Thursday, 17 August 2017

One Last Kick at the Avalon Shearwaters

I heard there were still big numbers of birds and whales feeding in the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve. Not just the local breeding puffins, murres, kittiwakes but also shearwaters.  The shearwaters do not always come into Witless Bay area to feed on the capelin but this was a different kind of year. On a whim I decided I needed one last crack at photographing shearwaters. The weather was going to be near perfect with very light winds and an overcast sky on Wednesday morning.  I called the Molly Bawn Whale and Puffin tours at Mobile. They had space. They have a nice small boat that makes you feel intimate with the birds and whales. 

There were masses of birds and whales. It was a spectacle of life. No one could not be in awe of the sheer volume of life and activity. There were large numbers of Common Murres and Atlantic Puffins on the water resting in rafts or diving for capelin. Humpback whales were everywhere.  And the shearwaters? They were present in the low hundreds mostly resting in small rafts or singly. Today Greats outnumbered Sootys. And there were a few Manx. 

Great Shearwaters living around the eastern side of the Avalon Peninsula have been well fed this summer.

The adults are completing their wing and tail moults and looking more like full shearwaters compared to their mid summer grunge look.

This one will be looking complete in a week or so. 

Another freshly finished wing moulted Great Shearwater.

Just a few Sooty Shearwaters were present.

There were several sightings of Manx Shearwater. Typically when first detected they were already flying away or never came close at all. This was a large crop.

A flying Manx


There were many opportunities for photos of the puffins.  Some of the boat participants (from Florida & New York)  were seeing them for the first time.

Hiding and not hiding behind a wave.



The juvenile puffins have been fledging for the last week during the night.  They are programmed to fly alone out to sea under the cover of darkness.  Some are attracted to the street lights in Witless Bay and Bay Bulls and crash land on roads and lawns. An organized puffin patrols rescues the stranded bird during the night.  Some of them were giving to our tour boat to be released out to sea.

Once taken out of the rehab boxed and handled by humans they quickly regain their dignity once on the water and start swimming out to sea. They are vulnerable to Great Black-backed Gull predation at this age. This is why despite the thousands of juvenile puffins fledging every night during mid August you do not seeing any around the nesting islands during day light. They have flown due east in the darkness and by dawn are well out to sea away from their natal islands.  

Even for those saturated with seeing whales this summer the experience on the Molly Bawn was exceptional. When they turned off the engine with whales and birds all around, the huge sounds of the blows were all the more impressive.

Monday, 14 August 2017

Long Sit at Long Beach

Saturday was foggy on the Cape Race road.  No chance of seeing seabirds but shorebirds on the Long Beach were visible.  A group of maybe 40 shorebirds of seven species were gorging on capelin eggs washed up in the coarse sand.  The birds were so busy they were reluctant to fly.  I saw a photo opt even if it was foggy.  I worked my way down on the beach and found a nice flat rock to sit on near the birds for the next two hours. The birds soon got familiar with my presence though they usually kept a 12-15 m radius away except for those that made a nervous dash past me to get to the other side of the beach.

As expected all the pictures were shrouded in a light milky fog.  But with Photoshop magic I was able to get rid of the effect without too much trouble, but not completely without paying for it in other ways. Here are some of the results.

The 20 Ruddy Turnstones ruled the beach. They fought among each other but the other shorebirds gave them a wide berth.

They dug holes in the sand saturated with capelin spawn.  I figured the eggs on the surface were dead and less nutritious then those down deep in the moist sand. Otherwise, why not eat those hove up on the sand?  See those little white spheres? Each one is a capelin egg. 

Don't get in the way of a charging turnstone.

This is the first juvenile turnstone of the season that I have seen or heard about.

There were a few adult and juvenile Semipalmated Sandpipers running about the feeding melee picking at the sand as they went and mostly staying out of trouble.

Adult Semipalmated Sandpiper.

The crisp juvenile Semipalmated Sandpipers above and below are just off the printing press.  Some come out browner than others especially early in the season.



There were a half dozen White-rumped Sandpipers strolling through the main feeding area.  

The White-rumped Sandpipers being bigger than the toy-like Semipalmated Sandpipers dared to steal from the spoils of a turnstone digging pit.

All the White-rumped Sandpipers were adults as expected for mid August but this one pictured above and below was unusual in that it was still in breeding plumage. We don't see them like this often in Newfoundland.  



Only  handful of Semipalmated Plovers worked the capelin spawn beach. Adult above.

This juvenile Semipalmated Plover has a very dark orbital ring which would look blackish at any distance. Just something Common Ringed Plover hunters should be aware of when using this field mark on the juveniles. This is not a rare event.

A Sanderling or two joined in.

A very worn adult Short-billed Dowitcher above and a bright crisp juvenile below were also present probing deep in the loamy sand for the mother load of capelin spawn.


Any place where the capelin spawned this summer will be good for shorebirding. The east end of the beach at Portugal Cove South also had a nice little concentration of shorebirds in the fog on Saturday. The east end of Trepassey beach should also be good though I did not see much there on Saturday...

Happy Shorebirding. We are into the good season now.    


Thursday, 10 August 2017

Amid The Hagdowns

Shearwaters are abundant in Newfoundland waters June - October.  They are attracted close to shore during the capelin spawning season that happens during a four week period in summer sometime between late June and mid August.  Shearwater watching is guaranteed spectacular for a period of time on the Avalon Peninsula. The exact location changes from year to year but the birders seek out these locations. The magnitude of the event which also involves many humpback whales and the local breeding puffins, murres, kittiwakes and gannets is nothing short of awe inspiring every year.

Shearwaters are well known to the  fisherman. They are often included in folk songs but are never called shearwater. Hagdown and baulk are the two most regularly used Newfoundland names.

The hagdowns are sometimes close enough to shore to be caught up in the breaking waves. It is common to hear their baby duck quack notes from land.  While it is fantastic to see so many, so well from land with binos, scope and camera there is nothing like getting among the hagdowns and met them eye to eye. 

Getting in a boat among the shearwaters rafts is actually something I had never done. The long time dream was nothing monumental to achieve but it came as a opportunity I could not refuse this month on 3 August.  Ian Jones was taking his spiffy, fiberglass, seaworthy, open 18 foot, very fast boat out for a look.   He was starting at Renews just a short distance north of a known shearwater feeding concentration off Cappahayden . I knew I was guaranteed intimate action.

I charged up two camera batteries and cleared off two 64 Gig memory cards. I was ready.  The lighting was going to be good = high overcast and light winds .

It was Mohammad (from Egypt), Cliff Doran from Cape Race/Trepassey and I with Ian Jones in his boat.  We spent 7 hours in the boat. Over half the time was exploratory looking for seabirds all the way south to Cape Race but thankfully we chose to spend a good bit of time among the 5000 plus shearwaters on the water near shore off Bear Cove and Cappahayden.  I would have been content to spend the entire day with the engine off floating among the shearwaters. The birds you see by the thousands every year become new acquaintances when you can met them eye to eye. I ate up the seconds within the hours soaking in the eye to eye shearwater contacts while snapping off photos seemingly aimlessly in every direction.  

I'll may never get through the 2700 photos taken but here is a sampling.  


Shearwaters resting on the water after a night of feeding on capelin. Cappahayden shows up in the background.

Great and Sooty Shearwaters were numerous on the water.

Sooty Shearwater outnumbered Great Shearwater 4:1.

Enjoyed trying for better Sooty Shearwater flight shots. But because there was little wind the shearwaters were not flying much.  

The camera was more amenable to focusing on the more patterned Great Shearwaters



This Great Shearwater was still in heavy wing moult.






A flock of Sooty Shearwaters lifts off the water.

A leucistic Sooty Shearwater was cooperative in having its condition photographed.  It seemed content among its own kind.




Manx (above)

A small handful of Manx Shearwaters were encountered. 

Manx (below)


A couple of sub-adult Parasitic Jaegers checked out the boat.

It was good trip being in a boat amid the seabirds.  The birds were relaxed and going about their business uninhibited .  Very Relaxed !




Saturday, 29 July 2017

Another Common Ringed Plover in July.

It was not too surprising to come across a COMMON RINGED PLOVER on the beach at Biscay Bay, Avalon Peninsula. A distinct pattern has developed over the last decade showing that small numbers of Common Ringed Plover migrate south through Newfoundland. Whether they are headed for European wintering grounds or they stay with the abundant Semipalmated Plovers and winter on this side of the Atlantic is unknown but the latter seems like a sensible thing to adapt to.  There are no confirmed spring records of Common Ringed Plover for the island of Newfoundland even though the species breeds in the eastern Canadian Arctic, Greenland and Iceland. Semipalmated Plover is on the rare side in spring even though a few breed in Newfoundland. Semipalmated Plover a very common southbound migrant in Newfoundland.

Today 29 July 2017 Ken Knowles, John Wells and I found a Common Ringed Plover at Biscay Bay. The highly demarcated black markings on the head are what grabs your attention .  The breast band on this bird meets the requirement width for Ringed Plover but was not as wide as most of the others we've had. The long white supercilium is partially lost in low contrast with pale upper parts bit still good.   Other pro Common Ringed Plovers are, 1) dark orbital ring showing no contrast with dark eye, very clearly seen through scopes, 2) white of forehead curved beneath eye to midway point. 3) cheek patch very black with lower side more flat or parallel to the ground than the more oval shaped cheek patch of Semi Plover, 4) dark lores clearly reach gape line or go slightly below, 5) bill longer than Semi Plovers with black tip covering less than 50% of of bill, 6) wing strip slightly whiter and wider.

It was bigger than the 11 Semipalmated Plovers by a few percentage points. Looked strong, more elongated, less like a windup toy Semi Plover.  This bird ran faster and farther every time it ran. Don't know if this is significant. The colour of the legs and bill base were a brighter somewhat more yellow-orange.  The upper parts were paler by a little. This helped the black head markings look much bolder and vivid than the Semi Plovers. It was easy to pick out by the bold contrasts.

All pictures below taken 29 July 2017 at Biscay Bay, Avalon Peninsula, Newfoundland.

Note white wrapping half way under the eye, the lack of yellow orbital ring, the crisp black head markings, bill colour proportions and relatively straight side to lower border of black cheek patch.



The Common Ringed Plover is farther away than the Semipalmated Plover but still looks bigger and stronger than the dull, perhaps female Semipalmated Plover.  The Common Ringed Plover has a somewhat Killdeer shape and stance.


The whiter, slightly broader wing strip of the Common Ringed Plover is somewhat apparent in the photo below. The Ringed Plover is in the lead bird being followed by four Semipalmated Plovers and a Sanderling.



The Common Ringed Plover is farthest away on left side of picture. Note the bold contrast of head markings and a well dressed appearance compared to the Semipalmated Plover riffraff.  

ADDENDUM

Not satisfied with the amount of time able to be spent with the Common Ringed Plover on Saturday, I went back on a wet and rainy Sunday.  Armed with more powerful photographic gear, I was happy to find it still there. With myself and camera gear covered in waterproof material we took a few hundred pictures over about 45 minutes. I guess it was the more relaxed mood of the bird that made the breast band wider today.  Yesterday's pictures show the bird standing more upright long-legged and long-necked. The CRPL was running around in hurry yesterday compared to a more relaxed mood today. All the birds seemed up tight yesterday sometimes flushing without apparent reason. Perhaps there had been a Merlin in the area. Today the birds were more subdued with no flushes.

The pictures below were all taken at Biscay Bay on 30 July 2017. Note that the last five pictures contain at least one Semipalmated Plover. It should be easy to see them.













Two Semipalmated Plovers (above)