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Bruce Mactavish: Birding on the Thanksgiving weekend

A dickcissel with its heavy seed cracking bill and elegant splash of yellow is at home in the grass at Cape Spear.
A dickcissel with its heavy seed cracking bill and elegant splash of yellow is at home in the grass at Cape Spear.

The Thanksgiving weekend is treasured by all. It means a good feed of turkey and an extra day off from the workweek to get out and enjoy the beautiful outdoors.

October is famous for some of the nicest weather of the year and this Thanksgiving weekend it indeed worked in our favour. On top of that there was a bright harvest moon. The land was showing the first widespread undeniable accents of orange, buff and yellow. There was the smell of autumn in the air.

Birders love the Thanksgiving weekend for the excellent birding opportunities. This past weekend most of the St. John’s area birdwatchers ended up at Cape Spear at least once, some for three days running.

There has been a good show of snow buntings, lapland longspurs and dickcissels at Cape Spear. It took me a while to catch on why. New landscaping by Parks Canada included seeding some recently disturbed ground with grass seed. This turned out to be a boon for seeding-eating birds. Grass seed is just another form of birdseed!

It was a windfall for the lapland longspurs especially. At least 20 of them have been feeding in the area allowing for excellent study and photography opportunities. Most longspurs slip under the radar of birders during their mid-fall migration period along the open coast. When they alight on the natural barrens their brown plumage matches the ground so well they disappear from sight. But here in the short young green grass they were conspicuous.

Snow buntings have similar habits to the longspurs feeding in open coastal areas. They are a little more obvious than the longspurs. Being a contrasting black and white they rely more on their fast escape than camouflage to avoid predators like the hawks.

True vagrants
The dickcissel is a special bird in Newfoundland and Labrador. They are a true vagrant, meaning a bird wandering outside its normal range.

Dickcissels nest in tall grasslands, including prairie, hayfields, lightly grazed pastures, and roadsides of the central United States. They collect in flocks often numbering in the thousands in late summer and migrate a long way south to grasslands in northern South America. For reasons unknown a few stray east in the fall. A handful or so are seen in our province each year, mainly during September and October. Some find bird feeders and end up staying for the winter. For a brown sparrow-like bird they show a subtle style and elegance in their markings with the males sporting a splash of bright lemon yellow. It has been a good fall for seeing dickcissel (named after its song) but the two at Cape Spear have been putting on an exceptional show to the delight of the photographers.

Not all rare birds are so co-operative. A Wilson’s phalarope is a rare shorebird from the west. Alex McInnis timed it perfectly being at Virginia Lake in east St. John’s when one flew in and then flew off a few minutes later, but not before securing some excellent photographs. It did not return that day much to the chagrin of local birders.

At other times you have to look extra hard to see what is in front of you. Lancy Cheng and Andrea Dicks were birding the Bear Cove area when Lancy flushed a small pale sparrow that he suspected was a clay-coloured sparrow. He called over Andrea and together they walked in on the place in the weeds and alders where it dropped out of sight. Then up it popped, it was an immature indigo bunting. Not bad. It was the first one of the fall season. The fall immatures are all brown and just like a little sparrow. Lancy took a few photographs for the record. Later that night when he viewed the pictures of the indigo bunting on computer, low and behold behind the indigo bunting was the face of a clay-coloured sparrow sitting smug in an alder. Doh! The indigo bunting had been a nice consolation bird but also a distraction from the originally suspected clay-coloured sparrow. They had come so close to getting their cake and eating it, too.

Not all birds are straightforward to identify. Yours truly found a small flycatcher in a patch of tuckamore on the Cape Race road. The encounter was brief before it vanished inside the impenetrable fir tangles. A number of photographs were taken. There is a group of small flycatchers known among the birders by their genus name the Empidonax. They are notoriously difficult to identify when they are not singing. I sent the pictures out to a number of North America experts. At first there was some possibility that it might be a species of western North America origin creating some false excitement. In the end the consensus was a least flycatcher, still rare in Newfoundland but common as close as Nova Scotia.
There are still plenty of good birding weekends left in this autumn.

Bruce Mactavish is an environmental consultant and avid birdwatcher. He can be reached at wingingitone@yahoo.ca

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