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!

 

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Boxing Day Blow-out

As for many birders across Canada & the USA, Christmas Bird Counts have become an integral part of my holiday season. Since the idea was first introduced in 1900, these counts have become a pinnacle of citizen science, with more than 2000 taking place across North America and a huge database of important data dating back decades in many locations. There are a handful of such counts held across Newfoundland each year, and I have taken part ever since I started birding – often here on the Avalon Peninsula but also in central Newfoundland (where I usually spent the holiday season with my family before recently starting my own).

As every year, the St. John’s Christmas Bird Count was held on Boxing Day (December 26). However, unlike many years, the relatively cold and snowy weather of the past few weeks had a major impact on the results. The actual count day was beautiful – cold, crisp and perfectly clear. The sun shimmered off the fresh white snow and choppy ocean water. There was more than a foot of snow cover in most locations, and all the ponds, lakes and slow moving streams were frozen solid. It was definitely winter, and everything about the birds that were reported at the end of the day said just that. There were no real rarities, no southern stragglers like the few warblers that often get spotted on this count, and very few finches or berry-eating birds (despite great crops of cones & mountain ash).

Despite an otherwise slow count, the St. John's CBC resulted in a new North American record for Tufted Ducks - an increasingly common part of the city's winter scenery!

Despite an otherwise slow count, the St. John’s CBC resulted in a new North American record for Tufted Ducks – an increasingly common part of the city’s winter scenery!

One highlight, however, was the excellent tally of 78 Tufted Ducks – a new record for this otherwise very rare species in North America! They have become a regular wintering duck in the city ponds of St. John’s, with growing numbers arriving each fall. This winter may prove to be a challenging one, however, as they compete with increasing numbers of other ducks around town in what appears to be less open water than most years. Space and food may be at a premium unless a mild spell opens up a bit more of the city’s many ponds.

Bald Eagles have a strong presence in east St. John's, especially in our CBC area that includes Quidi Vidi lake and the landfill (where we saw at least five individuals on this cold Boxing Day morning). - Photo: Jared Clarke (December 26, 2013)

Bald Eagles have a strong presence in east St. John’s, especially in our CBC area that includes Quidi Vidi lake and the landfill (where we saw at least five individuals on this cold Boxing Day morning).
– Photo: Jared Clarke (December 26, 2013)

Other mediocre highlights came from our own team (Bruce Mactavish, Ken Knowles and I), which covered the St. John’s landfill, Quidi Vidi lake, the harbour (the three hot spots for the city’s usually massive gull flocks) and some neighbourhoods in those areas. While overall gull numbers were a bit low, there were hundreds of Glaucous Gulls enjoying the cold winter weather, three Common Gulls hanging out at the harbour along with a couple thousand Iceland Gulls and several dozen Black-headed Gulls. The landfill also held a surprise in the form of eight Lapland Longspurs foraging on the snow-covered ground – a good bird for winter in Newfoundland, and giving amazing looks! Even more interesting was a Red-throated Loon in St. John’s harbour – it, too, was giving great looks as it loafed in the water quite close to shore.

Red-throated Loons are uncommon in most of Newfoundland, especially on the Avalon Peninsula. Seeing this one at close range right in St. John's harbour was a little Christmas surprise. - Photo: Jared Clarke (December 26, 2013)

Red-throated Loons are uncommon in most of Newfoundland, especially on the Avalon Peninsula. Seeing this one at close range right in St. John’s harbour was a little Christmas surprise.
– Photo: Jared Clarke (December 26, 2013)

Although not much to squawk at it in their dull winter plumage, Red-throated Loons are a very elegant bird and always fun to see. - Photo: Jared Clarke (December 26, 2013)

Although not much to squawk at it in their dull winter plumage, Red-throated Loons are a very elegant bird and always fun to see.
– Photo: Jared Clarke (December 26, 2013)

While total numbers of individual birds and species were down this year, it felt like a “proper” day of winter birding – and great way to spend part of my Christmas holiday!