In the darkness of night and a steady, thick, snow, I rolled into the Dominion Parking lot at 6:00 am this morning to meet my 5 guests for my Winter on the Avalon Birding Tour. On the drive I was 75% sure that I was going to cancel the tour and hope for better weather tomorrow.However, when I saw 5 perky faces,comprised of a Texan, an Arkensawyer,an ex Brit and 2 Newfs, rearing to go birding, I decided to give it a try. The driving was pretty terrible with a blanket of snow covering the streets and no sign of it letting up. If that wasn't enough it was damn windy and the windchill,although only -10C,felt more like -25C.
Our first stop was in Cape Broyle,it was still pretty dark and we turned up zero birds,aside from a haggard looking bunch of genetically challenged dabblers. We moved on. A few minutes later we found ourselves viewing a flock of 5 White-throated Sparrows feeding along the roadside. We often ignore these common breeders,in our hell bent search for rarities, but somehow seeing them in winter seems different. After about 10 minutes we moved on. The weather was not improving and I was again considering giving in to the elements.However,the optimism of my group, in spite of the circumstances, told me to plow on (literally).Within minutes of moving on we were again stopped,this time viewing a small flock of Juncos, when a small evenly brown bird popped out on the edge of a spruce tree only to to again immediately dissappear. My nanosecond long glimpse told me that this was a Wren but did not afford me enough information to resolve it to species. Now it seemed that the birding gods were playing some kind of cruel joke on us, to dangle this potentially exciting bird in front of our faces, only to take it away again. Seemingly with both the weather and now the birds fighting against us,we trekked on to Ferryland.
This stop produced a large flcok of Juncos with a smattering of Goldfinches and a single Song Sparrow for flavour.Bland birding to say the least,or so I thought at the time. However,neither the lack of exiciting birds, nor blowing snow whipping at our faces could disuade us from proceeding and surely things would liven up in the NF birding mecca of Renews.
As we passed Renews beach I saw a duck bobbing in the choppy water of Renews harbour. I stopped only to find a nice female King Eider. While King Eider is found annually amoung our flocks of Commons, it is not often that one affords such good looks and this was the first I had seen at this location in my 10+ years of birding here. After a few minutes of scoping we decided to more in for even better looks and maybe photos. As we puttered down the ice covered road to the marina we saw a Bald Eagle hovering Osprey style just off the beach.What was it doing,fishing? As we moved in, we were shocked to see the eagle drop from the air only to scoop up the King Eider and fly off. What are the chances? Still in shock by the sheer luck of witnessing such a truly rare NF birding moment, we moved on with buoyed hopes toward Bear Cove.
Bear Cove produced 2 brilliant adult male King Eiders and some nice scope views of Longtailed Ducks,aka Oldswuaw,aka Hounds. Fearlessly, we made the decision to brave the likely white out conditions of the windswept barrens, that lay between us and our next destination, Portugal Cove South.
Upon our arrival in Portugal Cove South we were greeted by a flock of Snow Buntings that seemed totally oblivious to the bone chilling cold, that caused us to retreat to the warmth of our vehicle after only 10 minutes. It was now that I made the difficult decidion to forego Cape Race in favor of more time in Biscay Bay,Trepassey and a possible St.Shotts visit.
Upon thoroughly scanning Biscay Bay the we found a flcok of 20+ Red-breasted Mergs and everyone enjoyed looks at an absolute stunner Horned Grebe. I located a Red-throated Loon but atfer 15 minutes of trying to relocate it for the group, we decided to move on in search of Bohemian Waxwing and Ruffed Grouse for our Texan.
The decision to skip Cape Race paid off,when I saw a small dark blob sitting motionless in the Trepassey Harborat 80kn/hr. It took a while to safely stop the van on the slick roads,but when it finally stopped, we spun around to find an immature Pied-billed Grebe. This was a genuinely rare NF winter bird, only known to breed in a single small pond in the extreme SW corner of the island.It's always nice to see this diminutive little Grebe. After everyone had point blank scope views we were off again in search of Waxwings.
Soon,with the light fading and the wind battering already cold weary bodies, we gave up- no Waxwing,no Grouse and now(of no suprise to me) no long faces either. It was time to head bac.We saw some good birds, we gave it 100% and never wavered in spite of the conditions and a two hour drive, over newly ice coated roads, loomed ahead.
Just when we thought that our birding was over for the day, I noticed 3 Willow Ptarmigan on the roadside. This was a real surprise. These birds can be difficult to find and getting point blank views of these winter plumaged birds camuflaged amoung the snow and rocks, was another treat. Our perserverance was rewarded once again!
Although I was the guide today and the most experienced birder,I learned a valuable lesson about birding.It is so easy ,as birders to become jaded. We set out in search of rarities and if we fail to add a bird to our life list,year list, or whatever other list we are keeping,the day is considered a wash. Today was not about finding rare birds, it was about seeing the birds that Newfoundland has to offer in winter and to take in the winter birding experience. Now six hours have passed since I returned from todays trip,with the vestiges of todays cold still in my bones.Aalthough I never added any birds to my life or year list today,it was one of the most rewarding birding experiences I have ever had.It was those 5 smiling, yet wind burned faces and their undampened enthusiam, that taught me that birding isn't about finding rare birds, it's about enjoying the experience and all that it entails... and to them I say thank you.