Thursday, 23 March 2017

The St. Vincents Beach Pacific Loon - again.

For the fourth consecutive winter a PACIFIC LOON has overwintered with the Common Loons off the two km long beach that runs from St.Vincents to Peters River on the southern Avalon Peninsula. This bird has given Avalon Peninsula birders the rare opportunity to get to know this species in winter plumage. The species is very rare anywhere in Atlantic Canada with four or five individuals recorded in all time around the island of Newfoundland. 

St. Vincents beach is a wide open southward facing beach with no protection from the open Atlantic Ocean. The seas are often rough.  There is no protection from the wind for birders trying to scan the water with telescopes mounted on tripods. On top of this, the sun is always in the south in the winter which can create horrendous glare conditions.  The loons are rarely within 100 m, usually 200-500+ m, off the shoreline.  On top of that we are usually observing 50-100 m back from the beach edge. The loon may be present every day for 180 days (November to May) but getting one day with light winds, low swell, no sun and probably on a weekend day is a challenge. St. Vincents beach is also a 90 minute drive from St. John's where most of the birders live.  But on 18 March 2017 I ticked off most of the appropriate boxes and had one of my better experiences with the Pacific Loon. There was still a 1.5 m swell which is not bad for St. Vincents.

The following pictures are heavily cropped.  Even with a 840 mm lens the image of the bird was not much more than a big speck of dirt on the lens.  

The Pacific Loon uncropped.

The same image above but highly cropped showing plenty of detail on the beautiful Pacific Loon.  In all these photos note the smooth snaky neck that is distinctly paler behind.  The back is darker than hind neck and in this adult mainly a uniform blackish.  It has an extra long sand lance in its beak that it did swallow after holding it for 20 seconds.

The patented chin strap is very obvious on this individual. Photos of winter Pacific Loons on the internet show many individuals with much less conspicuous to barely discernible chin straps.  At any distance it vanishes from sight on this bird also.   

There is a puffiness to the back of the neck.  Nice thin straight daggerette bill. (daggerette = small dagger).

St. Vincents Beach on a rough day two weeks earlier. Hardly worth the effort to locate the Pacific Loon in such conditions. There are usually 30-70 Common Loons and a single Red-throated Loon present off this beach in winter.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

A Slaty-backed Gull Comes To Town.

On Friday 17 March 2017 on the way to work I stopped at Quidi Vidi Lake as I usually do. With only 30 minutes to spare and being such a nice morning I decided to walk out to the bench to sit down and listen to the singing Song Sparrow.  This worked out. The Song Sparrow was making use of the nice  nearly spring-like, calm morning to sing.  Ethel Dempsey came by.  As we chatted I scanned the little flock of gulls out on the ice edge. Ethel's voice suddenly became long distance when I saw a potentially hot gull. It looked too small for a Great Black-backed Gull. It wasn't a  Lesser Black-backed Gull because the legs looked too pink. .  I yearned for my scope left at home not expecting to need it with so little time on the way to work.  I looked some more. Initial impressions were of a nearly LBBG-like bird with bright pink legs and oddly there seemed to be a fair bit of head streaking which was a little unusual for the time of year. The bird was asleep with its' beak shoved into its back and facing away. it was not close.  I informed Ethel that there was a potential alarming gull in front of us.  We gawked at the bird but could not gain much additional information from the sleeping bird. Needed to see that head come out.  Meanwhile I made a dash back to the car to get my camera just in case this turned out to be what it was pointing toward. 

Not wanting to sound the alarm on a bird we weren't sure of we texted a couple of people to just make them aware there was a potential mega in out midst. Then it woke up and started preening. The pale bill, the heavily streaked head, dark smudge around the eye = SLATY-BACKED GULL.  It was the real thing.  The phone calls and texts began in earnest.  While in this process there was an unplanned for flush of gulls by a passing eagle. We missed getting a photo of the open wing. The identification was already clinched but getting a  photo of that 'string of pearls' would have been sweet.

The Slaty-backed Gull was seen next on Saturday at 4 pm by Lancy Cheng. He had some good looks and got the first images of the 'string of pearls'.  Today, Sunday, Quidi Vidi lake was monitored on and off. It was such a beautiful calm sunny day that birders were scattering around outside the city.  At 1:30  pm John Wells found the bird on the ice at the west end of the lake.  A half dozen birders who happened to be by the lake at the time got to see the bird. I heard about the bird too late.  I got there just after an eagle had flushed the gulls.  A couple of hours at Quidi Vidi Lake and checking other gull hang outs produced nothing so I went home.  Five minutes later Lancy Cheng texted the Slaty-backed Gull was back at the lake, it was at the west end and close. I got back in the car.

It was a glorious 30 minutes with the gulls on the ice. The sun was low in the west and the bird was in the east. It was preening madly like it had never seen fresh water before and never had a real chance to clean itself.  The camera clicked madly. Others arrived and ticked and clicked.

Below are some of the results.

The first 200 pictures of the Slaty-backed Gull.

Friday, 17 March 2017

Mid March Ruff - Everything Happens at Renews

Paul Linegar texted at 2 pm Thursday afternoon that he was looking at a 'dull Ruff' at Renews. It took a second for that to register.  It was mid March, we were still waiting for the first migrant Ring-billed Gulls to arrive. It is winter.  Though the strong and far reaching South wind overnight brought some nice +9 C temps and melted a lot of snow.  Mid March is a couple weeks early for the first vagrant migrants to happen - at least normally.  But this was Renews. Everything Happens at Renews. The list of vagrants for Renews is so long you couldn't carry all the megas away in your arms. Renews doesn't look like much but it looks a lot better than anywhere else on the east side of the Avalon Peninsula.

While not normally a bird I'd leave work and drive for just over and hour to go see, it was the first vagrant of the season after a long drawn out b-b-b-boring winter.  I was gone in a flash.

The bird was easy to find in the well known little pool by the road known as The Wood Sandpiper Pond for good reason! It was standing asleep at the back of the pond. It was a smart looking female reeve done up as good as they get in spring - bright legs, dark flecks on upper breast and some fancy scapulars and tertials scattered among more mundane feathers.

HISTORY OF MARCH RUFFS - There is another March record for Newfoundland.15 March 1998 at Haricott, Avalon Peninsula by Mike Parmenter.  Most spring Ruffs happen in Newfoundland late April to late May.  Looking in some rather outdated regional books I found the earliest records for some states where Ruff is regular in spring: 12 March (New Jersey), 7 March (New York) and 2 April (Massachusetts). There is a 21 March record for Nova Scotia and there is that amazingly resilient and ingenious Ruff that overwintered with Rock Doves in St. John's, Newfoundland 24 Nov 1983 to late April 1984. During the 30 hours prior to the appearance of the Ruff at Renews there were strong south winds originating from the Caribbean.  There are winter records of Ruff in the Caribbean. It is possible this bird was migrating from north from the Caribbean when it got caught in the strong winds and detoured to Newfoundland.

The birds was cooperative. Once it started feeding it walked toward the car. The sun was exactly in the worse possible position but couldn't complain too much since the bird could have easily been at the far corner of the flooded pool.

First snap of the Ruff from the main road. 

Female Ruffs (reeve) are not bad looking in spring dress.

It was seen eating several carpenters (sow bugs) in the flooded grass. Normally this food item not available in March.

It looked at this caterpillar but decided not to eat it. Probably my first March record of a caterpillar.

Balancing grass on its bill.

It was very unafraid at least while I was sitting in the car.

If the Ruff is smart it will hop over the road to the tidal flats where this Black-bellied Plover has survived this winter.

Friday, 10 February 2017

The Yellow-legged Gull Returns - A Pattern Emergs.

Yesterday Lancy Cheng turned up a Yellow-legged Gull at Quidi Vidi Lake, St. John's, Newfoundland. It was the first great day for gull watching in a couple of weeks. After a cold windy spell and hardly any gulls on the lake, a warm spell with rain really stirred up the gulls and brought them out from hiding. It is still a mystery why we can't see large numbers of gulls in cold windy weather. The only food major source for 'ten thousand miles' is the St. John's landfill.  So they aren't leaving the zone but their habits do not cross paths with birding habits. Unfortunately our birding habits are prohibited from including the landfill where all the big gulls (except Iceland) must go to feed.

It was nice that Lancy found the Yellow-legged Gull again.  It adds a coating of lacquer to a developing pattern. This is the third consecutive year that this particular YLGU has shown up in St. John's in Sept/Oct and stayed until December - vanished completely - then appears out of no where in February. If the pattern holds we'll have only 2-3 weeks to enjoy its presence before it vanishes for good until the fall. 

I was already planning to take today off work. It coincided nicely with the new abundance of gulls. It was still raining and unseasonably warm when I set out early Friday morning. There were a lot of gulls also too many eagles  Between eagle flushes I managed three separate sightings of the Yellow-legged Gull. Twice on the bare ground by the Granite & Tile building near the entrance to the landfill and once bathing at close range at the west end of Quidi Vidi lake.

Photos were secured. It was all in panic mode. No time for breathing normally as the next eagle flush was just around the corner. Hopefully there will be some more close encounters over the next couple of weeks.

Below are photos of the bird today. I won't go through all the reasons why this is a Yellow-legged Gull because I outlined this in Feb 2016. The details can be seen here.  Enjoy.

Friday, 3 February 2017

The Seductive Wigeon

There is something about an adult drake Eurasian Wigeon that I find irresistible. The burnt orange head and silvery gray body must have something to do with it. The trim and tidy, smart looking, rounded head and agility on their feet are attractive features of both American and Eurasian Wigeon.  Most adult drake ducks in full breeding plumage when studied intimately are works of art but there is something about the colour combination of the adult drake Eurasian Wigeon that just melts me.  Always been that way since I saw my first one in my mid-teens in southern Ontario. I was in a car packed with birders on the way to a May weekend at Point Pelee.  It was a stake out along the way. We had time for only a brief look. 

Many years later I was in another car packed with birders driving back roads in the marshlands of the Netherlands looking for White-tailed Eagles. It was winter. There were lots of waterfowl in the half frozen ponds including Eurasian Wigeons by the flock. It was painful to drive by everything in search of one species of bird. Finally there was a pond so close to the road, so full of wigeons that I blurted out - "can we stop here for a quick look".  Slightly perturbed for the stop when they realized all I was doing was looking at the wigeons, I felt better when someone mentioned that when  the famous bird illustrator from Sweden with the initial LJ was here last month he wanted to look at wigeons too.  LJ was probably more interested in the finer details of distinguishing 1st winter from adult females or something like that for his next master piece, where as all I was doing was soaking in those burnt orange heads and silver gray bodies. It was like eating a drug. 

We are blessed in St. John's to get a couple dozen or Eurasian Wigeon every fall. Most of them try to over winter. Some have to depart when there is too much snow covering up the lawns on which they like to graze on.  But lately, especially this year, wigeon are joining in with the other ducks eating bird seed and what ever people are offering the starving crowd.  Adult drake Eurasian Wigeon are generally the wariest and most difficult to see well among wigeon. Not they are that wary! This winter there has been a tame adult drake at Nevilles Pond and another at Powers Pond.  Females and young males are spread out more liberally among the city ponds and are easy to view around your feet wherever ducks gather in winter.

This week I spent some time with the Nevilles Pond drake  - a perfect specimen, and also a few minutes with the Powers Pond bird.

All of the above were the same bird photographed at Nevilles Pond, Paradise, Newfoundland on 29 & 30 January 2017.
Below is a shot of the adult Eurasian Wigeon at Powers Pond plus its mate also a Eurasian Wigeon. There were four pairs of American Wigeon here each paired up with one their own species. They know how to tell the difference. 
Photo: 31 Jan 2017


A flock of wigeon, a gray headed female American in the middle and rest Eurasian, at Spaniard's Bay on the west side of Conception Bay.  This area supports the most Eurasian Wigeons during the hardest times of mid winter. These are a wary group. Photo: 28 Dec 2015.