Published on May 02, 2014
Black-tailed godwits take turns eating and resting to build up the energy reserves required to fly back to Iceland after being carried off course by northeast winds over the North Atlantic. — Photo by Bruce Mactavish/Special to The Telegram
Published on May 02, 2014
The spectacular black-tailed godwit from Iceland takes in its new found fame in Renews.— Photo by Bruce Mactavish/Special to The Telegram
Published on May 02, 2014
This European golden plover surveys a pasture in Renews looking for earthworms to devour. — Photo by Bruce Mactavish/Special to The Telegram
Bird watchers become weathermen. Weather plays an important role in the movements of birds during migration.
It was April 23 when the wind went northeast in St. John’s. When I saw our trusty weatherman Ryan Snoddon on CBC evening news introducing the weather forecast with a sarcastic RDF for tomorrow, RDF for the next day and RDF for the rest of the week, my eyes lit up.
After supper, I ran down to the computer and checked the long-range weather maps for the North Atlantic. The isobar maps showed some pretty interesting winds blowing from Ireland to southern Iceland and then over to Newfoundland for days and days. These are the weather maps birders’ dreams are made of.
While most people cringed at the outlook of a week or more of rain, drizzle and fog, the birding community was humming with anticipation. We did not have to wait long.
On Friday evening, an email from Tony Dunne of Renews sparked the fire storm. Tony and Yvonne Dunne had photographed two unusual long-legged birds feeding in a pool beside the road right in the community of Renews. Not knowing what they were, Tony emailed the pictures to me for identification, thinking they were probably something ordinary that he had not seen before. The instant I saw the pictures was the start of the mania that became Icelandic Invasion Spring 2014. They were black-tailed godwits.
The brightly coloured shorebirds were definitely of Icelandic stock. Black-tailed godwits are very rare vagrants in Newfoundland, occurring about once every three years on the island and occasionally in Labrador. They are a very classy looking shorebird. Having two together was a bonus.
News of the godwits spread instantly through the birding community. The next day was a Saturday and plans were made to be in Renews in the morning. The appearance of two black-tailed godwits was a good sign there were other exciting Icelandic vagrants to look for as well.
At dawn on Saturday, Ken Knowles, John Wells and I got down to Renews. Catherine Barrett was already there just ahead of us. We crept along the road in our cars until we could see the unlikely little pool of melt water adjacent to the road ahead of us. The birds were actually there! This was far too easy.
Godwits are noted for being particularly wary birds. They were in beautiful orange and black breeding plumage. They turned out to be unusually tolerant of us in our cars as we parked within 30 metres of them while they fed away at the water’s edge.
We filled our boots with incredible views and hundreds of digital pictures. It was high fives all around. We messaged to the others enroute from St. John’s that the godwits were there. Then we drove ahead to check a farm field grazed by cows in recent years. Robins often feed here on the abundance of earthworms thriving in the organic enriched field. It was the kind of habitat another Icelandic bird called the European golden plover chooses.
Our wish was granted when we came over the rise and saw a black, white and gold plover standing in the field. It was a European golden plover. European golden plovers are the most regular stray from Iceland to Newfoundland occurring almost every spring in the province, but still a great rarity on a North American scale of thing.
The golden plover stood still in the field calling with a lonely plaintive whistle for 15 minutes. It looked like it had just landed in Newfoundland and was calling around to find out if any more of its kind were within ear shot in this strange new land. With no answer, it started running around the field in much the same manner as a robin, stopping now and then to grab a big earthworm.
The heat was on. What other Icelandic strays might be around? Cape Race was a logical choice for searching.
We checked plenty of likely habitats for golden plovers and godwits. At a foggy Cape Race, Ken found three more European golden plovers on the barrens. Meanwhile other birders out on the hunt found six European golden plovers at the St. John’ airport, and two more were at Sally’s Cove in Gros Morne National Park.
On Sunday, the search expanded. More European golden plovers were found on the Avalon Peninsula with two on a ballfield in Pouch Cove, one in a farm field in the Goulds and two on Ferryland Downs. The two black-tailed godwits and the golden plover continued at Renews, attracting a lot of attention from bird watchers and curious Renews residents.
Surprisingly, Darroch Whitaker found two more black-tailed godwits at St. Paul’s Inlet on the west coast of the Northern Peninsula.
As I write on Monday evening, other birders around the province answering the call found more plovers. Roger Willmott checking out the Lumsden area found five European golden plovers, and Carol Sparkes, walking most of the beach nearby at Cape Freels, photographed three more. Then Ed Hayden found three new ones in the Goulds. This brought the tally of Icelandic birds found so far to 28 European golden plovers and four black-tailed godwits. This is a good start.
We know there are more out there and the continuing northeast winds might bring other exciting Icelandic species. This story in not complete.
The fabulous, far-reaching northeast winds will continue for a few more days. There is a silver lining to every dark cloud. Even the infamous rain, drizzle and fog days of spring in Newfoundland can shine if you care to mine for golden plovers.
Bruce Mactavish is an environmental
consultant and avid birdwatcher. He can be reached at email@example.com,
or by phone at 722-0088.