2016: A Year in Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wild optimism … and a HERMIT WARBLER

It was late at night on Thursday November 10, and I was discussing (over text message) my birding plans for the next morning with Bruce Mactavish. I was heading south from St. John’s to look for late season migrants, shorebirds and whatever else might come my way. Bruce, on the other hand, was sticking closer to town to check local hot-spots for November warblers. I’m known for making optimistic (if not wild) predictions, so it probably came as no surprise when he received my text at 11:00PM saying “I’ll come back to town for a Hermit Warbler“. Hermit Warbler is incredibly rare in the east, and had only been recorded in Newfoundland once – on November 11, 1989. As rare as it is, it’s one of those birds that local birders think about at this time of year.

I had been birding for several hours and was as far south as Ferryland when Bruce texted to tell me he was driving to Mobile to check out a probable (but very late and therefore suspicious) Spotted Sandpiper that had been reported there. I had driven through there hours earlier, but told him to keep me updated. A short while later, I noticed a missed call from Bruce on my phone – and promptly received a text message saying “HERMIT WARBLER, MOBILE”. Knowing that Bruce is not one to play tricks, I made near-record time on the way back and found him standing on a trail at the end of a road – Spotted Sandpiper confirmed, and Hermit Warbler “somewhere” in the nearby woods. Other birders soon showed up, and we searched the area for several hours without any further sign. Most people gave up and headed home as the weather and light deteriorated, while I gave it another go and expanded my search to another road up the hill. I soon glimpsed a warbler with a bright yellow face among a big flock of Juncos, Chickadees and Golden-crowned Kinglets – but it dissolved into the trees before I could even get my binoculars on it. It HAD to be the Hermit Warbler! But better looks would have to wait.

I spent the rest of the weekend in Grates Cove – closing up the house for another winter and enjoying some family time. But all the while I felt tortured over this amazing warbler that “got away”. Fortunately other birders were able to refind it in the same area I had glimpsed it on Friday, but always with very brief and fleeting glimpses. Photos were scarce, obscured and out-of-focus but enough to whet my appetite. Anne Hughes and I headed back to Mobile on Monday morning, and within a little while were joined by three others. It was spotted briefly near the road, and then Anne found it again behind a nearby house. This time I saw it too – and really well (for a few seconds!). As it had all weekend, it popped up briefly and disappeared again several times over the next two hours … I likened it to a frustrating game of whack-a-mole. I saw it on three separate occasions for a grand total of less than two minutes, and most of that was distantly in the treetops! I did manage one decent photograph, with most others showing either a blur or a twig where it had been sitting milliseconds earlier. But hey – with a great bird of this rarity level, it’s seeing it that counts!

What do I predict next?!?!

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 will no doubt be the highlight of November – and maybe of the year. Bruce Mactavish discovered it in Mobile on November 11 – exactly 27 years after Newfoundland’s one and only other record (Nov 11 1989)! The broad wing bars, clean white underparts and oh-so yellow face make this an unmistakable (and unforgettable) bird.

My first looks at this bird on November 14 turned out to be my best, although I bombed on a chance to photograph it. The only time we saw it at eye level, I was able to see the grey back which helps identify this species from similar cousins and rule out the possibility of a hybrid (which do occur, and there is one previous record of a Hermit X Townsend's Warbler hybrid for the island).

My first looks at this bird on November 14 turned out to be my best, although I bombed on a chance to photograph it. The only time we saw it at eye level, I was able to see the grey back which helps distinguish this species from similar cousins and rule out the possibility of a hybrid (which do occur, and there is one record of a  probable Hermit X Townsend’s Warbler hybrid for the island). I have no experience with Hermit Warblers and am not sure if this is an adult female or an immature male.

Just as one might expect from reading the literature, this Hermit Warbler spends a lot of time in the canopy, foraging in the top one-third of the conifers. It seems to show a preference for larch trees, and my longest views of this bird (and the only views lasting more than 5 seconds) were while it fed at the top of several larch trees in the distance.

Just as one might expect from reading the literature, this Hermit Warbler spends a lot of time in the canopy, foraging in the top one-third of the conifers. It seems to show a preference for larch trees, and my longest views of this bird (and the only views lasting more than 5 seconds) were while it fed at the top of several larch trees in the distance.

I also spent a little time with these two Cattle Egrets in Ferryland, just before getting

I also spent a little time with these two Cattle Egrets in Ferryland, just before getting “the call”. Cattle Egrets are rare but annual in Newfoundland, and two together was a bit of treat.

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Spending the weekend in beautiful Grates Cove, I had to distract myself from thoughts of the Hermit Warbler that other birders were seeing back in Mobile. The lovely

Spending the weekend in beautiful Grates Cove, I had to distract myself from thoughts of the Hermit Warbler that other birders were seeing back in Mobile. The lovely “supermoon” that graced us on November 14 was a nice help!

November = Extreme Warbler Time

Most Newfoundlanders, and Canadians, think of November as the vanguard of winter. Temperatures plummet, trees lose the last of their summer leaves, and even a little snow can be expected before the month is out. Sure seems like a strange time to be looking for warblers – but here on “the rock”, November warblers are an integral part of the fall birding scene.

Orange-crowned Warblers, which breed in southern Labrador yet not the island, are one of our routine November warblers. There have been a healthy handful reported so far this month.

Orange-crowned Warblers, which breed in southern Labrador yet not the island, are one of our routine November warblers. There have been a healthy handful reported so far this month.

Granted, warblers are scarce this late in the year. A few late and lingering individuals can be found, often in the company of tougher, year-round species like Black-capped Chickadees and Dark-eyed Juncos. That just makes the otherwise “expected” ones a tad more exciting. And of course there are the vagrants – warblers that do not normally breed in or migrate through Newfoundland but have somehow gotten off-track and ended up here anyways. By November, some of those vagrants may have traveled a long way from home. This is the month when most western warblers, such as Black-throated Gray, Hermit and Virginia’s Warbler, have been discovered here. All in all, nearly 30 species of warbler have been recorded in Newfoundland during November – many, like those listed above, are the rarest ones on our checklist having been seen only once or twice in our storied birding history.

This Virginia's Warbler, the only one ever recorded in Newfoundland, was discovered on November 14, 2013. It was an exciting day for local birders!

This Virginia’s Warbler, the only one ever recorded in Newfoundland, was discovered on November 14, 2013. It was an exciting day for local birders!

Yellow-throated Warblers have a funny habit of showing up in Newfoundland in late fall and early winter, despite the fact their normal range is much further south. During cold weather, these beautiful birds will sometimes visit suet feeders, delighting backyard birders lucky enough to find one in their neighbourhood!

Yellow-throated Warblers have a funny habit of showing up in Newfoundland in late fall and early winter, despite the fact their normal range is much further south. During cold weather, these beautiful birds will sometimes visit suet feeders, delighting backyard birders lucky enough to find one in their neighbourhood! (This one was photographed in Cape Broyle a few years ago)

Townsend’s Warbler, an enigmatic little critter from west of the Rockies, has an unusual history of showing up here in late fall and early winter. With 17 individuals (the latest just last week!), Newfoundland has more records than almost any other province or state in eastern North America! More amazing still, almost all of those have been in St. John’s. And a total of eleven records come from one small river valley spanning just a few square kilometres! Odd things happen in the easternmost reaches of the continent.

Townsend's Warbler - while very rare in eastern North America, has been recorded an incredible 17 times in eastern Newfoundland! (This one, photographed on January 1 2013, was the 16th.)

Townsend’s Warbler – while very rare in eastern North America, has been recorded an incredible 17 times in eastern Newfoundland! (This one, photographed on January 1 2013, was the 16th.)

This "mystery bird" was photographed by Cliff Doran on November 14th. Can you guess what it is?

This “mystery bird” was photographed by Cliff Doran on November 12th. Can you guess what it is?

In November, every flash of yellow in the bushes or non-descript warbler needs to be scrutinized. This is the month when almost anything can happen. Cliff Doran, lighthouse keeper and rare bird magnet, photographed a dull looking bird in a pile of spruce boughs at Cape Race on November 12. Not knowing exactly what it was, he posted the photos online and piqued the interest of several birders – yours truly included. The initial suggestion of Common Yellowthroat just didn’t seem right, and thoughts of several much rarer candidates began to dance in our heads. Something about the bird, though, seemed familiar …

The photos showed only the head and extreme upper breast of the bird – the rest obscured by branches. It showed a dull olive brown head, bright white eye-arcs and apparent pale yellow wash on the breast. The bill was on the large end for a warbler (prompting some people to consider a very rare vireo), but didn’t appear to be hooked. After a few minutes pondering the possibilities, and then confirming my suspicions with Bruce Mactavish (who is currently at sea and craving terrestrial distractions) and Alvan Buckley, the conclusion became clear … Pine Warbler! An excellent, but fairly regular, visitor to Newfoundland at this time of year. Identifying dull fall warblers can be a challenge, but its often worth the effort!

PIWA head comparison

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.

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.

Keep an eye out for November Warblers in your own backyard! The next rarity is just around the corner …

Lest We Forget …

Today, November 11, is an important day here in Canada (and other Commonwealth countries. of course) … Remembrance Day. This is the anniversary of the end of World War I (1918) and the date every year that we stop to honour and remember all those have served, fought and all too often died in the line of military duty – as well as those who continue to do so. The unparalleled freedoms we enjoy, and the continuing fight to extend those same rights, freedoms and securities to people all all over the globe are something we should never take for granted … though we often do. Take a moment today to remember.

On a different (though not totally unrelated) topic, this is also the anniversary of some very special bird records for Newfoundland. I say not totally unrelated since the November 11 “holiday” is probably responsible for increased birding activity on this date over the years, resulting in these birds being found. Most notably, the province’s only Hermit Warbler was discovered on this day in 1989 at Blackhead (near St. John’s), while one of very few Wood Sandpipers ever recorded in eastern North America was found in Renews in 1998. Both of those records were “before my time” as a birder, so I can only hope for a repeat at some point!

Many other important records have occurred in mid-November – including the province’s first Ash-throated Flycatcher on November 14 2009, followed closely by a very intriguing record of Common Shelduck on November 17. And while a few scarce warblers are always highlights of November birding in this province, an amazing spectacle took place on November 16 1983 when a total of FOURTEEN species of warbler were discovered in St. John’s – including three first and one second record for the province!! Even more remarkable was that seven of these species (including two first records) were in the same tree!!

Here’s to a memorable November to come …