The Trickling Back of Spring

To most people, spring doesn’t simply “arrive” in Newfoundland. It fights and claws its way back, while winter works like the dickens to maintain its icy grip. April can be like purgatory here on the island – somewhere in between two battling seasons, deceptively mild and promising one minute and bitter cold the next. And this year has been no exception!

WinterStages_9731But to birders, signs of spring start popping up long before the promise of warm weather. Black-legged Kittiwakes and Ring-billed Gulls begin returning to our coast in late March, looking fresh and bright after a long winter abroad. Horned Larks can often be found on coastal headlands and kelpy beaches, waiting for the last patches of snow to disappear on the grassy barrens. Northern Gannets head north from more temperate waters in early April, catching their first glimpse of Newfoundland in more than five months. Common & Thick-billed Murres start rallying for their precious few inches of personal space on the steep breeding cliffs, while Atlantic Puffins begin spring repairs on their family burrows. American Robins, the first harbinger of spring that most people will notice, arrive in the first week of April to show off their bright red breasts and spring melodies. Not to be outdone, Fox Sparrows come in on the same winds and belt out their ethereal tunes. Spring has sprung, despite the lingering snow and yo-yo temperatures. Each and every bird that arrives, unseen as they might be, helps peel back the icy fingers of winter. And I’m ready for that.

The return of Black-legged Kittiwakes is probably the very first sign of spring in Newfoundland, even if they go unnoticed by most people who are still occupied with shoveling snow in late March.

The return of Black-legged Kittiwakes is probably the very first sign of spring in Newfoundland, even if they go unnoticed by most people who are still occupied with shoveling snow in late March.

Horned Lark also begin returning at the very first crack of spring - often the first migrant songbird to return.

Horned Lark also begin returning at the very first crack of spring – often the first migrant songbird to return.

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A growing number of Northern Gannets can be spotted migrating along the coast by the first week of April.

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Spring is a busy time of building and repairing nests, from the smallest songbird to the largest seabird.

Murres may have less distance to travel after a long winter out at sea, but their return is no less notable.

Murres may have less distance to travel after a long winter out at sea, but their return is no less notable.

Real estate is hard to come by in the crowded murre colonies, and spring must be crazy as each pair establishes just a few inches space on a narrow cliff ledge!

Real estate is hard to come by in the crowded murre colonies, and spring must be crazy as each pair establishes just a few inches space on a narrow cliff ledge!

Soon, the famous Atlantic Puffin colonies along our coast will look like this again - alive and colourful.

Soon, the famous Atlantic Puffin colonies along our coast will look like this again – alive and colourful.

Even to non-birders, the return of bright and vocal American Robins is a hallmark of spring in Newfoundland.

Even to non-birders, the return of bright and vocal American Robins is a hallmark of spring in Newfoundland.

For serious birders, spring also bring the potential for rarities that have strayed off the beaten path during migration ... and in Newfoundland, European stragglers make for the most excitement. In 2014, more than 300 European Golden Plovers were reported across Newfoundland in early May - a huge (though not quite record!) invasion of this nearly annual rarity. Will we see any this year??

For serious birders, spring also brings the potential for rarities that have strayed off the beaten path during migration … and in Newfoundland, European stragglers make for the most excitement. In 2014, more than 300 European Golden Plovers were reported across Newfoundland in early May – a huge invasion of this nearly annual rarity. Will we see any this year??

2014: Looking Back on a Great Year!

It’s hard to believe that another year has zipped by … and what a year it was! The past twelve months were full of great blessings, highlights and adventures; bringing back some wonderful memories as I sit down now to reflect on them. Amazing birds, extreme weather, fun-filled tours, new friends and even a tropical adventure … 2014 had it all!!

** Be sure to follow the links to earlier blog posts for more details and LOTS more photos!! **

The first bird news for the year was actually a carry-over from 2013 — the invasion of Snowy Owls. Although the large numbers of November and December seemed to have dissipated, reports continued throughout the winter. A few individuals decided to stay, with reports from places like Trepassey, St. Shott’s, Cape Race and Bonavista’s north shore right through the summer. I saw at least one bird in June, July and August! An echo of the 2013 invasion has been taking place this fall/winter, with excellent numbers reported in November and December 2014.

Snowy Owls continued throughout the winter of 2014, following a major invasion the previous fall. This one was photographed in St. John's in early January.

Snowy Owls continued throughout the winter of 2014, following a major invasion the previous fall. This one was photographed in St. John’s in early January.

In January, I was fortunate to host four eager birders on a WINGS Birding tour. We enjoyed prime Newfoundland winter birds like Dovekie, Purple Sandpiper, Tufted Duck, Eurasian Wigeon and thousands of excellent gulls, as well as the very rare COMMON SNIPE that had just been discovered in Ferryland. Several other clients were able to enjoy this bird throughout the winter.

Four enthusiastic birders from across the United States visited St. John's last week as part of the WINGS winter tour. Here they can be seen at Cape Spear, smiling after scoring great looks at two prime targets - Purple Sandpipers and Dovekie!!

Four enthusiastic birders from across the United States visited St. John’s last winter as part of the WINGS winter tour. Here they can be seen at Cape Spear, smiling after scoring great looks at two prime targets – Purple Sandpipers and Dovekie!!

- Photo: Jared Clarke (January 25, 2014)

Equally exciting was the reappearance of our adult YELLOW-LEGGED GULL in February … it had been elusive all winter and not seen at all since December. For several weeks it appeared, almost like clockwork, at Quidi Vidi lake to bathe, drink and loaf on the ice with many other gulls. A number of visiting birders were able to capitalize on this, including several of my clients who had come primarily to “tick” this North American mega.

The Yellow-legged Gull is, in my opinion, one of the classiest looking gulls out there (and I do love gulls!). The combination of bright yellow bill and legs, brilliant red gony spot, and that magic shade of grey add up to one beautiful bird. - Photo: Jared Clarke (February 22. 2014)

The Yellow-legged Gull is, in my opinion, one of the classiest looking gulls out there (and I do love gulls!). The combination of bright yellow bill and legs, brilliant red gony spot, and that magic shade of grey add up to one beautiful bird.

Overall, Newfoundland (and most of North America!) found itself in a deep freeze for much of the winter. With the exception of a week-long thaw in mid-January, it was one of the coldest and snowiest winters in a long time. The extensive ice and limited open water resulted in a big movement of waterfowl, as well as some great photo opportunities with local ducks.

Photo opportunities with Common Mergansers are few and far between ,since they usually stick to larger patches of open water and are very wary. A small group making regular visits to Quidi Vidi have been becoming more tolerant of people and allowing some great looks. - Photo: Jared Clarke (February 22. 2014)

Photo opportunities with Common Mergansers are few and far between, since they usually stick to larger patches of open water and are very wary. A small group making regular visits to Quidi Vidi last winter became more tolerant of people and allowed some great looks.

Ring-necked Ducks breed in Newfoundland, but are rarely easy to photograph. This drake has been hanging out in the relatively small patches of open water at Quidi Vidi since early February. - Photo: Jared Clarke (February 22. 2014)

Ring-necked Ducks breed in Newfoundland, but are rarely easy to photograph. This drake was hanging out in the relatively small patches of open water at Quidi Vidi in early February.

The frigid temperatures and deep snow also resulted in a handful of small owl reports in residential areas. I even caught sight of a Northern Saw-whet Owl as it flew up from a nearby yard and landed on the wires directly in front of my house – unfortunately it only stayed for a moment. Much more cooperative was a Boreal Owl that showed up in a neighbourhood following a big storm in early February … definitely one of my photo highlights of 2014!

Boreal Owls are definitely one of my favourite birds. They are known for visiting residential neighbourhoods in mid-winter, when deep snow has impacted their traditional hunting areas in "the bush".

Boreal Owls are definitely one of my favourite birds. They are known for visiting residential neighbourhoods in mid-winter, when deep snow has impacted their traditional hunting areas in “the bush”.

March brought with it one of the highlights of my entire year – an escape to Hawaii!! I joined my good friend Jody Allair as co-leader for an Eagle Eye birding tour, where we visited three islands with a great group of birders, saw some of the coolest and rarest birds on earth, swam with sea turtles, and hiked on volcanoes. It was genuinely awesome adventure in one of the most amazing and unique ecosystems in the world. (Be sure to read my earlier blog posts – they are jam-packed with photos!).

This male Akiapola'au, one of Big Island's rarest and most special birds, graced us for almost an hour. Check out that crazy bill!!

This male Akiapola’au, one of Hawaii’s rarest and most special birds, graced us for almost an hour. Check out that crazy bill!! It may have been my favourite birding experience of the entire year!

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Green Sea Turtles are quite common along the Hawaiian coasts, but seeing them was still very special.

Redtailed Tropicbirds also nest on the cliffs at Kilauea Point, and were often seen floating by or engaging in their acrobatic courtships displays.

Red-tailed Tropicbirds were one of many (many!) highlights during the tour!

April can be an exciting time in Newfoundland, especially if we get the right winds … and this year we got them in spades. Prolonged northeasterly, trans-Atlatnic winds in late April and early May brought with them an invasion of European/Icelandic birds … including two COMMON REDSHANKS (only the third North American record), a dozen Black-tailed Godwits, several hundred European Golden Plovers, scores of Northern Wheatear, and a Eurasian Whimbrel.

However, the real star of the Euro Inasion was a Common Redshank at Renews from May 3-13. Since it represented just the third record (and sixth individual) for both Newfoundland and North America, many birder came from near and far to see it. A second individual presnt at the same location on May 4 was chased off by the first and never seen again!

This Common Redshank at Renews from May 3-13 was (in my opinion) Newfoundland’s best bird of 2014. Since it represented just the third record (and sixth individual) for both Newfoundland and North America, many birders came from near and far to see it.

More than 300 European Golden Plovers were reported across Newfoundland in early May - a huge (though not quite record!) invasion of this nearly annual rarity.

More than 300 European Golden Plovers were reported across Newfoundland in early May – a huge (though not quite record!) invasion of this nearly annual rarity.

Photo: Jared Clarke (April 26, 2014)

The “invasion” was first detected by the arrival of two Black-tailed Godwits at Renews in late April. Over the next 2-3 weeks, a record total of twelve were recorded around the island. Incredibly, I was able to see six of them at four locations!

To make things even more exciting, an adult ROSS’S GULL showed up for two days – considered by many to have been the most exciting bird of the entire year!

Summer was busy with tours and visiting birders … all of whom couldn’t have picked a better year to visit! We had great weather, an incredible showing of icebergs, and lots of interesting nature and wildlife experiences! I had the pleasure of leading four tours with my good friends at Wildland Tours, as well as several private clients throughout the summer – all of whom enjoyed great birds, whales, scenery, wildflowers and, of course, icebergs! And no one enjoyed it more than I did!

The icebergs in Bonavista & Trinity Bays were incredible - in number, size and sheer beauty. Some dramatic skies added to the scene at times.

The icebergs along ghe northeast coast this year were incredible – in number, size and sheer beauty. Some dramatic skies added to the scene at times.

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We enjoyed “lots” of great seabirds during the various tours – including the awe-inspiring frenzy of murres and puffins at Witless Bay Ecological Reserve.

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A couple tours lucked into the amazing scene of caplin “rolling” as they spawned on our beaches. In the North Atlantic, these small fish are a big cog in the wheel of life.

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Cape Pine also produced our first Short-tailed Swallowtails of the trip ... they were plentiful at most headlands during the week.

Short-tailed Swallowtails are always a highlight on my tours … this beautiful little butterfly is limited to very small range, mostly on the island of Newfoundland.

Although most were busy gorging on the schools of caplin, a few enetertained us with some beautiful breaches. This one in front of the historic town of Trinity!

Whales put on a great show throughout the summer – like this one breaching in front of the historic town of Trinity!

Subalpine flowers, like these Diapensia lapponica, grow on the sub-arctic tundra of Cape St. Mary's.

Subalpine flowers, like these Diapensia lapponica, grow on the sub-arctic tundra of Newfoundland and are one of many interesting wildflowers seen throughout the summer.

A Little Gull showed up in late July, hanging around for many local birders to catch up with it.

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Little Gulls are quite rare in Newfoundland, and it is especially unusual for one to cooperate and hang around for several days like this one did!

August was very wet in Newfoundland, but I managed to make the most of it – including a great Wildland Tour and lots of family adventures. A major windstorm at the end of August drove thousands of Leach’s Storm Petrels (and other birds) to the bottom of Conception Bay, making for quite a show!

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

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

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Our family loves ot spend time together and travel in Newfoundland during the summer. One of our favourite destinations in beautiful Grate’s Cove, where my mother-in-law grew up and she still has an old family home that we love!

One of the most exciting events of the entire year for me had nothing to do with birds – but instead a mammal. In early September, I managed to catch up with a WALRUS that was discovered hanging out on a rocky outcrop at Bay Bulls! I have always wanted to see one of these magnificent animals, and this one did not disappoint! My story of this encounter turned out the be the most popular post on my blog, my photos were shared across the internet and picked up by various media, and the sighting was published in a local journal.

Walrus_Sept22014_7948 Walrus_Sept22014_7866An intriguing Common Gull also showed up in September – one that gave the distinct impressions of the kamchatka race originating from eastern Asia. Bruce Mactavish and I had a great experience after relocating it on a field in Goulds, and its difficult to come to any conclusion except that it was indeed a “Kamchatka Gull“. Unfortunately, it has not been seen since.

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This Common Gull which showed up in and around St. John’s in early fall was unlike any other seen here before. Could it really have been a “Kamchatka Gull” from eastern Asia?? Crazier things have happened.

A very rare Canvasback appeared in St. John’s in October … only the second record for the province and the first in more than 40 years! I managed to see it a couple times before it disappeared a couple weeks later.

This immature Canvasback provides just the second record for Newfoundland, with the last one having been more than 40 years ago!

This immature Canvasback provided just the second record for Newfoundland, with the last one having been seen in the early 1970’s!

Later that month, all eyes were on Hurricane Gonzalo as it churned north over the Atlantic ocean towards us. With dreams of tropical seabirds dancing in our heads, three of us met this huge storm at Cape Race just minutes after the eye had passed a few miles east of us. The rare birds didn’t materialize, but the incredible wave action over the next few hours was more than worth the trip!

IMG_9677 IMG_9607 IMG_9531November turned out to be an important month for Bird⋅The⋅Rock … I launched a new website and Facebook page, heralding a big step into the field of eco- and birding tourism. We also hosted an online contest, with Newfoundland birder Diane Burton winning a beautiful canvas print featuring one of my favourite bird photos! A big THANK YOU to everyone who has supported & encouraged me in this new venture!!

CBNT_CSMNovember is also an interesting time for birds in Newfoundland, and this year was no different. The “star” of the month may have been a Meadowlark that showed up in St. John’s – not necessarily because of its rarity (although it was), but because of its ambiguity. Initial photos seemed to indicate that it “could” be a Western Meadowlark, although lengthy discussions and research proved inconclusive. These species are very cryptic at the best of times, and it seems the lines between them are still quite blurry. Other good birds during the month included a Western Kingbird, Northern Mockingbird and several cool warblers (for which November is best known!).

Terrible Photo(s) #1 - A Meadowlark (Eastern? Western?) that was discovered in St. John's on November 7. It was seen over the next few days, but the cryptic nature of this bird and its plumage means we may never know which species it was!

A Meadowlark (Eastern? Western?) that was discovered in St. John’s on November 7. It was seen over the next few days, but the cryptic nature of this bird and its plumage means we may never know which species it was!

This Pine Warbler, photographed in St. Shott's a few years ago, was making good use of the late fall flies. Pine Warblers are another hardy warbler that get reported more often in November than any other month in Newfoundland.

Pine Warblers are a hardy warbler that get reported more often in November than any other month in Newfoundland.

December was relatively mild across the province, which led to some comfortable (and interesting!) birding during the first few weeks of Christmas Bird Count (CBC) season. I was fortunate to take part in the Cape St. Mary’s and St. John’s CBCs … read the blog posts for more details!

It is surreal to see Bird Rock (left) completely devoid of birds this time of year, when it is bustling with thousands of gannets during spring and summer. Here, John & Ed enjoy a mid-morning seawatch while I hiked over the eastern ridge.

Cape St. Mary’s looks very different in winter (like during this Christmas Bird Count) compared to summer when it is bustling with life.

This drake Long-tailed Duck (locally called "hounds") was feeding at the end of a breakwater in St. Bride's. Between dives, I managed to sneak up quite close by edging along on the piled boulders.

This drake Long-tailed Duck (locally called “hounds”) was feeding at the end of a breakwater in St. Bride’s during the Christmas Bird Count. Between dives, I managed to sneak up quite close by edging along on the piled boulders.

And so ended another year … we said a fond farewell to 2014 and toasted the arrival of 2015 while visiting my family in Lewisporte (central Newfoundland). So, from me and my family to you & yours

Happy New Year!

May the next twelve months bring you lots of joy, peace and outdoor enjoyment – wherever they find you!

 

 

 

 

An Odd Case of Common Gull

Gull season started a tad early this year – and with a bit of a bang. Bruce Mactavish first reported an adult Yellow-legged Gull in Pleasantville (east St. John’s) on September 7. Alvan Buckley upped the ante by photographing a presumed third-year Yellow-legged Gull on the same field on September 11 (relocated and photographed again by Bruce a few days later).

However, the star of the show turned out to be an odd-looking gull that Alvan photographed on September 16 while trying to relocate the Yellow-legged Gulls. Most of the features pointed to it being a Common Gull (Larus canus), which in itself is not that unusual in Newfoundland. We get a few every winter. But this one was a headscratcher because, compared to nearby Herring Gulls, it appeared too big and dark for our typical Common Gull (the nominate canus race that originates in western Europe). The size, dark mantle shade, relatively bulky structure and wingtip pattern seemed to suggest that this Common Gull was not so common — in fact, it may be a member of the kamchatka race that occurs in east Asia (Siberia, Japan). See Alvan’s blog for some more discussion.

Those of us looking failed relocate this gull over the next ten days. Yesterday morning, after a solid morning of birding around Signal Hill, Bruce Mactavish and I checked the regular gull locations in that area of town – unable to find it (or anything else exciting) yet again. Switching gears, we decided to head out to Goulds where a flock of American Golden Plover, and tons of gulls, had been hanging out in a freshly plowed field. After a few minutes, I spotted a mid-sized gull with a dark grey mantle sitting on the field — it hadn’t been there moments before. I could easily have passed it off as a Lesser-Black-backed Gull (of which there were several around), but something about the pattern of head streaking gave me pause. Then the dark eye. And the bill. There it was — the “odd” Common Gull!! (Note – this was 20+ km from the original spot, so it wasn’t really on our radar for this location).

While the bright, poorly angled sunlight makes it difficult to photograph and accurately represent mantle shades, this unedited photograph still illustrates just how dark this Common Gull was compared to Herring Gulls in the background. It was darker and unlike any other Common Gull I've seen in Newfoundland. It also looked very different than Common Gulls that I saw during the nine months I spent living in Finland, which included both nominate canus and heini races.

While the bright, poorly angled sunlight makes it difficult to photograph and accurately represent mantle shades, this unedited photograph still illustrates just how dark this Common Gull was compared to Herring Gulls in the background. In life, it was darker and structurally unlike any other Common Gull I’ve seen in Newfoundland. It also looked very different than Common Gulls that I saw during the nine months I spent living in Finland, which included both nominate canus and heini races.

Fortunately, Bruce was just as excited as me to have found this bird, and we quickly organized so that he could photograph the heck out of it (he having the far better lens & camera!). Light was really harsh with bright sunlight and poor angles, but the gull did cooperate by approaching fairly close to our position, parked on the side of a busy road. Over the next hour it made its way to the south end of the field, where we were able to reposition for better (though still very bright) light, and I even snapped off a few mediocre pics of my own.

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Bright sunlight made it hard to capture the real tones and mantle shade, although these came out fairly well. Note the dark grey saddle, which in life was closer to that of Lesser Black-backed Gull (graellsi) than Herring Gull, and notably darker than what we expect in nominate Common Gulls that show up here each year. In fact, the mantle was similar in shade to that of Yellow-legged Gull (atlantis)– a colour we have trained ourselves to recognize!

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This gull also had a darkish eye (which at closer range was found to be brown with a visible pupil rather than completely dark). This feature is found in all races of Common Gull, although the texts suggest that Kamchatka Gull often (but not always) shows a paler eye than other races. The head and bill shape was completely unlike that of other Common Gulls we see here – appearing larger headed with a more sloped forehead and notably longer, more substantial bill. Our “typical” Common Gulls tend to have rounder, gentler looking head shapes with shorter, daintier looking bills – resulting in a very different look.

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Overall, this bird was much larger than the typical Common Gull we see here. In fact, this one was clearly larger than nearby Ring-billed Gulls and at times approached smaller Herring Gulls – similar in size to some Lesser Black-backed Gulls. Our “typical” Common Gulls (presumed canus) more closely match Ring-billed Gull, sometimes appearing slightly smaller and daintier. The literature indicates that Common Gulls tend to be larger and darker the further east you look, with the east Asian (kamchatka) race being the biggest and darkest of the lot.

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There were not many opportunities to photograph the spread wings on this bird, and I managed to miss them all. Fortunately, Bruce Mactavish nailed a few and has kindly given me permission to post a couple here. Here we can see that this gull is in the processing of growing new flight feathers. The outermost primaries, P10 & P9, are still growing in while P8 may or may not be completely grown. In any case we can see a wingtip pattern here that, according to the literature, would be considered typical of the kamchatka race, extreme for heini and likely very unusual or out of range for canus. – Photo: Bruce Mactavish

Another of Bruce's fine photos, this one gives us a better look at the primary pattern. Importantly, P8 is almost entirely black. In fact, all of what we can see is black, all the way up to the primary coverts (note, though, that this feather may not yet be fully grown). There is a full and substantial black band across the tip of P5 and a solid black mark across the outer web of P4. The white "moons" on P5-8 are relatively large, producing an obvious "string of pearl" effect - which is also more characteristic of kamchatka than other races. I sure hop we see this gull again in a few weeks when the primary growth is complete and we can get an even better picture of this intriguing wingtip patter. - Photo: Bruce Mactavish

Another of Bruce’s fine photos, this one gives us a better look at the primary pattern. Importantly, P8 is almost entirely black. In fact, all of what we can see is black, all the way up to the primary coverts (note, though, that this feather may not yet be fully grown). There is a full and substantial black band across the tip of P5 and a solid black mark across the outer web of P4. The white “moons” on P5-7 are relatively large, producing an obvious “string of pearl” effect – which is also more characteristic of kamchatka than other races. I sure hope we see this gull again in a few weeks when the primary growth is complete and we can get an even better picture of this intriguing wingtip pattern.
– Photo: Bruce Mactavish

Check out Bruce Mactavish’s blog for more of his excellent photos and further discussion. Alvan Buckley also posted some excellent discussion on his blog following his original discovery of the gull two weeks ago.

The jury is still out while we do a bit more research — gull identification, especially to subspecies level, is never as straightforward as we’d like. But all things considered, this certainly appears to be an excellent candidate for Kamchatka Gull.

While it certainly wasn’t on our radar, there have been a few other claims from the northeast (some of them rather convincing) to set a bit of a precedence. And hell – if we can get Slaty-backed Gulls, which originate in the same part of the world, then maybe a Kamchatka Gull isn’t so far-fetched afterall!

Wrapping-up: The “Euro Invasion” of Spring 2014

It has been a crazy three weeks! It all began when we started noticing strong, persistent northeasterly winds setting up across the North Atlantic in late April – a system that Newfoundland birders hope for at this time of year. Spring migration of European birds over the Atlantic, especially to Iceland & Greenland, is peaking in late April and early May and history has shown that these weather systems can bring wayward migrants to our coasts.

This fun photo, showing a mega-rare Common Redshank with an iceberg backdrop, is a nice reflection for how spring has been in Newfoundland. Cold, beautiful, and extremely exciting!!

This fun photo, showing a mega-rare Common Redshank with an iceberg backdrop, is a nice reflection for how spring has been in Newfoundland. Cold, beautiful, and extremely exciting!!

The "event" started with two Black-tailed Godwits discovered in Renews, and just kept growing over the next two weeks.

The “event” started with two Black-tailed Godwits discovered in Renews, and just kept growing over the next two weeks.

It all started coming together on April 25, when two Black-tailed Godwits were photographed in Renews. The next morning, the first European Golden Plover was discovered in a field just 100m from the godwits. When eleven more were reported from three other locations across the province (Cape Race, St. John’s and Gros Morne National Park), the alarm bells started ringing. With the winds still blasting in from the northeast and a forecast for them to stay that way for the foreseeable future, we knew we were in for an exciting event. And the birds just kept coming …

A Summary of the Spring 2014 “Invasion” (April 25 – May 13)

  • COMMON REDSHANK 2 !! A single bird present at Renews from May 3-13 was joined briefly by a second on May 4.
  • ROSS’S GULL – an adult at Torbay (April 29-30) was completely unexpected and may have caused more local excitement than any other bird this spring.
  • BLACK-TAILED GODWIT – a total of 12 (!!) reported at six locations island-wide.
  • EUROPEAN GOLDEN PLOVER200+ individuals reported from two dozen locations all over the island & SE Labrador … not quite a record invasion, but very very impressive.
  • NORTHERN WHEATEARDozens reported from locations island-wide – and clearly many more went unnoticed.
  • (EURASIAN) WHIMBREL 1 at Cape Spear (May 3)
  • DUNLIN (Icelandic/Greenland race) 1 at Cape Spear (May 3). This may be of the schinzii subspecies which has very few, if any, previous records in North America.
The breadth of the invasion was evident not only in the number of European Golden Plover reported in early May, but also the geographic distribution across the entire east/northeast coast of Newfoundland and southeastern Labrador.

The breadth of the invasion was evident not only in the number of European Golden Plover reported in early May, but also the geographic distribution across the entire east/northeast coast of Newfoundland and southeastern Labrador.

The largest single flock of European Golden Plovers occurred in Goulds (St. John's), where an initial handful of birds swelled to at least 90 in just a few days!

The largest single flock of European Golden Plovers occurred in Goulds (St. John’s), where an initial handful of birds swelled to at least 90 in just a few days!

These European Golden Plovers, part of a flock of nine, were in an unassuming backyard at Old Perlican on the northern tip of the Avalon Peninsula.

These European Golden Plovers, part of a flock of nine, were in an unassuming backyard at Old Perlican on the northern tip of the Avalon Peninsula.

During that time, I have been able to enjoy seeing many of these amazing birds, visit some of my favourite birding locations, and share the experience with many other birders from near & far. I have especially enjoyed birding with a number of keen birders who visited from all over North America to see these incredible ABA rarities … people from Ontario, Maine, New York, Massachussetts, Michigan, North Carolina, Texas & California!!

I was fortunate enough to see six Black-tailed Godwits in four far-flung locations during  the past few weeks - including two at Renews, two in St. Paul's Inlet, one in Goulds and this one at Old Perlican.

I was fortunate enough to see six Black-tailed Godwits in four far-flung locations during the past few weeks – including two at Renews, two in St. Paul’s Inlet, one in Goulds and this one at Old Perlican.

BTGO_May4OldPerlican_9022After a long, cold but very thrilling three weeks, the winds have finally turned southerly and many of our lingering visitors appear to have moved on – hopefully back to their intended destinations of Iceland & Greenland. Regular spring migration is rearing its head now, with a flood of more expected arrivals from down south being reported in the past few days. While the “Euro Invasion” of spring 2014 is winding down, the awesome birds & birding of these past few weeks will remain fresh in our memories for a long time to come … and we’ll always be keeping an eye on the winds!

Northern Wheatears are rare but expected in Newfoundland most springs. However, these winds brought dozens of reports, likely of birds that would have been destined for breeding grounds in Iceland or Greenland rather than northern Labrador.

Northern Wheatears are rare but expected in Newfoundland most springs. However, these winds brought dozens of reports, likely of birds that would have been destined for breeding grounds in Iceland or Greenland rather than northern Labrador.

NOWH_Ma22014Ferryland_8531a

However, the real star of the Euro Inasion was a Common Redshank at Renews from May 3-13. Since it represented just the third record (and sixth individual) for both Newfoundland and North America, many birder came from near and far to see it. A second individual presnt at the same location on May 4 was chased off by the first and never seen again!

However, the real star of the Euro Invasion was a Common Redshank at Renews from May 3-13. Since it represented just the third record (and seventh individual) for both Newfoundland and North America, many birder came from near and far to see it. A second individual presnt at the same location on May 4 was chased off by the first and never seen again!

RedshankFlight_9610

The striking wing and rump pattern of Common Redshank is very different than the familiar Greater Yellowlegs that were also hanging out at Renews.

Redshank_May102014_9434

We seem to have said “Good-bye” to this popular visitor, with no reports since May 13 despite plenty of looking. And so winds down this amazing event that has dominated Newfoundland (and North American) birding so far this spring!

COMMON REDSHANK – A Mega Falls!!

Common Redshank is one of those birds that a Newfoundland birder (well, any North American birder!!) dreams about … Not only is it beautiful and interesting, but it is a mega rarity that has only ever shown up twice before. And it is also one that was front and foremost on the minds of many birders here during this past week, while persistent NE winds have been dropping European/Icelandic vagrants on our island left, right & centre.

Although I had been predicting for days now that a Common Redshank would be found, I was still left gob-smocked when Bruce Mactavish called me at home this morning to say that he and Ken Knowles had found one in Renews — on the very beach that visiting birder Barrett Pierce (TX) and I had walked just 18 hours earlier. Unfortunately, I had committed to lead a group walk for local club this morning and couldn’t back out!! It was another agonizing four hours before I could turn my car south and head to Renews, cursing the weekend traffic (however light) as I went. I received news about halfway there that it had flown off with two Greater Yellowlegs, but convinced myself it would return.

My initial looks at the Common Redshank were a little more distant than I would have liked, but completely satisfying nonetheless.

My initial looks at the Common Redshank were a little more distant than I would have liked, but completely satisfying nonetheless.

I arrived at Renews at 12:30pm, turned the corner to the main beach and saw several happy faces, all chatting contentedly. I jumped out of the car and, with a quick point from fellow birder Brendan Kelly, immediately found the bird a ways down the beach, poking around on the tidal flats and rotting kelp. SCORE!!!! Once my stomach settled and I had good scope looks, I noticed that a local gentleman at the other end of the beach was shoveling kelp into his truck, and the bird was much closer to him than us. So Barrett and I drove to that end of the beach and parked … and after just a few minutes the Common Redshank worked its way along the kelpline until it was right beside us, allowing for mind-blowing looks and awesome photo opportunities!!

CommonRedshank_May32014_8683 CommonRedshank_May32014_8716For good measure, we also dropped in on the six European Golden Plover which were also hanging in on the other side of the harbour, just a couple hundred metres away.

EGPL_May32014Renews_8832EGPL_May22014Renews_8221News had broken that two Northern Wheatear, A Eurasian Whimbrel and a potential Greenland race Dunlin had been seen at Cape Spear, so we birded our way back to there. Unofrtunately we were unable to relocate any of those birds (not too surprising given the many people out walking, enjoying the sunshine and nearby icebergs). But, any way you add it up, it was an awesome awesome day!! A dream has come true, and a mega has fallen.

CommonRedshank_May32014_8700

(Pl)overload – the invasion continues

The invasion of Icelandic vagrants into Newfoundland continues to grow … both in terms of geography and species. More than 130 European Golden Plovers, 7 Black-tailed Godwits, a handful of Northern Wheatear and an incredible Ross’s Gull have been reported across Newfoundland and southern Labrador in the past seven days. And now, this morning, news has broken that a COMMON REDSHANK has been discovered in Renews (more about that later).

St. Paul's Inlet, GMNP

St. Paul’s Inlet, GMNP

Since I had to travel to western Newfoundland this week for meetings, I decided to make the most of it and tag on a day of birding. On April 30, I joined my friend and biologist Darroch Whitaker for a day of birding in Gros Morne National Park. It was an awesome day in an amazing setting – hiking for kilometres across vast tidal flats in St. Paul’s Inlet with the beautiful Long Range Mountains looming in the background. After a good walk, we managed to refind the two Black-tailed Godwits that he had discovered a few days earlier. They were distant and wary, but it still felt great to see and made the trek all the more rewarding. While birds were scarce (the only other shorebirds were one Greater Yellowlegs and a pair of Killdeer), we did come across a recently dead Snowy Owl and a European Green Crab. And the scenery was hard to ignore! We also checked out a dead Blue Whale which has washed ashore in Rocky Harbour, hoping for (but not finding) some arctic gulls. Later, we also refound two European Golden Plovers that Darroch had discovered several days prior while biking through Sally’s Cove. They proved very amicable, at times approaching the car so close that it was difficult to photograph them!

EGPL_Apr302014_GMNP_7478EGPL_Apr30GMNP_7868 EGPL_Apr30GMNP_7912 EGPL_Apr30GMNP_7947DW_deadSNOW_7387 GreenCrab_GMNP_7364Iceberg_BearCove_8298After returning to St. John’s, I spent yesterday (May 2) rarity-hunting with a birder from Texas. Barrett has visited Newfoundland several times before in search of Eurasian rarities, and is back again in the wake of this recent invasion. We had an excellent day, seeing a total of 66 European Golden Plover at three locations (Goulds, Bay Bulls and Renews) and finding a stunning male Northern Wheatear in Ferryland.

EGPL_May22014Renews_8065 EGPL_May22014Renews_8214 EGPL_May22014Renews_8255 EGPL_May22014Renews_8267EGPL_May22014Renews_8163NOWH_May22014Ferryland_8545 NOWH_Ma22014Ferryland_8531bNo doubt we’ll be chasing the Common  Redshank in a few hours, once we finish a short hike I am committed to leading (talk about harsh timing!!).

 

The invasion is coming! European Golden Plovers + Black-tailed Godwits

Alvan Buckley & I were among a handful of hopeful birders headed south from St. John’s Saturday morning, following Friday evening’s revelation that two BLACK-TAILED GODWITS had been seen in Renews (found & photographed by local Tony Dunne). As mentioned in my last post, the winds have been lining up for a potential invasion of European/Icelandic vagrants, caught up in the airflows during their trans-Atlantic migration … and we were excited by the possibility of finding even more rarities.

Photo: Jared Clarke (April 26, 2014)

Photo: Jared Clarke (April 26, 2014)

It didn’t take long to find the Black-tailed Godwits feeding in a freshwater pool alongside the road in Renews – both (apparently males) in bright breeding plumage. Immediately upon arriving, we got word from Bruce Mactavish that he and two others had discovered a European Golden Plover on a field just 100m down the road (a field, by the way, that is already known in local birding circles for having hosted a Northern Lapwing a few years ago). Being the gluttons we are, we headed over and soaked up views of this great bird (also in nice breeding plumage) with the imprint of those amazing godwits still fresh on the back of our eyeballs! European Golden Plover are nearly annual in Newfoundland, although a “big” invasion hasn’t really happened in recent years (and, surprisingly, there were no reports at all last spring). Things were (and are!) building up to an event of sorts.

Photo: Jared Clarke (April 26, 2014)

Photo: Jared Clarke (April 26, 2014)

Throughout the day, a cool dozen European Golden Plover were reported from four locations across the island (1 in Renews, 3 at Cape Race, 6 in St. John’s and 2 in Gros Morne National Park). The breadth of these reports, spanning almost the entire northeast facing portion of the island, suggests there are many more out there — and some of the best places along that coast remain unchecked. The winds are still developing, looking like arrivals of these (and hopefully other!!!) Icelandic migrants could continue over the next few days. LOOK OUT!!

BTGO_Apr262014_6587 BTGO_Apr262014_6726 BTGO_Apr262014_6914BTGO_Apr262014_6788 BTGO_Apr262014_6793 BTGO_Apr262014_6811 BTGO_Apr262014_6821 BTGO_Apr262014_6879 BTGO_Apr262014_6969 EGPL_Apr262014_6337

BLACK-TAILED GODWITS!! Has a Euro fallout begun?!?!

Email chatter between Newfoundland birders the past few days has been about one thing — the winds. They have been lining up nicely across the North Atlantic for several days now – just the way we want to see them in late April. This is THE time for European vagrants to show up on our shores, and a low pressure system churning over the ocean between us and Iceland is a recipe for birds migrating there to get flung in our direction.

One of two Black-tailed Godwits photographed in Renews today. - Photo: Tony Dunne (April 25, 2014)

One of two Black-tailed Godwits photographed in Renews today.
– Photo: Tony Dunne (April 25, 2014)

I was expecting to hear a report of European Golden Plovers (almost annual in Newfoundland) any day now, but was shocked when I opened my email this evening and saw photos of TWO breeding plumaged BLACK-TAILED GODWITS from Renews today (found and photographed by Tony Dunne). This species occurs in Newfoundland every few years, but considering there are two (just the second record of multiple birds) combined with the persistent easterly winds of the past few days … well my excitement level is spiraling! There are likely more birds out there – and more to come since the winds are forecast not only to continue but to improve over the next 72 hours!!

Plenty of European rarities have been recorded here in late April, including Common Redshank, Eurasian Oystercatcher, Garganey and Redwing … and plenty more could be on the menu based on species that are migrating to Iceland right now. We haven’t seen a real “fallout” of European birds since a similar system in late April 1995 brought dozens of European Golden Plover, five Pink-footed Geese, and four Common Redshanks (North America’s first record, with the only subsequent record occurring here four years later). Numerous Northern Wheatear and as many as three “Eurasian” Whimbrel were also recorded during that time. What was missed?!?! Could we be in for another fallout?!?!

STAY TUNED!!!

This map shows the winds as they currently are (Friday evening, April 25) ... looking awesome!!

This map shows the winds as they currently are (Friday evening, April 25) … looking awesome!!

Another map showing the winds forecast for Sunday afternoon -- things only get better!!

Another map showing the winds forecast for Sunday afternoon — things only get better!!

The potential arrival of European Golden Plovers are a much anticipated thing for Newfoundland birders, who keep an eye on the trans-Atlantic weather and and scour fields and barrens along the northeast coast. - Photo: Jared Clarke

The potential arrival of European Golden Plovers are a much anticipated thing for Newfoundland birders, who keep an eye on the trans-Atlantic weather and and scour fields and barrens along the northeast coast.
– Photo: Jared Clarke (May 16, 2010)

These two Black-tailed Godwits, which showed up on the Bonavista peninsula in May 2011, mark the only other record of multiple birds in Newfoundland.  - Photo: Jared Clarke (May 25, 2011)

These two Black-tailed Godwits, which showed up on the Bonavista peninsula in May 2011, mark the only other record of multiple birds in Newfoundland.
– Photo: Jared Clarke (May 25, 2011)

 

Looking Back (?) on Winter

A quick jaunt outside this week, in the deep snow and bitter cold temperatures, would have made it hard to imagine that winter is anywhere near “over”. But, when it comes to birding the “official” winter season ended on February 28. That being said, I’m pretty sure asking any Newfoundland birder if they enjoyed the first few days of “spring birding” this past week, I’d get a good smack in the face.

One thing that is certain is that this has been a tough winter. Winter weather descended on us early, hitting us with prolonged cold temperatures and record snow cover in December. Early January was characterized by heavy winds and bitter temperatures brought on by the polar vortex that gripped much of North America. There was virtually no open fresh water anywhere in the province and any birds unaccustomed to arctic climates must have been finding it tough to survive. Mid-January brought an unexpected (but somewhat welcome) reprieve – warm temperatures and plenty of rain washed away most of the snow and opened up a lot of water. Colder temperatures and abundant snow returned in not time flat, predominating February. In fact, Newfoundland did not experience three straight days without precipitation during the entire season!

The tough winter, along with other factors, certainly took its toll on winter birds & birding on the island. Christmas Bird Counts weighed in with sub-par results and the grand total of 132 species recorded across Newfoundland this winter was the lowest tally since I started keeping track seven years ago. Even many regular & expected birds were seen in lower-than-usual numbers. However, winter was not without its highlights:

This Virginia's Warbler, originally discovered on November 14, 2013 marked the first (and very exciting) record for the island if Newfoundland. It remained elusive during the first few days, frustrating a number of birders - myself included! - Photo: Jared Clarke (November 16, 2013)

This Virginia’s Warbler, originally discovered on November 14, 2013 marked the first (and very exciting) record for the island if Newfoundland. It remained elusive during the first few days, frustrating a number of birders – myself included!
– Photo: Jared Clarke (November 16, 2013)

– Newfoundland’s first Virginia’s Warbler hung on for the first few days of December, just making it to the winter list!

– A Forster’s Tern in Renews in early December was just the 7th record for the province.

– Two Purple Gallinules were discovered (unfortunately dead) – Clarenville in December and McCallum in January. As part of a notable movement into the North Atlantic this winter, how many went undetected?

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)

Yellow-legged Gull returned to St. John’s after an absence of almost two years … and after being elusive for most of the season it became surprisingly reliable for the last week of February.

– A mega-rare Common Snipe was discovered in Ferryland in mid-January, sticking around for weeks and providing excellent comparisons with Wilson’s Snipe.

– And of course, the Snowy Owl invasion that made headlines not only here but across much of North America.

- Photo: Jared Clarke (December 7, 2013)

– Photo: Jared Clarke (December 7, 2013)

And now I’m looking forward — not just to spring but to a more immediate escape from this long long winter. I leave for Hawaii in just a few hours!! I won’t likely be updating the blog during the next two weeks, but expect plenty when I get back!!!

The Trials, Tribulations and (eventual) Triumphs of Gull-watching

Expect me to write plenty more about gulls over the next few months – they are a mainstay of winter birding here in St. John’s, a draw for visiting birders, and possibly my favourite group of birds.

Watching gulls requires a lot of patience and a good sprinkling of skill & experience. The ten or more species seen here most winters appear in mind-boggling arrays of white, greys, blacks and browns (yes – the young ones only add confusion) – not to mention the varying pinks, yellows and greens of bills and legs. Identifying them can be tricky for the inexperienced, and finding those “special” ones can be downright difficult. Especially in the case of the elusive Yellow-legged Gull, one or two of which show up here most winters. But one or two tricky birds in a city with tens of thousands of gulls — well, it can also be a needle in a haystack!!

Such was the case these past few days, as a visiting birder from British Columbia and I combed through many masses of gulls to find just oneHe had contracted my services as a birding guide to help him find the Yellow-legged Gull – it was head and shoulders the top of his priority list, with anything else just being gravy. Fortunately he had a few days, since I told him up front that finding it was far from guaranteed, and the chance of poor weather was always a threat.

Very few people have been as fortunate to experience Yellow-legged Gull in North America as I have. And as a guide, I've had pretty good luck finding it for eager visitors -but its far from guaranteed. On this tour in January 2010, we finally found it on the very last day ... a coup since it hadn't been seen by anyone in several weeks! - Photo: Jared Clarke (January 12, 2010)

Very few people have been as fortunate to experience Yellow-legged Gull in North America as I have. And as a guide, I’ve had pretty good luck finding it for eager visitors – but it’s far from guaranteed. On this tour in January 2010, we finally found it on the very last day … a coup since it hadn’t been seen by anyone in several weeks!
– Photo: Jared Clarke (January 12, 2010)

We ended up spending three fulls days in dogged pursuit. The first day (Sunday, December 1) was a lovely one to be outside … cool, calm and slightly overcast. But where were the gulls?!?!? We birded the standard areas from sunrise to sunset, with so few gulls being seen that I felt like a bit of a hustler — I was certain he thought I was pulling his leg when I said I had never seen such a lack of gulls in St. John’s at this time of year! But he bit the bullet and we went out again the next day – a cold, crisp one with just a slight breeze. There were lots more gulls … but they were spending their time loafing on the roofs of building around Pleasantville and bathing in Quidi Vidi Lake. Fortunately, I knew vantage points where we could see them and we ran the circuit – checking and re-checking the best spots all day. Not a hint of the bird. I could almost hear him thinking “Who does this guy think he’s fooling?” So, admittedly, I was a bit surprised when he called me up that night to arrange yet another day of searching on Wednesday – a day with a dismal forecast of high winds and rain!!

The forecasters seemed to have it right when I woke up Wednesday morning – the wind and rain was lashing the back of the house. But by the time I got the girls off to preschool and we headed out to go birding at 9:45am, the rain had dissipated. I knew from experience that the wet, windy weather would keep the gulls off the the roofs and encourage them to flock on local grassy fields and ballparks. Sure enough, that’s where we started finding them. We scrutinized thousands of gulls over the next few hours, both on the fields and at the lake … but no sign of our elusive target. To my surprise, the clouds parted, blue sky emerged and at times bright sun shone down on us — and the gulls! As lovely as it sounds, bright sun makes gull-watching all the more difficult, casting hard shadows on the grass, bright glare on the water, and changing the all important shades of grey needed to pick out our bird.

Still … we persevered, scrutinizing the gulls at each location from as many angles as we could. Sometime after 1:00pm we took our place on a hillside overlooking Bally Haly golf course, where (by my estimation) 7000+ gulls had set down for a rest. A small flush erupted as I set up my scope, and I noticed someone with binoculars walking across the golf course to scan the flock (someone I did not recognize). I rushed to scan the flock in case he continued to disturb them — about fifteen second and 500 birds later, that “magic shade of grey” caught my attention. Then the gleaming white head!! I HAD IT!! I was just getting our visitor on the bird when the guy on the field began to walk away, waving his arms as he went in an attempt to flush the gulls!!! Fortunately, only those closest to him paid any heed and the gull stayed put. Although it slept most of the time, we got prolonged looks and ample time to to study the unique shade of grey and white head, and occasionally the head and bill shape as it lazily lifted its head. It stood up just a couple times (once as an unknown presence caused a mass flush that filled the sky with every gull on the field!) — enough for us to see and appreciate those magnificent yellow legs for which the bird is named.

Although yesterday's Yellow-legged Gull was much too distant for photos, this one (photographed at the same location and similar date several years ago) shows that "magic shade of grey" and clean white head that first caught my attention and helped it stand out amongst a myriad of other gulls. The mantle is intermediate between Herring and Lesser Black-backed Gull, and combined with other features like unique head shape, thick, blunt bill and large red gony spot, helps an experienced pick out this needle-in-a-haystack rarity. - Photo: Jared Clarke (December 13, 2008)

Although yesterday’s Yellow-legged Gull was much too distant for photos, this one (photographed at the same location and similar date several years ago) shows that “magic shade of grey” and clean white head that first caught my attention and helped it stand out amongst a myriad of other gulls. The mantle is intermediate between Herring and Lesser Black-backed Gull, and combined with other features like unique head shape, thick, blunt bill and large red gony spot, helps an experienced gull-watcher pick out this needle-in-a-haystack rarity.
– Photo: Jared Clarke (December 13, 2008)

Yellow-legged Gull !! And another happy customer who now understands the value of patience and persistence when hunting for those hard-to-find, tricky-to-identify rare gulls of St. John’s!!

BTW – The only other sightings of this gull in the past number of weeks were two ABA Big Year birders Neil Hayward and Jay Lehman, who also spent much time and effort in finding it. They were fortunate!!