Tuesday, 29 September 2020

CORN CRAKE at Cape Race, Newfoundland - 26 September

CORN CRAKE - 26 Sept 2020 at Cape Race, Newfoundland. It 11:45 am on a bright breezy day on the Cape Race barrens. Jared Clarke and I were completing our full coverage walk around the grass at Cape Race lighthouse area. It is habit to walk the grass looking for vagrant warblers and sparrows. Today there was zero. We were walking toward each other when a bird flew up in front of Jared. I couldn't hear what he yelled out in the wind. But I saw the bird flushing out of the grass. It was a heavy bodied broad winged bird. Initial thought was European Woodcock because of its bulky body and broad wings. This idea gave away in a microsecond as the brain added up the parts = CORN CRAKE. It flew forward of Jared but perhaps seeing and hearing me scream it circled back behind Jared in a broad far carrying circle and disappeared over the cliff edge. I had my binoculars on it for the whole time. Realizing it was a Corn Crake I had time to purposely look for the rufous upper wing coverts which were obviously present on a generally buff coloured bird. The bill was short. The wind appeared broadest in the area of the secondaries and tapered somewhat out through the primaries. It picked up speed and bit of altitude on the flight over the rise and presumably cliff edge. Jared and I congratulated each other on what had just happened and went to look for it again. I was guessing it flew over the cliff edge and took refuge on the steep grassy slopes. I scanned the cliff face hoping to see its head sticking out of the grass or maybe see the bird exposed on a bare rock. Meanwhile Jared was tramping the level grassy land on the other side of the little inlet. And he flushed it again. My look was rather distant but the beige body of the rail stood out in the bright sun light as it went over the next rise. It was time to make the calls. Being out of cell service range we had to drive 5 km down the road to get One Bar of service. A feeble but successful WhatsApp alert went out. We knew there were a number of birders birding in the southeast Avalon Peninsula at the time. We waited an hour for 10 people arrived. We began the search walking in a line where we thought the bird might have went. After one sweep the organization broke up and people walked about randomly throughout the general area. No luck. It was not found the next morning either. Not surprising for a super secretive species. There was no picture of the bird. The 2020 Corn Crake was somewhat less of a cosmic mind F---k than the one Ken Knowles and I saw at Cape Race on 2 November 2002. Since 2002 there have been two other birds flushed by birders in the southeast Avalon in late fall that could very well have been Corn Crakes. Also an amazing photo of a Corn Crake walking across a trail at a lighthouse at Twillingate, Newfoundland taken by the lighthouse keeper in fall 2009 came to light some years later. And a Corn Crake was present at St Pierre et Miquelon 10-22 Jan 2012 but was misidentified as a immature Sora until photos reached the outside world. The bird died and specimen preserved. It is possible Corn Crake is semi regular in Newfoundland but very rarely found because of its extremely secretive nature. Recently through radio telemetry it was discovered that some European Whimbrel fly non stop from African wintering grounds to breeding grounds in Iceland totally over water the whole way. They don't stop anywhere along the route unless they have to due to weather. This could explain the seemingly random occurrences European Whimbrel in May and July/early August in Newfoundland. These occurrence are unrelated to the storms that bring other Icelandic shorebirds to Newfoundland in spring. A slight deviation caused by a prolonged head wind over the open Atlantic could bring these Whimbrel to within sight of NF. It might be the same kind of migration some of the Corn Crakes undertake . Maybe some of them are flying non-stop from northern Europe to wintering grounds in Africa. I was noticing for a period in mid September 2020 there was a pretty good air flow from France/Spain area toward NF in a hockey stick shaped route. This continued for days. Don't have the details in front of me now but a Yellow-legged Gull appeared in St. John's during this time.

Wednesday, 16 September 2020

Juvenile COMMON RINGED PLOVER -12 Sep 2020

 On September 12 I went to Chance Cove Provincial Park (southeast Avalon Peninsula) for general birding and possible shorebird photography. I'd heard there were good numbers of shorebirds present there a couple of days earlier.  When I arrived there was a good swarm of 300 shorebirds frantically feeding in a bed of fermenting kelp above the daily reach of high tide.  Most of the birds were Sanderlings with moderate numbers of Semipalmated Sandpipers & Semipalmated Plovers plus various odds and ends.  The mid morning sun was already high and perfectly back lighting the shorebirds with an added powerful of glare reflecting off the water.  An impossible situation unless I got behind the birds on the waters edge.  There were so many birds present I decided to give it a shot.  Water was washing around my feet as I set up the tripod and got the big lens ready.  I was hurrying a little because naked eye I noticed a robust looking juvenile Semipalmated Plover emitting a host of alarming vibes.  It was the first bird I put the camera on.  Whoa! This looks good. Then tried binoculars.  Then returned to  the camera aimed at nothing but this bird for the next 30-40 minutes.

It looked big, strong, long back, more oblong shaped head  The broad dark band through the lores covered the gape and a little below. This was a juvenile COMMON RINGED PLOVER. (CRPL) The juvenile Semipalmated Plovers (SEPL) in comparison were like little wind up toys with cute little rounded heads, like teenage plovers not fully developed physically . 

The bird was defending a feeding area close to where I was set up.  In the end it vanished. I think the less confrontational Semipalmated Plovers won out on patience by standing their ground. In the end. several SEPL fed in the area that the CRPL wanted for itself.


Classic Common Ringed Plover features to note in this and the following pictures are a) wide lore band with a lower border reaching below the gape of bill, b) no colour to orbital ring, c) fairly long bill, d) reasonable wide breast band. Except for the width of lore patch all of the above features can be matched by juvenile Semipalmated Plover.  However ALL these features plus the wide lore band should be present on a genuine CRPL.




The webbing in the toes is a defining field mark but not crucial for identification.  Between middle toe an inner toe CRPL has no webbing, SEPL have a small amount of webbing.  Between middle toe and outer toe CRPL have a very rudimentary tiny webbing, SEPL has a large area of webbing.  Tons of caution should be used even in photos when judging the presence or lack of webbing.  SEPL with slightly relaxed toes can lose the appearance of webbing as the loose web aligns with the toes.  Photos of the same SEPL seconds apart can looked fully webbed to unwebbed.

Above are two images of the CPRL toes.  And below is one image of a SEPL toes fully out stretched and clearly visible even when partially covered with beach debris


A classic juvenile SEPL showing pinched lore pattern and a yellowish orbital ring (5 Sept 2020, NF)

The CRPL over a cowering SEPL. Most notable features in this picture are the differences in lores and t the orbital ring.

NOTE:  Common Ringed Plover is now found annually (1-3+ per year) during southbound migration on the Avalon Peninsula, Newfoundland. Nearly all are the rather conspicuous adults. Juveniles are far more like to go undetected among the ubiquitous Semipalmated Plover.  


Tuesday, 21 July 2020

Because they are Arctic Terns....

Arctic Terns in adult breeding plumage are a beautiful bird. Nature has finely cropped the Arctic Tern providing it maximum lift with minimal effort allowing to spent most of its life on the wing at sea communing between the top and bottom of the earth.  We are lucky to have it as fairly common as a nester on the Avalon Peninsula, Newfoundland. It is often with the more numerous Common Tern.  While the two species are so similar that they require a good view to identify, the subtle differences between the finely sculpted Arctic Tern and the chunky Common Tern are obvious when experienced closely.


On the weekend I was at Ferryland beach watching a small swarm of kittiwakes, gulls, puffins and terns attracted to the spawning capelin.  With the west wind the terns were approaching the beach riding along the edge of a small bluff. A potential set up for photography of one of my favourite photo targets - terns but especially Arctic Terns. It worked out so well on 18th July that I went back for some more on the 20th.  I got so many satisfying shots of the Arctics that I couldn't chose a few favourites so I am posting an abundance of favs here. With Arctic Terns you can do that just because of who they are...


Below is a short poem I corrupted from a ZZ Top song.


Sharp Dressed Tern


          Long tail, short bill
          And I know I am goin' to capelin beach
          Silk wings, black cap,
          I know the reason why
          They come runnin' ‘til their leg’s real burn
          'Cause every birder’s crazy 'bout a sharp dressed tern

























Wednesday, 8 July 2020

Summer Shearwatering

Summer is a good time to be a birder on the Avalon Peninsula of Newfoundland. The capelin arrive in enormous volumes to spawn on the beaches and near shore. Great Shearwaters and Sooty Shearwaters from the Southern Hemisphere depend on the summer capelin crop in Newfoundland waters to gorge on while going through a quick moult. 

Getting out in a boat among the shearwaters is a photographer's dream.  It not as easy as ABC. Ian Jones has been a source in recent years. He owns a high tech watercraft, perhaps meant more for freshwater ponds than the open Atlantic, but still is quite functional on the ocean in relatively civil conditions.  I was fortunate to get out with Ian and Jeannine Winkel on 4 July 2020 off St. Vincent's Beach and St Shotts.

Shearwaters numbers had dropped over night and those we found were more in resting mode than feeding.  The most action was in choppy waters off St Shotts. Overall the nearly 2,000 shearwaters, mainly Sooty with <10% Greats made for an OK trip.  Below are some photos from the trip. Most of the Sootys were in heavy moult. The few in pristine condition were birds hatched in the most recent nesting season, during our winter.




The neat and complete feathering in the wings shows this is a Sooty Shearwater fledged this past winter in the Southern Hemisphere nesting area.

Most of the Sooty Shearwaters showed heavy wing moult. These would be the adults.




















The Great Shearwaters were much tamer than the Sootys allowing close approach with the boat.





 Common Murres and Atlantic Puffins were flying by regularly.

A rare Laughing Gull was cruising 3 km south of St Shotts. A handful show up on the Avalon Peninsula each summer.

Humpback, minke and fin whales were present but the photo of the expedition was this harbour porpoise. Not rare but not easy to get close to and difficult to photograph in Newfoundland. A small group investigated the boat.