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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Newfoundland: Winter Birds

2023 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. Visits to local parks and forests were punctuated by Northern Goshawk, Boreal Chickadees, Brown Creepers and Evening Grosbeak among others. We even had a close encounter with a very rare Pink-footed Goose – a hands-downhighlight for everyone!

Travelling outside the city on several occasions, we enjoyed more exciting birds and stunning coastal scenery. Dovekie were spotted on several days, including one very cooperative bird that provided prolonged views – at a location where we were able to enjoy a rare opportunity to see all five winteralcids at the same time! We braved the winter weather to see Purple Sandpipers, Great Cormorants, Common Eider and Long-tailed Ducks, along with many other northern seabirds. A family of Canada Jays popped in for a visit, and keen eyes picked out a total of five Willow Ptarmigan and eleven Woodland Caribou hiding on the open tundra. It was a fantastic tour with exciting birds, great people, and a wonderful wintry setting!

In Detail:

January 27: Some participants arrived today, while one had arrived earlier in the week and spent the day exploring the city. We met and enjoyed dinner at a restaurant set in a very historic part of downtown St. John’s, getting to know each other and chatting about the great birding ahead!

January 28: We started our birding with a visit to Cape Spear National Historic Site – the easternmost point in North America and a perfect place to spot winter birds. Despite the shock of some cold winds, it didn’t take long to find our first big targets of the trip – several Purple Sandpipers on the wave-washed rocks, and two Dovekie diving frantically in the foamy water. Numerous Black Guillemots dotted the ocean near shore, while six Long-tailed Ducks were spotted further out. Iceland Gulls cruised by the point, and at least two Great Cormorants flew south into the winds.  A fantastic start!

At nearby Blackhead, we were surprised by eight White-winged Crossbill that flew in and perched in the treetops – an unexpected treat since this species had not been reported in the area for weeks.

Heading back into St. John’s, we stopped at the very popular Bowring Park. The duck pond was busy with Mallards, American Black Ducks, Northern Pintail, Green-winged Teal and even two Tufted Ducks. Two Downy Woodpeckers were working a tall Beech tree, while we managed to pick a lone Boreal Chickadee out of a mixed flock along the trail. The star of the show, and our “hoped-for” target, was a Northern Goshawk that nabbed a pigeon out of the sky and took off to enjoy its lunch somewhere on the horizon.

Our next 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 and at least one Glaucous Gull. Keen eyes were also able to pick out our first Lesser Black-backed Gull of the trip. Of special note was a Black-headed Gulls – an Old World species that now occurs regularly in Newfoundland and winters on the Avalon Peninsula in small numbers. Everyone found their favourites among the very diverse duck flocks – from the flashy Eurasian & 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 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, Lesser Scaup and Ring-necked Duck.

A short jaunt along the Rennies River Trail brought us to a feeder station, and several other birders waiting for two birds to make an appearance. After a few minutes, we spotted them – locally rare Yellow-throated & Orange-crowned Warblers trying to eke out a living in a Newfoundland winter, helped through by generous offerings of suet and grape jelly. Not exactly an expected encounter, but a fun addition to our list!

Next, we stopped at Burton’s Pond tucked at the edge of the Memorial University campus. 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! Several American Wigeon, Tufted Ducks and a Ring-necked Duck were icing on the cake. We ended our day with a visit to a small creek known locally as “Kelly’s Brook”, and home to a wintering flock of Green-winged Teal. Among the two dozen we found were three drake “Eurasian” Green-winged Teal (aka Common Teal in Europe). These striking ducks are considered separate species by many authorities, and may one day be split here in North America – making it an important one to see during the week.

January 29: This morning 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.

We spotted three diligent Dovekie at one of our first stops in Witless Bay – they weren’t close but seeing three together at one point was a highlight, and the “game” of guessing where they would pop up next was entertaining in itself. Several Red-breasted Merganser, two Bufflehead and close-up views of a Common Loon added to the moment. Another Dovekie at Mobile was pretty much expected, but the large flock of a hundred American Black Ducks was unusual for the location. A short drive down a forest road reminded us how quiet the woods can be this time of year, but was punctuated by a Sharp-shinned Hawk also in search of birds.

Cape Broyle was more active with dozens of American Black Ducks and Mallards, both Common and Red-breasted Mergansers, a Common Goldeneye and Green-winged Teal scattered around the estuary. A Belted Kingfisher rattled from the shoreline as it flew from wharf to wharf looking for lunch. At Ferryland, we were distracted from birding by a Harbour Seal lounging on the grass at the “Colony of Avalon” – site of one of the earliest European settlements in North America (est. 1621). We stepped back in time with a stroll along the original cobblestone paths and ongoing archaeological digs.

Continuing south, we enjoyed lunch overlooking beautiful Bear Cove, where the crashing waves rolled over a rocky beach. Three Black-headed Gulls foraged in the surf, while more than a dozen Long-tailed Ducks were diving beneath.  The males looked especially smart in their sharp breeding plumage and elaborate tails. Soon we found ourselves in a new and virtually barren landscape – the subarctic tundra of the southeastern Avalon. Driving slowly, we scoured the snow-patched barrens for a needle in a haystack – and scored big time with FIVE white Willow Ptarmigan hiding in plain sight. The last two sat hunkered under the “tuckamore” (stunted balsam fir) as we watched and took photos, confident in their camouflage and certain we couldn’t see them.

At Portugal Cove South, a group of eight White-winged Scoters bobbing on the bay were our first of the trip. We also spied our first House Sparrows and American Goldfinch attending a local feeder – accompanied by a lone Song Sparrow. The road to Cape Race was relatively quiet, as expected this time of year, but a few small groups of Snow Bunting added were a welcome sight. The drive terminated at the imposing Cape Race lighthouse – once one of the most important navigational points in eastern North America, and site of the wireless station that was communicating with the Titanic as it sank 111 years earlier. A small flock of six Common Eider off the point was another new addition to our growing list, and the dramatic cliffs and stunning scenery at this location was the real showstopper.

January 30: With a wind- and rainstorm in the forecast, we decided to make the most of it and head out of town to St. Mary’s Bay this morning – hoping the southerly gales would blow some birds our way. Snow quickly changed to rain as we drove south down the Salmonier Line, and winds picked up as they veered up the bay. We encountered several Black Guillemots taking shelter in the boat basins of O’Donnel’s and Admiral’s Cove, offering intimate opportunities to photograph them in their smart winter plumage. Red-breasted Mergansers and several Common Loons battled the building waves, but the only Dovekie we saw dropped into the swell and disappeared.

We soon turned our attentions north to Conception Bay, where the winds and rain would have less of an impact on our afternoon. Holyrood was quiet, but scattered Great Black-backed, Herring & Iceland Gulls dotted the harbour, Red-breasted Mergansers loafed in the sheltered coves and a flock of hungry American Black Ducks were swarming a local yard. Cupids, site of the earliest English colony in Canada (est. 1610), offered great looks at six drake Common Goldeneye – beautiful birds that dove and foraged right alongside the road. Dozens more goldeneye were found in nearby Clarke’s Beach and Spaniard’s Bay, as were plenty of Greater Scaup, Red-breasted Mergansers and two tiny Bufflehead among others.

Returning to St. John’s just before dusk, we stopped to enjoy the action at Quidi Vidi Lake. The highlight was an immature Ring-billed Gull – unexpected in Newfoundland during winter, and unreported for several weeks. More expected birds included a dozen Tufted Ducks, many American Wigeon and at least four drake Eurasian Wigeon settling in for the evening.

January 31: With a nicer day in store, our group was excited to return to the southeast Avalon and continue exploring the tundra and rugged coastlines. We retraced our steps from the previous morning and headed into more open areas of St. Mary’s Bay. Our first stop at Riverhead had at least ten Common Loons gathered in the estuary. A Northern Flicker and two Blue Jays were spotted along the road, and our first of numerous Common Ravens on the day kept an eye out from the treetops. The “pond” at nearby Coote’s Pond held a variety of ducks including American Black Duck, Red-breasted Merganseer and a flock of Greater Scaup. A long White-winged Scoter showed really well in the calm waters of St. Mary’s while two Black Guillemots foraged nearby.

We braved the stronger winds at Point LaHaye, walking across the exposed headland to peer out in to the open Atlantic. Dozens of Common Eider, Long-tailed Ducks and Red-breasted Mergansers were bobbing up and down on the large waves offshore, while a Great Cormorant flew by at close range showing off its diagnostic white flank patch (an early sign of spring!). The Purple Sandpipers here played hard-to-get, with a flock of ~25 buzzing by twice but never landing on the exposed beach or rocks below. The ocean and long barrier beach (known locally as a barachois or barrisway) at St. Vincent’s was somewhat quiet, although several Common Loons, Black Guillemots and Common Eiders were hanging out offshore.

Next we visited St. Shott’s, a quaint but barren community at the southernmost tip of Newfoundland. We enjoyed lunch atop the cliffs at the lightstation, where dozens of Common Eider and Long-tailed Ducks dove in the waves that were breaking on the rocks. A drake Harlequin Duck stood out from the crowd, very eye-catching in its bright and colourful suit. A tiny Bufflehead looked much more out place as it bobbed up and down on the ocean swells.

Our next stop in Trepassey proved to be the highlight of our day. Our luck started with three very cooperative Canada Jays – spotted first by Robert as we were driving by. This little family group stuck around to check us out – often from just a few feet away as we rewarded them with a nutritious treat. From a sheltered spot at Daniel’s Point, we stood in the warm(ish) sunshine and scanned the bay, spotting a wonderful variety of birds that included all FIVE species of winter alcids! Several Black Guillemots, five Razorbills, two Common Murre and a much sought-after Thick-billed Murre were scattered along the bay, all providing excellent scope views. Most exciting, a lone Dovekie sat obligingly on the calm water at relatively close range – our best views and experience of the entire trip. Seeing all these alcid species in one day is rare enough in winter, but all at once from one location was a special treat even for our guide! Other notable birds included Surf Scoters, Long-tailed Ducks, a Great Cormorant, and a dozen Common Loons among others.

A brief stop at Biscay Bay included the discovery of a lovely Red-throated Loon – an uncommon species in the province, and our one and only of the tour. Portugal Cove South had many of the same birds we had seen here two days earlier – a small assortment of Common Eiders and Long-tailed Ducks, along with the usual flock of House Sparrows (the only ones we would see all week!). Another feeder at Renews was hopping with dozens of Dark-eyed Juncos, Starlings and a Song Sparrow, along with our only two Mourning Doves.

February 1: This morning brought a deep chill and some freshly fallen snow – a perfect winter’s day to wrap up our adventure. Our first move was to check back in at Quidi Vidi Lake, where we happy to spot two (and later four!) Black-headed Gulls hanging out right at the water’s edge and putting on a show. An adult Lesser Black-backed Gull was also there, among the more numerous Herring, Iceland and Great Black-backed Gulls.

Heading north out of the city, we followed the weaving coastline through the communities of Logy Bay, Outer Cove, Torbay and Flatrock. A fine example of a nominate (i.e. “glaucoides”) Iceland Gull was picked out at Torbay – a rare prize compared to the hundreds of “Kumlien’s” Iceland Gulls encountered during the week. Single Ring-necked Duck and Common Goldeneye stood out amongst the more numerous American Black Ducks and Mallards.

Back in the city, we strolled the paths at Bowring Park and encountered a fun flock of birds that included both Black-capped & Boreal Chickadees as well as three Brown Creepers foraging in their unique & entertaining way. The regular gaggle of ducks here included dozens of Northern Pintail. We were drawn across the road by a large flock of birds, only to discover a very active feeder with more finches than we had seen all week! Two dozen Evening Grosbeak were the hands-down highlight, but a handful of Purple Finch and Pine Siskin were also new to the list.

After braving the winding, narrow roads of the “outer batter” (a historic and shore-hugging neighbourhood at the mouth of St. John’s harbour), we stopped to get up close & personal with a Great Cormorant. It posed on a rock in the bright sunshine, showing off its characteristic white chin and looking like king of the castle. We also took in the postcard views of Quidi Vidi gut, a quaint little fishing village right in the city, before heading off to a much-deserved lunch.

Our first afternoon stop was at Virginia Lake, where we spied two American Coots amongst the wintering ducks. A familiar sight for most of the group, coots are very uncommon in Newfoundland and always a fun find. Our next new species was somewhat more expected – a small group of American Robins visiting fruit trees (in this case hawthorn). Robins had been scarce in the area so far this winter, due in part to the mild weather but mostly the general lack of berries this season.

We revisited Cape Spear, which was relatively quiet bird-wise but beautiful in the freshly fallen snow. A flock of two dozen Purple Sandpipers zipped around over the breaking waves, while guillemots, gulls and Long-tailed Ducks rose and fell in the ocean swell. St. John’s harbour was equally eye-catching, especially as we gazed across at Signal Hill and the colourful Battery below from a viewpoint on the south side. It was here that we enjoyed our last birding highlight of the week – a Northern Goshawk raced across the harbour and over the hills behind us in the low setting sun.

Our final dinner of the trip was at Vu – named, of course, for its commanding vista over St. John’s harbour. It was a lovely celebration of a great week together!

February 2: Some participants rose while it was still very dark, catching an early morning flight. Another stuck around for a few extra days to continue birding and explore downtown St. John’s before heading home. 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: 68 (+ several hybrids, subspecies and an array of domestic duck breeds!)

Jared Clarke – February 2023

Created: 17 February 2023