Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Carrot Bill at Cape Spear, Newfoundland - V-NIGRUM NAILED !!!

March 18, 2018 was a good day for eider watching at Cape Spear, Avalon Peninsula, Newfoundland. March is  usually the best month for eider numbers on the Avalon as the pack ice covers much their feeding areas on the northeast coast.  After a good morning flight of eiders close by the rocks and trying for flight shots in the heavy snow squalls with poor results, I went back in the afternoon when the snow was supposed to let up.  The eiders were no longer flying but a flock of 120 was feeding by the rocks and the light was getting good as the sun broke out in the western sky. In the mornings we are looking east into the rising sun at Cape Spear. Not good.

I got down on the rocks and manged to get unusually close to the eiders by keeping out of sight. The photo opts were the best. There was one female King and a male dresseri among the standard borealis  but it was the superb opportunity to get excellent photos of our always wary common borealis eider that I was happiest with. Then strings of eiders started arriving from the south and without hesitation joined the flock until there were 1500 eiders. They all started swimming toward my hiding place in the rocks.  The sun had gone out and the snow squalls were starting up again but I was not going to miss this. Amazingly the eiders did not notice my head and camera peering around my rock as they started diving. I was firing off the camera at full tilt not even looking at what eiders might be in the shots. I was wanting as many good examples of borealis  as I could get. There were a few adult drake Kings in this flock also.

Then down the long lens in the flurry of mad snapping I caught the sight of a bright orange bill on a Common Eider. It was the Carrot Bill sign we are always on alert for. It could mean the so called Pacific Eider, also known as v-nigrum, from the western Arctic.  I kept the camera pointed on this bird with the finger down on the hammer just in case this was the real thing. I didn't risk trying to find it in the scope or even binoculars for fear of loosing it in the mass of ducks.  At any moment they were likely to stop feeding and swim off shore like they do to work on crushing the sea urchins in their gizzards to make room for some more.

It looked surprisingly good in the camera being larger than the other eiders and the orange of that bill needed no imagination. Then it started preening. I fired rapidly hoping to get even the slightest angle on the under side of the throat and hopefully capturing the patented black 'V' branded under the chin of v-nigrum. I just finished praying for it to rear up and flap its wings when it did just that. The next 12 shots captured a prominent black 'V burned into the white throat.   Elation! As I looked at my booty on the back of the camera the whole flock did move offshore as predicted. But I had got what I wanted.   V-NIGRUM was NAILED 

This was the third confirmed record of Pacific Eider for Newfoundland. BUT in the last three winters there has been a little wave of highly suspect Pacific Eiders accidentally photographed by people after King Eider shots among big flocks of Common Eider.  It is not the surprise it once was.  The Pacific Eider could be sneaking through the central Arctic more often for now as warmer summers create more open water passages from the Pacific to Atlantic.

Here are the photos.

The very first photo. The look of a freshly peeled carrot stands out in a flock of Newfoundland winter eiders which are 99% borealis race with light yellow to rich yellow bills.

A cropped photo shows some of the patented marks of a v-nigrum. The green wash spreads under the black cap unlike borealis, but similar to dresseri from the Maritimes which were also in this flock of birds.

Depending somewhat on the posture of the bird the forehead bulges and creates and less horizontal edge to the black cap. Compare with the borealis

The v-nigrum is a big bird. The extra long sloping bill helps give this bird a more muscular feel.

There is the patented black 'V' on the under side of the chin. It is near impossible to see this feature unless it does something like this bird is doing. Apparently some v-nigrum  lack this mark and some borealis  can have it.

Here is a borealis  Common Eider showing the virgin white under side to the chin.

The v-nigrum  made no mistake it was going to be counted practically standing on the water to show off the 'V'.


In a little while I hope to have another eider blog posting showing the variations in the borealis  Common Eider, males and females.

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Thayerish Gull - A Boring but True Story + Mini Rant

Thayer's Gull was recently demoted from full species status by the American Ornithologist Union. I think this was a mistake. The real Thayer's Gull breeding in the western Arctic is surely a different species than the white wing tipped Iceland Gulls breeding in Greenland. The population of Kumlien's Gull breeding in the middle, perhaps larger than the population of either Thayer's or Iceland Gull, is the problem.  I am in the popular camp that the Kumlien's Gull is a population of hybrid Iceland x Thayer's Gulls. I am not a scientist so I am not bothered by DNA or rules of provable species distinctions.  Thayer's Gull and Iceland Gull just feel like different species to me. The Kumlien's Gulls are T'weeners = hybrids.  I can live with that. Just like people in eastern North America deal with Golden-winged Warbler, Blue-winged Warbler and their hybrid forms named Brewster's and Lawrence's Warblers. Two distinct species and some interesting looking hybrids in between

The problem with identifying a bona fide pure blood Thayer's Gull in Newfoundland is that with literally thousands of hybrid Thayer's X Iceland Gull = Kumlien's Gull around there is going to be every gradation of field marks between the two species including some that might be close to identical to a classic Thayer's Gull or Iceland Gull.  I have some personal experience with bona fide Thayer's Gulls on breeding grounds in Pond Inlet, Baffin Island, and in the NWT, especially Inuvik during spring and fall migration. I always got the same feel from these birds being a little more Herring Gull like in build and demeanor.  To my senses they seem more closely related to Herring Gull than Iceland Gull.

My take on seeing a Thayer's Gull in Newfoundland is that it is near impossible to know even if the wingtip pattern meets the criteria for Thayer's. Typically such birds appear like Kumlien's Gull in shape and may have a less than dark eye. Of course some Thayer's are known have palish eyes.  The arguments become impossible and a waste of time because there is no cut off line where you can say this is definitely Thayer's or just a Kumlien's.  

The bird below would pass all the Thayer's wing tip tests.  It seems small headed and has a only half dark iris.  It has the wingtips of a Thayer's but a body of a Kumlien's to my way of thinking.

These photo below are from 5 March 2018 at Quidi Vidi Lake, St. John's, Newfoundland.

Note purplish-red orbital ring typical of both Thayer's and Iceland but different than the yellow-orange of Herring Gull. The iris is heavily speckled and about average for Kumlien's Gull but paler than most Thayer's Gulls.

The dark subterminal band on P10, continuous dark leading web on P9 and the dark mark on P5 are the most important features when deciding on a Thayer's Gull. Having all three key marks on the same bird plus plenty of dark gray on inner webs of P10 and P9 make this a perfect Thayer's Gull wing tip pattern.

MARCH 24 2006
The gull below was watched by Jared Clarke and I at the St. John's dump on 24 March 2006.  The sheer size and strong build of this bird plus the very dark eye scream out Thayer's Gull according my standards which are not perfected or universally accepted by any means. It fed among the Herring Gulls in the garbage unlike the very few Kumlien's Gulls that entered the landfill back in those days and sat back around the fringe rarely actually going into the main feeding area.  The wingtip pattern just makes it into the legal Thayer's range. There was a small dark mark on P5 that is washed out in this slightly over exposed blurry flight shot.   This is one of just two or three gulls in the St. John's area that I had a good feeling was a pure Thayer's Gull after 35 years of gull watching.

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

A Late Winter Random Collection of Bird Shots

With no single bird or birding event worthy of a posting on the Blog occurring within the first two months of 2018, I am just proving to readers that I am alive and birding. Here are random semi-interesting photos from the first part of 2018.


Even a microscopic view of a drake Eurasian Wigeon does not disappoint.  

Depending on the angle of light reflecting from the side of the head of a drake American Wigeon you might see green or in rare cases a strong coppery green sheen.

The brown, not gray, base colour to the head of this female wigeon makes it a shoe-in Eurasian.

Harlequin Ducks are locally common winterers in Newfoundland. A strong wind pushed 120 of them around the corner from Cape St. Mary's for shelter at Pt Lance in early January. Unfortunately the sun was at a rough angle for photography but the views in the scope were to die for.

More of those Harlequin Ducks

Normally rare in Newfoundland, prolonged and far reaching westerly winds in late December may have been responsible for a displacement of a few Hooded Mergansers (and Buffleheads) to eastern Newfoundland.

This  drake White-winged Scoter with an identity problem was overwintering with the large and rather tame flock of Greater Scaup at Clarenville for its second year. The WWSC usually feeds 200-1000 meters offshore and is particularly shy of homo sapiens with a Newfoundland accent - thus is  rarely a photography target.

Did not get much in the way of opportunities to photograph Common Eiders so far this winter but there is still six more weeks for that possibility 


It is a half decent cone crop winter throughout the province. Finches have been only moderately common. Common Redpoll has turned into a stickler on the Avalon Peninsula. It wasn't always like this. Now we feel lucky to see them even when routine on the rest of the island. These males were a pleasnt treat.

Pine Grosbeak is your basic Avalon Peninsula finch 365 days a year . Always friendly and welcoming.

The Newfoundland Red Crossbill does indeed have hefty bill.

A White-winged Crossbill in a black spruce is so iconic you can almost smell the spruce sap. Another great winter species especially when they are all adults.


Bohemian Waxwings have been frustratingly local when there are so many dogberries available everywhere for their consumption.  These two were part of an impressive flock of 1000 waxwings. My only encounter of the season.

An unexpected late February influx of Snowy Owls was enjoyed by the photogs. Like icebergs and perfect sunsets my resistances to taking more photos of Snowy Owls fails on a regular  bases.

Great Cormorants reveal the first sign of spring when the show the white flank patch which can be as early as Xmas Day.

A Red-necked Grebe in close to a wharf is rare photography opt that you want to be ready for.

Why did the pheasant cross the road in Renews?  Just to baffle this birder. It was someone's  pet gone wild. Soon to be a good meal for a goshawk.


While I looked through a lot of gulls on Quidi Vidi Lake over the winter I did not come across any megas. The gull above was an oddity with a washed out pattern like a European Herring Gull.

One Common Gull was present very occasionally through the winter in St. John's.. 

The eye of a Kumlien's Gull with a visiting tick/louse.

THE END - still awake

you are getting ... sleepy...... so ... sleepy..