A mid-fall rare bird roundup

Bruce Mactavish
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Everyone is thrilled, or at least curious, about seeing a rare bird. Active birders thrive on the thrill of seeing rare birds.

This yellow-crowned night heron hunting for earthworms on a lawn in Torbay was a once-in-a-lifetime event for the homeowner. — Photo by Bruce Mactavish/The Telegram

They look for them in the best places at the right time of year to increase the odds. The chances of seeing a rare bird in your own backyard are as slim as winning the lottery.

Gerald Manning of Torbay had no idea he was about to win that lottery when he looked out his window and saw a strange bird on the lawn. The identity of the long-legged bird was a total mystery to Gerald and his neighbours. Angela Duke did the right thing, securing a photograph of the bird and emailing it to someone who should know. It was respected ornithologist Bill Montevecchi who received the email and identified the bird as yellow-crowned night heron.

This is a southern bird, at home in the warm coastal marshes of the

Carolinas and Florida. The yellow-crowned night heron is a rare stray to the province. Bill alerted the birding community by posting the information on the Google newsgroup called nf.birds.

Only the few birders who got there early enough the next morning were able to enjoy the rare bird thrill before it vanished.

Where is it now? Why did it choose Gerald’s lawn when there are many similar-looking lawns in Torbay and the rest of the northeast Avalon Peninsula? It was strange enough that a marsh-loving heron would be hunting for earthworms on a lawn. Thankfully Gerald was generous in sharing his rare bird lottery luck with his neighbours and people he didn’t even know in the birding community.


Cranking it up a notch

Those who take their bird-watching activities up to the next level are actively hunting for rare birds every weekend during the fall migration season. There is one special Saturday put aside each autumn when birders get together and blitz the Avalon Peninsula for rare birds.

This year, that day was Saturday, Sept. 21. Fifteen people in six teams combed the Avalon Peninsula’s rare bird hotspots. Team coverage was never more extensive. The weather was never more perfect. A day without wind is half the battle in finding birds on the typically windy Avalon.

A record total of 118 species of birds were seen. The haul of rarities was not bad. While there was nothing to match the rarity status of the Torbay yellow-crowned night heron, some pretty interesting birds were found.

Vying for top place was a yellow-throated vireo in Bear Cove and a northern wheatear on the Cape Race road. Cliff Doran’s little bird feeder at the Cape Race lighthouse hosted a striking male blue grosbeak and two lark sparrows.

Another lark sparrow was at Long Beach and yet another at Chance Cove Provincial Park.

A yellow-billed cuckoo flew across the road in Chance Cove for one lucky group. A blackburnian warbler in Trepassey was bird of the day for some. Two northern mockingbirds in Blackhead were a surprise find for one team.

A total of four warbling vireos, four buff-breasted sandpipers, a Baird’s sandpiper and two each of dickcissel, rose-breasted grosbeak and bobolink rounded out the rarity list. Overall it was an impressive list of birds for one day on the Avalon Peninsula.

Digging around in the bushes all day results in some amusing totals for our common birds. For instance, imagine 246 savannah sparrows, 220 swamp sparrows and 115 fox sparrows. Surprisingly, only 71 juncos were tallied. These abundant birds are still spread out in the bushes at this time of year compared to later in the fall when they gather in large flocks and descend on our bird feeders.

There was a general lack of finches despite the excellent crop of cones available as a food source. It is too early to predict how the winter finch situation will develop.

Being in the outdoors all day results in a number of fascinating non-bird sightings. There were the usual moose encounters, plus rabbit, mink and fox sightings. There were plenty of minke and humpback whales off Cape Race.

The most amazing sighting of the day was a concentration of 100 large tuna in a spectacular feeding frenzy off Cape Race. A swarm of 500 gannets and scores of shearwaters and gulls attended the feeding melee.

Autumn is an excellent time of year to enjoy the Newfoundland outdoors.

I’d like to thank Ken Knowles for his commendable job in taking over the bird column for the five weeks that I was away.


Bruce Mactavish is an environmental

consultant and avid birdwatcher. He can be reached at wingingitone@yahoo.ca, or by phone at 722-0088.

Organizations: Google

Geographic location: Torbay, Avalon Peninsula, Cape Race Florida Bear Cove Long Beach Trepassey Blackhead Newfoundland

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