A Little Break from the Holiday Hustle

December has been (and always is!) a busy month. Faced with several work-related deadlines, Christmas preparations, and an even more hectic family schedule than usual (how can two little girls be involved in SO many things?!?!), there isn’t much time left over for birding. Or anything else, really.

Fortunately, winter can also be a busy time for visiting birders in Newfoundland, drawn by the lure of northern migrants, finches, and rare gulls. And sometimes that means an excuse for me to join them. My first real “break” this month came last week when birder Paul Lagasi (Ottawa, ON) requested my help for a short two-day visit, aimed primarily at seeing the elusive Yellow-legged Gull but also a variety of other local specialties. Paul flew in on Monday, December 8 and had a few hours to poke around on his own. With a few simple directions, he scored an ABA lifer right away – Black-headed Gull. He also enjoyed his first ever views of adult Iceland Gulls … loads of them!

Thousands of "Kumlien's" Iceland Gulls spend the winter in St. John's, providing world-class opportunities to see and study this very northern species. The variation within this "complex" can be ... well, complex. But fun!

Thousands of “Kumlien’s” Iceland Gulls spend the winter in St. John’s, providing world-class opportunities to see and study this very northern species. The variation within this “complex” can be … well, complex. But fun!

While gulls would remain the focus of the next two days, our first stop on Tuesday morning was Cape St. Francis at the northern tip of the peninsula — in search of seabirds. Although things were pretty quiet, we did find several dozen Common Eider, small groups of Long-tailed Duck, three Common Murre and a handful of Black Guillemot. A Bald Eagle kept watch from atop some offshore rocks, and Great Cormorants buzzed by from time to time. But the highlights, and our main purpose for heading out there, were several Dovekie flying around and actively feeding right off the point. They played hide & seek with us for more than an hour (mostly winning!) before we headed back to town. An early morning trip to Cape Spear on Wednesday morning was a bust for seabirds, although the scenery was awesome as always and a few small flocks of Purple Sandpipers were fun to watch.

Purple Sandpipers (like this one photographed a few years ago) also winter along our coast. They are very hardy shorebirds, eking out an existence in the toughest of habitats.

Purple Sandpipers (like this one photographed a few years ago) also winter along our coast. They are very hardy shorebirds, eking out an existence in the toughest of habitats.

During the course of those two days, we visited all the major lakes, ponds and gull fields around St. John’s. We scrutinized close to 10,000 gulls during that time — something I do with great delight and Paul learned to appreciate on a much deeper level. Thousands of Herring, Great Black-backed and “Kumlien’s” Iceland Gulls plus a couple hundred Glaucous Gulls made up most of the flocks. At least a dozen Lesser Black-backed Gulls were noted, along with dozens of Black-headed Gulls, a handful of lingering Ring-billed Gulls and three adult Common (Eurasian Mew) Gulls. And although a few intriguing gulls (mostly hybrids) caused some momentary excitement, the elusive Yellow-legged Gull remained just that … it didn’t show. Besides gulls ,we were entertained by lots of great ducks – Tufted Duck, American & Eurasian Wigeon, and Common (Eurasian Green-winged) Teal being the most notable. However, a photogenic Bufflehead and drake Gadwall were more unusual for the city. It was a great two days, Paul Lagasi was a lot of fun to go birding with, and we enjoyed lots of cool birds! (You can read more on Paul Lagasi’s blog here.)

This female Bufflehead was a bit of a treat for me ... pretty uncommon within the city and not so easy to photograph. I think Paul (from Ottawa) was entertained by the fact I paid more attention to it than the many European ducks we also enjoyed!

This female Bufflehead was a bit of a treat for me … pretty uncommon within the city and not so easy to photograph. I think Paul (from Ottawa) was entertained by the fact that I paid more attention to it than the many European ducks!

My second little break was Sunday morning, when I managed to sneak away for less than an hour between family engagements! A Yellow-throated Warbler had been found at Kelly’s Brook earlier in the week by local birder Peter Shelton, and I hoped to catch up with it. Surprisingly, this southern warbler shows up in Newfoundland pretty much every year and are regularly reported in early December (often visiting suet feeders). It was dull and overcast when I arrived, making for for pretty low light. It was also incredibly warm for December, with temperatures well above freezing. There were already a handful of birders/photographers there and the warbler was being quite cooperative, busily gleaning insects in the tangly understory that lines this neat little brook. The looks were great, but the bird was active, the habitat so tangly and the light so low that great photos were nearly impossible. Here are a few of my better captures during the mere 45 minutes of freedom I had to share with it.

YTWA_Dec142014_0984 YTWA_Dec142014_0993 YTWA_Dec142014_1038 YTWA_Dec142014_1069Christmas Bird Count season has begun, so I’m expecting another “break” this weekend when I participate in the Cape St. Mary’s CBC. Can’t wait …

Snipes, Bullbirds & Weather Delays

Just five days after the fantastic WINGS tour, I was already getting tired of paperwork and looking forward to getting back out there. Peter Gilchrist, from Toronto, ON was set to arrive late Wednesday night, with Dovekie firmly in his sights. A long-time birder with an extensive Canada (and ABA) list, Peter was gunning for this diminutive little seabird that is regularly seen along the coast of Newfoundland but hardly anywhere else in North America (I grew up calling these little guys bullbirds – one of many colourful bird names unique to Newfoundland!)

Dovekie (known locally as "bullbirds") are often found along our coast during winter. - Photo: Jared Clarke (December 17, 2011)

Dovekie (known locally as “bullbirds”) are often found along our coast during winter.
– Photo: Jared Clarke (December 17, 2011)

But the crazy winds that have been buffeting Newfoundland so much this January weren’t going to make it easy! Strong gusts of about 120km/h blew up overnight and throughout Thursday, cancelling many flights and delaying his arrival by more than 24 hours.

Despite spending far too much time in airports and not seeing his hotel until the wee hours of the night, Peter was rearing to go when I picked him up Friday morning. The winds were still blowing hard & cold when we arrived at Cape Spear twenty minutes later, biting at us as we headed out to the tip. And they weren’t done wreaking havoc on our plans just yet! The strong offshore winds of the past few days had apparently moved all the Dovekie well away from land … we couldn’t find a single one in our 2-3 hours of scanning the waters both near and far. Black Guillemots bobbed around the point, Common Eider and Long-tailed Ducks loafed further out, and Great Cormorants drifted by every few minutes. But no bullbirds!! Concerns started to gnaw away at my confidence … knowing that Dovekie often head back out to sea and become difficult to find by early February, I wondered if these winds might have spelt an early end to their gracing of our shores this year?!?!

After taking a short break to check for the elusive Yellow-legged Gull at various places around the city (it has not been reported in over a month), we headed north to check other coves and harbours for Dovekie – Flatrock, Torbay and Outer Cove. No such luck! Common Loons, Red-breasted Mergansers, Greater Scaup, and even a Red-necked Grebe were present and accounted for – but no bullbirds. And so ended our first (frustrating) day.

This COMMON SNIPE at Ferryland marks the third record of this European species for the province and all of eastern North America! - Photo: Jared Clarke (January 25, 2014)

This COMMON SNIPE at Ferryland marks the third record of this European species for the province and all of eastern North America!
– Photo: Jared Clarke (January 25, 2014)

With most of Saturday to go birding before his flight back to Toronto, Peter and I headed out at first light – straight to Ferryland to look for the COMMON SNIPE that has been hanging out there. This species is extremely rare anywhere but the westernmost reaches of Alaska, with this one being just the third record for all of North America away from the Pacific coast (all of which have occurred in this province!). Since we came up empty-handed at several stops to look for Dovekie on the drive south, I was happy to find the Snipe (along with two of its North American cousin, Wilson’s Snipe) at the usual location, allowing good views as it huddled in the mud & snow.

- Photo: Jared Clarke (January 25, 2014)

– Photo: Jared Clarke (January 25, 2014)

- Photo: Jared Clarke (January 25, 2014)

– Photo: Jared Clarke (January 25, 2014)

Next, we headed further south to Bear Cove … hoping that at least one Dovekie had held strong and stayed for our viewing pleasure. Sure enough, we found one (and just one!) feeding about 100 metres offshore. It toyed with us for the first few minutes, coming up for air only momentarily before diving again – but then we were able to enjoy great looks through the scope as it sat on the surface, toying instead with a fish it had just caught. We looked for more as we headed back toward the city, finding none!! We did, however, enjoy even better views of the Common Snipe!

Two excellent birds and two happy birders! What’s that they say – all is well that ends well? Think about that next time you’re stuck in an airport for 24 hours 😉