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!!

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Winter Birding – It’s Here!!

Some years ago, a tradition was started to keep tabs on the species of birds seen during the “official” winter bird season (December 1 – February 28) — now, most Canadian provinces (and many states) keep one. I began keeping a list for Newfoundland ten years ago, and look forward to seeing what awesome birds the coldest, snowiest months will bring each year! Not only do some surprising and very rare things tend to show up in winter, but many of our regular and expected birds are just as cool and exciting.
Newfoundland is one of the few places in North America where you can see Dovekie from land, and in many ways it is a symbol of winter for both local and visiting birders alike.

Newfoundland is one of the few places in North America where you can see Dovekie from land, and in many ways it is a symbol of winter for both local and visiting birders alike.

Sometimes something completely unexpected shows up to brighten the season. This Anna's Hummingbird was one of the amazing records that highlighted the incredible winter of 2010-11! It was a first provincial record and survived frigid temperatures well into February at a feeder in Brownsdale, Trinity Bay.

Sometimes something completely unexpected shows up to brighten the season. This Anna’s Hummingbird was one of the amazing records that highlighted the incredible winter of 2010-11! It was a first provincial record and survived frigid temperatures well into February at a feeder in Brownsdale, Trinity Bay.

Most winters we record ~130-140 species, but a record of 153 was set in 2012-13 when a rash of rarities big and small showed up all over the island. Overall, a grand total of more than 250 species have been recorded in Newfoundland during winter – pretty amazing! You can see a summary of all those records here.

I will keep a running list of of species seen on my website here (also see link in menu bar above). Please send reports to me using one of the methods below, and let me know if you have seen something that isn’t on the list. I’ll post the first reports on December 1 and update as regularly as I can.

Ways to send winter bird reports to me:

– Through the contact page on this website

– Email (jared_jjc AT hotmail.com) using the subject Winter Bird Report

– Post your report on the Newfoundland bird newsgroup (nf.birds)

– Using Facebook or Twitter (tag @birdtherock and/or #NLwinterbirds)

NOTE: I may be traveling outside of the province in early December, so updates could be limited and/or very occasional during that time … but I WILL catch up as soon as I return, so keep the reports coming!

So – get out there and check those ponds and woods roads and keep your feeders filled. Winter birding is here

 

Happy birding!

Winter 2015-16: Surprises & Usual Suspects

Well – another season of “official” winter birding (Dec 1 – Feb 29) has ended, and another Newfoundland winter bird list is complete. It has been an unusual winter weather-wise, with periodic warm spells and the snow coming and going like the tide in many parts of the island. In fact, looking out my St. John’s window this past week, it looked an awful lot like spring – hardly a patch of snow to be seen anywhere! But despite what the “official” season might say, I’m sure we’re not done with winter just yet – and there are probably more birds to discover before spring actually arrives!

The final tally of 140 species reported across Newfoundland (excluding Labrador) this winter was pretty much right on average. As always, there were lots of exciting surprises and a few (though not many) expected species that failed to make the list. The final list can be found here (while a cumulative list of previous winters can be found here).

Intrepid birder Alvan Buckley produced some of the earliest highlights during a school-related stint on the southwest coast – including the province’s second winter record of Field Sparrow and an equally rare Red-tailed Hawk. A stunning Summer Tanager was frequenting a feeder in nearby Codroy Valley in early December, while a very rare Western Tanager was photographed on the southern Avalon Peninsula on December 6. Unfortunately, the latter was a one-day wonder and disappoint birders who had hoped to connect with it in following days. An Eastern Towhee and Townsend’s Warbler rounded off some locally exciting birds for the first few days of winter birding.

Beverley Hinks shared this photo of a beautiful male Summer Tanager that frequented her yard in late November and early December ... what a stunning winter bird!

Beverley Hinks shared this photo of a beautiful male Summer Tanager that frequented her Codroy Valley yard in late November and early December … what a stunning winter bird!

Around St. John’s, a few dedicated birders managed to keep lingering migrants alive with an incredible effort to keep feeders stocked in strategic locations. A Blue-headed Vireo, Wilson’s Warbler and Yellow Warbler all survived into the cold January weather, while a Pine Warbler, Yellow-breasted Chat, Orange-crowned Warbler and Ruby-crowned Kinglet were still doing well when the end of February rolled by! A Northern Mockingbird and several Baltimore Orioles were also present around the city for parts of the season.

Although rare in Newfoundland, Pine Warbler makes the winter list most years. However, it is unusual for one to make it through the winter. This is the second year in a row that diligent caretakers have helped one survive the coldest season with a generous supply of high-energy food!

Although rare in Newfoundland, Pine Warbler makes the winter list most years. However, it is unusual for one to make it through the winter. This is the second year in a row that diligent caretakers have helped one survive the coldest season with a generous supply of high-energy food!

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This first-winter Sabine’s Gull was a very unexpected surprise … extremely rare anywhere in North America during winter, and pretty much anytime along the coast of Newfoundland.

A Pacific Loon that has been hanging out near St. Vincent’s was relocated several times throughout the winter. Completely off-the-wall was a Sabine’s Gull that was found in the same area on January 31 and lingered for more than a week. This is quite rare from land in Newfoundland, and almost unheard of anywhere along the North American coast in winter! This exciting find was closely followed by a Fieldfare in Lumsden on the island’s northeast coast, and a beautiful Varied Thrush in Rocky Harbour. Both are mega rarities, although the Old World origins of the Fieldfare gave it a slight edge on the excitement scale.

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.

This Fieldfare was discovered enjoying late-season Mountain Ash berries (akak “dogberries”) in Lumsden on February 6. Though elusive, several keen birders were able to refind it over the next few days. And don’t worry – I did enjoy better looks than my one poor photo might suggest!

Darroch Whitaker captured this great photo of a female Varied Thrush that had been frequenting his (and a neighbour's) yard in Rocky Harbour in mid-February.

Darroch Whitaker captured this great photo of a female Varied Thrush that had been visiting his (and a neighbour’s) yard in Rocky Harbour in mid-February.

After being “missing-in-action” since mid-November, a/the Yellow-legged Gull returned to its regular haunts in east St. John’s in mid-February and was seen daily for more than a week. A period of unusually warm weather caused ALL the ice on Quidi Vidi Lake (and many other city ponds) to disappear, making gull-watching a little tough for the last week of February. (Narrowly missing the winter list was an adult Thayer’s Gull discovered on March 1 – such solid-looking candidate are actually quite rare 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.

After an unexplained (but not unprecedented) absence, this Yellow-legged Gull returned in mid-February and was a fixture for local gull-watchers for a few days. It is likely still around.

Several Gyrfalcons were spotted in February – probably the biggest influx in a number of years. Hopefully they continue a bit longer, since it’s been a while for this birder! Snowy Owls were reported in moderate numbers all season, also with an apparent influx in the last half of February.

Plenty of our winter regulars put in great showings this season, too. Tufted Ducks and Eurasian Wigeon were found at their regular locations, while Dovekie were spotted in excellent numbers through most of January. Northern finches such as Common Redpoll and White-winged Crossbill descended on several parts of the island, as did big flocks of Bohemian Waxwings. While resident, Pine Grosbeaks were especially notable as big gatherings were found gorging on late season berries. Missing from the list, but undoubtedly on the island somewhere, were species such as Boreal and Northern Saw-whet Owls, Rock Ptarmigan and Northern Three-toed Woodpecker. One major change from previous years was a huge decrease in the number of Black-headed Gulls wintering in St. John’s – the recent closure of several sewer outflows has had a significant impact on their distribution.

All in all, it was another excellent winter in one of the best places to go winter birding!

Sabine’s in the Snow!

It was Sunday morning (Jan 31) when I got the news … Alvan Buckley called to tell me he had found a SABINE’S GULL off St. Vincent’s beach, about 1.5 hrs south of St. John’s. This enigmatic gull is a rarity (from shore) here at any time of year, but finding one in winter?!?! The odds are like winning the lottery! Sabine’s Gulls are regular migrants well offshore, but they head south of the equator in winter, and mostly off the coast of Africa. What was one doing here in late January?? I’ve learned to trust Alvan’s cautious and skilled identifications, but he still must have sensed some incredulity in my voice since the call was immediately followed by a grainy, but undeniable, photograph to confirm his claim.

I thought long and hard about heading down, but decided to follow through on some family commitments while others made the “chase”. As my good friend Bruce Mactavish later reminded me, I’m often “too responsible for my own good”. A dozen or so local birders saw the bird that afternoon, and Bruce tortured me with photos that night. Totally expecting this bird to disappear (virtually all other records here have been one-day wonders), I was surprised to hear reports that it was still being seen a few days later. I went to bed last night with an insatiable itch, and woke up early having already decided to go. I hit the road an hour before sunrise and headed south, coffee in hand. I knew some light snow was in the forecast for later in the morning, but was not expecting the driving snow and strong onshore winds facing me when I arrived at St. Vincent’s at 8:00am. Visibility was in the toilet, and the sting of snow and ice pellets as I stared into the winds and over the water was nearly enough to turn me back. Nearly.

The winds were strong enough that on a couple occasions I saw Dovekie flying over the beach – behind me as I searched the water! After scanning nothing but a handful of Iceland and Great Black-backed Gulls for the first few minutes, I nearly fell over when the Sabine’s Gull fluttered out of the snow squall, over the breakers and plopped down in the water not far offshore! I lost it fumbling for my optics, but found it again shortly after. It put on a great show, doing laps along the beach and feeding in the surf – often quite close. I almost forgot about the driving snow and hail pounding my face! Who knew that heaven could feel so cold …

This 1w Sabine's Gull emerged out of a snow squall ... not exactly the way I expected to see my first of this species  in Newfoundland! Sabine's Gulls are almost unheard of in North America during winter - so how this one ended up off our coast in late January is a bit of a mystery.

This 1w Sabine’s Gull emerged out of a snow squall … not exactly the way I expected to see my first of this species in Newfoundland! Sabine’s Gulls are almost unheard of in North America during winter – so how this one ended up off our coast in late January is a bit of a mystery.

 

The gull moved on after about an hour, around the same time that the snow and ice pellets had changed to freezing rain. Felt like a good time to go home anyways … a very happy birder!!

 

Despite being quite close at times, the conditions were really tough for photography. However, it was an amazing bird putting on a great show, so I'll live with these!

Despite being quite close at times, the conditions were really tough for photography. However, it was an amazing bird putting on a great show, so I’ll live with these and not complain!

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An immature Black-legged Kittiwake was also present, sometimes feeding alongside the Sabine's Gull. This made for a great comparison, since from a distance these two birds could prove an identification challenge. Note the different pattern on the upperside of the wings and mantle.

An immature Black-legged Kittiwake was also present, sometimes feeding alongside the Sabine’s Gull. This made for a great comparison, since from a distance these two birds could prove an identification challenge. Note the different pattern on the upperside of the wings and mantle.

The pied wing pattrn of an immature Sabine's Gull can superficially resemble the more distinct "M" visible on the immature Kittiwake above.

The pied wing pattern of this immature Sabine’s Gull can superficially resemble the more distinct “M” visible on the immature Kittiwake above.

Even the seals couldn't help grabbing a few looks at this beautiful gull!

Even the seals couldn’t help grabbing a few looks at this beautiful gull!

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WINGS 2016: Winter Birds in Newfoundland

Winter is a fun and special time to go birding in Newfoundland – which is why a group of WINGS tour participants brave the cold weather to visit here every January. This year, four birders (one from Maryland and three friends from California) made the voyage north to explore our rugged island! And I had the pleasure of sharing the wonderful birds & beautiful scenery of the eastern Avalon Peninsula with them. (This is my third year leading this adventure – and it always a great time! Follow these links to read blog posts about the 2014 and 2015 tours.)

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 tour is based out of St. John’s – one of the oldest cities in North America and located at its easternmost reaches. A variety of interesting and exciting species can be found around St. John’s during winter, and this year did not disappoint. Among the nine species of gulls found were Black-headed, Lesser Black-backed and European Mew (Common) Gulls. Rare anywhere else on the continent, we enjoyed dozens of Tufted Ducks, several Eurasian Wigeon and two beautiful Eurasian (Common) Teal amid an array of the more expected North American waterfowl.

Traveling outside the city on several occasions, we enjoyed more exciting birds and stunning coastal scenery. Dovekie is always a key target during this tour and were present in excellent numbers, including a few cooperative birds that lingered just metres away. We also encountered Black-legged Kittiwakes during strong onshore winds – a species not often seen from shore in winter. Purple Sandpipers and Great Cormorants put in an excellent showing, posing on the coastal rocks. Boreal Chickadees, White-winged Crossbills and Pine Grosbeaks gave us amazing looks, as did at least two Northern Goshawks and a very surprised Willow Ptarmigan. It was a fantastic tour with exciting birds, great people, and a wonderful setting!

We wpent a lot of time along the Avalon's rugged but beautiful coast during the week - lots of birds and stunning scenery!

We spent a lot of time along the Avalon’s rugged but beautiful coast during the week – lots of birds and stunning scenery!

Dovekie were no trouble to find this year, which is not always the case! We saw dozens most days, often flying past but sometimes obliging us with closer looks as they fed close by.

Dovekie were no trouble to find this year, which is not always the case! We saw dozens most days, often flying past but sometimes obliging us with great looks as they fed close by.

This photo, from last year's WINGS tours, shows just how cooperative Dovekie can be. We enjoyed several like this during the week.

This photo, from last year’s WINGS tour, shows just how cooperative Dovekie can be. We enjoyed several like this during the week.

Purple Sandpipers were also stars of this year's tour - we found three flocks of 50+ birds, all of which provided excellent views.

Purple Sandpipers were also stars of this year’s tour – we found three flocks of 50+ birds, all of which provided excellent views.

When not seaside, we enjoyed some beautiful walks in the local boreal forest and along streams and rivers.

When not seaside, we enjoyed some beautiful walks in the local boreal forest and along streams & rivers.

White-winged Crossbills have been arriving on the Avalon this month, and provided to be a crowd-pleaser for our participants.

White-winged Crossbills have been arriving on the Avalon this month, and proved to be a crowd-pleaser for our participants.

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The classy looking Tufted Duck is another popular bird for visitors, and we saw more than 40 this past week!

The classy looking Tufted Duck is another popular bird for visitors, and we saw more than 40 this past week!

This drake Eurasian Green-winged (aka Common) Teal was one of two drakes hanging out along a sheltered brook in St. John's. Maybe one day they will be "split" into separate species, as some authorities currently consider them.

This drake Eurasian Green-winged (aka Common) Teal was one of two drakes hanging out along a sheltered brook in St. John’s. Maybe one day they will be “split” into separate species, as some authorities currently consider them.

Another uncommon duck (though of North American origins) was this drake Barrow's Goldeneye spotted among a flock of Common Goldeneye in Spaniard's Bay (CBN).

Another uncommon duck (though of North American origins) was this drake Barrow’s Goldeneye spotted amid a flock of Common Goldeneye in Spaniard’s Bay (CBN).

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Lovely day for a picnic 😉

We also enjoyed several sightings of three species of seal, including this group of Harp Seals.

We also enjoyed several sightings of three species of seal, including this group of Harp Seals.

Gulls are an integral part of the tour, and we spent some time studying the various flocks around St. John's.

Gulls are an integral part of the tour, and we spent some time studying the various flocks around St. John’s.

This photo includes four of the most common species seen around the city - Herring, "Kumlien's" Iceland, Great Black-backed and Lesser Black-backed (1w, front centre) Gulls.

This photo includes four of the most numerous gull species seen around the city – Herring, “Kumlien’s” Iceland, Great Black-backed and Lesser Black-backed (1w, front centre) Gulls. All in all, we found nine species and several interesting hybrids to enjoy!

Black-headed Gulls have suddenly become less abundant following the closure of a large sewer outflow in St. John's, although we did manage o find some at other locations.

Black-headed Gulls have suddenly become less abundant following the closure of a large sewer outflow in St. John’s, although we had no trouble finding some at other locations.

We also relocated an adult Common (European Mew) Gull at a sewer outfall in Conception Bay South - it had been missing from its regular haunts in the city for several days.

We also rediscovered an adult Common (European Mew) Gull at a sewer outfall in Conception Bay South – it had been missing from its regular haunts in the city for several days.

While Great Cormorants are far more abundant here during winter, we managed to find a couple Double-crested Cormorants lingering around the region.

While Great Cormorants are far more abundant here during winter, we also managed to find a couple Double-crested Cormorants lingering around the region.

It was a wonderful week full of great birds, interesting weather, beautiful scenery and (most importantly) a fantastic group of people. I'm already looking forward to next year's WINGS Tour!

It was a wonderful week filled with great birds, interesting weather, beautiful scenery and (most importantly) a fantastic group of people. I’m already looking forward to next year’s WINGS Tour!

 

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 😉

WINGS Tour 2015: Newfoundland’s Winter Birds

Winter is a fun and special time to go birding in Newfoundland – which is why a group of WINGS tour participants brave the cold weather to visit here every January. This year, just two intrepid birders made the trip – from two very different parts of the United States, Maryland and Washington state! And I had the pleasure of sharing the wonderful birds & beautiful scenery of the eastern Avalon Peninsula with them.

A wintery morning at Cape Spear.

A wintery morning at Cape Spear.

We started the five-day tour with a visit to Cape Spear – the easternmost point in North America and a perfect place to spot some of our main targets for the week. It didn’t take long to find the local flock of Purple Sandpipers, first fluttering past the point and then taking shelter among the jagged rock jetties. A few small flocks of Common Eider flew by during our visit, and a group of ~40 Long-tailed Ducks bobbed up and down in the distance. An immature Peregrine Falcon (of the northern tundrius race) appeared out of nowhere, briefly checking us out before disappearing over the nearby hills. We even found six Dovekie quite close to the rocks below us. But the real highlight was finding another Dovekie actively feeding just metres from the shoreline at Blackhead village – it paid little attention to us as we sat on the snow-covered beach and soaked in the close-up views and photo opportunities!

Dovekie are always a big hit on winter tours, and this one really entertained as it fed in the shallow waters just metres away.

Dovekie are always a big hit on winter tours, and this one really entertained as it fed in the shallow waters just metres away.

The rest of the first two days were spent birding in St. John’s, where we enjoyed the full smorgasbord of exciting winter birds that the city has to offer. Among the nine species of duck hanging out in local ponds, the dozens of Tufted Ducks were a hands-down favourite. Both American and the much rarer Eurasian Green-winged Teals were seen, allowing for great comparisons of these two surprisingly unique subspecies. We enjoyed point blank looks at Great Cormorant in the harbour, as well as a very confiding adult Peregrine Falcon perched in a tree overlooking Quidi Vidi lake. We even tracked down a very late and out-of-place Pine Warbler that has been hanging out in Bowring Park!

This adult Peregrine Falcon has been hanging out near Quidi Vidi lake and provided great looks for our WINGS participants!

This adult Peregrine Falcon has been hanging out near Quidi Vidi lake and provided great looks for our WINGS participants!

The classy looking Tufted Duck is another popular bird for visitors, and we saw nearly 70 this past week!

The classy looking Tufted Duck is another popular bird with visitors, and we saw nearly 70 this past week!

We found this drake Common (aka Eurasian Green-winged) Teal in a small city brook. I consider this a "pocket species", since maybe it will be split someday.

We found this drake Common (aka Eurasian Green-winged) Teal in a small city brook. I consider this a “pocket species”, since maybe it will be split someday.

Among the 100+ divers hanging out in St. John's is this odd-looking bird thought to be a Ring-necked Duck X Scaup hybrid. Cool!

Among the 100+ divers hanging out in St. John’s is this odd-looking bird thought to be a Ring-necked Duck X Scaup hybrid. Cool!

This Pine Warbler is out of its element here in the middle of our winter, but seems to be doing okay for itself thanks to a few helpful birders keeping the park stocked with food.

This Pine Warbler is out of its element here in the middle of our winter, but seems to be doing okay for itself thanks to a few helpful birders keeping the park stocked with food.

It's difficult to ignore the beautofulwinter scenery of North America's oldest city, even when you're busy birding.

It’s difficult to ignore the beautiful winter scenery of North America’s oldest city, even when you’re busy birding.

Gulls are an essential part of any winter tour in Newfoundland, and this week did not disappoint. We soaked in great looks and photo opportunities with thousands of Herring, Great Black-backed and “Kumlien’s” Iceland Gulls, several hundred Glaucous Gulls, dozens of Black-headed Gulls (a key target for the tour!), a handful of Lesser Black-backed Gulls, and two Common (aka European Mew) Gulls! It was a great learning experience for both participants, who are now set to find and identify these rare northern visitors closer to home.

Visitors are often amazed at the variation among our wintering Iceland Gulls. The vast majority are of the "Kumlien's" race, but every now and then we encounter a candidate "glaucoides", like this one.

Visitors are often amazed at the variation among our wintering Iceland Gulls. The vast majority are of the “Kumlien’s” race, but every now and then we encounter a candidate “glaucoides”, like this one. Note the pure white wingtips and paler mantle compared to the more typical Kumlien’s Gulls in the background.

The third day brought beautiful (though cold!) weather, so we headed off to bird the beautiful coast of the southeast Avalon. Our first big highlight was finding three White-winged Crossbills feeding in a white spruce at Ferryland … a special and somewhat unexpected treat in what has been a sparse year for northern finches. Both the birds and the light cooperated for excellent photo opportunities, making for two happy participants and one very delighted guide!

This is one of three immature White-winged Crossbills we came across, feasting on the abundant white spruce cones. Most other conifers have had a poor cone crop this year.

This is one of three immature White-winged Crossbills we came across, feasting on the abundant white spruce cones. Most other conifers have had a poor cone crop this year.

Among other highlights were six Snow Buntings, a lingering Fox Sparrow, a very uncommon Horned Grebe and three more Dovekie. We were excited to find that, due to a relative lack of snow cover, we were able to drive the entire length of coastal road to Cape Race. Along the way we spotted three Snowy Owls on the tundra and at least fifteen Red-necked Grebes bobbing on the water. A large mixed flock of birds below the lighthouse consisted of ~320 White-winged Scoter, one Surf Scoter, a hundred Common Eider, two hundred Common Murre and at least five Thick-billed Murre.

The next day we headed north to Conception Bay, where ducks were the order of the day. We tallied a dozen species in the various harbours and inlets along the way, including 19 Eurasian Wigeon, 2 American Wigeon, 250 Greater Scaup, 50+ Common Goldeneye, 10 Bufflehead and dozens of both Common and Red-breasted Merganser. A pair of American Wigeon X Mallard hybrids were also noted (they have been hanging out in the area for several winters now).

Most scaup in Newfoundland are Greater Scaup, but careful observers can often pick out a Lesser Scaup or two (like this one).

Most scaup in Newfoundland are Greater Scaup, but careful observers can often pick out a Lesser Scaup or two (like this one).

The last day of this WINGS tour was spent around St. John’s, including another trip to Cape Spear. A much larger concentration of Common Eiders had built up since our earlier visit – with more than 800 spread out in three main flocks. Despite the much heavier, rolling seas we were able to spot a drake King Eider in one of the flocks – a great addition to the week and yet another lifer for one participant! On the way back to town, we picked up five Pine Grosbeaks flying over our heads, a Mourning Dove on a wire and eight Evening Grosbeak at a feeder we had (unsuccessfully) staked out earlier in the week. Our last new species for the week was an adult Bonaparte’s Gull cavorting with Black-headed Gulls in St. John’s harbour. We ended the tour on a high note with a confiding flock of ~100 Bohemian Waxwings feeding in an apple tree at eye level, four very cooperative Great Cormorants, and some very tame Boreal Chickadees eating seed right out of our hands – all great photo opportunities!

A walk in the woods this time of year can prove very quiet, although on this trail we did come across a few Boreal Chickadees and five Pine Grosbeak flying overhead.

A walk in the woods this time of year can prove very quiet, although on this trail we did come across a few Boreal Chickadees and five Pine Grosbeak flying overhead.

Great Cormorant often hang out in St. John's harbour - sometimes with a very neat and historic backdrop.

Great Cormorant often hang out in St. John’s harbour – sometimes with a very neat and historic backdrop.

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A major highlight of our week was finding a flock of Bohemian Waxwings in the historic Battery neighbourhood With about one hundred birds and maybe seven apples, there quite a ruckus at times!

A major highlight of our week was finding a flock of Bohemian Waxwings in the historic Battery neighbourhood With about one hundred birds and maybe seven apples, there quite a ruckus at times!

BOWA_Jan162015_3151It was a fantastic week spent enjoying great birds & amazing scenery with some wonderful people. What more can I ask?!?!