Nfld. & Labrador

Extremely rare visitor: Black Vulture spotted in Burgeo

A very unusual visitor has been spotted in Burgeo, and the Black Vulture is causing a stir among birdwatchers, who believe it may have been blown to Newfoundland by strong winds.

'I just about had a heart attack,' says avid bird-chaser Ken Knowles

This Black Vulture was first spotted in Burgeo on Nov.18. (Submitted by Ken Knowles)

When Ken Knowles saw a photo of a Black Vulture turn up in the Newfoundland Birdwatching Group on Facebook, he thought it must have been posted by someone from outside the province.

Then he read the text. 

"I immediately went into a panic," said Knowles, who has been an avid birdwatcher for the past 45 years. "Then I started scheming about how I was going to get to see this bird."

The photo had been taken on Nov. 18 by Burgeo resident Mitchell Billard, who was looking for help identifying the strange-looking bird that was sitting on his roof.

Mitchell Billard posted this photo in a Facebook birdwatching group after it landed on the roof of his house in Burgeo. (Mitchell Billard/Facebook)

As far as Knowles knows, this is the first time a Black Vulture sighting has been reported on the island of Newfoundland.

The scavenger usually ranges from Uruguay in South America to the southeastern United States, with birds also turning up as far north as New England or southern Canada. 

"They're a bird that's reluctant to cross open water, so the chances of one coming here are so slim."

Knowles made the 900-kilometre drive from St. John's to Burgeo over two days, arriving in the remote south coast community at dawn on Nov. 20 to maximize his chances of spotting it.

Birder enthusiasts were shocked and excited to see a post about a rare bird spotted in Burgeo. 2:59

It wasn't long before he ran into another bird enthusiast who had also made the drive from St. John's, but the Black Vulture was nowhere to be found.

"I hadn't been to Burgeo before and I was surprised by what a widely spread out town it was, so after a couple of hours of looking we were starting to despair that we were ever going to find the thing," he told CBC Radio's Corner Brook Morning Show. 

He kept going back to a coastal area  — known locally as the Trailer Park — where the bird had been seen the day before.

Ken Knowles on a birdwatching trip in Panama. (Submitted by Ken Knowles)

"I don't know where it came from, I was just standing there looking around and had almost given up hope, then this huge thing flapped in, it has these big long wings and it flaps very slowly," he said.

"I was so excited I just about had a heart attack."

There were strong winds from the southeast the day before the bird was first spotted, and Knowles suspects it got caught in the wind and blown over the ocean, with Newfoundland being its first opportunity to land.

Winter is coming

Ending up on an island in the cold North Atlantic isn't a great scenario for a bird that doesn't usually range much farther north than New England, especially not at the end of November.

He was forced to come here presumably, but he won't be forced to go back.- Ken Knowles

But Knowles said it may be able to survive the cold, if it can find enough dead things to eat.

Another thing going for Burgeo's unexpected visitor is it has a more varied diet than its close relative, the Turkey Vulture. While a moose carcass would be ideal, Black Vultures will also eat rotten vegetables, eggs, and the young of small animals.

Knowles said he knew it was a Black Vulture when he saw the big white area on its wing tips. (Submitted by Ken Knowles)

"They often show at dumps where there's rotting things," said Knowles.

"So, if it found a place like that and settled in, or nice people who might put out dog food or old hot dogs or hamburg for it, there's a chance it could survive, but it's hard to know."

Could it find its way home?

Knowles said birds that veer off course need favourable wind conditions and a lot of energy — which means an abundant food source — to fuel a return trip.

"But it's complicated by the fact that Black Vultures are really afraid to cross open water. He was forced to come here presumably, but he won't be forced to go back, so I don't know what his odds are."

This is Knowles's second trip to see a rare bird this fall. He and his wife drove to Labrador in October hoping to spot a yellow-breasted bunting.

"I don't usually do this many insane rare-bird chases in a short space of time, but on the other hand they're two extremely rare birds, and ones that may never be seen in [the province] again." 

"It's an absolutely silly thing to do, but I'm obsessed!" 

With files from the Corner Brook Morning Show