (albeit brutal) photo opportunity when this Merlin snagged a plover just metres in front of me — this is the best I could muster.
Photo: Jared Clarke (September 21, 2013)

Perhaps the most interesting thing (for me, at least) was a school of Bluefin Tuna leaping out of the water just off the cape, surrounded by dozens of Northern Gannets and gulls and several whales (Minke and Humpback). Those Tuna were a “lifer” and very cool to see in action!!

We finished the day with an impressive 75 species, including the best bird of the day! Back at Bruce Mactavish’s house for chili and “refreshments”, we compiled the grand list — overall, the day had produced an excellent 118 species, including two that were new for the BMI (Yellow-throated Vireo & Northern Mockingbird). Other good birds (not seen by us) included a Northern Wheatear, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Pied-billed Grebe, Baird’s & Buff-breasted Sandpipers, Blackburnian Warbler and an unidentified empidonax flycatcher. Over the past 21 years, a staggering 223 species have been recorded on this event!

Not bad for a day’s birding!

Savannah Sparrows were plentiful along the Cape Race road ... their peak out-migration is still a couple weeks away. Photo: Jared Clarke (September 21, 2013)

Savannah Sparrows were plentiful along the Cape Race road … their peak out-migration is still a couple weeks away.
Photo: Jared Clarke (September 21, 2013)