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Bruce Mactavish: Spring pilgrimage to the Codroy Valley

A beautiful bay-breasted warbler forced to feed on the ground because of the cold weather provided exceptional views of this uncommon bird.
A beautiful bay-breasted warbler forced to feed on the ground because of the cold weather provided exceptional views of this uncommon bird. - Bruce Mactavish photo

The minds of birdwatcher across Newfoundland turn to the Codroy Valley in early June.  Pretty well all the birds are back by this time. They are in their freshest plumage and peak singing activity. As I have said many times in this column over the years, the Codroy Valley in the southwest corner of Newfoundland is host to a richer diversity of birds than anywhere else in the province. The combination of rich soil and lush forest located close to Nova Scotia results in a mix of species not readily found elsewhere in the province.

Every year take a block of time in early June birders, usually three to five days, and make a holiday out of the Codroy Valley. There are a number of choices for cabins to rent for a stay right on the banks of the Grand Codroy River. The view over the estuary with the Long Range Mountains in the background is part of the magical experience.

I joined Chris Brown for the first five days of his planned two week stay in the Codroy Valley. Chris’s extended stay was a gift to himself for reaching a significant birthday milestone. Anne Hughes and Todd Boland are also here and before I leave Alison Mews and Ethel Dempsey will have arrived.  We keep in touch as we seek out birds in various parts of the valley and nearby locations.

Day 1 was a cold day with a bone chilling northwest wind. While Chris enjoyed a morning of sleeping in, I started just after sunrise on Red Rocks Road. This is nondescript little road leading to several cabins just south of the Codroy Valley. The dense forest of weather stunted birch and fir forest along an alder-lined stream is the first bit of land birds migrating across from Nova Scotia may see. The birding can be excellent here. Unfortunately, the valley between two small mountains was acting as a wind tunnel on the first morning. I was wearing a winter coat and wool hat as if it was winter. These were definitely not prime conditions for June birding.

Fittingly a winter wren sang from a steep slope. A white-throated sparrow sang a few phrases but otherwise it was very quiet. The few birds I saw, American redstarts, yellow warblers and magnolia warblers, were walking in the ground where insect life might be found in the cold weather. When I got to the end of the road the hill acted as a shelter. Birds were active. A couple of Swainson’s thrushes were in the middle of the road providing a treat to see well. Yellow-bellied flycatchers were feeding low in the alders by a ditch. I had five flycatchers in sight at one time. While the yellow-bellied flycatcher is a common bird in Newfoundland they are usually concealed in the foliage. It was the cold forcing them into the open to hunt for insects.  This as it turned out was only the tip of the iceberg. 

I drove the few kilometres to Cheeseman Provincial Park. I walked into a picnic area where there was a forested hill blocking the wind. The place was moving with birds. Yellow-bellied flycatchers were everywhere on small twigs near or on the ground looking for insects. I could see 15 at one time. And there were many warblers, too. Redstarts, yellow, magnolia and blackpoll warblers were uncharacteristically hopping on the ground. They had no choice. It was hard times for the insect eaters.

To my pleasant surprise there was a bay-breasted warbler among them. This is one of the star birds we look for in the Codroy Valley area. They nest high in tall spruce trees where they are usually difficult to see well.  Now here was one feeding on the ground!

It was the best looks I had ever had at a bay-breasted warbler.  I watched it work back and forth over its choice area on the forest floor. It was constantly picking at the ground vegetation indicating that it was finding insect life to eat. It was a beautiful combination of colours with a rich reddish-brown cap, throat and sides and a black face and forehead offset by a creamy crescent behind the eye.

Such was the scene for two days.  There were birds everywhere in the ditches, along the roadsides, around beaver ponds, on the lawns and forest edges. There were staggering numbers of yellow-bellied flycatchers and Swainson’s thrushes grounded by the cold. The views of birds were amazing. Even local residences were noticing the abundance of birds around their property. It was the kind of birding that we will probably be talking about for years to come.  Hopefully the weather will warm up soon, so the birds can get back to their normal way of life.

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

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