As It Happens

It's been a remarkable week for rare birds in Newfoundland. Here's why 

For wildlife photographer Shawn Fitzpatrick, there's nothing quite like spotting a rare bird in Newfoundland. And so far, this spring has been a real banger.

Wildlife photographer Shawn Fitzpatrick says spotting a rare bird is 'like winning a Stanley Cup'

Shawn Fitzpatrick snapped this picture of a barnacle goose in Newfoundland. These creatures breed in Arctic islands of the North Atlantic, and are rarely ever seen in North America. (Shawn Fitzpatrick)

For wildlife photographer Shawn Fitzpatrick, there's nothing quite like spotting a rare bird in Newfoundland. And so far, this spring has been a real banger.

Over the last week or so, several winged creatures from as far away as Europe, Russia and Iceland have been blown off-course and into the frame of passionate St. John's birder Shawn Fitzpatrick.

"It's like winning a Stanley Cup or something, winning a hockey game or getting the gold," Fitzpatrick told As It Happens guest host Dave Seglins. 

"You get that elated feeling from within you."

And he's not alone. Bird lovers across the province have been out with their binoculars, hoping to get a look at the rare creatures.

Coming in on the wind 

Jared Clarke, who runs the St. John's nature tour business Bird the Rock, says Newfoundland is a great place to see birds that are "exceptionally rare in North America" but tend to show up in the province in the spring because of its prime location on the eastern edge of the continent. 

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Most of them, he said, are taking an unplanned detour on their way to breed elsewhere.

"Very occasionally, like last week, a bunch of these [rare birds] will show up all at once due to a weather system that produces strong, persistent winds blowing across the North Atlantic," Clarke said in an email. 

"These winds pick up birds that are typically migrating between western Europe (e.g. Ireland) and breeding grounds in Iceland or Greenland."

This brambling, a type of finch, has never been recorded in Newfoundland and Labrador, according to the owner of Bird The Rock. (Shawn Fitzpatrick)

So far, Clarke says he knows of nine black-tailed godwits spotted in Bonavista and one in Argentia; eight barnacle geese in Bonavista and four in Portugal Cove South; a northern lapwing in Goulds, more than a dozen European golden plovers in Cape Race, Portugal Cove South, Trepassey and Springdale; and a Pacific golden plover in Cape Race.

But perhaps the rarest gem of them all — a brambling — has been spotted in the town of Renews-Cappahayden. This migratory bird is also known as the cock o' the north or the mountain finch, and Clarke says that as far as he's aware, it's the first time one has been recorded in the province.

"Who knows what else was out there," Clarke said. "Excitingly, the forecast is calling for similar winds much of next week, so this may not be over yet."

Fitzpatrick has been lucky enough to snap some shots of the brambling, as well as a few other birds on Clarke's list. He was in the Renews area taking more pictures on Wednesday.

"It doesn't rain; it pours sometimes, as they say," Fitzpatrick said.

Lost 'treasures'

Most of these visitor birds are known to ornithologists as "vagrants" — birds that aren't from Canada, but sometimes end up here anyway.

And when they show up, it's like Christmas for birdwatchers, says David Bird, a professor emeritus of wildlife biology at Montreal's McGill University, who just wrapped up editing the third edition of the guidebook Birds of Canada.

He says people will flock to Newfoundland from all over the world in the springtime in the hopes of catching a glimpse of one of these migratory creatures. 

"I look upon these birds, these vagrants, as kind of treasures," Bird said.

Birds are like people. They really want to go somewhere they're familiar with.- David Bird, bird expert

But there is a downside. Bird says it's not entirely clear whether the animals will be able carry on with their journeys north to breed now that they've been blown off course. And once they're in Newfoundland, they stand out to predators because they're so unusual looking.

"Birds are like people," he said. "They really want to go somewhere they're familiar with."

With climate change bringing more powerful weather systems, Bird says more of these vagrants could end up estranged in unfamiliar terrain. 

"But I don't think they're doomed, by any stretch," he said, noting that birds are "hard wired" to complete their breeding cycles.

The mysteries of how birds navigate isn't fully understood, he said, but some species have been known to find their way back to their breeding grounds from thousands of kilometres away after being taken from their natural habitat by scientists. 

Shawn Fitzpatrick is a wildlife photographer and avid birdwatcher who lives in St. John's. (Submitted by Shawn Fitzpatrick)

Ultimately, he says anything that gets people outdoors with their binoculars is a good thing. 

"They provide an opportunity for birders to discover new treasures, and it makes them want to birdwatch more, which is a good thing for wildlife," Bird said. "We need to have people care about birds."

Meanwhile, Fitzpatrick, who has been birding for over 10 years, has high hopes for his feathered friends.

"I think that they'll get back on track and they'll find a way to Greenland," he said. 

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview with Shawn Fitzpatrick produced by Aloysius Wong.

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