Saturday, October 23, 2010

Bird Watching in Newfoundland

It was about this time last year that I began to develop an interest in the birds that surrounded me. I began to look more closely at the common birds that appeared on my walks or in my back yard. At that time I was just breaking in my new digital SLR Canon. Before I knew it, I realized that my visual memory was not that great so I decided to take pictures of the birds that I saw so that I could study them more closely when I got home.

It was in December 2009 that I took my first bird watching tour with Dave Brown. The excitement of getting up at 4:30 a.m. to join a group of like-minded people to drive to the Southern Shore in a blustery snow storm was "the hook." On that day we happened upon an adult Bald Eagle that snatched a Common Eider right out of the waters before us. That event solidified my interest, and I began my very rewarding hobby of bird watching. I have lived in Newfoundland for nearly 30 years and had never seen an Atlantic Puffin, a Murre (except on the dinner table), or a Northern Gannet. How could that happen? Who knew that people travelled from all over the world to watch the many birds that live and pass through Newfoundland.

I have since learned that Newfoundland is considered the crossroad of birds. More rare and uncommon birds land on this island than in most any other place in North America. If I am on the ball, I will be able to see local delights and have a glimpse of very special birds like the European Golden Plover, Great Egret, Sandhill Crane, Scarlet Tanager, Slaty-backed Gull, Yellow-legged Gull and many more. All of these birds I have seen this year, and they are not in the Newfoundland Bird Guide. I used to think that book was the "be-all and end-all," but that is not the case. I have seen so many birds this year that are vagrants and do not appear in that guide. This book is a basic representation of birds that are common to this province.

The Scarlet Tanager is a classic example of a great little bird that is rare to this province but does show up from time to time. The only predictors for this kind of occurrence are the weather and the calendar. Birdwatchers in the province are very quick to report these types of rare occurrences on the NL Birds Discussion Group via Google.
(Note: This is the most often viewed bird on my blog.)

There are many bird sanctuaries and ecological reserves on the island of Newfoundland. These include : Cape St. Mary's Seabird Colonies, Witless Bay Sanctuary and Ecological Reserve, St. Georges Area Bird Sanctuary, Terra Nova National Park, Eliston Puffin Island, Grand Codroy Estuary, Gross Morne National Park and of course the nearby islands: Gannet Islands, Funk Island and Baccalieu Island. Thousands of seabirds flock to these areas for breeding each year. There are many tour boats that visit these sites and with a little luck in the right season, several varieties of whales frequent these areas. It is a blast of nature at its best.

Of course there are many more areas of Newfoundland that are birding hot spots such as Quidi Vidi Lake that boasts the greatest variety of seagulls than any other place in North America. More than one dozen species of seagulls have been recorded in the small inner-city pond that hosts the oldest sporting event (the Regatta) in North America. There are so many small ponds and fields in and around the city of St. John's that see uncommon birds drop in on a routine basis. These special, rare or uncommon birds include: Garganay, Gadwall, Pink-footed Goose, European Golden Plover, Sandhill Crane, Wood Duck, Laughing Gull, Hooded Merganser and more. There are always spots to check. I am unfamiliar with areas off the Avalon Peninsula because I haven't expanded my hobby that far yet. There is still so much to see in St. John's. In due time, I will surely venture out to other places. Most notably, the Codroy Valley attracts a very different collection of birds than St. John's.

Then there is the Southern Shore of the Avalon Peninsula. It seems when the weather is at its worst, birding the Southern Shore is at its best. The Cape Race Road that is home to the Cape Race Lighthouse (the first place to receive the Titanic distress signal) and Mistaken Point (home of the oldest deep water fossils in the world) seems to attract many vagrants. It is thought that when they are blown off course, they see the light from the light house and land in or around that area. The weary birds may stay awhile to rest up before moving on.

Cape Spear, near St. John's, also is a great spot to see seabirds. There were recent visits from a Yellow-billed Cuckoo and a Great Egret on the road to Cape Spear. I  photographed the Snow Buntings, Common Eider, Purple Sandpiper, and White-winged Scoter off the point of Cape Spear.

Birding these areas really requires the expertise of local birders who know just where to look. On the Avalon Dave Brown offers regular individualized birding tours to local birders and to visiting birders who are looking for specific birds. He is very diligent and knowledgeable, and his success rate is very high. There are also local birders who are listed at who are always happy to guide new and seasoned birders around the area. For new birders there are bi-monthly bird walks around the Botanical Gardens in St. John's. A recent walk yielded my best pictures of a Baltimore Oriole.

The birders in the province tend to think that many more uncommon birds land on this island but because the population of birders is small, the birds go undetected. It seems that most birds are documented on the weekends because that is when most local birdwatchers have the time to go in search of new and unexpected species. The number of birdwatchers may be small but the outcome is big. The Telegram, the local newspaper, carries a weekly feature on birding in the province in Section D. This can probably be accessed through the Internet. This article is written by Bruce McTavish who certainly knows what he is talking about.

Birding in Newfoundland is top notch and so are the resources.  If you are in search of a special birdwatching destination, check with the local birders to plan ahead to provide the best opportunity to see that special bird on your list. Visit the links provided in the right column of this blog to find the local experts. It will be an experience that will knock your socks off. If planned in the right season, you can see icebergs, whales and a host of historical and memorable places. If you are just touring the province, be sure to make the bird sanctuaries an incidental part of your trip; it could turn out to be the highlight.

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