The birding year-end review

Bruce Mactavish
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Another great year of birdwatching on the island of Newfoundland comes to a close. According to my calculations, 276 species of bird were recorded on the island of Newfoundland and territorial waters in 2013.

This is the second best total since I have been keeping track in 2010. Such a total includes many rare and exciting birds.

Rarest winter birds

The year started with a bang in St. John’s as birders travelled all about the city mopping up on the medium rare to very rare birds left over from 2012 to pad their 2013 year list.

The most unusual was the pink-footed goose that had taken up residence at the Bowring Park duck pond. This rare goose originating from Greenland fought for food handouts with the swarm of local ducks, and survived until spring when it presumably flew back to Greenland.

The mild end of 2012 carried a number of late and rare warblers into the new year. Most unusual of the lot was a Townsend’s warbler from western North America. It unfortunately disappeared after a cold snap at the end of the first week of the year.

In western Newfoundland, there were two rare European species during the winter. A fieldfare was spotted on Jan. 19 eating rotting apples still hanging from a tree at Reidville. This European cousin of the robin moved on before birders could make plans to see this rarity.

Along the same magnitude of rarity, a common chaffinch began visiting a Corner Brook birdfeeder in late February and was seen sporadically until April. It was about the fourth record of this finch in the province.

Nocturnal birds are particularly difficult to come to grips with, especially when out of range. All the birders were envious of the lucky three who saw a very rare long-eared owl land on a clothesline pole at dusk in Portugal Cove South on Feb. 21.

A strong contention for rare bird of the year was the grey heron at Little Heart’s Ease. News reached the Newfoundland birding scene on March 9. Only the third or fourth sighting for North America, this European vagrant attracted many birders from all over North America during its three-month stay.



Northeast winds of spring carried a pair of Greenland white-fronted geese to Twillingate in early April. Another individual visited Biscay Bay on the southern Avalon Peninsula and lingered for three weeks during which time it was enjoyed by many birdwatchers.

Nearby, at Portugal Cove South, a rare tundra swan put off a show for a couple of weeks in late May and early June.

A duo of little egrets at Fairhaven, Placentia Bay, for 10 days in mid-May was an exceptional sighting on this side of the Atlantic Ocean.

From the Prairie provinces, a Franklin’s gull in full breeding plumage, visiting Witless Bay for a couple days in early June, put the local gulls to shame for sheer attractiveness.

Completely unexpected was the province’s second ever white-breasted nuthatch that appeared at an Eastport bird feeder April 20-29. Although common in neighbouring Nova Scotia, some birds just do not wander away from their homeland. The white-winged dove at a Middle Pond feeder near Witless Bay in early June was the only sighting of this Texan this year.


Renews was the summer hotspot with back-to-back rarities in late June, scrambling the normal life routines of birders.

A tricoloured heron and a sandwich tern, both from the south, had been recorded a few times before in Newfoundland, but were firsts for most of the birders flocking to the area.

Shorebird migration starts before summer is over, and Renews again shone hosting a rare ringed plover in mid-August.

In the offshore, a prothonotary warbler landing on a seismic vessel on the eastern Grand Banks on Aug. 1 shocked all the landlubbers that dream of finding this southern gem on land.

Across the Strait of Belle Isle, near Forteau, a local resident surprised by a pink and green woodpecker working about her property in mid-July fortunately took some photographs. The bird was long gone by the time news reached the birding community that a Lewis’s woodpecker from Western Canada had visited southern Labrador.


The autumn migration period traditionally brings us the most vagrant birds. Birders are out in force every weekend looking for surprises but it is not always that active birder that finds the most outstanding birds.

From the warm sub-tropical waters of the Caribbean, a brown booby photographed by alert people on a seismic vessel on the eastern Grand Banks on Sept. 4 confirmed the second provincial record. From western North America the province’s first lazuli bunting dropped into a backyard in Corner Brook for a few seconds on Sept. 10 and was luckily photographed through the quick actions of the homeowner.

On the other hand, the spectacular scissor-tailed flycatcher found by birders at Torbay was a real crowd pleaser during its 10-day stay in October. It was only the second for the province.

From the southwestern United States and one of the very few records ever from eastern North America, the Virginia’s warbler in the White Hills, St. John’s Nov. 14 to Dec. 2 was conveniently close to home for many birders, as several visits were required by most to get a glimpse of this shy bird.

After we thought we lost the last of our regular yellow-legged gull visitors from the Azores off Portugal, another was discovered in St. John’s in late October. An intense late autumn storm carried a Forster’s tern to Renews and dropped an exotic purple gallinule into a Clarenville backyard.

There were many other more routine rare birds found throughout the fall that there is not space to mention here. The year closed with a huge influx of snowy owls that will stand the test of time and be a permanent part of Newfoundland birding history.

Rare Bird of 2013 Award

It was a close race for rarest bird of 2013. The grey heron was the rarest bird on the North American scale to show up in the province in 2013. With perhaps only three previous sightings for this continent, the bird stuck around for three months, allowing all Newfoundland birders to connect with the bird as well as bird listers from across North America.

But I am awarding the Rare Bird of 2013 Award to the Virginia’s warbler in the White Hills, St. John’s, Nov. 14 to Dec. 2. It has a high rarity factor being from the southwestern United States. It is a warbler, one of the most worshipped groups of birds among birders. It stayed long enough to allow everyone to look for it. You had to really want to see this bird to get your views. Sometimes even that desire was not enough. People put in more hours hunting down this bird than perhaps any other rare bird in Newfoundland history.

Virginia’s warbler is the Rare Bird of 2013. OK 2014, what do you have in store for us? Can you match that?

Happy New Year, everyone.

Bruce Mactavish is an environmental

consultant and avid birdwatcher. He can be reached at,

or by phone at 722-0088.

Organizations: North American

Geographic location: Newfoundland, North America, Corner Brook Bowring Park Portugal Cove South Witless Bay Renews Twillingate Biscay Bay Southern Avalon Peninsula Virginia Placentia Bay Franklin Eastport Nova Scotia United States White Hills Western Canada Southern Labrador.FallThe Caribbean Azores Portugal North America.But

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