Winter birding draws enthusiasts to the Rock
Newfoundland a hot spot for hardcore birders, as passion for rare species starts to rise
— The wind is howling and blowing “slop snow” in our faces as we try to stay upright on a viewing platform at Cape Spear Lighthouse National Historic Site scanning the ocean rocks for purple sandpipers.
“That wind is actually a nor’easter — you wouldn’t go out in a fishing boat when there’s a nor’easter,” warns Jared Clarke, who runs Bird the Rock.
We’re soaked and chilled and dash back to his car without looking for snowy owls on the ground. “I saw about eight purple sandpipers total,” reports Clarke, who wields a high-powered birding scope.
“It was way too nasty to look for anything else out there.”
Purple sandpipers breed on Greenland’s tundra but come “south” to winter, foraging along the rocky coast for plankton, microorganisms and the like. People hardly ever get to see these birds.
“They should be migrating to Florida, the Caribbean and Argentina like most other shorebirds do,” Clarke says, “but they chose to winter in these really tough conditions, which seems amazing for such small birds.”
Winter birding is a growing tourism draw and Clarke, a father of two, gave up a career in neuroscience and stroke research three years ago to follow his passion for leading custom bird and nature tours.
“I’m probably the most over-educated birding guide in Canada,” he jokes on a quick last-minute birding expedition in early December.
Newfoundland and Labrador’s peak birding season runs mid-May to mid-September, with people mainly coming for Atlantic puffins (the province’s official bird) and other seabirds.
A small subset of hardcore birders, however, comes in December and January for species that are only seen here — or are more easily seen here — like dovekies.
Known locally as bullbirds, they also breed in Greenland and winter at sea, and this is apparently the only place where you can regularly see them from land.
“Birders will come here in January to see dovekies and things that
call Newfoundland home in winter,” Clarke explains.
During my week in Newfoundland, rare birds made the news twice.
First, a rare black vulture shows up for the first time in decades on the southwest coast in Burgeo, likely blown off course by a storm. Then, the first-ever eared grebe was spotted around Peter’s River in the Avalon Peninsula and detailed in Bruce Mactavish’s “Winging it” column in the Telegram.
Mactavish also wrote about “the Winter List” — a game serious birders play keeping tally of all the species they see within a province from December to February. He takes Dec. 1 off work to kick-start his list, and that’s how he mobilized to see and photograph the rare grebe.
Serious birders “will fly at the drop of the hat” for rare birds.
Some people call Clarke for help. One guy even flew him to Hawaii for “blitz birding.”
After taking me out, Clarke went to Trinidad and Tobago to guide for Eagle Eye Tours.
Newfoundland, says Clarke, offers quality over quantity: “What we have is a lot harder to see anywhere in Canada. Where we have our quantity is, of course, seabirds. That’s our spectacle. You can go out and see a million seabirds in a day.”
As we drive around, Clarke tells me about two popular birding movies: “The Big Year” (2011) and “Rare Birds” (2001), which was Canadian and filmed here at Cape Spear. (Later, I order them both from Amazon.)
After Cape Spear, we check out Kenny’s Pond in the heart of the city. It’s a magnet for diving ducks. We see five tufted ducks right away; the tufted is a black-and-white beauty Clarke describes as a “really classy looking duck” that appears to be “wearing a tuxedo” and sporting a “ponytail.”
When almost everything freezes, this city pond has a few spots of open water that draw ducks and photographers. Today we also luck into a coot, an uncommon winter visitor that is a water bird (not a duck) with a chickenlike bill and long, lobed toes.
Our final two stops are along the shores of Quidi Vidi Lake, also in the heart of the city. This is “birding central” in winter because several spots of open water always remain and you might see 10 species of gulls.
Sneer if you must about gulls. This is one of the top two spots in Canada to see them and a month from now there could be 10,000 here.
“It’s really quite a spectacle,” Clarke promises.
Today the gulls are in the mere dozens and they’re on shore because there’s no ice yet. When Clarke points out pure white Iceland gulls — another Arctic breed that has come “south” — I’m pretty thrilled. There is one enormous great black-backed gull of note, and a lesser black-backed gull who comes every year and has been named Buddy.
The weather’s too crappy and our time too short to wander the lake’s walking trails, explore the forests or drive along the coast like Clarke might do on a full-day custom tour.
“Birding tourists tend to be retirees because they have time and money and want guidance,” admits Clarke, 38, “but the birding community itself is getting to be a lot younger.”
The demographic is definitely shifting, he says with a cheerful nod. But age doesn’t matter much to him — he simply loves meeting people and sharing his passion for birds.
Purple sandpipers breed on Greenland’s tundra, but travel “south” to winter on the rocky shores of Newfoundland.
Bird the Rock’s Jared Clarke shows off tufted ducks off the rocky shore at Kenny’s Pond.