Birds, Berries & Looking Forward in a Time of Uncertainty

Time seemed to move so slowly when the COVID-19 pandemic first settled on our shores. Shutdowns, home-schooling, social distancing, and (for me) a complete absence of visiting birders to share my adventures with. It felt like any semblance of normal might never return. But as things here in Newfoundland & Labrador improved and life began to shift back towards “normal”, time has really flown. I can’t believe it’s been seven months, it’s mid-fall and the first tastes of snow and cold weather are already here again!!

As I mentioned in my last blog post, the silver lining of such an unusual summer was being able to spend more time hanging out and exploring with my family. While their lives have since veered back towards normal — the girls & Susan are back to school, and many of their other activities are starting back up (even if they aren’t exactly as they were) — mine remains quite different. Trips & tours I was excited about are still being cancelled (most recently my annual Trinidad & Tobago tour), and I’m still unable to welcome guests from most of Canada and the world. On the upside, I’ve been using the time to get back to birding basics – exploring new areas, hunting for fall vagrants with old friends, and even scoring a few great finds along the way. Here are a few highlights from Fall 2020 so far …

The first major highlight of fall happened on September 26, during an annual “big day” of sorts. Bruce Mactavish & I were just finishing a lacklustre walk around Cape Race when I flushed a rail from the grass, just inches from my toes. We both got great looks as it flew in a low but long arc — CORNCRAKE!!!! This mega-rare (and extremely elusive) visitor from Europe was at the top of my wish-list – but after narrowly missing the only other modern day record for Newfoundland in 2002, I didn’t believe it would happen again. While we did get another quick look as it flew up again 10 minutes later, there were no chances to get a photo. It was not relocated over the next two days despite a small throng of searchers. I still feel the “buzz” of that moment nearly two months later!
This Great-Crested Flycatcher (Oct 5) was a long-awaited addition to my Newfoundland list. Surprisingly rare on the island, not only did we relocate this one first discovered the previous day – but ended up seeing two more before the day was done!
Yellow-billed Cuckoo is an annual visitor to the island, but one I don’t get to see most years. This one surprised us by flying across the road in front of our van just seconds after my friend Bruce said “This looks like a great spot to find a cuckoo” !! I wish it worked like that more often 😉
While shorebird migration didn’t bring any real rarities, it was a good one for Buff-breasted Sandpipers. This was one of several very confiding birds at Long Beach in late September.

Fall is also a great time to go berry-picking in Newfoundland. I spent several days picking blueberries (September) & partridgeberries (October; my favourite!) in Grates Cove – including a fun weekend getaway with my dad how I don’t get to see often enough.

This Marsh Wren was an added perk of our berry-picking trip to Grates Cove in mid-October – a surprise find, and my first “self found” for the province (~17th record overall).
Another new “self found” bird was this Townsend’s Warbler in Cape Broyle (Oct 26). While very rare overall in eastern North America, Newfoundland has an uncanny history with them – more than two dozen records, with multiple each fall in recent years. I’ve seen close to a dozen, but was still excited find this one on my own at the end of an otherwise slow day of birding.
I took some time during a November outing to Grates Cove to pick some marshberries (aka small cranberry). These very tart fruits are best picked in late fall or early winter.

All that being said, I’m stoked to get back leading tours and sharing Newfoundland’s amazing birds with new people! I’m making plans for a brand new start in January – leaving the weirdness of 2020 behind and striking out on new adventures 😉

Stay tuned for some announcements next week — an exciting new partnership, winter tours and weekend workshops!

I’ve always had a soft spot for this photo of a Slaty-backed Gull (a major local rarity) I took back in 2007 … and now it brings to mind 2020 and the COVID pandemic. Perhaps because I always joked that this bird reminded me of the “Phoenix” rising from the ashes – just like we all (and especially my friends and colleagues in the tourism industry) have to do after this very challenging year. Or, perhaps, because much of 2020 felt like the dumpster fire that is so obvious in this image ;). Rise up we shall!

I am going to steal some words from my last blog post, since they ring just as true three months later: I know many people and families have been impacted by this pandemic in much greater ways than ours, and our hearts go out to everyone who has suffered illness, experienced loss or simply struggled to make ends meet. We pray every day to see the light at the end of this dark tunnel soon. However, if you’re as fortunate as we are to stay safe and healthy, I encourage you to find the silver linings in your own lives and make the most of them. Your smile and positive attitude may be just what the next person you run into needs to see.

Be safe, take care of yourself and those around you, and keep dreaming about that next adventure.