Thursday, 26 March 2015

Common or Mundane Snipe at Ferryland, Newfoundland

On 21 March 2015 Ken Knowles, John Wells and I were finishing up an Avalon Loop trip with a last stop of the day in Ferryland.  There were four snipe in an open wet place among the deep snow pack. There had been several snipe as per usual wintering in Ferryland but they were not usually at this particular spot.  We stopped to look at them from the car. Immediately we noticed one was a little yellower than the other three.  Yellowish snipe have been our first clue to check further for Common Snipe field marks.  It also had thin even barring in the tertials, the second feature we look for when trying to identify a possible Common Snipe.  Both these featured looked excellent in our perspective on Common Snipe. But the next step required to nail the identification was seeing, usually meaning photographing the underwing.  A largely white underwing with the white bars wider than the black bars and even some areas of unmarked white was in our mind was the absolute clincher.

The suspect Common Snipe is facing left. In the bright light the paleness of the bird less apparent than in overcast light.  21 March 2015 Ferryland.

We didn't have a lot of time so left the bird unidentified.  The next day information surfaced that Andrea Dicks had photographed that snipe with the others in late January. In the dull light the suspect Common Snipe looked particularly yellow. This inspired Alvan Buckley to visit Ferryland on 24 March.  His shots included one blurry shot of the underwing of the suspect snipe that showed much promise for Common Snipe.

The suspect Common Snipe. A blurry shot but it shows strong indications of a very white underwing characteristic of Common Snipe.24 March 2015 Ferryland (Alvan Buckley

On 25 March I took the morning off work and spent 3 1/2 hours with the camera trained on the snipe hoping for that one excellent shot of the underwing. It never happened. But I got shots showing some details of the tail and a sneak peek of a partial underwing.

This and all the snipe shots below taken on 25 March 2015 at Ferryland.

Suspect Common Snipe in foreground.

Suspect Common Snipe on right.

A long distance crop revealing some details of the tail.

How many tail feathers?  Wilson's Snipe usually have 16 while Common Snipe usually 14.  In several similar tail shots I get 12-14.  Hard to know if some feathers are hidden from view. 

A vital shot.  This showing underside of outer most tail feather on right side. Is this too much barring for a Common Snipe? Two North American references show widely spaced barring in this feather for Common Snipe but European references show a more diffuse irregular pattern of internal markings.  Could it be North Americans are using east Asian Common Snipe, the source of Alaskan  Common Snipe, for illustrations while the Europeans are using snipe in their backyards???  On Common Snipe this feather is wider thus producing a lower drumming sound during spring display.

Stolen from the excellent book, Rare Birds of North America (Howell et al. 2014). Shows their depiction of the outer most tail feather of Common vs Wilson's Snipe. 

Sneak peek at underwing coverts. They look quite white with small black markings.  Seeing this much leads one to assume the rest of underwing coverts would look like this and thus be a certain Common Snipe according to Newfoundland rules.

A view of the axillars. The white bars being significantly wider than the black bars is another indication of just how white the underwing coverts probably are. Again it looks promising for Common Snipe. On Wilson's Snipe the barring is typically near equal width.

Is this a Common Snipe?  I think it is but still remains to be proved with a good photo of the underwing. The issue of identification of Common vs Wilson's Snipe is still in its infancy. Even when we do know all there is to know it is always going to be near impossible to be sure on a standing bird. Identifications will require details on underwings and outer tail feathers, features that snipe are reluctant to reveal.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Costa Rica (Cano Negro Region)

I was not sure what I was into when I signed up for a day long trip to the Cano Negro Region of Costa Rica.  Indications of a large marshy lake and a boat trip were somewhat tempered by the reality of the day long adventure. The drive terminated with a 19 km ride on the worst dirt road I've known.  We ended up at a quaint (hah!) settlement at the end of the road. We were met by friendly people who knew we were coming. Funny we saw no other tourists that day.  

We ended up on a small tour boat with a friendly boat driver willing to please. His English was better than my Spanish which basically meant communications were near zero. I read off a list of the birds I'd like to see.  He kept pointing up river after every bird I mentioned as we motored down river.  I have little idea what is to be expected on the river, yes it was a river with steep muddy banks and not the lake I imagined.  But I know the driver put out an extra effort when he knew I wanted to see birds such as Sungrebe and Black-collared Hawk. I was expecting  a 2 hour trip but it turned into a 3 hour pleasure cruise.  

Nicaraguan Grackle was probably the biggest reason to visit the Cano Negro region of Costa Rica.  It must have evolved when the Great-tailed Grackle was still a coastal species.   Definitely an interesting species and a definitely different bird than the ubiquitous Great-tailed Grackle.  Note the thin bill and elongated central tail feathers.

I never saw place where all the egrets, herons, ibis, night herons, and Limpkins were so prevalent. The one species that said this is Not Florida, was the Boat-billed Herons.  

Sungrebe was easily bird of the day.  I was not expecting such bright colours on a marsh dwelller.

A Black-collared Hawk put a good show.  I did not know they hunted fish and frogs in the clear shallow waters of marshy areas.  I savored the unexpected close encounter with this exceptional raptor.   

When travelling by boat in the marsh you end up with close encounters with the wildlife. The common Squirrel Cuckoo was not a planned encounter.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Homeward Bound from Costa Rica

Sitting in a hotel room near San Jose, Costa Rica getting psyched up for re-entry into winter. For the last two weeks living and breathing in Costa Rica it was so warm that you could have walked around naked 24/7 and never felt a chill. The temperatures were measured by degrees of warm and hot and always humid. Rumours are strong that it is going to be very different upon arrival in Newfoundland. Reports of a recent blizzard and the pack ice reaching St. John's are mind boggling from this point of view.  

Thinking back on the recent warm and hospitable past there are countless bird highlights.  But one moment stands out above the rest. Birding without local help most of my time in Costa Rica including 2009 and 2014 I was short on the deep jungle birds. The birds that shun sunlight and are the colours of shadows in the jungle undergrowth.  The antbirds are the main group I was yearning to get acquainted with or at least glimpse.  The Ocellated Antbird above all was my most wanted bird. Without using play back luring or paying for help from a local guide who know the songs and can imitate them all your best hope is an ant swarm.  Finally the Antbird God took pity on me and let me have it. Actually it was on a tip from Kevin Easterly that people had been running into antswarms on the Sky Trek trail at Arenal.

The tip was not that fresh and I had no expectations of being lucky but the habitat along this trail was beautiful old growth jungle so there was nothing to loose.  I bagged my first view of a Purplish-backed Quail Dove and added an excellent looking White-throated Shrike-Tanager so it was already a successful hike. After the second hanging bridge (240 feet agl I should add!) I heard a commotion in the underbrush close to the trail. A Northern Barred Woodcreeper flew out landing on a trunk but the commotion continued.  There was movement under the greenry slightly up slope at about chest level.  I looked in with binoculars and was face to face with an OCELLATED ANTBIRD! What? this was way too easy. This isn't happening. But it was and it had a friend and another and another.  There were six birds in there bopping around on logs and twigs - every one a striking Ocellated Antbird. I didn't even know Ocellated Antbirds came by the flock.  I imagined them as rare occurring as a lucky single or maybe a duo. And they were so close.

This began a three hour stint of patrolling a ten metre section of trail trying to get better views of the Ocellated Antbirds.  It took awhile but other antbirds began appearing. What I think happened was the Ocellated Antbirds had discovered the overnight resting place of an army ant swarm. I couldn't see what they were doing behind this log they kept disappearing behind. I also at that time could not see any army ants. By the time the ants began swarming over the leaves the Ocellateds vanished into the background but the other birds came in.  Binos views were sensational but photo opts challenging. I had to use ISO 6400 with a 300 mm f4 lens.  Even then all shot between 1/30 and 1/100 second.
My first encounter with the highly desired Ocellated Antbird was looking up under the thick underbrush and seeing an unbelievable scene of six dancing around a log of interest.

The Ocellated Antbird looks even more odd and amazing in life than in the books. There were at least six, probably eight.

Two Bicoloured Antbirds joined the scene but always kept in the back ground.

There were at least three maybe five Spotted Antbirds. Male above and female below.

This male Zeledon's Antbird showed no fear sometimes coming within 2 metres.  My camera could not autofocus on the body but could the eye.  Manual focus would have come in very handy if only it worked on my battered old lens. There were at least two males and one female (deep mahogany brown) present. 

Surprise Surprise. The bonus bird was this Black-headed Antthrush.  It strutted around like a Sora picking at the ground and turning over leaves. The camera had no hope of AF on this smooth bird in the dark jungle until it walked out on the trail in full view! 

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Glorious borealis & some Kings

Saturday 22 February 2015 was a good eider watching day at Cape Spear, Avalon Peninsula, Newfoundland. Among the 1000 eiders was the orange-billed common eider featured in the previous post which may be a hybrid v-nigrum x borealis.  The other eiders were also looking good on this bright albeit very windy day. Some of them deserve to be exposed to the Blog world.

A selection of standard borealis with their olive-yellow bill and narrow pointed bill lobes on forehead.

 More borealis coming down the slope.

A mountain of borealis.  Borealis are used to putting up with rough weather. For a while the winds were gusting over 80 k/hr from the west on Saturday morning.

The drake on the left has rounded bill lobes.  Birds like this I categorize as intermediate between borealis and dresseri. The bill colour is still yellowish and the lobes not as broad as dresseri can be.  I need to know more about dresseri. There is a zone mid way up the  Labrador coast where dresseri and borealis meet and blend physical characteristics.

The bird on the right has a greener bill and fat rounded bill lobes. To me this is much closer to a good dresseri.  
Even though there were only a half dozen or so drake King Eiders in the flock of 1000 eiders they had a way of creeping into almost every photo I took. Funny about that.

This is a 2nd winter drake King Eider. It lacks the full shield over the bill and there are black markings in the white upper wing covert patch. 

Can you find three species of sea duck in this photo? 

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Carrot-billed Eider - v-nigrum or a dangerous near miss

Eider watching out of desperation birding becomes a pleasurable past time for late winter birding on the Avalon Peninsula, Newfoundland.  It boils down to getting good looks at male King Eiders. Sometimes you see a few drakes and in a good year you see more than you could carry away in your arms.  Seeing eiders up close requires an effort of concealment because eiders in Newfoundland and Labrador view mankind as their biggest enemy.  When you get the eiders to come close there is lots to see. You can age the males and females but it is more interesting to assign the birds to borealis or dresserii.  Nearly all are borealis and there are some showing shared bloodlines between borealis and dresseri. Pure dresseri seem to be rare.  That is another forum for another discussion. Today, 21 February 2015, at Cape Spear I was stopped dead in my tracks by an eider with a brilliant carrot-orange bill.  I knew this bill colour was a flagship for the western race of Common Eider called v-nigrum.  

Attached are some photos of the bird. As per usual environmental conditions were far from perfect.  I spent five hours at Cape Spear hiding in a hole in the rocks to get these photos which are cropped and in some cases slightly sharpened but otherwise not manipulated.  

Opinion::: through the scope I saw a blank white underside to the chin while it preened. This view happened several times yet too far away to try for a photo.  If it had a black triangle on the underside of the chin then it was not bold.  

Below are the photos. If this in not a v-nigrum then it is an example that all out of range claims must consider.

ADDENDUM and then some...
Martin Garner of Europe has a keen interest in Common Eider subspecies including being on the scene of the Western Palearctic's first v-nigrum in Norway  His thoughts on the subspecific identification of the yesterday's bird at Cape Spear are a shortcut to anyone's research. Below are some of his comments:

I don’t think this is v-nigrum. Thought it must be a first glance but appears to completely lack the wacky head character. Specifically v nigrum should have deep curvature to base of black cap- horizontal on this bird with forehead bump- very typical of borealis. There is not enough green under black cap.  I don’t think the basal lobes feathering intruding into bill base are big and aft enough the bare skin frontal process should be short-looking for v nigrum.  So either it is an extreme coloured borealis (not impossible) or that v-nigrum you had few years back got cheeky with the locals??

So it could be a hybrid v-nigrum x borealis, or maybe there is a cline in features from the western Arctic to borealis in the eastern Arctic.  Apparently v-nigrum is sometimes found among wintering Common Eiders (borealis) off western Greenland so there is opportunity to get tied up with a borealis. The message this bird shouts out is that the shocking orange colour of the bill is not a stamp of approval for v-nigrum.  

This being said there is still a good record of v-nigram for Cape Spear and as far as I know it is the only confirmed record of this subspecies for Atlantic coast from Labrador to Florida. It was March 2005. This bird has it all including the black "V" under the throat and curved black cap.  The bird is pictured below.

March 2005 Cape Spear, Newfoundland (B Mactavish)

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Show-Off Shag

There is no doubt that a Great Cormorant dresses to the Nines in preparation for spring. In the dead of winter they are the first sign of spring colour appearing two months before that first spring blossom around St. John's, Newfoundland.  Sometimes they seem to know they look good.

Adorned in white filigree, a bushy crest, a golden throat off set with snowy white throat sash and matching flank patch this smug Great Cormorants sits back letting the world know just how good he feels about the way he looks.

Well you can never look too shiny and new. A little more grooming won't hurt for the courting season is only a few weeks away now.

A bit of flexing to show off those powerful biceps and sexy thick  neck - and note the perfectly fanned tail.

Ok, that is enough for now. Even someone who looks as perfect as me can stand only so much self-admiration.

Wait minute!! Who is that looking at me? Hey punk! What's up!!!? You got a problem over there?

It's me watching you. And this is what I think of your filigree.