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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Newfoundland: Winter Birds

2017 Narrative

In Brief: 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. Among the eight species of gulls found were Black-headed, Lesser Black-backed and European Mew (Common) Gulls. Rare anywhere else on the continent, we enjoyed dozens of Tufted Ducks and several Eurasian Wigeon amid an array of the more expected North American waterfowl.

 Travelling outside the city on several occasions, we enjoyed more exciting birds and stunning coastal scenery. Dovekie were found in several places, feeding in the surf or flying by our lookout locations. Purple Sandpipers and Great Cormorants put in an excellent showing, posing on the coastal rocks. We encountered several large flocks of Common Eider, along with a handful of King Eider hiding in their midst. Boreal Chickadees, Gray Jays and Common Redpolls gave us great looks, as did several groups of Snow Bunting. It was a fantastic tour with exciting birds, great people, and a wonderful setting!

 In Detail:

January 9: Our first full day together was an opportunity to discover the many great birds that live in and around St. John’s, and to tour the city itself. We started with a visit to Cape Spear – the easternmost point in North America and a perfect place to begin our week. It didn’t take long to find the local flock of Purple Sandpipers, with a dozen or more taking shelter from the crashing waves among the jagged rocks.  A group of four King Eiders (two immature males and two females) paddled around off the point, while two Common Eider hung out closer to shore. Excitingly, several Dovekie were found feeding in the surf within meters of the shoreline – our first good looks at one of the tour’s most popular birds. Our walk back was highlighted by two Bald Eagle circling overhead and dropping down for a rather close look.

 Heading back into St. John’s, we found four Great Cormorant sitting on perches at the harbour entrance. After lunch we visited many of the local ponds, getting 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 hundreds of “Kumlien’s” Iceland Gull and two dozen Glaucous Gulls. Keen eyes were also able to pick out our first Lesser Black-backed Gulls of the trip. During the day we found an excellent total of 40 Tufted Ducks, just one of which would be rare anywhere else on the continent. It was a great chance to compare them with two of their North American cousins in the same large flock, including more than two dozen Greater Scaup and at least two Lesser Scaup. We also found another set of New and Old World cousins in the form of three Eurasian and four American Wigeon foraging together. Other waterfowl included plenty of Black Ducks, Northern Pintail, and Mallard. Even an American Coot put in an appearance – unusual for Newfoundland, and looking rather out-of-place among the winter ducks.

 January 10: Today we took advantage of promising weather and headed off to bird 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.

 One of our first stops on La Manche road produced a small group of Gray Jays. The spunky birds lived up their reputation, flying in to check us out and then eating some snack right out of our participants’ hands. We also spotted our first Boreal Chickadee of the trip, along with several Black-capped Chickadees, Dark-eyed Juncos and American Goldfinch. Since finches were scarce this year (it was the bottom year of the cone cycle), a Purple Finch spotted at a feeder in nearby Renews turned out to be the only one we saw this week.

We were excited to find that, due to a relative lack of snow cover, we were able to drive the entire length of coastal road to Cape Race. Along the way we spotted several flocks of Snow Bunting on the tundra and an unexpected flock of Common Redpoll (they had not been reported in eastern Newfoundland so far this winter). We also found two lingering American Pipits when we stopped for lunch at Long Beach. At the lighthouse, a cooperative group of 50 Purple Sandpipers were feeding on the offshore rocks, while several Dovekie and Black Guillemots puttered around in the water below. A group of White-winged Scoters and several Long-tailed Ducks were found loafing in the more sheltered waters just outside Cripple Cove.

January 11: Sticking close to St. John’s again today, we once again started at Cape Spear – a popular spot with all our participants. A half dozen Dovekie were again feeding close to shore, and a flock of more than 50 Purple Sandpiper worked the wave-washed jetty. A large group of Long-tailed Duck flew past by the point and settled down to rest, while at least one Great Cormorant and a couple Common Loons bobbed up and down in the distance.

Nearby Maddox Cove-Petty Harbour produced a lone female Bufflehead in the harbour, as well as our first Black-headed Gull of the week. These European gulls are more regular here than anywhere else in North America, and even breed in at least one colony on the island. Stopping to check a feeding station in the community of Goulds, we were rewarded with five Evening Grosbeaks. We spent the rest of this lovely morning strolling the trails and walkways of Bowring Park, one of the city’s most beautiful and historic public places. Here we found an obliging Brown Creeper, several Black-capped Chickadees, and a Golden-crowned Kinglet. The duck pond was full of life, including dozens of American Black Duck, Northern Pintail, Tufted Ducks and a stunning drake Eurasian Wigeon. We also spotted a female Green-winged Teal – our first of the trip.

After lunch, we visited a sewer outfall in Conception Bay South that attracts a variety of birds. The highlight was a dozen Black-headed Gulls and a lone Common (European Mew) Gull – both notable rarities in the rest of North America. About 30 Common Goldeneye, several Red-breasted Merganser and a lone Northern Shoveler were also spotted – the latter being uncommon in Newfoundland in any season. We ended our day with a visit to Signal Hill National Historic Site for a panoramic view of St. John’s and to chat a bit about its history.

January 12: Today we headed south along St. Mary’s Bay and the remaining portion of the “Irish Loop”. At our first stop in Coote’s Pond we spotted a lone female Hooded Merganser (uncommon for Newfoundland) fraternizing with the local Black Ducks, while a dozen or more Red-breasted Mergansers paraded further offshore. A Common Murre was spied down the coast, providing great scope views. Nearby Point LaHaye was a blast in the brisk onshore winds, making for a cool but productive walk around the headland. Several flocks of more than 300 Common Eider were hanging out off the point, and a near-adult male King Eider provided an added bonus. Two Ruddy Turnstones were working the beach, loosely associated with a much larger group of about 50 Purple Sandpipers.

A dozen or so Common Loons, several Long-tailed Ducks and at least two Dovekie were scattered around the large bay at St. Vincent’s. Heading east onto the sub-arctic tundra, we encountered two flocks of Snow Bunting and several Common Ravens. A visit to Newfoundland southern-most community, St. Shott’s, was an eye-opener for the group as they commented on the isolation and barren landscape of this starkly beautiful place. It was near here that we spotted a total of 35 Woodland Caribou– hands down a trip highlight for everyone in the van!

The long, sheltered inlet at Biscay Bay produced several new birds for the week including a Red-throated Loon, eight Black Scoters and two Razorbill among other more expected species. Nearing dusk, our second visit to Renews was at the perfect time to find a lingering Wilson’s Snipe that was eking out the winter in a small patch of open marshland.

January 13: With light rain in the morning forecast we again decided to spend our time further afield and headed north to Conception Bay, where ducks were the order of the day. We tallied fourteen species throughout the day including a locally uncommon Barrow’s Goldeneye at Spaniard’s Bay. Among the more expected species we found Eurasian Wigeon, American Wigeon, Greater Scaup, Common Goldeneye, Bufflehead, and both Common and Red-breasted Merganser. We also discovered a lone Canada Goose, surprisingly uncommon on the Avalon Peninsula in winter and rarely observed during this tour. We also found two more Black-headed Gulls, including one that gave us very close views in Bay Roberts.

Back in St. John’s for our last afternoon, we had wonderfully close looks at Boreal Chickadee, Black-capped Chickadee and Red-breasted Nuthatches as they fed from our hands on a city trail. We revisited some of our favorite locations, including Quidi Vidi Lake to enjoy the array of gulls and ducks that frequent there. A locally uncommon Pied-billed Grebe made an appearance after eluding us earlier in the week. By popular demand, we ended our tour where it began – at Cape Spear where we enjoyed the birds, vistas and fresh winter air.

January 14: One participant departed on a lunchtime flight, while two others remained an extra day or so to explore the city on their own.

It was a wonderful week spent with great people, fantastic birds and all in a beautiful place!

Jared Clarke

Created: 30 January 2017