EIGHTEEN

Wow! Another year has come and gone … but not without plenty of adventure. The year 2018 was a very exciting one here at BirdTheRock – I was blessed beyond words to share the natural wonders of Newfoundland & Labrador with so many visitors, travel to amazing places both near and far, and experience countless special moments along the way. I have so much to tell … but as they say “a picture is worth a thousand words“, and maybe that’s the best way to share this long overdue summary of the year that was. Below are 18 images from 2018; chosen to represent just a fraction of the many, many highlights from my year.

It’s been difficult to keep my blog updated during this busy year (and even this month — it has taken me weeks to write this post!) – but be sure to follow me on Facebook, Twitter and/or Instagram for more regular highlights and often daily updates from ongoing tours! I’ll continue to update this blog as often as I can 😉

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I started 2018 with a fantastic winter tour for two wonderful clients. Dovekie was, of course, a prime target and they didn’t disappoint — we had several close encounters (some so close we probably could have touched them!), and ended up seeing dozens and dozens following a January windstorm. And so many other other great winter birds …

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Winter is also the best time to enjoy the great numbers and diversity of gulls that St. John’s has to offer. I helped host a “Winter Gull Workshop” for NatureNL in February – and despite less than ideal weather, more than 50 participants showed up to learn and share our passion for birds! It was a lot of fun, and an exciting indicator that the love of birds & birding continues to grow in our province.

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Early spring was a busy time for public engagement – I enjoyed sharing my passion and experience with some very different audiences: a public presentation at our largest library, local tour guides looking to learn more about province’s birds, and many of my tourism partners across the island. I’m always excited to talk about the wonders of birds & birding, and hope to spread the word even further in 2019 😉

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The opportunity to travel and go birding in new places is one of the perks of being a tour leader — and this year was no exception. In May, I co-led an Eagle-Eye Tours trip in southern Ontario, visiting several “bucket-list” places along the way – Point Pelee, Long Point and Algonquin Park among them. It’s a fun and awe-inspiring way to experience the excitement of spring migration!

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The “Point Pelee & Algonquin” tour was also an opportunity to see LOTS of beautiful, often iconic, species — like this Prothonotary Warbler. These brilliant birds are scarce and very restricted breeders in Canada. While I’ve been lucky to see a couple in Newfoundland during fall migration and in the tropics during winter, it was especially rewarding to see them in their typical breeding habitat.

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Without a doubt, this Purple Gallinule was a highlight for Newfoundland birders in 2018. First discovered while I was away in Ontario (on a river just minutes from my house, no less!), I arrived home in time to enjoy this beautiful bird. Although there are a surprising number of records on the island, almost all were immature birds and/or in winter – and most have been found moribund or already dead. Not only was this a stunning adult, but the first that birders have been able to enjoy. Newfoundland can be weird, sometimes 😉 It was seen for weeks and may very well have stayed all summer! (More details here.)

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Early June brought with it an opportunity to explore my province from a different perspective – on an expedition cruise around the island. I was invited to join the crew of the Hebridean Sky as it circumnavigated Newfoundland – visiting beautiful, quaint and often isolated communities along the way. June can still be a volatile time in the waters off northern Newfoundland – and this year was no exception. Arctic ice and rough weather toyed with our plans at every turn, but we didn’t let it stop our adventure! Here I’m standing on the arctic ice floe in the Start of Belle Isle, with Labrador (and our ship) in the background.

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I was honoured once again to lead several exciting trips for Eagle-Eye Tours — a total of four in 2018! The “Grand Newfoundland” tour is always a highlight of my year, and this year it was sold out – a testament to just how popular a birding destination our province is becoming. We had a great 12 days exploring the island and its array of landscapes, birds and other natural wonders … I’m already looking forward to doing it all again later this year!

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It was a very busy summer, with lots of visiting birders and nature-enthusiasts joining me to explore beautiful Newfoundland. We enjoyed visits to spectacular seabird colonies (like Cape St. Mary’s, above), strolled through rich boreal forests full of sweet bird songs, hiked across the coastal tundra to see fossils of some of the world’s oldest complex animals, stopped to appreciate beautiful and unique wildflowers growing in the most unexpected of places, and were treated to surprises and wonderful experiences at every turn. I’m already looking forward to more in 2019!! (Check out your opportunity to join us here.)

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Nemesis down!! I’m always thrilled to help a client find a “target” bird when leading a tour, especially here in Newfoundland. However, it is extra exciting when that same bird is a target of my own. Northern Three-toed Woodpecker has been a so-called “nemesis bird” for me – one of just three breeding species on the island that have managed to elude me since I started birding ~18 years ago (the other two being American Woodcock and Northern Hawk Owl – both scarce and local breeders in the province that I just haven’t connected with yet). We found this male attending (or maybe just prospecting?) a potential nesting site while hiking a trail in Terra Nova National Park. I’m not sure who was more ecstatic – my guests or me!

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Once again, August was punctuated by the Eagle-Eye Tours “New Brunswick & Grand Manan” trip. Joined by co-leader Kyle Horner (Wild Ontario), we explored this beautiful part of Atlantic Canada. As always, a major highlight of this tour was the incredible flocks of Semipalmated Sandpiper migrating through the Bay of Fundy. We had point blank views of 35,000+ as they roosted on a narrow strip of beach at high tide. (To read more about previous tours I’ve led in New Brunswick, check out this blog post.)

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Another highlight of this trip is our visit to Grand Manan island and the wonderful birding there. I have a special fondness for seabirds, and the pelagic trip into the rich waters of the Bay of Fundy never disappoints. We has a gorgeous day for this year’s trip, encountering hundreds of shearwaters, storm-petrels, phalaropes and other pelagic species along the way – often right alongside the boat!

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In October, I was invited to join the team at Adventure Canada as their expedition ship “Ocean Endeavour” circumnavigated Newfoundland. It was an exciting opportunity to explore my home province from a unique perspective – often calling in to small, remote communities. I even got to see a few places I’d never been before, including Little Bay Islands (above) which neighbours my late grandfather’s childhood home. I was honoured to work with the incredible team at Adventure Canada, and to spend ten days with their fun and interesting guests … and I look forward to doing it again in the future.

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Sailing around Newfoundland also gave me a chance to get reacquainted with one of Newfoundland’s most enigmatic birds – Leach’s Storm-Petrel. These tiny seabirds nest in huge numbers along our coast, but usually stay far out at sea and out of sight (coming and going from their burrows only under cover of darkness). They are often attracted to the lights of ocean vessels, so it is not unusual to find them stranded on the decks during the night or early morning and in need of “rescue” (a gentle toss over the side to get them airborne). I was able to use this phenomena to educate guests and other staff not only about seabirds in general, but also the impact that our activities can have on them. After making some changes to reduce our light emissions, we saw a dramatic decrease (to nearly zero) in stranded birds during the course of our travels.

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The busyness of fall 2018 didn’t leave me with much time for birding on my own time (something I love to do in fall), but when I did I was thrilled to be joined by my oldest daughter, Emma. She seems to have caught the birding “bug” this year, and nothing could make me happier than see my kids connecting with nature. In this photo, Emma is “digiscoping” a Gray Heron in Renews – a mega rarity not only for Newfoundland, but all of North America. (Notably, Emma is using my trusty Kowa TSN-883 scope in this photo – for a detailed review of my Kowa optics check out this blog post from a few months ago).

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December snuck up on me quickly – along with a happy return to Trinidad & Tobago, leading my third Eagle-Eye Tours trip to this awesome destination. We had a great time – enjoying the amazing birding at Asa Wright Nature Centre, across the varied habitats of Trinidad, and then to more relaxed but equally bird-filled Tobago. This Guianan Trogon was just one of many many highlights! (You can find many more photos and stories from my earlier trips here and here.)

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A personal highlight from Trinidad & Tobago 2018 was an encounter with four American Flamingos (lifers!). Somewhat unusual in recent years, these were part of a group that had been hanging out around the famous Caroni Swamp, and may have arrived from Venezuela following an earthquake earlier in the year.

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Although it’s been challenging to keep this blog updated during a busy 2018, I did post lots of updates on other social media channels (see above). These were my most popular Instagram photos throughout the year (note that not all photos were actually taken in 2018). Be sure to follow along for more stories and photos this year!!

Off the Rock: Birding New Brunswick

I recently returned from New Brunswick, where I co-led an Eagle Eye tour with crack birder Jody Allair (August 17-26). We had an excellent group of nine people from British Columbia, Ontario, Vermont and Virginia; awesome weather from start to finish; and a whole pile of amazing experiences surrounded by wonderful birds and scenery.

The tour started in Saint John and took us through beautiful Fundy National Park, where we enjoyed lush boreal forests and birds like Common Loon, Winter Wren, Boreal Chickadee, Red-breasted Nuthcatch, and Blackburnian Warbler. We also heard the intriguing song of Nelson’s Sparrows at a nearby saltmarsh and watched as thousands of shorebirds foraged on the famous Bay of Fundy mudflats at Mary’s Point.

Tens of thousands of Semipalmated Sandpipers were roosting at Johnson Mills at high tide. An estimated three-quarters of the world's population of this small shorebird stop over at the Bay of Fundy during southward migration every year.

Tens of thousands of Semipalmated Sandpipers were roosting at Johnson Mills at high tide. An estimated three-quarters of the world’s population of this small shorebird stop over at the Bay of Fundy during southward migration every year.

However, the real shorebird spectacle took place the next morning when we visited Johnson Mills. Huge flocks of Black-bellied Plover and smaller shorebirds were frantically feeding as the waters rushed in, and then an incredible 60,000+ Semipalmated Sandpipers roosted in one tight flock on a small stretch of exposed beach at high tide. There is no way to describe the sight of a beach completely covered in birds – no sand or rocks visible between them; nor of the amazing maneuvers somehow carried out in unison as tens of thousands of birds zig-zag through the air and above the rolling water!!

From there we visited the phenomenal Sackville Waterfowl Park, where we enjoyed dozens of larger shorebirds such as Greater & Lesser Yellowlegs, Short-billed Dowitchers and Wilson’s Snipe. A normally very secretive Sora even graced us by walking out of the dense vegetation right in front of us!

Talk about close quarters! No

Talk about close quarters! No “personal space” in this crowd.

Two days were spent exploring New Brunswick’s fabulous north shore – including the quaint Acadian town of Bouctouche and the rich forests, bogs and beaches of Kouchibouguac National Park. Excellent birds such as Willet, Ruddy Turnstone and Semipalmated Plover graced the sandy shorelines, while hundreds of Common Terns wheeled around just offshore. Two Gray Jays dropped in to say hello, while a family of Palm Warblers offered great views on the edge of a spruce bog. A real surprise, several Red Crossbills were heard flying over – and one even allowed everyone in the group a fantastic look as it fed among the treetops. Eastern Kingbirds and Common Nighthawks even entertained as we ate incredible evening meals at our historic bed and breakfast. The next morning we enjoyed a very birdy walk along a quiet river trail, enjoying a variety of birds that included Hooded Merganser, Magnolia & Tennessee Warblers, Northern Parula, American Redstart and Brown Creeper  – all before heading back to Saint John for the evening.

GRYE_log_3396The next stage of our tour took us to beautiful Grand Manan Island, an ocean playground nestled away in the Bay of Fundy. An overnight cold front and light northerly winds brought us our first real taste of songbird migration. Fifteen species of warbler were found at various locations, including the northern tip of the island and the wonderful property of the very hotel in which we stayed. Eastern Phoebes darted around, a Black-billed Cuckoo sang for us, and a pair of Northern Cardinals called out from the treetops. An evening seawatch at Long Eddie Point (“The Whistle”) scored us hundreds of Sooty and Great Shearwaters along with several Manx Shearwater, while a stunning Broad-winged Hawk soared overhead.

Great Shearwater was definite highlight of our boat trip off the SE coast of Grand Manan Island.

Great Shearwater was definite highlight of our boat trip off the SE coast of Grand Manan Island.

But the real seabird show took place during a pelagic whale-watching expedition between Grand Manan and White Head Islands — Shearwaters swarmed all around the boat, thousands of Phalaropes (Red and Red-necked) fluttered past, and Wilson’s Storm Petrels coasted by. We also scored several Great Cormorants – a tough species and major target for several members of our group. (Whales? Yes – they were there too. A dozen Humpbacks Whales, several Fin Whales and a group of White-sided Dolphins all put on an amazing show that successfully distracted us from the birds far too much of the time!)

Despite our best efforts to stay focused on birds, the whales sometimes stole the show.

Despite our best efforts to stay focused on birds, the whales sometimes stole the show.

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The Grand Manan ferry offers up some excellent birding opportunities!

The ferry ride back to mainland New Brunswick was incredibly smooth and resulted in some excellent birding – Razorbills, Atlantic Puffins and our only Common Murre of the trip floated by at close range, an Arctic Tern sat cooperatively on a floating log, and a Basking Shark appeared on the surface just long enough to tease Jody and me. Harbour Porpoises were everywhere we looked.

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Our final birding stop at Irving Nature Park in Saint John netted us a Northern Harrier, several Merlins and the Peregrine Falcon that had been so elusive all week — chasing thousands of shorebirds over the beach and water’s edge. A small flock of Surf Scoters was our last new bird — bringing our tally up to an incredible 137 species!! What an amazing trip!!

A few of the places we visited & things we saw:

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Bouctouche – a beautiful example of Acadian culture and scenery!

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Find the plover 😉

Kelly’s Beach, Kouchibouguac National Park

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Castalia Marsh, Grand Manan

We also saw a good number of butterflies – including new ones for me, like this Eastern Tailed Blue. Beauty!

North Harbour, Grand Manan (with a herring weir in the foreground)

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Marathon Inn, Grand Manan

An Eastern Phoebe hanging out on the clothesline.
(See what I did there? “Hanging out … clothesline”? Eh?)

North Harbour, Grand Manan

Common Wood Nymph – another classy butterfly.

Dulse – both a delicacy and a way of life on Grand Manan!

Lots of fin slapping …

Swallowtail Light, Grand Manan

Swallowtail Light, Grand Manan

Sunset at Long Eddie Point (“The Whistle”), Grand Manan

“Bye” for now …
(OK – I admit that’s even cheesier than the clothesline thing!)