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Bruce Mactavish: The 2017 birding year review

Happy New Year and wish you a wink from a boreal owl in 2018. — Bruce Mactavish photo
Happy New Year and wish you a wink from a boreal owl in 2018. — Bruce Mactavish photo

The general interest in birdwatching continued to grow in 2017. The Newfoundland Birdwatching Group Facebook page and the nf.birds newsgroup bring people together under one umbrella where they can share their birding experiences. News of rare birds that might have never gotten beyond the community or even reached the next street over become widespread knowledge in the modern era of communication.  

Just over 270 species of bird were identified on the island of Newfoundland in the year 2017. This is a standard total for recent years. Among the tally there were some really interesting and unusual birds. My end-of-the-year summary usually excludes Labrador.

Labrador and the island of Newfoundland are two very different land masses with a different mix of bird species. It is kind of like comparing bakeapples and blueberries. But there was no ignoring what was the rarest bird of the year for the entire province. The yellow-breasted bunting present at a Forteau, Labrador, bird feeder Oct. 16-19 was one of the most outlandish birds to ever occur in the entire province. The centre of its normal range is eastern Asia.

Good year on the island
The island of Newfoundland had a good year. Five new birds were added to the all-time list of Newfoundland birds now at a remarkable 406 species. The first was a yellow-billed loon at Trepassey, seen on the April 11 and 13. Because the true identity of the bird came late on April 13 just four people got to see this exciting loon of the western Arctic and eastern Russian origin.

The next new bird was identified from the photographs taken during its one day stay at Cape Race. It was a western meadowlark on May 31. It took experts from across the country to confirm the identity as the western and not the similar-looking eastern meadowlark.

On Nov. 8 a small flycatcher was discovered in the willows on the lower Virginia River. It was a member of the group of flycatchers known as empidonax. There are a half-dozen species of empidonax flycatchers in Canada looking like they came out of the same mould, but they have unique songs.
Flycatchers do not sing in the fall but they will utter a few little call notes and these sounds are also helpful in confirming an identification.

Astute birders were able to secure a feeble recording of the call note that North American experts indicate is enough to confirm it was a willow flycatcher. This is a widespread flycatcher in North America but had not yet been recorded in Newfoundland. We are still discussing the evidence but I am predicting in the end there will be enough support to vote willow flycatcher on to the Newfoundland list.

Black vulture munching on moose bones
News of a black vulture at Burgeo on Nov.17 November after a storm with strong south west winds would have been suspect without the photographs. The rattled bird was first found picking meat off discarded moose bones in a backyard. It was seen off and on over the following 10 days. A resident throughout much of the United States, the black vulture is rare in Canada and was thought not possible in Newfoundland because of the expanse of water it would have to cross to reach us.

The fifth new addition to the Newfoundland list of birds was an eared grebe at Peters River on the southern Avalon Peninsula. A good many birders from St. John`s made the two-hour trek to the gravelly beach and were successful in seeing this bird during its stay dec. 1-4. Eared grebe is abundant in western North America but only rarely strays to the east.

There were other very rare birds seen in 2017 that were not firsts for the list but still exciting finds. A varied thrush made a brief appearance in Renews in February. A slaty-backed gull from eastern Russia spent a few weeks in late winter at Quidi Vidi Lake. There was the crowd pleasing European common swift at Quidi Vidi Lake for a week in late May. A male painted bunting for a couple days in late May at Isle aux Morts in early June was beautiful sight. Unexpected was a Pacific golden plover was at Stephenville Crossing on 12 May with another at Twillingate on May 24. There was a cerulean warbler at Blackhead in September and a Townsend’s warbler at Trepassey on Dec. 2. The list goes on and on showing that 2017 was an exciting year for the birdwatcher.

The lure of discovering that next rare bird and the accompanied adrenaline rush is part of what keeps a birder going. But even local birds can be a thrill. There are birds like the boreal owl that we know are all around us but are rarely encountered because of their secretive ways. During the winter, they are sometimes attracted to the activity around bird feeders and become big backyard revelation.
Happy New Year and May 2018 bring you a few bird surprises.

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

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