Sunday, 14 September 2014

Trust Me - This is a Yellow-legged Gull - Probably

Identification of the Yellow-legged Gull is like splitting an atom. It is a halfway gull, halfway between the Herring Gull and Lesser Black-backed Gull. The identification of out of range Yellow-legged Gulls must deal with proof it is not a hybrid  HERG x LBBG. A gull with half its genes from a HERG and the other half from a LBBG creates a YLGU look-alike but does not make a real YLGU.  

St. John's gets the lions share of the North American Yellow-legged Gull sightings because of its relatively close proximity to the Azores. The majority of YLGUs identified in St. John's match the smaller and darker race (atlantis) from the Azores.  There is a theory that part of the year Azorean YLGU follow tuna schools out to sea. In mid to late summer tuna reach Newfoundland waters on the southeast Grand Banks and adjacent areas possibly bringing YLGUs with them.

The easiest YLGUs to identify are the adults in winter.  Their white heads stand out from the streaked heads of the other large gulls gulls in winter. This combined with that beautiful rare shade of gray plus details on head and bill shape, leg colour and wing tip pattern - all subtlety different from both HERG and LBBG, add up to create a YLGU which really does feel like a different species and not just a version of LBBG or HERG.

The first YLGU(s) of the season are often discovered in late August or early September loafing in the ballfields and other grassy areas among the buildings and old military housing units on the north side of Quidi Vidi Lake.  At this time they are not a pretty sight with a dirty streaked head and missing outer primaries.   The rare shade of gray on the upper parts, head and bill shape, pattern of head streaking and yellow legs come together to create that warm fuzzy feeling when you are pretty sure you have the real thing.

On 11 September Alvan Buckley photographed a suspicious gull at Quidi Vidi lake that when passed around to the St. John's gull fans was highly suspected of being a Yellow-legged Gull.  Late Sunday afternoon (14 Sept 2014) I saw the same bird in the same field off Janeway Place.  Right away I felt that warm fuzzy feeling starting to grow. We've seen this before in later summer. That rare shade of gray on a gull with a distinct ball cap shaped patch of head streaking and a stumpy rear end caused by a shortage of outer primaries. And of course yellow legs. 

I did not have my 600 mm lens with me but my warbler lens (300 f4) plus a 1.4x converter came in handy.  The correct shade of gray is impossible to create accurately on every computer. My computer used for downloading and processing photos is very bright and sharp. When I save those pictures and bring them to this laptop used for emailing and blogging, the pictures are duller and the gray is bluer and darker. You can not win.  Below are two slightly different versions of the same photo.

 Two versions of the same picture in an attempt to illustrate the correct shade of gray on the upper parts. Note the head streaking concentrated in a ball cap shape on the forward part f the head. This is typical for YLGU and unusual in other large gulls. On a relaxed YLGU this head shape with a steeply rising forehead, level topped head and steeply dropping nape is classic YLGU. But when feeding or active this shape is often lost.

Next to a GBBG for comparison.  A nice view of head profile and pattern of head streaking. The bill shows black markings and pale base because it is a third year bird (hatched in summer 2011).

I hesitated to show this picture next to a Herring Gull that appears overexposed in this photo.  It makes the difference look too great between the mantle colours. The YLGUs that occur in St. John's are typical a little smaller than the average local Herring Gull.  The culmen or tip of the upper mandible drops abruptly to bill tip, more so than typical for HERG or LBBG. Not easy to see in these photos.

A wing stretch reveals lots of information. The extensive black marks on the primary coverts and alula along with the black marks on bill are good evidence this bird is just a year short of being an adult.   If you look close the white tips of P10 and P9 are visible by the primary coverts and there is a dark mark on P4.  The sharp contrast between black of wing tip and the rest of the wing is strong on both the top and underside of the wing. This is standard for YLGU, HERG and HERG x LBBG hybrids (!) but not LBBG

A passing eagle put up the gulls just as I was getting started.  Flying away at a distance shows a fairly life like comparison of the upper part colours of HERG (left side) and the YLGU.

This bird was thought not to be a hybrid HERG x LBBG because of the pattern of head streaking (more extensive and usually includes neck and breast), shape of bill (more pointed), leg colour (pinky-yellow leg), wing tip pattern (less likely to have a black mark on P4 and heavy black marks on P5 and P6). And the over all jizz.  The hybrid HERGxLBBG usually have a HERG sense about them but with a darker unpper parts and strong yellow cast to pinkish legs.

For reference, two fields away and two days previous was this adult Lesser Black-backed Gull.  In early September the adult LBBGs typically have white head and most or all of their old unmoulted primaries.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

For The Love of Alders ! !

The best part about September on the Avalon Peninsula is hunting for southern warblers in the coastal alders. People go to Pt Pelee in May to see southern warblers in Canada. In Newfoundland we get 'em in the fall.  I always seem to be away working on a seismic ship or somewhere during September and miss out on September warblering scene.  During this past week I find myself at home. In the last week I've taken two days off work and one Saturday for alder bashing.  The Kentucky Warbler at Trepassey on 6 Sept being the one southern warbler discovery so far but that is a very nice one.  Seeing how good the weather was going to be on 10 Sept and with renewed fear of another sea sentenced coming up, it was time use up another holiday in the alders.  Alvan Buckley didn't need any convincing to skip classes at MUN.  

We ended up with one of the best days ever in the Bear Cove to Cappahayden alders.  The only unusual weather event was a slow moving large oval shaped High Pressure area with plenty of clear weather from here to the NE states, but the winds were not directly blowing from that direction. Maybe strong SW winds on Sunday caused it. Those winds were blowing direct from Cape Hatteras to the Avalon. Whatever the reason we ended up with one day record of FIVE Prairie Warblers, a rare September Yellow-throated Warbler (most are November), a more routine but always flashy Yellow-breasted Chat and the real star was a WORM-EATING WARBLER.  This is the rarest southern warbler on the Newfoundland list. It is rarer than Ceruelan, Golden-winged, Blue-winged, Prothontary, Hooded, Kentucky, Yellow-throated... we still don't have Swainson's Warbler or Louisiana Waterthrush.  This was the 6 or 7th record of Worm-eating Warbler for the province.  

I pished it in under the alders on The Cappahayden Track.  Had some killer views and was lucky to get some snaps.  Took 20 minutes to get Alvan back to the spot and miraculously we pished it in view again. 
The Worm-eating Warbler was shy and managed to stay behind sticks and leaves most of the time. For two seconds it sat still totally in the open where I got five identical shots like this.  More than a record shot this is a Trophy Shot in Newfoundland. Only one of the previous six Newfoundland records was photographed and poorly.

Cropped shot of above.

This is a particularly attractive Yellow-throated Warbler with a large yellow throat patch and bold black flank streaking. No matter how many you see they always look great in Newfoundland. 
Prairie Warblers are confiding friendly little warblers.  It is almost sad thinking how many end up in Newfoundland every autumn. It can't be good for their population.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Tame Fulmars by a Nunavut Shore

Round two of marine mammal surveys at Pond Inlet, Baffin Island, Nunavut, Canada took place in late August.  Before and after aerial surveying Wayne Renaud and I scoped over Eclipse Sound from a slope by the town museum and culture center.  There were many kittiwakes to look through hoping to find the Big R Gull but no luck yet. One Sabine's was as good as it got. For a Newfoundland birder the 5-20 Thayer's Gulls per day was a treat. Nice through the scope but too far for useful photos.  On the last afternoon a bunch of fulmars were attracted to something on the shoreline. While common in Eclipse Sound and not wary of land like they are in Newfoundland, we hadn't seen them so close as this.  

I walked down to the shoreline and realized the fulmars were taking turns pulling on a piece of fat tied to a piece of fishing line tied to shore.  Not sure of the purpose of this but at least there was no hook on the line. The fulmars were exceptionally tame. Sitting on the rocky shoreline, some birds swam up to me looking for handouts.  You never see this behavior in Newfoundland where you are lucky to see a few from shore during a storm.

The low light was bright. The whites were difficult to capture digitally but the birds were so close snaps had to be taken.  

This Northern Fulmar and others swam within a few meters of me sitting on the shoreline looking at me wondering where the food handouts were.  

A couple dozen fulmars were attracted to shore by a chunk of fat tied to a fishing line.  What the reason for this was, I don't know. There was much squabbling over the one little piece of fat. Fulmars express themselves both in love and war with that strongly hooked bill.

This is the piece of fat all the fighting was about.

About 10-15% were dark morphs.  Surprisingly most of the birds had black coloured nostrils.  Over the years at sea I have been taking photos of many fulmar looking at bill colours. I decided there was no pattern of distribution to the highly variable bill colours.  After seeing the high percentage of black billed fulmars in one location I may have rethink what I thought I knew.

Remember these photos were all taken while sitting on the same rock on the shoreline.

Waiting, still waiting for a chunk of blubber. Maybe bread would have worked.

Kids were throwing rocks at the fulmars farther down the shoreline.

A picture of Baffin Island showing the location of Pond Inlet. We are at 72 degrees North.

Most of the day was taken up by work which was centered around counting these things. A tough job but someone has to do it.   

Post Script; After viewing the photos on this post on my home and office computer I am disappointed with the published result. The fulmars came out warmer than real life.  The problem was using a portable laptop in a hotel room in Iqaluit, NU yesterday.  A slight tilt of the screen changes everything. The particular laptop I use for office field work strongly emphasizes blue shades. My attempts to make it look right on the work laptop made the birds look far too warm for the average computer. Oh well, instead of trying to fix it, I'll look ahead to making the next posting better. That could be soon with the next 72 hours devoted to Avalon birding.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

The First Nearly No Birds Posting

Birds are the best but at times the outlay of the planet earth actually overwhelms the birds for even the most focused self-centred bird addict for brief periods at least.  Last week work took me to the northern tip of Baffin Island for an aerial survey of marine mammals. Any work with the word Arctic attached is bliss for a birder.  The Arctic is a huge domain. There are many bird bleak areas. In fact much of the Arctic is that way. 

Pond Inlet on Eclipse Sound in northern Baffin Island is a destination for tour ships and Arctic adventurers. The tides between mainland Baffin Island and Bylot Island (a Baffin Island rebel island) are strong and dynamic. There is a lot of marine life thriving here.  There is a lot to learn about the place but narwhal congregate here in summer which is why we were doing aerial marine mammal surveys.  

In the off-time before and after 'work' there was interesting birding to be had from the community watching the swarms of kittiwakes and fulmars looking for food over the riptides.  Pomarine Jaegers were numerous challenging the kittiwakes for their meals of Arctic cod.  

On the way to my work there were living glaciers at work on the same project of grinding valleys out of rock for the last multi-thousand years..

A glance out the window of our twin otter survey plane on route to the start of the morning's surveys over Eclipse Sound.

There was no end to the glacier shots one could take on the way to work.  Too bad there were two layers of plexiglass between the lense and the outside world.

Wayne Renaud at Pond Inlet scoping the kittiwake flocks for Pomarine Jaegers hunting out in Eclipse Sound. Snow Buntings, Lapland Longspurs and ravens were routine sightings from our seawatch location. On one occasion two juvenile hornemanni Hoary Redpolls fed on the slope near us.  You really don't know hornemanni HORE until you've seen the true northern redpolls. They are so big they probably could not physically even mate with any other 'race' of redpoll.  It was the one time I did not bring my camera with me but great views with the 30X scope.

Classic scene of a flock of kittiwakes roust up by a Pomarine Jaeger in Eclipse Sound. That is the mountainous Bylot Island in the background some 12 km away

If you look closely there is a fish in the beak of that Red-throated Loon en route to a feed a youngster on a small pond some ways back in on the barrens behind Pond Inlet.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Afternoon Birding in Iqaluit

On the way to do some Marine Mammal Surveys at Pond Inlet, NU at the north end of Baffin Island,  unexpected logistics meant that we had to overnight in Iqaluit, NU at the south end of Baffin Island.  It was the first sunny day after several days of rain in Iqaluit.  Wayne Renaud and I took the 'downtime' to do some local Iqaluit birding on foot. A three hour walk along a river and back on the road to hotel produced a few birds.  Birds were uncommon, except for raven and gulls. There were no shorebirds or waterfowl though the habitat looked good. There were about 100 gulls on rocks in the river. Not close and on the wrong side of the sun it was difficult identify everything but we did see one adult Lesser Black-backed Gull, 4 Great Black-backed Gulls (subadults), 15 Herring Gulls, 40 Glaucous Gulls and the rest unidentified.  LBBGs breed at this latitude in Greenland, a possible source of this bird.

Passerine list was six Northern Wheatears, all juveniles (three singles and a group of three), about 10 Snow Buntings and six Lapland Longspurs. These three species are local breeders.

Caught in the act of being a wheatear, this bird was surprised to see me peak over a rock. Wheatears are unnecessarily wary.  

What does a bird often do before flying? Yes - another species for the "while shitting photo list".  

A glimpse of the patented white arse that gives wheatear its name.

Quiz photo.

Answer: juvenile Horned Lark still be fed by a parent.

Monday, 11 August 2014

Cory's Shearwater ! - Newfromland Style

Cory's Shearwater occurs naturally and by will within legal Newfoundland waters, but just. Being a warm water species most of Newfoundland waters are non-Cory's habitat because of the overpowering influence of the unstoppable Labrador Current that sweeps strongly south and around Newfoundland affecting our everyday life. Warm Gulf Stream waters meet with the Labrador Current off southern Newfoundland in the deep water beyond the Continental Shelf Edge. I know from experience that Cory's Shearwater is part of the normal avifauna in warm water +19C  just off the shelf waters south of Newfoundland. and St Pierre et Miquelon - and well within the 200 nmi EEZ. And from good authority know that they occur up on top of the shelf a little bit adjacent to these deep waters. Cory's also occurs with some regularity on the southernmost Grand Banks in and outside the 200 EEZ. In adjacent parts of Nova Scotia Cory's is more routine of shelf waters but the water is also much warmer here in summer than Newfoundland. One year, perhaps abnormally warm, I saw small numbers of Cory's Shearwaters from the North Sydney, NS to Argentia, NF ferry. It was late August when water temps are at the warmest.  The Cory's started on the NS side of the crossing and continued in small numbers until south of St, Pierre et Miquelon. There has never been a duplicate result from that crossing but in recent years ferry crossings are done mostly during darkness.

Shearwater watching on the Avalon Peninsula during the capelin season is one of Newfoundland's great spectacles. Day counts from a single location are often in the five digit zone, sometimes six.  Great and Sooty shearwaters in varying ratios make up the bulk of the species. There are always a few Manx. After decades of summers enjoying the shearwater and the general seabird spectacle without ever seeing a Cory's Shearwater I assumed it was never going to happen.  Some birds like fulmars for example, scavengers of the sea and common in Newfoundland waters year round do not respond at all to the capelin spawning. Maybe Cory's Shearwater don't eat small fish (unlikely theory!) or maybe they just don't like getting their feet cold in the Labrador Current.

On 10 August 2014 thanks largely to lighthouse keeper Cliff Doran's luring I found myself at Cape Race for the 4th day out of the last six.  By the time I got there on Sunday afternoon most the shearwaters had floated offshore. Capelin feeding seems to quiet down in mid-day.  Not only that there were periods of rain and dark skies.  I was wondering if I should not have burned all that gas and time to be at Cape Race again. The seabirds still present were very close as there was some capelin being captured. After a couple hours of enjoying the views I was about to pack it up when I found myself looking at a shearwater flying away with a gray wash between the shoulder blades and on back of the neck. It turned back toward me revealing its full dirty neck and yellow bill. I knew what it was but also knew this couldn't be happening. Yet I was standing on solid ground looking at a Cory's Shearwater feeding off the Cape Race lighthouse.

For the next twenty minutes I had the bird in sight most of the time. It leisurely coursed back and forth 100-200 m offshore cruising over the other shearwaters and seabirds sitting on the water. Twice it hit the water getting a capelin though it never rested on the water. I was standing by the old fog horn building. Photo taken with 840 mm lens using ISO 1600 and 3200 under dark skies.  All here are large crops.

The first of 230 photos. Even if this was the only shot the solidly brown head and neck say Cory's Shearwater.

The grayish upper back and hind neck usually contrasted with darker brown wings.  This is often a good clue of a possible Cory's vs Great even at good distances.  In better light the grayish shown is actually buffy brown. 

The bull neck, large head and bill are often impressive next to a Great Shearwater

Wish I could have heard what the Cory's was saying as it banked showing its snowy white belly and clean white under wings.  

Another view of the white belly and under wings.  There is some moulting of under wing coverts spoiling the immaculate white under wings of a fresh Cory's Shearwater. 

Pretty rough looking, the Cory's was undergoing wing covert moult.  The uniform dark underside of primaries rules makes it your basic Cory's Shearwater subspecies/species that includes the Azores as its breeding range.  

Another view of satiny white belly and if you hadn't noticed by now that stonkin' yellow bill with a black tip. 

The Cory's Shearwater was a great glider. It moved slowly but surely often near stall out speed it seemed. Where as the Greats appeared pumped up on caffeine with frequent rapid burst of wing beats to keep airborne with more abrupt changes of speed and angle of movement. 

Compared to Greats, Cory's Shearwaters seem to have narrower rear ends and tails with thicker shoulders and wider wings.

The paler upper back and neck contrast with the darker wings of Cory's. On Great Shearwaters the back is either darker than the wings like this individual or the same.  Right now the Greats are in or just about in a fresh set of wing coverts and back feathers. These are strongly edged in white, sometime including the back.  Depending on light and distant the upper side of both these species looks uniformly dark.