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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Newfoundland: Winter Birds

2024 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 the array of more expected North American waterfowl. We even had a close encounter with a very rare Pink-footed Goose – a hands-down highlight for everyone! Among the abundance of gulls were several Black-headed and Lesser Black-backed Gulls. Local rarities came from several directions including a Ruff from Europe and two Yellow-throated Warblers from more southern climes.

Travelling outside the city on several occasions, we enjoyed more exciting birds and stunning coastal scenery. Dovekie were spotted on several days, including three very cooperative birds that provided almost intimate views. We braved the winter weather to see Bohemian Waxwings, Thick-billed Murre, Great Cormorants, Common Eider and Long-tailed Ducks, along with many other northern seabirds. White-winged Crossbills were abundant this winter, while a small flock of Red Crossbill (of the endemic “percna” race) also graced us with an appearance. Keen eyes picked out a total of three Willow Ptarmigan hiding in the open on the snowy white tundra. Our week was capped off with a flock of 60+ Purple Sandpiper foraging on the wave-battered rocks at the continent’s easternmost point! It was a fantastic tour with exciting birds, great people, and a wonderful wintry setting!

January 6: Participants arrived throughout the day with only one minimal delay due to a snowstorm the previous day. 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 7: We started our birding with a visit to 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. Of special note were three 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 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, Lesser Scaup and Ring-necked Duck. Of special interest was an ABA-rare Ruff – a Eurasian shorebird that was somehow eking out a living among the snow & ice when it should be in the much warmer climates of southern Europe or Africa! Equally notable were two Yellow-throated Warblers we spotted near the lake, where these southern vagrants were visiting suet feeders placed by caring birders.

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 several in the group! Two very confiding Tufted Ducks was icing on the cake. 

We then headed out of the city to nearby Maddox Cove & Petty Harbour where we met two Harlequins Ducks, Green-winged Teal and a half dozen Red-breasted Mergansers fishing in the rough ocean waters. A flock of 100+ Bohemian Waxwings flew past us, twittering as they went and teasing us with such brief looks (luckily we would remedy that later this week).  

Our next destination was Cape Spear National Historic Site – the easternmost point in North America and – usually — a perfect place to spot winter birds. Due to the very high winds and huge seas, we decided to simply enjoy the spectacle from the parking lot this time around and save our birding here for another visit. Regardless, the massive waves and swirling flocks of gulls were amazing to watch and difficult to tear ourselves away from.

After lunch, we drove north of the city to the outports of Torbay, Flatrock and Pouch Cove 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 our first Dovekies of the week. Two Common Goldeneyes and several Greater Scaup cavorted with the local Mallards, American Black Ducks and numerous Iceland Gulls.

January 8: This morning we headed off to explore 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 a very close and cooperative Dovekie at our very first stop in Bay Bulls – swimming and diving in the calm waters of a sheltered boat harbour. Several close-up Black Guillemots, a Red-breasted Merganser and a distant Great Cormorant added to the moment. Another very close Dovekie was spotted at Mobile, along with several Common Loons, Red-breasted Merganser and Common Goldeneye. A short drive down a forest road paid off when a mixed flock of Pine Siskins, American Goldfinches and Purple Finches appeared out of the quiet woods. Stopping to check them out, we ended up with stellar views of several Boreal Chickadees – and later a group of White-winged Crossbills that sat briefly but obligingly in the treetops.

At Ferryland, we were distracted from birding by the intriguing history of the “Colony of Avalon” – site of one of the earliest European settlements in North America (est. 1621). We stepped back in time with a meander through the old village and ongoing archaeological digs. Our first Bufflehead of the week dawdled offshore, while five Great Cormorants and a Bald Eagle sat atop the rocky islands that gave the community its modern name (Ferryland having been anglicized from the Portuguese “farelhão” meaning steep rocks).

Continuing south, we stopped at Renews to enjoy lunch overlooking the bay and tidal estuary. A Common Murre gave exceptional views as it swam along the beach, while a mixture of Greater Scaup, Ring-necked Ducks, Red-breasted Merganser and Common Goldeneye foraged in the shallows. A nearby feeder was relatively quiet, but we did manage to spy several Red Crossbill – the local percna race being both threatened and endemic to Newfoundland so always a treat to see.

At Portugal Cove South, we enjoyed our first looks at several species including a group of 20 Common Eiders, two White-winged Scoters and a Long-tailed Duck. A Razorbill kept playing hide-and-seek as it popped up in various places in the bay, and at least five Red-throated Loons looked regal as they actively fished in the glistening waters. We also spied our first (and only!) House Sparrows of the tour at a local feeder – accompanied by several Song and Savannah Sparrows.

January 9: We kicked off our morning with a return visit to Cape Spear National Historic Site – this time braving the cold winds and walking out to the very eastern tip of the continent. The waves continued to impress as they rose, peaked and crashed over the rocks and sent spray high into the air. Approximately 250 Common Eider looked surprisingly at home out there, riding the swell as they appeared and disappeared behind walls of water. Iceland, Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls circled over the ocean, and two Bald Eagles chased each other while playing in the wind. Quite the winter experience!

Arriving back in the city, we stopped at Bowring Park and enjoyed a much more sheltered stroll through along the trails and walkways. The duck pond was busy with Mallards, American Black Ducks, Northern Pintail and even a few Tufted Ducks. A Downy Woodpecker was spotted creeping along a high branch, Blue Jays called from the treetops and a Belted Kingfisher rattled as zipped over the pond. A mixed flock of American Goldfinch, Pine Siskins and Black-capped Chickadees also stopped in to check us out. Checking in on the Pink-footed Goose, we found that it had moved from its normal pond (which was mostly frozen over) to a nearby marsh. We enjoyed much better looks this time as it actively fed on the abundant grasses and other vegetation.

Quidi Vidi Lake had also frozen over since our first visit two days prior, providing a very different perspective on the local birds. The many ducks were now concentrated in small patches of open water along the shore, offering point blank views and excellent photo opportunities. Hundreds of gulls were loafing on the newly formed ice, including our first good looks at Glaucous Gulls. A hybrid Lesser Black-backed Gull x Herring Gull provided an interesting study, as did a leucistic Great Black-backed Gull that initially threw us for a loop. We even spotted the Ruff trying to stay warm at the river inflow.

After lunch we drove to the communities of Kelligrews and Holyrood in nearby Conception Bay South. Among the birds feeding in the surf were five Black-headed Gulls, two Common Loons and a handful of Red-breasted Mergansers and Common Goldeneye. A lucky sighting out the van window led to us to a flock of 60+ Bohemian Waxwings sitting in a bare tree – killer views of this most beautiful nomad of the north. The highlight at Holyrood wasn’t a bird but two Harp Seals lounging in the boat harbour, although several distant Dovekie ranked a close second. We made it back to St. John’s in plenty of time for a leisurely dinner in historic downtown.

January 10: With a nice day in store, our group was excited to return to the southeast Avalon and continue exploring the tundra and rugged coastlines of the “Irish Loop”. We approached the area from the opposite direction as before, heading first to the beautiful and sheltered waters of St. Mary’s Bay. Our first stops at Forest Field & Riverhead found three Bald Eagle gathered on the ice edge, and at least a dozen Red-breasted Mergansers and Common Goldeneye gathered in the estuary. Several Northern Flickers 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.

We stepped into the sunshine at the mouth of the bay in Point LaHaye, walking across the exposed headland to peer out in to the open Atlantic. Dozens of Common Eider, Long-tailed Ducks and two White-winged Scoters were bobbing up and down on the large waves offshore, while numerous gulls buzzed along the coast. We “dipped” on our main target here as the local Purple Sandpiper flock was nowhere to be found - but fortunately we had better luck the following day! 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, Razorbill and Common Eiders were hanging out offshore.

Next we visited St. Shott’s, a quaint but barren community at the southernmost tip of Newfoundland. Driving along the vast sub-arctic tundra to get there, we spotted a locally scarce American Kestrel as it flew down and successfully snagged a rodent for lunch! We enjoyed our own lunch atop the cliffs, overlooking a large bay and kelp-strewn beach. It was on our drive back across those same barrens that we scored a major target of the day – two snowy white Willow Ptarmigan foraging on the also snowy white tundra. We watched these first two for some time until they eventually flew off, and soon spotted another very close to the road that posed for stellar views and many photos. Wow!

Our next stop in Trepassey proved to be quite productive. Dozens of birds dotted the long, sheltered harbour including four Surf Scoters, a flock of White-winged Scoters and numerous Red-breasted Mergansers. At least six Dovekie were spotted, along with a Razorbill and several Black Guillemots. A personal highlight was catching up with a locally rare “western” Willet that was hanging out on a local beach – a casual visitor to the province and the first ever winter record. There is potential that the AOU will eventually split this into a separate species ;)  It was buddied up with a Black-bellied Plover, another new addition to our trip list. Three Savannah Sparrows crept along the seawall, and we heard the distinct twittering of Snow Buntings as they foraged somewhere nearby. Three Black-headed Gulls also picked amongst the exposed rocks, adding to an impressive tally of more than ten now seen during the tour.

A brief stop at Biscay Bay included the sighting of a Northern Harrier as it flew deftly over the inner cove, scaring up a flock of Greater Scaup as it went. Harriers are scarce here in winter, so a fine “last bird of the day” as we beelined north towards St. John’s.

January 11: We awoke this morning to our first real precipitation of the tour – a light but messy mix of rain and ice pellets. It didn’t dampen our spirits, but we did take time to enjoy a more relaxed breakfast than usual before heading out. It also didn’t dampen our birding, as we quickly ticked some targets off our “to find” list for the day! First up was a tour of St. John’s harbour’s famous “outer battery”, where we enjoyed better looks at several Great Cormorants. Heading back to Maddox Cove, we braved the sleet and found a Thick-billed Murre (along with two Dovekie and a Harbour Seal) bobbing in the bay – a coup of sorts having not found any earlier in the week.

Visiting a couple city ponds, we scanned the growing gull flocks and practiced our ID skills, with participants expertly picking out two Lesser Black-backed Gulls among the hordes. At Kelly’s Brook, we spotted a long Eurasian Green-winged Teal (aka Common Teal) amongst the more abundant American variety – considered a separate species by some authorities and a potential “pocket tick” should the split finally be accepted in North America.

After a much deserved break and hot lunch, we returned for a final visit to Cape Spear National Historic Site – this time in hopes of finding the Purple Sandpiper that had eluded us all week. Victory was swift as we immediately spotted them on the wave-battered rocks! We spent ages watching the flock of more than 60 sandpipers, dodging crashing waves as they searched for tiny morsels of food.

We ended our tour right where it began, at Quidi Vidi Lake – all the “usual suspects” there now feeling like old friends. But there is always something new to see, and this time it was a “Glaucoides” Iceland Gull. This pale, white-winged form of Iceland Gull is rather rare in North America, with just a few showing up in St. John’s each winter amongst the thousands of “Kumlien’s” Iceland Gulls. It was an excellent study and the perfect end to our week of winter birding.

January 12: Ann & Caroline rose while it was still very dark, catching an early morning flight. Doug & Patricia enjoyed a more relaxing morning, departing lunchtime but with a long set of travels ahead. Margie enjoyed exploring the local museum and art gallery before heading off in the evening. 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!

Created: 06 February 2024