Boreal Owl – A Mid-Winter Visit to the City

This was a “snow-day” in St. John’s … 30cm of the fluffy white stuff fell last night and this morning, closing schools and making for prime winter scenery all around the city. Snow days are a big deal in our house, since my wife Susan works in the school system. And this one wasn’t going to be wasted – not long after breakfast, I was put to work helping clean the kitchen. One more reason to be happy when the phone rang with news of a Boreal Owl sitting in a private yard in the west end of town … an excuse to “sneak out”.

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". - Photo: Jared Clarke (February 6, 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”.
– Photo: Jared Clarke (February 6, 2014)

After finishing my chores and putting in an hour of shoveling, I headed across town in hopes that the little owl (one of my favourite birds!) was still there. Sure enough, it had moved to the next yard and was sitting in the snow at the base of a holly bush – completely unperturbed by the next door neighbour out snow-blowing his driveway! I set my camera up a comfortable distance away and waited … it was sleeping for the first ten minutes, its head tucked in and turned away. Eventually it woke up and turned to look at me, eyes open just a slant, before settling back in for another nap.

A short while later, it shook itself awake, turned around and began staring intently at the little flock of chickadees and juncos at the feeder across the fence. Several minutes and at least two false starts later, it catapulted off the ground and made a run for them. Coming up empty, it landed on a bare branch about ten feet off the ground, right above the road. What a beauty!! Two minutes later it took off again, diving over a hedge across the road in pursuit of what must have been a very startled chickadee. Other chickadees chased it, scolding all the way. I have no idea if it grabbed lunch or not, and lost it as it flew around the side of the house.

This little fella posed on a bare branch for just a couple minutes after a failed "smash-n-grab" attempt on some black-capped chickadees. It was fun to see it actively hutning - something I only witnessed once before, in Finland. - Photo: Jared Clarke (February 6, 2014)

This little fella posed on a bare branch for just a couple minutes after a failed “smash-n-grab” attempt on some black-capped chickadees. It was fun to see it actively hunting – something I only witnessed once before, in Finland.
– Photo: Jared Clarke (February 6, 2014)

A welcome reward for a morning of shoveling snow and scrubbing cupboards 😉

- Photo: Jared Clarke (February 6, 2014)

– Photo: Jared Clarke (February 6, 2014)

BOOW_Feb62014_1262

– Photo: Jared Clarke (February 6, 2014)

Snipes, Bullbirds & Weather Delays

Just five days after the fantastic WINGS tour, I was already getting tired of paperwork and looking forward to getting back out there. Peter Gilchrist, from Toronto, ON was set to arrive late Wednesday night, with Dovekie firmly in his sights. A long-time birder with an extensive Canada (and ABA) list, Peter was gunning for this diminutive little seabird that is regularly seen along the coast of Newfoundland but hardly anywhere else in North America (I grew up calling these little guys bullbirds – one of many colourful bird names unique to Newfoundland!)

Dovekie (known locally as "bullbirds") are often found along our coast during winter. - Photo: Jared Clarke (December 17, 2011)

Dovekie (known locally as “bullbirds”) are often found along our coast during winter.
– Photo: Jared Clarke (December 17, 2011)

But the crazy winds that have been buffeting Newfoundland so much this January weren’t going to make it easy! Strong gusts of about 120km/h blew up overnight and throughout Thursday, cancelling many flights and delaying his arrival by more than 24 hours.

Despite spending far too much time in airports and not seeing his hotel until the wee hours of the night, Peter was rearing to go when I picked him up Friday morning. The winds were still blowing hard & cold when we arrived at Cape Spear twenty minutes later, biting at us as we headed out to the tip. And they weren’t done wreaking havoc on our plans just yet! The strong offshore winds of the past few days had apparently moved all the Dovekie well away from land … we couldn’t find a single one in our 2-3 hours of scanning the waters both near and far. Black Guillemots bobbed around the point, Common Eider and Long-tailed Ducks loafed further out, and Great Cormorants drifted by every few minutes. But no bullbirds!! Concerns started to gnaw away at my confidence … knowing that Dovekie often head back out to sea and become difficult to find by early February, I wondered if these winds might have spelt an early end to their gracing of our shores this year?!?!

After taking a short break to check for the elusive Yellow-legged Gull at various places around the city (it has not been reported in over a month), we headed north to check other coves and harbours for Dovekie – Flatrock, Torbay and Outer Cove. No such luck! Common Loons, Red-breasted Mergansers, Greater Scaup, and even a Red-necked Grebe were present and accounted for – but no bullbirds. And so ended our first (frustrating) day.

This COMMON SNIPE at Ferryland marks the third record of this European species for the province and all of eastern North America! - Photo: Jared Clarke (January 25, 2014)

This COMMON SNIPE at Ferryland marks the third record of this European species for the province and all of eastern North America!
– Photo: Jared Clarke (January 25, 2014)

With most of Saturday to go birding before his flight back to Toronto, Peter and I headed out at first light – straight to Ferryland to look for the COMMON SNIPE that has been hanging out there. This species is extremely rare anywhere but the westernmost reaches of Alaska, with this one being just the third record for all of North America away from the Pacific coast (all of which have occurred in this province!). Since we came up empty-handed at several stops to look for Dovekie on the drive south, I was happy to find the Snipe (along with two of its North American cousin, Wilson’s Snipe) at the usual location, allowing good views as it huddled in the mud & snow.

- Photo: Jared Clarke (January 25, 2014)

– Photo: Jared Clarke (January 25, 2014)

- Photo: Jared Clarke (January 25, 2014)

– Photo: Jared Clarke (January 25, 2014)

Next, we headed further south to Bear Cove … hoping that at least one Dovekie had held strong and stayed for our viewing pleasure. Sure enough, we found one (and just one!) feeding about 100 metres offshore. It toyed with us for the first few minutes, coming up for air only momentarily before diving again – but then we were able to enjoy great looks through the scope as it sat on the surface, toying instead with a fish it had just caught. We looked for more as we headed back toward the city, finding none!! We did, however, enjoy even better views of the Common Snipe!

Two excellent birds and two happy birders! What’s that they say – all is well that ends well? Think about that next time you’re stuck in an airport for 24 hours 😉

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!

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)

Snowy Owls … on the edge of North America

Nature news, social media and photography websites have been abuzz about the incredible Snowy Owl invasion happening in eastern North America the past few weeks. While the fallout has seen unprecedented numbers of owls reported across much of southern Canada and the northeastern states (with a few owls turning up much further south than usual), nothing compares to the explosion of these majestic arctic birds as Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula. Some keen observers have seen well over a hundred in the Cape Race area alone, while Bruce Mactavish tallied a mind-boggling 206 this past weekend.

Snowy Owls have been making waves among birders all across eastern North America lately. A few, like this one sitting on the easternmost rocks in North America, having been entertaining birds and non-birders alike at Cape Spear. - Photo: Jared Clarke (December 7, 2013)

Snowy Owls have been making waves among birders all across eastern North America lately. A few, like this one sitting on the easternmost rocks in North America, having been entertaining birders and non-birders alike at Cape Spear.
– Photo: Jared Clarke (December 7, 2013)

Between work and family commitments, I haven’t had time to get out and enjoy this amazing spectacle myself. With that in mind, I decided to sneak away for just two hours on Saturday morning and head to Cape Spear in hopes of seeing and maybe photographing an owl or two. Cape Spear is the easternmost point in North America and just 15 minutes from St. John’s. A handful had been reported there daily for almost two weeks. I arrived and shortly discovered two owls hanging out near the point. A couple photographers were milling around, occasionally flushing the owls as they stood on the trail above them trying for photos (but, I’m happy to say, not harassing them – although I’m certain this has happened).

Looking out to sea after a long journey south. "Where to next?" - Photo: Jared Clarke (December 7, 2013)

Looking out to sea after a long journey south. “Where to next?”
– Photo: Jared Clarke (December 7, 2013)

Taking my own approach, I watched the owls for a few minutes and made note of their habits. After they had flown around the corner and the other guys followed them along the trail, I climbed down and positioned myself strategically between a couple perches I thought they’d like. And waited. After about fifteen minutes of enjoying the wave action and sounds of the ocean below me, one of the owls flew back around the corner and (just as I had hoped!) landed about 10-12m away. I didn’t have to move a muscle or disturb the owl in any way … it stayed for 20 minutes or so, posing and changing perches a couple times. What a wonderful experience!

In the end, I saw a total of 7-8 owls in the area – most of those distantly as I scanned south along the cliffs and barrens leading away from the cape.

The majority of the owls being seen appear to be hatch-year birds, indicating an excellent breeding season for the species this past spring. While I haven’t heard any confirmations, it is assumed that the populations of at least some small arctic mammals (e.g. lemmings) that Snowy Owls depend on for survival must have experienced an abysmal crash, sending the owls south in search of food. No doubt many of the owls being seen in eastern Canada and the United States originated in our own arctic, however there has been some question as to whether or not some or all of those being seen here on the Avalon might have come from breeding populations in (relatively) nearby Greenland. It’s an interesting idea. Either way, there is genuine concern that the barrens of eastern Newfoundland may not host a large enough rodent population to support the onslaught of these beautiful creatures, and their fate may not be so bright and rosy as we would like. At least one found dead this weekend looked emaciated and likely starved. A sad state of events, but also a somewhat natural part of the Snowy Owl’s population cycle (albeit often on a smaller scale than we might be witnessing at the moment).

- Photo: Jared Clarke (December 7, 2013)

– Photo: Jared Clarke (December 7, 2013)

In the end, there is not much we can do but enjoy the beauty of these animals, appreciate what nature has given us, and let her take her course (even if that means trying not to think too much about it!).

SNOW_Dec7_8273 SNOW_Dec7_8283 SNOW_Dec7_8284 SNOW_Dec7_8382b SNOW_Dec7_8480 SNOW_Dec7_8489

Gearing Up for Winter Birding

During the past week, most of Newfoundland has experienced a little taste of the inevitable … winter. Granted, the Avalon Peninsula was spared the snow that was dropped on the west coast and central Newfoundland – but the temperatures have definitely taken a little nose-dive and the ground has been speckled in white.

Nothing like a good snowshoeing adventure in  beautiful Newfoundland - this one in February 2011. - Photo: Susan Clarke

Nothing like a good snowshoeing adventure in beautiful Newfoundland – this one in February 2011.
– Photo: Susan Clarke

And while I’m none to fond of digging the snow shovels back out from under the recently stored lawn-mower and kiddy pools in the shed, I do look forward to winter. Mostly for the birding … I’ve always had a soft spot for winter birds & birding. Mind-boggling shades of grey as gulls flock on frozen ponds. Rafts of ducks floating past headlands coated in ice. Rainbows of birds brightening up snowy backyards. And rarities … there’s always room for rarities!

And so begins the season of the “Winter List“. Winter bird lists have become popular across Canada, with most provinces keeping a cumulative list of which species have been reported during the “official” winter season (December thru February). I began doing that for Newfoundland seven years ago (Winter 2006-2007) and will be doing it again this year.

Most winters, about 130-140 species are reported around the island (plus a few more from Labrador). Just last year, we set a spectacular record of 153 species – one that will be tough to beat. Overall, a grand total of 251 species have been recorded here during the winter period – an incredible number considering our geographic location and often challenging weather.

Winter is also prime gull season in St. John's. Hopefully the Yellow-legged Gull that has been seen recently hang out - it's always a winter highlight for local and visiting birders alike! - Photo: Jared Clarke (February 14, 2009)

Winter is also prime gull season in St. John’s. Hopefully the Yellow-legged Gull that has been seen recently will hang out – it’s always a winter highlight for local and visiting birders alike!
– Photo: Jared Clarke (February 14, 2009)

So … starting December 1, birders in this beautiful province will start birding with a fresh, new perspective – “winter birding”!! In fact, the first few days of December are key for finding and/or seeing some lingering birds that otherwise shouldn’t be here at this time of year – birds that are unlikely to be seen as winter weather sets in. A few that will be high on the priority list for local birders include any late warblers, which should be well south of here by now. A few have been reported lately, including Newfoundland’s first Virginia’s Warbler, but won’t likely be around much longer. A Great Egret that has been hanging out in east St. John’s the past few days will be another target. Unusual at any time in Newfoundland, there have been only a handful of winter records at best. This one should make the cut.

Keep tabs on the Winter List 2013-14 link at the top of the page for regular updates to the Newfoundland winter list .. and if you see something interesting and/or not currently on the list, let me know!!

FIELDFARE – An Update

Photo: Gerard Butler (January 19, 2013)

Photo: Gerard Butler (January 19, 2013)

The FIELDFARE reappeared at the home of Gerard and Charlene Butler in Reidville for a brief time yesterday and again this morning – filling up on apples from their tree. While the Butlers have hung fresh apple slices and berries in hopes of keeping the bird around, so far it has preferred the old frozen apples it has obviously become accustomed to.

Fieldfare1Gerard Butler took these photos on Saturday, January 19 – just the third time they had seen the Fieldfare in about month, suggesting it is moving around the neighbourhood and/or other parts of the community where other fruit trees are reportedly abundant. While this is still far from a “stakeout bird”, it is good to know it remains in the area and will likely become easier to find once we learn a bit more about its habits or it takes a liking to the fresh offerings available in the Butler yard. Thanks to them for finding, reporting and now helping keep track of this mega rarity! I’m sure it won’t be long before one of the Newfoundland birders catches up with it.

Fieldfare2

Three photos (taken by Gerard Butler) showing the Fieldfare  that has been roaming around Reidville, NL for at least a month. Now that we know about it, hopefully a few lucky birders can catch up with it.

Three photos (taken by Gerard Butler) showing the Fieldfare that has been roaming around Reidville, NL for at least a month. Now that we know about it, hopefully a few lucky birders can catch up with it.

The Newfoundland Winter List Breaks 140!

A Clay-coloured Sparrow photographed at a feeder in Lumsden and reported today brings the Newfoundland winter list to 140 species – not only a great number for the first half of January, but only the second time we have broken that milestone tally since I started keeping the list seven years ago (and maybe ever)!!

Northern Lapwing occur on a regular basis in Newfoundland - something no other place in North America can claim. This one was at Portugal Cove South in December, 2010.- Photo: Jared Clarke

Northern Lapwing occur on a regular basis in Newfoundland – something no other place in North America can claim. This one was at Portugal Cove South in December, 2010.
– Photo: Jared Clarke

We’re well on the way to an excellent tally – but can we break the record of 150 set two years ago, during the exceptional winter of 2010-11?? That was a very special winter for sure, including rarities from all over the continent and from “across the pond” in Europe. Harsh weather in western Europe during early December 2010 sent a rash of trans-Atlantic vagrants our way, including a handful of Northern Lapwings, a Common Chaffinch, at least two (and probably several more) Common Snipe, a very exciting Jack Snipe, and three Redwings.

This Anna's Hummingbird was one of the amazing records that highlighted the incredible winter of 2010-11! It was a first provincial record and survived frigid temperatures well into February at a feeder in Brownsdale, Trinity Bay.

This Anna’s Hummingbird was one of the amazing records that highlighted the incredible winter of 2010-11! It was a first provincial record and survived frigid temperatures well into February at a feeder in Brownsdale, Trinity Bay.
– Photo: Jared Clarke (January 26, 2011)

Mid-winter storms tracking up the eastern seaboard were the harbinger of large numbers of Killdeer, higher than usual numbers of American Coot and likely led to the arrival of a very wayward Common Gallinule. Rare gulls included the province’s second record of Black-tailed Gull, as well as the rare but somewhat more expected Yellow-legged and Slaty-backed Gulls. The star of the winter, however, arrived from the very west cost of North America – a tough little Anna’s Hummingbird that managed to survive at an incredibly maintained feeder until early February!!

It seems that such a winter would be tough to beat. However, it is worth noting that even then the winter list tally was just 132 on January 14 2011 and didn’t break 140 until early February – well behind the pace of this winter, which has seen a number of excellent records already (think Pink-footed Goose, Brant, American Woodcock, Marsh Wren, and a record 11 species of warbler!!).

A few expected species, like this Boreal Owl, might help this year's winter tally break an amazing record of 150 set just two years ago!!

A few expected species, like this Boreal Owl, might help this year’s winter tally break an amazing record of 150 set just two years ago!!
– Photo: Jared Clarke (March 2010)

A number of more or less expected species are still on the missing list – Rock Ptarmigan, Bonaparte’s Gull (a couple “possibles” reported), Boreal Owl and Cedar Waxwing. Other species that often get recorded during winter are Sanderling (getting late for that), Gyrfalcon and Northern Three-toed Woodpecker. And of course, we’re still missing the otherwise rare Yellow-legged and Slaty-backed Gulls we’ve been spoiled with and come to expect in recent years. And I’m sure a few surprises are also lurking out there.

So why is that this winter list is shaping up to be so awesome?? No doubt the warmer weather of the fall and early winter led to a number of unusually late vagrants such as the warblers, and a few surprise birds such as four species of geese have added some punch to the tally. But anyone familiar with the Newfoundland birding scene would also tell you that there has been an equally incredible increase in the birding activity — a number of new, very keen birders have been out in force and finding things that might otherwise have been missed while the number of feeder watchers reporting backyard birds in one way or another has also been on the rise. Kudos to them all!!

Maybe that record we thought unbeatable just two short years ago is actually in reach … stay tuned!!!

And the PINK-FOOTED GOOSE makes … 250!!

Wow! After not being seen for almost three weeks, I was shocked today when local birder Doug Smith reported seeing the PINK-FOOTED GOOSE at its original location in the Goulds!! It was seen again in the late afternoon in a nearby field, looking very content and settled as it milled about and grazed with local starlings. (Check out Bruce Mactavish’s blog for more details and photos of the latest sighting.)

Not only is this a major North American rarity (ABA Code 4), but it was only the second fall and now first winter record for Newfoundland. More importantly, according to my records, it is now the 250th species to have been recorded in Newfoundland during the “official” winter period (December thru February)!! This is a very impressive number considering our climate, location and the fact that the total number of species recorded here in any season is just 400.

To keep tabs on the Pink-footed Goose, check the “rarity round-up” page for updates … I’ll try to keep it as current as possible.