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October takes off where September left us. Birders are finding rare bird after rare bird.
There is always something to look for. The winds have been doing something right for us. Some of the warbler migration has been shifted east to the Avalon Peninsula.
The palm warbler is a locally common summer time breeding warbler in the spruce and larch bogs of central Newfoundland. The normal migration route takes them in a southwestward track across the province and out toward Nova Scotia and further south along United States coast to where they will spend the winter. Palm warblers have no need to venture to the Avalon Peninsula; it is out of their way.
But average outings along the Southern Shore of the Avalon Peninsula might include two or three or even a half dozen palm warblers. The plethora of palm warblers is only one characteristic of the fall migration season.
The Cape May warbler in a typical fall is encountered maybe once or twice during the migration period. Their migration route is centred more over the Maritimes. But this fall the Avalon birders have found a record-smashing 15+ different Cape May warblers.
Speculation and guess work to explain the occurrence of birds is part of the fun of birding.
The weather systems have been strong and fast moving. Brief periods of strong west winds after the passages of fast moving low pressure areas seems to be the trigger.
It is not only the Avalon Peninsula receiving the benefits of this weather set up. Some of our birds have been carried clear across the ocean. The red-eyed vireo is welcome visitor to the Avalon alders but more than half a dozen have elated birders in Ireland, England and Iceland!
Some of the more delectable Avalon rarities have been a yet another Townsend’s warbler, a rarely encountered great crested flycatcher, three yellow-throated warblers and several each of blue-gray gnatcatchers, prairie warblers, yellow-breasted chats, indigo buntings, warbling vireos, Blackburnian warblers, yellow-billed cuckoos, Baltimore orioles and lark sparrows. Most of these rarities are difficult to notice unless you know what you are looking for.
The Baltimore oriole is an exception. These bright orange birds can be a conspicuous backyard visitor especially if there is some kind of fruiting tree like the dogberry tree for them. However, there is another rather more exotic bird that has a history of turning up unexpectedly in urban backyards. That is the yellow-billed cuckoo.
It is slimmer and longer than a robin. Smooth wood-brown above and soft clear white below. The long brown tail shows large white spots on the underside. The bird is named after the bright yellow lower half of the bill. They sit still in the shrubbery. They are not particularly shy once located but they can they remain inconspicuous even while being in the open. Few birds sit so still for so long. With only their head turning they are surveying the ground below and the vegetation around them for large hairy caterpillars. That is their of food choice.
The bird in this week’s picture was on Powles Head road near Trepassey. Jared Clarke and I were treated to a 20-minute encounter with this regal caterpillar killer.
Through the bushes we noticed it did catch a caterpillar. It whacked it a few times across a branch to subdue it and perhaps break off some spines before chucking it down whole. It sat for a long time after that good meal.
Other sure signs of fall
Part of the annual cycle of birds in the fall is the dispersal of young ruffed grouse. After a summer of following mom around in the woods the young grouse get an overpowering urge to head out on their own. They do this by literally flying off madly in all directions.
On the Newfoundland Birding Facebook group Reg Feener posted a picture showing a very dead ruffed grouse that had flowing into the side of his house with such a force as to make a head sized hole in the vinyl siding. This not such an unusual event during the fall dispersal season. They are also known to fly into fences and windows on occasion. They end up in the oddest of places like the middle of a busy road, or a downtown St. John’s backyard or an isolated lighthouse.
Another sign of the fall season is the conspicuous presence of blue jays. They are particularly notable as they move about in flocks on their way south. The birds that are staying for the winter are storing food. Anyone who feeds the blue jays peanuts in the fall is in for much entertainment as they carry away all the peanuts you offer them only to bury them in the backyard as a larder for the winter ahead.
Enjoy the Thanksgiving weekend. It is an excellent time to be birding.
Bruce Mactavish is an environmental consultant and avid birdwatcher. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.