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!!

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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!!

Winter 2015-16: Surprises & Usual Suspects

Well – another season of “official” winter birding (Dec 1 – Feb 29) has ended, and another Newfoundland winter bird list is complete. It has been an unusual winter weather-wise, with periodic warm spells and the snow coming and going like the tide in many parts of the island. In fact, looking out my St. John’s window this past week, it looked an awful lot like spring – hardly a patch of snow to be seen anywhere! But despite what the “official” season might say, I’m sure we’re not done with winter just yet – and there are probably more birds to discover before spring actually arrives!

The final tally of 140 species reported across Newfoundland (excluding Labrador) this winter was pretty much right on average. As always, there were lots of exciting surprises and a few (though not many) expected species that failed to make the list. The final list can be found here (while a cumulative list of previous winters can be found here).

Intrepid birder Alvan Buckley produced some of the earliest highlights during a school-related stint on the southwest coast – including the province’s second winter record of Field Sparrow and an equally rare Red-tailed Hawk. A stunning Summer Tanager was frequenting a feeder in nearby Codroy Valley in early December, while a very rare Western Tanager was photographed on the southern Avalon Peninsula on December 6. Unfortunately, the latter was a one-day wonder and disappoint birders who had hoped to connect with it in following days. An Eastern Towhee and Townsend’s Warbler rounded off some locally exciting birds for the first few days of winter birding.

Beverley Hinks shared this photo of a beautiful male Summer Tanager that frequented her yard in late November and early December ... what a stunning winter bird!

Beverley Hinks shared this photo of a beautiful male Summer Tanager that frequented her Codroy Valley yard in late November and early December … what a stunning winter bird!

Around St. John’s, a few dedicated birders managed to keep lingering migrants alive with an incredible effort to keep feeders stocked in strategic locations. A Blue-headed Vireo, Wilson’s Warbler and Yellow Warbler all survived into the cold January weather, while a Pine Warbler, Yellow-breasted Chat, Orange-crowned Warbler and Ruby-crowned Kinglet were still doing well when the end of February rolled by! A Northern Mockingbird and several Baltimore Orioles were also present around the city for parts of the season.

Although rare in Newfoundland, Pine Warbler makes the winter list most years. However, it is unusual for one to make it through the winter. This is the second year in a row that diligent caretakers have helped one survive the coldest season with a generous supply of high-energy food!

Although rare in Newfoundland, Pine Warbler makes the winter list most years. However, it is unusual for one to make it through the winter. This is the second year in a row that diligent caretakers have helped one survive the coldest season with a generous supply of high-energy food!

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This first-winter Sabine’s Gull was a very unexpected surprise … extremely rare anywhere in North America during winter, and pretty much anytime along the coast of Newfoundland.

A Pacific Loon that has been hanging out near St. Vincent’s was relocated several times throughout the winter. Completely off-the-wall was a Sabine’s Gull that was found in the same area on January 31 and lingered for more than a week. This is quite rare from land in Newfoundland, and almost unheard of anywhere along the North American coast in winter! This exciting find was closely followed by a Fieldfare in Lumsden on the island’s northeast coast, and a beautiful Varied Thrush in Rocky Harbour. Both are mega rarities, although the Old World origins of the Fieldfare gave it a slight edge on the excitement scale.

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

This Fieldfare was discovered enjoying late-season Mountain Ash berries (akak “dogberries”) in Lumsden on February 6. Though elusive, several keen birders were able to refind it over the next few days. And don’t worry – I did enjoy better looks than my one poor photo might suggest!

Darroch Whitaker captured this great photo of a female Varied Thrush that had been frequenting his (and a neighbour's) yard in Rocky Harbour in mid-February.

Darroch Whitaker captured this great photo of a female Varied Thrush that had been visiting his (and a neighbour’s) yard in Rocky Harbour in mid-February.

After being “missing-in-action” since mid-November, a/the Yellow-legged Gull returned to its regular haunts in east St. John’s in mid-February and was seen daily for more than a week. A period of unusually warm weather caused ALL the ice on Quidi Vidi Lake (and many other city ponds) to disappear, making gull-watching a little tough for the last week of February. (Narrowly missing the winter list was an adult Thayer’s Gull discovered on March 1 – such solid-looking candidate are actually quite rare in Newfoundland!)

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

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

Several Gyrfalcons were spotted in February – probably the biggest influx in a number of years. Hopefully they continue a bit longer, since it’s been a while for this birder! Snowy Owls were reported in moderate numbers all season, also with an apparent influx in the last half of February.

Plenty of our winter regulars put in great showings this season, too. Tufted Ducks and Eurasian Wigeon were found at their regular locations, while Dovekie were spotted in excellent numbers through most of January. Northern finches such as Common Redpoll and White-winged Crossbill descended on several parts of the island, as did big flocks of Bohemian Waxwings. While resident, Pine Grosbeaks were especially notable as big gatherings were found gorging on late season berries. Missing from the list, but undoubtedly on the island somewhere, were species such as Boreal and Northern Saw-whet Owls, Rock Ptarmigan and Northern Three-toed Woodpecker. One major change from previous years was a huge decrease in the number of Black-headed Gulls wintering in St. John’s – the recent closure of several sewer outflows has had a significant impact on their distribution.

All in all, it was another excellent winter in one of the best places to go winter birding!

WINGS 2016: Winter Birds in Newfoundland

Winter is a fun and special time to go birding in Newfoundland – which is why a group of WINGS tour participants brave the cold weather to visit here every January. This year, four birders (one from Maryland and three friends from California) made the voyage north to explore our rugged island! And I had the pleasure of sharing the wonderful birds & beautiful scenery of the eastern Avalon Peninsula with them. (This is my third year leading this adventure – and it always a great time! Follow these links to read blog posts about the 2014 and 2015 tours.)

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 tour is based out of St. John’s – one of the oldest cities in North America and located at its easternmost reaches. A variety of interesting and exciting species can be found around St. John’s during winter, and this year did not disappoint. Among the nine species of gulls found were Black-headed, Lesser Black-backed and European Mew (Common) Gulls. Rare anywhere else on the continent, we enjoyed dozens of Tufted Ducks, several Eurasian Wigeon and two beautiful Eurasian (Common) Teal amid an array of the more expected North American waterfowl.

Traveling outside the city on several occasions, we enjoyed more exciting birds and stunning coastal scenery. Dovekie is always a key target during this tour and were present in excellent numbers, including a few cooperative birds that lingered just metres away. We also encountered Black-legged Kittiwakes during strong onshore winds – a species not often seen from shore in winter. Purple Sandpipers and Great Cormorants put in an excellent showing, posing on the coastal rocks. Boreal Chickadees, White-winged Crossbills and Pine Grosbeaks gave us amazing looks, as did at least two Northern Goshawks and a very surprised Willow Ptarmigan. It was a fantastic tour with exciting birds, great people, and a wonderful setting!

We wpent a lot of time along the Avalon's rugged but beautiful coast during the week - lots of birds and stunning scenery!

We spent a lot of time along the Avalon’s rugged but beautiful coast during the week – lots of birds and stunning scenery!

Dovekie were no trouble to find this year, which is not always the case! We saw dozens most days, often flying past but sometimes obliging us with closer looks as they fed close by.

Dovekie were no trouble to find this year, which is not always the case! We saw dozens most days, often flying past but sometimes obliging us with great looks as they fed close by.

This photo, from last year's WINGS tours, shows just how cooperative Dovekie can be. We enjoyed several like this during the week.

This photo, from last year’s WINGS tour, shows just how cooperative Dovekie can be. We enjoyed several like this during the week.

Purple Sandpipers were also stars of this year's tour - we found three flocks of 50+ birds, all of which provided excellent views.

Purple Sandpipers were also stars of this year’s tour – we found three flocks of 50+ birds, all of which provided excellent views.

When not seaside, we enjoyed some beautiful walks in the local boreal forest and along streams and rivers.

When not seaside, we enjoyed some beautiful walks in the local boreal forest and along streams & rivers.

White-winged Crossbills have been arriving on the Avalon this month, and provided to be a crowd-pleaser for our participants.

White-winged Crossbills have been arriving on the Avalon this month, and proved to be a crowd-pleaser for our participants.

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The classy looking Tufted Duck is another popular bird for visitors, and we saw more than 40 this past week!

The classy looking Tufted Duck is another popular bird for visitors, and we saw more than 40 this past week!

This drake Eurasian Green-winged (aka Common) Teal was one of two drakes hanging out along a sheltered brook in St. John's. Maybe one day they will be "split" into separate species, as some authorities currently consider them.

This drake Eurasian Green-winged (aka Common) Teal was one of two drakes hanging out along a sheltered brook in St. John’s. Maybe one day they will be “split” into separate species, as some authorities currently consider them.

Another uncommon duck (though of North American origins) was this drake Barrow's Goldeneye spotted among a flock of Common Goldeneye in Spaniard's Bay (CBN).

Another uncommon duck (though of North American origins) was this drake Barrow’s Goldeneye spotted amid a flock of Common Goldeneye in Spaniard’s Bay (CBN).

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Lovely day for a picnic 😉

We also enjoyed several sightings of three species of seal, including this group of Harp Seals.

We also enjoyed several sightings of three species of seal, including this group of Harp Seals.

Gulls are an integral part of the tour, and we spent some time studying the various flocks around St. John's.

Gulls are an integral part of the tour, and we spent some time studying the various flocks around St. John’s.

This photo includes four of the most common species seen around the city - Herring, "Kumlien's" Iceland, Great Black-backed and Lesser Black-backed (1w, front centre) Gulls.

This photo includes four of the most numerous gull species seen around the city – Herring, “Kumlien’s” Iceland, Great Black-backed and Lesser Black-backed (1w, front centre) Gulls. All in all, we found nine species and several interesting hybrids to enjoy!

Black-headed Gulls have suddenly become less abundant following the closure of a large sewer outflow in St. John's, although we did manage o find some at other locations.

Black-headed Gulls have suddenly become less abundant following the closure of a large sewer outflow in St. John’s, although we had no trouble finding some at other locations.

We also relocated an adult Common (European Mew) Gull at a sewer outfall in Conception Bay South - it had been missing from its regular haunts in the city for several days.

We also rediscovered an adult Common (European Mew) Gull at a sewer outfall in Conception Bay South – it had been missing from its regular haunts in the city for several days.

While Great Cormorants are far more abundant here during winter, we managed to find a couple Double-crested Cormorants lingering around the region.

While Great Cormorants are far more abundant here during winter, we also managed to find a couple Double-crested Cormorants lingering around the region.

It was a wonderful week full of great birds, interesting weather, beautiful scenery and (most importantly) a fantastic group of people. I'm already looking forward to next year's WINGS Tour!

It was a wonderful week filled with great birds, interesting weather, beautiful scenery and (most importantly) a fantastic group of people. I’m already looking forward to next year’s WINGS Tour!

 

Yellow-legged Gull & Other Gems of Winter at Quidi Vidi

Quidi Vidi lake, in eastern St. John’s, is the hub of local birding activity during winter (if not all year). The resident ducks are joined by many others as ponds & rivers around the city freeze up, and the small areas of open water at Quidi Vidi can provide great looks and photo opportunities with a a variety of interesting birds. Regular species there include Northern Pintail, Greater & Lesser Scaup, & Tufted Duck, among others. This winter they have been joined by more uncommon birds like a drake Wood Duck and a pair of Ring-necked Ducks. Very unusual have been as many as five Common Mergansers visiting the lake the past two weeks, providing great, close views that are very atypical for this normally wary species.

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

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

Since this morning was the first chance I had to visit Quidi Vidi for several weeks, I was happy to find the mergansers, Ring-necked Ducks and the other divers hanging out there and providing some excellent photo opportunities.

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

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

But my main reason for visiting this morning was to look for the adult Yellow-legged Gull which has been so elusive all winter. It has only been seen a handful of times since it was first discovered in late October, but in had been reported at Quidi Vidi each of the past three mornings. I only had a couple hours before having to return home for family obligations, so I was hoping it stuck to its apparent schedule. And sure enough, at ~9:40am I caught sight of this classy looking gull flying in. It landed on the “beach” at the Virginia River outflow, just 20m or so from where I and a handful of other hopeful birders were set up. I managed some decent photos (despite the fact its legs were consistently obscured by snow and/or water) before it moved further away to rest on the nearby ice and eventually flew off when the rest of the gulls were flushed by an eagle. Great start to the weekend!!

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

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

Note the single white mirror on P10 and the extensive black in the wingtip of this Yellow-legged Gull (especially compared to the Herring Gull wingtip visible at far left). - Photo: Jared Clarke (February 22. 2014)

Note the single white mirror on P10 and the extensive black in the wingtip of this Yellow-legged Gull (especially compared to the Herring Gull wingtip visible at far left).
– Photo: Jared Clarke (February 22. 2014)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Death by Shopping (Bag)

I witnessed something last week that was (to me) both interesting and saddening … a case for reusable shopping/grocery bags if ever there was one.

I had just pulled in at Quidi Vidi lake to enjoy a coffee and scan the gulls from the comfort of my car when there was a sudden, mass flush. Every gull on the lake lifted off, suggeting the arrival of a large raptor – and at Quidi Vidi, that usually means a Bald Eagle. This is a regular occurrence at the lake, where eagles soar in several times a day to look for a free lunch. While it may come as a surprise to some, Bald Eagles can be opportunistic scavengers – we usually see them honing in on an already dead gull rather than actively hunting. That’s why it was a surprise when I glanced up to see an immature eagle banking sharply overhead and making an almost aerobatic dive at a Great Black-backed Gull – and even moreso when it actually struck the gull and drove it down to the ice.

Now, this in itself would not bother me at all – I’m not too soft-hearted to accept that killing and eating is part of nature. In fact, I’d normally feel somewhat honoured to witness this otherwise “rare” event … but not in this case. At that moment, I realized that the poor gull had a plastic grocery bag wrapped around its leg and was not able to fly properly – a sitting duck, so to speak. It didn’t have a chance as the eagle bared down on it … all due to a piece of litter. And there are billions of those plastic death-traps out there, creating all kinds of havoc and causing cruel and unnecessary deaths. We’ve all heard the stories of how they get caught up in bird wings, tangled around the necks of small animals, and swallowed by sea turtles that mistake them for jelly fish. Estimates suggest that nearly a million birds and 100,00 marine animals die from plastic bags each year!!

This unfortunate Great Black-backed Gull was an easy meal for a Bald Eagle, unable to escape with a plastic grocery bag entangled around its leg. It did put up a valiant fight, though.- Photo: Jared Clarke (February 2013)

Despite putting up a valiant fight, this unfortunate Great Black-backed Gull ended up making an easy meal for a Bald Eagle. With a plastic shopping bag entangled around its leg, it was unable to escape an earlier mid-air attack.
– Photo: Jared Clarke (February 2013)

I managed to capture a few photos of this unfortunate gull fighting back, trying its best to drive away the much larger eagle. But with the plastic bag slowing it down as it tried to fly and the injuries caused when it was first pinned to the ice, it was all in vain. It eventually just sat on the ice, and moments later slumped over in defeat – all with the eagle standing watch a few feet away, waiting for lunch to be served. I didn’t have what it took to photograph the rest.

Just one more sad story brought about by human garbage …

… unless of course, you’re the eagle.