Blackout 2014 and birds

Bruce Mactavish
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Every person on the island of Newfoundland will remember this time being dubbed as Blackout 2014. What we may forget is that it was the weather that started the cascading series of events upsetting our fragile dependence on an electrical generation plant situated in Holyrood.

It was not an unusual cold spell, but the first good one in 10 years or so. In this time period, there has been a significant urban growth on the northeast Avalon. The system was unprepared for the new demand for electricity.

What about the birds? Well, a few of them were also ill-prepared for a real winter after getting a little too used to the tame winters and a dependence on the growing urban scene.

The birds showing the most adverse effects of the snowstorms, wind and cold weather are the urban ducks. The ducks living in the artificial environment around St. John’s are suffering from greatly restricted open water and shortage of food. During the last 10 years of mild winters, the population of urban ducks has grown multifold. Most of these ducks depend on people for food, the same people that were dealing with their own survival in the deep snow, cold and power outages.

Open water at Quidi Vidi Lake at the mouths of the Rennies and Virginia rivers nearly disappeared after the cold and blowing snow. The tufted ducks holding up for the winter in the hole of water at Burtons Pond kept open with an aerator found themselves in trouble when the power was cut off to the aerator just when they needed it most. They really should not be here in winter. It looks like they made it through the ordeal this time, but they may want to rethink next winter’s plan.

Most of the birds that spend the winter around us have been doing it for all time, so are adapted to get through periods of rough weather. Good news for the seed-eating sparrows and finches is that there is still lots of food in the woods. Juncos have not rushed into the feeders like they might have without this excellent natural food source. But the deep snow is sending more and more birds to bird feeders.

A couple of surprises have shown up.

A white-crowned sparrow found Paul and Catherine Barrett’s feeder in the Goulds. These birds are rarely here in the winter. And this particular bird showed characteristics of the white-crowned sparrow populations originating from western North America.

An eastern towhee was a nice find at Az and Sharon Oram’s feeder at Caplin Cove, Trinity Bay. These colourful large members of the sparrow family are common as close as the New England States but less than annual in Newfoundland and Labrador. Both these special visitors will be able to survive any Newfoundland weather as long as the homeowners continue to dish out the birdseed.

The abundance of dogberries is also helping birds in the depth of winter weather. Most of you probably are not aware there are robins by the flock in the hills and woods gorging on the abundance of berries.

Soon they will move into the urban areas to get those last berries. Northern flickers also eat from the berry crop, complementing their diet of suet from our bird feeders. Keep those bird feeders full if you can.

Deep snow, small owls

Often during periods of deep snow, small owls begin to appear in residential areas. There have been reports of four small owls in the last week.

Cliff Doran of Trepassey had a visit from a saw-whet owl just before dark. It sat on the railing of his porch and looked around at his feeder. Perhaps it detected the sound of a mouse beneath the snow.

Another saw-whet owl was photographed in Cape Broyle by Joe Combs, and Jared Clarke was lucky to see one perched on a wire by his St. John’s house at night. Close cousin to the saw-whet owl is the boreal owl, photographed in a wood shed on Topsail Road,

St. John’s. Consider it a great treat if you get to see one of these little owls in your backyard.

Meanwhile a few people are reporting snowy owls by day and night in the St. John’s area. There has been a snowy owl frequenting a neighbourhood in the east end. First it was reported several times by Art Menchions while walking his dog in the graveyard at the top of Kenna’s Hill.

Then Rev. Frank Puddister saw it at night sitting on the cross of Mary Queen of Peace Church on Torbay Road, lit up with flood lights. Most recently, what must be the same owl was seen on Tunis Court on two consecutive days by Barb Ivany and others.

This city snowy owl may be getting some rodent action around this section of town, or maybe over by the Rennies River.

Life Goes On

Life goes on for most Newfoundland birds as if nothing unusual has happened.

During the power outage, I was recharging my cellphone in my idling car parked on the Southside Road with a view of St. John’s harbour when I noticed a great cormorant with a fish.

The fish was too big to swallow. It was a sculpin and a big one. It was too big for any bird to swallow down whole, but no way was the cormorant going to let go of its prize.

Even gulls circling over the scene did not try to steal away a fish so big and ugly. For 15 minutes, the cormorant held onto the fish.

It made several attempts to swallow it down but it was just too big and dangerous.

All those spines scraping down inside of the throat of the cormorant can’t be good.

Then suddenly from below, another cormorant appeared and vigorously tried to take the fish. That was incentive enough. The original cormorant gave it everything it had and actually swallowed the monster sculpin down whole!

Ouch, but that is one cormorant that will not be hungry for a while.

It is all about survival. Courage came at the right time. Sometimes you have to put in an extra effort to survive.

Blackout 2014 forced us into survival mode. Even for just a moment, I think we were all made to remember that life is fragile and not a given. Life still goes on for the cormorant and all the other birds with the survival spirit.

Hopefully by the time you read this, life will be back to normal for us, too.

Bruce Mactavish is an environmental

consultant and avid birdwatcher. He can be reached at,

or by phone at 722-0088.

Organizations: Peace Church

Geographic location: Avalon, Newfoundland and Labrador, Quidi Vidi Lake Virginia Goulds North America.An eastern Caplin Cove Trinity Bay New England States Trepassey Cape Broyle Topsail Road Torbay Road Rennies River Southside Road

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