Quidi Vidi Lake: a birdwatcher’s saviour in the winter doldrums

Bruce Mactavish telegram@thetelegram.com
Published on February 8, 2014

It is mid-winter. We have experienced snow storms, cold winds, rain storms and warm winds, all typical of a Newfoundland winter.

The novelty of winter has worn off. There is as much winter behind us as there is ahead. We are caught in the middle, but we have turned the corner.

The warm weather and bare sidewalks that were a distant memory have become a future hope. The daylight is getting noticeably longer every week. Spring is a long road ahead, but at least we are pointed in the right direction.

Winter bliss begins to wane for the birdwatcher by February as each weekend of birding is much the same as the last. There is not much hope for change between now and the end of March. The winter doldrums have arrived.

The birders around St. John’s are getting antsy. Quidi Vidi Lake tends to be a meeting place for birders on the weekend.

We talk about the same old, same old at Cape Spear, the harbour and at the lake. We whine about a lack of new things to look for and wonder what we can do to satisfy the need. Conversations turn to birding trips past and future.

Already, dreams of a Codroy Valley trip in June are talked about.

As we stand there chawing away, there are hundreds of birds within a stone’s throw of where we stand.

Dozens and dozens of ducks swim about in the open water kept open by the flow of the Rennies River. Many hundreds of gulls rest on the ice or bathe in the fresh water. There are birds all around us. There are worse places for a birdwatcher to be!

At Quidi Vidi Lake, there are always birds to look at. In the last week, a full dozen species of ducks have been at the lake. This includes an unusual visit from a common merganser, typically too shy to stop at a city pond.

And there’s everyone’s favourite rare duck, the wood duck. The gaudy drake keeps it interesting by moving around between the mouth of Virginia River and the slipway area of Quidi Vidi Village. It is now tame and will come to any bird seed you throw its way.

For those looking for a little challenge, there should be six to eight species of gulls to pick out of the flock on the ice or bathing in the open water.

And there is always the potential of scoring a rare gull from another corner of the world.

The lake has harboured some pretty rare gulls over the years. Quidi Vidi Lake is famous among gull watchers around the world for the high quality gull watching that we take for granted. There are so many species and so close.

The recent addition of great cormorants to the scene adds a twist of spice to everyday birding at Quidi Vidi Lake.

The long-necked birds rest out on the ice, sometimes holding out their wings to dry. They are after the same fish the otter goes for.

The otter is the darling of lake watchers. It does not have a regular schedule of appearance and may be absent for several days running. But when present, it goes about its business as if no one is watching. It knows it is safe in the water.

The ducks, on the other hand, do not feel safe when the otter is lurking about and often get out of the water.

A favourite of lake watchers are the eagles. If there is something for the eagles to eat out on the lake, such as a dead gull, there can be up to 10 eagles present.

They squabble and squeal over the booty, with the biggest bird claiming most of the carcass.

Individuals regularly patrol the lake looking for any new gull carcasses.

You can tell when an eagle is arriving by the reaction of the gulls as they take to wing all together in a large wheeling mass of birds. This can be a mesmerizing sight as thousands of birds fill the air.

Eagles are capable of catching a gull if they get the chance. However, the gulls make sure that chance does not happen by getting a head start on an approaching eagle.

For the last couple of weeks, a peregrine falcon has found solace at Quidi Vidi Lake. The peregrine falcon is one of the fastest birds in the world. It is spectacular to watch when it hunts birds on the wing.

This one is not chasing the birds at Quidi Vidi Lake, but uses the large trees on the north side of the lake near the band stand as a resting site.

It regularly brings a starling that it caught elsewhere in the city back to these trees to dine on.

The falcon is surprisingly tolerant of people walking by under it or stopping to take pictures.

It is an exceptional opportunity to be able to observe this noble bird so well at our leisure.

It is not present all the time, and not even every day.

Some birders are having bad luck with their timing in trying to see this bird.

If you are at the lake, it is worth looking for it in the tall trees at this corner of the lake.

Quidi Vidi Lake is a convenient location to visit. It is right in the city. You can park at several locations around the lake.

There is a good walking trail around the lake. There is nowhere else on the Avalon Peninsula that can boast such a variety of interesting birds

It is a natural gift for the people of St. John’s and visitors to the city. It is a winter oasis.

It is our saviour in getting us through the winter.  

Bruce Mactavish is an environmental

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