SEVENTEEN

Whoa … does time ever fly?!?! It’s hard to believe another year has come and gone … but not without lots of adventures. The year 2017 was a very exciting one here at BirdTheRock – I was blessed beyond words to share the natural wonders of Newfoundland & Labrador with so many visitors, travel to amazing places both near and far, and experience countless special moments along the way. I have so much to tell … but as they say “a picture is worth a thousand words“, and maybe that’s the best way to share this long overdue summary of the year that was. Below are 17 photos from 2017; chosen to represent just a fraction of the many, many highlights from my year.

I apologize for my lapse in blog posts over the last few months – but be sure to follow me on Facebook, Twitter and/or Instagram for more regular highlights and often daily updates from ongoing tours! I’ll continue to update this blog as often as I can 😉

Like every year, 2017 started off with some excellent winter birding right here in eastern Newfoundland. I had the pleasure of sharing great winter birds such as Dovekie, Thick-billed Murre, White-winged Crossbill, Bohemian Waxwing, Boreal Chickadee and friendly Gray Jays with a number of visiting birders. This photo was taken during the annual WINGS Birding Tour – and you can read more about that in an earlier blog post here.

I also joined Instagram this past winter –  yet another great way to share photos and highlights with people from all over the world. THIS photo of a Dovekie (taken several winters ago) turned out to be my most popular photo of 2017 – not surprising given how much people tend to love these cute little seabirds! Newfoundland is the most reliable place in North America to see Dovekie and a big part of the reason why birders visit here in winter.

I was honoured this year to earn the support of Kowa Optics, and upgraded my worn-out gear with their top quality equipment. I’ve had so much fun using this Prominar TSN-883 spotting scope and Genesis binoculars – and sharing the experience with so many of my guests. The optics are amazing! Stay tuned for an upcoming review of this Kowa swag here on the blog very soon.

In March, I joined Kisserup International Trade Roots and a handful of other Canadian birding and eco-tourism experts on an exploratory “mission” to Honduras (Read the two-part blog series and see LOTS of photos here!!). What I discovered was an incredibly beautiful place with wonderful people, amazing nature and especially birds, and so many opportunities for visiting birders and nature-lovers to soak it all in. Oh … AND we observed more than 250 species of birds along the way! I’m scheming up a Honduras birding tour for the near future – so stay tuned for details!!   (Photo: Spectacled Owl, Rio Santiago Nature Resort, Honduras)

I returned home from Honduras to find Newfoundland in the cold, icy grip of the Arctic. Prolonged northerly winds were pushing Arctic pack ice much further south than usual – encasing the entire northern and eastern coasts, and even wrapping around to fill bays and coves in the southeast. While spring pack ice was a normal part of my childhood growing up on the northeast coast, it rarely reached this far south and some communities were seeing it for the first time in living memory. With the ice came lots of seals (including more northerly Hooded Seals), Polar Bears and even a very wayward Arctic Fox to far-flung places around the island. Birds were impacted too — ducks, loons and other seabirds were corralled into small sections of open water waiting for the ice to move off. The ice lingered so long on parts of the northeast coast that fisheries were delayed or even canceled, adding a very human aspect to this unusual event.

Late winter and early spring can be a challenging time for birding – many of the winter species are beginning to move on, and migration has yet to start. But there are always wonderful things to see, and a mid-March excursion to Cape Race with one group of intrepid clients paid off with this — great looks at one of their “target” birds! This Willow Ptarmigan, sporting transitional plumage, allowed us to get up-close-and-personal right from the car!

Another highlight of early spring was an exceptional few days of gull-watching in St. John’s. Not only did the elusive Yellow-legged Gull (which can be seen here sporadically most winters) become a very regular visitor at Quidi Vidi Lake, but a Slaty-backed Gull was also discovered there. The two images above were captured just minutes (and metres) apart … two very rare gulls entertaining some very happy birders! (March 25, 2017)

The pack ice may have receded as spring wore on, but other visitors from the north took their place. Newfoundland had an excellent iceberg season in 2017 – and one of the early highlights was this mammoth berg that perched itself in Ferryland (an hour south of St. John’s). Photos of this iceberg (including my own) went “viral”, showing up in newsfeeds, newspapers and TV newscasts all over the world. It was just one of many awesome bergs I saw this year … including with many of my clients!

While there was no “huge” influx of European rarities into Newfoundland this spring, there was also no shortage. This European Golden Plover was one of several reported in early May. I was also fortunate to see a Ruff, two Eurasian Whimbrel, and two Common Ringed Plovers this year – AND happy to say that I had clients with me for each and every one! How’s that for good birding?!?!

Perhaps the most exciting bird of the spring (or even year) also came from Europe. This COMMON SWIFT was discovered by Jeannine Winkel and Ian Jones at Quidi Vidi Lake, St. John’s on May 20 – just the second record for Newfoundland and one of only a handful for all of North America. Cool, damp weather worked in our favour throughout the week, with this extremely rare bird sticking around until May 26 and entertaining both local birders and a number of “ABA listers” who flew in from all over North America to see it. Amazing! (Photo: May 23, 2017)

Spring slipped into summer, which of course is the busiest time of year for BirdTheRock Bird & Nature Tours. I was fortunate to host dozens of visiting birders and nature-lovers throughout the summer, sharing the many wonderful sights and spectacles that our province has to offer. This photo of Northern Gannets was taken during the excellent Eagle-Eye Tours “Grand Newfoundland” trip – one of many times I visited Cape St. Mary’s Ecological Reserve this year. This particular tour is a great way to experience the birding and natural highlights of Newfoundland, from St. John’s to Gros Morne National Park and many points in between. I look forward to leading it again in 2018! (Read more about this tour in a blog post from 2016.)

Of course, it’s not “always” just about the birds. During every tour or outing, I make time to stop and enjoy the abundance of other gems that nature has in store. I especially like the wild orchids of mid-summer, and this Showy Ladyslipper was one of nine species we encountered during a fantastic Massachusetts Audubon tour. What an awesome time we had!

Of course, summer can’t be ALL work and no play! (Who am I kidding – my work is always fun!) I made sure to steal some time to explore both new places and old favourites with my family – including the rugged coastlines of Notre Dame Bay where I grew up and my passion for nature first took root!

In August, I had the pleasure of once again leading the Eagle-Eye Tours trip to New Brunswick & Grand Manan. While there are many wonderful places and birding experiences on this tour, one key highlight is seeing the huge gathering of Semipalmated Sandpipers in the world-famous Bay of Fundy. More than 3/4 of the world’s population stop here during migration, and flocks of tens of thousands can often be found roosting on the narrow beach at high tide or swirling over the water. This was my third time leading this tour, and you can read more about it on an earlier blog post here.

As summer fades to fall in Newfoundland, I often turn my attention to migration and the opportunity to find wayward and locally rare species right here on “the rock”. One of the most interesting birds was this very late empidonax flycatcher that showed up in November — well beyond the expected date of normal migrants and reason enough to scrutinize it. Originally found by crack birder Lancy Cheng, I arrived soon after and spent several hours trying to capture diagnostic photos amid the fleeting glimpses it gave. Based on photos from several birders and Lancy’s very important sound recording, this bird was eventually identified as Newfoundland’s first ever Willow Flycatcher! Chalk one up for the perseverance and cooperation of our local birding community!

Winter also started off with a bang, when veteran birder Chris Brown discovered the province’s first Eared Grebe on December 1. Time for birding can be tough to come by for me at this busy time of year – but I managed to sneak in a “chase” to see this mega-rarity. Read more on my blog post here.

My birding year ended on yet another high note: leading my third Eagle-Eye Tours adventure of the year – this time in Trinidad & Tobago! This was my second time leading this amazing tour, and I admit to being totally enamored with this beautiful place. The lush forests, open grasslands, intriguing coastlines … and, of course, the incredible birds and wildlife! This Guianan Trogon was just one of more than 200 species we encountered during the trip – many of which were equally stunning. Stay tuned for an upcoming blog post about my most recent trip — but in the meantime you can check out this three-part series from my last adventure in Trinidad & Tobago. And better yet – join me when I return at the end of 2018!

What a fantastic year! Thanks to the many friends and visitors who shared all these special moments (and many more!) with me in 2017. I’m excited for 2018 and can’t imagine what wonderful experiences it might have in store! Why not join me to find out for yourself?!?!

Wishing you all a happy, prosperous and fun-filled 2018!!

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2016: A Year in Review

I’m happy to say that 2016 was a fun, productive and busy year both for BirdTheRock Bird & Nature Tours and for my own birding adventures. I was fortunate to share my province’s amazing birds and nature with more than 70 visiting birders (!), added five new species to my own Newfoundland “life list”, and found myself on an impromptu excursion to Hawaii at the end of the year. Below are a few of the many highlights from 2016:

I always look forward to hosting the annual WINGS winter birding tour, and last year was no exception. A group of four visiting birders from the southern USA enjoyed some great “cold weather” birding and lots of excellent winter birds. An abundance of Dovekie, finches and of course a great selection of northern gulls were all part of a fantastic week! Check out this blog post to see more highlights.

WINGS tour participants scan for seabirds at wintery St. Vincent's beach on January 15.

WINGS tour participants scan for seabirds at wintery St. Vincent’s beach on January 15.

The first big rarity of 2016 was an unexpected one … an immature Sabine’s Gull discovered at St. Vincent’s on January 31. This species is virtually never recorded in the northern hemisphere during winter, let alone Newfoundland. I had never seen a Sabine’s Gull, so after a few painful days I finally made the trip to see it on February 4 – enjoying it immensely despite some wicked weather! You can read more about my encounter with a “Sabine’s in the Snow” here.

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This Sabine’s Gull was not only unexpected but “off the charts” for January in Newfoundland. It should have been somewhere far, far away from the snow squall I was watching it in!

The winter excitement continued when a Fieldfare was discovered in Lumsden (northeast coast) on February 6. This mega-rare European thrush was a bird I had been waiting to see here (I saw TONS when I lived in Finland in 2005), so I once again braved some nasty and very cold weather to track it down. We worked hard for this one, and the end result was a not only a new “tick” but a lot of time invested for a lone obscure photo of its rear-end. Read more about this eventful chase here.

The business end of a mega-rare Fieldfare that has been hanging out in Lumsden on the northeast coast. While we did get some slightly better looks this morning, this was the only photo I managed to get! "Arse-on", as we might say in Newfoundland.

The business end of a mega-rare (and very elusive!) Fieldfare in Lumsden on the northeast coast. While we did get some slightly better looks, this was the only photo I managed to get! “Arse-on”, as we might say in Newfoundland.

After an unexplained (but not unprecedented) absence, this Yellow-legged Gull showed up in mid-February and was a fixture for local gull-watchers for a few days. It is likely still around.

Mid-February saw me catching up with an old, familiar friend – a Yellow-legged Gull which had been elusive the past few winters.

This female Bullock's Oriole (2nd provincial record) was visiting a private feeder sporadically during late winter 2016. I finally caught up with it on March 23 - a great bird!

This female Bullock’s Oriole (2nd provincial record) was visiting a private feeder sporadically during late winter 2016. I finally caught up with it on March 23 – a great bird!

Spring birding is always a “mixed bag” here in Newfoundland – you never know what you’ll see. I enjoyed one very interesting day of birding with Irish birders Niall Keough and Andrew Power in early May – finding great local birds such as Black-backed Woodpecker and Willow Ptarmigan, as well as rarities such as Purple Martin, Franklin’s Gull and a very unexpected Gyrfalcon! You can check out more the day’s highlights here.

This male Willow Ptarmigan was very cooperative, even if the weather wasn't. The female was spotted sitting on a rock just a few yards further up the road.

This male Willow Ptarmigan was very cooperative, even if the weather wasn’t. The female was spotted sitting on a rock just a few yards further up the road.

This young Beluga Whale was easy to find at Admiral's Beach, where it had been hanging out for several weeks. It turned out to be a huge highlight for my Irish friends, and an excellent end to an awesome day out in the wind & fog!

This young Beluga Whale was easy to find at Admiral’s Beach, where it had been hanging out for several weeks. It turned out to be a huge highlight for my Irish friends, and an excellent end to an awesome day out in the wind & fog!

This Cave Swallow, discovered at Quidi Vidi Lake (St. John's) by Alvan Buckley on May 29, was not only the province's second record but also one of just a few spring records for eastern North America.

This Cave Swallow, discovered at Quidi Vidi Lake (St. John’s) by Alvan Buckley on May 29, was not only the province’s second record but also one of just a few spring records for eastern North America.

In early June, BirdTheRock hosted its first tour to the Codroy Valley. Nestled away in the southwest corner of Newfoundland, this lush valley is easily one of the island’s most beautiful places – and it is also home to the province’s greatest diversity of landbirds. A number of species wander there regularly that are otherwise very uncommon or rare in the rest of Newfoundland, and a few have pushed the limits of their breeding range to include this small region of our island. There are many species that you can expect to find here but nowhere else in Newfoundland! Read more about our very fun tour here (and contact us if you’re interested in the 2017 trip which will be advertised soon).

The Piping Plover has experienced drastic population declines in recent decades, due mostly to habitat disturbance. Unfortunately, human activity on sandy beaches (and especially the use of ATVs on local beaches) has created a lot of problems for these little birds.

The Codroy Valley is one of the last footholds of the endangered Piping Plover in Newfoundland & Labrador. We enjoyed seeing several during the tour – a good sign for this vulnerable species.

The view from our accommodations included not only the internationally recognized Great Codroy estuary, but also rolling fields, lush forests and the majestic Long Range Mountains (a northern extension of the Appalachians!). It was a treat to start and end each day with this beautiful vista.

The view from our accommodations included not only the internationally recognized Great Codroy estuary, but also rolling fields, lush forests and the majestic Long Range Mountains (a northern extension of the Appalachians!). It was a treat to start and end each day with this beautiful vista.

The rest of summer was blocked full of tours and adventures with friends and visitors from all over the world. One of the biggest highlights was the “Grand Newfoundland” tour I designed and hosted for Eagle-Eye Tours. This epic, 11-day tour started in St. John’s and hit many great birding and natural history sites across the province, before ending in Gros Morne National Park. This was hands down one of the best tours and most amazing, fun-loving groups I have ever led – I can’t say enough about the great time and experiences we all had! Read more about this fantastic tour here (and check out the Eagle-Eye Tours website if you’d like to find out more about the upcoming 2017 trip).

While I've always been blessed with excellent groups, this one was especially great - energetic, easy-going and always up for some fun!

While I’ve always been blessed with excellent groups, this one was especially great – energetic, easy-going and always up for some fun!

One obvious highlight was our boat tour to the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, where we experienced (not just "saw"!) North America's largest colony of Atlantic Puffins. It never disappoints.

One obvious highlight was our boat tour to the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, where we experienced (not just “saw”!) North America’s largest colony of Atlantic Puffins. It never disappoints.

The beautiful sunset even provided nice light for a quick game of twilight mini-golf. Here's Jody honing his his other set of skills.

I was happy to be joined by my friend and co-leader Jody Allair – someone who has no trouble finding a way to have fun on every day of every tour!

After the tour, Jody and I joined Darroch Whitaker for a climb to one of Gros Morne National Park's lesser visited summits. Here we found several Rock Ptarmigan - a new species for both of us, and one of just a few breeding species I had left to see in Newfoundland.

After the tour, Jody and I joined Darroch Whitaker for a climb to one of Gros Morne National Park’s lesser visited summits. Here we found several Rock Ptarmigan – a new species for both of us, and one of just a few breeding species I had left to see in Newfoundland.

Two rare terns shows up on the southeast Avalon in late July. Although I missed one (Royal Tern), I did catch up with a Sandwich Tern – my fourth new species of the year! On the way back, Alvan Buckley and I discovered another great and unexpected rarity – a Eurasian Whimbrel! Although not my first, the mid-summer date made it especially notable. You can see more photos of these unusual visitors here.

This SANDWICH TERN was just the sixth record for Newfoundland, and a first for me! There is an ongoing discussion about its origins - is it American or European? (My very instant photo doesn't add much to that conversation - but it sure was great to see!). July 28, 2016, St. Vincent's NL.

This Sandwich Tern was just the sixth record for Newfoundland, and a first for me!

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The European race of Whimbrel (centre) is most easily distinguished from it North American cousin (left and right) by its large white rump.

One iconic Newfoundland species that I had several wonderful encounters with this year was Leach’s Storm-petrel. Despite being very abundant breeders and at sea, it is actually quite unusual to encounter them from land. This year I was fortunate to help several clients see this elusive bird, enjoy hundreds myself during a northeast gale, and even rescue one stranded at Cape Race lighthouse. If you’d like to learn more about these enigmatic little seabirds, check out this blog post I recently wrote about them.

We rescued this Leach's Storm-Petrel after finding it stranded at the base of Cape Race lighthouse on September 25. Although stranded birds may "appear" injured as they sit motionless or sometime flop around on the ground, in most cases they are healthy and simply cannot take off from land. We released this one over the water at nearby Cripple Cove.

We rescued this Leach’s Storm-Petrel after finding it stranded at the base of Cape Race lighthouse on September 25.

Few birds are as legendary in Newfoundland as far-flung western warblers, and Hermit Warbler is one of those gems that I’ve been wishing (though hardly expecting) to see here. But even more surprising than the fact that one was found on November 11, exactly 27 years after the one and only previous record, was that I had virtually conjured it just 12 hours earlier! It was my fifth and final new species for 2016. Read more about this incredible rarity and my wild prediction here.

This HERMIT WARBLER will no doubt be the highlight of November - and maybe of the year. Bruce Mactavish discovered it in Mobile on November 11 Newfoundland's one and only other record (Nov 11 1989)!

This Hermit Warbler was no doubt the highlight of November – and maybe of the year. Bruce Mactavish discovered it in Mobile on November 11.

I wrapped up my birding year with a fun and very impromptu adventure in Hawaii. I had the very great pleasure of helping ABA Big Year birders Laura Keene and John Weigel “clean up” on the amazing birds of Hawaii last month. Although the recent addition of Hawaii to the ABA region didn’t take effect until 2017, these intrepid birders decided to include it in their own big year adventures. We had an amazing time, saw virtually all the species one could expect in December, AND set a strong precedent that future Big Year birders will have a tough time topping! I’ll post a short write-up about that adventure, and its deeper meaning for me, in the very near future – so stay tuned!

Palila is just one of several endemic (and critically endangered!) species we encountered while visiting the Hawaiian islands. This particular bird is among my worldwide favourites, and the time we spent with this one is an experience I'll forever cherish.

Palila is just one of several endemic (and critically endangered!) species we encountered while visiting the Hawaiian islands. This particular bird is among my worldwide favourites, and the time we spent with this one is an experience I’ll forever cherish.

Best wishes for a healthy, happy and adventure-filled 2017!!

Winter 2015-16: Surprises & Usual Suspects

Well – another season of “official” winter birding (Dec 1 – Feb 29) has ended, and another Newfoundland winter bird list is complete. It has been an unusual winter weather-wise, with periodic warm spells and the snow coming and going like the tide in many parts of the island. In fact, looking out my St. John’s window this past week, it looked an awful lot like spring – hardly a patch of snow to be seen anywhere! But despite what the “official” season might say, I’m sure we’re not done with winter just yet – and there are probably more birds to discover before spring actually arrives!

The final tally of 140 species reported across Newfoundland (excluding Labrador) this winter was pretty much right on average. As always, there were lots of exciting surprises and a few (though not many) expected species that failed to make the list. The final list can be found here (while a cumulative list of previous winters can be found here).

Intrepid birder Alvan Buckley produced some of the earliest highlights during a school-related stint on the southwest coast – including the province’s second winter record of Field Sparrow and an equally rare Red-tailed Hawk. A stunning Summer Tanager was frequenting a feeder in nearby Codroy Valley in early December, while a very rare Western Tanager was photographed on the southern Avalon Peninsula on December 6. Unfortunately, the latter was a one-day wonder and disappoint birders who had hoped to connect with it in following days. An Eastern Towhee and Townsend’s Warbler rounded off some locally exciting birds for the first few days of winter birding.

Beverley Hinks shared this photo of a beautiful male Summer Tanager that frequented her yard in late November and early December ... what a stunning winter bird!

Beverley Hinks shared this photo of a beautiful male Summer Tanager that frequented her Codroy Valley yard in late November and early December … what a stunning winter bird!

Around St. John’s, a few dedicated birders managed to keep lingering migrants alive with an incredible effort to keep feeders stocked in strategic locations. A Blue-headed Vireo, Wilson’s Warbler and Yellow Warbler all survived into the cold January weather, while a Pine Warbler, Yellow-breasted Chat, Orange-crowned Warbler and Ruby-crowned Kinglet were still doing well when the end of February rolled by! A Northern Mockingbird and several Baltimore Orioles were also present around the city for parts of the season.

Although rare in Newfoundland, Pine Warbler makes the winter list most years. However, it is unusual for one to make it through the winter. This is the second year in a row that diligent caretakers have helped one survive the coldest season with a generous supply of high-energy food!

Although rare in Newfoundland, Pine Warbler makes the winter list most years. However, it is unusual for one to make it through the winter. This is the second year in a row that diligent caretakers have helped one survive the coldest season with a generous supply of high-energy food!

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This first-winter Sabine’s Gull was a very unexpected surprise … extremely rare anywhere in North America during winter, and pretty much anytime along the coast of Newfoundland.

A Pacific Loon that has been hanging out near St. Vincent’s was relocated several times throughout the winter. Completely off-the-wall was a Sabine’s Gull that was found in the same area on January 31 and lingered for more than a week. This is quite rare from land in Newfoundland, and almost unheard of anywhere along the North American coast in winter! This exciting find was closely followed by a Fieldfare in Lumsden on the island’s northeast coast, and a beautiful Varied Thrush in Rocky Harbour. Both are mega rarities, although the Old World origins of the Fieldfare gave it a slight edge on the excitement scale.

The business end of a mega-rare Fieldfare that has been hanging out in Lumsden on the northeast coast. While we did get some slightly better looks this morning, this was the only photo I managed to get! "Arse-on", as we might say in Newfoundland.

This Fieldfare was discovered enjoying late-season Mountain Ash berries (akak “dogberries”) in Lumsden on February 6. Though elusive, several keen birders were able to refind it over the next few days. And don’t worry – I did enjoy better looks than my one poor photo might suggest!

Darroch Whitaker captured this great photo of a female Varied Thrush that had been frequenting his (and a neighbour's) yard in Rocky Harbour in mid-February.

Darroch Whitaker captured this great photo of a female Varied Thrush that had been visiting his (and a neighbour’s) yard in Rocky Harbour in mid-February.

After being “missing-in-action” since mid-November, a/the Yellow-legged Gull returned to its regular haunts in east St. John’s in mid-February and was seen daily for more than a week. A period of unusually warm weather caused ALL the ice on Quidi Vidi Lake (and many other city ponds) to disappear, making gull-watching a little tough for the last week of February. (Narrowly missing the winter list was an adult Thayer’s Gull discovered on March 1 – such solid-looking candidate are actually quite rare in Newfoundland!)

After an unexplained (but not unprecedented) absence, this Yellow-legged Gull showed up in mid-February and was a fixture for local gull-watchers for a few days. It is likely still around.

After an unexplained (but not unprecedented) absence, this Yellow-legged Gull returned in mid-February and was a fixture for local gull-watchers for a few days. It is likely still around.

Several Gyrfalcons were spotted in February – probably the biggest influx in a number of years. Hopefully they continue a bit longer, since it’s been a while for this birder! Snowy Owls were reported in moderate numbers all season, also with an apparent influx in the last half of February.

Plenty of our winter regulars put in great showings this season, too. Tufted Ducks and Eurasian Wigeon were found at their regular locations, while Dovekie were spotted in excellent numbers through most of January. Northern finches such as Common Redpoll and White-winged Crossbill descended on several parts of the island, as did big flocks of Bohemian Waxwings. While resident, Pine Grosbeaks were especially notable as big gatherings were found gorging on late season berries. Missing from the list, but undoubtedly on the island somewhere, were species such as Boreal and Northern Saw-whet Owls, Rock Ptarmigan and Northern Three-toed Woodpecker. One major change from previous years was a huge decrease in the number of Black-headed Gulls wintering in St. John’s – the recent closure of several sewer outflows has had a significant impact on their distribution.

All in all, it was another excellent winter in one of the best places to go winter birding!

An Odd Case of Common Gull

Gull season started a tad early this year – and with a bit of a bang. Bruce Mactavish first reported an adult Yellow-legged Gull in Pleasantville (east St. John’s) on September 7. Alvan Buckley upped the ante by photographing a presumed third-year Yellow-legged Gull on the same field on September 11 (relocated and photographed again by Bruce a few days later).

However, the star of the show turned out to be an odd-looking gull that Alvan photographed on September 16 while trying to relocate the Yellow-legged Gulls. Most of the features pointed to it being a Common Gull (Larus canus), which in itself is not that unusual in Newfoundland. We get a few every winter. But this one was a headscratcher because, compared to nearby Herring Gulls, it appeared too big and dark for our typical Common Gull (the nominate canus race that originates in western Europe). The size, dark mantle shade, relatively bulky structure and wingtip pattern seemed to suggest that this Common Gull was not so common — in fact, it may be a member of the kamchatka race that occurs in east Asia (Siberia, Japan). See Alvan’s blog for some more discussion.

Those of us looking failed relocate this gull over the next ten days. Yesterday morning, after a solid morning of birding around Signal Hill, Bruce Mactavish and I checked the regular gull locations in that area of town – unable to find it (or anything else exciting) yet again. Switching gears, we decided to head out to Goulds where a flock of American Golden Plover, and tons of gulls, had been hanging out in a freshly plowed field. After a few minutes, I spotted a mid-sized gull with a dark grey mantle sitting on the field — it hadn’t been there moments before. I could easily have passed it off as a Lesser-Black-backed Gull (of which there were several around), but something about the pattern of head streaking gave me pause. Then the dark eye. And the bill. There it was — the “odd” Common Gull!! (Note – this was 20+ km from the original spot, so it wasn’t really on our radar for this location).

While the bright, poorly angled sunlight makes it difficult to photograph and accurately represent mantle shades, this unedited photograph still illustrates just how dark this Common Gull was compared to Herring Gulls in the background. It was darker and unlike any other Common Gull I've seen in Newfoundland. It also looked very different than Common Gulls that I saw during the nine months I spent living in Finland, which included both nominate canus and heini races.

While the bright, poorly angled sunlight makes it difficult to photograph and accurately represent mantle shades, this unedited photograph still illustrates just how dark this Common Gull was compared to Herring Gulls in the background. In life, it was darker and structurally unlike any other Common Gull I’ve seen in Newfoundland. It also looked very different than Common Gulls that I saw during the nine months I spent living in Finland, which included both nominate canus and heini races.

Fortunately, Bruce was just as excited as me to have found this bird, and we quickly organized so that he could photograph the heck out of it (he having the far better lens & camera!). Light was really harsh with bright sunlight and poor angles, but the gull did cooperate by approaching fairly close to our position, parked on the side of a busy road. Over the next hour it made its way to the south end of the field, where we were able to reposition for better (though still very bright) light, and I even snapped off a few mediocre pics of my own.

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Bright sunlight made it hard to capture the real tones and mantle shade, although these came out fairly well. Note the dark grey saddle, which in life was closer to that of Lesser Black-backed Gull (graellsi) than Herring Gull, and notably darker than what we expect in nominate Common Gulls that show up here each year. In fact, the mantle was similar in shade to that of Yellow-legged Gull (atlantis)– a colour we have trained ourselves to recognize!

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This gull also had a darkish eye (which at closer range was found to be brown with a visible pupil rather than completely dark). This feature is found in all races of Common Gull, although the texts suggest that Kamchatka Gull often (but not always) shows a paler eye than other races. The head and bill shape was completely unlike that of other Common Gulls we see here – appearing larger headed with a more sloped forehead and notably longer, more substantial bill. Our “typical” Common Gulls tend to have rounder, gentler looking head shapes with shorter, daintier looking bills – resulting in a very different look.

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Overall, this bird was much larger than the typical Common Gull we see here. In fact, this one was clearly larger than nearby Ring-billed Gulls and at times approached smaller Herring Gulls – similar in size to some Lesser Black-backed Gulls. Our “typical” Common Gulls (presumed canus) more closely match Ring-billed Gull, sometimes appearing slightly smaller and daintier. The literature indicates that Common Gulls tend to be larger and darker the further east you look, with the east Asian (kamchatka) race being the biggest and darkest of the lot.

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There were not many opportunities to photograph the spread wings on this bird, and I managed to miss them all. Fortunately, Bruce Mactavish nailed a few and has kindly given me permission to post a couple here. Here we can see that this gull is in the processing of growing new flight feathers. The outermost primaries, P10 & P9, are still growing in while P8 may or may not be completely grown. In any case we can see a wingtip pattern here that, according to the literature, would be considered typical of the kamchatka race, extreme for heini and likely very unusual or out of range for canus. – Photo: Bruce Mactavish

Another of Bruce's fine photos, this one gives us a better look at the primary pattern. Importantly, P8 is almost entirely black. In fact, all of what we can see is black, all the way up to the primary coverts (note, though, that this feather may not yet be fully grown). There is a full and substantial black band across the tip of P5 and a solid black mark across the outer web of P4. The white "moons" on P5-8 are relatively large, producing an obvious "string of pearl" effect - which is also more characteristic of kamchatka than other races. I sure hop we see this gull again in a few weeks when the primary growth is complete and we can get an even better picture of this intriguing wingtip patter. - Photo: Bruce Mactavish

Another of Bruce’s fine photos, this one gives us a better look at the primary pattern. Importantly, P8 is almost entirely black. In fact, all of what we can see is black, all the way up to the primary coverts (note, though, that this feather may not yet be fully grown). There is a full and substantial black band across the tip of P5 and a solid black mark across the outer web of P4. The white “moons” on P5-7 are relatively large, producing an obvious “string of pearl” effect – which is also more characteristic of kamchatka than other races. I sure hope we see this gull again in a few weeks when the primary growth is complete and we can get an even better picture of this intriguing wingtip pattern.
– Photo: Bruce Mactavish

Check out Bruce Mactavish’s blog for more of his excellent photos and further discussion. Alvan Buckley also posted some excellent discussion on his blog following his original discovery of the gull two weeks ago.

The jury is still out while we do a bit more research — gull identification, especially to subspecies level, is never as straightforward as we’d like. But all things considered, this certainly appears to be an excellent candidate for Kamchatka Gull.

While it certainly wasn’t on our radar, there have been a few other claims from the northeast (some of them rather convincing) to set a bit of a precedence. And hell – if we can get Slaty-backed Gulls, which originate in the same part of the world, then maybe a Kamchatka Gull isn’t so far-fetched afterall!

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)

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2013 – A Birding Year in Retrospect

We have been spending the New Year with my family in central Newfoundland – enjoying lots of fun, food and some very wintery weather. The ground is already under several feet of “the white stuff” following a very snowy December and yesterday’s storm. The forests are laden in snow, looking like intricately decorated Christmas trees adorning the countryside. And the record-breaking cold snap that has been going on all week has seen temperatures plunge to well below “frigid”, with windchills well below -30C. Sticking close to home in this cold, snowy weather has given me a chance to reflect on the past year – one that was wonderful in so many ways, including birding.

Townsend's Warbler - while very rare in eastern North America, this was an incredible 14th record for Newfoundland! - Photo: Jared Clarke (January 1, 2013)

Townsend’s Warbler – while very rare in eastern North America, this was an incredible 14th record for Newfoundland!
– Photo: Jared Clarke (January 1, 2013)

The cold, snowy weather of the first few weeks of THIS winter is a stark contrast to the much milder weather this time last year. At least five species of warbler were still kicking around in St. John’s when January 2013 rolled in, compared to just three species seen in December 2013! In fact, one of my birding highlights of last year was spending some quality time with a rare TOWNSEND’S WARBLER (first found on the St. John’s CBC) on New Year’s Day.

Pink-footed Goose. This popular bird marked an impressive eighth record for Newfoundland. - Photo: Jared Clarke (April 20, 2013)

Pink-footed Goose. This popular bird marked an impressive eighth record for Newfoundland.
– Photo: Jared Clarke (April 20, 2013)

One of the highlights as winter continued was the PINK-FOOTED GOOSE that took up residence in a local St. John’s park after being originally discovered in nearby farm fields back in November. It became popular with the many walkers who visit the area daily and was likely one of the most-photographed birds ever in the province. It was the eighth record for Newfoundland, but first in winter.

The immature Gray Heron arrived at Little Heart's Ease in early March, marking the second record for the province. - Photo: Jared Clarke (March 10 2013)

The immature Gray Heron arrived at Little Heart’s Ease in early March, marking the second record for the province.
– Photo: Jared Clarke (March 10 2013)

March, which is often one of the more “boring” months for birders in this province, was punctuated by very exciting news – a mega-rare GRAY HERON was hanging out in an open estuary at Little Heart’s Ease!! It was the second for Newfoundland and only the third or fourth for all of North America! Amazingly, it stuck around for many weeks, and was enjoyed by many birders from all over the continent who trekked out to see it. I also had another personal highlight at the very end of March when I was able to enjoy and photograph an IVORY GULL in my hometown of Lewisporte while visiting my parents for Easter. Such a great bird!

The iconic Ivory Gull - one of my favourite birds! - Photo: Jared Clarke (March 31, 2013)

The iconic Ivory Gull – one of my favourite birds!
– Photo: Jared Clarke (March 31, 2013)

A "Greenland" Greater White-fronted Goose that dropped in at Biscay Bay. - Photo: Jared Clarke (April 17, 2013)

A “Greenland” Greater White-fronted Goose that dropped in at Biscay Bay.
– Photo: Jared Clarke (April 17, 2013)

Around the same time, strong northeasterly winds brought two “Greenland” GREATER WHITE-FRONTED GEESE to Twillingate on the northeast coast. While I didn’t get a chance to go see these, I did manage to catch up with another that arrived in Biscay Bay a few days later (early April). Spring continued to heat up, with two LITTLE EGRETS being discovered at Fair Haven, at the northern end of Placentia Bay. While this was the ninth record for this primarily European species, it was the first opportunity I had to see one on this side of the Atlantic.

This Little Egret, one of two that spent some time in Fair Haven this spring, was a great addition to my Newfoundland list. - Photo: Jared Clarke (May 18, 2013)

This Little Egret, one of two that spent some time in Fair Haven this spring, was a great addition to my Newfoundland list.
– Photo: Jared Clarke (May 18, 2013)

Pine Grosbeaks were especially obliging at several locations during our tour, including this stunning male at Gros Morne National Park.

Pine Grosbeaks were especially obliging at several locations during our tour, including this stunning male at Gros Morne National Park.

I was very fortunate in June to lead two bird & nature tours in Newfoundland – sharing the incredible beauty and wonder of my province with visitors from across Canada, Europe and the United States. The first excursion, for Eagle Eye Tours, enjoyed great birds in the form of Boreal Owl, Black-backed Woodpecker, and Grey-cheeked Thrush, along with the amazing spectacles of Witless Bay and Cape St. Mary’s Ecological Reserves (read more here). The second trip, for Massachusetts Audubon, continued all the way across Newfoundland to beautiful Gros Morne National Park, enjoying great birds, whales, and wildflowers along the way (read more here).

KILL_July20_1115Late summer included a fun photography session with a family of Killdeer at a private horse stables in Logy Bay – they have bred there the past few years, and I was kindly invited to spend a morning with them once the young had fledged and were running around the fields. One of the biggest highlights of my entire year was the Eagle Eye tour that I co-led in New Brunswick — visiting great places like Kouchibouguac National Park and Grand Manan Island. Our group soaked in an amazing shorebird spectacle at Johnson Mills, the stunning forests of Acadia, and wonderful seabirds & whales in the Bay of Fundy.

Tens of thousands of Semipalmated Sandpipers were roosting at Johnson Mills at high tide. An estimated three-quarters of the world's population of this small shorebird stop over at the Bay of Fundy during southward migration every year.

Tens of thousands of Semipalmated Sandpipers were roosting at Johnson Mills at high tide. An estimated three-quarters of the world’s population of this small shorebird stop over at the Bay of Fundy during southward migration every year.

This stunning Yellow-throated Vireo was the big highlight of this year's BMI birding. It is quite rare in Newfoundland, with maybe a dozen or so records. Photo: Jared Clarke (Bear Cove, September 21, 2013)

This stunning Yellow-throated Vireo was the big highlight of this year’s BMI birding. It is quite rare in Newfoundland, with maybe a dozen or so records.
Photo: Jared Clarke (Bear Cove, September 21, 2013)

Fall is always an exciting time for birding in Newfoundland, when we spend our time searching for wayward migrants and wanderers that we rarely see. One of my earliest rewards this season was a YELLOW-THROATED VIREO I discovered during our annual “big day” event in late September. This bright little stunner is found less than annually in Newfoundland and was only my second ever, despite lots of time spent looking. Check out this post to see what other gems were found during the day!

This Northern Wheatear was part of mini-invasion into Newfoundland this fall. - Photo: Jared Clarke (October 10, 2013)

This Northern Wheatear was part of mini-invasion into Newfoundland this fall.
– Photo: Jared Clarke (October 10, 2013)

As usual, October turned out to be one of the most happenin’ months of the year. Highlights included at least 10 NORTHERN WHEATEARS that dropped in around the Avalon and northeast coast, a PINK-FOOTED GOOSE photographed in Bonavista, and a long-staying YELLOW-CROWNED NIGHT HERON in a Torbay neighbourhood. However, the clear-cut star of the month was a SCISSOR-TAILED FLYCATCHER also discovered in Torbay, where it hung out for about ten days and was seen by many birders! Not surprisingly, it was just the second record for Newfoundland.

This moulting adult Scissor-tailed Flycatcher marked the second record for the province, but the first that was able to be enjoyed by birders. And enjoyed, it was! - Photo: Jared Clarke (Torbay; October 10, 2013)

This moulting adult Scissor-tailed Flycatcher marked the second record for the province, but the first that was able to be enjoyed by birders. And enjoyed, it was!
– Photo: Jared Clarke (Torbay; October 10, 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)

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)

Possibly the most exciting bird of 2013 was discovered in mid-November – the island’s first VIRGINIA’S WARBLER. Despite hanging out in a relatively small area, this very unexpected visitor from across the continent was very elusive and it took me three stressful days to finally catch up with it! It braved some very cool temperatures until at least December 2, furnishing an excellent record for the winter list. I also caught up with another elusive bird – the YELLOW-LEGGED GULL that has been sneaking around St. John’s since late October. I was happy to see this Newfoundland specialty after nearly two years absence!

November also brought with it the first signs of what would turn out to be a massive invasion of SNOWY OWLS. These majestic, almost mythical birds from the north descended on much of eastern North America in late November and early December – but nowhere like the southeast Avalon, where as many as 300 were counted in a single day! I was fortunate enough to enjoy an intimate photo session with one of the beautiful owls at Cape Spear in early December.

- Photo: Jared Clarke (December 7, 2013)

– Photo: Jared Clarke (December 7, 2013)

And while 2013 was also peppered with some major dips and misses (Tundra Swan? Sandwich Tern?!?! Tricolored Heron!!!), I can easily look back at it as a year filled to the brim with exciting birds, wonderful experiences and even a few great adventures. I shared many of those birds and adventures with some equally great people – birders from near and far! And what more can I ask?? Only that 2014 is just as fun and rewarding …

Happy New Year!

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)