Saturday, 22 November 2014

Eastern & Western Willets - SOS

This blog has nothing to do with current birding. There has been a drought in my blog postings due to a November-long sentencing to a ship off eastern Newfoundland where the birding has been monotonous.  Here is a filler posting until my release after which more frequent blog entries should occur. 

In early May 2013 I took a ten day holiday in southern Alberta for general birding and photography. The prairies are another kind of ocean supporting a rich and varied bird life - all of it novelty for a Newfoundland birder.  

All birds were fair game for the camera including Willets. I knew prairie Willets were larger and paler than east coast breeding Willets.  I do not get a lot of exposure to any Willets.  There are only a few pairs of Eastern Willets breeding in Newfoundland.  And except for occasional trips to Alberta during summer I basically see no other Willets.  Below are a selection of Western Willet from Alberta early in the breeding season.

Western Willet  8 May 2013 near Medicine Hat, Alberta

Western Willet 7 May 2013 at Lake Pakowski, Alberta - still not in full breeding plumage?

Western Willet 8 May 2013 near Medicine Hat, Alberta (more heavily barred than average)

Western Willet 8 May 2013 near Medicine Hat, Alberta.

Western Willets in a wrestling match 7 May 2013 at an isolated cattle watering hole in the middle of no where southern Alberta.

Soon after returning to Newfoundland with images of many Alberta Willets fresh in my mind I saw a member of the returning pair of Eastern Willets at Renews Beach, Avalon Peninsula.  I was instantly blown away at how small and heavily marked it was.  It had squat little legs and a short bill. Surely a different species.  At least as different as Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs. Then the alarm bells went off. I was breaking my own rule of Save Our Subspecies - SOS.

The Renews, Newfoundland Eastern Willet in June 2009 above and 2011 below. Probably the the same bird in each picture and possibly the same bird I saw in 2013. So different from the Alberta Willets. 

The recent rash of splitting hairs and creating full species out of perfectly good pairs of subspecies has been an irritation for me. It was the creation of Bicknell's Thrush that pushed me over the edge to start a movement of one person to Save Our Subspecies (SOS).  The Bicknell's is even a poor example of subspecies in my books let alone a pathetic excuse for full species. In the same league was peeling Saltmarsh Sparrow away from the Sharp-tailed Sparrow complex.  Yes there is an interesting selection of different looking Sharp-tailed Sparrows from an interesting range of breeding habitats.  All kissing cousin, all one species in my books.  

Cackling Goose is another sick species in the SOS rule book.  When visiting Saskatchewan during fall Whooping Crane season amid masses of migrating geese, I noted the local birders didn't bother with Cackling Goose even though it was numerous and sometimes was in pure flocks among Ross's and White-fronted Geese and no regular sized Canadas.  Now the splitting of Winter Wrens! And talk of splitting White-breasted Nuthatches.  Why? What is the point? Instead of being close cousins supporting each other as a strong species unit, they are being separated into weak species. What is wrong with a species having groups of within exhibiting different dialects, different shades of the same colour?  Look at Europe. All those little countries jammed into together. They've been there long enough for people to have developed different languages and identifiable physical features - yet they are all the same species. Why not the same way of thinking for birds.  Save Our Subspecies.  I could go on and on here with irritant species.

On the other hand there are some birds I'd like to see be officially made into a full species in North America.  I am so glad we were given back the Bullock's and Baltimore Oriole.  Waiting for the return of Audubon's and Myrtle Warblers.  Pet wants for splits involve Eurasian vs North American pairs.  Whimbrels with white rumps should be split from the North American Whimbrel.  And the teals. Look at the picture below taken in St. John's, Newfoundland on 1 March 2011.  Don't you feel a spark of excitement seeing all those European ducks in a North American pond.  They just feel like a different entity. That is good enough for full species status in the Save Our Subspecies society.  

Common Teal and one Green-winged Teal 1 March 2011 at Mundy Pond, St. John's, Newfoundland. Don't you feel the urge to tick something good here?

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Warbler Month Starts on the Weekend

November is the exciting warbler watching month on the Avalon Peninsula. The leaves fall off the trees making it easier to see the lingering waifs. The richer areas with the last morsels of greenery become magnets or at least hangouts for warblers living here beyond their time. Flocks of the ubiquitous junco and little bands of chickadees become comfort groups for warblers pushing the limits of survival in November in Newfoundland.

Twenty-nine species of warbler have been recorded during the month of November in St. John's. Some of the more outstanding species have been Cerulean Warbler, Kentucky Warbler and Hooded Warbler.  But it is the western warblers that really brings out the smiles on birders. 

The western warbler count for the St. John's and neighbouring areas is 16 Townsend's Warbler, one Black-throated Gray Warbler, one Hermit Warbler and one Virginia's Warbler.  Nearly all of these were found during the month of November. We are in desperate need for another Black-throated Gray Warbler.  It is surprising especially considering the number of TOWAs that there had been only one Black-throated Gray (1 Nov to 5 Dec 1992 - Waterford Valley).  We are lucky to have the one Hermit Warbler from Blackhead 11 to 13 Nov 1989.  Last November's Virginia's Warbler in east St. John's was a dream come true.

Newfoundland is full of paradoxes when it comes to bird records but none is more bizarre than the high frequency of Townsend's Warbler. Sixteen records for the Avalon Peninsula is more than most states and provinces in the eastern half of North America have tallied. Fourteen of these have occurred within the St. John's city limits. Even more remarkable is that 11 of these have occurred in the Waterford Valley, an area roughly 300 x 1500 meters. This probably means we are missing lots more in other areas.  There are two records for the Greater Renews area proving that the Townsend's Warbler can occur outside of the city. BTW all of these November western warblers were seen well, most over a period of days or weeks, most by many observers and all but three TOWAs photographed. In other words solid records. 

The new header photograph to mark the start of Warbler Month for this blog is a Townsend's Warbler on the banks of the Waterford River. St John's on 1 January 2013. It was the only individual to make it into January. Most are found in the middle two weeks of November with some of them making into December.  

This Townsend's Warbler found on a St. John's CBC on 26 Dec 2012 stayed alive until 5 January 2013 along the banks of the lower Waterford River. It was a real crowd pleaser.

This Townsend's Warbler found on a rainy Sunday along the Waterford River trail was, unlike most individuals, just a 30 minute wonder.  It was not seen after it choked down this dangerous looking spider. 7 Nov 2009.

Bowring Park in the Waterford Valley is an excellent place to find a November Townsend's Warbler. This was by the main duck pond on 19 Nov 2007.

Proof that a Townsend's Warblers can occur outside of the city of St. John's is this one at Bear Cove (south of Renews) on 23 Oct 2014. This is the earliest date for the province.

So the time is here. Start pounding the sidewalks on the weekends, and your lunch breaks during the week. The rewards are out there with some big prizes to be found.  The month goes by fast. Every day is precious in November.

ADDENDUM - Newfoundland's 17th Townsend's Warbler was photographed on 8 Nov 2014 by Brian Hill in his backyard in Mt. Pearl, Avalon Peninsula.  Right on time.  It would be a  stretch to add this to the Waterford Valley Townsend's Warbler List but it was at least in the Waterford River drainage basin!

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Gonzalo at Cape Race - A Great Big Sea Show without Birds.

Ian Jones, Jared Clarke and I went to Cape Race to meet Hurricane Gonzalo head on at dawn on Sunday. Our timing was good. Gonzalo could have done us a favour by passing with his eye in sight of Cape Race.  Maybe even then there would have been no special birds to see. The storm passed over nothing but open ocean except for a Bermuda visit.  There are only so many good sub-tropical pelagic seabirds possible between Bermuda and Cape Race in mid October.  But the exceptionally high speed at which the Eye of Gonzo was passing us (57 km/hr) might have been good enough to drop us a gift or two had it come a little closer. 

The backside of the storm hit just as we got to the lighthouse. Very strong NW winds were blowing the tops off the incoming storm swells rolling in from the south east. It created an impressive scene. It was easy to imagine how any seabird would give up hope of fighting the conditions and just try to keep alive by going with the flow of the wind.  Gannets, the biggest and strongest seabirds, were challenged by the winds as they rocketed through the furrows and over the waves on reduced wing surfaces. Kittiwakes had wings curved back like a falcon as they strained to maintain control. The birds were not having a good time.

While the birding was lackluster the wave watching was exhilarating. My rule of never taking scenery shots went right out the window.  There was no containing the urge to capture the incredible scene. I spent more time taking scenics than looking through the scope. [I promise this will not happen again].

Regular Cape Race sea watchers will recognize this view and realize the massive volume of water sent airborne.   This happened a hundred times during our 2 hour watch.

Scopes were abandoned as seabirders (JC left, IJ right) turn into wave watchers.

 Colossal volumes of water were being thrown far out of the sea.  I ran from this one. But there was no need it was just some foolish internal auto survival reaction.

Experienced Cape Racers will recognize this rock to the left of our seawatch location.  Sometimes in the winter it gets topped by a big wave but on Gonzalo Day it was frequently obliterated. See both pictures below.

Two storm chaser personalties from The Weather Network were on the scene and were not disappointed with plenty to film. 

Professional storm chasers and seasoned Cape Race birders watch in awe as series after series of big ones roll in.

View to the west.

A distant headland to the west smashes a big wave to smithereens. 

IJ gets bored and tries a little acting while JC and I take the snaps.

He lived.

A view of Cape Race lighthouse as we drove away in the unseasonably warm humid tropical hurricane air. The only thing missing was a g-o-o-d bird.  

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Canvasback is Rarest in Newfoundland

Without too much research it is probably safe to say that Canvasback is rarer in Newfoundland than any province or state in North America. With the first record in November 1973 and the second today 9 October 2014 it is the rarest duck on the Newfoundland list. Right in there with Common Shelduck tentatively on the list with two records in last five years. Even Garganey is more routine with four records. So it is easy to understand why every birder in town descended on Kenny's Pond behind the St.John's Holiday Inn after I stumbled across an immature CANVASBACK there.  I was using the cell phone outside in the wind when phone calls were met with periods of confused scepticism and silence when I said CANVASBACK at Kenny's Pd.  Some people thought I was saying "Ken is back".  As if  Ken was even away. One person responded with " a Canada-what?"  It was difficult news to swallow I know. THERE IS A !!#&%&^#!! CANVASBACK DUCK AT KENNY'S POND NOW !!! Once the messages got through the common response was " I am on the way".

The rest is history. And we expect a long history with this bird as it looks settled down with the 35 other aythya ducks present (4 species including nine Tufted Ducks).  Kenny's Pond is a favourite among St. John's aythya until freeze up in December.

Whoops, looks like I've been detected. I was thinking it was the slightly more regular but still very rare Redhead duck before it whipped out the bill.

No confusing that one of a kind profile especially among some smaller Tufted Ducks.

Already tamed and associating with the human desensitized wild ducks (Greater Scaup, Lesser Scaup, Ring-necked Ducks, Tufted Ducks, American Black Ducks), I wonder how this would have affected our thoughts on its provenance if it had been say a Common Pochard!? 

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Anything but an Everyday Common Gull

On September 16 Alvan Buckley texted me while I was imprisoned on a ship 200 miles off the coast of Newfoundland asking if I'd heard about the possible Kamchatka Gull in St. John's.  My response was 'get a life, it ain't gonna happen in Newfoundland'.  Then he directed me to the photos which can be seen on his blog site  I was floored. This Common Gull does look extremely unusual.  It was so large compared to the Herring Gulls in the picture. So dark above. And look at the size of that bill!?

I am not easily sold on off the wall birds that look like a text book example of something so it must be that species or subspecies. Instead I try to imagine an alternative explanation for looking like that. But this bird was so different. Maybe there was a legitimate case for labelling this 'Common Gull' as Kamchatka Gull - the eastern Siberian subspecies of the Mew/Common Gull complex.

The gull could not be located despite frequent visits to the fields around Quidi Vidi Lake where it was first seen. Finally the bird resurfaced today some 20 km away in the farm fields of Kilbride (corner of Goulds bypass and Ruby Line).

Jared Clarke spotted it first.  His first words were 'there is the Kamchatka Gull, or is it a California Gull?".  It was sitting down on the newly plowed field. For a few seconds we had to figure out what it was. Asleep on the field the dark upper aparts and size really were worth entertaining the California Gull option - bird still missing from the provincial list. The plain yellow bill proved it was a Common Gull. The size and dark upper parts confirmed that this was the bird found 12 days earlier by AB. 

Below are photos of the bird. The afternoon sunlight was very harsh. The bird really stood out as something different when compared to Herring and Ring-billed Gulls around it.  It was easily over looked as a LBBG when scanning over the 200+ gulls feeding in the newly plowed field.  The following photos show little comparison with other gulls. Hopefully more encounters with this bird over the next while. 

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Trust Me - This is a Yellow-legged Gull - Probably

Identification of the Yellow-legged Gull is like splitting an atom. It is a halfway gull, halfway between the Herring Gull and Lesser Black-backed Gull. The identification of out of range Yellow-legged Gulls must deal with proof it is not a hybrid  HERG x LBBG. A gull with half its genes from a HERG and the other half from a LBBG creates a YLGU look-alike but does not make a real YLGU.  

St. John's gets the lions share of the North American Yellow-legged Gull sightings because of its relatively close proximity to the Azores. The majority of YLGUs identified in St. John's match the smaller and darker race (atlantis) from the Azores.  There is a theory that part of the year Azorean YLGU follow tuna schools out to sea. In mid to late summer tuna reach Newfoundland waters on the southeast Grand Banks and adjacent areas possibly bringing YLGUs with them.

The easiest YLGUs to identify are the adults in winter.  Their white heads stand out from the streaked heads of the other large gulls gulls in winter. This combined with that beautiful rare shade of gray plus details on head and bill shape, leg colour and wing tip pattern - all subtlety different from both HERG and LBBG, add up to create a YLGU which really does feel like a different species and not just a version of LBBG or HERG.

The first YLGU(s) of the season are often discovered in late August or early September loafing in the ballfields and other grassy areas among the buildings and old military housing units on the north side of Quidi Vidi Lake.  At this time they are not a pretty sight with a dirty streaked head and missing outer primaries.   The rare shade of gray on the upper parts, head and bill shape, pattern of head streaking and yellow legs come together to create that warm fuzzy feeling when you are pretty sure you have the real thing.

On 11 September Alvan Buckley photographed a suspicious gull at Quidi Vidi lake that when passed around to the St. John's gull fans was highly suspected of being a Yellow-legged Gull.  Late Sunday afternoon (14 Sept 2014) I saw the same bird in the same field off Janeway Place.  Right away I felt that warm fuzzy feeling starting to grow. We've seen this before in later summer. That rare shade of gray on a gull with a distinct ball cap shaped patch of head streaking and a stumpy rear end caused by a shortage of outer primaries. And of course yellow legs. 

I did not have my 600 mm lens with me but my warbler lens (300 f4) plus a 1.4x converter came in handy.  The correct shade of gray is impossible to create accurately on every computer. My computer used for downloading and processing photos is very bright and sharp. When I save those pictures and bring them to this laptop used for emailing and blogging, the pictures are duller and the gray is bluer and darker. You can not win.  Below are two slightly different versions of the same photo.

 Two versions of the same picture in an attempt to illustrate the correct shade of gray on the upper parts. Note the head streaking concentrated in a ball cap shape on the forward part f the head. This is typical for YLGU and unusual in other large gulls. On a relaxed YLGU this head shape with a steeply rising forehead, level topped head and steeply dropping nape is classic YLGU. But when feeding or active this shape is often lost.

Next to a GBBG for comparison.  A nice view of head profile and pattern of head streaking. The bill shows black markings and pale base because it is a third year bird (hatched in summer 2011).

I hesitated to show this picture next to a Herring Gull that appears overexposed in this photo.  It makes the difference look too great between the mantle colours. The YLGUs that occur in St. John's are typical a little smaller than the average local Herring Gull.  The culmen or tip of the upper mandible drops abruptly to bill tip, more so than typical for HERG or LBBG. Not easy to see in these photos.

A wing stretch reveals lots of information. The extensive black marks on the primary coverts and alula along with the black marks on bill are good evidence this bird is just a year short of being an adult.   If you look close the white tips of P10 and P9 are visible by the primary coverts and there is a dark mark on P4.  The sharp contrast between black of wing tip and the rest of the wing is strong on both the top and underside of the wing. This is standard for YLGU, HERG and HERG x LBBG hybrids (!) but not LBBG

A passing eagle put up the gulls just as I was getting started.  Flying away at a distance shows a fairly life like comparison of the upper part colours of HERG (left side) and the YLGU.

This bird was thought not to be a hybrid HERG x LBBG because of the pattern of head streaking (more extensive and usually includes neck and breast), shape of bill (more pointed), leg colour (pinky-yellow leg), wing tip pattern (less likely to have a black mark on P4 and heavy black marks on P5 and P6). And the over all jizz.  The hybrid HERGxLBBG usually have a HERG sense about them but with a darker unpper parts and strong yellow cast to pinkish legs.

For reference, two fields away and two days previous was this adult Lesser Black-backed Gull.  In early September the adult LBBGs typically have white head and most or all of their old unmoulted primaries.