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.

Monday, 30 May 2016

EUROPEAN : Golden-Plover, Whimbrel, Godwit & Ruff

In a spring with a dire dearth of European shorebird vagrants to Newfoundland there was a pleasant little showing of interesting shorebirds in late May.

Jon Joy found a group of three Black-tailed Godwits at Bonavista on 21 May. All were dull looking birds, perhaps first year birds, maybe adult females? They stayed a few days. Black-tailed Godwit is very rare but is the second most regular Icelandic shorebird after the Golden Plover to occur in the province.  Usually arriving as singles in late April to mid May with most being very brightly coloured birds assumed to be males. Three ties the record for the largest flock so far.

Black-tailed Godwit # 1 at Bonavista 21 May 2016

The other two Black-tailed Godwits at Bonavista on 21 May 2016.

On 22 May Ethel Dempsey birding with Alison Mews and Cape Race flushed a white-rumped Whimbrel from the grass by the lighthouse. The species (!!!it should be a full species!!!) is less than annual in the province and is rarer than Black-tailed Godwit. 

The  European Whimbrel was very alert and wary. Standing on the ground there is somewhat more white in the upper parts creating a light checkered appearance but it is probably not safely separable from the North American Whimbrel until it flies.  22 May 2016.

The bright white back ground to the underwing is striking compared to the dull brown of a North American Whimbrel. 22 May 2016.

The tell all white wedge up the back is always exciting to see in the field. 22 May 2016.

Catherine Barrett got the surprise of her life driving home on 26 May seeing a boldly marked male Ruff in a small wet patch close beside the Back Line Road, Goulds. It stayed less than two hours. It was figidty and never fed. It seemed like it just dropped in out of the storm for a rest before continuing its journey. This was the second male Ruff of the month. The other being in Little Catalina in mid May.  The occurrences of Ruff are unpredictable in Newfoundland. It is just about annual in spring and fall with adult males being in the minority.  

A Ruff in The Goulds 26 May 2016.

A Ruff in The Goulds 26 May 2016.

A Ruff in The Goulds 26 May 2016.

European Golden-plover can occur by the hundreds in spring in Newfoundland with the majority happening 20 April to 10 May. 2016 was not one of those springs with just a single bird in mid April near Lumsden. Therefore it was doubly surprising that a late individual was turned up by Alvan Buckley and Catherine Barrett on 28 May at Biscay Bay, Avalon Peninsula. 

European Golden-Plover 29 May 2016.

European Golden-Plover 29 May 2016.

American Robin and European Golden-Plover 29 May 2016.

Sunday, 29 May 2016


Alvan Buckley discovered a CAVE SWALLOW at Quidi Vidi lake, St. John's, Avalon Peninsula Newfoundland today. It was present for at least five hours feeding mainly in the middle of the lake far from shore. Views were distant and photography tough but for a five minute period in early afternoon when it fed with some Tree Swallows over the grass along the shoreline and over the Virginia River mouth parking lot practically flying in between a half dozen people watching. It was almost touchable. Very difficult for cameras to auto focus on the fast moving bird at close range.  Below are some pictures from that five minutes.  

The bird had a dark chestnut rump which is a feature indicating, but not confirming, the West Indies race of Cave Swallow.  Further investigation may follow. This might be the more expected source of a spring vagrant.  Spring records of cave Swallow for eastern North America are few. Nova Scotia has some old records. New Jersey gets them occasionally in spring. Late fall Cave Swallows are much more routine in the northeast and are suspected of originating from Texas and Mexico. The only previous Newfoundland Cave Swallow was from Long Beach, near Cape Race 12-14 Nov 2008 (found by Cliff Doran).

Below is Newfoundland's first Cave Swallow at Long Beach, Cape Race 12-14 Nov 2008. The rump was paler on this bird than today's Cave Swallow.

Thursday, 26 May 2016

GRAY HERON May 2016 - Third for Newfoundland.

News of a heron at Bonavista broke when photos appeared on social media on 6 May 2016. The distant photos appeared to show a Gray Heron. The next day Ken Knowles, Alvan Buckley, Paul Linegar and others saw the bird and confirmed the identification as a GRAY HERON.  This was the third record of Gray Heron for Newfoundland. The previous two records being:

1) a bird found moribund at Lears Cove, near Cape St. Mary's on 11 Oct 1996.  The bird died in captivity and was later identified as a Gray Heron. Specimen at Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador.
2) a bird at Little Hearts Ease, Bonavista Bay  10 March to 12 June 2013.  The bird had possibly been present since January 2013. It was photographed and viewed by many people.

The Bonavista Gray Heron 6-7 May 2016 vanished without a trace but what is believed to be the same bird based on plumage details and logistics appeared at Comfort Cove, Notre Dame Bay about 170 km to the WNW on 16 May.  News of the bird reached the birding world on 19 May when Kelly Adams posted a photo of the bird on social media.  

On 20 May yours truly drove to Comfort Cove to see the Gray Heron. It was easy to find staying on a rock among a couple hundred loafing Ring-billed and Herring Gulls.  I spent 2.5 hours watching the bird. It was always at least 100 m away.   Heat haze over the cool water created by the unseasonably warm sunny weather (+20C) created difficult conditions for photography. Sharp photos were not possible but the many photos confirm the identity of the bird.

The bird was thought to be a bird sub-adult because of dull markings about the head including lack of plumes and the buffy tinged greater upper wing coverts. The white thighs are the classic mark of Gray Heron. Also important are the white shoulder patch, white alula and white primary coverts. Great Blue Heron is usually rufous in these areas.  The legs being shorter on a Gray Heron extend less beyond the tail when viewed in flight, with the length of foot being similar to the length of exposed leg beyond the tail. On Gray Heron the black stripes of neck contrast more sharply with pale gray neck than on Great Blue Heron with slightly duller black marks contrasting less with a pinkish/brown washed neck.

The following photos of the Gray Heron at Comfort Cove on 20 May 2016 show some of these features.

There is not much remarkable in this photograph that would alert someone this could be a Gray Heron.  The white shoulder patch and perhaps impression pale gray neck and shorter legs are clues.

A stretched wing shows a white alula and greater primary coverts where a Great Blue Heron should be rufous. The buffy greater secondary coverts is a sign of sub-adult age.

Seeing those white thighs is as good as being home free but sub-adult Great Blue Herons can have a very very pale cinnamon wash on thighs which could be interpreted as white with a brief view.  Often herons will not give a satisfactory view of thighs for hours.

White thighs.

White thighs.

White thighs.

White thighs.

White thighs.

White marks on leading edge of wing.

Length of feet similar to length of bare legs, legs longer in proportion to feet in GBHE.  Gray Heron said to have less bulging fold in neck in flight than GBHE.

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

April Showers, Blizzards, Fog & NE Gales bring Golden Plovers

April weather on the Avalon Peninsula is not fit for human habitation. Yesterday St. John's experienced eight hours with wind gusts exceeding 100 km/hr and a top gust of 121. Today the winds are lighter but snow is falling with the potential of up to 30 cm on the ground when we wake up tomorrow morning. During April Avalon birders cross their fingers for prolonged NE gales accompanied by RDF (rain, drizzle & fog). There are no guarantees in birding. It is still a long shot, but when the right weather systems are lined up across the Atlantic they can and have delivered displaced Icelandic migrants, to Newfoundland. 

European Golden Plover is the most routine Icelandic Vagrant to reach Newfoundland in spring.  They have arrived as early as 8 April. The peak time period of occurrence is 20 April - 10 May.  The magic date for arrival is 26 April. Flocks have been as high as 4 dozen. Other Icelandic species such as Black-tailed Godwit, Common Redshank, Pink-footed Goose and Northern Wheatears sometimes accompany the influxes of Golden Plovers. We are still awaiting a Meadow Pipit - an over due North American first.

We dream on through the inclement spring weather....

A European Golden Plover feeding in a field at Renews, Avalon Peninsula on 3 May 2014.

Saturday, 2 April 2016


All of these pictures were taken while on holidays 17-30 March 2016.  Can you identify the location?

The answer is ARIZONA.  A perfect answer to escape late winter in Newfoundland. Not a single drop of precipitation for two weeks.