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BRUCE MACTAVISH: Golden-crowned sparrow a new addition to the Newfoundland and Labrador bird list

An immature golden-crowned sparrow like this one in Victoria, B.C., showed up in Renews for a provincial first.
An immature golden-crowned sparrow like this one in Victoria, B.C., showed up in Renews for a provincial first. - Bruce Mactavish photo

It was well before daybreak as I turned on my cellphone. Due to the jet lag having arrived in Victoria, B.C., 36 hours earlier I was wide awake in the middle of the night. There was a message waiting from Dave Brown. There was a sense of urgency in the text asking that if I was awake please take a look at this picture from Clara Dunne’s bird feeder in Renews.

I opened the image and my jawed dropped to the floor. It was a golden-crowned sparrow, the very bird I most wanted to see while on this working trip to the Victoria area. This was way too much of a coincidence! It had to be a dirty trick. It was the morning after the big snow fall on the Avalon Peninsula. I saw snow in the picture’s background and recognized Clara’s feeder and the scenery of her yard. It was indeed a golden-crowned sparrow in Renews. It was the first one ever seen in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador. 

The golden-crowned sparrow is closely related to the white-throated sparrow of Newfoundland. It nests in coniferous forests at high elevations in the mountains of western North America. In the winter they fly to the warm snow-free Pacific coastal lowlands from British Columbia to California. Very rarely one will stray east of the Rocky Mountains.

Word got out while St John’s birders were in the midst of shovelling out their driveways. They threw their shovels aside and made plans with the others to get to Renews soon as possible. All is well that ends well. Over the next couple of days everyone who went to Clara’s feeder came home happy. The golden-crowned sparrow is a seed eater that should be able to get through a Newfoundland winter with a constant supply of food. It came to the right place. Clara Dunne is passionate bird feeder operator.

The golden-crowned sparrow is a seed eater that should be able to get through a Newfoundland winter with a constant supply of food. It came to the right place. Clara Dunne is passionate bird feeder operator.

Snowfall driving birds to feeders
The sudden heavy snowfall sent many birds to bird feeders. Sharon Tucker was one of several people reporting a Baltimore oriole at the feeder. Hers was fighting for space with the bigger birds at the suet block. Cora Scott saw a rare yellow-throated warbler in vicinity of her busy backyard bird feeder in Little Bay East, Burin Peninsula. These little southerners have a record of showing up late in the season and will go to the bird feeder. A yellow-breasted chat showed up at Ryan Larson’s backyard bird feeder Torbay. A late rose-breasted grosbeak reappeared at Linda Cutler Kenny feeder in Fermeuse. A beautiful eastern towhee was photographed in a driveway in Renews.

These southern birds that thought they might get away with staying late in the Newfoundland were hit with a hard case of winter reality. The lingering insect-eating birds like the orioles and warblers out of desperation turn to suet, peanut butter and cut oranges put out at bird feeders. Even with a source of food they have a tough time insulating their bodies against the cold weather. Meanwhile the hardy birds, juncos, goldfinches, blue jays and others that are made for the Newfoundland winter weather are happy for the easy food provided at the bird feeders. They will continue to thrive.

Meanwhile on the west coast
Meanwhile back out west far from the wintery scene of Newfoundland I have had some opportunities to birdwatch in the Victoria area. What a beautiful winter haven by Canadian standards. Snow is fairly rare in Victoria. The vegetation is thick, tangled and rich. It is a wintering place for many sparrows and other songbirds.

The lingering insect-eating birds like the orioles and warblers out of desperation turn to suet, peanut butter and cut oranges put out at bird feeders. Even with a source of food they have a tough time insulating their bodies against the cold weather.

The golden-crowned sparrow is common in the underbrush making up a substantial part of the local bird feeder clientele. I visited a public bird feeder in a city park at Swan Lake. There were at least 20 golden-crowned sparrows vying with the numerous fox sparrows and spotted towhees for bird seed on the ground that the red-winged blackbirds were tossing out of the bird feeder above.

The photo with this column came from this bird feeder. During the walk around the pond I saw three species of a wren and several Anna’s hummingbirds. The hummingbirds were seeking small insects in the trees rather than requiring nectar in flowering plants which allows them to remain farther north than other hummingbirds.

The waters around the Victoria waterfront is teeming with bird life. There are many species we share with Victoria but here they occur in much larger numbers. Buffleheads for example are everywhere by the hundreds. They have become used to people sometimes feeding quite close to well used walking trails. Harlequin ducks are equally tame and easy to see in sheltered conditions unlike the way we see them in at wind ripped rocky shorelines in Newfoundland. Victoria is a Newfoundland birdwatcher’s winter paradise in more ways than I can elaborate in this column.

Bruce Mactavish is an environmental consultant and avid birdwatcher. He can be reached at wingingitone@yahoo.ca

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