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BRUCE MACTAVISH: The Grand Slam of cardinal watching

The female cardinal on the left and the male cardinal on the right completed A Grand Slam of cardinal watching in Newfoundland.
The female cardinal on the left and the male cardinal on the right completed A Grand Slam of cardinal watching in Newfoundland. - Bruce Mactavish

The cardinal is a mythical bird in Newfoundland. People wonder if they really occur here. Some have been claimed but turn out to be another red-coloured bird, such as a pine grosbeak in June.

There is more than one species of red bird out there in the woods. The northern cardinal, as it is fully known, is a bird mainly of the eastern United States. They have crossed the border into southern Ontario and south Quebec where they are firmly established.

Their gradual march north and eastward has brought them into New Brunswick and Nova Scotia where they are well established in pockets, especially around cities and the larger communities. There are a several definite records of northern cardinal straying northeastward to the island of Newfoundland.

There are photographs to prove it.

Most sightings are in late fall at a birdfeeder, but they stay for only one or two days before moving on again.

Over this winter pictures of a male cardinal at a birdfeeder in Lawn on the Burin Peninsula began appearing on Facebook.

It was somewhat torturous seeing the pictures but not being able to go see the bird because the owners of the feeder were not open to visitors.

That is the way it is sometimes. We respect the choice of privacy.

Then late last week a Winging It reader from Lewin’s Cove, some 30 to 40 kilometres east of Lawn, reported a new visitor to the feeder.

Jim Mullet sent me some pictures of a bird that he thought was a female cardinal. He was right on with the identification.

By the weekend we had worked out a visitation to Jim’s feeder in Lewin’s Cove. It was a mere three-and-half-hour drive from St. John’s. Add a half hour for the snowy conditions we encountered on the drive before Ken Knowles, Dave Brown and I found ourselves in Lewin’s Cove on Saturday morning.

We walked up the winding lane not yet cleared of the morning snowfall. We found Jim snow blowing his driveway. He turned off the snow blower and showed us his birdfeeder. He left us there to view the feeder from a position partially concealed behind his car.

Chickadees, red-breasted nuthatches and juncos started appearing.

Then the cardinal flew out of the thick woods and into a bush next to the feeder. With little hesitation it popped up on to the feeder platform totally out in the open.

Unbelievable as it seemed, we were looking an actual cardinal in Newfoundland, finally!

The three cameras fired off shots as the bird looked suspiciously back over its shoulder at us but not before a good five or six minutes of gorging on the bird seed.

It flew back into the shelter of the woods. Elated, we looked at each other with big smiles and a sense of disbelief. That was too easy.

The whirlwind trip to the Burin Peninsula had been worth it already.

With the luxury of a bit of time on our hands before heading back to town, we decided to let Jim resume his snow blowing while we drove on to Lawn to have a try for the male cardinal. Directions were confusing but we found a house that we were told was getting a male cardinal at their feeder.

We were not sure if this was the same house originally reporting it on Facebook. It turned out to be a different house that was presumably sharing visits from the same cardinal. We were welcomed in the backyard by Freeman Roul.

Miraculously, we saw the bright red male cardinal almost as soon as we arrived. It never came to the birdfeeder but was in the trees nearby — then it vanished.

Ken, Dave and I started the four-hour journey back to St. John’s with an overflowing feeling of contentment. We saw not just a cardinal but a female and a male on the same day! It was the Grand Slam of cardinal watching in Newfoundland. Are there are any more cardinals out there right now?

Many birds came to the feeder over the next little while, including a rather rare winter bird, a dickcissel, but the cardinal never reappeared.

Perhaps it went off to the other feeder.

Meanwhile, we chatted with Freeman and his wife, Esther. Freeman turned out to be a woodworking genius who spends his days in the shed quietly making true-to-life objects out of wood. This includes a full-size replica of a woodstove, precisely detailed down to the manufacture’s label of the era, plus a wooden kettle on top.

Tied together by a common interest in birds you get to meet the greatest people in the most unexpected of places while looking for rarities.

Ken, Dave and I started the four-hour journey back to St. John’s with an overflowing feeling of contentment.

We saw not just a cardinal but a female and a male on the same day!

It was the Grand Slam of cardinal watching in Newfoundland.

Are there are any more cardinals out there right now?

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

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