Newfoundland & Labrador is internationally renowned for its winter birds – most of which can be found in and around St. John’s. Search rugged coastlines for sought-after seabirds; visit quaint ponds to spot both local and European waterfowl; stroll wooded trails to find northern finches and songbirds, and enjoy the world-famous gull flocks in one of North America’s oldest cities. Here are five of the most loved and anticipated species that can be spotted here during winter, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg!
Known as “Bullbirds” by locals, these small but plucky seabirds are often the prime target for birders visiting here in winter. A relative of our very own Atlantic Puffin, which also happens to be Newfoundland & Labrador’s provincial bird, Dovekies breed in Greenland and winter in the cold North Atlantic off our coast. In fact, Newfoundland & Labrador is one of the only places in North America where this species can be reliably spotted from land. Since they rarely encounter humans, they can be very tame and allow very close views for the lucky birders that find them close to shore. They might be spotted anywhere the ocean meets the land – from sheltered bays to rugged coastlines.
Another arctic breeder that winters along our coast (sense a theme here?), these hardy birds have the most northerly range of any shorebird in the world. While most other sandpipers spend their winter on warm beaches in the tropics, Purple Sandpipers choose to live in some of the harshest conditions you can imagine – foraging on the jagged, wave-battered and often ice-covered rocks sticking out into the cold North Atlantic. How can you not respect and admire the likes of that?! You will likely be successful spotting them at exposed headlands like Cape Spear National Historic Site, located just 20 minutes from downtown St. John’s.
A fairly recent arrival in our province, Tufted Ducks are a European species. While they breed no closer than Iceland, a growing number migrate to eastern Newfoundland each fall and spend the winter in open waters mostly around St. John’s – the only place in North America where seeing one is a regular event. With their fancy ponytails (“tufts”) and classy black-and-white suits, Tufted Ducks are not only rare but a beautiful bird to watch. Check for them at Quidi Vidi Lake, Bowring Park or other ponds around St. John’s. Like many things, they are a touch of the Old World in our wonderful city.
Nomads of the north, Bohemian Waxwings descend on our province in huge numbers some winters – mainly in search of our rich berry crops. Given their northern distribution and dapper good looks, they are always a treat to see, whether you’re a local birder or visiting from away. The combination of a black bandit’s mask and short, shaggy crest make them stand out even to those less familiar with birds. And while it’s difficult to see, waxwings really do have colourful wax on the tips of some wing feathers, although the purpose of this remains unclear. Just one more reason to love these enigmatic little birds. While they move around a lot, keep an eye on mountain ash (aka “dogberry” in Newfoundland) trees which are one of their favourite winter foods.
Although this is the only one of these five species that occurs in Newfoundland & Labrador year-round, Willow Ptarmigan, known locally as “partridge”, isn’t always easy to find. On the Avalon Peninsula, they live mostly on the upland barrens and subarctic tundra that typifies much of the southern tips. Since they change from red and brown in the summer to snow white in the winter, they are perfectly camouflaged to hide in plain sight no matter when you look for them. A day trip around the Irish Loop offers some great opportunities to search them out and who knows what else you might see along the way, from world-famous fossils to the world’s southernmost caribou!
Don’t let the snow keep you from enjoying nature this winter, it is truly one of the best times to get out there and discover a whole new set of birds! Whether you’re visiting from away or a local birder who’d like a little guidance through the wonderful world of birds, feel free to check out www.birdtherock.com for educational and exciting tour opportunities with me.
By: Jared Clarke, Collaborator and professional birder.
Jared Clarke grew up on the northeast coast of Newfoundland and was introduced to the outdoors at a very young age, mostly by his grandfathers. Always a nature enthusiast, he became interested in birds while working for a local conservation group. Jared soon became one of the most avid birders in the province. Despite his “official” training as a health researcher (Ph.D. Medicine), his love of nature and sharing it with others increasingly led him astray. He currently runs a bird and nature tour business, called Bird•The•Rock, and routinely leads trips at home and abroad for various tour companies. Jared lives in St. John’s with his wonderful wife and two beautiful daughters. You can follow his adventures at birdtherock.com or on his social channels @birdtherock.