It was an awesome summer with some many highlights … many of which could never be captured with a camera!
It has been an extremely busy summer … which I guess is a good thing when you’re in the ecotourism business 😉 Between Bird⋅The⋅Rock clients and commercial tours with my friends at Wildland and Eagle Eye Tours, I’ve had many opportunities to share the wonderful birds & nature of Newfoundland with visitors from all over the world, as well as lead a fun birding tour in beautiful New Brunswick! With that in mind, I now have a lot of catching up to do – so expect a full summer’s worth of great stories and photo highlights here on the blog over the next few weeks!!
However, the first “catching up” I had to do this week was with a very rare tern that showed up in Newfoundland while I was away. While leading a birding tour in New Brunswick, I received a series of texts about a WHITE-WINGED TERN that had been discovered in Conception Bay South – just 20 minutes from my home! As painful as it was, I soon learned that it seemed to be settled and had some routine habits – a good sign that it might hang around for a few days. Five days later, after concluding the tour, I was headed home and focused on seeing this beautiful bird for myself … until foggy weather in St. John’s forced the cancellation of my flight! Following an unplanned night in Montreal and a reroute through Toronto (my sixth province that month), I finally arrived home on the evening of Tuesday, August 25.
The next morning, I headed straight to Chamberlain’s Pond where the tern was known to feed regularly throughout the day. I scanned the pond and, seeing nothing, stepped out of the car – when THE tern immediately flew in off the ocean and directly in front of me!! It continued to course around the far side of the pond, flying acrobatics and hawking insects off the water’s surface, for about 10 minutes before flying over my head again and out over the ocean, headed towards the nearby marina where it had been originally discovered. I relocated it there a short while later, but it was too far to enjoy or photograph. After some poking around, I found a public access to the long breakwater/sandbar opposite the marina and made the 15 minute stroll along its length to where I had last seen it. It was nowhere to be found, so I waited patiently – until it suddenly appeared out of nowhere and flew by just metres away! Fortunately I was able to raise my camera and snap off a few photos as it glided past – not perfect, but still precious! What a stunning and graceful bird!
Notably, two other exciting birds have been reported recently. A moulting adult YELLOW-LEGGED GULL has been spotted in east St. John’s several times over the past two weeks – a virtually annual visitor here but still a huge rarity for North America in general. Far less expected, a highly probably BLACK-BROWED ALBATROSS was reported by a fisherman near Cape St. Mary’s on August 29 – a huge rarity that we are hoping will be spotted again!
Stay tuned to the blog for a series of reports on our adventures this past summer!
We’ve been watching the winds for the past two weeks, waiting for some European rarities to show up. Eight European Golden Plovers and even a Hobby were spotted in late April by researchers on the RV Celtic Explorer in the middle of the North Atlantic, suggesting that birds were headed our way. Eventually, a Black-tailed Godwit was found on April 29 in the unlikely location of Deer Lake, raising suspicions that more must be out there. But then … nothing.
The winds switched to the south last week, bringing in a swath of regular migrants (yay – spring!), and pretty much dashing our hopes for European gold. So when Bruce Mactavish sent me a text on May 7 to report a stunning drake Garganey in a marsh in east St. John’s, I was a little surprised. Had it arrived earlier on the trans-Atlantic winds, or more recently?? There is a pattern of Garganey showing up in May, and often when the winds would least suggest it. This one would be the fifth record for Newfoundland, all of which were spring males!
It took a couple hours, but I eventually snuck away from work and family obligations to go take a look. It was hiding in reeds several hundred metres from the viewing platform where I stood, at the back of a marsh surrounded by inaccessible industrial yards. When visible, looks were pretty good through a scope but much too far for photos. A few people saw it in closer parts of the marsh over the next two days and managed some record photos, but for the most part it remained a bit elusive. It has not been reported since May 9.
A single European Golden Plover was reported from Carmanville (Gander Bay) on May 11, but otherwise there have been no reports and the usual window is closing now. Sure — a Garganey, Black-tailed Godwit and European Golden Plover is in fact a pretty decent few weeks, but it seems a tad anti-climactic. I guess last year’s show spoiled us!!
I often associate Jaegers with fog. Here in Newfoundland, we most often see them in late summer as they harass the swarms of Black-legged Kittiwake feeding on capelin along our coast – often accompanied by ample fog. In my mind’s eye, I imagine them on their breeding grounds on the sub-arctic tundra, shrouded in moody mist. Heck – I can hardly even picture a jaeger in nice, sunny weather.
So I should not have been surprised to find myself photographing an adult Pomarine Jaeger in the fog this morning. BUT I was surprised … mostly since it was standing just metres away in the middle of a city ballfield, and was the seventh Jaeger I had seen in the city this week!! Very odd, indeed.
The first sign that something unusual was happening came in the form of an email on April 25 … a photograph, taken by Lillian Walsh in St. Lawrence (Burin Peninsula) showing an adult Pomarine Jaeger. It was one of two that she said had been cavorting with gulls in the town harbour that morning. Seeing jaegers at such close range is odd at any time of year in Newfoundland, and especially in early spring when they are usually migrating well out to sea. We have had some moderate onshore (northeasterly) winds this week, but certainly not enough to bother these very seaworthy birds. Maybe this was just one of those strange, one-off occurrences??
Nope. Later that same day we got word of a grounded jaeger in a small green space right in the middle of St. John’s. It must have gotten disoriented in the morning fog and arrived at this unusual location. I relocated the bird an hour or so later … appearing exhausted and possibly with an injured leg. It flew short distances if approached too closely (we attempted to capture it twice, hoping to release it near the ocean), but otherwise seemed unwell. It did fly off on its own accord around dusk, but was unfortunately found dead the next morning.
Since then, more than two dozen jaegers have been reported at widespread locations all over the island’s northeast coast – and there must be many others unnoticed or unreported. At least five jaegers (3 Pomarine, 2 Parasitic) have been hanging out in St. John’s harbour the past two days, resting on gravel flats near an industrial wharf and occasionally harassing the gulls feeding at a nearby sewer outlet. Another was spotted in a mid-city pond and feeding on a Ring-billed Gull carcass (did it kill it???) at a ballfield across the road. Several (including at least one Parasitic, which is even more unusual than Pomarine in April) were hanging out near a fish plant in Witless Bay, sometime appearing sickly. At least one was killed and eaten there by an otter, while another killed by a mink in Port Union (Trinity Bay North).
Why this is happening remains a mystery. The weather alone cannot explain it, since winds have certainly not been “that” strong, and these birds can easily handle much stronger gales. Pomarine Jaegers are regular migrants at sea in April, but Parasitic are not. There has been no sign of starvation in other seabirds such as Black-legged Kittiwake (which jaegers most often harass to steal food from), so a shortage of food is not obvious. The widespread nature of their arrival does not support the idea of a singular environmental incident (e.g. contamination/poisoning). Some of the birds appear relatively healthy, while others quite sick and/or exhausted. Whatever the cause, it is unprecedented in Newfoundland’s birding history, and will go down in the books as “very odd, indeed”.
Keen birders are often watching the forecast, especially the winds. And here in Newfoundland, April is a time to be looking east, waiting for trans-Atlantic winds that might deliver wayward migrants from Europe & Iceland. Winds have been excellent for the past 48 hours or so, and are still blowing onshore along the northeast coast as I write this … prime for the arrival of exciting vagrants like European Golden Plover, Northern Wheatear (both nearly annual here) or something even rarer.
Earlier today, I was alerted to tweet from Nial Keogh aboard the RV Celtic Explorer (a research vessel), indicating that some Golden Plovers (preumably European) were spotted flying west in the mid-Atlantic this morning … way out to sea and headed in our direction. Despite the fact it was more than 1000km away, Newfoundland was still the closest landfall and they were headed this way. Heads up … check your fields and coastal grasslands!!
I also received a text from the unstoppable Alvan Buckley, who had just spotted two Arctic Terns in Renews harbour. This is several weeks early for our usual arrivals, but pretty much on time for those arriving in Iceland. Previous April records (there aren’t many!) have usually coincided with trans-Atlantic winds and were thought to be of European/Icelandic origin, and I expect the same of these.
Interesting winds continue for the next few days … maybe we’re in for a few surprises!! I myself could use a Eurasian Oystercatcher or Meadow Pipit to brighten up the month 😉
Winter is still trying to hang on here in Newfoundland, and its icy grip was felt with a little fresh snow, ice and freezing rain during the first two days of April. But signs of spring ARE starting to pop up – the first bright American Robins singing from the treetops, a handful of refreshed-looking Ring-billed Gulls joining the bedraggled few that stayed around for winter, and the arrival of Black-legged Kittiwakes all along the coast.
One unusual, but not unexpected, sign of spring was a Great Egret spotted on Friday (wayward as they are, a few sometimes arrive on April winds – probably wondering where and how they made such a wrong turn!). The location wasn’t too surprising, either … Long Pond, just a few blocks from our house, is one of the few marshy ponds that are partly open this time of year and has probably seen more egrets than most places in Newfoundland. I managed to find an hour in the late afternoon to go check it out …
My birding time has been limited lately, but I did take some time out last week to go look for a very probable Common Snipe that had been found in Ferryland, hanging out with up to three Wilson’s Snipe. I must have picked the wrong day, since during my four hour stakeout, only two of the four snipe could be found at any of the places I checked – and both were clearly Wilson’s Snipe. The suspicious snipe has been seen since, but remains unconfirmed since confident identification of these two species is complicated and requires photos of underwing details that they are not prone to showing. (Some informative photographs and great discussions about this individual are available on the blogs of Bruce Mactavish and Alvan Buckley, who both spent some time with it.)
I managed to spot two more Wilson’s Snipe on the drive home – one at Tors Cove and another at Bay Bulls. Four snipe on the day, but all of them a tad disappointing!
With two young children, Valentine’s Day has become yet another busy holiday for us. Susan and I are both madly in love, but also practical people … so after surprising her with chocolates and making a heart-themed breakfast for both her and the kids, I settled in to catch up on some work while she took the girls to a Valentine’s party. Some quiet time to be productive …
Until my cell phone whistled with an incoming text message from unstoppable birder Alvan Buckley: “Brown Thrasher at the fluvarium. Now.” Three minutes later, with my work sitting idle on the desk and a freshly poured cup of tea still steeping on the counter, I was out the door. Productivity be damned!
Brown Thrasher is a rare visitor to Newfoundland, with only three or four reports in the last ten years … and it was one I have never managed to see here. Luckily, this one was just five minutes of high-speed driving from my house. I arrived to find a few people milling around on the trail near the fluvarium (at the northeast corner of Long Pond). The bird had been seen a few times but had just flown off. A few more people showed up and we spread out in search of what we knew could be a very elusive bird. Thirty minute later, I saw it flying in over the treetops … it landed briefly alongside the trail before slipping into thick cover and disappearing. Just long enough for an identifying look (tick!), but certainly not satisfying. On borrowed time, I had to leave with hopes of coming back later.
And that I did. After actually accomplishing a little bit of work, I headed back to Long Pond mid-afternoon. Only a few people remained, but they had just located the Thrasher and it was being somewhat cooperative. My first looks were typical of this secretive species – sitting in a tangle of limbs and branches. Eventually it flew in to an area of shoveled deck under the fluvarium, where some feeders had been set up and some seed/mealworms scattered … providing close and wonderful looks. The light was pretty difficult for photography, but over the next hour or so I managed to get some mediocre shots as it came and went. According to a staff member at the fluvarium, it has been around (noticed but unidentified) for a few weeks – so maybe it is settled in and I’ll get another chance for better photos!
Maybe not romantic, but still a great treat! Susan and I ended the day with an impromptu excursion downtown for a hockey game, some live music and a few relaxing drinks with friends. In my books, that all adds up to a wonderful Valentine’s Day.