Birds spice up the day

Bruce Mactavish
Published on August 16, 2014

Everyone enjoys the sighting of a bird. The sighting becomes a little more special if you can add some spicy flavour to it.

One person’s rarity might be another’s common bird.

It is all about circumstance.

Take the common grackle, for example.

This bird is so common on the mainland that people almost consider them pests for making a mess at the bird feeders and scaring away smaller birds.

In Newfoundland and Labrador grackles are more of a novelty.

The medium-size, glossy black birds look pretty exotic here.

Common grackles nest in small numbers in southern Newfoundland and are now nesting regularly in small pockets on the Avalon Peninsula.

For the last few years the biggest population of common grackles on the Avalon Peninsula has been living in the subdivisions of the east end of St. John’s.

This week, Laurie Thompson was unsure of herself when she came across a flock of medium-size blackbirds on Rennies River trail that answered to the description of common grackles. According to her bird book, they should not be here. The information in her book was out of date. Laurie’s intuition was correct; they were grackles. The sighting spiced up her walk a little along the Rennies River trail.

Mac and Diana McGregor were sitting on the back deck of their St. John’s home after the passing of last weekend’s thunder storms. There were two pigeons poking around on the ground beneath the bird feeder when suddenly a big hawk blasted in, nabbing one of the pigeons right in front of them. It was a northern goshawk. It spent the next 20 minutes picking the feathers from its victim, ignoring Mac and Diana sitting only seven or eight metres away. The hawk ate a small portion of its dinner and then flew off with the remains.

What an extraordinary piece of raw nature to witness from the comfort of your own back deck. Goshawks are a relatively common hawk in the woods, preying on large items such a rabbits and grouse. Sometimes they are lured into urban areas by pigeons. For the McGregors, the dramatic and close encounter with a fierce forest hawk added a great deal of spice to an ordinary backyard moment.

People who take birdwatching to the next level actually look for rare birds to spice up their lives. That is what Andrea Dicks was doing when she visited Renews last week. She was rewarded with a laughing gull. This is a rare bird in Newfoundland and Labrador, having strayed from the Atlantic coast of the United States. It was Andrea’s prize only. Birders like to share the wealth, but the laughing gull vanished before anyone else could sample the spice.

When birders go looking for one rarity and find another, it is called the snowball effect. Nevin Foltz added a layer of zest to the laughing gull event by finding a yellow-crowned night heron at Renews. This small heron is much rarer than the laughing gull in Newfoundland and Labrador, but comes from the same areas on the east coast of the United States. Perhaps both birds arrived in Renews with the persistent southwest winds of the previous week.

The spicy zing of the laughing gull and night heron combo did not last long. These representatives of spice are wild living things with wings that flew away in the wind.

This past Sunday, I was birdwatching at Cape Race alone. I went on a whim after hearing from lighthouse keeper Cliff Doran that shearwaters were particularly numerous and feeding in next to the rocks at Cape Race. I got there just as a rain shower was descending on the area, but after driving the two and a half hours I was going to make the most of the excellent shearwater show.

Throngs of shearwaters, gannets, murres and kittiwakes were gorging on caplin near the surface. The show was good but after a couple hours I was thinking about the long drive home to St. John’s.

Another rain shower was sweeping in off the ocean when I realized I was looking at a different shearwater.

I knew exactly what it meant to see a big shearwater with a pale brown back and hind neck blending together.

This couldn’t be happening, I said to myself. Even when it turned around and started flying towards me, revealing its unique yellow bill with the dark tip, I could not believe what I was seeing. Here I was, standing on terra firma beside the old Cape Race fog alarm building, looking at a Cory’s shearwater.

The Cory’s shearwater is strictly a warm water species that reaches its northern most limit of occurrence where warm Gulf Stream waters slam into the cool Labrador Current waters some 250 kilometres south of Cape Race.

I felt like I was cheating on my birding friends. I knew how good this bird would be for everyone, but I was there alone.

Not only that, but the bird put on a show for 20 minutes — quite unusual for a roaming shearwater. It would have been heaven for all.

At least I was able to secure some photographs to prove to others and myself that a Cory’s shearwater had indeed occurred at Cape Race.

There was a little extra zip in my long drive home that evening.

The spice in bird watching is not completely predictable. I hope a bird adds a little spice to your day in the near future.


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