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Bruce Mactavish: A bird show at the manure pile

The elegant buff-breasted sandpiper dines at a select manure pile in the Goulds.
The elegant buff-breasted sandpiper dines at a select manure pile in the Goulds. - Bruce Mactavish photo

Birdwatchers are always on the lookout for an advantage or a new angle on seeing interesting birds. Some of the rare shorebirds that migrate over the province every fall may not stop if they do not see a good place to eat. The buff-breasted sandpiper is sometimes called a grass-piper because of its preference for feeding in the grass over a beach, like the majority of sandpipers. Open short grass habitat is scarce in Newfoundland. Sometimes they choose a golf course or check out an airport. Sod farms can be good. Ploughed farm fields are also prime locations. 

In search of suitable farm fields in the agricultural areas of the Goulds, birdwatchers discovered a manure pile that was attracting some golden plovers. Golden plover also like wide-open terrain for feeding. Although not as finicky as the buff-breasted sandpiper, the two species often share the same feeding grounds. The earth around the pile of unmentionables had been partially cleared of manure and levelled off, but there was plenty of organic material remaining for insect life to thrive. It is the insect life the birds are interested in, not the actual dung.

Birders began including the manure pile on their local rounds hoping to find something interesting here. Sometimes there were no birds present, sometimes just a few golden plover. Eventually it happened. Persistence paid off with the appearance of a rare buff-breasted sandpiper. This is a much-loved sandpiper everywhere that it occurs. It is nowhere so numerous that one can grow blasé about them. It nests in low densities in the high Arctic and spends the winter on the open grasslands of Argentina. Very light on the wing, they are confident global travellers.

Word travels fast through the birding community and birders soon began arriving at the manure pile. Frequent visits from a merlin kept the birds jumpy. Sometimes there was nothing at the manure pile but a few minutes later there could be 30 shorebirds of five species present. In one incident a semipalmated plover was nabbed right in front of a half dozen birders. As if to show off its catch the merlin paused with its prey on top of the manure pile for a few seconds before disappearing from sight across the field with its breakfast booty.

In the end everyone was treated to nice views of the buff-breasted sandpiper. The burnt buff colour on the side face was the brightest part of the curry-coloured sandpiper. The scaly lace back pattern added to its elegant presence as it pranced over the manure seeking out grubs and fly larvae. A few days later a second individual joined it, and then a Baird’s sandpiper and three pectoral sandpipers added spice to the manure pile guest list. In the end the pressure of the merlin raids was more than most of the shorebirds could take so they departed but it was a good little show while it lasted.

Tantalizing September spice

The king-of-pain bird for birders in Newfoundland is the brown booby. Yes that is the real name of this tropical seabird. The brown booby is related to the gannet. It is a little smaller with a smooth chocolate brown colouration and a snow-white belly. When it is perched you can see its bright yellow feet.

For the last decade or so a small number of brown boobies have been travelling much farther north up the United States east coast than they traditionally did with some making it into Canadian waters. Apparently this is because of warmer sea temperatures. Since the first Newfoundland sighting seven summers ago there has been at least one brown booby sighting per year. The problem for your average birder is that nearly all the sightings are of individuals that landed on boats offshore. Most were documented with a cellphone and later found their way to a Facebook page. There was already one this summer on a Canadian research vessel off the west coast.

The most recent brown booby visit to Newfoundland hits closer to home. Thomas Doyle took a picture of brown booby resting on the bow of the fishing boat Belle Carnell just five kilometres southeast of Cape Spear. The bird stayed on the boat for another five kilometres before departing. Where is it now? That is the big question. It is a seabird but they do like to rest on solid objects near shore such as isolated rocks where gulls and cormorants are likely to be. Maybe it will be found again, perhaps resting on a rock along the coast of the Avalon Peninsula where everyone can see it this time!

Autumn of 2018 is starting out on a good foot. What will the coming week do for us?

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

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