One step at a time toward spring

Bruce Mactavish
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The cold winter across Eastern Canada is running over into the start of spring. Birdwatchers from Ontario to Nova Scotia are all talking about the late arrival of the first spring birds.

It is probably a good thing that they are late because eastern Canada is still deep in the grips of winter. Spring may be slow but it cannot be stopped. There are some definite signs of spring.

Canada geese are among the earliest migrating birds to arrive in Newfoundland. There were reports of sitings on the Avalon Peninsula in early March. This past weekend there were 13 in Renews harbour and two more in Trepassey harbour. While it was nice to see this definite sign of spring, it was not good habitat for geese. Cootes Pond near St. Mary’s is a great place for the first spring geese on the southern Avalon Peninsula, but it was still completely frozen over at the time. Maybe the Renews geese had overflown Cootes Pond in search of any refuge while waiting for Cootes Pond to thaw out. No doubt traditional spring goose spots at the Port Blandford causeway and Clarenville will be especially attractive to geese this spring as they wait for inland waterways to thaw out.

No one has been to Cape St. Mary’s yet this spring because the road is snowed in but the first northern gannets should be visiting Bird Rock this week.  Flocks of black-legged kittiwakes were migrating strongly past Cape Spear on Sunday aided by a south wind. It is unsure how far north these early spring kittiwakes are going. So far only a few kittiwakes are visiting local Avalon Peninsula nesting sites.

By the time you read this column the first spring ring-billed gulls should be back at Quidi Vidi Lake in St. John’s to join the half dozen or so that stayed over the winter. They will be all bright and dolled up ready to party compared the winter weary half dozen ring-billed gulls that overwintered in St. John’s.

It is going to be difficult to know when the first official robin of spring arrives because quite a few have overwintered in Eastern Newfoundland. Max Smith of Hodges Cove has been seeing hundreds of robins feeding in the barachois at low tide. They are probably eating sea lice and other marine goodies exposed during the low tide.

There is still a pretty good supply of dogberries on the trees and as the snow melts clumps of berries blown off the trees over the winter will become available. It looks good for the robins that gambled to stay for the winter in Newfoundland. They should be in good shape to meet the spring robins that typically arrive on the island around the first day of April.

On the weekend I was watching a flock of 75 robins feeding on small patches of bare grass under the pine trees in front of the Health Sciences building in St. John’s. The birds appeared very healthy and alive as they systematically checked all the bare ground for possible worms and grubs. Some of them have deep red breasts and some pale orange breasts. It has been a long winter for the robins. They deserve some sort of award for surviving an entire winter in Newfoundland.

As I admired our hardy robins a sharp-shinned hawk flew in scattering the birds. One robin did not see the hawk as it pulled a quick turn behind a pine tree and was surprised from behind. The hawk got it. It was a good day for the hawk but the last day for one robin.

After all it went through this winter to get nailed by a hawk a week before spring was plain rotten luck. The slate blue back and orange bars on the breast of the hawk showed it was an adult. Adult hawks are the experienced ones. It probably was not the first robin it has surprised this winter. Life goes on for the hawk and 74 robins.

Early spring means the owls are starting to call at night. Last week Alvan Buckley and Brenden Kelly went out to the Salmonier Line purposely to listen for owls. They heard two great horned owls and one saw-whet owl. Owls nest early. Ravens also nest early. They might already be sitting on eggs. I saw a raven flying with a stick in its beak that it was no doubt taking to its nest.

The few feeder birds that we have are starting to sing. The song sparrow was born to sing. Great to hear them starting up in earnest. Spring is indeed coming along one little step at a time.

Cormorants in St. John’s

It seems that every second week there is a new avalanche of cormorant reports from the ponds and rivers within the St. John’s city limits. This past week cormorants discovered the Rennies River and the pond in front of the Health Sciences building. These big black birds with long necks do not go unnoticed! I am impressed at how many of you know something different when it happens. These great cormorants are fairly common in winter on the saltwater but did not normally come in to freshwater until a few years ago in the St. John’s area. Even then it was mostly at Quidi Vidi Lake. This winter they are exploring the Waterford River, Rennies River and Virginia River.

Bruce Mactavish is an environmental

consultant and avid birdwatcher. He can be reached at,

or by phone at 722-0088.

Organizations: Health Sciences

Geographic location: Newfoundland, Canada, Renews Trepassey Quidi Vidi Lake Southern Avalon Peninsula Port Blandford Clarenville Bird Rock Rennies River Waterford River

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