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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Newfoundland: Winter Birds

2020 Narrative

In Summary: Our tour was based out of St. John’s – one of the oldest cities in North America and located at its easternmost reaches. A variety of interesting and exciting species can be found around St. John’s during winter, and this year did not disappoint. Rare anywhere else on the continent, we enjoyed dozens of Tufted Ducks and several Eurasian Wigeon amid the array of the more expected North American waterfowl. Among the abundance of gulls were several Black-headed and Lesser Black-backed Gulls. We also had several close encounters with a very rare Pink-footed Goose – a hands-down highlight for everyone!

Travelling outside the city on several occasions, we enjoyed more exciting birds and stunning coastal scenery. Dovekie were present in excellent numbers, including several cooperative birds that lingered just meters away. We braved the winter weather to see Purple Sandpipers, Great Cormorants, Common Eider and Long-tailed Ducks, along with many other northern seabirds. Pine Grosbeaks showed off their gaudy colours, and a a flock of Bohemian Waxwings dropped in visit. Our week was capped off with a beautiful herd of caribou and two Willow Ptarmigan set off against the snowy tundra. It was a fantastic tour with exciting birds, great people, and a wonderful wintry setting!

In Detail:

January 5: Participants arrived throughout the day and evening (with the exception of one very delayed traveler). Those of us present for dinner enjoyed it at a restaurant set in a very historic part of downtown St. John’s. The remainder of the night was punctuated by a winter blizzard, bringing high winds and 40 cm (16 inches) of fresh snow!

January 6: We started our birding a little late this morning, heading out to explore the still very snowy and partially buried city. Our first destination was Quidi Vidi Lake – a regular stop that would become very familiar over the next few days. Here, we got acquainted with the array of gulls and ducks that spend the winter around the city. Along with the usual assortment of Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls were dozens of “Kumlien’s” Iceland Gull. Keen eyes were also able to pick out our first Lesser Black-backed Gulls of the trip. Everyone found their favourites among the very diverse duck flocks – from the flashy American Wigeons to the understated American Black Ducks, and even the dizzying array of domestic breeds that call the city home. The pond also hosted more than a dozen Tufted Ducks, just one of which would be rare anywhere else on the continent. It was a great chance to compare them with some of their North American cousins, including Greater Scaup and Ring-necked Duck.

From there, we headed to a small marsh at Long Pond, just behind the university. Our prize here was a Pink-footed Goose – a rare visitor from Europe that had been hanging around the city for several weeks. This was a lifer and North American “mega” for everyone in the group!

Our next stop hosted another local rarity, but from the opposite direction. A Hermit Warbler, originating from western North America, was visiting a suet feeder placed by caring birders who hoped to help it through a Newfoundland winter. We also enjoyed our first Boreal Chickadees and Dark-eyed Juncos taking advantage of the free handouts. A quick stop at nearby Bowring Park produced dozens of Northern Pintail and more Tufted Ducks (making for a total of 48 today!).

After lunch, we drove north of the city to Torbay and Flatrock, where the rolling seas were as intriguing as the birds. Black Guillemots, the most common alcid at this time of year, fed in the surf along with plenty of Iceland Gulls. A flock of Pine Grosbeak on our drive back was an excellent way to end our first day of birding.

January 7: Taking advantage of promising weather, we headed off to spend the day birding the “Irish Loop”. This scenic stretch of coast along the southeastern Avalon Peninsula offers not only great birding but also a peek at some of Newfoundland’s earliest European settlements and the ancient geology that makes this island so unique.

Our very first stops at Witless Bay & Mobile netted our first of many Red-breasted Mergansers during the week. There were brief glimpses of two Dovekie – the first of several that would play “hard-to-spot” with us throughout the morning (although our determination would eventually pay off!). Our first mammal of the trip was a River Otter off the river mouth in Witless Bay. Further south, a quiet drive along La Manche road produced a dozen Dark-eyed Juncos, American Goldfinch, a Blue Jay  and our only Red-breasted Nuthatch of the tour.

Our first good looks at Dovekie occurred in Cape Broyle, where one (of three) was viewed in great light through the scopes. A group of Northern Pintails looked right at home in the estuary, while two Common Loons, two Black Guillemots and a gaggle of Red-breasted Mergansers dotted the harbour.

Ferryland is home to the historic Colony of Avalon, which was originally governed by “Lord Baltimore” who later founded the state of Maryland (a fun connection for our American participants). Here we had stellar (stellar!!) looks at several Dovekie as they foraged in the surf just metres away, while we stood and sat on the beach. Dovekie is always a prime target on this tour, and this experience could not be topped. The sound of gentle waves rolling over the cobblestone beach, along with the “oohs and ahhs” of our group as we watched these cute but feisty birds, is a soundtrack we will all remember.

The nearby town of Renews produced another Dovekie, several Black Guillemot and a relatively cooperative Belted Kingfisher. A real surprise came in the form of an immature Black-legged Kittiwake that flew in the harbor and over our heads – unusual along the coast at this time of year. Continuing south, we made one more stop at Bear Cove before turning around and heading back to St. John’s. Here we found more than dozen Long-tailed Ducks and Common Eiders – our first of both species for the trip. Four more Dovekie and two Great Cormorants rounded off our seawatch from this beautiful viewpoint. Our last new birds of the day was a lone Bufflehead at Aquaforte and a Sharp-shinned Hawk in Bay Bulls along our drive home.

January 8: With lots of exciting ground left to cover, we headed south along St. Mary’s Bay and the remaining portion of the “Irish Loop”. A Canada Jay was among our first birds of the day, sitting atop a tall spruce tree alongside the road. Our first stops at Riverhead, Coote’s Pond and St. Mary’s produced flocks of Common and Red-breasted Mergansers, several Common Loons and a few Dovekie enjoying the shelter of the bay. Six White-winged Scoters and an American Wigeon were somewhat unexpected, while two River Otters were spotted frolicking in the bay. A large of flock Snow Buntings at Coote’s Pond was the first of several during the day, and by far our closest looks as they fed in the roadside grasses poking up out of the snow.

Leaving St. Mary’s, we had a short encounter with ~5 Pine Grosbeak and a lone Cedar Waxwing scrounging for berries in the snow-covered trees. A beautiful walk along the beach at Point La Haye paid off with spectacular looks at a flock of ~45 Purple Sandpipers – very close, and certainly our best views of the week. They were accompanied by a single Ruddy Turnstone, which is very uncommon here in winter.

Continuing around the “bottom” of the peninsula, we made our way across the snow-covered tundra and towards the island’s southernmost community of St. Shott’s. Here we enjoyed very close looks at numerous Common Eider and Long-tailed Ducks – two very enamouring species. Several Common Loon were bobbing around in the bay. A handful of Dark-eyed Juncos and a Song Sparrow looked out-of-place in this treeless landscape, and must be eking out the winter with the help of a feeder.

Weather turned sour as we arrived at the St. Shott’s lightstation, making it difficult to bird outside the van and/or scan across the open ocean. We made the decision to head for home, facing some interesting weather and road conditions along the way. A quick stop in Renews produced three Black-headed Gulls amid a small flock of large gulls. Happy to be back in St. John’s, we enjoyed a lovely dinner together and looked forward to another day of exploring.

January 9: This morning was spent mainly in and around St. John’s, visiting some ponds and parks that are a mainstay of winter birding here. After a quick visit to Quidi Vidi (more gulls & ducks!), we headed back to Long Pond marsh in search of the Pink-footed Goose. We found it back at its favourite haunt, feeding vigorously on the exposed patches of grass. A short walk along the trail for closer views also produced several Black-capped and a Boreal Chickadee. With the weather looking up, we drove south of the city to Cape Spear National Historic Site Site – the easternmost point in North America and a perfect place to spot winter birds. Despite the shock of some very cold winds, it didn’t take long to find the flock of ~60 Purple Sandpipers being chased by waves on the rock jetty. Two White-winged Scoter flew and dropped down on the rough ocean, and a Great Cormorant cruised by at close range. Black Guillemots were scattered along the coast, along with a number of Herring, Iceland, Glaucous and Great Black-backed Gulls. But it was the experience of walking out there that was most fun!

The nearby community of Blackhead hosted three Dovekie, while Maddox Cove/Petty Harbour featured a Black-headed Gull. We also spotted ~10 American Robins, a half dozen American Goldfinch and our only Purple Finch (4) of the week. After an exhilarating morning, we headed back into town for a hearty lunch of soup & sandwiches.

An afternoon visit to Signal Hill National Historic Site was cold & windy, but offered spectacular views over the city, ocean and Cape Spear.  From there we headed down to “The Battery” (a historic, colourful and precariously perched neighbourhood in St. John’s harbor) where we enjoyed eight Great Cormorants, along with a fun drive through the very narrow streets. We also checked out “Quidi Vidi Village” – another historic fishing harbor with very narrow roads and wonderful views.

We ended our day with a few hours in Conception Bay South (just northwest of the city) looking for gulls, ducks and whatever else might cross our path. The small patch of open water at Neville’s Pond was alive with ducks, including eight Eurasian and 22 American Wigeon. Strong winds and rough waters made finding gulls a challenge, but lots of hardy Iceland Gulls were enjoying the waves. Two immature Black-headed Gulls were found at Topsail Beach, while two Red-breasted Mergansers and our first Common Goldeneye (4) of the week were just offshore in Chamberlains.

January 10: With a nice, sunny day in the forecast our group was excited to return to the southeast Avalon and continue exploring the tundra and rugged coastlines. We got an early start, grabbing breakfast to go and making a bee-line for the southern tip. Our strategy paid off, and after a short hunt we found our first target of the day – a group of 34 Woodland Caribou foraging on the snow-covered barrens. This was exciting for everyone, and we all braved the bitter cold winds to soak in scope views and take photos of these beautiful (and declining!) animals.

Our next stop at St. Shott’s produced much nicer weather than two days earlier – although it was still very wintry. A flock of ~400 Common Eider bobbed off the point, with others scattered around for closer views. Long-tailed Ducks were foraging very close to shore, and three Dovekie were our first for the day. A quick stop at the local beach also held some surprises in the form of some unexpected passerines. Two Lapland Longspur, two American Pipits, a dozen Snow Buntings and both Song and Savannah Sparrow were found feeding in dry kelp and along the exposed grassy banks. The Longspur was especially exciting and quite unusual in January – and with some patience we all enjoyed great looks and even photos of this tough little bird.

A flurry of bird activity caught our attention as we drove into Trepassey. Dozens of American Robins were buzzing around the hillside, cleaning up on the remaining crop of mountain ash berries (known locally as “dogberries”). A large group of Pine Grosbeaks and American Goldfinch were also getting in on the action … and all this berry-eating buzz was good reason to look for another of our targets. It didn’t take long before we spotted them – a small group of ~12 Bohemian Waxwings perched in the treetops! They sat obligingly as we set up our scopes and took in phenomenal views – their lovely colours, perky crests and plucky attitudes to boot. It may have taken all week to track them down, but they did not disappoint!

The big, sheltered harbor at Biscay Bay featured an array of ducks including Greater Scaup, Long-tailed Duck, Red-breasted Merganser and a lone Surf Scoter. Two Red-throated Loons are locally uncommon but expected at this site, although three Bufflehead were more of a surprise. More Merganser and a small group of Common Eider were at nearby Portugal Cove South, along with Common Loons, Dovekie, Black Guillemot and the usual gulls. A flock of ~20 Snow Buntings flew along the beach, making their wonderful buzzy calls all the way.

Our last big highlight came in the form of two Willow Ptarmigan alongside the road as we headed north. Although we were all looking for these cryptic birds, it was still a surprise when they materialized – beautiful white birds set against clean white snow! The buzz from this sighting stuck with us for the remainder of the drive, and was a perfect way to end our fantastic week of birding.

Our final dinner of the trip was at Terre (in the hotel) – a lovely celebration of a great week together!

January 11: I know everyone left with several “life birds” under their belt, some fabulous birding experiences, and hopefully warm memories of our cold northern winter. It was a wonderful week spent with great people, fantastic birds and all in a beautiful place!

Species: 64 (+ several hybrids and an array of domestic duck breeds!

- Jared Clarke, 2020

Created: 28 January 2020