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BRUCE MACTAVISH: The games birders play

The pale sandy colour of this savannah sparrow at Cape Spear meant it was an Ipswich savannah sparrow all the way from Sable Island, Nova Scotia. —
The pale sandy colour of this savannah sparrow at Cape Spear meant it was an Ipswich savannah sparrow all the way from Sable Island, Nova Scotia. — Bruce Mactavish photo

Listing the species of bird seen over a given period of time is a common theme among the games that birders play. The winter list is game taken on by birdwatchers across the country.

 

Each province has a list master who keeps track of all the species seen. It has already been established that provinces like British Columbia, with a warm coastal winter, and Ontario, with a large population of birdwatchers, are slam-dunks to win with the highest total. On the island of Newfoundland, it is an internal competition to see how well we can do compared to last year or since the beginning of the records being kept. Labrador keeps a separate winter list.

The official winter list season runs from Dec. 1 to Feb. 28. Obviously these rules were not made by Newfoundlanders who might consider the winter season running until June! A key to building the biggest winter list is getting an early start. This is to capture sightings of as many warblers, orioles and other birds that have remained beyond their best-before date. It is still warm enough that they can find enough food but every day they linger longer creates a worsening situation where the diminishing supply of insect food and the colder weather threatens their very existence. There is a sad part mixed in with the excitement of seeing a very late warbler.

A new visitor among the plethora of ducks in the St. John’s area was a blue-winged teal at Mundy Pond. They migrate early to wintering grounds in Florida.

The first Saturday of the winter list season is called Super Saturday because, for the working class, it is the first full day that can be devoted to the winter list game. The plan for Ken Knowles, John Wells and I was to start at Cape Race and then birdwatch our way toward St. Shotts. A seawatch off Cape Race got us a good start with murres, razorbills, common eiders, all three species of scoters and kittiwakes. A late northern gannet was a good score and might be the only gannet reported in the entire province during the winter list season. A lingering white-rumped sandpiper looking for perhaps its last meal in the grass before flying south to South America fed alongside a late American pipit. A distant snowy owl on the barrens was the first of the autumn season. The Drook gave us 13 red-necked grebes, the only individuals for the day. A couple of red-throated loons were expected in Biscay Bay. Five grackles and a red-winged blackbird at a bird feeder in Trepassey were nice additions to the day. We ended the day at the St. Shotts light station with nice views of a beautiful drake harlequin duck among a flock of 300 eiders. There was one king eider among the ducks. When darkness fell we had seen 48 species of birds. Not bad for a day spent on the barrens and coastal terrain. It was a good day out.

Other birders were also busy during the first weekend of December. Four species of warbler were present in St. John’s, including a prairie warbler and Nashville warbler. A new visitor among the plethora of ducks in the St. John’s area was a blue-winged teal at Mundy Pond. They migrate early to wintering grounds in Florida. It is unexpected anywhere in Canada during winter. The red-tailed hawk glimpsed at Signal Hill was an excellent addition to the winter list. Single white-crowned sparrows — always rare in the winter season — were at bird feeders in St. John’s, Renews and Portugal Cove South. Several people had a Baltimore oriole coming to their backyard birdfeeder.

A late savannah sparrow at Cape Spear turned out to be something special. It was different from the regular savannah sparrow in being 20 per cent larger and was the colour of dry sand. It was the race of savannah sparrow from Sable Island, Nova Scotia. While not a separate species, it has its own name, the Ipswich sparrow. After hundreds of generations of nesting on the isolated sliver of sand out in the Atlantic Ocean, the bird has evolved to blend in with the colour of its sandy environment. It is the extra effort put into birding for the winter listing period that helps turn up unexpected treasures like this Ipswich sparrow. The rarest bird so far in the winter list is the European grey heron that Lillian Walsh photographed at St. Lawrence on Dec. 1st. Was this the same grey heron that disappeared from Renews two weeks earlier?

Anyone in Newfoundland can contribute to the list. Maybe you will be lucky enough to see something we need. Maybe it will be a little surprise like the northern saw-whet owl that graced Dave Collins’ backyard in suburbia St. John’s just days before the start of the winter listing games.

The cumulative Newfoundland list by the end of the first weekend was 88 species. There are lots of discoveries yet to be made to reach the average total 130 to 140 species tallied during the December to February winter period.

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

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