A “Thrashing” Good Valentine’s Day

With two young children, Valentine’s Day has become yet another busy holiday for us. Susan and I are both madly in love, but also practical people … so after surprising her with chocolates and making a heart-themed breakfast for both her and the kids, I settled in to catch up on some work while she took the girls to a Valentine’s party. Some quiet time to be productive …

Until my cell phone whistled with an incoming text message from unstoppable birder Alvan Buckley: “Brown Thrasher at the fluvarium. Now.” Three minutes later, with my work sitting idle on the desk and a freshly poured cup of tea still steeping on the counter, I was out the door. Productivity be damned!

This Brown Thrasher, hanging out at Long Pond in Pippy Park, is a rare visitor to Newfoundland and the first "gettable" one in more than a decade.

This Brown Thrasher, hanging out at Long Pond in Pippy Park, is a rare visitor to Newfoundland and the first “gettable” one in more than a decade.

Brown Thrasher is a rare visitor to Newfoundland, with only three or four reports in the last ten years … and it was one I have never managed to see here. Luckily, this one was just five minutes of high-speed driving from my house. I arrived to find a few people milling around on the trail near the fluvarium (at the northeast corner of Long Pond). The bird had been seen a few times but had just flown off. A few more people showed up and we spread out in search of what we knew could be a very elusive bird. Thirty minute later, I saw it flying in over the treetops … it landed briefly alongside the trail before slipping into thick cover and disappearing. Just long enough for an identifying look (tick!), but certainly not satisfying. On borrowed time, I had to leave with hopes of coming back later.

And that I did. After actually accomplishing a little bit of work, I headed back to Long Pond mid-afternoon. Only a few people remained, but they had just located the Thrasher and it was being somewhat cooperative. My first looks were typical of this secretive species – sitting in a tangle of limbs and branches. Eventually it flew in to an area of shoveled deck under the fluvarium, where some feeders had been set up and some seed/mealworms scattered … providing close and wonderful looks. The light was pretty difficult for photography, but over the next hour or so I managed to get some mediocre shots as it came and went. According to a staff member at the fluvarium, it has been around (noticed but unidentified) for a few weeks – so maybe it is settled in and I’ll get another chance for better photos!

BRTH_Feb142015_4229 BRTH_Feb142015_4283 BRTH_Feb142015_4308Maybe not romantic, but still a great treat!  Susan and I ended the day with an impromptu excursion downtown for a hockey game, some live music and a few relaxing drinks with friends. In my books, that all adds up to a wonderful Valentine’s Day.

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WINGS Tour 2015: Newfoundland’s Winter Birds

Winter is a fun and special time to go birding in Newfoundland – which is why a group of WINGS tour participants brave the cold weather to visit here every January. This year, just two intrepid birders made the trip – from two very different parts of the United States, Maryland and Washington state! And I had the pleasure of sharing the wonderful birds & beautiful scenery of the eastern Avalon Peninsula with them.

A wintery morning at Cape Spear.

A wintery morning at Cape Spear.

We started the five-day tour with a visit to Cape Spear – the easternmost point in North America and a perfect place to spot some of our main targets for the week. It didn’t take long to find the local flock of Purple Sandpipers, first fluttering past the point and then taking shelter among the jagged rock jetties. A few small flocks of Common Eider flew by during our visit, and a group of ~40 Long-tailed Ducks bobbed up and down in the distance. An immature Peregrine Falcon (of the northern tundrius race) appeared out of nowhere, briefly checking us out before disappearing over the nearby hills. We even found six Dovekie quite close to the rocks below us. But the real highlight was finding another Dovekie actively feeding just metres from the shoreline at Blackhead village – it paid little attention to us as we sat on the snow-covered beach and soaked in the close-up views and photo opportunities!

Dovekie are always a big hit on winter tours, and this one really entertained as it fed in the shallow waters just metres away.

Dovekie are always a big hit on winter tours, and this one really entertained as it fed in the shallow waters just metres away.

The rest of the first two days were spent birding in St. John’s, where we enjoyed the full smorgasbord of exciting winter birds that the city has to offer. Among the nine species of duck hanging out in local ponds, the dozens of Tufted Ducks were a hands-down favourite. Both American and the much rarer Eurasian Green-winged Teals were seen, allowing for great comparisons of these two surprisingly unique subspecies. We enjoyed point blank looks at Great Cormorant in the harbour, as well as a very confiding adult Peregrine Falcon perched in a tree overlooking Quidi Vidi lake. We even tracked down a very late and out-of-place Pine Warbler that has been hanging out in Bowring Park!

This adult Peregrine Falcon has been hanging out near Quidi Vidi lake and provided great looks for our WINGS participants!

This adult Peregrine Falcon has been hanging out near Quidi Vidi lake and provided great looks for our WINGS participants!

The classy looking Tufted Duck is another popular bird for visitors, and we saw nearly 70 this past week!

The classy looking Tufted Duck is another popular bird with visitors, and we saw nearly 70 this past week!

We found this drake Common (aka Eurasian Green-winged) Teal in a small city brook. I consider this a "pocket species", since maybe it will be split someday.

We found this drake Common (aka Eurasian Green-winged) Teal in a small city brook. I consider this a “pocket species”, since maybe it will be split someday.

Among the 100+ divers hanging out in St. John's is this odd-looking bird thought to be a Ring-necked Duck X Scaup hybrid. Cool!

Among the 100+ divers hanging out in St. John’s is this odd-looking bird thought to be a Ring-necked Duck X Scaup hybrid. Cool!

This Pine Warbler is out of its element here in the middle of our winter, but seems to be doing okay for itself thanks to a few helpful birders keeping the park stocked with food.

This Pine Warbler is out of its element here in the middle of our winter, but seems to be doing okay for itself thanks to a few helpful birders keeping the park stocked with food.

It's difficult to ignore the beautofulwinter scenery of North America's oldest city, even when you're busy birding.

It’s difficult to ignore the beautiful winter scenery of North America’s oldest city, even when you’re busy birding.

Gulls are an essential part of any winter tour in Newfoundland, and this week did not disappoint. We soaked in great looks and photo opportunities with thousands of Herring, Great Black-backed and “Kumlien’s” Iceland Gulls, several hundred Glaucous Gulls, dozens of Black-headed Gulls (a key target for the tour!), a handful of Lesser Black-backed Gulls, and two Common (aka European Mew) Gulls! It was a great learning experience for both participants, who are now set to find and identify these rare northern visitors closer to home.

Visitors are often amazed at the variation among our wintering Iceland Gulls. The vast majority are of the "Kumlien's" race, but every now and then we encounter a candidate "glaucoides", like this one.

Visitors are often amazed at the variation among our wintering Iceland Gulls. The vast majority are of the “Kumlien’s” race, but every now and then we encounter a candidate “glaucoides”, like this one. Note the pure white wingtips and paler mantle compared to the more typical Kumlien’s Gulls in the background.

The third day brought beautiful (though cold!) weather, so we headed off to bird the beautiful coast of the southeast Avalon. Our first big highlight was finding three White-winged Crossbills feeding in a white spruce at Ferryland … a special and somewhat unexpected treat in what has been a sparse year for northern finches. Both the birds and the light cooperated for excellent photo opportunities, making for two happy participants and one very delighted guide!

This is one of three immature White-winged Crossbills we came across, feasting on the abundant white spruce cones. Most other conifers have had a poor cone crop this year.

This is one of three immature White-winged Crossbills we came across, feasting on the abundant white spruce cones. Most other conifers have had a poor cone crop this year.

Among other highlights were six Snow Buntings, a lingering Fox Sparrow, a very uncommon Horned Grebe and three more Dovekie. We were excited to find that, due to a relative lack of snow cover, we were able to drive the entire length of coastal road to Cape Race. Along the way we spotted three Snowy Owls on the tundra and at least fifteen Red-necked Grebes bobbing on the water. A large mixed flock of birds below the lighthouse consisted of ~320 White-winged Scoter, one Surf Scoter, a hundred Common Eider, two hundred Common Murre and at least five Thick-billed Murre.

The next day we headed north to Conception Bay, where ducks were the order of the day. We tallied a dozen species in the various harbours and inlets along the way, including 19 Eurasian Wigeon, 2 American Wigeon, 250 Greater Scaup, 50+ Common Goldeneye, 10 Bufflehead and dozens of both Common and Red-breasted Merganser. A pair of American Wigeon X Mallard hybrids were also noted (they have been hanging out in the area for several winters now).

Most scaup in Newfoundland are Greater Scaup, but careful observers can often pick out a Lesser Scaup or two (like this one).

Most scaup in Newfoundland are Greater Scaup, but careful observers can often pick out a Lesser Scaup or two (like this one).

The last day of this WINGS tour was spent around St. John’s, including another trip to Cape Spear. A much larger concentration of Common Eiders had built up since our earlier visit – with more than 800 spread out in three main flocks. Despite the much heavier, rolling seas we were able to spot a drake King Eider in one of the flocks – a great addition to the week and yet another lifer for one participant! On the way back to town, we picked up five Pine Grosbeaks flying over our heads, a Mourning Dove on a wire and eight Evening Grosbeak at a feeder we had (unsuccessfully) staked out earlier in the week. Our last new species for the week was an adult Bonaparte’s Gull cavorting with Black-headed Gulls in St. John’s harbour. We ended the tour on a high note with a confiding flock of ~100 Bohemian Waxwings feeding in an apple tree at eye level, four very cooperative Great Cormorants, and some very tame Boreal Chickadees eating seed right out of our hands – all great photo opportunities!

A walk in the woods this time of year can prove very quiet, although on this trail we did come across a few Boreal Chickadees and five Pine Grosbeak flying overhead.

A walk in the woods this time of year can prove very quiet, although on this trail we did come across a few Boreal Chickadees and five Pine Grosbeak flying overhead.

Great Cormorant often hang out in St. John's harbour - sometimes with a very neat and historic backdrop.

Great Cormorant often hang out in St. John’s harbour – sometimes with a very neat and historic backdrop.

GRCO_Jan162015_3502

A major highlight of our week was finding a flock of Bohemian Waxwings in the historic Battery neighbourhood With about one hundred birds and maybe seven apples, there quite a ruckus at times!

A major highlight of our week was finding a flock of Bohemian Waxwings in the historic Battery neighbourhood With about one hundred birds and maybe seven apples, there quite a ruckus at times!

BOWA_Jan162015_3151It was a fantastic week spent enjoying great birds & amazing scenery with some wonderful people. What more can I ask?!?!

WINGS: Winter in Newfoundland

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 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!!

It’s become an annual tradition that a group of WINGS tour participants descend on St. John’s in January, excited to get out and enjoy the wonderful birds of “Newfoundland in Winter” (if not the weather!). This year, I had the distinct pleasure of leading four eager visitors on a five-day birding bonanza around the city and parts of the eastern Avalon Peninsula.

We started the tour with a bang – heading straight to Ferryland on the very first morning where we were rewarded with amazing looks at a COMMON SNIPE that had been discovered two days earlier. It was just the third confirmed record for the province (including one from Labrador) and eastern North America! To sweeten the deal even further, a Wilson’s Snipe was also hanging out just a few metres away, allowing for a great comparison of these formerly conspecific cousins.

A comparison of the mega-rare COMMON SNIPE and the more expected Wilson's Snipe, it's North American cousin. Both were seen and photographed just metres apart in Ferryland on the very first morning of the tour! - Photos: Jared Clarke (January 13, 2014)

We spent the remainder of the first four days birding in and around St. John’s, enjoying some unusually mild weather and ignoring periods rain, wind and fog. The group’s spirits refused to be dampened as we enjoyed stunning views of great birds, including record-high numbers of Tufted Ducks, both Eurasian & American Wigeon, and some very confiding Great Cormorants. Even a northern River Otter got in on the action, posing for us amidst the quaint scenery of the Quidi Vidi’s famous fishing village.

Great, close-up views at thousands of gulls were just part of the fun during this tour. Ten species were seen, including well over 2000 of these stunning "Kumlien's" Iceland Gulls. - Photo: Jared Clarke

Great, close-up views of thousands of gulls were just part of the fun during this tour. Ten species were seen, including well over 2000 of these stunning “Kumlien’s” Iceland Gulls.
– Photo: Jared Clarke

An important part of winter birding in St. John’s, the massive gull flocks showed off an array of birds – thousands of Herring, Great Black-backed and “Kumlien’s” Iceland Gulls, several hundred Glaucous Gulls, dozens of Black-headed Gulls (a key target for the tour!), a handful of Lesser Black-backed Gulls, and three Common (aka European Mew) Gulls! Everyone learned a lot about these often “under-appreciated” birds 😉

Purple Sandpipers were a prime target for all four participants ... and they did not disappoint! - Photo: Jared Clarke

Purple Sandpipers were a prime target for all four participants … and they did not disappoint!
– Photo: Jared Clarke

Bald Eagles regularly dropped in to show off, while a Northern Goshawk buzzed our heads during a morning walk in Pippy Park.

A major highlight of the tour was a visit to Cape Spear, the easternmost point in North America. It was one of the most beautiful January mornings I have ever experienced there, with mild temperatures, light wind and perfectly clear viewing. We were thrilled with killer views of two key targets for the tour – dozens of Purple Sandpipers resting and feeding among the rocks, and eight Dovekie putting on a show in the foamy white water right off the tip!On our fifth & final day, we headed south along the “Irish Loop”, enjoying the amazing scenery, historic communities and many great birds. Long-tailed Ducks, Red-breasted Mergansers and Common Eiders entertained us at several stops, while a female King Eider at Bear Cove was an unexpected highlight for everyone. A family group of five Gray Jays were apparently entertained by us, dropping in along the roadside to check us out. Common & Red-throated Loons and Red-necked Grebes were found in excellent numbers, often in sheltered coves buffeted by stark, beautiful cliffs. And several Boreal Chickadees finally made an appearance, after proving elusive all week.

Common Loons winter along the coast of Newfoundland - we saw many of them during our week. - Photo: Jared Clarke

Common Loons winter along the coast of Newfoundland – we saw many of them during our week.
– Photo: Jared Clarke

Tufted Duck are a regular part of the winter in St. John's, likely originating in Iceland. - Jared Clarke

Tufted Duck are a regular part of the winter in St. John’s, likely originating in Iceland.
– Photo: Jared Clarke

Great Cormorants were seen daily, often at very close range. - Photo: Jared Clarke

Great Cormorants were seen daily, often at very close range.
– Photo: Jared Clarke

Cape Spear - the easternmost point in North America.

Cape Spear – the easternmost point in North America.

It was a fantastic week spent enjoying great birds with some great people. And, needless to say, amidst some truly great scenery.