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Bruce Mactavish: Reading the pulse of the season

This dunlin at St. Shotts was one of 25 tallied on an Avalon Peninsula birding blitz.
This dunlin at St. Shotts was one of 25 tallied on an Avalon Peninsula birding blitz.

Every year between 20 September and 15 October a group of hard core birders pick a day for an all-out birding blitz of the Avalon Peninsula. It is not an official census. It is completely unofficial in every way.

While it is sort of a competition to see who can uncover the rarest birds there are really no rules. It is a free for all. This year the date of the event was Saturday 23 September. There was a record turnout of 17 participants including Barry Day who came in from Gander and Vernon Buckle, the madman birder from Labrador, who drove down from Forteau for the event. The 17 birders filtered out into six teams. We all chose a different starting point to begin the day at dawn, but after that we were all over the place. The usual Avalon Peninsula birding hot spots like Renews, Cape Race, Trepassey and St. Shotts were visited by multiple teams.

We were like packs of hunting dogs seeking out birds in the proven locations and trying our luck in new places. When the day was over we met at yours truly’s house for chili and beverages. Then the day’s tally was revealed. We keep numbers of even the common birds seen throughout the day. The rare birds are saved until last. Each team holds their rare finds close to their chest. Holdbacks they are called. A tension fills the room. Beverages are put aside for a moment. The teams play off, revealing one rare bird at a time and saving the best for last.

A number of interesting facts are revealed by this intensive birding effort. It was unanimous among all teams that birds were scarce. A prolonged string of good weather with light winds and clear nights had proven excellent for bird migration. A lot of birds had already migrated out of the alders and roadside habitats where we traditional find concentrations of birds in the fall. And the goodies we seek were scarce because of the lack of brisk weather systems with strong southwest and west winds.

A total of 106 species of birds were found from St. John’s to Cape Race to St. Mary’s Bay. This seems like a lot but it was about 10 species below normal for the time of year. Since the start of this event 25 years ago a staggering 226 species have been recorded. This year one new species was added to the grand list. A bird rare enough to be new for the overall list was not surprisingly also nominated for rare bird of the day. It was a white-winged dove in Renews that Megan Boucher photographed resting on a wire. A white-winged dove successfully over-wintered in Renews last year so naturally we wonder if it is the same bird returning. The white-winged dove is very rare anywhere in Canada since its normal range is Texas and southward into Mexico and Central America.

The next rarity in line was not nearly so unusual, but still a highly desired bird to see in Newfoundland. It was the black-throated blue warbler found by Andrea Dicks in her special alder patch along Route 10 south of Renews. Her teammates Megan Boucher and Lancy Cheng joined in on celebrating this attractive little bird that is common as close as Nova Scotia.

Here is a summary of the other rare and uncommon birds seen on the day. Two drake hooded mergansers were at Grassy Pond near LaManche Park and the drake wood duck present at Bowring Park, St. John’s all summer was seen on the day. There was a Cape May warbler at Cappahayden and a couple of prairie warblers seen. A lark sparrow was a nice find at the Cape Pine lighthouse for Lisa de Leon and Catherine Barrett. A dickcissel at The Drook on Cape Race road was the only rare bird of interest my team of Alison Mews and Jared Clarke could turn up along the entire road and lighthouse area. A gray catbird was a surprise at Witless Bay for Alvan Buckley and Barry Day and it was the bird that made the trip from Labrador worth it for Vernon Buckle. A great horned owl was unexpected in the small trees on Powles Head for the team of Ken Knowles, John Wells and Chris Brown. The team of Anne Hughes, Todd Boland and Ed Hayden found a very late tree swallow and four early Lapland longspurs at Cape Spear.

The tallies of some common species are interesting. For instance there were combined totals of 82 swamp sparrows, 81 white-throated sparrow and 203 savannah sparrows. Among the 14 species of shorebirds there were overall totals of 102 American golden-plovers, 192 semipalmated plover, 49 sanderling and 25 dunlin.

It was a great day to be out. It was a celebration of fall migration.

Bruce Mactavish is an environmental consultant and avid birdwatcher. He can be reached at

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