The state of the season

Bruce Mactavish
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The onslaught of winter storms continues. Still no mammoth blizzards, on the Avalon Peninsula at least, just lots of wind, sometimes with rain and sometimes a little snow.

A cedar waxwing works on a way to get into a late winter apple in Goulds.  — Photo by Bruce Mactavish/Special to The Telegram

Persistent periods of cold weather are causing more ice buildup along the east coast then we are used to in recent years.

What birds are around in the depth of winter? Feeders have been pretty quiet this winter and continue to be so.  But there is sign of improved activity.

Small numbers of pine siskins, goldfinches and purple finches are starting to return to the bird feeders.

It’s a start.

Juncos and the finches are still doing fine for food in the woods, but the supply of seed left in those cones heavy on the spruce and fir trees must be running low.

There are also still plenty of dogberries available for the birds. However flocks of waxwings remain localized and are mostly in western and central Newfoundland.

A mixed group of 70 cedar and bohemian waxwings entertained birdwatchers for most of a week in Goulds. There are small flocks of robins around.  There should be just enough berries to get them through the winter. If you happen across some robins, stop and listen. Often they sing even in midwinter.

Speaking of singing, juncos and black-capped chickadees are starting a little spring practise singing when they feel the warmth of the sun in a sheltered area.

They can tell by the lengthening days and the positioning of the sun a little higher in the sky each day that spring is ahead.

Midwinter surprises

Even in midwinter, it is possible for a surprise bird to be found.

Cliff Doran discovered a hermit thrush feeding in an open wet area along a wooded roadside in Trepassey.

Hermit thrush is a common summer bird, but most have left the province by October. Very rarely does one linger into winter and it is especially unusual for one to be present this far into a particularly rough and cold winter.

Hermit thrushes are distant cousins of the robin and will eat dogberries. Cliff had some saved in his freezer and is spreading out a few berries each day which the bird is happily accepting. Good luck to that bird.

Brendan Kelly surprised everyone by finding a drake hooded merganser in the little river that flows to the sea at Topsail Beach.

Hooded merganser is fairly rare on the island of Newfoundland. There was one already this winter in St. John’s, but that was a female. Most Newfoundland hooded mergansers are the dull coloured females, but Brendan’s bird was a full-blown drake. Quite an impressive little duck with an attitude that it shows with its fan shaped crest.

Wonder where that bird has been all this winter up to now?

The great cormorants continue to push the limits of what we expected. They have moved in and made themselves at home within the city of St. John’s. I was very surprised to see 18 of them sitting on the ice at the Bowring Park duck pond. The trout living in the pond were probably surprised too!

My house backs onto the Waterford River, which flows down from Bowring Park.

A couple of years ago I would have bet anyone my binoculars that I’d never see a great cormorant from the kitchen window.

It happened for the first time this winter, and now it is a daily sighting as individuals and small groups fly up and down the river between St. John’s harbour and Bowring Park. And this past week up to 10 have been resting on a large concrete block a few houses down river. No one knows where this is going to go.  Great cormorants are more crafty and resourceful birds than I gave them credit for.

There were not any more reports of small owls in the last week, but a few snowy owls continue to be seen here and there. Rev. Frank Puddister was again honoured this past week to have a snowy owl sit on the cross of the Mary Queen of Peace Church off Torbay Road, St. John’s under the cover of darkness but illuminated by flood lights.

This bird must be making a living off the rodent night life of St. John’s.

What to look forward to

There is a much larger area of pack ice off eastern Newfoundland this winter than most of the last decade. It is typical of the way it used to be.

Birders are watching the movement of the ice. Ice jamming up the east coast could send thousands of eiders down around the Avalon Peninsula.

So far the westerly winds have kept open leads of water inside the ice pack so eiders have not been coming south in big numbers yet.

As the pack ices approaches the Avalon Peninsula, birders start dreaming about the ivory gull. These pure white Arctic gulls spend most of their lives among the sea ice.

There are a whole host of conditions — including northeast winds and luck — that must come together for ivory gulls to be seen from the Avalon Peninsula. It happens once every five years or so. Will this be the winter it happens again?

While you are thinking about pack ice birds, I’ll be near the equator looking at birds like keel-billed toucan, violet sabrewing, shining honeycreeper and another few hundred species of birds.

Ken Knowles will be doing the next two columns while I am in Costa Rica recharging my batteries.

Let him know what you see on the Winging It email address below.

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: Goulds, Bowring Park, Island of Newfoundland Waterford River Torbay Road Eastern Newfoundland Arctic Costa Rica

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