Over the summer, I have visited so many of the "hot spots" in St. John's looking for something special. Time after time, I came up empty-handed. In fact, not only have no unusual or rare birds recently shown up in St. John's, but the Southern Shore has not had much to offer either. The few desirable birds disappeared before I could get to them. Suffice it to say, I have had a long, dry spell of not seeing a new Newfoundland bird for quite some time.
Yesterday, after an unfruitful drive to Cape Spear, I decided to drop in on Virginia Lake to see if anything new had moved in there. I was greeted with some small bird activity including Yellow Warblers, Yellow-rumped and Blackpolls, along with a few Black-capped Chickadees. Then, I saw a bird that looked like a Mourning Warbler. I shot a couple of pictures and then got my binoculars on it. I was surprised by the amount of eye-ring, so I began to wonder. I took another couple of shots before it flew away. I decided to follow it around the trail. I didn't see it again, but I did come upon another flock of Chickadees. I stopped and pished for a few minutes. In flew a small bird unlike the others. My first glimpse was like the first picture. It looked blue/gray. I didn't know what it was, but I knew it was different.
Then, it turned around and flashed that brilliant yellow throat at me. I was 90% sure it was a Yellow-throated Warbler. It stayed around for quite a while but was quite busy. It moved from branch to branch and was often masked from view by the leaves and branches. Nevertheless, it seemed content to stay. I just waited for any opportunity for it to show itself, unobstructed.
Then it popped out on a branch in the opening with a flash of sunlight on it, and I could see how bright-white the belly was. This was a beautiful bird.
Walkers were coming and going and dogs were attacking each other, but this bird stayed put. I enjoyed every minute of it.
When it did fly off and I was sure it wasn't going to return, I headed straight to Anne Hughes to see if she could confirm the identity of the bird with my pictures. Indeed, it was a Yellow-throated Warbler. I was delighted. It was today that I learned that this sighting goes into the record books for being the earliest sighting (Aug. 28) of the Yellow-throated recorded in Newfoundland. I understand the previous early date was September 5 on Bear Cove Point Road.
This morning on the way home from an errand, I stopped into the area again to see if I might be twice-lucky. There was minimal bird activity when I got there. However, I did see one little bird, looking quite gray, flit across the trail. It flew out of the low brush, crossed the trail, and quickly disappeared in the low brush on the opposite side. I could not see it again. The behaviour was quite sparrow-like, but the color was not. I wonder if that behaviour is also typical of a Yellow-throated Warbler.
While bird watching, I have the opportunity to see so many places that I probably wouldn't, otherwise, visit. Cape Race is one such place. In the middle of April this year, coinciding with the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, a friend and I made the trip to the end of Cape Race Road. Given the magnitude of the occasion, I was surprised to see so few visitors in this location. Nevertheless, the long, steep hill present above the Drook is something of a deterrent. The road was in excellent condition this year, though, making it much easier for tourist to make the trip.
Birders know this road for reasons other than the historical. It is well known that spring migrants will travel at night, and the flashing beam emanating from lighthouses signal land. Birds seize the opportunity to make landfall. This livens up the long, 20 km. road during the spring. In the fall, birds will also congregate on this road prior to making their return trip to winter grounds. Cape Race Road or Cape Pine Road (not far away) offer up the best opportunities to see American Kestrel, Ptarmigan, Horned Lark, owls, and rare species of warblers. With the help of the lighthouse keepers, regular reports are made about the special visitors to Cape Race.
The grounds around the Cape Race Lighthouse were well-groomed and dressed up for the commemorative events that took place in April.
I am puzzled by this flag. At first I thought it was in celebration of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee. Then I noticed the years are not right. Then, I wondered if it may commemorate the anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, nope that would be 100 years. Could it recognize the anniversary of the Canadian National Parks? I don't think so, that would have been a 2011 celebration. Unfortunately, there was no one available to ask.
This large anchor lays on the grounds, but there is no plaque to identify its origins. We arrived a day late to participate in the information sessions, so I guess my quest for information should just dissolve into the appreciation of the area, its rugged beauty and its historical significance. Of course, any special birds seen along the way added excitement to the round-trip drive, never knowing what might appear at any minute
With a little bit of knowledge and a lot of enthusiasm, it may well be time to try a field trip. Engage the child in planning and preparing for the bird walk. Prepare a list of gear to make the trip pleasant. Plan for a long day, but be prepared for a short jaunt. First and foremost, be sure the child is dressed for all possible weather conditions: Suitable shoes/boots (sparked, princess shoes not recommended), layered clothing, jacket, and hat. Pack a backpack to carry extra clothing in case of a weather change. Apply sunscreen and take bug spray. Try to pick areas where flies are not going to ruin the trip. Take the child shopping for a size-appropriate pair of binoculars. Teaching a young child to use binoculars is not easy. I can't see what s/he is seeing. I have found the best way to teach them the focus feature is to look at a large object, bright and colorful. Then ask them to turn the dial until it looks clear. Try this over and over before going on the trip. To not be able to find an object in the binoculars can be very frustrating. Purchase a small bird call. The squeeking sound peaks their interest. Pack a picnic lunch and plenty of water/juice. and be sure to take some bird seed and maybe some peanuts. Take a bird field guide for reference and a pencil and notebook to record anything special seen along the way.Take a long a camera to record any special moment. It doesn't have to be fancy, just capable of taking some record shots. With everything in order, decide where to go.
There are numerous city parks with natural surroundings. May I suggest a place where a play ground is not available. It is very difficult to compete with swings, see-saws and other children romping about. City parks provide benches where it is possible to just sit quietly and listen for any sound of birds.
Other parks, like Samonier Nature Park, offer a guaranteed chance to observe owls and other animals such as moose and caribou. Samonier provides a great trail and very natural surroundings. With a bit of luck, small birds will be flitting around.
When walking through the woods and spotting small birds, I will stop, listen and perhaps pish to see if any little bird might come near. Without teaching a single lesson about pishing, I heard my granddaughter model the same behaviour. The tiny little "pst" that came from her was just perfect. In no time, little birds became curious, and she was ecstatic.
A bird walk doesn't have to just be about birds. Stop to enjoy all that nature offers including flowers, butterflies and insects.
If a dragonfly crosses the path, take a picture. It is impossible to see the friendly little face of the dragonfly when it is moving about. However, a picture to review later can provide an amazing little character. This is a great way to remove the fear associated with small, flying things.
Stop at a comfortable place along the trail to have a snack or lunch. Be alert to your surroundings and watch for any little visitors that may show up. The first field trip should be an all-encompassing nature walk and can make or break the potential willingness of the child to go on future trips.
Encourage the child to talk and ask questions about what you find. It isn't necessary to have all the answers, because finding the answers together can be a future activity. Follow up on their curiosity and enjoy every minute. Look at things common to you through the new, little eyes that are seeing and experiencing it all for the first time.
With a little luck, Nature will charm the child into looking forward to the next field trip.
With birds coming and going from the new feeder, it may be time to begin a feeder list. For a young child, the list should be short, simple and visual. I have thrown together a sample list to illustrate one possible format, using the common feeder birds of Newfoundland. The child can tick off the bird many times, every time s/he sees it. Once this group of birds become well-known, more birds can be introduced.
When I looked around the Internet, I couldn't find many child-friendly bird exercises. There is clearly a need as a module on birds could very easily be integrated into the school program at a very early stage. I developed a simple little work sheet that shows a male, female and immature or molting bird, each of the same species. At the bottom of the page I added a few possible questions. Also a matching sheet could be prepared where lines are drawn from the male to the female of the same species. The possibilities are endless.
With the help of Photoshop (as with the activity sheets above), I created a coloring sheet. I certainly didn't perfect this one, because I think there are too many lines on this rendition. Nevertheless, this page offers an idea of how yet another activity can be developed.
Depending on the age of the child, s/he may even be able to develop some of these activity sheets on their own.
Overall, activities should be varied, suited to the interest and age of the child, and drive the learning process.
Once the child can identify a few birds, it may be time to take a little field trip. More on that in a future post.
Within a week of setting up a new bird feeder, birds will begin to show up. Especially in inclement weather, the feeder will likely be very busy. Watching the birds come and go - what a great rainy day activity!
As birds begin to show up, a need-to-know arises. What species are these birds? Do male and female birds look alike?
What do immature birds look like? It is now time to get a field guide. Not only does this resource teach about the different kinds of birds, but also teaches the concept of seeking answers through research. Of course, the Internet is a great immediate resource, but nothing beats a well organized, pictorial field guide. Time to go shopping again. Take the child to look through bird books. The books listed on this site are only a sprinkling of those available. http://www.birderslibrary.com/features/childrens-bird-books.htm The library may be the next stop on the bird-book outing. Reading stories about birds is a great way for a young birder to develop a relationship with the little creatures. What child doesn't enjoy a good story?
With a field guide on hand, it is time to look at the birds more closely. The matching game begins. Find the picture of the bird that looks like the one at the feeder. Field guides provide pictures of both the male and the female and sometimes, images of the immature bird.
Most often, when species arrive at the feeder, there will be the presence of both males and females. Notably, the males have brighter colors than the female. The Purple Finch above are a very obvious example of how different the male and female present. The Pine Siskin is a little more subtle. The male has more bold splashes of yellow on the wings than the female. Can the child pick out the males at the feeder?
The Dark-eyed Junco is likely to be among the first to arrive at the feeder. The adult wears a dark gray suit of feathers and has a contrasting white belly. Seems easy, but then Summer ushers in a whole to new look on the young of this species. For a while, the junco looks a lot like a sparrow.
Then, if you are lucky, there may be some very special species show up at the feeder, like this Red Crossbill that frequents the Barrett's feeder in Goulds.
In fact, many great species visit their feeders such as the White-throated Sparrow. The surrounding woods and quiet setting hasten these occurences. Not all of us are so lucky.
However, in August the young warblers begin to show up in back yards. The presents of other birds like the finches and juncos seem to attract the little birds to the area. Just this week, I have been lucky enough to have a Black and White Warbler, Yellow Warblers, Blackpoll Warbler and Northern Waterthrush just appear. As I write this, I can hardly sit here, because there is a Blackpoll and a Yellow Warbler flitting around my yard with the Purple Finches.
The color and variety of warblers will grab the attention of most children. Variety is the spice of life, as the saying goes. The more a child can watch you flip through the field guide looking to match the birds in the yard with the birds in the pictures, vicarious learning will occur. In no time, they will see a bird and go to the book to model your behaviour.
This little Yellow Warbler did everything but fly in through my patio door. It explored every area of the yard, the flag pole, the patio umbrella, etc. What fun! Some have actually experienced a little bird getting into the house when opening the door to see all of the activity. That can be a bit of a challenge.
Numerous bird-related, rainy-day activities can spring from a visit from a bird. Computer activities, drawing or coloring, story-book reading and so much more. Developing a child's curiosity and appreaciation for birds is all about opportunity, creativity and learning. It is very important, however, to watch for signs of sessional saturation. When the child is done, s/he is done. Look for another chance to begin stacking new information onto previous learning. Learning will occur when the child is ready. To push that is to risk making a fun activity seem like work. A good activity at the end of a learning session is to top up the feeder. Keep the birds coming.
This weekend is the launch of the first-ever, global initiative to introduce a new birder (adult or child) to birding in a "soft" way that may spark future interest. I would like to be a part of this movement to increase awareness and generate an interest in a pass time to beat all pass times. Birding adds a richness to every outdoor experience and can be a primary or secondary focus. Yesterday, a biker stopped to talk to me on Blackhead Road. He had just seen a large raptor with a fan tail fly overhead. I had just caught a glimpse of it, so I had no idea what it was. He was very excited to know more about it. I pulled out a field guide, and he looked at the pictures. He thought the tail looked most like a Rough-legged Hawk. I knew that would be very unusual in that area, so I drove the road, hoping to see it again. This is a great example of birdwatching being an added outdoor dimension to his main focus of cycling. It is just this kind of interaction that the Pledge to Fledge program is promoting.
I am particularly keen on enriching the outdoor experience for my granddaughters and would like to share some of my ideas about how to introduce birding to a child. In the Spring, I shared an experience of birdwatching with my eldest granddaughter. Beyond the occasional outing, it is really nice to bring the birds home so that they can be enjoyed every day. This can be done by setting up a feeder. Not all feeders are as aesthetically as pleasing as this one set up by Catherine Barrett in her yard, but there are many choices of style and price range to suit any location.
Again from the Barrett yard, here is an example of the pre-formed seed bell and feeder cage.
When selecting a feeder(s), consider the potential variety of birds that may visit the feeder depending on location and bird population frequenting the area. Different feeders are available for different feeds, and of course, different birds eat different food. You don't have to be a bird expert to make the choice. The bags of seed will provide information about the meal-deal. Look at the pictures.
Black-oil Sunflower seed often provides the greatest return. Finch of all kinds will soon find the feeder. This little green feeder can handle sunflower seeds or typical finch seeds. The suet ball hung above the feeder will appeal to Blue Jays and Northern Flickers, while the suet may lure in some Black-capped Chickadees or Red-breasted Nuthatch. Of course, the species are all local to Newfoundland; so depending on where you are, you may find different birds coming to your yard.
In the winter I place this old bird bath under my feeder to catch falling seed. Some birds really prefer to eat from a flat surface rather than a swinging perch. Others, such a sparrows, prefer eating off the ground as the Purple Finch are doing below. All of that said, take a child shopping for a feeder and seed. Talk to them about how different species like different food AND how the beak is shaped to eat food they like.
Kids are in tune with shopping so make the most of it. Take them to several places to look at all of the different types of feeders and feed. The variety is amazing. Once the feeder and feed is selected, go home and hang it right away...strike while the iron is hot! Be sure to place it in a location where it can be viewed from a window in the house. All you have to do now is sit back and wait. They will come.
With not much time and very poor lighting, I was able to snap a few shots before this male Black-backed Woodpecker, found at Long Pond, flew away. There was no missing his presence. When I rounded a bend in the trail, I could hear its sharp "kik" long before I could see it.
This is only the fourth Black-backed Woodpecker that I have seen. Two males, one female and one fly-by, gender unknown. Two of these I have seen this year. As reported earlier, the first was a female located on Bauline Line at the end of June. This male was found on July 31 on the trail around Long Pond. Black-backs have been spotted in this location for several years.
The female of this species seems to dine higher up in the tree than the male. While both the male and the female feed the young, the female seems to feed them more often.
The Three-toed Woodpecker is also found in Newfoundland, but I have never seen one. There is a great similarity between the three-toed and the black-backed, with the main difference being the solid black back for which this species is name. I will watch closely for the laddered white back on any future large black woodpeckers that I come across. Who knows?
By the way, a Hairy Woodpecker has shown up a couple of times on Blackhead Road drumming on a power pole near bus stop area.
On August 7, I had a brief visit from a White Dove. It was sitting on the power line with three regularly visiting Rock Pigeons. This dove was smaller than the pigeons and had a very different eye and eye-ring. A quick Internet check informed me that there are red-eyed and dark-eyed white doves. Of course, all are domestic.
The dark eye of this dove was surrounded by a large beige eye-ring. Where did this dove come from? Les Sweetapple reported attending a wedding sometime back when White Doves were released in Bowring Park. He thought they may have been owned by someone in the Carbonear area. I searched for information about white dove releases in the province and couldn't find anything. There are some companies in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick who indicate they will provide doves to the province. It is assumed when these birds are released, they will return to their home. There was no leg band on this bird.
My Internet search turned up an interesting blog/business called Atlantic Sky based in Goulds. The breeding service once offered at this business is no longer in operation. The blog demonstrates an amazing attachment to the many birds. It might be good to know that if a Ringed-neck Dove shows up, it may have originated in Goulds. http://atlanticskyaviary.wordpress.com/about/
Rare birds on the Avalon continue to be elusive. The few that have shown up around Biscay Bay, St. Vincent's and the Burin Peninsula, have vexed me as my efforts to see the Yellow-crowned Night Heron and the Royal Tern have left me empty-handed. I keep going out, holding my breath, hoping to see something really special. If that is going to happen, the on-set of migration means that the next four to six weeks may bring the best opportunities.