Top News

BRUCE MACTAVISH: The tide turns for birdwatchers

A flock of whimbrel alight on a coastal barren to fatten up on berries on route from their Arctic nesting grounds to where they will spend the winter in South America.
A flock of whimbrel alight on a coastal barren to fatten up on berries on route from their Arctic nesting grounds to where they will spend the winter in South America. - Bruce Mactavish

As we pass into the midpoint of summer and come out the other side into the summer’s climax the birders begin to shift some of their focus from seabirds to shorebirds.

The seabird season is by no means over. There are still large flocks of shearwaters close to land on the Avalon and Bonavista peninsulas feeding on the last of the spawning caplin concentrations along with the plentiful whales.

Shorebird migration is starting up.

Shorebirds are a dynamic group of birds. They come in many shapes and sizes that include plovers, sandpipers, yellowlegs, godwits and many others.

Some nest in the high Arctic while others nest commonly about Newfoundland and Labrador. All shorebirds are great fliers. With long wings shorebirds are shaped for easy flight and engineered by nature for long distance travel.

Many of the Arctic nesters fly to South America for the winter because they can!

Local spotted sandpipers are monitoring their fluffy young everywhere across the province while the first of the Arctic nesters on their way south join them on the beach.

Gaudy ruddy turnstones still retaining their brick red, black and white breeding plumage are populating favoured coastal beaches around the province. With short pointed bills they shovel about in the kelp exposed at low tide looking for marine invertebrates to satisfy their insatiable appetites.

Shorebirds need lots of energy to stay in tiptop shape during migration.

Semipalmated plovers with their single black band across the neck run and stop repeatedly over the exposed tidal flats using their sharp eyes to pick out the slightest movements of invertebrates hiding after the fall of the tide.

The ubiquitous greater yellowlegs walk confidently on long, bright yellow legs through the shallows exploring with long bills between the stones and seaweeds for marine morsels. They are the policemen of the tidal areas sounding the alarm with their yelping call at the slightest indication of danger or just for the hell of it seems sometimes.

Other species of shorebird exploit areas away from the coast.

A particular manure pile in the Goulds with surrounding pools of oozing mud attracted a couple of dozen snipe looking for worms and other goodies thriving in the rich environment.

Killdeer with their double breast band walked about on the drier dirt finding their booty. The natural dry uplands attract another group of shorebird specialists.

Right now the crowberry, also known as the blackberry, is ripe and plentiful.

This is to the benefit of the curlew also known as the whimbrel. They walk over coastal barrens where the crowberry grows reaching down with their long curved bills delicately picking the berries as they go. A number of people commented on seeing nice flocks of whimbrel in the past week.

I enjoyed my time trying to photograph a massive group of 400 strong out on the old airstrip at Argentia.

Being very wary the only chance for pictures was when they flew overhead.

This is only the start of the shorebird migration season. There are a good three months of it ahead as the different species pass through the province with their specific schedules and habitat needs.

Rare birds this week

John Alexander flushed a medium sized heron from the shores of Virginia Lake in east St. John’s. It turned out to be an immature yellow-crowned night-heron. This southern bird has a long history of wandering north to Atlantic Canada in midsummer after they finished nesting on the east coast of the United States. Hopefully they figure out how to get back south where they came from.

Cliff Doran got word from Sean Molloy about a crane in the back country near St Shotts. Sean gave Cliff a ride on his ATV to the site of the sighting and sure enough it was a sandhill crane. This is a rare sighting for the island of Newfoundland especially in the summer.

Most exciting was a brown booby watched by Kyle d’Entremont for 10 minutes feeding off Cape St. Mary’s. This sub-tropical seabird is turning up more often in the more temperate waters of Atlantic Canada for reasons still unknown. Most provincial birdwatchers have yet lay eyes on one in Newfoundland.

Frounce update

What is the word on frounce you might be wondering?

This parasite affecting the throat lining of birds causing eventual death is starting to become more apparent.

There were two more cases of suspected frounce that I heard about in eastern Newfoundland over the last week. It is time to take down your bird feeders for the rest of the summer. This is not law but the advisable thing to do.

After disinfecting your bird feeder it is best to wait until the good frosts of the fall before restarting the feeder. The birds will be fine.

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


Did this story inform or enhance your perspective on this subject?
1 being least likely, and 10 being most likely

Recent Stories