In search of the elusive Gray-cheeked Thrush: Part II


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In Newfoundland and Labrador, people stack wood vertically to keep it dry during the cold winters.

Before leaving Pinware Provincial Park in southeastern Labrador (see previous post), we were visited at the campground by a local birder named Vernon Buckle, who brought a short video of a Gray-cheek that he found near sea level in the town of Forteau. He had been surveying that area and located two, which we promptly tracked down and captured for our study! Strangely, these birds inhabited an area with almost no Spruce trees at all – just a thicket of high Alders and a few scattered Tamarack trees, the tops of which were used by the birds as singing posts. Vernon Buckle, thanks buddy!

On 25 Jun, we drove all day to central Labrador, to the twin towns of Happy Valley – Goose Bay, to continue our search for Gray-cheeks. We would remain there three nights and split into two teams to survey the surrounding area. We found an amazing campsite just outside of town, at a place where Rinchen and I had a close encounter with a displaying Spruce Grouse (Falcipennis canadensis). The habitat was beautiful – a mixture of Black Spruce, Balsam Fir, and Tamarack in surprisingly sandy soil. The forest was alive with the lovely twinkling songs of Hermit and Swainson’s Thrushes; but alas, we found no Gray-cheeks there or on any of the many kilometers of forest in the Goose Bay area that we surveyed over the following three days.

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Robert Frost poetry tracks

Lucy and I rambled into a nearby ravine, balancing along long fallen spruce logs and high-stepping and ducking through the dense undergrowth. When we made it back to camp, the sun came out in full force, and we found a lovely spot in sandy soil to relax for a few hours before resuming our evening surveys. Lucy worked on a soapstone sculpture that she had been whittling on for several months (a Blue Tang, Paracanthurus hepatus), while I paced back and forth in front of her, reading aloud from a book of Robert Frost poetry. Two Hermit Thrushes sang from the forest around us.

“But yield who will to their separation; my object in living is to unite; my avocation and my vocation; as my two eyes make one in sight; only where love and need are one; and the work is play for mortal stakes; is the deed ever really done; for Heaven and the future’s sakes.” – Frost, from “Two Tramps in Mud Time”

DSC04144Alas, no Gray-cheeks were encountered in central Labrador, so on 25 Jun we packed up camp and returned to the east, toward the coastal town of Cartwright, where few surveys have been conducted previously. Apparently, this place is known as the “black fly capitol of Canada,” and it lived up to the name. Violent swarms of these biting flies surrounded us, and after a couple days surveying (alas, unsuccessfully) in the Cartwright area we were covered in itchy welts, even though we had been wearing bug nets over our heads almost continuously. Our only refuge was the wharf in town, where there was no vegetation and the wind was strong enough to keep the insects at bay. The attendant at the gas station, when we told him about the birds we were searching for, told us that the locals call little brown nondescript birds “mopes.” DSC04152While eating lunch at the wharf on 28 Jun, we witnessed a fire completely consume an 80+ year Cartwright resident’s home, as the propane tank on the side of the house exploded after a lightning strike. The spectacle was very sad and the fire company was unable to put the flames out before the house was gone. It seemed a bad omen, and the following day we split town and head south to Pinsent Arm to continue our search for the elusive mopes.

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“Mopeless Island”

Pinsent Arm is a tiny coastal fishing village that overlooks a picturesque bay, and we found a great campsite nestled in the vegetation just above the high tide line on the beach. The bugs were pretty bad there too, but the view more than made up for it. Lucy and I swam ~60m in frigid water (with icebergs just around the cape!) to a small uninhabited island, visible from our camp, to search for birds. It was an extremely cold swim, but exhilarating, and we found a Great Black-backed Gull nest on the island. Unfortunately, no mopes were found there, so we thereafter called the place “Mopeless Island.” Our search for Gray-cheeks was also unsuccessful elsewhere in the surrounding area. Indeed, the morale of our crew was starting to wane as our target species seemed nowhere to be found; and the biting insects were driving us closer and closer to insanity.

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Categories: Evolution, Exploration, Natural History, Ornithology

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