A fallout of sandpipers

Bruce Mactavish
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Think back to last Saturday with the high winds and temperatures edging up into the upper teens. Birders were wondering if the far reaching winds might bring some unusual southern birds to the island of Newfoundland.

On Sunday, Ken Knowles, John Wells and I birded the southern Avalon Peninsula from Cape Race to Point La Haye.

The rain and fog hampered our efforts but at least the wind had died down. It is not unusual to see sandpipers on wet roads. We did not think it was anything out of the norm when we saw a few white-rumped sandpipers on the 20-kilometre dirt road out to Cape Race. They find small worms and other critters driven out into the open by the wet ground.

At the Cape, a half-dozen white-rumped sandpipers were walking about in the parking lot. Sandpipers on the road turned out to be the theme of the day. Almost every little roadside rain puddle contained a white-rumped sandpiper or two. The Long Beach kelp bed held about 50 of them. It was apparent there had been a little fallout of migrating sandpipers.

White-rumped sandpipers are one of your basic small sandpipers that you see running along beaches in late summer and fall. The name comes from the white band across the rear of the bird visible only in flight.

White-rumped sandpipers are long-distant migrants. They nest high in the Canadian Arctic during summer, but spend the winter in South America. Not just anywhere in South America, but as far south as you can go in the continent. When they leave Newfoundland in the fall, they are going due south with no chance of stopping for a rest until they see the coast of South America.

Most interesting is that the adults go first. They migrate during August and September, leaving the juveniles to migrate on their own in October and November. How do they know the route to fly from the top of the Earth to the bottom without a map or guidance from the experienced? Mankind is still trying to figure how a bird with a brain no bigger than the tip of your little finger manages this feat every year.

Our lack of understanding about how this little bird migrates gives them near magical attributes, but they are not immune from the dynamics of flight. The storm-force southwest winds of Saturday were enough to ground the white-rumped sandpipers. All sandpiper flights out of Newfoundland were cancelled.

This is why they were all over the roads on the southern edge of the Avalon Peninsula. They were waiting for more favourable flying conditions. Their schedule is not so tight they can’t linger a few more days. It just means another day or two to fatten up on Newfoundland grub.

Rare birds of the week

The two rare birds of the week were probably a result of the weekend winds. A western kingbird did not go unnoticed when it showed up at Vikas Klaladkar’s feeder in Sunnyside. This large yellow-bellied member of the flycatcher family is from the central plains of North America. It typically depends on insect life for food. When they show up in late fall, as they sometimes do in Newfoundland, they may have to turn to dogberries to get them through.

But this was the first time I have heard of one taking seeds from a feeding tray.

In the offshore, a prothonotary warbler landed on a seismic vessel on the eastern edge of the Grand Banks. Jeremy Gatten was the lucky observer. Amazingly, this was the second time this year that this southern gem has landed on a vessel on the Grand Banks. Purely coincidence, isn’t it?

Bird migration in the west

Alvan Buckley is on a three-week work placement in Port aux Basques. He is using his weekends to birdwatch in the southwest corner of the province, where very few birders have been in the late fall.

The Grand Codroy River estuary has long been known for the large number of ducks and geese that stop there during fall migration. What is less well known is how other birds in migration use the last corner of land as a jump off point to reach the mainland across the Cabot Strait.

Alvan witnessed some interesting day time movements of hawks and robins moving westward at Cape Ray. Robins were moving through in waves on Sunday, with at least 3,000 observed.

While many robins will linger into winter on the island to make good use of all these dogberries waiting on the trees to be eaten, most actually leave for the United States in late fall. Alvan also witnessed an impressive movement of hawks totalling 30 sharp-shinned hawks, six northern goshawks, six northern harriers and 16 rough-legged hawks, all going southwest and presumably headed out across the water toward Nova Scotia.

So much happens in this corner of Newfoundland that remains to be discovered.

Bruce Mactavish is an environmental

consultant and avid birdwatcher. He can be reached at wingingitone@yahoo.ca,

or by phone at 722-0088.

Geographic location: Newfoundland, Cape Race, Southern Avalon La Haye South America Long Beach South America.Most Sunnyside North America Port aux Basques Grand Codroy River Cape Ray United States

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