Skip to navigation, or go to main content.

WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Newfoundland: Winter Birds

2019 Narrative

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 an 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 Northern Goshawk – 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 strong, cold winds to see Purple Sandpipers, Thick-billed Murre, Great Cormorants, Common Eider and Long-tailed Ducks, along with many other northern seabirds. Pine Grosbeaks showed off their gaudy colours, and a very cooperative Snowy Owl capped off our week. It was a fantastic tour with exciting birds, great people, and a wonderful setting

January 6: Participants arrived throughout the day and evening - some very delayed and without their luggage, but still with smiles on their faces! Those of us present for dinner enjoyed it at a restaurant overlooking the busy harbor.

January 7:  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 very cold winds, it didn’t take long to find our first ducks of the trip – dozens of Common Eider and Long-tailed Ducks frolicking on the open ocean. Black Guillemots were diving in the foamy water, and several Great Cormorants flew past into the wind. A flock of 15 Snow Buntings graced us as they flitted and twittered around the point. A lone Bald Eagle soared high over the crashing waves as we made our way back towards the city, while a Sharp-shinned Hawk sat obligingly on a roadside treetop.

Heading back into St. John’s, we visited 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 Gull 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 ~25 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.

After lunch, we headed north of the city to the coastal towns of Flatrock and Torbay – encountering the first of several uniquely shaped “buoys” that would trick us into thinking they were seals this week ;)   The highlight of this afternoon was spotting a dozen Dovekie – first with frustrating looks, but eventually very cooperative. At least six Bald Eagle were spotted playing in the wind over White Hills – always fun to watch. A brief stop back at Quidi Vidi before sunset produced another “target” species – our first Black-headed Gull of the week, bathing in a small section of open water.

January 8: 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 off to Bowring Park in search of a popular target – Northern Goshawk. Just 20 minutes into our vigil, an immature Goshawk came screaming overhead and scared up all the local pigeons. It was a fleeting pass, so while not everyone got a look we knew it would be back – this has just been a test run. Sure enough, within a few short minutes it snuck back, chasing a pigeon over the pond and coming so close that we could hear the “whoosh” of its wings and see the glint in its eye. The lucky pigeon lived to tell the tale (this time!), and we left with big grins on our faces after a spectacular encounter. (Oh - we also saw more than a dozen Tufted Ducks, several Double-crested Cormorants and our first Eurasian Wigeon of the week – but all of that suddenly seemed like a footnote.)

After perusing the growing gull flocks at some other local ponds and enjoying a hot lunch, we headed to nearby Conception Bay. A locally rare Wood Duck was waiting for us at Chamberlains Park – a welcome splash of colour, and a special treat for for our participants from Australia. Several Red-breasted Mergansers and a lone Common Goldeneye were spotted on the open bay, with beautiful Belle Island in the background. Returning to town, we made one more stop at Bowring Park – this time finding two Golden-crowned Kinglets foraging along the river.

January 9: 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 stop at Witless Bay netted one of the trip’s main targets – a Thick-billed Murre actively feeding offshore. We also spotted several Red-breasted Mergansers, a Common Loon and what would be our only Bufflehead (a striking male) of the week. Our first mammal of the trip was a River Otter that allowed everyone fine views through the scope as it headed out to fish. Further south, a quiet drive along La Manche road produced a dozen Dark-eyed Juncos, American Goldinch, several Blue Jays and a Red Squirrel enjoying the feeders at a local cabin. Cape Broyle had both Common and Red-breasted Mergansers for a nice comparison, as well as our first Belted Kingfisher. 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 looks at several Black Guillemots and an unusually close Common Eider (female), as well as a cooperative but very camouflaged Wilson’s Snipe trying to survive the winter. The nearby town of Renews produced another River Otter, several Harbour Seals and a Bald Eagle all sharing the same patch of ice. Pine Grosbeaks showed off their beautiful colourful along the road, while a popular feeder was busy with dozens of birds – including two Song Sparrows and three lingering White-throated Sparrows. An American Pipit spotted on the kelp at Bear Cove (our southernmost stop today) proved tricky, playing hide-and-seek so that not everyone got to see it.

A highlight of the day (the tour!) came late afternoon, when we found several Dovekie feeding in a narrow channel back at Renews. Surprisingly tame (as they often are), they spent the next 15 minutes swimming, diving and even calling within feet of us – a truly spectacular experience that we always hope for (but do not always get) on this tour. Wow!

January 10: Weather was less cooperative today, and we delayed our morning start to allow freezing rain and icy conditions to improve. It was very wet morning as we drove around the city and nearby Portugal Cove – birding from the car, but not seeing much. Weather cleared late morning, and by lunchtime we were back in full birding mode. After a scenic visit to Signal Hill National Historic Site, we headed back to Cape Spear and trekked out to the point in search of Purple Sandpipers (after missing them so far). We weren’t disappointed, and soon found a small flock of ~13 taking shelter among the rocks and hopping around in the crashing waves – always a joy to watch and awe-inspiring to consider as they eke out a living in such a challenging habitat.

A later afternoon stop at Bowring Park allowed us another look at the Northern Goshawk – definitely one of the stars of the entire week. Other highlights of the day included a dashing drake Gadwall and three Black-headed Gulls back at Quidi Vidi lake as dusk set in. We certainly made the most of a less than ideal day!

January 11: On our last full day of birding, we headed south along St. Mary’s Bay and the remaining portion of the “Irish Loop”. 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. A brisk walk along the coast at Point La Haye paid off with spectacular looks at a flock of ~40 Purple Sandpipers – very close, and certainly our best views of the week. They were accompanied by five Ruddy Turnstones, which are very uncommon here in winter. Several Long-tailed Ducks were seen flying past, and two landed just offshore to allow some great scope views.

Continuing around the “bottom” of the peninsula, we made our way across the foggy tundra and towards the island’s southernmost community of St. Shott’s. Much to everyone’s excitement (even the leader’s!), we spied a Snowy Owl keeping watch from knoll not far from the road. Since it was a quiet highway, we were able to approach on foot (without leaving the road) and enjoyed stellar looks as it peered back at us, suspicious but unperturbed. It flew a short distance only after being flushed by a passing truck, allowing us to enjoy its majestic flight before moving on. This was definitely a highlight of the entire trip, and “lifer” for four of the participants!

We ate lunch at St. Shott’s, overlooking the cold Atlantic and relishing very close views of Common Eider and Long-tailed Ducks surfing the waves. Pressing north, we made several other stops throughout the afternoon – Black Guillemots at Trepassey, our first House Sparrows (imagine!) at Portugal Cove South, and busy feeders at Renews including dozens of Dark-eyed Juncos, Purple Finch, and lingering White-throated Sparrows were among the entertainment. All in all, it was a fun day punctuated with interesting weather and even more interesting birds!

Arriving back at St. John’s, we compiled our final checklist of the week and headed to Milestones for our last evening together.

January 12: Participants departed on flights throughout the day. 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: 59 (+ several hybrids and an array of domestic duck breeds!)

-          Jared Clarke, January 2019

Created: 28 January 2019