Win­ter bird­ing draws en­thu­si­asts to the Rock

New­found­land a hot spot for hard­core bird­ers, as pas­sion for rare species starts to rise

The Hamilton Spectator - - TRAVEL - JEN­NIFER BAIN ST. JOHN’S, NEW­FOUND­LAND

— 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.

COUR­TESY OF JARED CLARKE

Pur­ple sand­pipers breed on Green­land’s tun­dra, but travel “south” to win­ter on the rocky shores of New­found­land.

JEN­NIFER BAIN, TORONTO STAR

Bird the Rock’s Jared Clarke shows off tufted ducks off the rocky shore at Kenny’s Pond.

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