The best birding weekend

Bruce
Bruce Mactavish
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A northern parula, one of 21 warbler species seen Sept. 7, 1998, near Renews. — Photo by Ken Knowles/Special to The Telegram

You’re up early on Sept. 7 because you have to pick up your birding friends and be down to Renews by dawn. A cup of Tims, black, and the 90-minute drive south, followed by the slow, careful drive down the gravel road known as Bear Cove Point Road.

Alders close in on both sides, sometimes scraping the sides of the car. In the first light, warbler-sized birds are flitting across the road in front of the car — a good sign, but you ignore them to continue on to park at the old lighthouse.

As soon as you leave the car you hear the usual early morning chip notes — the lazy yellow-rumped warbler, the sharp chip of the blackpoll, and then the low chup of a common yellowthroat. These are the expected species, but a good indication that there are plenty of birds on the move.

Stepping just off the road and crouching down in the alders, you start to make the first “pishing” noises of the day. Black-and-white warbler comes in, a late northern waterthrush, then something bright yellow underneath, lurking in the lower levels.

Is it another yellowthroat? No, it has yellow “spectacles” and a dark cheek patch. Mother of God, it’s a Kentucky warbler, a mega-rarity and the first “good” bird of the day! This is proof of a movement overnight of southern vagrants. Anything is now possible.

Over the course of the morning the warbler gods grace us with one knockout bird after another: golden-winged, cerulean and chestnut-sided.

On a day like this you don’t stop to eat. Mid-morning feels like noon, so eating and birding simultaneously, you shove a half-eaten egg salad sandwich into your pocket in order to get your hands on your binoculars when a bird flits into view. (Bits of egg salad are there to this day, but the bird was a palm warbler.)

Along with these southern mega-rarities come the minor rarities: Canada warbler, a few prairie warblers, a northern parula. In fact, you see nearly all the breeding species except yellow warblers, which have mostly left the province for the winter.

Twenty-one species of warblers is the final total, plus a variety of other vagrants like lark sparrow, least flycatcher, a few orioles and a blue-grey gnatcatcher.

It is a day to remember, and it happened on Sept.7, 1998.

This weekend is probably the best time of the year to find unusual birds on the Avalon Peninsula. Records over the years have shown that more than 20 species of warblers have been seen on or near this date on several occasions, as well as good numbers of other unusual or rare species. Several species of

vireos, a northern wheatear, and shorebirds such as pectoral sandpipers and Bairds sandpipers have appeared.

Amongst the warblers there have been gems like the worm-eating warbler, hooded warbler and

prothonotary warbler.

What makes this weekend so consistently good?

First of all, it is prime migration time. More birds on the move means more chance of birders finding them. Secondly, it is a time of year that often brings us southwest winds. This means that migrating birds that rarely visit Newfoundland can get caught up in the southerly flow and end up here. If the winds are northeasterly, they can bring some migrating shorebirds from the north, or maybe a wheatear.

The third factor is location.

Migration tends to concentrate many bird species in coastal areas that provide them with a quick energy snack, usually alder beds for the warblers or vireos, and muddy kelp beds for the shorebirds. This makes it easy for birders to target a wide variety of species, concentrated in proven stopover areas.

But, of course, there’s a catch. If the weather doesn’t co-operate, the birds won’t be there. Some years, on Sept 7, very few are located. If it rains, if the wind is too strong, or if the southwest winds haven’t materialized, the day can be a disappointment.

Most years, though, it is amazing. But if it doesn’t happen on the seventh or the eighth, it will happen some time in early September. Birders study weather systems, looking for the right southwest winds reaching from deep into the south. You can be sure that as you are reading this, there are birders in the alder beds down the Southern Shore.

I’ll be one of them.

 

Sightings

A yellow-bellied sapsucker is a good rarity on the Avalon, but for the fourth time in as many years, Eleanor Doran has found one drilling into her apple tree in the unlikely location of Trepassey. Her yard has now become the sapsucker capital of the Avalon. Who would have thought?

Not to be outdone, her brother, Cliff Doran, discovered a rare yellow-headed blackbird near the lighthouse at Cape Race.

The fall shorebird list continues to build, with Jared Clark reporting the first Baird’s sandpiper of the year from Northern Bay Sands. With the arrival of September, to borrow a phrase from the swilers, birders are now into the fat.

 

While Bruce Mactavish is out of the province, Ken Knowles is watching the Winging It email, wingingitone@yahoo.ca.

Geographic location: Renews, Kentucky, Canada Newfoundland

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