Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Chasing "Euro-Trash" Shorebirds in Newfoundland.

A quick trip for some ABA birds in Newfoundland, Canada ....

So OK, I'll admit it.  I have a crappy ABA list.  Most of my friends have at least 700+ but I'm languishing somewhere in the 640s and have never really focused on it.  I guess for two reasons, i) because when I first moved to the US in 1991 the idea of chasing vagrants from Europe in the NorthEast just wasn't all that appealing and, ii) once the World-listing bug kicked in I just couldn't see the thrill of trolling the Southern borders of the US for birds I'd already seen in Mexico, or sitting in the rain in Alaska hoping for a bird that I'd either just seen in Thailand, or which breeds in my parents' garden in Wales.  Time I guess gives your perspective though, and now that I'm safely past my World-listing phase (and now that I've been here a while and see European birds less regularly), my ABA list is starting to get more interesting.

I also blame eBird for this change of heart.  Every day I get an email detailing ABA rarities, and while I'm usually able to ignore it, sometimes birds just stick in my mind.  So after weeks of seeing reports of LaSagra's Flycatcher in Florida I went to see it.  Then I just had to see a Sinaloa Wren in Arizona.  Neither were Life Birds, but both somehow stuck in my mind and just had to be seen (I'm not even going to try to explain the psychology).  More recently, the alert was filled with news of an incredible invasion of Eurasian shorebirds in Newfoundland and, after watching it for weeks, I gave in to the urge, booked tickets, and headed up to St. John's on Sunday.

Before leaving I'd made contact with local birding experts Jared Clarke and Alvan Buckley who assured me that the birds were still there (but that they could leave any day).  I'd arranged to bird with Jared on Monday so counted down the days, checking the eBird reports to make sure the goodies were sticking, until I finally I landed in St. John's in an Ice Storm on Sunday night (quite a change from watching warblers in shorts in New York that morning), scraped the ice of my rental car windshield, and drove through driving hail and freezing rain to the Marriott in St. John's Harbor.  Next morning, after clearing a thin layer of snow (!) off the car (and wondering exactly what possessed me to do this), I pulled up to Jared's driveway at 7:15am, and headed off to look for a troika of rare Eurasian shorebirds, all of which would be new for my ABA list.

First stop was Cochrane Pond Road in Goulds, just South of St. John's.  We pulled up to a field that was full of oddly shaped brown lumps ... cow pies?  No, they were EUROPEAN GOLDEN PLOVERS, lots of them.  We guessed that there were about 60 of them hunkered down in the field, but later we got some decent looks and got some (distant but diagnostic) photos.  First ABA birds of the trip, and it took seconds after getting bins out of the bag .... this was looking promising.

'Cow-pies' turned out to be 60-ish European Golden Plovers hunkered down in a field
(with a diagnostic ID shot down below).  A bird that is annual in Newfoundland but
which arrived in unprecedented numbers this Spring.

So that was easy!  And so, after trying to get closer via a couple of different roads (and failing), we decided to head off to look for the next target - after all, these birds could leave at any minute, the pressure was on.

Next stop was Third Pond in Goulds, where we walked across a race track (horses) to overlook a nice marsh and lake.  The target here was BLACK-TAILED GODWIT and there had been up to three of them the week before.  At least one of the godwits was supposed to be lingering and we learned that it had been seen that morning although the bird was apparently distant and being seen on the other side of the lake.  Setting up scopes, we scanned and .... no godwit.  So we just hunkered down in the cold and kept scanning the area where the bird had been seen earlier that day (left of the plastic bucket apparently).  After ten minutes, Jared, who'd borrowed my scope, got the bird and pulled me over to the eye-piece.  It was a good job he did because the bird, which was frequenting a small muddy area of field that was largely obscured from us, wandered out for a minute or so then turned around and drifted back out of sight.  No photos, but decent views, and a very spiffy breeding-plumage Black-tailed Godwit joined the list ... ABA bird number two.

OK, so two quick ABA birds and time to drive South for the star bird, North America's third record of COMMON REDSHANK (although the records each involved multiple birds) which had been hanging out at Renews, about an hour South of where we were, for the past week or so.  So back in the car and off we went, luck definitely seemed to be on our side.

An hour later, we pulled up to the 'Redshank spot' where another local guide (Dave Brown?) and his client had scopes set up by the side of the road.  We jumped out expecting the redshank, but it turns out that it wasn't there and they were just watching the worlds tamest Northern Wheatear (not exactly a bad bird though).

The world's tamest Northern Wheatear (2 shots)

Nice bird, but not what we were there for, so while I photographed the wheatear, Jared wandered along the beach and within minutes, a shout and excited waving alerted us to the fact that he had 'the bird'.  The Common Redshank turned out to be equally confiding and allowed decent photos.  This is a bird that breeds near my parents' house in Wales and one which I saw daily growing up, but here in North America it did in fact seem very special.  ABA bird number 3.  Mission accomplished ....

Common Redshank - ABA 'Code 5' and a very special bird in North America.

So by 10:45am, we had all three target birds and Dave's client was on the phone changing his flights and canceling his hotels so he could go home early (he apparently had no intention of actually birding on this trip - he was shown his ABA birds and was done).  I had a day and a half left before my scheduled return flight however, and I really wanted to go birding.  Newfoundland was spectacular and I really wanted to get to know it better, see some more birds, and maybe even find a few more things (the locals were convinced that there was a European Oystercatcher out there somewhere).

We don't get a lot of icebergs in New York ... as I said, Newfoundland was different
and spectacularly scenic.
So with an afternoon 'at leisure' we decided to bird Cape Race, dragging Dave's reluctant client along with us.  We saw some really cool things - 3 Snowy Owls, Glaucous and Iceland Gulls, Black Guillimots, Razorbills and Common Murres, two Pomarine Jaegers, another Northern Wheatear, and even a dead Sperm Whale.  A really nice afternoon of birding in spectacular scenery.

One of three Snowy Owls at Cape Race ... the last of the biggest invasion in
living memory.
On the way back to St. John's we even added some Gray Jays, a few Merlins, and (even though we were too early for Atlantic Puffins and Nothern Fulmars), enjoyed some great birding in some spectacular spots.

Afternoon birding highlights (for me anyway) included Gray Jays and Ruffed

By the time I dropped Jared off at his home and wound my way back to the hotel I was exhausted (and realized that I hadn't eaten anything all day) but I'd had a great day of birding, 3 ABA birds, multiple year birds, and a really good time.  Local lobster for dinner, a few cocktails, and an early night.  Great day ...

Postscript:  the Black-tailed Godwit was not seen again after Monday (I looked twice on Tuesday but didn't see it).  The Common Redshank also apparently departed either on Tuesday or Wednesday as an extensive search by Alvan Buckley and Neil Hayward (of record ABA Big-year fame) also came up blank despite many hours of searching on Wednesday.  Seems I got there just in the nick of time ....

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