Monday, March 31, 2014

March Eider Fest

 It was Saturday that I got my first look at a King Eider for the year by grace of the kindness of Bruce Mactavish and his scope.
 That distant tease left me wanting for more. So, yesterday morning, I headed back to Cape Spear in the hopes of seeing more of the show - 5000 Common Eider and 25 King Eider ....close to shore and in flight.
 Well, as it happened, I saw both. I was actually able to see the King Eider with my binoculars. It seemed that in every little cluster of the eider sprawl I saw at least one adult, male King Eider.
In several pictures, there were two Kings. In one shot, I captured three. Given, the constant shifting and diving, I suspect there were more than five. I have scanned my many photos to try to identify immature male King Eiders and females, but the images are not that sharp and neither is my ability to discern the differences .... especially at such distances.
 I worked my way around the back side of Cape Spear below the light houses. I was astounded by the sheer numbers of eiders spread across the water and hoped that in my excitement to get close, I wouldn't scare them.
 I finally reached a point along the shore where I could tuck myself in so as not to spook the birds and so as to shield myself from the raw, piercing North wind.
 I watched as the raft worked its way closer to shore. I got pretty excited, because I could just imagine them coming within feet of the shoreline.
 I could see quite a few eider looking much grayer than the others. Sibley says females from Labrador north are a pale, silver gray. There are at lease two of these in this hot.

 Apart from the scattered, greater flocks, this small group of Common Eider were moving in very close, just below me. The opportunity for some great shots was just moments away.
 Then, a thunderous helicopter appeared on the horizon. Within seconds the birds lifted off. It was a swarm of black and white dotted with brown.
 First the eider flew North, then they banked and flew South, then they repeated the same flight route. I thought they might settled back down once the chopper passed by.
 They didn't. On their final turn, they moved very far off shore and flew toward Petty Harbour. In five minutes flat, the scene changed from a stirring mass of activity to dead calm. Just like was over. Wow! What a spectacle!
I should mention that all the while the eider sat on the water there were constant streams of Kittiwakes flying by.

It is possible this kind of scene will play itself out a few more times in the week to come. However, the approaching snow storm will definitely hamper viewing. We need snow-vision goggles, something akin to night-vision goggles.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Birding Long Pond, St. John's, NL

Knowing where to bird is really important when in an area for only a short while. This is the first of a series of brochures I am preparing to guide birders new to the area to find the most birds possible. Feedback is welcome.

Birding Long Pond, Pippy Park, St. John’s, Newfoundland

                               Northern Goshawk

Table of Contents

Birding Long Pond............................................................. 1
Bird Sightings.................................................................... 2
Year-round Species........................................................... 2
Regular Seasonal Species................................................... 2
     Occasional Species....................................................... 3
     Rare Species................................................................. 3
Good to Know................................................................... 3
Long Pond Hotspots........................................................... 4
      West-end Bird Blind...................................................... 4
      Outdoor Classroom....................................................... 4
      East-end Shelter........................................................... 4
Nearby Birding Areas.......................................................... 5
For More Information.......................................................... 5

Birding Long Pond

#1 Birding Hotspot in St. John’s, NL

The woods and waters of Long Pond, accessible by a 2.9 km walking trail, yield more species of birds than any other single location in St. John’s.

100 Species and Counting

Spanning twenty years (1994-2014), more than 100 species of birds have been spotted around Long Pond.


Bird Sightings


One hundred species have been reported at and/or through the Google Discussion Group – NF Birds from 1994 to 2014. While this count is not exhaustive nor the “official count,” it can be considered an excellent overview of birds seen and months recorded.

Year-round Species

·       Ducks: American Black Duck and Mallard
·       Woodland Birds: Dark-eyed Junco; Black-capped Chickadee; Boreal Chickadee; Red-breasted Nuthatch; Blue Jay; Golden-crowned Kinglet;  American Goldfinch; American Robin; European Starling; Northern Flicker; and Herring Gull.

Regular Seasonal Species

·       Spring and Summer: American Bittern; Song Sparrow; Swamp Sparrow; Fox Sparrow, Yellow Warbler; Yellow-rumped Warbler; Blackpoll Warbler; Northern Waterthrush; Black and White Warbler; Wilson's Warbler; Black-backed Woodpecker; Downy Woodpecker; Hairy Woodpecker; Ruby-crowned Kinglet; Wilson's Snipe; and Osprey.
·       Fall and Winter: Brown Creeper; Cedar Waxwing; Greater Scaup; Lesser Scaup; Tufted Duck; American Wigeon; Eurasian Wigeon; Northern Goshawk; Northern Pintail; Bald Eagle; Pine Grosbeak; Pine Siskin; Purple Finch; Belted Kingfisher; Ring-billed Gull; Black-backed Gull; and Iceland Gull.

Occasional Species

American Coot; Bank Swallow; Barn Swallow; Tree Swallow; Bufflehead; Canada Goose; Palm Warbler; Orange-crowned Warbler; Redstart; Hooded Merganser; Northern Shrike; Pied-billed Grebe; Ruffed Grouse; Savannah Sparrow; Northern Shoveller; Common Loon, Double-crested Cormorant, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher; Magnolia Warbler; Ovenbird; Hermit Trush; Black-bellied Plover; Semipalmated Plover; Common Tern; Great Horned Owl; and Spotted Sandpiper.

Rare Species

Clay-colored Sparrow; Great Blue Heron; Great Egret; Great Crested Flycatcher; Marsh Wren; Lark Sparrow; Redwing; Lincoln's Sparrow, Little Blue Heron; Laughing Gull; Common Moorhen; Redhead; Gadwall; and Rose-breasted Grosbeak.

Good to Know

There are several resources and services in the area to make the birding experience more enjoyable.
·       Parking is available by the Fluvarium off Nagles Place.
·       Camping is available at Pippy Park from May through October.
·       The Fluvarium offers a variety of Nature programs for children.
·       Nearby, MUN Botanical Gardens hosts a free bird walk every second Sunday morning from May through October at 8:00 a.m., led by knowledgeable volunteers.
·       A copy of the Newfoundland Bird Checklist is available at the MUN Botanical Gardens off Mt. Scio Rd.
·       Long Pond trails are groomed year-round.
·       A bird blind is available on the west end of Long Pond to enhance waterfowl viewing.


Long Pond Hotspots

West-end Bird Blind

Outdoor Classroom Area

The bird blind is located at the west-end of Long Pond and overlooks a natural wetland habitat. Great Egret, Great-blue Heron, American Bittern, American Wigeon, Eurasian Wigeon, Tufted Duck, Greater Scaup, Lesser Scaup, Mallard, American Black Duck, and woodland birds have all been seen from this hide-away.

A variety of woodland birds cluster in the area of the outdoor classroom. The berries and cones attract numerous species like Cedar Waxwings, American Robins, chickadees and sparrows, including a Clay-colored Sparrow. A Brown Creeper has also been spotted along the walkway to the classroom.

East-end Shelter

The south-east corner of Long Pond is the best location to view Yellow Warblers and American Goldfinch. From this east-end shelter, it is also possible to see sparrows and other warbler species.

Nearby Birding Areas

Connected by way of a first-class network of walking trails (St. John’s Grand Concourse), there are several other good birding areas in East-end St. John’s. These locations include:
·       Kent’s Pond.
·       Rennie’s River Trail.
·       Quidi Vidi Lake.
·       Virginia River Trail.
·       Kenny’s Pond.
For More Information:                               

 Boreal Chickadee


 Great Egret

Note: Anyone interested in ordering a print copy of this in pamphlet format, please contact me via the form on the lower right of this blog screen. My brochure formatting did not import well into the blog. Much undo spacing and poor alignment here.

Merlin at Long Pond

 The calm before the storm lured me out for a walk on Wednesday. Long Pond was the most promising place to fit in a walk and enjoy the birds, too. Robins, Cedar Waxwings, chickadees and juncos were out and quite active.
 In fact the behavior of the robins and waxwings was peculiar. They were not enjoying the abundance of remaining berries, but rather were flying high and frequently. I wondered if it were their reaction to the impending storm.
 Near the end of my walk by the fluvarium, I heard and saw an aggressive flock of crows flying overhead.
 A closer look yielded this juvenile Merlin. Despite the mobbing, it seemed to continue on with its hunt. It was swift! I was really straining to see the field marks on this bird, because I thought the mustache was darker than usual. I wondered if it might be something other than a Merlin.
 I had about 30 seconds with the bird, quite long for a falcon, to try to get a good look and snap a few pictures. I knew my camera was set for the darker woods, so I worried my sky shots were going to be really weak or perhaps, yield no image at all.
Making a quick adjustment of the shutter speed, I went too dark. No time for correction.

I determined this bird was a juvenile based on the first photo in this series. The white spots on the wings, seen from above, according to Sibley, indicates a juvenile bird.

This was a great surprise! If there is only one Merlin in town, it is a very busy one as there have been reports from Cavell Avenue, to Churchill Square to Bannerman Park.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014


 Aside from a couple of special birds - the Common Snipe and the Yellow-legged Gull - winter birding around the Avalon Peninsula has been a nonevent. Well, if watching birds transition into breeding plumage is your thing, then that is happening now.
 American Robins have been more plentiful this winter and are clearly becoming more spring-like in their singing and playfulness. Nice to see, but I am wanting for more.
 On the days with the snow is not flying and the wind is not whipping my car all over the road, I have ventured to Cape Spear. On a couple of occasions I wished I hadn't gone because of the unexpected drifting I encountered. What have I found? Birds at the cape are scarce, too, and unpredictable.
 Some days I see scores of Purple Sandpipers. Other days, there is nothing but a handful of Black Guillemots. I did happen upon a Snowy Owl about ten days ago that brightened my day. It is eider I have been searching for, King Eider to be specific. So far, none! I guess "no birds" is as relevant as "lots of birds," but not nearly as much fun.
 You know it is a big bird drought when I find myself distracted by the smokestack at Long Pond....
...or find the freshly fallen snow reminding me of the cotton fields at home. It has been over a month since I have even seen a new year-bird. And, it will not happen today either, with the frigid temps and 60 km winds gusting out there today. Just how long can this dry spell go on?

Friday, March 14, 2014

Fancy Sea Ducks

 Cape Spear is one of the best places on the Avalon Peninsula to see sea birds. Among them are some pretty fancy ones. Unfortunately, getting a close and extended look at them is very difficult. Often, they just fly by and are gone again.
 As the cold weather continues, high winds drive the ice ashore. This, in turn, often brings in the sea ducks. (These ice pans almost look like salted cod fish.)
 I was greeted with a nice surprise last week at Pouch Cove when I peered over the cliff. There below were two Harlequin Ducks. This is very uncommon for that area.
 It is really strange how birding works out. For three years, I never saw a Harlequin. Now, in the last six months, I have seen three pair.
 These birds were in close to shore, but the distance between me at the top of the cliff and these birds below was far...too far to generate any good pictures. The bonus on that day was the great sunshine made viewing these ducks through binoculars just perfect.
 Also, hanging out with the Harlequins was this beautiful Long-tailed Duck.
 Providing my best look at this species, this male scooted around as it regularly dove to have breakfast.
 It was amazing how fast this duck could swim. It would often travel good distances in just seconds.
 When watching these birds at Cape Spear, it is common to see three or four hundred one second and zero the next. They all seem to dive at the same time.
Getting a good look at Eider is also very difficult. They often stay far enough off-shore that it is really impossible to see the detail. This small group was hanging fairly close to shore in mid-January. When the opportunity arises, it is really amazing to see just how colorful the males of the species are. The most stunning of them all, the King Eider, has evaded me so far this year. That, alone, keeps be "booting" it out to Cape Spear regularly in the hopes of finding a stray male mixing with the Common Eider.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

A March Snowy Owl

 It was eider I set out to see this morning. While there were more than 200 Long-tailed Duck around and plenty of variations of the Black Guillemot at Cape Spear, there were no signs of eider anywhere.
 As I walked down the well-packed snow trail to the main lookout, I saw an interesting set of tracks in the middle of a large patch of undisturbed snow. Tried to take some shots of it, but they were a total white-out.
 Basically, it looked like a large bird had set down in the snow and hopped around a bit. Hmmmm....
 I wondered if it might be a raptor and, as a real stretch, I wondered if it might be an owl. Nah, I thought.
 Anyway, when gazing at the eider-free waters, I got bored and decided to walk around the back of the point, below the "new" lighthouse.
What a surprise I got when I spotted this immature Snowy Owl sitting on a rock near the water. I was really happy when another birder showed up as it is really nice to share a bird like this with someone else who can appreciate it. The cape was glorious this morning with the warmth of the sunshine countering the slight breeze. Snow was easy to walk in and when I arrived, there wasn't a soul around.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Distance and Light and Identification

 Despite the cold yesterday, it was a great day for a drive around the shoreline to check out the bays, coves and inlets. Some were surprisingly quiet, others surprisingly busy and others "chinched" with ice.
 Checking out Middle Cove was on the list. There were a number of Red-breasted Mergansers in the area and one distant white spot bobbing in the calm waters.
 The effort was on to identify this bird. There were times when the bird looked very white and very big. Then, there were times when it was side-on that it looked very small. Distance and light were impediments to seeing detail.
With that, Margie Macmillan and  I strained to look for other clues. It sat very high on the water, never dove, tilted its head upward, almost all the time.
 There were times when it even looked grebe-like. At times, the beak looked very short and yellow. These were pieces that just didn't fit any identification so I guess they could be called "false positives."
 The bird finally moved in a little closer providing the best picture. It is with this shot, I was able to make a definitive ID of a Common Loon. The beak, the shape of the head and the neck band all pointed to the right bird. Perhaps I should keep this to myself, but I will tell you. We sat for nearly 30 minutes trying to make sense of this bird. What does that say about our level of engagement in an effort to make an ID?
Along the way, we saw another image in the distance at Flatrock. Gazing from the grotto lookout, we saw this strange shadow that appeared to be suspended above the ice. The shape was odd, very odd. What did we conclude from this apparition? It had to be a boat!