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BRUCE MACTAVISH: September keeps on giving to birders

A dapper northern wheatear looks over its shoulder before dropping down off the rock wall to grab an insect on the ground.
A dapper northern wheatear looks over its shoulder before dropping down off the rock wall to grab an insect on the ground. - Bruce Mactavish

It’s been a spectacular month for spotting rare visitors

It was Thursday morning last week. It was time for me to leave Cape Spear road and head into town to get to an office by 9 a.m. As I was getting back in my car, Ed Hayden stopped by in his. He was just getting out — retired folk have the option of a late start. I filled in Ed on my morning news. It was pretty quiet in the alders. Just a few yellow-rumped warblers, some flickers and not much else, but it was a beautiful morning. Ed agreed it was beautiful — a sunny, classic September morning. Then he looked at me with a grin and said, “It has been a good month, though.” We nodded in agreement.

What a month of birding highs it has been for Newfoundland birdwatchers. It started with that way-out brown booby in St. John’s harbour on Sept. 7. Then hurricane Dorian brushed by southwest Newfoundland bringing some significant storm waifs. It was only a fraction of what Nova Scotia got, but Newfoundland received with open arms at least seven gull-billed terns, a couple each of royal and sandwich terns, a small bag of black terns and the province’s first marbled godwit. A scattering of laughing gulls and record numbers of late swallows, including rare purple martins, added spice to the mix.

In the last week it was like stepping stones, going from rarity to rarity. On Monday, Andrea Dicks was out walking her little dog around Kent’s Pond in St. John’s at sunset and was surprised to see a long-winged, dark bird zigzagging back and forth over an open field. It was a first for Andrea but she knew what it was. The zigzagging flight and white bars in the wing are unique in the local bird world to common nighthawk. There was not enough light left in the sky for local birders to get there in time. However, over the next several evenings small crowds of birders gathered in the field on the northeast side of Kent’s Pond. About 15 minutes before sunset the nighthawk would make an appearance. It zigzagged over the tree tops, and sometimes low over the birder’s heads, chasing insects in the warm evening air. While not an extreme rarity — since it is common in the rest of southern Canada, including neighbouring Nova Scotia — the views of this bird were ones by which all other encounters of a nighthawk in Newfoundland will be measured. Janice Flynn would later trump us all with a flyover flock of four nighthawks at the Wetlands Centre in the Codroy Valley.

Out again before work on Tuesday, I came across a Eurasian shorebird called the ruff in an enriched pool of water next to a manure pile in the Goulds. The province sees one or two of these birds every year so it was a regular rarity for local birders to enjoy. Also on Tuesday, Dave Brown — out with a visiting birder — found two northern wheatears at the Ferryland archeological site. Wheatears nest in northern coastal Labrador and in the eastern Canadian Arctic. But it is basically a Eurasian species. Even the Canadian nesters fly east to Europe in the fall before going south to Africa for the winter. A very classy prim and proper bird, it is loved by birders on both sides of the Atlantic. It is always a treat when one appears in your local birding radius.

Many people were able to enjoy the Ferryland wheatears over the next few days. I had to wait until the weekend before I could go for a look. By then there was only one left. It was best if you could remain in your car and wait for it to come to you. In the end I was very pleased with an intimate encounter with the spiffy wheatear.

Not to be outdone by rarities on the island, Vernon Buckle in Forteau, Labrador found a new bird for the province. It was a broad-winged hawk. Perhaps the bigger surprise was that this species had not previously been confirmed in Labrador. It is a very common hawk in southern Canada but it is loath to cross water. Huge numbers migrate from southern Canada each September on their way to wintering grounds in Central and South America. Vernon got many fabulous photographs during its several-day stay.

The week ended on Sunday with a lucky strike by yours truly. It was a Townsend’s warbler in a Ferryland alder bed. The Townsend’s warbler is a western bird that should not really be east of the Rocky Mountains at any time. The Avalon Peninsula has had more than its share of Townsend’s warblers over the years but nearly always in November or December. A September bird was a bit of a shock.

The month is not over. The fall birding season has only begun. Optimism runs high among the birders. What else will the autumn winds bring?

Bruce Mactavish is an environmental consultant and avid birdwatcher. He can be reached at His column returns in two weeks.


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