The first shorebirds of spring

Bruce Mactavish
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The march of new spring birds arriving on the island reached another milestone this week. It was the return of the first migrant shorebirds, the snipe and the greater yellowlegs.

A few snipe do manage to successfully overwinter in Newfoundland at select mud holes, but the majority did leave the province last fall.

There are few signs of spring more entrenched among the people of the outdoors than the sound of a winnowing snipe. The haunting call is actually produced by the quivering outer tail feathers of the male as it flies in great circles over a given area of bog land that it has chosen for its nesting territory. Try to spot the source of the sound in the sky. It is not so easy, since the bird is moving fast and quite high in the sky. By the time the sound reaches your ear, it will have moved ahead. Often you can hear several from one location. Evening and early morning are the best time to hear them. They will go on into the night and on overcast days will winnow in midday.

Snipes have other sounds that they produce with their vocal cords. A loud piping call is often heard. This call is used by both male and female, partly as a way to keep in contact. Snipe sometimes stand on a post or a stump to get a better view of their nesting territory and project that piping call farther. Snipe are generously populated throughout Newfoundland and Labrador.

The snipe is the life of the land. Their winnowing sound in the spring is a sure sign the land is waking up after its winter hibernation.

Another shorebird in Newfoundland and Labrador that shares the same nesting grounds with the snipe is the greater yellowlegs. Lots of people encounter these noisy birds on fishing trips into the country in spring and early summer. Their long legs are glowing yellow. Unlike the more secretive snipe, the yellowlegs feed in the open along shorelines. It keeps a watchful eye out for potential danger. The slightest sign of danger could be enough to trigger off the “kuu-kuu-kuu” alarm notes that are a familiar sound of summer.

When they first arrive in the last half of April, they frequent the shorelines of our tidal estuaries waiting for the inland bogs and ponds to become more hospitable. The greater yellowlegs is another welcome sight and sound of spring.

Meanwhile, the only species of shorebird that overwinters in considerable numbers in the province, the purple sandpiper, is now disappearing from the rocky shores where they spent the winter. They are moving northward toward nesting grounds in the Arctic. Purple sandpipers thrive on waved-washed rocky islets and exposed points and capes.

Unlike the snipe and yellowlegs, few people are aware of their existence. Cape Spear is one of the most convenient locations in the province to see them. Sometimes flocks of more than 100 feed among the seaweed-covered rocks exposed at low tide. But unless they fly you may not even notice them, as they are the same dark colours as the wave-washed rocks they live amongst. By the way, when seen up close with the sun shining at the correct angle, there’s a purple sheen to the grey plumage. Very few people have actually seen it.

As May progresses there will be other species of shorebirds to look for. Most of these are species just  stopping briefly on their way to the Arctic.

The spotted sandpiper, familiar across Newfoundland and Labrador in the summer, will not start arriving here until the second week of May in southern parts of the province, and through May until it reaches inland Labrador.


Other new spring arrivals

Pretty much as predicted, the species expected to arrive by this time of year are showing up, but in dribs and drabs. Northern harrier, a hawk of the open barrens, should be widespread by now but just a couple have been sighted. It is the same with the merlin. No ospreys have been reported by the time of this writing on April 21. An early bittern was at Renews on April 18. There should be more of all these species arriving this week.

Besides new species returning to the province, people are also noting birds returning to their feeders. American goldfinches, which seemed to vanish over the winter, are slowly returning to birdfeeders.

A few lucky people are also reporting purple finches. They are a choice species to have around during the spring because of their beautiful bubbling song. At my own feeder in St. John’s, blue jays have returned for their daily dose of peanuts after being absent most of the winter.

It pays to keep a special eye on your bird feeder, for you never know what might turn up in the spring.

Bryan Singleton of St. Joseph’s, St. Mary’s Bay had a visit from a brown-headed cowbird. Watson Martin found an out-of-range indigo bunting that unfortunately fell victim to a cat in Chamberlains, C.B.S. Both these species are on the rare side in Newfoundland.

Every week, the weather gets a little better.


Bruce Mactavish is an environmental

consultant and avid birdwatcher. He can be reached at,

or by phone at 722-0088.



Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Arctic, Chamberlains

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