Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Britain's Birds - a new book for Newfoundland birders.

A book arrived in the mail yesterday. I was not expecting anything. I opened the package and found an identification guide to British birds. Then I recalled that some months ago I was asked for permission to use a photo of the April 2014 Torbay Ross’s Gull for a British bird book.  I opened the book to Ross’s Gull and indeed saw the image of the Torbay Ross’sI started flipping through the pages one by one.  Every plate was as beautiful as the one before. Within a couple of minutes of gorging on this new book I knew it would be up front on my go-to consulting references for European birds. It is not just another nice bird book to stash away for a rainy day on the dormant books shelf.

IN A NUTSHELL.  This is a photographic guide. Bird images are cropped and grouped on a background mural showing a habitat in which the bird would live. 3,200 images were used in the making of this book. The book covers just Britain and Ireland but includes every species that has occurred up to March 2016. Common and regularly occurring scarce species get a full page of coverage.  The very rare species can be fitted up to six species per page but this often includes the actual individual that was photographed in Britain.

WHAT I LIKE.  The quality is first-rate for the overwhelming majority of the 3,200 bird images. No surprises. No bad lighting.  No faulty reproduction.  No handicaps or negative quality allowances required when interpreting the accuracy of these photos. The images are ready to go and easy to absorb as they are. They are believable.  Each plate is a welcome mat. You want to look. You are eager to see the detail.  And there is a lot to see and learn from these images.  The birds are as close to the living thing as they can be on paper.

USEFULLNESS. This book covers all the European and Eurasian species that have and are likely to occur in Newfoundland. It would work well as a standalone guide on a trip to Britain & Ireland.  The Collins Guide as we call it, also known as the Birds of Europe (Mullarney et al.), would be my first choice for owning a single European bird book.  This new book makes an excellent backup for the Collins Guide. It is nice to have good photos to support excellent illustrations.  The two books make a perfect marriage for European birds.

For birders living in Britain & Ireland there is a lot of useful information on distribution (including detailed breeding maps) and abundances of regular species and the status of rare birds.  It is interesting to know there are <100 records of Killdeer and <10 records of Semipalmated Plover in Britain and Ireland.  The rare ‘golden’ plovers, American and Pacific, get a full page neatly crammed with pertinent information – a quick reference of the well-known key field marks. 

Birds shared by Newfoundland and Britain have useful entries. There is a page of winter and summer plumaged alcids in flight.  There are some valuable reference images of adult and juvenile jaegers.  Juvenile Arctic and Common Terns are pretty well done.  There is valiant attempt to demystify gulls for the timid.  The most common species get two pages showing the different ages in flight and at rest.  In addition there are full pages showing similar species in flight by age class. Did I mention the shearwater plates? Not bad. Not bad at all.

From a Newfoundland birder's point of view this book is a luxury. You can live fine without it.  However, it enhances the information on European vagrants that we get out of the Collins Guide.  The book also does a better than average job on the gulls, terns, jaegers, alcids and other birds that are also common in Newfoundland.  It is <$40 CDN on

The tiny image of the pink-breasted Ross`s Gull is the Torbay bird from 29 April 2014. Now forever immortalised in a book.

Monday, 1 August 2016

black-billed Arctic Tern

On Sunday 31 July 2016 I was checking a group of 8 terns on the rocks on the lower coast, Trepassey when I came across a tern that stopped me dead.  On first glance it appeared to be a Common/Arctic Tern with a jet black bill, a full black cap and dark legs. In the following seconds I recalled an Alaskan form of the Common Tern with a black bill in adult plumage. Gull-billed Tern was easily ruled out by small bill, short legs etc. Roseate Tern was also swiftly ruled out because of the small bill, smaller than adjacent Common Terns.  What was it? Some species of tern from another hemisphere?

After settling down to look more closely at the bird while snapping photos as I began to fixate on the idea that this was a sub adult Arctic Tern based on short legs, small bill and rounded head. There were small flecks of white in the forehead indicating the idea of a subadult. Brownish hints in wing coverts while at rest and more obvious brown markings across wing coverts that were revealed in flight proved its sub-adult age.

The (nearly) complete black cap with a jet black bill was unlike any other Arctic Tern I've seen anywhere. There is not a lot of information out there on subadult Arctic Terns. The 1st summer (12 month old) birds are relatively obvious with their clean white foreheads and black band wrapped around back of head.  A few of these show up around Arctic Tern colonies on the Avalon every summer.  At this point I am not sure what a typical 2nd summer (24 month old) should look like but I think the Trepassey bird was such.

The black-billed Arctic Tern with a normal adult Arctic Tern and in background an adult Common Tern.

Cropped versions of the above photograph.

Flight shots showing brownish washing on lesser, median and greater wing coverts.

Note the dark legs and the uniform jet black legs.

Below are three photos of  a tern believed to be a 2nd summer (24 months) Arctic Tern taken 16 July 2007 at St. Vincents, Avalon Peninsula, Newfoundland.  The forehead shows much more white than the Trepassey bird.

Arctic Terns 16 July 2007 at St. Vincents beach. Two 1st summer (12 month) birds on the left and the 2nd summer as shown in two above pictures.

Friday, 22 July 2016

ROYAL TERN at Cape Race - 6th for Newfoundland

Today (22 July 2016) while 'working' on whale watching program at Cape Race I saw a ROYAL TERN.  It appeared from the north flying about 75 m above the water and 200 m from shore.  It flew past the lighthouse at 18:10 but circled once in the cove behind the cape and miraculously came back.  It flew back past the light house and north along the shore.  It was flying in a light meandering manner unlike the steady purposeful movement of kittiwakes and gannets going past the lighthouse. 

It was an adult with a full black cap. Typically adults gain a white forehead by late July.  Features that clinch the ID from the Caspian Tern are a) bill being slimmer and orange rather than red-orange, b) underside of primaries showing dark gray trailing edge to feather tips instead of a blackish overall wash on Caspian, c) upper side of primaries on all but fresh spring Royals typically with some or all feathers being blackish. These being silvery in adult Caspian most of the year including the time period in Newfoundland waters, d) tail relatively longer with much more obvious fork.

This is about the 6th record for Newfoundland with mid summer being the peak time. The last record was two together at St. Vincents Beach on 9 July 2012.

Below are  a chronological series of photos of the Cape Race Royal Tern from 22 July 2016.

Where is it now? Where is it sleeping tonight? Chance Cove? Renews? Will it be seen again? Here is the last photo as it flew back north along the coast....

Thursday, 14 July 2016

***COMMON SWIFT*** at Cape Race, Newfoundland

At 1 pm 12 July 2016 Ken Knowles and I entered Portugal Cove South after driving through a No Service zone for cell phones and the phone dangled. We stopped the car to read the text messages.  There was hubbub about a some swift photo that Cliff Doran had taken at Cape Race.  Ken was able to bring up the picture taken by Cliff the Cape Lighthouse keeper on his cell phone and HOLY ###T. While there was concern on the internet chat lines about the tail being cut off in the photo, the long tapered body and very long narrow sabre-like wings was enough for KK and I to abort our planned trip to St. Vincents beach and head to Cape Race. It looked real good for Common Swift.  I called Cliff on the phone. He’d seen the bird an hour ago. It was high over head when he managed to snap one photo before it disappeared in to the low cloud ceiling. 
We raced over the dirt road with eyes to the skies for the swift and stopping to scan places the cliffs at The Drook and Long Beach where we imagined a swift might linger in the lee of the cold north wind to hunt insects.  Got to the Cape and met up with Cliff. He had just seen the bird again ten minutes before we got there!  Hopeless hopes turned into great expectations. It was forty minutes later before I picked up a dark falcon-like bird coming down the road half a kilometer away to the west.  It was THE SWIFT. It flew toward us mostly low over the ground, zig-zagging from the land to over the cliff edge.  It was huge. It had long thin back swept back wings. It was dark.  I consciously made the decision to look at the bird first before trying for photos. Meanwhile Cliff was clicking away madly with his camera in the general direction as I called out the play by play location as the bird passed by a sign, a background radio tower, and clumps of tree etc.  For about 90 seconds maybe 120, we followed the bird as it worked its way closer.  Both Ken and I knew it was what a Common Swift should look like.  Ken had just seen many during an British holidays in June and I had studied many on various visits to Europe. 

The bird was dark. Not black but dark chocolate brown. At times the dark under wing coverts appeared darker than rest of under wing. The exceptionally long swept back wings, the very large size for a swift (like a small falcon), the deep and sharply notched tail was right on for out impression of a Common Swift.  I knew Pallid Swift was a similar looking species but was paler overall and had a large pale area on throat.

Thankfully Cliff did get some photos.  By the time Ken and I got ready for taking pictures the swift had disappeared over the cliff.   By coincidence and through astute birding abilities, Andrew Davis who was on duty working in a whale watching booth by the Cape Race lighthouse saw the bird after we had lost it and got a few photos that would have also clinched the identification. The bird was not seen again despite being on watch till darkness and people watching most of the next day.
Cliff’s photos confirm the identity of this bird.  All are 100% crops. For the most part no adjusting to exposure or sharpening was used.   The small white throat and smaller white forehead area are right for Common Swift. The darkness of the bird plus the throat and forehead patch is not right for Pallid Swift.  I don’t know of any other swifts that are similar to Common Swift.  The North American Black Swift lacks the pale throat patch and forehead and has a much less deeply forked tail.

The RARE BIRDS OF NORTH AMERICA (Howell et al. 2014) state there are three previous records of Common Swift for North America that are substantiated with photos.  This is includes two for Bering Sea, Alaska and one for St. Pierre et Miquelon. In addition to this there are four other eastern North America record (1 PA, 2 MA, 1 other in SPM) that were probably correct identifications but lacked documentation. All of the (3) confirmed and (4) not-quite confirmed records are from late spring and early summer.  There were no previous claims of Common Swift in Canada. 

Common Swift is an amazingly regular vagrant to Iceland with 336 accepted records up to the year 2006. There are also 20+ records for the Azores. The large number of wayward Common Swifts to the mid-Atlantic islands suggest Common Swift in eastern Canada is likely to happen again! 

ADDENDUM - It has come to light there was already a COMMON SWIFT record for Canada from Montreal, Quebec.  A bird found in weaken state in late May 2007. It was brought to rehab where it recovered and was released on 21 June 2007.  It was thought to be a Chimney Swift at the time but was re-identified from photos etc. seven years later as a COMMON SWIFT - FIRST FOR CANADA. Thanks to Jean-Sebastien Guenette for bringing this information to my attention. The article by Samuel Denault can be found here. It is in French.

This is the photo that Cliff posted to FaceBook that caused a stir among Newfoundland birder.

The following photos  of the Common Swift were all taken by Cliff Doran while Ken Knowles and I stood next to him at 2:40 pm 12 July 2016 at Cape Race, Newfoundland.  They are presented in chronological order and all are 100% crops.

The Common Swift flying over Cape Race barrens.

Cliff Doran on patrol. Lighthouse keeper and sharpshooter.  Weapon of choice a 400mm f4 lens + 1.4x teleconverter attached to a Canon 7D.

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

A Summer of Avalon Seabirding Ahead

The summer season of birding on the Avalon Peninsula of Newfoundland is about to begin. As the chance of spring migrants fades away, Avalon birders often look to the sea for their birding jollies. The capelin will spawn at sometime, or a couple of times as it seems some years, over the next couple of months. The concentrations of Great and Sooty Shearwaters, kittiwakes, terns local breeding alcids, Northern Gannets and big gulls feeding close to shore can be spectacular.  

There are scarce and rare birds to look for among the throngs of commonality.  These can be seabirds not normally found near shore like jaegers or maybe a skua. Maybe a rare small gull like Little Gull or Laughing Gulls will make your day.  If really lucky a rare southern tern is a huge treat.

Cory's Shearwater is regular within Newfoundland waters but only near the southern borders of the 200 nmi limit.  This photographed from land at Cape Race on 11 Aug 2011 demonstrates the species is possible from land. There was heavy Great and Sooty feeding activity just off the rocks at the time.

Manx Shearwater is routine in small numbers from shore in summer whether there are capelin around or not.  Capes like Cape St. Francis, Cape Spear and Cape Race or your best bets. It is always a little treat to spot them among the throngs of Great and Sooty Shearwaters.  

Skuas are really quite rare from shore in Newfoundland. Consider yourself very lucky if you see one and triple lucky if you have an opportunity to identify it. South Polar and Great Skua are among the most difficult duo of seabirds to separate at sea.  Close looks like this one photographed from a ship on the Grand Banks are relatively easy if you know to look for the smooth dark brown back and upper wings with a distinct pale shawl around back of the neck. This is a classic South Polar Skua in Newfoundland waters. South Polar Skua is the most numerous skua during the summer months but most of the summering Great Skuas are subadults, which lack or have restricted marbling in the back and upper wings making them very similar to South Polars at a distance. 

Often there are subadult jaegers accompanying the swarms of capelin gorging kittiwakes near shore.  Seeing 20 or more in a day is not that unusual. But it is unusual to see any that are easy to identify since most of them lack the trade mark elongated tail feathers.  Through size comparison with kittiwakes and methods and manner of hunting, eventually you start to come up with some sort of ratio of Pomarine to Parasitic.  That attached Pomarine Jaeger shows solid dark underwing coverts probably making it an adult in non-breeding plumage rather than a subadult which should be marbled there.

Adult Long-tailed Jaegers are one of the most beautiful seabirds in the world. They do migrate regularly through Newfoundland waters but in the far offshore regions to the Northeast. Late August gales can drive a few adults inshore. Meanwhile the more difficult to identify subadults spend the summer all over Newfoundland  in the offshore waters.  A few come near shore during the capelin season. It takes a while to gain the confidence to identify these individuals. A photo can be very helpful.

Leach's Storm-Petrel is the default storm-petrel in Newfoundland.  We have the largest breeding colony in the world at Baccalieu Island (2 million pairs). They prefer not to be within sight of land during the daylight hours but there are often a few stragglers flying near shore after sunrise. They regularly get caught on the inside of barrier beaches during foggy nights and onshore winds, particularly at St. Vincent's Beach. Here you can see them sitting on the water by daylight as they ponder their predicament.  NE gales are rare June-August but when it happens you can see hundreds of Leach's trapped temporarily at the bottom Conception Bay at Holyrood. This picture was taken at Holyrood during an early August gale.

The Wilson's Storm-Petrel is missing on many Newfoundland birder's lists and for good reasons. It is very scarce in our waters except in the warm waters on the southern extremities of our provincial boundary. It is possible to see it from shore on the Avalon in some years even during uneventful summer weather. But in most years it is difficult enough to get even when spending a month on a ship on the Grand Banks. This picture, however, was taken from a ship on the Grand Banks. Not often  can you see the feet projecting beyond the tail while watching from a ship or land.  Wilson's have  unique flight mannerisms and different shape. The problem is that there are 50 ways that a Leach's Storm-Petrel flies depending on wind and whether it is feeding or travelling. Their shape changes with the wind.  It is a common mistake to think you've seen a Wilson's because it is flying different than you thought a Leach's could fly. It is all described in the books but until you've seen a Wilson's Storm-Petrel once you don't know how different they are from every one of the 50 ways a Leach's flies.

Southern terns are major rarities in Newfoundland but mid summer is the time when wanderlust subadult birds from the US east coast end up on the shores of the Avalon on their own will riding the prevailing SW winds of summer. Yet they are rare enough that we can name most of the records. The two Royal Terns above, including the one in flight, were at St. Vincent's beach on 9 July 2008 (thanks Tom). St Vincents Beach is PRIMO for summertime southern terns, rare summer gulls especially Laughing Gulls etc. A summer Sandwich Tern has been seen here.

This ratty old 1st summer Sandwich Tern landed on a vessel I was on 300 km east of Cape Race on 27 June 2008.  Dark band across the secondaries visible in flight revealed age.  It was only the second record of the species for the province at the time. Another one landed on a longliner not far away about the same time, Plumage details proved they were different birds. It has also occurred in summer at Renews and St. Vincents.  It will happen again on the Avalon.  It is gonna look good too.