NINETEEN

"Better late than never" -- Me (far too often)

Wow … Time flies!! It’s hard to believe another year has come and gone … but not without lots of fun & adventure. In fact, 2019 was the busiest yet for 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. From snowy mornings on the frozen tundra to hot, sunny afternoons in the ruins of an ancient, tropical city; snowy owls and caribou to hummingbirds and howler monkeys … what a ride!

Below are 19 photos from 2019; chosen to represent just a fraction of the many, many highlights from my year. The busier I get, the harder it is to keep up on this blog  – but be sure to follow me on Facebook, Twitter and/or Instagram for LOTS more photos, regular highlights and often daily updates from ongoing tours! I’ll continue to update this blog when I can 😉

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My year of birding began with one of my favourite family events – the Christmas Bird Count for Kids. In partnership with NatureNL, we held it at Bowring Park where great winter weather and some excellent birds made for a wonderful morning. Three groups of kids, parents and volunteers scoured the park for gems that included Tufted Duck, Northern Goshawk, Downy Woodpecker and Double-crested Cormorant. Here, our group is enjoying a colourful flock of Evening Grosbeak (incl. my daughters; Emma at the scope and Leslie behind her).

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My winter season began with the annual WINGS “Winter in Newfoundland” tour. A variety of interesting and exciting species were found around St. John’s – including dozens of Tufted Duck, Eurasian Wigeon, Black-headed and Lesser Black-backed Gulls. We also had several close encounters with a Northern Goshawk – a hands-down highlight for everyone! Travelling outside the city, we enjoyed more exciting birds and stunning coastal scenery. Dovekie (like the one above) were present in excellent numbers, including several cooperative birds that lingered just metres away. We braved wintry weather to see Purple Sandpipers, Thick-billed Murre, Great Cormorants, Common Eider and Long-tailed Ducks, along with many other northern seabirds. Pine Grosbeaks showed off their gaudy colours, and a very cooperative Snowy Owl capped off our week. It was a fantastic tour with exciting birds, great people, and a wonderful setting!

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For a fun family outing, Susan and I took the girls to see and photograph some Harp & Harbour seals in Conception Bay. It was a cold morning, but we enjoyed some very close encounters with these beautiful animals. A few weeks later we found a locally rare Bearded Seal in St. John’s Harbour — you can see photos and read more about that in a blog post here.

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The NatureNL “Winter Gull Workshop” has become a popular tradition, and dozens of budding birders showed up to see and learn about the diversity of gulls that visit Quidi Vidi lake during the colder months. It was a beautiful day for sharing the joy of birding, and we enjoyed a rich variety from Glaucous Gull to Gadwall and Tufted Duck to “Saddleback”.

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This rare Slaty-backed Gull had been around for a few days and popped in to show off during the Gull Workshop (above). Although I’ve seen, and even discovered, a surprising number over the years, it is always exciting to see one and even moreso to share it with such a fun group of people.

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This winter brought with it an opportunity  to explore new places, birds and wildlife in Central America. Eagle-Eye Tours offered me a chance to visit Belize & Tikal (Guatemala), where I co-led a fantastic tour with my friend and fellow guide Ernesto Carman. The birds were, of course, amazing — but so were the other critters like this Black Howler Monkey. Listening to their incredible, eerie howls as I hiked the trails or even lay in bed is something I’ll forever remember.

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Belize & Guatemala included much more than just birds, of course – the incredible culture and history of the area alone is worth a visit. Wandering around, and birding in, the incredible temples and ancient metropolis of Tikal was transcendent. The largest city of the Mayan Classical period, it was inhabited from ~600BC until its abandonment ~900AD and had a peak population of more than 100,000 people! You can check out a short blog post about the trip, or simply view a selection of my photos in this Flickr album. You can also read about my previous visit to Central America (Honduras) here.

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My next Eagle-Eye Tours adventure brought me to more familiar places – the Point Pelee and Algonquin Park tour. Lady Luck was on our side this year, as we hit the migration melting pot of Point Pelee National Park on three amazing days! We experienced a “fallout” of migrating songbirds, had colourful warblers hopping at our feet, watched the unique phenomenon of “reverse migration” over the point, and scored a number of “sought-after” species like Acadian Flycatcher and Canadian rarities like Swallow-tailed Kite. Things may have slowed down a little after such a fast-paced start, but the birding remained excellent through other Ontario hotspots like Rondeau, Long Point, and Algonquin Provicial Park. (Above: a Blackburnian Warbler – one of many, many warblers that showed off for us at Point Pelee. Check out more photos in this Flickr album.)

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One of the most sought-after birds during spring migration is Kirtland’s Warbler. This enigmatic little warbler is one of the most range-restricted species in North America, breeding in young Jack Pine forests of Michigan and (just barely) Wisconsin. A few get spotted at migration hotspots like Point Pelee (Ontario) or Magee Marsh (Ohio) each spring, and is always an exciting find. Kirtland’s Warbler was a bird I very much hoped (but not necessarily expected) to encounter during this tour – and I was totally stoked when we met up with this one near one of Point Pelee’s many picnic areas. Making the bird even more special, it is named after Dr. Jared Kirtland – who, of course, shares my first name 😉

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The last day of the Point Pelee & Algonquin tour was punctuated by some exciting news from back home … an extremely rare Eurasian Oystercatcher had just been reported!! Just the fifth record for all of North America (and the fourth for Newfoundland), this wily shorebird was found and photographed at Lush’s Bight, on a small island in Notre Dame Bay. It took a few days for me to arrange the time (since I was just arriving home from a long trip and the bird was ~7 hours drive and short ferry ride from St. John’s), but the next week my friend Chris Ryan and I made the two-day trek and scored this mega — perhaps my “most wanted” species for Newfoundland! You can read the full story, and see lots more photos, on the blog post here.

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Eurasian Oystercatcher may have been the most exciting new species I saw in Newfoundland this year, but I did add two more that were somewhat more common (at least in other parts of eastern North America — Roseate Tern (a long-time “nemesis”) and this Turkey Vulture (a species which is reported occasionally on the island, but rarely tracked down by eager birders). This individual spent several days hanging out near La Manche Provincial Park (45 minutes south of St. John’s) in late May. I managed to spot another (or maybe the same one) near Renews in January 2020, and it was later reported hanging out in that area. Turkey Vultures are becoming increasingly common in the Maritime provinces, but since they generally avoid flying over open water they rarely make it over to Newfoundland.

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Late spring and summer were extremely busy for BirdTheRock Bird & Nature Tours. I was very lucky to spend that time sharing the amazing birds, wildlife and scenery of Newfoundland with dozens of visiting birders – from St. John’s to Gros Morne National Park and Witless Bay to Bonavista. I especially enjoyed having my daughter Emma join me for her very first visit to the incredible Cape St. Mary’s Ecological Reserve. It was a spectacular day, and smiles like that are exactly why I do what I do.

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Each and every tour held a special surprise or highlight, but the Northern Gannets aof Cape St. Mary’s are always at the top of the list. One day, my guests and I were treated to an especially close encounter as a lone gannet perched nonchalantly at the tip of the “Bird Rock” viewing area – allowing us to capture some wonderful photos.

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Of course, Atlantic Puffins also steal the show on many days – and this summer was no exception. Catching interactions between these cute but goofy birds is always fun, and this turned out to be one of my favourite images of the entire year.

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Late summer (August) each year brings another fun Eagle-Eye Tours trip – this one to New Brunswick and the beautiful Bay of Fundy. Highlights of this tour include the spectacular gathering of tens of thousands of Semipalmated Sandpipers and other shorebirds, migrating  songbirds, and a visit to lovely Grand Manan island. We had gorgeous weather and light during our pelagic trip this year, and great looks at many seabirds (including hundreds of Great Shearwater like this one).

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I was honoured once again this fall to join Adventure Canada on their “Newfoundland Circumnavigation” – exploring my own beautiful province from a very different perspective aboard the Ocean Endeavour. This expedition cruise stops at three (!!) UNESCO World Heritage Sites, several small and isolated outports, and even explores uninhabited coves, bays and fjords along the way. The diverse cultural, historical and of course nature-based experiences make this  a world-class trip – and I recommend it to anyone who wants to see Newfoundland in a unique way. This year (2020), I’ll be teaming up with Adventure Canada for a different expedition – this time to Greenland & Wild Labrador! Join me??

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December snuck up on me quickly – along with a happy return to Trinidad & Tobago, leading my fourth 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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Throughout all my travels, my constant companions included my trusty Kowa scope & binoculars. I’m proud to be an ambassador for these amazing optics – the sharpest, brightest glass out there; comfortable to use and handle; and above all else, tough! My gear gets used a lot, lugged all over the world, and carried through all kinds of terrain & weather – so it needs to hold up 🙂  Follow the link above to read more about my experiences with Kowa gear.

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The winter began, and they year ended, with a surprising number of rare and lingering warblers in eastern Newfoundland. This Hermit Warbler (the 4th record for Newfoundland) was perhaps the biggest surprise, although the unprecedented number of Townsend’s Warblers (12+) may have been the bigger story. We’ll likely never know what caused such an insane influx of western warblers, but we enjoyed it just the same! The Hermit Warbler survived well into January thanks to the hard work and dedication of several birders, but sadly disappeared after another unprecedented event – “Snowmageddon”. But that’s a story for next year 😉

And there you have it — another fantastic year in the books. So far, 2020 has been equally exciting, and I can’t wait to see what the rest of the year will bring. Won’t you follow along, or better yet join me, to find out??

 

 

A Tale of Two (Extreme) Cardinals …

… and some very bad photos 😉

Last weekend, I found myself sitting in my car, staring at a feeder outside a house in Pouch Cove (~25 minutes from my own house) — for the third time that week. I was waiting for a visitor that eluded me the previous two trips, and starting to feel that my newest nemesis bird was about to have the last laugh yet again.

Then it happened … a female NORTHERN CARDINAL flew in out of nowhere, landed on the feeder for a few brief seconds, then disappeared behind a tangle of bare twigs in a nearby shrub. It was a brisk -25C (windchill) outside, but I rolled down my window, watched and snapped off some really poor photos during the next few minutes. It was rarely unobscured by something (branches, twigs, snow or even the feeder), but it was there — and it was a long-awaited “tick” on my Newfoundland bird list!

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Northern Cardinals are surprisingly rare in Newfoundland. There was just one (undocumented) record prior to 2005 when one over-wintered on the island’s Great Northern Peninsula, and just two more confirmed records in the following ten years. However, the past few months may have signalled a change to that claim, as there have been more records (at least five!) this fall and winter than ever before. In fact, two (one male, one female) have been frequenting feeders on the Burin Peninsula for the past few months. This female in Pouch Cove is the easternmost so far, and close enough to St. John’s that most of the local birders (like me!) have been able to add it to their coveted lists.

Ten days prior to seeing this extreme Northern Cardinal (perhaps the most northeastern record ever?), I was watching another at the very opposite end of its breeding range – in the decidedly warmer weather (+30C) of northern Belize! And while I have only poor photos of both to share, I have the very cool memory of seeing them at their extremes this February!

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** Below are a few of my favourite memories from the Eagle-Eye Tours trip to Belize & Tikal — pardon the quality, as they were quick edits on my phone during the tour. I hope to post a summary of the trip, with lots more photos, soon —- but in the meantime you can check it out on my Facebook, Twitter and/or Instagram accounts. **

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!!

Geese, Herons & Quality Time

I was thrilled this weekend to spend a fun morning birding with my oldest daughter, Emma (9) … a morning which quickly turned “epic” as we ended up scoring two ABA (North American) rarities together!

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Emma enjoying the second of two ABA (North American) rarities of our morning – a Gray Heron hanging out in Renews. A lifer for her, my second for Newfoundland, and just the ~5th record for the province and Canada.

It’s not always easy to find balance in life as a birder, professional nature guide and a parent of two busy girls. I have no shame admitting that I spend far less time birding “recreationally” for myself these days (I do, of course, spend a lot of time birding with tours and clients – but as fun as that is, it’s not quite the same) … and I spend most of my other weekends involved in an array of family activities. I encourage my girls to appreciate and explore nature and (especially) birds, but I have never pushed it on them. Much to my glee, Emma has been expressing lots of interest lately and has even been asking me to take her to see two rare PINK-FOOTED GEESE that showed up in St. John’s recently — something I was excited to make happen. We got up early on Saturday, grabbed a “birder’s breakfast” (Tim Horton’s muffin and coffee/hot chocolate!) and made the short drive across town under cover of darkness. The geese have been spending nights in a city pond, but consistently fly off within minutes of sunrise to spend the day at a currently unknown location — so the key to seeing them is to be early.

We were able to spot the two Pink-footed Geese, along with more than a dozen Canada Geese, through my Kowa scope while it was still quite dark. Joined by another local birder, we walked along the trail for a closer vantage point and waited for the light to trickle in, eventually enjoying longer and better looks. True to form, the entire flock of geese picked up shortly after sunrise and flew off over the nearby neighbourhood – no doubt to a farm field in nearby Kilbride or Goulds. The hadn’t stayed long enough to allow for decent photos, but our views has been excellent!

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Two Pink-footed Geese have been hanging out with a small flock of Canada Geese in Mount Pearl (just outside St. John’s) since at least October 24. As on most mornings, they flew off before the light got nice enough for decent photos, but still provided some great views.

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Emma celebrating her “lifer” Pink-footed Geese, spotted with the help of my Kowa scope well before the sun came up.

We still had the full morning ahead of us as we arrived back at the car, and were looking forward to some more birding … maybe driving around the local fields looking for the geese or a wayward Cattle Egret (numerous had been reported in eastern Newfoundland the past two days). Suddenly my phone buzzed with a message that an intriguing heron in Renews from the evening before had been confirmed as a mega-rare GRAY HERON and was still there this morning. Emma was gung-ho for the adventure, so we hit the highway south for what has always been one of my favourite birding locations. We chatted non-stop for the 1.5 hour drive (mostly about birds), and Emma even honed her eBird skills by entering a checklist all on her own.

We arrived at Renews to find fellow birder Peter Shelton looking at the Gray Heron on a rock across the inner bay – distant, but well within scope range. Emma was also thrilled to find a Harbour Seal on the rocks much closer to us. Eventually the heron picked up and flew around the harbour, eventually landing a little closer to the road on the other side where we enjoyed somewhat closer views … and met up with lots of other birders as they began to appear. Emma was in her glee enjoying the birds, meeting the other birders (although a little shy, I think she liked the attention she garnered as they youngest birder there!) and trying to photograph a very rare heron.

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My poor record shot of this huge rarity from Europe – a Gray Heron. Very similar to its North American cousin, the Great Blue Heron, it is distinguished using several key features such as clean white (versus rusty) thighs, lack of rufous in the leading edge of the wing, and even more subtle differences in bill and plumage patterns. Even in my less-than-ideal photos you can see the overall gray appearance of this bird, lacking the bluish tones of Great Blue Heron.

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Though pressed for time (afternoon obligations – did I mention our girls are busy?!?!), we made a few quick stops on the drive home enjoying other notable birds such as a beautiful Bald Eagle sitting right beside the road, a late Greater Yellowlegs, and even Emma’s first ever Mourning Dove (not overly common in these parts). All in all, it was incredible morning of birding and one of the most memorable adventures I’ve had the pleasure of sharing with Emma. I think she’s hooked, so I look forward to many more 😉

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Coming down, catching up …

I know, I know … you don’t need to remind me. It’s been a while since I updated this blog.

This summer was incredibly fun … and busy … and fun. Once again, I was privileged to share beautiful birds, nature, places and experiences with many visitors — from spectacular seabird colonies to quiet walks in the forest; from the rugged shores of Newfoundland to migration hot spots in the southernmost reaches of Ontario. Since the beginning of May I’ve led tours in three different provinces (Ontario, New Brunswick and Newfoundland), spent a week exploring our beautiful coast and isolated communities aboard an expedition cruise ship, and of course spent many days showing off the amazing birds, wildlife and scenery of my island home to dozens of BirdTheRock clients and guests. It’s a blessed life.

As the busy summer comes to an end, I’m looking forward to catching up on my photos, sharing the stories, reliving the memories, and planning for many more adventures. Stay tuned! For now, here are just a few of my favourite photos from Summer 2018:

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In early June, 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 Strait of Belle Isle, with Labrador (and our ship) in the background.

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There were so many amazing birding experiences, it’s hard to choose even a few top highlights … but a close encounter with this Short-eared Owl has to be one of them. This magnificent bird circled around us just a few miles north of Cape St. Mary’s Ecological Reserve. What a looker!

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Speaking of Cape St. Mary’s — as always, this spectacular seabird reserve was a favourite with our guests. Words and photos cannot truly capture the awe that I experience every time I visit. If you’ve never been there (or even if you have!), be sure to join me sometime. Our Summer 2019 schedule will be available soon.

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Nothing can prepare you for a visit to Newfoundland’s largest seabird colonies, and I never tire of seeing the look on my guests’ faces as they soak in the spectacle of Witless Bay Ecological Reserve. Hundreds of thousands of Atlantic Puffins, Common Murre, and many other seabirds swarm around us. The incredible numbers in the air and/or on the water is often just as amazing as the  close-up views we enjoy while cruising past the islands.

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Of course, Newfoundland birding is not “just” about the seabirds. Our boreal forests are home to a diversity of birds, and we spent lots of time enjoying them this summer. Some, like this Wilson’s Warbler, only grace us for a few short months and are already heading south for another winter – while many others stay year-round to keep us company in the colder (but equally exciting) months.

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I was especially fortunate this year to co-lead an Eagle-Eye Tours trip in southern Ontario in early May. This tour is timed to coincide with peak songbird migration across the Great Lakes, and we visited migration hot spots such as Point Pelee, Rondeau and Long Point, as well as Algonquin Park. We encountered many migrants and a number of scarce/rare breeding birds in Canada — including several Prothonotary Warblers like this one. A very, very fun birding trip for everyone involved!

Stayed tuned for more photos and updates. In the meantime, follow along on Twitter, Facebook and/or Instagram for regular photos.

And … be sure to join me for an adventure real soon!

 

Very Lost! A Purple Gallinule in Newfoundland

I was leading an Eagle-Eye Tours trip in Ontario (Point Pelee, Rondeau, Long Point & Algonquin) when I first heard the news … a brilliant adult PURPLE GALLINULE was discovered roaming on the Waterford River in St. John’s – just minutes from my house!! Despite the fact I was enjoying awesome birds & birding in some wonderful places, there was still a sting to knowing I was missing such a great bird on my home “patch”.

As luck should have it, this colourful visitor from the south decided to stick around — and I arrived home in plenty of time to catch up with it on May 16. What a stunner!

After missing this bird on my first attempt to see it on May 15, I was very happy to spot this bright purple head poking out of the grass the following morning. What a sight in urban St. John’s!

After a few minutes, this beautiful bird graced me by wandering out of the grass to forage along the river bank, sometimes in plain view and other times disappearing into the grass. It was wary, but not frightened by my presence as I sat quietly nearby.

Purple Gallinules are residents of marshes and other grassy wetlands from the southern United States to South America, so very much out of place on a river in eastern Newfoundland. In fact, before this I had only seen this species in Honduras and Trinidad & Tobago! This individual may have arrived on strong southerly winds of late April, which also brought warm weather and numerous herons/egret to Newfoundland at that time. With its secretive habits, it could easily have went unnoticed for the next few weeks until it was reported by some fishermen on May 12. It seems to be healthy and doing well, still present as of at least May 23 (although I imagine it has struggled with the cold weather of the past 24 hrs as I write this).

Surprisingly, the gallinule even flew up and perched in a tree above the river for several minutes – something I haven’t heard other observers report during its nearly two weeks so far. What a wonderful experience!

Incredibly, Purple Gallinule is a more regular vagrant to our shores than you might expect. This bird represents ~30th record for the island, but the first that has “chasable” by local birders and/or has been seen for more than one day. Most records are in late fall or winter, and the majority of those immature birds that are more prone to vagrancy. Many have been found moribund or already succumbed to the elements and its long journey north. A bright spring adult was a real treat — and a great “welcome home” surprise after my own wanderings!

SEVENTEEN

Whoa … does time ever fly?!?! It’s hard to believe another year has come and gone … but not without lots of adventures. The year 2017 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 17 photos from 2017; chosen to represent just a fraction of the many, many highlights from my year.

I apologize for my lapse in blog posts over the last few months – 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 😉

Like every year, 2017 started off with some excellent winter birding right here in eastern Newfoundland. I had the pleasure of sharing great winter birds such as Dovekie, Thick-billed Murre, White-winged Crossbill, Bohemian Waxwing, Boreal Chickadee and friendly Gray Jays with a number of visiting birders. This photo was taken during the annual WINGS Birding Tour – and you can read more about that in an earlier blog post here.

I also joined Instagram this past winter –  yet another great way to share photos and highlights with people from all over the world. THIS photo of a Dovekie (taken several winters ago) turned out to be my most popular photo of 2017 – not surprising given how much people tend to love these cute little seabirds! Newfoundland is the most reliable place in North America to see Dovekie and a big part of the reason why birders visit here in winter.

I was honoured this year to earn the support of Kowa Optics, and upgraded my worn-out gear with their top quality equipment. I’ve had so much fun using this Prominar TSN-883 spotting scope and Genesis binoculars – and sharing the experience with so many of my guests. The optics are amazing! Stay tuned for an upcoming review of this Kowa swag here on the blog very soon.

In March, I joined Kisserup International Trade Roots and a handful of other Canadian birding and eco-tourism experts on an exploratory “mission” to Honduras (Read the two-part blog series and see LOTS of photos here!!). What I discovered was an incredibly beautiful place with wonderful people, amazing nature and especially birds, and so many opportunities for visiting birders and nature-lovers to soak it all in. Oh … AND we observed more than 250 species of birds along the way! I’m scheming up a Honduras birding tour for the near future – so stay tuned for details!!   (Photo: Spectacled Owl, Rio Santiago Nature Resort, Honduras)

I returned home from Honduras to find Newfoundland in the cold, icy grip of the Arctic. Prolonged northerly winds were pushing Arctic pack ice much further south than usual – encasing the entire northern and eastern coasts, and even wrapping around to fill bays and coves in the southeast. While spring pack ice was a normal part of my childhood growing up on the northeast coast, it rarely reached this far south and some communities were seeing it for the first time in living memory. With the ice came lots of seals (including more northerly Hooded Seals), Polar Bears and even a very wayward Arctic Fox to far-flung places around the island. Birds were impacted too — ducks, loons and other seabirds were corralled into small sections of open water waiting for the ice to move off. The ice lingered so long on parts of the northeast coast that fisheries were delayed or even canceled, adding a very human aspect to this unusual event.

Late winter and early spring can be a challenging time for birding – many of the winter species are beginning to move on, and migration has yet to start. But there are always wonderful things to see, and a mid-March excursion to Cape Race with one group of intrepid clients paid off with this — great looks at one of their “target” birds! This Willow Ptarmigan, sporting transitional plumage, allowed us to get up-close-and-personal right from the car!

Another highlight of early spring was an exceptional few days of gull-watching in St. John’s. Not only did the elusive Yellow-legged Gull (which can be seen here sporadically most winters) become a very regular visitor at Quidi Vidi Lake, but a Slaty-backed Gull was also discovered there. The two images above were captured just minutes (and metres) apart … two very rare gulls entertaining some very happy birders! (March 25, 2017)

The pack ice may have receded as spring wore on, but other visitors from the north took their place. Newfoundland had an excellent iceberg season in 2017 – and one of the early highlights was this mammoth berg that perched itself in Ferryland (an hour south of St. John’s). Photos of this iceberg (including my own) went “viral”, showing up in newsfeeds, newspapers and TV newscasts all over the world. It was just one of many awesome bergs I saw this year … including with many of my clients!

While there was no “huge” influx of European rarities into Newfoundland this spring, there was also no shortage. This European Golden Plover was one of several reported in early May. I was also fortunate to see a Ruff, two Eurasian Whimbrel, and two Common Ringed Plovers this year – AND happy to say that I had clients with me for each and every one! How’s that for good birding?!?!

Perhaps the most exciting bird of the spring (or even year) also came from Europe. This COMMON SWIFT was discovered by Jeannine Winkel and Ian Jones at Quidi Vidi Lake, St. John’s on May 20 – just the second record for Newfoundland and one of only a handful for all of North America. Cool, damp weather worked in our favour throughout the week, with this extremely rare bird sticking around until May 26 and entertaining both local birders and a number of “ABA listers” who flew in from all over North America to see it. Amazing! (Photo: May 23, 2017)

Spring slipped into summer, which of course is the busiest time of year for BirdTheRock Bird & Nature Tours. I was fortunate to host dozens of visiting birders and nature-lovers throughout the summer, sharing the many wonderful sights and spectacles that our province has to offer. This photo of Northern Gannets was taken during the excellent Eagle-Eye Tours “Grand Newfoundland” trip – one of many times I visited Cape St. Mary’s Ecological Reserve this year. This particular tour is a great way to experience the birding and natural highlights of Newfoundland, from St. John’s to Gros Morne National Park and many points in between. I look forward to leading it again in 2018! (Read more about this tour in a blog post from 2016.)

Of course, it’s not “always” just about the birds. During every tour or outing, I make time to stop and enjoy the abundance of other gems that nature has in store. I especially like the wild orchids of mid-summer, and this Showy Ladyslipper was one of nine species we encountered during a fantastic Massachusetts Audubon tour. What an awesome time we had!

Of course, summer can’t be ALL work and no play! (Who am I kidding – my work is always fun!) I made sure to steal some time to explore both new places and old favourites with my family – including the rugged coastlines of Notre Dame Bay where I grew up and my passion for nature first took root!

In August, I had the pleasure of once again leading the Eagle-Eye Tours trip to New Brunswick & Grand Manan. While there are many wonderful places and birding experiences on this tour, one key highlight is seeing the huge gathering of Semipalmated Sandpipers in the world-famous Bay of Fundy. More than 3/4 of the world’s population stop here during migration, and flocks of tens of thousands can often be found roosting on the narrow beach at high tide or swirling over the water. This was my third time leading this tour, and you can read more about it on an earlier blog post here.

As summer fades to fall in Newfoundland, I often turn my attention to migration and the opportunity to find wayward and locally rare species right here on “the rock”. One of the most interesting birds was this very late empidonax flycatcher that showed up in November — well beyond the expected date of normal migrants and reason enough to scrutinize it. Originally found by crack birder Lancy Cheng, I arrived soon after and spent several hours trying to capture diagnostic photos amid the fleeting glimpses it gave. Based on photos from several birders and Lancy’s very important sound recording, this bird was eventually identified as Newfoundland’s first ever Willow Flycatcher! Chalk one up for the perseverance and cooperation of our local birding community!

Winter also started off with a bang, when veteran birder Chris Brown discovered the province’s first Eared Grebe on December 1. Time for birding can be tough to come by for me at this busy time of year – but I managed to sneak in a “chase” to see this mega-rarity. Read more on my blog post here.

My birding year ended on yet another high note: leading my third Eagle-Eye Tours adventure of the year – this time in Trinidad & Tobago! This was my second time leading this amazing tour, and I admit to being totally enamored with this beautiful place. The lush forests, open grasslands, intriguing coastlines … and, of course, the incredible birds and wildlife! This Guianan Trogon was just one of more than 200 species we encountered during the trip – many of which were equally stunning. Stay tuned for an upcoming blog post about my most recent trip — but in the meantime you can check out this three-part series from my last adventure in Trinidad & Tobago. And better yet – join me when I return at the end of 2018!

What a fantastic year! Thanks to the many friends and visitors who shared all these special moments (and many more!) with me in 2017. I’m excited for 2018 and can’t imagine what wonderful experiences it might have in store! Why not join me to find out for yourself?!?!

Wishing you all a happy, prosperous and fun-filled 2018!!