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Rarities rock the birders’ long weekend

The long, narrow wings and sharply notched tail are different than any other Newfoundland bird. This extremely rare bird at Quidi Vidi Lake kept birders very warm all weekend.
The long, narrow wings and sharply notched tail are different than any other Newfoundland bird. This extremely rare bird at Quidi Vidi Lake kept birders very warm all weekend.

The outlook for birding over the much-anticipated long weekend in May was bright as the workweek wound down.

A little break in the persistent north winds of May occurred. A 36-hour period of west and southwest winds immediately brought results with the appearance of several species of southern birds carried off course. At Portugal Cove South Gord Hartery spotted a snowy egret, which sparked a local flurry of excitement. Gord then noticed a male indigo bunting at his own bird feeder.
Nearby in St. Shotts Tony Gibbons reported a rose-breasted grosbeak at his bird feeder. Fred Cuff of Elliston was visited by a male scarlet tanager. Another male scarlet tanager appeared at Randy Thompson’s place at Bonne Bay Pond in western Newfoundland. To top that a male summer tanager showed up at Austin Clarke’s bird feeder in Marystown.  
Kathy Marche photographed two more indigo buntings at Felix Cove. The icing on the cake of southern waifs was the drop-dead male super rare painted bunting at Isle aux Mort. Cindy Ingram secured a photograph of this stunning bird at her mother’s feeder. Eventually the image made its way through the maze of Internet places to Jared Clarke who spread the news to the birding community. This was only the third sighting of a painted bunting in the province, the previous records being brief late May feeder visits to Stephenville Crossing and Birchy Cove, Trinity Bay.
Painted buntings come from farther south than these other southern strays, being at home in Georgia, Florida and Texas. They are well named, looking like a painted bird rather than something real. They have a deep blue head, intense red breast and vivid green back. The painted bunting was hanging out with its cousin, an indigo bunting,  plus a rose-breasted grosbeak. This trio of birds were standouts of colour in the springtime scenery of Isle aux Mort.
Other rare birds appeared on the island of Newfoundland during this period, but were not really of southern origin. A redhead duck was found at the Deer Lake sewage ponds by John Tuach. This attractive-looking duck is of a western origin and less then annual in the province. A shorebird, called a ruff, was found by Kathy Marche at Indian Head Park near Stephenville. It’s a European species that usually shows up a couple times per year in the province. The males look striking, adorned in long colourful head and neck plumes.
A northern wheatear at Cape Race photographed by Cliff Doran and another wheatear seen by Andrea Dicks at Cape Spear were reminders of the northern winds of spring.
Then came the long weekend. It was a classic. While we joke about snow on the 24th of May weekend it has actually been quite a while since it happened. Cold weather is hard on the insect-eating birds like the warblers and especially the swallows. Swallows depend on flying insects, which are hard to come by in the wet cold snow. Water bodies holding a little more warmth than the air offer the last hope for the swallows searching for insects. During the cold weather St. John’s birders check out the ponds looking for concentrations of feeding swallows. On the Saturday Catherine Barrett acting on the weather visited Third Pond in Goulds, a known hotspot for swallows, and found dozens. They were mostly tree swallows, but among them were a few barn swallows, bank swallows, one cliff swallow and a treat, a rare chimney swift.
Several people had been checking out the swallow flock that typically builds up at Quidi Vidi Lake in cold times. Another cliff swallow was being seen here. Around suppertime on Saturday Ian Jones and Jeannine Winkel were at Quidi Vidi Lake when they noticed something unusual flying among the swallows. It was a swift, but a large one, almost twice as big as the swallows!
There are several species of large swifts with very remote possibilities of occurring in Newfoundland. It was all dark with a forked tail. It looked right for common swift. Common swift is a European bird that was recorded for the first time in the province at Cape Race in July 2016. It has been seen twice in St. Pierre -Miquelon, once in Quebec and a couple of times in western Alaska. Photographs were difficult to obtain in the inclement evening weather, but their pictures confirmed the identity as the European common swift. A few people got to see it Saturday evening but it was Sunday when the bird put on a show being present most of the day feeding low over Quidi Vidi Lake with the swallows. The birders were elated. Unfortunately yours truly was away on vacation in a warmer place during the long weekend. I was more than willing to trade the warmth for the cold to see that swift. I will not miss another May 24 weekend in Newfoundland no matter the weather.

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

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