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 
http://birdingfrontiers.com/2014/02/19/pacific-eider-in-norway-a-new-western-palearctic-bird/  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.

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Mixed Bag: Corvids, Wigeon & an Owl

A few random pictures from the last week to keep the postings alive.

It is not easy to get a crow and raven in the same photo for teaching purposes. Second best is comparing them with the same object such as this deceased Black Duck.  Ideally I should have cropped the pictures so the Black Duck was the same size in each photo to show the size difference between a crow and raven, but you get the idea here. American Crow above and Common Raven below.

The Black Duck was a road kill by The Boulevard, Quidi Vidi Lake.  This raven took control of the fresh specimen first gorging itself then grabbing this mouth full of fresh duck breast to bring to its mate waiting out on the ice of the lake. The crows moved back in soon as the raven departed.

Wigeons are attractive ducks. The open winter has been good so far for the three dozen or more Euro and American wigeon that try to overwinter on the n.e. Avalon Peninsula. They can graze on the lawns or dabble in the marshy sections of the pond in front of the Health Sciences Building, St. John's like these birds. 

The biggest surprise of the last week was stumbling across this Great Horned Owl sleeping in a Christmas tree by an abandoned house on the barren grounds of Biscay Bay.  There has been a drop in rabbit numbers this winter after a couple of good years.  Could it be this owl and a number of others reported recently are under a little stress in search of a rabbit supplement.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

One Eider Came

Common Eider is the most heavily hunted duck species in Newfoundland.  This is part of the reason they are a very challenging species to photograph. Cape Spear, near St. John's (14 minutes from home) is a good place for Common Eiders in winter. Yet they are never reliable on any given day as they get hunted on calm days and there is no shelter during winter storms. 

Conditions seemed right this morning with light winds after several days of rough weather keeping the hunters at bay. I got to Cape Spear parking lot before sunrise and was in position and camera-ready at about sunrise at the point. I had clambered down to a somewhat risky but excellent location near the ultimate tip of Cape Spear.  I consider myself a veteran at reading the waves but here I could feel myself within the danger zone.  With a nervous eye I watched the bigger swells approaching. There are not many days in the winter you would even think about being here. 

The bottom line.  Eiders were elsewhere! There had been 300+ present just the afternoon before.  One lone 1st winter male Common Eider swam around to my position. I was testing out my "kelp suit" today. My body was not completely concealed by the rocks so I thought I could diffuse my presence with the kelp suit.  This one eider made the day.  It proved that the kelp suit worked. (The kelp suit is a sheet of camouflage bought at a hunting store intended for mainland deer hunters.)  It came much closer than any Newfoundland eider would ever naturally be to a  human being. It was a first-winter drake Common Eider. The pictures only hinted at the possibilities from this location if the ocean swell would ever allow it to happen again.

Classic Common Eider profile. The white around the neck is a sure sign of a 1st winter drake. 

Maybe I was not totally inconspicuous. The eider eyed me carefully but never showed feared.  

The relatively narrow frontal lobes of the bill identify this as the northern race of Common Eider (borealis) as expected during winter in Newfoundland.

A teasing flock of Common Eiders flew north past Cape Spear without a look at Cape Spear.  Some day luck will be with me.  I'll be ready.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Purps & Bullbirds - Cape Spear

Quest to see a wintering Sanderling with the Purple Sandpiper flock at Cape Spear got me down on the rocks.  Purple Sandpipers are charismatic shorebird no matter dully coloured and misnamed they are. The Cape Spear flock size varies day to day but it is a rare winter day when you can't see a Purple Sandpiper.  Photographing the birds is usually not an option for me afraid to get salt spray on my beloved lens. There was a swell coming in on Saturday afternoon but the light wind was blowing offshore.  The spectacular flock of 115 and light not too too bad though on the dark side under the overcast sky was enough to get me to pull out the camera.

The low tide exposes the seaweed on the constantly wave-washed rocks at the tip of Cape Spear.

The sandpipers were constantly on the moved being washed off the rocks in one place and moving to another.

Always challenging the waves, pushing the limits to get a chance to get those gammarids and other crustaceans and sea life that thrive in the highly oxygenated waters.

The ability of the Purple Sandpiper to go into helicopter mode the instant a wave hits allows them to push the limits that other shorebird dare not attempt.

Bullbirds (a.k.a Dovekies) also take advantage of the highly oxygenated zones around rough capes and points in the winter, especially during January month, probably feeding on some of the same critters the Purple Sandpipers are getting in the seaweed. There were several Bullbirds feeding just off the rocks where the sandpipers fed and photographed while standing in the same place.

They were very actively feeding coming up for a quick breathe of air before diving down again for more. They use their wings to fly under water and when actively feeding they leave them loosely extended at their sides between dives. Arse-up shots are frequent at times like this.

I did see eventually see the Sanderling fly by after an hour of watching the Purple Sandpipers.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Everyone Has a Dream...

....and it looks just like this!

There is no place in Canada where this couldn't happen this weekend. Doesn't matter how many you've seen or if you've never seen one the need is the strong.  One is never enough. The more you see the more you want. May you get yours this weekend.

Ivory Gull - the Ultimate Bird?