The games bird­ers play

The Telegram (St. John’s) - - WEEKEND LIFE - Bruce Mactav­ish Bruce Mactav­ish is an en­vi­ron­men­tal con­sul­tant and avid bird­watcher. He can be reached at wingin­gi­[email protected]­hoo.ca

List­ing the species of bird seen over a given pe­riod of time is a com­mon theme among the games that bird­ers play. The win­ter list is game taken on by bird­watch­ers across the coun­try.

Each prov­ince has a list mas­ter who keeps track of all the species seen. It has al­ready been es­tab­lished that prov­inces like Bri­tish Columbia, with a warm coastal win­ter, and On­tario, with a large pop­u­la­tion of bird­watch­ers, are slam­dunks to win with the high­est to­tal. On the is­land of New­found­land, it is an in­ter­nal com­pe­ti­tion to see how well we can do com­pared to last year or since the begin­ning of the records be­ing kept. Labrador keeps a sep­a­rate win­ter list.

The of­fi­cial win­ter list sea­son runs from Dec. 1 to Feb. 28. Ob­vi­ously these rules were not made by New­found­lan­ders who might con­sider the win­ter sea­son run­ning un­til June! A key to build­ing the big­gest win­ter list is get­ting an early start. This is to cap­ture sight­ings of as many war­blers, ori­oles and other birds that have re­mained be­yond their best­be­fore date. It is still warm enough that they can find enough food but ev­ery day they linger longer cre­ates a wors­en­ing sit­u­a­tion where the di­min­ish­ing sup­ply of in­sect food and the colder weather threat­ens their very ex­is­tence. There is a sad part mixed in with the ex­cite­ment of see­ing a very late war­bler.

The first Satur­day of the win­ter list sea­son is called Su­per Satur­day be­cause, for the work­ing class, it is the first full day that can be devoted to the win­ter list game. The plan for Ken Knowles, John Wells and I was to start at Cape Race and then bird­watch our way to­ward St. Shotts. A sea­watch off Cape Race got us a good start with mur­res, ra­zor­bills, com­mon ei­ders, all three species of scot­ers and kit­ti­wakes. A late north­ern gan­net was a good score and might be the only gan­net re­ported in the en­tire prov­ince dur­ing the win­ter list sea­son. A lin­ger­ing white-rumped sand­piper look­ing for per­haps its last meal in the grass be­fore fly­ing south to South Amer­ica fed along­side a late Amer­i­can pipit. A dis­tant snowy owl on the bar­rens was the first of the au­tumn sea­son. The Drook gave us 13 red-necked grebes, the only in­di­vid­u­als for the day. A cou­ple of red-throated loons were ex­pected in Bis­cay Bay. Five grack­les and a red-winged black­bird at a bird feeder in Trepassey were nice ad­di­tions to the day. We ended the day at the St. Shotts light sta­tion with nice views of a beau­ti­ful drake har­lequin duck among a flock of 300 ei­ders. There was one king ei­der among the ducks. When dark­ness fell we had seen 48 species of birds. Not bad for a day spent on the bar­rens and coastal ter­rain. It was a good day out.

Other bird­ers were also busy dur­ing the first week­end of De­cem­ber. Four species of war­bler were present in St. John’s, in­clud­ing a prairie war­bler and Nashville war­bler. A new vis­i­tor among the plethora of ducks in the St. John’s area was a blue-winged teal at Mundy Pond. They mi­grate early to win­ter­ing grounds in Florida. It is un­ex­pected any­where in Canada dur­ing win­ter. The red-tailed hawk glimpsed at Sig­nal Hill was an ex­cel­lent ad­di­tion to the win­ter list. Sin­gle white-crowned spar­rows — al­ways rare in the win­ter sea­son — were at bird feed­ers in St. John’s, Re­news and Por­tu­gal Cove South. Sev­eral peo­ple had a Bal­ti­more ori­ole com­ing to their back­yard bird­feeder.

A late sa­van­nah spar­row at Cape Spear turned out to be some­thing spe­cial. It was dif­fer­ent from the reg­u­lar sa­van­nah spar­row in be­ing 20 per cent larger and was the colour of dry sand. It was the race of sa­van­nah spar­row from Sable Is­land, Nova Sco­tia. While not a sep­a­rate species, it has its own name, the Ip­swich spar­row. Af­ter hun­dreds of gen­er­a­tions of nest­ing on the iso­lated sliver of sand out in the At­lantic Ocean, the bird has evolved to blend in with the colour of its sandy en­vi­ron­ment. It is the ex­tra ef­fort put into bird­ing for the win­ter list­ing pe­riod that helps turn up un­ex­pected trea­sures like this Ip­swich spar­row. The rarest bird so far in the win­ter list is the Euro­pean grey heron that Lil­lian Walsh pho­tographed at St. Lawrence on Dec. 1st. Was this the same grey heron that dis­ap­peared from Re­news two weeks ear­lier?

Any­one in New­found­land can con­trib­ute to the list. Maybe you will be lucky enough to see some­thing we need. Maybe it will be a lit­tle sur­prise like the north­ern saw-whet owl that graced Dave Collins’ back­yard in sub­ur­bia St. John’s just days be­fore the start of the win­ter list­ing games.

The cu­mu­la­tive New­found­land list by the end of the first week­end was 88 species. There are lots of dis­cov­er­ies yet to be made to reach the av­er­age to­tal 130 to 140 species tal­lied dur­ing the De­cem­ber to Fe­bru­ary win­ter pe­riod.

BRUCE MACTAV­ISH PHOTO

The pale sandy colour of this sa­van­nah spar­row at Cape Spear meant it was an Ip­swich sa­van­nah spar­row all the way from Sable Is­land, N.S.

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