The Trickling Back of Spring

To most people, spring doesn’t simply “arrive” in Newfoundland. It fights and claws its way back, while winter works like the dickens to maintain its icy grip. April can be like purgatory here on the island – somewhere in between two battling seasons, deceptively mild and promising one minute and bitter cold the next. And this year has been no exception!

WinterStages_9731But to birders, signs of spring start popping up long before the promise of warm weather. Black-legged Kittiwakes and Ring-billed Gulls begin returning to our coast in late March, looking fresh and bright after a long winter abroad. Horned Larks can often be found on coastal headlands and kelpy beaches, waiting for the last patches of snow to disappear on the grassy barrens. Northern Gannets head north from more temperate waters in early April, catching their first glimpse of Newfoundland in more than five months. Common & Thick-billed Murres start rallying for their precious few inches of personal space on the steep breeding cliffs, while Atlantic Puffins begin spring repairs on their family burrows. American Robins, the first harbinger of spring that most people will notice, arrive in the first week of April to show off their bright red breasts and spring melodies. Not to be outdone, Fox Sparrows come in on the same winds and belt out their ethereal tunes. Spring has sprung, despite the lingering snow and yo-yo temperatures. Each and every bird that arrives, unseen as they might be, helps peel back the icy fingers of winter. And I’m ready for that.

The return of Black-legged Kittiwakes is probably the very first sign of spring in Newfoundland, even if they go unnoticed by most people who are still occupied with shoveling snow in late March.

The return of Black-legged Kittiwakes is probably the very first sign of spring in Newfoundland, even if they go unnoticed by most people who are still occupied with shoveling snow in late March.

Horned Lark also begin returning at the very first crack of spring - often the first migrant songbird to return.

Horned Lark also begin returning at the very first crack of spring – often the first migrant songbird to return.

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A growing number of Northern Gannets can be spotted migrating along the coast by the first week of April.

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Spring is a busy time of building and repairing nests, from the smallest songbird to the largest seabird.

Murres may have less distance to travel after a long winter out at sea, but their return is no less notable.

Murres may have less distance to travel after a long winter out at sea, but their return is no less notable.

Real estate is hard to come by in the crowded murre colonies, and spring must be crazy as each pair establishes just a few inches space on a narrow cliff ledge!

Real estate is hard to come by in the crowded murre colonies, and spring must be crazy as each pair establishes just a few inches space on a narrow cliff ledge!

Soon, the famous Atlantic Puffin colonies along our coast will look like this again - alive and colourful.

Soon, the famous Atlantic Puffin colonies along our coast will look like this again – alive and colourful.

Even to non-birders, the return of bright and vocal American Robins is a hallmark of spring in Newfoundland.

Even to non-birders, the return of bright and vocal American Robins is a hallmark of spring in Newfoundland.

For serious birders, spring also bring the potential for rarities that have strayed off the beaten path during migration ... and in Newfoundland, European stragglers make for the most excitement. In 2014, more than 300 European Golden Plovers were reported across Newfoundland in early May - a huge (though not quite record!) invasion of this nearly annual rarity. Will we see any this year??

For serious birders, spring also brings the potential for rarities that have strayed off the beaten path during migration … and in Newfoundland, European stragglers make for the most excitement. In 2014, more than 300 European Golden Plovers were reported across Newfoundland in early May – a huge invasion of this nearly annual rarity. Will we see any this year??

Wrapping-up: The “Euro Invasion” of Spring 2014

It has been a crazy three weeks! It all began when we started noticing strong, persistent northeasterly winds setting up across the North Atlantic in late April – a system that Newfoundland birders hope for at this time of year. Spring migration of European birds over the Atlantic, especially to Iceland & Greenland, is peaking in late April and early May and history has shown that these weather systems can bring wayward migrants to our coasts.

This fun photo, showing a mega-rare Common Redshank with an iceberg backdrop, is a nice reflection for how spring has been in Newfoundland. Cold, beautiful, and extremely exciting!!

This fun photo, showing a mega-rare Common Redshank with an iceberg backdrop, is a nice reflection for how spring has been in Newfoundland. Cold, beautiful, and extremely exciting!!

The "event" started with two Black-tailed Godwits discovered in Renews, and just kept growing over the next two weeks.

The “event” started with two Black-tailed Godwits discovered in Renews, and just kept growing over the next two weeks.

It all started coming together on April 25, when two Black-tailed Godwits were photographed in Renews. The next morning, the first European Golden Plover was discovered in a field just 100m from the godwits. When eleven more were reported from three other locations across the province (Cape Race, St. John’s and Gros Morne National Park), the alarm bells started ringing. With the winds still blasting in from the northeast and a forecast for them to stay that way for the foreseeable future, we knew we were in for an exciting event. And the birds just kept coming …

A Summary of the Spring 2014 “Invasion” (April 25 – May 13)

  • COMMON REDSHANK 2 !! A single bird present at Renews from May 3-13 was joined briefly by a second on May 4.
  • ROSS’S GULL – an adult at Torbay (April 29-30) was completely unexpected and may have caused more local excitement than any other bird this spring.
  • BLACK-TAILED GODWIT – a total of 12 (!!) reported at six locations island-wide.
  • EUROPEAN GOLDEN PLOVER200+ individuals reported from two dozen locations all over the island & SE Labrador … not quite a record invasion, but very very impressive.
  • NORTHERN WHEATEARDozens reported from locations island-wide – and clearly many more went unnoticed.
  • (EURASIAN) WHIMBREL 1 at Cape Spear (May 3)
  • DUNLIN (Icelandic/Greenland race) 1 at Cape Spear (May 3). This may be of the schinzii subspecies which has very few, if any, previous records in North America.
The breadth of the invasion was evident not only in the number of European Golden Plover reported in early May, but also the geographic distribution across the entire east/northeast coast of Newfoundland and southeastern Labrador.

The breadth of the invasion was evident not only in the number of European Golden Plover reported in early May, but also the geographic distribution across the entire east/northeast coast of Newfoundland and southeastern Labrador.

The largest single flock of European Golden Plovers occurred in Goulds (St. John's), where an initial handful of birds swelled to at least 90 in just a few days!

The largest single flock of European Golden Plovers occurred in Goulds (St. John’s), where an initial handful of birds swelled to at least 90 in just a few days!

These European Golden Plovers, part of a flock of nine, were in an unassuming backyard at Old Perlican on the northern tip of the Avalon Peninsula.

These European Golden Plovers, part of a flock of nine, were in an unassuming backyard at Old Perlican on the northern tip of the Avalon Peninsula.

During that time, I have been able to enjoy seeing many of these amazing birds, visit some of my favourite birding locations, and share the experience with many other birders from near & far. I have especially enjoyed birding with a number of keen birders who visited from all over North America to see these incredible ABA rarities … people from Ontario, Maine, New York, Massachussetts, Michigan, North Carolina, Texas & California!!

I was fortunate enough to see six Black-tailed Godwits in four far-flung locations during  the past few weeks - including two at Renews, two in St. Paul's Inlet, one in Goulds and this one at Old Perlican.

I was fortunate enough to see six Black-tailed Godwits in four far-flung locations during the past few weeks – including two at Renews, two in St. Paul’s Inlet, one in Goulds and this one at Old Perlican.

BTGO_May4OldPerlican_9022After a long, cold but very thrilling three weeks, the winds have finally turned southerly and many of our lingering visitors appear to have moved on – hopefully back to their intended destinations of Iceland & Greenland. Regular spring migration is rearing its head now, with a flood of more expected arrivals from down south being reported in the past few days. While the “Euro Invasion” of spring 2014 is winding down, the awesome birds & birding of these past few weeks will remain fresh in our memories for a long time to come … and we’ll always be keeping an eye on the winds!

Northern Wheatears are rare but expected in Newfoundland most springs. However, these winds brought dozens of reports, likely of birds that would have been destined for breeding grounds in Iceland or Greenland rather than northern Labrador.

Northern Wheatears are rare but expected in Newfoundland most springs. However, these winds brought dozens of reports, likely of birds that would have been destined for breeding grounds in Iceland or Greenland rather than northern Labrador.

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However, the real star of the Euro Inasion was a Common Redshank at Renews from May 3-13. Since it represented just the third record (and sixth individual) for both Newfoundland and North America, many birder came from near and far to see it. A second individual presnt at the same location on May 4 was chased off by the first and never seen again!

However, the real star of the Euro Invasion was a Common Redshank at Renews from May 3-13. Since it represented just the third record (and seventh individual) for both Newfoundland and North America, many birder came from near and far to see it. A second individual presnt at the same location on May 4 was chased off by the first and never seen again!

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The striking wing and rump pattern of Common Redshank is very different than the familiar Greater Yellowlegs that were also hanging out at Renews.

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We seem to have said “Good-bye” to this popular visitor, with no reports since May 13 despite plenty of looking. And so winds down this amazing event that has dominated Newfoundland (and North American) birding so far this spring!