Summer letters to the author

Bruce Mactavish
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Summer pine grosbeaks are brightening up summer bird feeders more often in recent years. — Photo by Bruce Mactavish/Special to The Telegram

I am just back from a five-week stint on a seismic vessel off Newfoundland. It is truly fantastic to be back on land.

Summer in Newfoundland is so lush and alive. The larger sea-going vessels all have an Internet connection these years. However, without fail these connections are very slow making simple Internet activities a challenge. This includes answering emails from you, the readers of this column.

For the record, I do try to answer every email that comes in. I welcome them all and I do not get so many that I have trouble replying to them all. Almost everyone has an interesting bird experience. I especially look forward to photographs of mystery birds in case it turns out to be something quite unusual.

When I got off the ship, there was a small backlog of emails that I could not answer while at sea, especially if there was a photograph attached. As a different kind of column, I will answer some of them here as others out there may be experiencing something similar in their world of birds.

Maureen Hayward sent in a nice photo of a very friendly pine grosbeak eating sunflower seeds on the deck of her cabin near Bay Roberts. Paul Bonisteel from the Carbonear area was surprised to have a pair of pine grosbeak join the purple finches and goldfinches at his feeder.

I am getting more and more reports of pine grosbeaks at bird feeders. This activity is definitely on the increase in eastern Newfoundland over the last few years. However, it is not such an extreme activity because pine grosbeaks have always been feeder birds in colder regions such as Labrador.

Another recent change in the urban bird watching scene is the use of hanging plant holders for nesting juncos. I can sense some of you readers nodding your head in agreement. This is a learned activity that is sweeping the minds of juncos. I wonder how they all find out about it.

Bill Greene of Mount Pearl wonders how he can keep his hanging yellow begonia watered without disturbing the junco nest containing four eggs discovered sharing the same pot with the flower. There is no easy answer. The eggs or young in the nest should never get wet. Maybe you can water the plant very lightly often instead of giving it a good dousing occasionally. Personally I’d sacrifice the welfare of the plant for the success of the juncos.

Imelda Dalton has a robin with an attitude in her backyard. Although it does not eat bird seed, it chases away any bird that tries to eat at the feeder. I suspect the robin has a nest nearby and considers the other birds a threat. Imelda sent a comical photo of the robin sitting on the feeder with a distinctly vexed expression.

Glen Ryan, a veteran observer of birds in Newfoundland, found a nesting song sparrow at Bonavista. He realized this was not a normal occurrence for the location. Well, at least not until recently.

Summer song sparrow numbers have exploded in Newfoundland. At one time they nested only in the southwest corner of Newfoundland, and were only a rare visitor to bird feeders elsewhere. Right now we are in the midst of a rapid population increase all over Newfoundland. These ordinary brown striped sparrows are properly named for their love of singing. They are still singing this late in the breeding season.

Mary Smyth and Fred Hollingshurst were hiking on Fogo Island when they came across a mystery bird on the barrens with a long curved beak. The pictures showed a whimbrel, also known at the curlew. These birds are actually regular on the coastal barrens where they fatten up on berries on their way from Arctic nesting grounds to South American wintering areas.

Ferne Williams is a regular contributor to the Winging It email line. Her feeder in east St. John’s is very popular with the birds. She makes her backyard an oasis, feeding all birds including a family of crows and starlings. Ferne is currently monitoring the activities of a starling with a deformed bill that comes regularly for the free handouts of food. The more you watch a bird the more it becomes an individual with a set of characteristics and habits just like us humans. Ferne, like many of you dedicated feeder watchers, sees the individuality of the birds coming to the feeder.

Keep those emails coming, and enjoy the birds.

Bruce Mactavish is an environmental consultant and avid birdwatcher. He can be reached at, or by phone at 722-0088.

Geographic location: Newfoundland, Bay Roberts, Carbonear Mount Pearl Fogo Island Arctic

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