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Bruce Mactavish: Wharf birding

A red-necked grebe caught unaware gives itself up to the camera by the wharf in Bay Bulls.
A red-necked grebe caught unaware gives itself up to the camera by the wharf in Bay Bulls. - Bruce Mactavish photo

I was at Bay Bulls checking out a wet area where snipe sometimes hold up for the winter. When the terrain is as open as it has been this winter on the Avalon Peninsula snipe have more options. There were no snipe showing there on this day. Causally I looked out over the cove and noticed a bird swimming in the calm water. It was a red-necked grebe. This uncommon winter bird can be found in any cove around the Avalon Peninsula but is always a little bit of a surprise when it is not at one of the more traditional sites.  

Typically, we birders see red-necked grebes at a distance where the long neck and squared off back of the head are key identification features. Views can be satisfying when looking down the barrel of a spotting scope. An opportunity to get a good photograph of a red-necked grebe is generally considered an unlikely possibility. As the grebe kept swimming into the cove the hairs on the back of my neck rose a little. How far would it come? It started diving and searching for it favourite food, small fish.  

Wharves can provide excellent conditions for watching normally wary water birds at close range. The wharf gets you out into deep water. Birds like loons, dovekies, black guillemots and cormorants look for fish and other critters living around wharves.

My eyes searched around for the closest point of access to the bird. I decided to drive the car out to the end of the wharf where sooner or later it would have to pass by on its way back out of the constriction of the cove, an uncharacteristic haunt for a red-necked grebe. I parked the car on an angle facing the opening of the cove. I opened the window and placed the bean bag on the frame, then centred the weight of the camera and big lens on it. It was a dark overcast morning. I set the camera at ISO 2000, high enough to ensure a fast-enough shutter speed but at the price of a grainer image. I estimated the aperture should be set at +2/3 stop, enough to lighten up the bird that would appear darker than the water to the camera’s sensors.

The grebe continued diving in the middle of the cove. Even if it halved the distance to my position I would press down on the shutter. Grebes can travel for a long distance under water in just one dive. Suddenly it came up right in front of me. Without taking a breath I started taking pictures. The grebe was close enough to be suspicious of the sound of the camera’s shutter but not overly startled. It swam to the right and around the end of the wharf out of my line of sight. I had all of the maybe 15 seconds to take pictures. It paid off to be ready but there was an element of luck. Among the barrage of shots there were only a few where the head was turned showing its profile and were also in focus. Securing one good picture made the rare close encounter a resounding success.

Wharves can provide excellent conditions for watching normally wary water birds at close range. The wharf gets you out into deep water. Birds like loons, dovekies, black guillemots and cormorants look for fish and other critters living around wharves. If you stay in your car the birds will not be aware of your presence and go about their ways with a natural confidence. However, the birds are on high alert when feeding in close to man-made structures and will flee at the slightest hint of danger.

Bird news

Regina and Andrew McCarthy of Topsail were happy to have an exotic visitor show up at their feeder. It was a white-winged dove usually found in the southern United States and Mexico.

The horned lark is a regular Newfoundland bird that we take for granted in the summer, but in the winter it becomes noteworthy. One making a surprise mid-winter appearance at Cape Spear has been getting a lot of attention from photographers.

A couple of these long distant travellers stray to Newfoundland every year. Unfortunately, despite the extensive cover for birds in the backyard a sharp-shinned hawk captured and ate the exotic visitor. A sharp-shinned hawk does not discriminate between rarity celebrities and every day starlings and juncos when it comes to lunch.  

The horned lark is a regular Newfoundland bird that we take for granted in the summer, but in the winter it becomes noteworthy. One making a surprise mid-winter appearance at Cape Spear has been getting a lot of attention from photographers. The mild weather keeping the wind-swept grounds of Cape Spear bare of snow has allowed it to find the small seeds that it needs for survival. Catherine Barrett and Lisa de Leon had lucky moment with two kinds of owls along the road just north of Portugal Cove South. First there was a short-eared owl feeding over the barrens then a saw-whet owl in a small tree. Further investigation in this area might reveal a good population of voles and maybe more owls.

There is always something of interest to find even in the middle of winter.

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

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