2016: A Year in Review

I’m happy to say that 2016 was a fun, productive and busy year both for BirdTheRock Bird & Nature Tours and for my own birding adventures. I was fortunate to share my province’s amazing birds and nature with more than 70 visiting birders (!), added five new species to my own Newfoundland “life list”, and found myself on an impromptu excursion to Hawaii at the end of the year. Below are a few of the many highlights from 2016:

I always look forward to hosting the annual WINGS winter birding tour, and last year was no exception. A group of four visiting birders from the southern USA enjoyed some great “cold weather” birding and lots of excellent winter birds. An abundance of Dovekie, finches and of course a great selection of northern gulls were all part of a fantastic week! Check out this blog post to see more highlights.

WINGS tour participants scan for seabirds at wintery St. Vincent's beach on January 15.

WINGS tour participants scan for seabirds at wintery St. Vincent’s beach on January 15.

The first big rarity of 2016 was an unexpected one … an immature Sabine’s Gull discovered at St. Vincent’s on January 31. This species is virtually never recorded in the northern hemisphere during winter, let alone Newfoundland. I had never seen a Sabine’s Gull, so after a few painful days I finally made the trip to see it on February 4 – enjoying it immensely despite some wicked weather! You can read more about my encounter with a “Sabine’s in the Snow” here.

SAGU_Feb42016_6635

This Sabine’s Gull was not only unexpected but “off the charts” for January in Newfoundland. It should have been somewhere far, far away from the snow squall I was watching it in!

The winter excitement continued when a Fieldfare was discovered in Lumsden (northeast coast) on February 6. This mega-rare European thrush was a bird I had been waiting to see here (I saw TONS when I lived in Finland in 2005), so I once again braved some nasty and very cold weather to track it down. We worked hard for this one, and the end result was a not only a new “tick” but a lot of time invested for a lone obscure photo of its rear-end. Read more about this eventful chase here.

The business end of a mega-rare Fieldfare that has been hanging out in Lumsden on the northeast coast. While we did get some slightly better looks this morning, this was the only photo I managed to get! "Arse-on", as we might say in Newfoundland.

The business end of a mega-rare (and very elusive!) Fieldfare in Lumsden on the northeast coast. While we did get some slightly better looks, this was the only photo I managed to get! “Arse-on”, as we might say in Newfoundland.

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

Mid-February saw me catching up with an old, familiar friend – a Yellow-legged Gull which had been elusive the past few winters.

This female Bullock's Oriole (2nd provincial record) was visiting a private feeder sporadically during late winter 2016. I finally caught up with it on March 23 - a great bird!

This female Bullock’s Oriole (2nd provincial record) was visiting a private feeder sporadically during late winter 2016. I finally caught up with it on March 23 – a great bird!

Spring birding is always a “mixed bag” here in Newfoundland – you never know what you’ll see. I enjoyed one very interesting day of birding with Irish birders Niall Keough and Andrew Power in early May – finding great local birds such as Black-backed Woodpecker and Willow Ptarmigan, as well as rarities such as Purple Martin, Franklin’s Gull and a very unexpected Gyrfalcon! You can check out more the day’s highlights here.

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

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

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

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

This Cave Swallow, discovered at Quidi Vidi Lake (St. John's) by Alvan Buckley on May 29, was not only the province's second record but also one of just a few spring records for eastern North America.

This Cave Swallow, discovered at Quidi Vidi Lake (St. John’s) by Alvan Buckley on May 29, was not only the province’s second record but also one of just a few spring records for eastern North America.

In early June, BirdTheRock hosted its first tour to the Codroy Valley. Nestled away in the southwest corner of Newfoundland, this lush valley is easily one of the island’s most beautiful places – and it is also home to the province’s greatest diversity of landbirds. A number of species wander there regularly that are otherwise very uncommon or rare in the rest of Newfoundland, and a few have pushed the limits of their breeding range to include this small region of our island. There are many species that you can expect to find here but nowhere else in Newfoundland! Read more about our very fun tour here (and contact us if you’re interested in the 2017 trip which will be advertised soon).

The Piping Plover has experienced drastic population declines in recent decades, due mostly to habitat disturbance. Unfortunately, human activity on sandy beaches (and especially the use of ATVs on local beaches) has created a lot of problems for these little birds.

The Codroy Valley is one of the last footholds of the endangered Piping Plover in Newfoundland & Labrador. We enjoyed seeing several during the tour – a good sign for this vulnerable species.

The view from our accommodations included not only the internationally recognized Great Codroy estuary, but also rolling fields, lush forests and the majestic Long Range Mountains (a northern extension of the Appalachians!). It was a treat to start and end each day with this beautiful vista.

The view from our accommodations included not only the internationally recognized Great Codroy estuary, but also rolling fields, lush forests and the majestic Long Range Mountains (a northern extension of the Appalachians!). It was a treat to start and end each day with this beautiful vista.

The rest of summer was blocked full of tours and adventures with friends and visitors from all over the world. One of the biggest highlights was the “Grand Newfoundland” tour I designed and hosted for Eagle-Eye Tours. This epic, 11-day tour started in St. John’s and hit many great birding and natural history sites across the province, before ending in Gros Morne National Park. This was hands down one of the best tours and most amazing, fun-loving groups I have ever led – I can’t say enough about the great time and experiences we all had! Read more about this fantastic tour here (and check out the Eagle-Eye Tours website if you’d like to find out more about the upcoming 2017 trip).

While I've always been blessed with excellent groups, this one was especially great - energetic, easy-going and always up for some fun!

While I’ve always been blessed with excellent groups, this one was especially great – energetic, easy-going and always up for some fun!

One obvious highlight was our boat tour to the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, where we experienced (not just "saw"!) North America's largest colony of Atlantic Puffins. It never disappoints.

One obvious highlight was our boat tour to the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, where we experienced (not just “saw”!) North America’s largest colony of Atlantic Puffins. It never disappoints.

The beautiful sunset even provided nice light for a quick game of twilight mini-golf. Here's Jody honing his his other set of skills.

I was happy to be joined by my friend and co-leader Jody Allair – someone who has no trouble finding a way to have fun on every day of every tour!

After the tour, Jody and I joined Darroch Whitaker for a climb to one of Gros Morne National Park's lesser visited summits. Here we found several Rock Ptarmigan - a new species for both of us, and one of just a few breeding species I had left to see in Newfoundland.

After the tour, Jody and I joined Darroch Whitaker for a climb to one of Gros Morne National Park’s lesser visited summits. Here we found several Rock Ptarmigan – a new species for both of us, and one of just a few breeding species I had left to see in Newfoundland.

Two rare terns shows up on the southeast Avalon in late July. Although I missed one (Royal Tern), I did catch up with a Sandwich Tern – my fourth new species of the year! On the way back, Alvan Buckley and I discovered another great and unexpected rarity – a Eurasian Whimbrel! Although not my first, the mid-summer date made it especially notable. You can see more photos of these unusual visitors here.

This SANDWICH TERN was just the sixth record for Newfoundland, and a first for me! There is an ongoing discussion about its origins - is it American or European? (My very instant photo doesn't add much to that conversation - but it sure was great to see!). July 28, 2016, St. Vincent's NL.

This Sandwich Tern was just the sixth record for Newfoundland, and a first for me!

WHIM_Euro_July282016_8878

The European race of Whimbrel (centre) is most easily distinguished from it North American cousin (left and right) by its large white rump.

One iconic Newfoundland species that I had several wonderful encounters with this year was Leach’s Storm-petrel. Despite being very abundant breeders and at sea, it is actually quite unusual to encounter them from land. This year I was fortunate to help several clients see this elusive bird, enjoy hundreds myself during a northeast gale, and even rescue one stranded at Cape Race lighthouse. If you’d like to learn more about these enigmatic little seabirds, check out this blog post I recently wrote about them.

We rescued this Leach's Storm-Petrel after finding it stranded at the base of Cape Race lighthouse on September 25. Although stranded birds may "appear" injured as they sit motionless or sometime flop around on the ground, in most cases they are healthy and simply cannot take off from land. We released this one over the water at nearby Cripple Cove.

We rescued this Leach’s Storm-Petrel after finding it stranded at the base of Cape Race lighthouse on September 25.

Few birds are as legendary in Newfoundland as far-flung western warblers, and Hermit Warbler is one of those gems that I’ve been wishing (though hardly expecting) to see here. But even more surprising than the fact that one was found on November 11, exactly 27 years after the one and only previous record, was that I had virtually conjured it just 12 hours earlier! It was my fifth and final new species for 2016. Read more about this incredible rarity and my wild prediction here.

This HERMIT WARBLER will no doubt be the highlight of November - and maybe of the year. Bruce Mactavish discovered it in Mobile on November 11 Newfoundland's one and only other record (Nov 11 1989)!

This Hermit Warbler was no doubt the highlight of November – and maybe of the year. Bruce Mactavish discovered it in Mobile on November 11.

I wrapped up my birding year with a fun and very impromptu adventure in Hawaii. I had the very great pleasure of helping ABA Big Year birders Laura Keene and John Weigel “clean up” on the amazing birds of Hawaii last month. Although the recent addition of Hawaii to the ABA region didn’t take effect until 2017, these intrepid birders decided to include it in their own big year adventures. We had an amazing time, saw virtually all the species one could expect in December, AND set a strong precedent that future Big Year birders will have a tough time topping! I’ll post a short write-up about that adventure, and its deeper meaning for me, in the very near future – so stay tuned!

Palila is just one of several endemic (and critically endangered!) species we encountered while visiting the Hawaiian islands. This particular bird is among my worldwide favourites, and the time we spent with this one is an experience I'll forever cherish.

Palila is just one of several endemic (and critically endangered!) species we encountered while visiting the Hawaiian islands. This particular bird is among my worldwide favourites, and the time we spent with this one is an experience I’ll forever cherish.

Best wishes for a healthy, happy and adventure-filled 2017!!

Advertisements

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!

SAGU_Feb42016_6940

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!

Arse On: Tale of an Elusive Fieldfare

Nine hours of driving. Four hours of bitter cold birding. And five minutes of THIS:
The business end of a mega-rare Fieldfare that has been hanging out in Lumsden on the northeast coast. While we did get some slightly better looks this morning, this was the only photo I managed to get! "Arse-on", as we might say in Newfoundland.

The business end of a mega-rare 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.

Trace Stagg noticed an unusual visitor in her Lumsden yard on Saturday, February 6 … it turned out to be a FIELDFARE! This European thrush is a cousin to our familiar American Robin, and a very rare visitor to North America. Newfoundland has more records than most places on this continent, with this one making nine — and all but one of those was “before my time” as a birder. I was itching to go see it, but Lumsden is located on the northeast coast and more than four hours from my home in St. John’s. A handful of birders made the trek on Sunday, but I was busy and had to wait. Oh, that wait!

I made last-minute plans on Sunday evening, and hit the road at 5am Monday morning.  I met up with fellow birder Diane Burton near her home in Glovertown (~2/3 of the way along) at 8am, and we made the rest of our hopeful drive together over snow-covered roads. A handful of other birders had been looking for about 20 minutes when we arrived, with no luck. Despite the cold (-18C windchill), we zipped up our coats and started searching the neighbourhoods on foot – knowing that it had been somewhat elusive and wide-ranging the previous day. We found a few dozen American Robins spread around feeding on frozen dogberries (mountain ash), an incredible number of Pine Grosbeaks, lots of Purple Finch, American Goldfinch, Chickadees, White-winged Crossbills and even some Common Redpolls … but no Fieldfare.

The bumper crop of "dogberries" (mountain ash) this year has been attracting a variety of birds, including big numbers of Pine Grosbeak in some areas. They were everywhere in Lumsden this morning. I would have taken advantage of the many great photo opportunities had I not been hunting for something rarer - and more elusive!

The bumper crop of “dogberries” (mountain ash) this year has been attracting a variety of birds, including big numbers of Pine Grosbeak in some areas. They were everywhere in Lumsden this morning. I would have taken advantage of the many great photo opportunities had I not been hunting for something rarer – and more elusive!

There is also a great crop of White Spruce cones ... a favourite food for White-winged Crossbills.

There is also a great crop of White Spruce cones … a favourite food for White-winged Crossbills.

After an hour, I saw two Robins fly over – then another bird that looked suspicious as it dipped behind some houses and out of sight. I stayed in the area for several minutes, hoping to see the mystery bird again. Suddenly, I saw the Fieldfare flying high overhead and across the road, and heard its distinctive “tchack” call (a sight and sound I was familiar with from my time living in Finland!). Running full speed down the road, I managed to see it drop down behind some houses and called out to the other nearby birders. A few minutes later, Diane spotted the Fieldfare feeding in a large dogberry tree behind one of those houses, and we all had distant but more or less clear looks for several minutes. We walked to the far corner of the unoccupied house, but the Fieldfare remained mostly hidden on the far side of the tree for several minutes – then promptly flew off and out of sight. I had managed to snap just one photograph — of its distinctive rump through a tangle of twigs & branches! It was the only one I’d get all day. Despite another three hours of combing the neighbourhood, we never really saw it again. I “may” have seen it fly over at least once, and am certain I heard it calling about two hours later, but it never gave us another look. Feeling happy (yet somehow a little unsatisfied!), we hit the highway and started the long drive home.

Was it worth it? Every single second! What an amazing bird.

FIELDFARE – An Update

Photo: Gerard Butler (January 19, 2013)

Photo: Gerard Butler (January 19, 2013)

The FIELDFARE reappeared at the home of Gerard and Charlene Butler in Reidville for a brief time yesterday and again this morning – filling up on apples from their tree. While the Butlers have hung fresh apple slices and berries in hopes of keeping the bird around, so far it has preferred the old frozen apples it has obviously become accustomed to.

Fieldfare1Gerard Butler took these photos on Saturday, January 19 – just the third time they had seen the Fieldfare in about month, suggesting it is moving around the neighbourhood and/or other parts of the community where other fruit trees are reportedly abundant. While this is still far from a “stakeout bird”, it is good to know it remains in the area and will likely become easier to find once we learn a bit more about its habits or it takes a liking to the fresh offerings available in the Butler yard. Thanks to them for finding, reporting and now helping keep track of this mega rarity! I’m sure it won’t be long before one of the Newfoundland birders catches up with it.

Fieldfare2

Three photos (taken by Gerard Butler) showing the Fieldfare  that has been roaming around Reidville, NL for at least a month. Now that we know about it, hopefully a few lucky birders can catch up with it.

Three photos (taken by Gerard Butler) showing the Fieldfare that has been roaming around Reidville, NL for at least a month. Now that we know about it, hopefully a few lucky birders can catch up with it.