A Little Break from the Holiday Hustle

December has been (and always is!) a busy month. Faced with several work-related deadlines, Christmas preparations, and an even more hectic family schedule than usual (how can two little girls be involved in SO many things?!?!), there isn’t much time left over for birding. Or anything else, really.

Fortunately, winter can also be a busy time for visiting birders in Newfoundland, drawn by the lure of northern migrants, finches, and rare gulls. And sometimes that means an excuse for me to join them. My first real “break” this month came last week when birder Paul Lagasi (Ottawa, ON) requested my help for a short two-day visit, aimed primarily at seeing the elusive Yellow-legged Gull but also a variety of other local specialties. Paul flew in on Monday, December 8 and had a few hours to poke around on his own. With a few simple directions, he scored an ABA lifer right away – Black-headed Gull. He also enjoyed his first ever views of adult Iceland Gulls … loads of them!

Thousands of "Kumlien's" Iceland Gulls spend the winter in St. John's, providing world-class opportunities to see and study this very northern species. The variation within this "complex" can be ... well, complex. But fun!

Thousands of “Kumlien’s” Iceland Gulls spend the winter in St. John’s, providing world-class opportunities to see and study this very northern species. The variation within this “complex” can be … well, complex. But fun!

While gulls would remain the focus of the next two days, our first stop on Tuesday morning was Cape St. Francis at the northern tip of the peninsula — in search of seabirds. Although things were pretty quiet, we did find several dozen Common Eider, small groups of Long-tailed Duck, three Common Murre and a handful of Black Guillemot. A Bald Eagle kept watch from atop some offshore rocks, and Great Cormorants buzzed by from time to time. But the highlights, and our main purpose for heading out there, were several Dovekie flying around and actively feeding right off the point. They played hide & seek with us for more than an hour (mostly winning!) before we headed back to town. An early morning trip to Cape Spear on Wednesday morning was a bust for seabirds, although the scenery was awesome as always and a few small flocks of Purple Sandpipers were fun to watch.

Purple Sandpipers (like this one photographed a few years ago) also winter along our coast. They are very hardy shorebirds, eking out an existence in the toughest of habitats.

Purple Sandpipers (like this one photographed a few years ago) also winter along our coast. They are very hardy shorebirds, eking out an existence in the toughest of habitats.

During the course of those two days, we visited all the major lakes, ponds and gull fields around St. John’s. We scrutinized close to 10,000 gulls during that time — something I do with great delight and Paul learned to appreciate on a much deeper level. Thousands of Herring, Great Black-backed and “Kumlien’s” Iceland Gulls plus a couple hundred Glaucous Gulls made up most of the flocks. At least a dozen Lesser Black-backed Gulls were noted, along with dozens of Black-headed Gulls, a handful of lingering Ring-billed Gulls and three adult Common (Eurasian Mew) Gulls. And although a few intriguing gulls (mostly hybrids) caused some momentary excitement, the elusive Yellow-legged Gull remained just that … it didn’t show. Besides gulls ,we were entertained by lots of great ducks – Tufted Duck, American & Eurasian Wigeon, and Common (Eurasian Green-winged) Teal being the most notable. However, a photogenic Bufflehead and drake Gadwall were more unusual for the city. It was a great two days, Paul Lagasi was a lot of fun to go birding with, and we enjoyed lots of cool birds! (You can read more on Paul Lagasi’s blog here.)

This female Bufflehead was a bit of a treat for me ... pretty uncommon within the city and not so easy to photograph. I think Paul (from Ottawa) was entertained by the fact I paid more attention to it than the many European ducks we also enjoyed!

This female Bufflehead was a bit of a treat for me … pretty uncommon within the city and not so easy to photograph. I think Paul (from Ottawa) was entertained by the fact that I paid more attention to it than the many European ducks!

My second little break was Sunday morning, when I managed to sneak away for less than an hour between family engagements! A Yellow-throated Warbler had been found at Kelly’s Brook earlier in the week by local birder Peter Shelton, and I hoped to catch up with it. Surprisingly, this southern warbler shows up in Newfoundland pretty much every year and are regularly reported in early December (often visiting suet feeders). It was dull and overcast when I arrived, making for for pretty low light. It was also incredibly warm for December, with temperatures well above freezing. There were already a handful of birders/photographers there and the warbler was being quite cooperative, busily gleaning insects in the tangly understory that lines this neat little brook. The looks were great, but the bird was active, the habitat so tangly and the light so low that great photos were nearly impossible. Here are a few of my better captures during the mere 45 minutes of freedom I had to share with it.

YTWA_Dec142014_0984 YTWA_Dec142014_0993 YTWA_Dec142014_1038 YTWA_Dec142014_1069Christmas Bird Count season has begun, so I’m expecting another “break” this weekend when I participate in the Cape St. Mary’s CBC. Can’t wait …

Looking Back (?) on Winter

A quick jaunt outside this week, in the deep snow and bitter cold temperatures, would have made it hard to imagine that winter is anywhere near “over”. But, when it comes to birding the “official” winter season ended on February 28. That being said, I’m pretty sure asking any Newfoundland birder if they enjoyed the first few days of “spring birding” this past week, I’d get a good smack in the face.

One thing that is certain is that this has been a tough winter. Winter weather descended on us early, hitting us with prolonged cold temperatures and record snow cover in December. Early January was characterized by heavy winds and bitter temperatures brought on by the polar vortex that gripped much of North America. There was virtually no open fresh water anywhere in the province and any birds unaccustomed to arctic climates must have been finding it tough to survive. Mid-January brought an unexpected (but somewhat welcome) reprieve – warm temperatures and plenty of rain washed away most of the snow and opened up a lot of water. Colder temperatures and abundant snow returned in not time flat, predominating February. In fact, Newfoundland did not experience three straight days without precipitation during the entire season!

The tough winter, along with other factors, certainly took its toll on winter birds & birding on the island. Christmas Bird Counts weighed in with sub-par results and the grand total of 132 species recorded across Newfoundland this winter was the lowest tally since I started keeping track seven years ago. Even many regular & expected birds were seen in lower-than-usual numbers. However, winter was not without its highlights:

This Virginia's Warbler, originally discovered on November 14, 2013 marked the first (and very exciting) record for the island if Newfoundland. It remained elusive during the first few days, frustrating a number of birders - myself included! - Photo: Jared Clarke (November 16, 2013)

This Virginia’s Warbler, originally discovered on November 14, 2013 marked the first (and very exciting) record for the island if Newfoundland. It remained elusive during the first few days, frustrating a number of birders – myself included!
– Photo: Jared Clarke (November 16, 2013)

– Newfoundland’s first Virginia’s Warbler hung on for the first few days of December, just making it to the winter list!

– A Forster’s Tern in Renews in early December was just the 7th record for the province.

– Two Purple Gallinules were discovered (unfortunately dead) – Clarenville in December and McCallum in January. As part of a notable movement into the North Atlantic this winter, how many went undetected?

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)

Yellow-legged Gull returned to St. John’s after an absence of almost two years … and after being elusive for most of the season it became surprisingly reliable for the last week of February.

– A mega-rare Common Snipe was discovered in Ferryland in mid-January, sticking around for weeks and providing excellent comparisons with Wilson’s Snipe.

– And of course, the Snowy Owl invasion that made headlines not only here but across much of North America.

- Photo: Jared Clarke (December 7, 2013)

– Photo: Jared Clarke (December 7, 2013)

And now I’m looking forward — not just to spring but to a more immediate escape from this long long winter. I leave for Hawaii in just a few hours!! I won’t likely be updating the blog during the next two weeks, but expect plenty when I get back!!!

Yellow-legged Gull & Other Gems of Winter at Quidi Vidi

Quidi Vidi lake, in eastern St. John’s, is the hub of local birding activity during winter (if not all year). The resident ducks are joined by many others as ponds & rivers around the city freeze up, and the small areas of open water at Quidi Vidi can provide great looks and photo opportunities with a a variety of interesting birds. Regular species there include Northern Pintail, Greater & Lesser Scaup, & Tufted Duck, among others. This winter they have been joined by more uncommon birds like a drake Wood Duck and a pair of Ring-necked Ducks. Very unusual have been as many as five Common Mergansers visiting the lake the past two weeks, providing great, close views that are very atypical for this normally wary species.

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 has been hanging out in the relatively small patches of open water at Quidi Vidi since early February.
– Photo: Jared Clarke (February 22. 2014)

Since this morning was the first chance I had to visit Quidi Vidi for several weeks, I was happy to find the mergansers, Ring-necked Ducks and the other divers hanging out there and providing some excellent photo opportunities.

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 have been becoming more tolerant of people and allowing some great looks.
– Photo: Jared Clarke (February 22. 2014)

But my main reason for visiting this morning was to look for the adult Yellow-legged Gull which has been so elusive all winter. It has only been seen a handful of times since it was first discovered in late October, but in had been reported at Quidi Vidi each of the past three mornings. I only had a couple hours before having to return home for family obligations, so I was hoping it stuck to its apparent schedule. And sure enough, at ~9:40am I caught sight of this classy looking gull flying in. It landed on the “beach” at the Virginia River outflow, just 20m or so from where I and a handful of other hopeful birders were set up. I managed some decent photos (despite the fact its legs were consistently obscured by snow and/or water) before it moved further away to rest on the nearby ice and eventually flew off when the rest of the gulls were flushed by an eagle. Great start to the weekend!!

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 (right) 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)

Note the single white mirror on P10 and the extensive black in the wingtip of this Yellow-legged Gull (especially compared to the Herring Gull wingtip visible at far left). - Photo: Jared Clarke (February 22. 2014)

Note the single white mirror on P10 and the extensive black in the wingtip of this Yellow-legged Gull (especially compared to the Herring Gull wingtip visible at far left).
– Photo: Jared Clarke (February 22. 2014)

YLGU_Feb222014_2021COME_Feb222014_1447 COME_Feb222014_1593 COME_Feb-222014_1478

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)