The changing seasons

Bruce Mactavish
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It may seem to a winter-shocked Newfoundlander that nothing is changing as February gives way to March, but “hope is the thing with feathers,” and in the bird world the seasons continue to evolve.

Today’s Winging It gathers together a few small signs that someday winter will end. As the song says, “You must believe in spring.”

Canada geese! As this article was being written, two reports came in of Canada goose sightings on the Avalon. One flock was spotted flying in classic V-formation over downtown St. John’s and a second group of three were photographed in Trepassey. Although some geese always over-winter in the Clarenville area, these reports are very likely the first true returning migrants of 2014.

Often the first sign of spring in the Newfoundland bird world is the appearance of kittiwakes inshore. Every March, sightings of this species from ocean headlands such as Cape Spear increase dramatically, as birds that winter at sea return to their summering areas. St. John’s birders even start to see black-legged kittiwakes feeding with the usual sewage gulls at Pier 17 near the Terry Fox memorial.

To identify a kittiwake, look for a small gull with black legs, jet-black wingtips (with no white spots), and an unmarked pale yellow bill.  They fly in small flocks low on the water with a lighter, more delicate wingbeat than the larger gulls.

While you are looking over the ocean for kittiwakes, note the huge duck flocks congregating around the headlands. These are eiders, forced south in March by the arrival of sea ice from the north. The eiders can number in the thousands and are easily identified by the contrasting black-and-white pattern of the males. The brown birds with them are the females.

Using spotting scopes, birders scan through the pans of common eiders, looking for the prize — a rare king eider. Every birder remembers their first male king eider, the colours as regal as its name. You might find one king for every 600 or so common eiders. There was at least one male king in with a big pancake of common eiders off the tip of Cape Spear this week.

Small numbers of eiders can be seen all winter but my first sighting of a large spring flock was a mass of over 1,000 ducks at Outer Cove on Feb. 22. The next day David Smith reported thousands at Cape Spear including some male kings. Because these flocks are heavily hunted, they flush easily, so you need to be a stealth birder to get close enough to see the kings.

Northeast winds can push the eiders and kittiwakes in near shore, but strong westerlies drive them out of view temporarily.

And finally at Cape Spear, check out the long-necked great cormorants flying by the point. Notice the white flank patch? They only develop this feature for the spring breeding season, so we can count it as another sign of spring.

There are more indications among the land birds. Flickers at my place are now showing up in pairs, with rivalry starting up between the males that previously co-existed peacefully around the suet feeder.

 Juncos, purple finches and chickadees are trying out their spring songs on still mornings, and any day now the ravens at the Middle Cove cliffs will start their amazing barrel rolls to begin their pair bonding process leading towards the mating season.

At both Pier 17 and at Quidi Vidi Lake, the tiny black-headed gulls are beginning to molt into their breeding plumage. It probably hasn’t escaped your notice that black-headed gulls don’t actually have black heads when they visit the St. John’s area every winter. In March, their heads begin to get smudgy and by April some of them will actually look like a proper black-headed gull before they leave us for their summer breeding areas.

Meanwhile, the other gulls, most of which have had streaky, dirty-looking heads all winter are becoming more purely white-headed. This is their summer breeding plumage, acquired like a new outfit for a spring date.

By the next couple of weeks, we could get some more spring migrants. The first gannets traditionally return to Cape St. Mary’s on St. Patrick’s Day, and last year the first ring-billed gulls returned from the south to Quidi Vidi Lake on March 23, although why anyone would return to Newfoundland in March is a question for a psychiatrist, not a bird columnist.

Hang in there.


Activity at feeders is gradually picking up after one of the slowest winters in memory.

Catherine Barrett was delighted at the appearance of red crossbills at her feeder in the Goulds and Cliff Doran sent photos of a tree sparrow that has returned to his Trepassey feeder to keep his song sparrow company. Several readers are noticing more mourning doves, juncos, pine siskins and purple finches, driven to feeders now that the wild seed crop is gradually depleting.

Your regular columnist Bruce Mactavish, returns from Costa Rica this week, where he has been complaining about the heat. It’s hard to be sympathetic.

While Bruce Mactavish is out of the province, Ken Knowles is watching the Winging It email,

Geographic location: Canada, Trepassey, Newfoundland Clarenville Quidi Vidi Lake Goulds Costa Rica

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