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BRUCE MACTAVISH: Winter bird touring

The charismatic dovekie captures the imagination of out of province bird watchers visiting the Avalon.
The charismatic dovekie captures the imagination of out of province bird watchers visiting the Avalon. - Bruce Mactavish

Every year around mid-January a couple of bird tour groups come to Avalon Peninsula for some winter birdwatching.

This tradition started back in the 1980s when the St. John’s area became widely known among mainland bird watchers as an easy destination to see dovekies.

Dovekies, also known as the bullbird or icebird, are small northern seabirds. They nest by the millions on vast thallus slopes in northwest Greenland. They spend the winter in the North Atlantic especially in the waters off Newfoundland and Labrador. The majority of dovekies spend their winter in the offshore zone beyond the sight of land.

However, during the month of January good numbers also feed in the surf along rocky shores of Newfoundland. The Avalon Peninsula dovekies are some of the most reliable and accessible dovekies for North American birdwatchers. They simply need to fly into St. John’s and drive 20 minutes to Cape Spear.

It can be that simple but there is a whole lot more of interest to see for the mainland birder visiting Newfoundland in the winter. The winter coastline of the Avalon Peninsula alone is a beautiful scene.

This past weekend I accompanied long-time friend Bruce Di Labio from Ottawa, Ont., and his two tour members, Stephanie Irwin and Peter Campbell. It was Pete’s second time after having coming on the same tour eight years previously. On the Saturday we drove down the Southern Shore from St. John’s to St. Shotts. It was a perfect January day with a deep blue sky and the winds and temperature being of little concern.

At Cape Broyle we stopped behind the church to see if we could entice some red-breasted nuthatches out of the white spruce forest loaded down with cones. As soon as we stepped out into the January air the sound of white-winged crossbills reached our ears. There was a flock of 25 feeding among the cones in the top of a big spruce. The vibrant pink bodies and black wings with two distinct wing bars of the males were stunning in the clear January air. The females in their lemon-yellows, olives and equally distinct wings also looked dandy. The birds seemed content to linger in the tree long enough that we decided to set up our spotting scopes for some obscenely intimate views.

We almost forgot about the red-breasted nuthatches that we stopped for but they made themselves conspicuous before we left. In addition, a common murre swimming close to shore in the cove was a highlight for tour leader Bruce Di Labio.

Dovekies were scarce. We finally saw a distant individual at Calvert. But the paucity of dovekies did not dampen the spirit of the trip.

At Ferryland we connected with a flock of 25 purple sandpipers. These are always winners with birders from inland locations since it is a coastal bird. A group of great cormorants, another strictly saltwater bird, posed on a rock for easy viewing.

At Renews we ran into a collection of Newfoundland birders waiting for a view of the rare eastern towhee that has taken up residence at Spencer Cutler’s bird feeder. It came out from its protective lair under the back deck to feed just as we arrived. This is a bird the Ontario visitors were used to back home but could appreciate why I was happy to see it.

Time was getting low.

We decided to drive direct to St. Shotts from Renews bypassing regular birding sites to get there with time to play with it. It paid off. St. Shotts gives one a real sense of the grandeur of the North Atlantic. You are surrounded on three sides by ocean. A flock of 500 common eiders appeared and disappeared in the peaks and valleys of the gray ocean swells rolling under them. There were no king eiders among them this time. A trio of razorbills played hide and seek spending more time under the water than on the surface. We all got satisfying views in the end.

Pockets of long-tailed ducks bobbed off the rocks just outside the zone where the swells crested and crashed on the rock releasing their energy in an explosive flurry. A few kittiwakes sailed by offshore in a hurry to somewhere.

And there were dovekies. Constant small numbers flew along the shore just beyond the surf line. The tiny black and white birds with their bee-like flight buzzed over the enormity of the heaving seas and rugged coast with complete confidence. This was their world. Some dropped into the water to feed while other kept going.

The next morning at Cape Spear we of course saw more dovekies feeding close to the rocks and there were spectacular views of purple sandpipers. Every day of their five-day trip was full of Newfoundland wonderment.

Mainland birdwatchers experiencing the Avalon Peninsula in the winter for the first time, or even second time, always go home beaming with happiness and contentment.

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

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