2014: Looking Back on a Great Year!

It’s hard to believe that another year has zipped by … and what a year it was! The past twelve months were full of great blessings, highlights and adventures; bringing back some wonderful memories as I sit down now to reflect on them. Amazing birds, extreme weather, fun-filled tours, new friends and even a tropical adventure … 2014 had it all!!

** Be sure to follow the links to earlier blog posts for more details and LOTS more photos!! **

The first bird news for the year was actually a carry-over from 2013 — the invasion of Snowy Owls. Although the large numbers of November and December seemed to have dissipated, reports continued throughout the winter. A few individuals decided to stay, with reports from places like Trepassey, St. Shott’s, Cape Race and Bonavista’s north shore right through the summer. I saw at least one bird in June, July and August! An echo of the 2013 invasion has been taking place this fall/winter, with excellent numbers reported in November and December 2014.

Snowy Owls continued throughout the winter of 2014, following a major invasion the previous fall. This one was photographed in St. John's in early January.

Snowy Owls continued throughout the winter of 2014, following a major invasion the previous fall. This one was photographed in St. John’s in early January.

In January, I was fortunate to host four eager birders on a WINGS Birding tour. We enjoyed prime Newfoundland winter birds like Dovekie, Purple Sandpiper, Tufted Duck, Eurasian Wigeon and thousands of excellent gulls, as well as the very rare COMMON SNIPE that had just been discovered in Ferryland. Several other clients were able to enjoy this bird throughout the winter.

Four enthusiastic birders from across the United States visited St. John's last week as part of the WINGS winter tour. Here they can be seen at Cape Spear, smiling after scoring great looks at two prime targets - Purple Sandpipers and Dovekie!!

Four enthusiastic birders from across the United States visited St. John’s last winter as part of the WINGS winter tour. Here they can be seen at Cape Spear, smiling after scoring great looks at two prime targets – Purple Sandpipers and Dovekie!!

- Photo: Jared Clarke (January 25, 2014)

Equally exciting was the reappearance of our adult YELLOW-LEGGED GULL in February … it had been elusive all winter and not seen at all since December. For several weeks it appeared, almost like clockwork, at Quidi Vidi lake to bathe, drink and loaf on the ice with many other gulls. A number of visiting birders were able to capitalize on this, including several of my clients who had come primarily to “tick” this North American mega.

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 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.

Overall, Newfoundland (and most of North America!) found itself in a deep freeze for much of the winter. With the exception of a week-long thaw in mid-January, it was one of the coldest and snowiest winters in a long time. The extensive ice and limited open water resulted in a big movement of waterfowl, as well as some great photo opportunities with local ducks.

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 last winter became more tolerant of people and allowed some great looks.

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 was hanging out in the relatively small patches of open water at Quidi Vidi in early February.

The frigid temperatures and deep snow also resulted in a handful of small owl reports in residential areas. I even caught sight of a Northern Saw-whet Owl as it flew up from a nearby yard and landed on the wires directly in front of my house – unfortunately it only stayed for a moment. Much more cooperative was a Boreal Owl that showed up in a neighbourhood following a big storm in early February … definitely one of my photo highlights of 2014!

Boreal Owls are definitely one of my favourite birds. They are known for visiting residential neighbourhoods in mid-winter, when deep snow has impacted their traditional hunting areas in "the bush".

Boreal Owls are definitely one of my favourite birds. They are known for visiting residential neighbourhoods in mid-winter, when deep snow has impacted their traditional hunting areas in “the bush”.

March brought with it one of the highlights of my entire year – an escape to Hawaii!! I joined my good friend Jody Allair as co-leader for an Eagle Eye birding tour, where we visited three islands with a great group of birders, saw some of the coolest and rarest birds on earth, swam with sea turtles, and hiked on volcanoes. It was genuinely awesome adventure in one of the most amazing and unique ecosystems in the world. (Be sure to read my earlier blog posts – they are jam-packed with photos!).

This male Akiapola'au, one of Big Island's rarest and most special birds, graced us for almost an hour. Check out that crazy bill!!

This male Akiapola’au, one of Hawaii’s rarest and most special birds, graced us for almost an hour. Check out that crazy bill!! It may have been my favourite birding experience of the entire year!

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Green Sea Turtles are quite common along the Hawaiian coasts, but seeing them was still very special.

Redtailed Tropicbirds also nest on the cliffs at Kilauea Point, and were often seen floating by or engaging in their acrobatic courtships displays.

Red-tailed Tropicbirds were one of many (many!) highlights during the tour!

April can be an exciting time in Newfoundland, especially if we get the right winds … and this year we got them in spades. Prolonged northeasterly, trans-Atlatnic winds in late April and early May brought with them an invasion of European/Icelandic birds … including two COMMON REDSHANKS (only the third North American record), a dozen Black-tailed Godwits, several hundred European Golden Plovers, scores of Northern Wheatear, and a Eurasian Whimbrel.

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!

This Common Redshank at Renews from May 3-13 was (in my opinion) Newfoundland’s best bird of 2014. Since it represented just the third record (and sixth individual) for both Newfoundland and North America, many birders came from near and far to see it.

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.

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.

Photo: Jared Clarke (April 26, 2014)

The “invasion” was first detected by the arrival of two Black-tailed Godwits at Renews in late April. Over the next 2-3 weeks, a record total of twelve were recorded around the island. Incredibly, I was able to see six of them at four locations!

To make things even more exciting, an adult ROSS’S GULL showed up for two days – considered by many to have been the most exciting bird of the entire year!

Summer was busy with tours and visiting birders … all of whom couldn’t have picked a better year to visit! We had great weather, an incredible showing of icebergs, and lots of interesting nature and wildlife experiences! I had the pleasure of leading four tours with my good friends at Wildland Tours, as well as several private clients throughout the summer – all of whom enjoyed great birds, whales, scenery, wildflowers and, of course, icebergs! And no one enjoyed it more than I did!

The icebergs in Bonavista & Trinity Bays were incredible - in number, size and sheer beauty. Some dramatic skies added to the scene at times.

The icebergs along ghe northeast coast this year were incredible – in number, size and sheer beauty. Some dramatic skies added to the scene at times.

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We enjoyed “lots” of great seabirds during the various tours – including the awe-inspiring frenzy of murres and puffins at Witless Bay Ecological Reserve.

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A couple tours lucked into the amazing scene of caplin “rolling” as they spawned on our beaches. In the North Atlantic, these small fish are a big cog in the wheel of life.

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Cape Pine also produced our first Short-tailed Swallowtails of the trip ... they were plentiful at most headlands during the week.

Short-tailed Swallowtails are always a highlight on my tours … this beautiful little butterfly is limited to very small range, mostly on the island of Newfoundland.

Although most were busy gorging on the schools of caplin, a few enetertained us with some beautiful breaches. This one in front of the historic town of Trinity!

Whales put on a great show throughout the summer – like this one breaching in front of the historic town of Trinity!

Subalpine flowers, like these Diapensia lapponica, grow on the sub-arctic tundra of Cape St. Mary's.

Subalpine flowers, like these Diapensia lapponica, grow on the sub-arctic tundra of Newfoundland and are one of many interesting wildflowers seen throughout the summer.

A Little Gull showed up in late July, hanging around for many local birders to catch up with it.

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Little Gulls are quite rare in Newfoundland, and it is especially unusual for one to cooperate and hang around for several days like this one did!

August was very wet in Newfoundland, but I managed to make the most of it – including a great Wildland Tour and lots of family adventures. A major windstorm at the end of August drove thousands of Leach’s Storm Petrels (and other birds) to the bottom of Conception Bay, making for quite a show!

Thousands of Lach's Storm Petrels fluttered over Conception Bay, driven there by the strong wrap-around winds from Tropical Storm Cristobal (August 29).

Thousands of Lach’s Storm Petrels fluttered over Conception Bay, driven there by the strong wrap-around winds from Tropical Storm Cristobal (August 29).

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Our family loves ot spend time together and travel in Newfoundland during the summer. One of our favourite destinations in beautiful Grate’s Cove, where my mother-in-law grew up and she still has an old family home that we love!

One of the most exciting events of the entire year for me had nothing to do with birds – but instead a mammal. In early September, I managed to catch up with a WALRUS that was discovered hanging out on a rocky outcrop at Bay Bulls! I have always wanted to see one of these magnificent animals, and this one did not disappoint! My story of this encounter turned out the be the most popular post on my blog, my photos were shared across the internet and picked up by various media, and the sighting was published in a local journal.

Walrus_Sept22014_7948 Walrus_Sept22014_7866An intriguing Common Gull also showed up in September – one that gave the distinct impressions of the kamchatka race originating from eastern Asia. Bruce Mactavish and I had a great experience after relocating it on a field in Goulds, and its difficult to come to any conclusion except that it was indeed a “Kamchatka Gull“. Unfortunately, it has not been seen since.

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This Common Gull which showed up in and around St. John’s in early fall was unlike any other seen here before. Could it really have been a “Kamchatka Gull” from eastern Asia?? Crazier things have happened.

A very rare Canvasback appeared in St. John’s in October … only the second record for the province and the first in more than 40 years! I managed to see it a couple times before it disappeared a couple weeks later.

This immature Canvasback provides just the second record for Newfoundland, with the last one having been more than 40 years ago!

This immature Canvasback provided just the second record for Newfoundland, with the last one having been seen in the early 1970’s!

Later that month, all eyes were on Hurricane Gonzalo as it churned north over the Atlantic ocean towards us. With dreams of tropical seabirds dancing in our heads, three of us met this huge storm at Cape Race just minutes after the eye had passed a few miles east of us. The rare birds didn’t materialize, but the incredible wave action over the next few hours was more than worth the trip!

IMG_9677 IMG_9607 IMG_9531November turned out to be an important month for Bird⋅The⋅Rock … I launched a new website and Facebook page, heralding a big step into the field of eco- and birding tourism. We also hosted an online contest, with Newfoundland birder Diane Burton winning a beautiful canvas print featuring one of my favourite bird photos! A big THANK YOU to everyone who has supported & encouraged me in this new venture!!

CBNT_CSMNovember is also an interesting time for birds in Newfoundland, and this year was no different. The “star” of the month may have been a Meadowlark that showed up in St. John’s – not necessarily because of its rarity (although it was), but because of its ambiguity. Initial photos seemed to indicate that it “could” be a Western Meadowlark, although lengthy discussions and research proved inconclusive. These species are very cryptic at the best of times, and it seems the lines between them are still quite blurry. Other good birds during the month included a Western Kingbird, Northern Mockingbird and several cool warblers (for which November is best known!).

Terrible Photo(s) #1 - A Meadowlark (Eastern? Western?) that was discovered in St. John's on November 7. It was seen over the next few days, but the cryptic nature of this bird and its plumage means we may never know which species it was!

A Meadowlark (Eastern? Western?) that was discovered in St. John’s on November 7. It was seen over the next few days, but the cryptic nature of this bird and its plumage means we may never know which species it was!

This Pine Warbler, photographed in St. Shott's a few years ago, was making good use of the late fall flies. Pine Warblers are another hardy warbler that get reported more often in November than any other month in Newfoundland.

Pine Warblers are a hardy warbler that get reported more often in November than any other month in Newfoundland.

December was relatively mild across the province, which led to some comfortable (and interesting!) birding during the first few weeks of Christmas Bird Count (CBC) season. I was fortunate to take part in the Cape St. Mary’s and St. John’s CBCs … read the blog posts for more details!

It is surreal to see Bird Rock (left) completely devoid of birds this time of year, when it is bustling with thousands of gannets during spring and summer. Here, John & Ed enjoy a mid-morning seawatch while I hiked over the eastern ridge.

Cape St. Mary’s looks very different in winter (like during this Christmas Bird Count) compared to summer when it is bustling with life.

This drake Long-tailed Duck (locally called "hounds") was feeding at the end of a breakwater in St. Bride's. Between dives, I managed to sneak up quite close by edging along on the piled boulders.

This drake Long-tailed Duck (locally called “hounds”) was feeding at the end of a breakwater in St. Bride’s during the Christmas Bird Count. Between dives, I managed to sneak up quite close by edging along on the piled boulders.

And so ended another year … we said a fond farewell to 2014 and toasted the arrival of 2015 while visiting my family in Lewisporte (central Newfoundland). So, from me and my family to you & yours

Happy New Year!

May the next twelve months bring you lots of joy, peace and outdoor enjoyment – wherever they find you!

 

 

 

 

Dump Nostalgia

The St. John’s Christmas Bird Count (CBC) takes place on Boxing Day (December 26) every year; rain, snow or shine. This season’s count was met with relatively warm (above freezing) temperatures, early morning rain/fog, and then beautiful clear weather. It was stark contrast to last years which saw more than 50cm of standing snow on the ground and frigid temperatures! This was the 49th year for this particular count, and I’ve been taking part for the past six (ever since I got married and stopped spending the holidays in my hometown of Lewisporte).

I look forward to every CBC that I’m able to participate in, but there is something special about this count … the dump! Each year I join my good friends Bruce Mactavish & Ken Knowles to cover the gull hotspots in east St. John’s – the local landfill (dump), Quidi Vidi Lake and the harbour. The dump is especially important and very nostalgic for me – bringing back memories of some great gull-watching that I used to enjoy with Bruce almost every Sunday morning in winter. There have been many changes at the St. John’s dump in the past six years, including increased security and inaccessibility to birders. Nowadays, our visits to the dump are limited to just one day a year when the city allows us entry for the CBC.

Dump_1774 Dump_1780While world-class gull-watching is not limited to the dump (it is in fact available at many locations across the city), it always offered the best opportunities to view large numbers of gulls at very close proximity and was great for photography. New gull deterrence programs at the dump have resulted in the gulls being much more wary of people and those close-up photography opportunities might be a thing of the past, but the sheer number and great looks at gulls haven’t changed much. We tallied approximately 9000 gulls at the dump alone, the majority of which were Herring Gulls but also included thousands of Great Black-backed Gulls, hundreds of Glaucous Gulls, dozens of “Kumlien’s” Iceland Gulls and nine Lesser Black-backed Gulls, along with a few interesting hybrids. Thousand of Starlings, hundreds of American Crows, a few dozen Common Ravens,  several Bald Eagles and two very unexpected Lapland Longspur added to the mix. Unfortunately no real rarities showed up during our three hours of intensive looking. But just being there was a real treat and whets my appetite for the best part of gull season ahead!

Glaucous Gulls are a sure sign of winter in Newfoundland ... even if the weather says different. This adult was photographed at the dump back in the days when we were able to get in more regularly.

Glaucous Gulls are a sure sign of winter in Newfoundland … even if the weather says different. This adult was photographed at the dump back in the days when we were able to get in more regularly.

Moving on to Quidi Vidi Lake and the harbour, we tallied many more of the same species (especially Iceland Gulls, which love our harbour), plus 75 Black-headed Gulls, three Ring-billed Gulls and two Common (European Mew) Gulls. We also tallied plenty of waterfowl, including eight Eurasian Wigeon and six American Wigeon grazing on a golf course, a lone Bufflehead (unusual in the city), two American Coots and the regular crowd of dabbling ducks. With mild weather and plenty of open water, the diving ducks were spread out over other parts of the city. A single Black Guillemot and seven Great Cormorants were also hanging out in the harbour.

The complete lack of snow in St. John's this Christmas is unusual, especially compared to the deep freeze we experienced last December!

The complete lack of snow in St. John’s this Christmas is unusual, especially compared to the deep freeze we experienced last December!

Great Cormorants are regular in St. John's during winter, but with such nice weather we were almost lucky to still find some in the harbour!

Great Cormorants are regular in St. John’s during winter, but with such nice weather we were almost lucky to still find some in the harbour! (This one photographed last winter)

Our beat turned up nothing but the most expected passerines – Dark-eyed JuncosAmerican Goldfinch, Boreal & Black-capped Chickadees, a couple Song Sparrows and one Golden-crowned Kinglet. Even a walk in the forested White Hills cam up pretty much empty. Perhaps the weather has been just a little “too nice”, allowing the birds to remain spread out rather than concentrated in areas like ours.

BTR_ChristmasBannerAnother Christmas, and another Christmas Bird Count, has zipped by. We’ll be spending the rest of the holidays visiting family in Lewisporte – maybe I’ll bump into a good bird or two along the way!

Happy New Year!!

 

Hurricane Gonzalo – Big Waves, No Birds

Hurricane birding at Cape Race. The weather cleared quickly as Gonzalo churned past just east of us, but the waves were spectacular!

Hurricane birding at Cape Race. The weather cleared quickly as Gonzalo churned past just east of us, but the waves were spectacular!

It was 0530 this morning when Ian Jones and Bruce Mactavish (aka “one of North America’s most renowned birders”!) picked me up at home. Hurricane Gonzalo was churning just SE of Newfoundland and radar indicated it would zip past Cape Race in just over an hour. Our plan was to meet it there!

Gonzalo, still a Category 1 hurricane, ripped by just miles east of Cape Race in the early morning hours of Sunday, October 20. We were there to meet it.

Gonzalo, still a Category 1 hurricane, ripped by just miles east of Cape Race in the early morning hours of Sunday, October 20. We were there to meet it.

It was a two hour run, and we made great time considering the driving, horizontal rain. The winds were picking up fast, first gusting from the east and north east as the storm approached us, but by the time we reached Portugal Cove South (just 21 km from Cape Race), they had switched around to the northwest – a clear indication that the eye had passed north of us.

Long story short, we arrived at Cape Race to clearing weather and high winds (gusting to 100km/h). We spent the next few hours scanning the water hoping for subtropical seabirds dragged up by Gonzalo, but were sadly disappointed. Good numbers of local seabirds like Northern Gannet, Black-legged Kittiwake and White-winged Scoter were battling the wind and waves, but nothing out of the ordinary. Later in the day we checked out points further west and southwest – Cripple Cove, Portugal Cove South, Trepassey, St. Shott’s and Point LaHaye — all offering up the same disappointing results.

Two significant, and disappointing, factors made Hurricane a bust when it came to birds. First, they eye of the hurricane passed by just east of Cape Race instead of making landfall. Any subtropical seabirds in its midst may have carried on NE with the storm rather than falling out along our coast. Secondly, while the winds looked good initially (see the 3am windmap above), they quickly turned to the northwest as the eye passed Cape Race (see 9am windmap), resulting in offshore winds that would have kept seabirds offshore and out of our sight.

Two significant, and disappointing, factors made Hurricane a bust when it came to birds. First, they eye of the hurricane passed by just east of Cape Race instead of making landfall. Any subtropical seabirds in its midst may have carried on NE with the storm rather than falling out along our coast. Secondly, while the winds looked good initially (see the 3am windmap above), they quickly turned to the northwest as the eye passed Cape Race (see 9am windmap), resulting in offshore winds that would have kept seabirds offshore and out of our sight.

However, the wave action was incredible, with waves that must have been 15+ metres at times rolling, breaking and crashing in spectacular fashion. This is one of the most amazing coastlines in the world, and seeing it in this way just made it better!

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Cape Race shortly after sunrise and the passing of Hurricane Gonzalo.

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Bruce Mactavish (“one of North America’s most renowned birders”) enjoys the action.

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Ian Jones trying to see some rare seabirds through a wall of water!

These pics may be a bit deceiving – but our vantage for these photos was actually on a clifftop probably 10+ metres above sea level, and the waves were often crashing above our eye level!!IMG_9448 IMG_9456 IMG_9457 IMG_9473 IMG_9491 IMG_9492 IMG_9502 IMG_9512 IMG_9518 IMG_9525 IMG_9531 IMG_9543 IMG_9545 IMG_9554 IMG_9571 IMG_9575 IMG_9580 IMG_9604 IMG_9607 IMG_9629 IMG_9637 IMG_9662 IMG_9676 IMG_9677 IMG_9687 IMG_9695 IMG_9698 IMG_9737 IMG_9754

Storm a-brewin’ (Gonzalo)

B0JBa6OIQAA8dKQLike most places, weather is often the topic of conversation in Newfoundland. And never more than when a storm is barreling at us. Gonzalo, which as I write is currently a Category 4 hurricane bearing down on Bermuda ~2000 km SSW of us, is the talk of the town this week.

Forecast track of Hurricane Gonzalo (as of this morning, Fri Oct 17).

Forecast track of Hurricane Gonzalo (as of this morning, Fri Oct 17).

Hurricane Gonzalo is the largest hurricane this season, and the first to reach Category 4 status since 2011 (Ophelia). It is a monster that is forecast to continue churning NNE, with most models predicting it will weaken to a Category 1 hurricane or tropical storm before passing just SE of Cape Race early Sunday morning. That track will likely spare us the worst of the damaging winds (which are east of the eye), but we can still expect substantial rain. With memories of the damage caused by Hurricane Igor still fresh in most people’s minds, many people in eastern Newfoundland are feeling a little trepidation. Igor took an eerily similar path as Gonzalo is predicted to make, making landfall near Cape Race on September 21, 2010. At least one model is still holding out on a more westerly path, taking the eye of Gonzalo over land, as well. (Fortunately, some meteorological difference between these two storms suggest that Gonzalo may not pack the same destructive punch as Igor even if it does make landfall.)

According the the National Hurricane Centre (NHC), there is currently a 20-40% chance of tropical storm-force winds over the Avalon Peninsula on Sunday morning. Combined with heavy rain, we could be in for some nasty weather!

According the the National Hurricane Centre (NHC), there is currently a 20-40% chance of tropical storm-force winds over the Avalon Peninsula on Sunday morning. Combined with heavy rain, we could be in for some nasty weather!

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The track taken by Hurricane Igor in September 2010. This was the most destructive hurricane on record in Newfoundland, causing one death and resulting in ~$200 million in damages.

While no one in their right mind (or me, for that matter!) would hope for a threatening storm like this to hit the island, hurricanes do peak the interest of birders. The strong cyclonic winds are known for picking up and carrying birds to far-flung places, and the remnants of hurricanes and tropical storms have a history of dropping off major rarities in the Maritimes and Newfoundland. In terms of potential for rare birds, I would probably prefer a hurricane that swings much further west before reaching Newfoundland, skimming the eastern seaboard of the United States and picking up an abundance of birds like gulls, terns and seabirds. (Larger, strong flying birds like these are best known for arriving after a hurricane … smaller birds are not likely picked up as easily, or at least do not survive the wicked ride). Hurricane Helene took such a path in September 1958, dropping off dozens of Black Skimmers at Burgeo – the only record for the province. Hurricane Wilma (October 2005) was credited with bringing large numbers of Chimney Swift, Swallows, two dozen Laughing Gulls, two Franklin’s Gulls, a Gull-billed Tern and a Black-necked Stilt to southern portions of the island. As often happens, the Maritimes received an even larger number and array of storm waifs – including several Magnificent Frigatebirds!

The more westerly track of Hurricane Helene, which brought dozens of Black Skimmers to Newfoundland ... and who knows what else?!?! Very few hurricanes have a trajectory like this.

The more westerly track of Hurricane Helene, which brought dozens of Black Skimmers to Newfoundland … and who knows what else?!?! Very few hurricanes have a trajectory like this.

Hurricanes like Gonzalo, which stay well out to sea, have less potential for bringing large numbers of such birds. They do, however, have an opportunity to pick up a variety of seabirds that would make my mouth water. Passing over Bermuda and tropical Atlantic waters, gems like Tropicbirds (White-tailed and Red-billed), pterodroma Petrels, and pelagic terns are not out of the question. Hurricane Florence, which took a path similar to Gonzalo’s in 2006, brought a White-tailed Tropicbird (found dead just 300m from my university office at the time!) and the province’s third ever Least Tern (found by a team of birders that included yours truly!). Other storm taking similar paths have turned out to be a bust, producing little or nothing in the way of unexpected birds.

I think I'd vomit if I saw one of these fly over my head following the hurricane on Sunday, but it's a real possibility. Whether I'll get out to look for one is another question! (Photo taken in Hawaii)

I think I’d vomit if I saw one of these fly over my head following the hurricane on Sunday, but it’s a real possibility. Whether I’ll get out to look for one is another question! (Photo taken in Hawaii)

What will Gonzalo bring?!?! Let’s hope for great birds and no damage, eh?

Making the Best of a Wet August

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There’s an old adage in St. John’s that summer ends after Regatta Day (the famous rowing races held here on the first Wednesday of August). While that hasn’t really been my experience, this year it held true. Very true. While July was one of the hottest (and driest) months on record for the city, August turned out to be among the wettest and coolest! The rain started on Regatta Day (Aug 6) and hardly let up for the next few weeks. Temperatures rarely climbed out of the teens and sometimes dipped down to single digits, and there were only 5 days without rain the entire month!

But what odds? A little rain, drizzle & fog hasn’t stopped me from enjoying life before, and neither would it now. I started the month by spending some quality time with my father and two little girls (while all the women in our family were traveling in Ireland!), including a few days in Grates Cove, a visit to beautiful Cape Spear and lots of other fun. In fact, those first few days of August were the hottest days of summer, with temps in the mid-thirties!

CapeSpear_EmmaLeslie_6030 CapeSpear_EmmaLeslie_6059On August 5, I headed off to start my last tour of the season — a Wildland’s “Newfoundland Adventure” Tour that had just one guest, a Canadian currently living abroad in Holland and making her first foray to Newfoundland. It was a great week as we enjoyed amazing scenery, tons of whales, historical walks, and even a close-up moose … all while dodging the fog and rain that had begun its big invasion!

Beautiful flowers, such as these White-fringed (left) and Ragged-fringed (right) Orchids were blooming in roadside bogs during our drives.

Beautiful flowers, such as these White-fringed (left) and Ragged-fringed (right) Orchids were blooming in roadside bogs during our drives.

We encountered a Snowy Owl sitting on the barrens near St. Shott's - an unusual sighting here in mid-summer but one of several known to have lingered after last fall's big invasion.

We encountered a Snowy Owl sitting on the barrens near St. Shott’s – an unusual sighting here in mid-summer but one of several known to have lingered after last fall’s big invasion.

We encountered our first fog at Cape St. Mary's, although it moved off during the morning to reveal a beautiful day.

We encountered our first fog at Cape St. Mary’s, although it moved off during the morning to reveal a beautiful day.

Subalpine flowers, like these Diapensia lapponica, grow on the sub-arctic tundra of Cape St. Mary's.

Subalpine flowers, like these Diapensia lapponica, grow on the sub-arctic tundra of Cape St. Mary’s.

Small Purple-fringed Orchids were also in bloom at Cape St. Mary's - often hiding amongst patches of longer grass.

Small Purple-fringed Orchids were also in bloom at Cape St. Mary’s – often hiding amongst patches of longer grass.

A young bull moose graced us by allowing us to get quite close, although he seemed reluctant to share his lunch ;)

A young bull moose graced us by allowing us to get quite close, although he seemed reluctant to share his lunch 😉

The other moose we enjoyed during the tour was on our plates -- this burger served with delicious partridgeberry ketchup at the Bonavista Social Club.

The other moose we enjoyed during the tour was on our plates — this burger served with delicious partridgeberry ketchup at the Bonavista Social Club.

Icebergs in August are pretty unusual, but this has been an exceptional year. This one in Bonavista Bay was the last one I'll see this year.

Icebergs in August are pretty unusual, but this has been an exceptional year. This one in Bonavista Bay was the last one I’ll see this year.

Whales were plentiful in Trinity Bay, and we enjoyed close encounters with twenty or more Humpbacks during our two zodiac trips with Sea of Whale Adventures.

Whales were plentiful in Trinity Bay, and we enjoyed close encounters with twenty or more Humpbacks during our two zodiac trips with Sea of Whale Adventures.

Although most were busy gorging on the schools of caplin, a few enetertained us with some beautiful breaches. This one in front of the historic town of Trinity!

Although most were busy gorging on the schools of capelin, a few entertained us with some beautiful breaches. This one in front of the historic town of Trinity!

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The last day of the tour was spent exploring the beautiful and historic sites of St. John's, North Americas oldest city.

The last day of the tour was spent exploring the beautiful and historic sites of St. John’s, North Americas oldest city.

The rest of the month was family-time – much of it spent hanging out together in Grates Cove. We are fortunate that my wife’s family has an old home there, at the northern tip of the Avalon Peninsula, where we can get back to basics and connect a little with nature, history and each other.

The ruggedness of the sea, coast and barrens at Grates Cove are always a treat. We're fortunate to be able to spend so much time there.

The ruggedness of the sea, coast and barrens at Grates Cove are always a treat. We’re fortunate to be able to spend so much time there.

It was nice to see the first Partridgeberries turning red on the barrens, although it was the blueberries that got most of our attention in August.

It was nice to see the first Partridgeberries turning red on the barrens, although it was the blueberries that got most of our attention in August.

It was interesting come upon some Burying Beetles (Nicrophorus sp) at work alongside one of my favourite walking trails.

It was interesting to come upon some Burying Beetles (Nicrophorus sp) at work alongside one of my favourite walking trails.

The last of our orchids to flower, Hooded Ladies Tresses, were popping into bloom in mid-August.

The last of our orchids to flower, Hooded Ladies Tresses, were popping into bloom in mid-August.

More abundant, but less splendid, was Gall of the Earth - an odd flower that looks sickly even when its in full bloom!

More abundant, but less splendid, was Gall of the Earth – an odd flower that looks sickly even when its in full bloom!

We also visited the Mini Aquarium at Petty Harbour. Although the girls have been there twice with their aunt (my sister), it was my first time … and it was fun. I’ll include some more photos and details in another post …MiniAquarium_Emma_6933 MiniAquarium_Leslie_6935Finally, August ended with more rain as Tropical Storm Cristobal passed south of Newfoundland. More importantly, the wrap-around winds produced by this storm came from the northeast, blowing thousands of Leach’s Storm Petrels into the bottom of Conception Bay. I arrived at Holyrood late in the day, finding the bay alive with fluttering petrels, and a steady stream of them buzzing by at close range as the blasting winds forced them right in over the beach and road. (I’ll do a separate post on this event soon!)

Thousands of Lach's Storm Petrels fluttered over Conception Bay, driven there by the strong wrap-around winds from Tropical Storm Cristobal (August 29).

Thousands of Leach’s Storm Petrels fluttered over Conception Bay, driven there by the strong wrap-around winds from Tropical Storm Cristobal (August 29).

A Few Days in July

This past July was one to remember in Newfoundland … one that was great not only for the tourists who soaked in the great weather, massive icebergs, and frolicking whales but also for us locals who got to enjoy it ALL in our own backyard (literally, for some!). July was packed with amazing weather from start to finish – sometimes a little too amazing. It turned out to be the hottest month on record for much of the island, including here on the northeast Avalon.

LIGU_July312014_5831July ended with a bang for local birders, when Bruce Mactavish discovered an immature Little Gull hanging out in a sheltered bay at Mobile (just 30 minutes south of St. John’s). I was among the first on the scene, enjoying great looks at a bird that has always managed to elude me on this side of the Atlantic. They are only recorded every few years in Newfoundland, usually at some far-flung location and/or on the move, never to be seen again. The fact that this one stayed around for several days, feasting on the plentiful capelin and entertaining birders, was both surprising and appreciated!

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My two inquisitive daughters check out what's lurking in the tidal pools at Fox's Dock, near Lewisporte.

My two inquisitive daughters check out what’s lurking in the tidal pools at Fox’s Dock, near Lewisporte.

But, let me take a few steps back and recap some of the other wonderful moments I was able to enjoy out in nature. After finishing up a busy few weeks of nature tours and bird guiding, I took much of July to hang out with my family. One of our my first adventures was to pack up and take my two little girls to visit my parents in Lewisporte (Notre Dame Bay) – the first time I’ve really done something like that without my incredible wife, who was incredibly busy taking classes for her Master’s program and needed the break from parenting! During out little vacation, we visited relatives, went exploring at a local beach, and had lots of fun doing family stuff. I even took advantage of having “Grandma & Poppy” around to sneak out and do a little exploring on my own.

We must have missed the capelin spawn by just a few hours -- although there was no sign of any fish at Fox's Dock, the beach itself was completely covered in eggs!

We must have missed the capelin spawn by just a few hours — although there was no sign of any fish at Fox’s Dock, the beach itself was completely covered in eggs!

A close-up of the capelin eggs. Huge schools of these amazing fish "roll" in with the tide and deposit thousands of eggs each - a spectacle that takes place on rocky/sandy beaches all over Newfoundland.

A close-up of the capelin eggs. Huge schools of these amazing fish “roll” in with the tide and deposit thousands of eggs each – a spectacle that takes place on rocky/sandy beaches all over Newfoundland.

A hot afternoon walk around a local pond helped me find a few early blossoms of Small Purple Fringed Orchid (Platanthera psycodes) hiding amongst the grass.

A hot afternoon walk around a local pond helped me find a few early blossoms of Small Purple Fringed Orchid (Platanthera psycodes) hiding amongst the grass.

Also hiding amongst the grass were some Green Frogs.

Also hiding amongst the grass were some Green Frogs …

 ... and lots of lovely dragonflies, most of which I had no chance of identifying!

… and lots of lovely dragonflies, most of which I had no chance of identifying!

Butterflies were also plentiful, including a few White Admirals. I found these to be more plentiful than in most years, but not nearly as abundant as Milbert's Tortoiseshells which were by far the most common butterfly on the wing that week.

Butterflies were also plentiful, including a few White Admirals. I found these to be more plentiful than in most years, but not nearly as abundant as Milbert’s Tortoiseshells which were by far the most common butterfly on the wing that week.

Another solitary stroll took me to a local bog which I had found to be full of orchids late last summer. This year, visiting a full month earlier, I found an abundance of beautiful Rose Pogonia (Pogonia ophioglossoides).

Another solitary stroll took me to a local bog which I had found to be full of orchids late last summer. This year, visiting a full month earlier, I found an abundance of beautiful Rose Pogonia (Pogonia ophioglossoides).

Far less common in that bog were Clubspur Orchids, understated and easily overlooked in the tall vegetation.

Far less common in that bog were Clubspur Orchids (Platanthera clavellata), understated and easily overlooked in the tall vegetation.

Common Ringlets were also plentiful around Lewisporte ...

Common Ringlets were also plentiful around Lewisporte …

... as were European Skippers. These were my "first of the season".

… as were European Skippers. These were my “first of the season”.

Evening light at one of our favourite picnic spots.

Evening light at one of our favourite picnic spots.

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Family fun continued after we headed back to St. John’s — even when it meant convincing them all to join me on yet another nature walk 😉  We all headed to MUN Botanical Gardens, where we (somewhat) escaped the heat with a stroll through the shaded forest. The girls had a great time solving a series of animal riddles posted along the trail, while I managed to track down a single stem of an orchid I had been searching for.

Spotted Coralroot (Corallorhiza maculata)

Spotted Coralroot (Corallorhiza maculata)

GratesCoveWash_5128Once Susan finished her classes, we headed out to Grate’s Cove for a few days.  Whales were busy feeding all around the cove, even breaching occasionally. Harebells were in full bloom all over the barren landscape, and the first Whimbrel of the summer were sailing overhead – a harbinger of fall shorebird migration. I even managed to sneak away for a few hours to hike a short trail and explore some local bogs that I’ve been eying curiously for some time now.

A hoard of young warblers, including this Black & White Warbler, was gathered at the entrance of a walking trail in Old Perlican. It was nice to see so much activity in one small area - a sign of things to come as the birds gear up for fall migration.

A hoard of young warblers, including this Black & White Warbler, was gathered at the entrance of a walking trail in Old Perlican. It was nice to see so much activity in one small area – a sign of things to come as the birds gear up for fall migration.

Pitcher Plants were in full glory, dotting the landscape and every wet patch in the area.

Pitcher Plants were in full glory, dotting the landscape and every wet patch in the area.

Dragonsmouth Orchid (Arethusa bulbosa) was fairly common on the bog I trekked across between Old Perlican and Grates Cove.

Dragonsmouth Orchid (Arethusa bulbosa) was fairly common on the bog I trekked across between Old Perlican and Grates Cove.

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Grasspink (Calopogon tuberosus) was far less obvious – I only found two while wandering around in a large bog where I might have expected far more.

Dragonsmouth_July20_4920 Grasspink_July20_4955 Grasspink_July20_4948

Bog Coppers are beautiful little butterflies that I often overlook (or mistake for something else) ... this one posed nicely beside a pond in Old Perlican.

Bog Coppers are beautiful little butterflies that I often overlook (or mistake for something else) … this one posed nicely beside a pond in Old Perlican.

A nice patch of Water Lobelia (Lobelia dortmanna) was growing along the sandy edge of a pond in Lower Island Cove, where we stopped for a picnic on the way back home.

A nice patch of Water Lobelia (Lobelia dortmanna) was growing along the sandy edge of a pond in Lower Island Cove, where we stopped for a picnic on the way back home.

WaterLobelia_July22_5206As I said – definitely a July to remember.

The “First Day of Winter”

Is the relatively early onset of winter weather this year a harbinger of a long, snowy season ahead??

Is the relatively early onset of winter weather this year a harbinger of a long, snowy season ahead??

Today may traditionally be known as the “first day of winter”, but winter truly descended on Newfoundland weeks ago. Cold weather moved in during the first three days of December, and temperatures have been at or below freezing most of the time since. We have had several significant snowfalls in the first three weeks of December, and the entire island is blanketed in snow – even in relatively milder St. John’s which has seen plenty of green Christmases since I moved here sixteen years ago. In fact, this has been the snowiest December (most snow on the ground) since the winter of 2000-2001, which saw record-smashing snowfalls here on the Avalon peninsula.

An early morning with snow and ice on North America's easternmost rocks at Cape Spear.

An early morning with snow and ice on North America’s easternmost rocks at Cape Spear.

And while the Newfoundland winter bird list is almost on par with other years, actual bird reports for most of the month have been more like February than December when compared to recent years. Frigid weather has resulted in very few lingering migrants, especially warblers, that often get recorded in early winter. Early snow has blocked access to some locations including Cape Race and Cape St. Mary’s, forcing the cancellation of two key Christmas Bird Counts.

SNOW_Dec7_8284In true winter fashion, the biggest birding news so far has been the incredible invasion of Snowy Owls, with as many as 300 having been reported on the southeast Avalon in a single weekend. Newfoundland’s first Virginia’s Warbler survived long enough to make the winter list (last reported December 2), while a lingering Great Egret in northeast St. John’s braved freezing temperatures until at least December 11. And a Purple Gallinule found recently dead in a Clarenville backyard was about as close to southern flavour as we’ve gotten so far this season … and its untimely arrival was likely due to wintery weather in its own backyard. A Forster’s Tern at Renews on December 7 was only the seventh for Newfoundland, and just the second winter record. Despite being fairly elusive, the Yellow-legged Gull has been seen twice the past few weeks and should become more reliable now as the local ponds have frozen over and snow has covered other regular loafing locations for the huge flocks of gulls.

So, as the hustle and bustle of the season continues and we head into Christmas, winter birding trudges on. Despite the cold weather and snow, there is plenty of hope and potential for exciting rarities yet to be discovered, the joy of winter birds returning to spice up our days, and the unwavering beauty of Newfoundland’s spectacular scenery to keep us smiling. Here’s to the magic of the season ahead!!

Winter brings with it the return of some spectacular birds - including one of my favourites, the Bohemian Waxwing. - Photo: Jared Clarke (February 14, 2011)

Winter brings with it the return of some spectacular birds – including one of my favourites, the Bohemian Waxwing.
– Photo: Jared Clarke (February 14, 2011)

Dreaming about Icelandic rarities!

The iconic Bob Dylan was tapping into one of my dreams when he sang “The Anser, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind”.

Apologies to those of you who might not have “gotten” my [poor?] attempt at humour there, but I do dream about geese more often than I like to admit. And maybe, just maybe, I could smell a few in the wind this morning.

A quick look at some surface pressure maps for today show that a big low pressure system is sitting in the middle of the north Atlantic right now, and the resulting winds are lined up nicely between Iceland and Newfoundland. These are the kind of winds that birders here on “the rock” dream about in spring … the kind of winds that bring European rarities to this side of the ocean. Granted, it is a tad on the early side and I might be more excited if I saw these same maps in mid-late April when Icelandic migration is at its peak — but a guy can dream, can’t he?

The weather map for today (March 20) shows a wide low pressure system advancing up the mid-Atlantic. The tight isobars north of that system indicate moderate-strong winds blowing directly from Iceland to Newfoundland & Labrador. Maybe I should be embarrassed to say it, but those curves are the stuff my dreams are made of!!

The weather map for today (March 20) shows a wide low pressure system advancing up the mid-Atlantic. The tight isobars north of that system indicate moderate-strong winds blowing directly from Iceland to Newfoundland & Labrador. Maybe I should be embarrassed to say it, but those curves are the stuff my dreams are made of!!

The pattern holds strong for tomorrow (March 21), when the winds produce a perfect trans-Atlantic highway from western Europe - Iceland - Newfoundland. Oystercatcher, anyone??

The pattern holds strong for tomorrow (March 21), when the winds produce a perfect trans-Atlantic highway from western Europe – Iceland – Newfoundland. Oystercatcher, anyone??

With a low pressure system continuing to churn off the west coast of Europe, favourable winds will continue ot blow from Iceland for the remainder of this week - as shown by this map for Saturday, March 23.

With a low pressure system continuing to churn off the west coast of Europe, favourable winds will continue to blow from Iceland for the remainder of this week – as shown by this map for Saturday, March 23.

For a more detailed discussion of Icelandic/European vagrants that have been recorded here in spring, check out this earlier post.

A number of species begin to arrive in Iceland in March, including Whooper Swan, Common Shellduck, Eurasian Oystercatcher, European Golden Plover, and (yes!!) Graylag Goose. It’s time to turn our attention east once again, and keep our eyes peeled for wayward visitors along our shores. I could do with one of those dreams coming true right about now.

You??