Mid-January is the season for birding tours on the Avalon Peninsula.
© — Photo by Bruce Mactavish/Special to The Telegram
Standing next to each other, the yellower European common snipe on the right is obviously different from the dark chocolate brown Newfoundland snipe.
A few small groups of birders arrive in St. John’s from various locations on mainland Canada and the United States. The tour companies usually enlist a local birder to help them find birds.
Dovekie is always on top of the list. This is a common seabird in Newfoundland waters, but it is a seabird, so they are not always available on demand, but a little searching always turns up at least a few. Generally it is northern seabirds and a few St. John’s specialities such as the black-headed gull and tufted duck that bring the birders here in winter.
In the back of the mind of every visiting winter birder is the hope for one of the great European rarities that the Avalon Peninsula is famous for among North American birders.
Last January, there was a pink-footed goose from Greenland that had taken up residence at Bowring Park. The year before, a yellow-legged gull from the Azores was at Quidi Vidi Lake. But this winter, there was not so much as a hint of a big European rarity anywhere in the province.
This past weekend, I accompanied a tour group of four birders from Ottawa led by a longtime acquaintance, Bruce Di Labio. It was a chance for me to get out birding all weekend and enjoy a couple of free dinners.
With good weather so rare, we chose Saturday to head down the Southern Shore. Everyone loves the winter scenes of the coves along the southern Avalon Peninsula and there are always some birds of interest. A Southern Shore trip on a nice day is a win-win trip.
Dilly-dallying our way down the shore at a pace that would bring tears to a Newfoundland birder’s eyes, we found ourselves at Ferryland by late morning. The advantage of having local help is finding out about the little nooks and crannies where special birds might hang out.
There is a wet spot in Ferryland right beside the main road that tends to stay open even in the coldest parts of winter. Newfoundland birders always check it out, hoping for a lingering sparrow or snipe. We parked the minivan on the right side of the road while I got out and checked the ditch. No need to have everyone out on the busy road if there wasn’t anything worthwhile to see.
At first, all I saw was a robin on the wet green ground, but then two snipes flew out from beneath the bank. They landed at the far end of the wet area.
It was immediately obvious one of the snipes was yellower than the other. Was this pay dirt? Could it be this easy? We have been trained to look for the European common snipe by first noticing the yellower colour. It was just three winters ago that our first European common snipe at Tors Cove sent shock waves through the birding community. I alerted the group and grabbed my camera.
We looked at the two snipes crouched low trying to be inconspicuous on the wet green ground. I explained that the yellow one was potentially a European common snipe. I went on to say that separating the European common snipe and the Newfoundland snipe was nearly impossible without getting details on nearly impossible parts to see, such as a whiter colour to the underwings and a different shape and pattern to the outer tail feathers.
There was no time for this kind of study on a bird tour. But the bird flew up and I had my camera ready to fire off at 10 frames per second. Viewing the pictures on the back of the camera, I could see that three shots revealed something of the underside of the wing. Indications of pale underwing coverts looked very intriguing. It was going to require some study when I got home. Onward we drove.
The rest of that day went pretty well for birding. It was a beautiful day and we even got to the
St. Shotts lighthouse, driving over frozen snowdrifts to get there. We saw lots of typical Newfoundland coastal birds, including rafts of eiders.
All through the day, visions of the yellow snipe festered in me. As soon as I got home in the evening, it was down to the computer to view the snipe pictures. My flight shots were not in good focus and the bird was a small part of the image, but the whitish appearance of the underwing looked more than just a little promising. It was good enough to sound a strong amber alert to the birding community.
I had to abandon plans to go birding with the tour group the next morning. Top priority had shifted to getting better views and photos of the possible European common snipe. The forecast of heavy rain and gale-force winds was no impediment, and I knew young keeners Alvan Buckley and Lancy Cheng would be game to come with me.
We arrived on site in the dark and parked on the wrong side of the road facing traffic, as birders in the heat of the hunt are wont to do. Peering out the windows in the dawn light in the driving rain, we saw two snipes feeding away, but both were Newfoundland snipe.
Forty-five minutes later, a third snipe flew in. From the get-go it was obvious this was the yellow snipe, and this really was a different kind of snipe.
Countless pictures were snapped in the poor light. We were always at the ready for the moment when it might want to preen and maybe lift up a wing or expose an outer tail feather, revealing to us the patented patterns of the European common snipe. We needed the full proof.
Finally the bird stopped feeding for a quick freshening up of its plumage and, ever so briefly, flashed us an underwing. The machine gun fire of the workhorse camera with the highly specialized bird lens came through in the style of Sidney Crosby getting off the shots under pressure. The underwing coverts were snow white with sharp black bars. This is different from the heavy and diffuse black barring of the North American snipe. We clinched it. It was a victory! We scored a European common snipe.
We pressed a few buttons on the cellphone, connecting to the Internet, and informed the birding community that the only known European common snipe in North America was now sitting at Ferryland. The rest was history and bliss for visiting and resident birders. The celebrity snipe could be around until the end of winter.
Bruce Mactavish is an environmental consultant and avid birdwatcher. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by phone at 722-0088.