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Bruce Mactavish: Birding prizes

A whimbrel takes a moment out from feeding on berries and insects to size up the suspicious sound of a clicking camera.
A whimbrel takes a moment out from feeding on berries and insects to size up the suspicious sound of a clicking camera. - Bruce Mactavish photo

The Labour Day Weekend turned up a few stars

The weather was on the side of holiday-goers over the Labour Day weekend. It was ideal for birdwatching and they were out in force pursuing their hobby.

The star bird of the weekend was the prothonotary warbler that Frank King found in an old gravel pit overgrown with alders at a place called Bear Cove about two kilometres north of Cappahayden. Actually Frank found the bird on the Thursday before the weekend but it stayed throughout the weekend allowing a record 20-30 people to see this southern gem. If my mental tally is correct this was the tenth sighting of a prothonotary warbler in the province. There are rarer warblers, but are there any as strikingly beautiful?

It was a difficult bird to catch a glimpse of. Those alders are thick and it liked to feed at the base of the alders where the sun never shines when the leaves are out. Occasionally it would come to the surface of the alders providing views that some people waited hours for. It was worth the wait. Every part of the bird was finely crafted. The head was a globe of golden-yellow that emitted an orange glow that cannot be captured with even with modern day cameras. The brilliant yellow breast turns to a clean snow-white area under the tail. The wings are a powdery steely-blue. The back between the wings is a mossy green. If you were lucky it might spread its silver-gray tail flashing brilliant white patches that are kept concealed for most of its day. Even the galvanized steel-gray legs look special. It was one bird where all the parts added up to something amazing.

The star bird of the weekend was the prothonotary warbler that Frank King found in an old gravel pit overgrown with alders at a place called Bear Cove about two kilometres north of Cappahayden.

The scientific excitement of the weekend was a common ringed plover that Richard Thomas and Jeff Harrison found on the beach in Portugal Cove South. This is a rare bird in Newfoundland with the majority of those nesting in the Canadian Arctic migrating directly across the ocean to Europe for winter. The special part of this sighting was the blue and yellow plastic bands on the right leg and a metal band on the other leg. With a little research we should be able to find out exactly where this bird nested this summer.

The odd sighting of the weekend goes to the snowy owl that Cliff Doran saw at Cape Race. We wonder where that came from. There had not been any sightings of snowy owl on the Avalon Peninsula since April or early May.

Some of the uncommon shorebird species I mentioned in last week’s column have showed up on schedule. Dave Brown found a Baird’s sandpiper at Portugal Cove South beach. Yours truly saw four buff-breasted sandpipers at the site of the old runways at left over from the American airbase at Argentia. Barry Day and Nick Soper did one better at Cape Freels seeing a group of four buff-breasted sandpipers and duo of Wilson’s phalaropes.

I had an active weekend of birding and was able to connect with most of the mentioned rarities, but my personal long weekend highlight came from a close encounter with a more routine species. While visiting the old American airfield at Argentia I had a close encounter with whimbrel.

I had an active weekend of birding and was able to connect with most of the mentioned rarities, but my personal long weekend highlight came from a close encounter with a more routine species. While visiting the old American airfield at Argentia I had a close encounter with whimbrel.

Whimbrel is traditionally called the curlew in Newfoundland and Labrador and is a well-known bird because it is big enough to eat. Whimbrel has traditionally been a wary bird because it was hunted in North America and is still hunted on the wintering grounds in South America. A typical sighting of a whimbrel is distant. If they are not already flying away they are standing at alert on the barrens thinking about flying away.

At the Argentia abandoned airfield a flock of 30 whimbrel was feeding on berries and insects in the grass between the runways. Parking my car between old cargo containers stored at the site I fit in with the surroundings. They were striding over the ground picking at insects they stirred up as well as berries. This was the first time I had ever really watched whimbrels that were at ease and not on high alert to a human presence. Every so often a splinter group would work toward me. Crouched down low in my car with the camera mounted on the window I was ready. Picking out the closest bird I fired the camera. Instantly the whimbrel reacted to the click of the shutter and would stop in its tracks and look toward me. Surely it could not see any more than a hand or part of my head around the camera. Maybe the click of the camera sounded like the cocking of a gun. Without fail every time they came close enough for a good picture the sound of the clicking camera caused them to walk away from the area. In the end I did manage a small victory by securing the best pictures I have of this species.  

Overall it was a very successful Labour Day weekend for birdwatching.

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

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