Winter Birding 2011
As usual, january has been a busy month for me. This is the month that people liek to visit to see Dovekie and of course, Yellow-legged Gull. We I'm glad to say that all of my visitors this year have seen Dovekie and all but a couple have caught up with Yellow-legged Gull. as a bonue all have see both Black-tailed and Slaty-backed Gull. An addition highlight for my January 16th group was a 1st winter European Herring Gull. It's only a subspecies right noe,but is split in Europe and perhaps destined to someday be considered its own species by the AOU. At this point all of my participants will collect a very nice North American "tick". The other big "want" bird this winter has been Northern Lapwing. We 've had a mini invasion this year,but the birds became very difficult to find after we had our first snowfall in the second week of January. We chased several of tthese birds,including one that was chased off by a dog about 30 minutes before we arrived!. My early January group did manage to get a Lapwing,before the snowfall.
Winter Birds of St.John's- December 18th
For some reason I can never seem to sleep at all the day before a big birding trip,like a big day a Xmas count, or even some regular birding days after storms etc,where I think there is potential for good birds. Last night was no different and the last time I looked at the clock before dozing off this morning it was 5:10.When the alarm sounded at 7:00 I barely made it up.
I met with a Dan Kaspar from Texas today to search for the NL specialties. At first, one might wonder why someone would travel from bird rich Texas to bird in NL in December. Why they get more species on a good Xmas count than we do in a big year! However,if you want to see some species such as Dovekie,Thick-billed Murre,Bohemian Waxwing etc you have to go the North East.When you add Yellow-legged Gull and Tufted Duck to that list you really only have one option, St.John's in winter. As mentioned in a previous blog,St.John's is the only reliable place in North America where one can hope to glimpse this European Gull.
I was extremely hopeful just a couple of days when Quidi Vidi Lake had frozen,however, after a day of rain and temps on the plus side of 0, the lake was 95% ice free. I met Dan at the lake at 8:00. I pointed out the various ducks,including several Tufted Ducks, another St.John's specialty. I would later count over 20 of these in a single flock at a local pond. The TUDU was nice,but gulls were scarce,just a few Iceland Gulls on the shore and a meagre gathering in the water in the center of the lake. We decided to head off in search of Dovekies and return to the lake in the afternoon.
We got to Cape Spear and found a small flock of Common Eiders(no Kings today).We had amazing looks at a flock of about 25 Purple Sandpipers as they dodged waves and fed on the jagged rocks, just feet from the Atlantic ocean. These birds seemingly choose, to winter in the most inhospitable habitat imaginable. After an hour still no Dovekie- I was getting a little worried. Finally I saw something that looked like a black and white nerf football bobbing in the water. I attempted to get Dan on this bird several times but the bird was diving frequently to avoid becoming breakfast for a Great Black-backed Gull. Eventually Dan got on the bird. It was somewhat distant but the Swarovski ATS 80 HD, cranked up to 60X, is pure magic and afforded my guest a great view of this most sought after Alcid.
After this, we moved on the harbour to see Black-headed Gulls,Iceland Gulls and got fantastic looks at Great Cormorants. All these were also target birds. After a quick break we headed back to Quidi Vidi Lake. As we approached the lake things looked much more promising.There were many more gulls at the lake,with a large flock in the center of the lake and another 500 gulls crammed on a small patch of ice in the far SE corner of the lake. To my surprise, there was also a large flock on the fields in Pleasentville(odd to find them there this time of year). We scanned this flock several times from different angles,but we couldn't find a Yellow-legged Gull. We decided to check out the flock that was resting on a small patch of ice leftover from the big freeze earlier in the week. I scanned the flock 3 times and saw nothing other than a few adult Lesser Black-backed Gulls and a nice looking adult GBBGXGLGU(this birds mantle was surprisingly close to YLGU). We were discussing alternate gull watching locations when I finally saw the 'rare shade of gray' sandwiched between a GBBG and a GLGU. I zoomed in and soon Dan was looking at his most wanted target bird... Yellow-legged Gull.
Below are two of four, Yellow-legged Gulls that have been found in St.John's this fall/winter. These photos were taken in October. There is a good chance that the bird we saw today, was the streaky headed individual seen here- now almost completely white headed, except for some light spotting on the forehead and lores.
After enjoying some satisfying looks at the YLGU we set off in search of Bohemian Waxwings and Crossbills.in the last hour of light we checked several good locations but failed to see anything notable, other than very recent evidence of a Black-backed Woodpecker,that failed to shoe itself while we were there.
All in all, it was a very successful day. Now I'm off to try to get some sleep before I lead the first installment of the Winter on the Avalon Tour tomorrow. I don't think I'll have any trouble sleeping tonight though.
Newfoundland Winter Birds in Newfoundland Winter Weather- December 19th
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.
Southern Avalon Birds and Caribou- December 23rd
I ran a mini tour on the southern Avalon Peninsula. The weather was truly exceptional with temperatures above zero and sunny conditions all day. Today I was hosting Mark Mcdermot originally from Britain,but now of Washington DC. We were again in search of Newfoundland specialties.
We've had some very strong NE winds in recent days and I had a hunch that some seabirds could be pushed close to shore and in sheltered coves. We were on the Cape Race Rd by dawn and it wasn't much later that were we enjoying spectacular scope views of a female King Eider. We would have great looks at a stunning adult male later in the day. Further along Cape Race Rd we encounted small flocks of Snow Buntings that posed at close range and a very cooperative Lapland Longspur was the third lifer of the day for Mark. Just minutes later we found ourselves with full scope views of 2 male Harlequin Ducks and prolonged looks at a number of Long-tailed Ducks, Guillemots and White-winged Scoters.
On our way out the Cape Race Rd we had still failed to see one target bird that has been unusually difficult to find this year. However,as we neared the end of the road I saw a small black blob, bobbing in the surf very close to shore. I slammed on the breaks and finally got the scope on a Dovekie. We watched the bird for about 20 minutes as it bathed and preened less than 100 feet offshore,this is the right way to see a Dovekie!
Mark mentioned that he had never seen a Caribou. On that note I decided to head to St.Shotts,a small remote town west of Cape Race,in the middle of the barren Avalon wilderness. Just as we entered St.Shotts we saw a small herd of 6 Caribou well out on the barrens. We all enjoyed nice scope views,but I had something better in mind. I headed closer to the small settlement and within 5 minutes we were surrounded by a herd of over 50 Caribou. They were all around the vehicle and were totally unconcerned by our presence. We stayed here for almost an hour enjoying these amazing animals and even got to see two bulls lock antlers on a couple of occasions,something I hadn't seen before.
Generally, we head down the southern Avalon in search of birds,but there is so much more to offer.When you consider experiences such as this and the amazing coastal scenery, it really is an awe inspiring location. The Caribou were the icing on the cake of an already successful day and was a great way to end another spectacular experience on the southern Avalon.
Southern Avalon January 11th-13th
For the past three days I have been guiding a visiting birder from Cape May. The focus of our trip was Newfoundland winter birds and searching for European strays. We had a great trip and scored almost everything one could expect of a three days January trip to Newfoundland.Highlights of the trip included:
White-winged Crossbill- several
Pine Grosbeak- several and great looks
Boreal Chickadee- many
King Eider- imm male and stunning adult male
TUFTED DUCK- over 30!
Green-winged Teal (European race)
YELLOW-LEGGED GULL- stunning close views
Black-headed Gull- many
GYRFALCON- dark morph
Passerines and ducks of less interest to visiting birders not mentioned.Conspicuously absent form this list is Dovekie. This usually abundant Alcid,is virtually non-existent this winter- very odd. We did ,however, have it on all previous tours this winter. I think the Redwing,Yellow-legged Gull and Gyrfalcon more than made up for it though!
Cleaning up on Newfoundland Specialties December 30th
Over the last two days I have been helping Keith Camburn pick up some NF specialties. He has amassed an ABA list that most of could only dream of. One bird that has eluded him (and many listers) is Yellow-legged Gull and seeing this species was our main focus.
We met yesterday at 8:00 am at Quidi Vidi in a heavy drizzle. Although the conditions were not ideal, the gulls didn't seem to mind and there were decent numbers at the lake. We scanned the flocks a few times and never saw anything but our usual species and a couple of hybrids. At 10:41 it happened. Keith noticed a gull with with a gleaming white head and medium gray mantle, that was easily darker than the surrounding Smithsonianus Herring Gulls. I got on the bird and confirmed it was indeed a Yellow-legged Gull. In fact,it was the same bird that I had photographed a day earlier at the St.John's harbour (see previous post for photos).We enjoyed nice looks at this rare gull until it eventually flushed with the other gulls, for some unknown reason. We would find this gull again 4 hours later in the same location for a second look.With the major target bird out of the way we set out to see some of the other NF specialties such as, Tufted Duck (30+), Eurasian Wigeon,Eurasian Green-winged Teal,Common Gull,Black-headed Gull and Great Cormorant- not to mention over a 1000 Kumliens Iceland Gulls. At that point the light was starting to fade and we decided to call it a day and decided to devote the following day to birding the southern Avalon.
We had a great day today on the southern Avalon, seeing many other nice northern birds, that one just doesn't get to see that often in the southern US. Some of the notable species included, Boreal Chickadee,White-winged Crossbill,Pine Grosbeak,Northern Shrike and really nice flock of 250 Snow Buntings! Aside from passerines, we also saw large numbers of Common Eiders and long-tailed Ducks, 2 King Eider, all 3 Scoter Species,Red-necked Grebe and had knee-buckling looks and amazing photo ops, with 70+ Purple Sandpipers.
All of this, combined with the fantastic coastal scenery, made for a nice end to successful visit for Keith and I just happy that we were able to see so many of the birds on his wish list.