Sunday, 18 September 2016

Baird's Sandpiper - A Piece of Cake ID

Just saying the name Baird's Sandpiper in Newfoundland creates a fog of ID mystery. This is partly because of the limitations of Field Guides and the difficulty in capturing the true nature of a Baird's Sandpiper with a photograph.

The ID problem starts when you live in Newfoundland where Baird's Sandpiper is a rarity with 1-5 per year but Semipalmated and White-rumped Sandpipers are common. The Field Guides advertise the scaly back pattern of the Baird's Sandpiper is typically the center-focus of identification. However, numerous juvenile Semipalmated and White-rumped Sandpiper migrating through Newfoundland and Labrador also have "scaly backs".

This Baird's Sandpiper was at Long Beach, Cape Race, Avalon Peninsula, Newfoundland on 16 Sept 2016.

Semipalmated Sandpiper (the two photos below) on the same beach for comparison.

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Alan is Gone - 1954-2016

I was not going to post this as it didn't really seem appropriate for a birding blog but after seeing a great write up by Josh Vandermeulen I decided writing about a great birder was OK for a birding blog.

Alan Wormington was not known to many birdwatchers in Newfoundland. He was an Ontario birder. Alan died at 62 years old on 3 September 2016 where he lived in Leamington, the closest town to Point. Pelee. It was cancer.  He was an intense person who spent more time looking at birds, looking for birds, thinking about birds than perhaps any other Canadian. When birdwatching is your life every day for close to fifty years the knowledge accumulates. It begins to concentrate and purify, maybe it ferments a little and ages like a fine rare scotch. Thoughts about birds become clearer. New ideas rise to the top. Alan understood the birds of Ontario in a way unmatched by anyone.   
I do not remember the first time I met Alan but in the early 1970s we were both teenage birders going to Ontario high schools, or supposed to be. We went on a Thanksgiving Weekend birding trip to New Jersey.  Tom Hince and I took a bus from Ottawa (where I lived until 1973) to Kingston and met up with Alan and Mark Jennings both from Hamilton at the time.  In Alan’s tin box Toyota we drove through the night to New Jersey and spent a great three days birding Cape May and Brigantine. On the way home we drove through New York City to see a few sights and stop for a pizza. It was well into the night when the car broke down in downtown NYC.  Somehow we got it towed to an afterhours garage. We spent the next 48 hours waiting for the car to be repaired while sleeping at the YMCA by night and birding at Central Park and Jamaica Bay National Wildlife refuge by day with just enough money for a one street vendor frankfurter per day. Finally the car was drivable.  Soon as we got back into Canada Alan dumped Tom and I off on highway #401 to hitchhike back to Ottawa because it was mid-October and the winds were east. It was going to be a good day for jaeger-watching in Hamilton. He would miss that if he drove us back to Ottawa. Such was ‘The Worm’.  Hard-nosed when it came to feeding his interest in birds but completely open when it came to sharing the knowledge.
I enjoyed reading Alan’s annual birds reports for Point Pelee. I was interested in the way he saw things. Sometimes it was a little hard to swallow what he was proclaiming even though you had a hunch he was probably right. For example one year there was an exceptional warm spell around Christmas triggering waterfowl from the south to fly north to the Pelee area. He labelled these ducks as record early spring arrivals for the Pelee area.  Absurd isn’t it or was it?  How could anyone call those spring arrivals in December?  Wouldn’t those ducks go back south again when normal winter weather returned in January?  Alan was free to say what he thought because he knew so much more than anyone else.
Alan was a birding pillar. Much of what he knew was passed on to his compatriot birders lucky enough to bird with him regularly at Point. Pelee.  Apparently he was in the process of writing a book on The Birds of Point Pelee.  I heard the book will be picked up and finished by others including another Father of Ontario birding Bob Curry. That should be a good book.
Alan you will be missed.  I was going to ask you what you thought about Black-bellied Whistling Ducks occurrences in Canada. There were three photographed in Newfoundland in May 2016. I am guessing they were likely bona fide vagrants but how do you deal with the possibility of escapees in Ontario? And who am I going to tease when the next Townsend’s Warbler shows up in Newfoundland widening the illogical gap in total number seen in Newfoundland versus Ontario? 
Next time I go to Point Pelee I will see a few people I know and hordes that I don’t but the place will be empty without an Alan Wormington.  Bird migration will continue unabated spring and fall at Point Pelee. The birds will not care in the least if Alan Wormington is watching them or not.  But we the human element will lose out on the cutting edge insight on bird migration at Point Pele without the advantage of Wormington vision.
Hah so you never did get a Ruffed Grouse on your Pelee list!?!?
Alan is gone.  1954-2016 

Kevin McLaughlin - Alan Wormington - Bruce Mactavish at the tip of Point Pelee, Ontario in October 2004.         Photo by Ross Harris.

Thursday, 1 September 2016

The Southern Warbler Hunting Season Open

It is with great anticipation that Newfoundland birders enter into September.  It is open season on hunting for southern warblers. The prevailing southwest winds of summer carry on into September providing the air express delivery of misguided southern warblers. We've learned over the years that the alder beds along the coast provide the best yields.  The insect life within the alder beds including the herbaceous undergrowth thrives providing good fueling for hungry vagrant warblers as well as Newfoundland warblers stocking up and getting ready to fly south. Some like the Blackpoll going non-stop to the Caribbean and even South America

It requires work to get the warblers in view.  Everyone has their methods.  I prefer to get inside the alders,on my knees, underneath the 'canopy',  I pish and make chip notes with an Audubon squeaker. The birds have to come close to investigate the source of the curious noises.  The views are intimate. When it is a southern rarity, like the Blue-winged Warbler in the header, taken on 15 Sept 2007 on Bear Cove Pt road, the thrill is intense.  Had I been inside the alders instead of standing on the road when I pished out a Hooded Warbler yesterday on the Cape Spear road I probably would have had more satisfying looks and quite possibly point blank photos.   

Using a Canon 300mm f4 lens without a converter allows one to focus down to 8 feet under the alders and use large f-strops like f10 or more to get a surround body focus with enough shutter speed more or less. Lots of out of focus shots but the in focus shot can be magical. When the bird is large in the image you can get away with using higher ISOs to help combat the low light levels under the alders.

I have been under the alders during the last week practicing on common warblers while waiting for that next southern warbler gem.  See below.

The Black-and-white warbler is totally fearless under the alders and readily approaches within arms reach.
Blackpoll Warblers, while curious and one of the truly abundant Avalon Peninsula species, they are very active and a little shy making them more of a challenge to photograph at close range.

Common Yellowthroats are like tame squirrels under the alders. You could probably hand feed them if you had a handful of caterpillars to offer them.

The Northern Waterthrush is noisy and willing to approach closely but ready to retreat if you move too much.
Bonus encounters under the alders include the Yellow-bellied Flycatcher.  It is only mildly attracted to pishing. It never comes real close but sometimes you get a lucky shot through the alder branches.

Yes, the Black-and-white Warbler again, the easiest bird to photograph under the alders. Will the next Cerulean Warbler or Golden-winged or Kentucky be so easy???

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Britain's Birds - a new book for Newfoundland birders.

A book arrived in the mail yesterday. I was not expecting anything. I opened the package and found an identification guide to British birds. Then I recalled that some months ago I was asked for permission to use a photo of the April 2014 Torbay Ross’s Gull for a British bird book.  I opened the book to Ross’s Gull and indeed saw the image of the Torbay Ross’sI started flipping through the pages one by one.  Every plate was as beautiful as the one before. Within a couple of minutes of gorging on this new book I knew it would be up front on my go-to consulting references for European birds. It is not just another nice bird book to stash away for a rainy day on the dormant books shelf.

IN A NUTSHELL.  This is a photographic guide. Bird images are cropped and grouped on a background mural showing a habitat in which the bird would live. 3,200 images were used in the making of this book. The book covers just Britain and Ireland but includes every species that has occurred up to March 2016. Common and regularly occurring scarce species get a full page of coverage.  The very rare species can be fitted up to six species per page but this often includes the actual individual that was photographed in Britain.

WHAT I LIKE.  The quality is first-rate for the overwhelming majority of the 3,200 bird images. No surprises. No bad lighting.  No faulty reproduction.  No handicaps or negative quality allowances required when interpreting the accuracy of these photos. The images are ready to go and easy to absorb as they are. They are believable.  Each plate is a welcome mat. You want to look. You are eager to see the detail.  And there is a lot to see and learn from these images.  The birds are as close to the living thing as they can be on paper.

USEFULLNESS. This book covers all the European and Eurasian species that have and are likely to occur in Newfoundland. It would work well as a standalone guide on a trip to Britain & Ireland.  The Collins Guide as we call it, also known as the Birds of Europe (Mullarney et al.), would be my first choice for owning a single European bird book.  This new book makes an excellent backup for the Collins Guide. It is nice to have good photos to support excellent illustrations.  The two books make a perfect marriage for European birds.

For birders living in Britain & Ireland there is a lot of useful information on distribution (including detailed breeding maps) and abundances of regular species and the status of rare birds.  It is interesting to know there are <100 records of Killdeer and <10 records of Semipalmated Plover in Britain and Ireland.  The rare ‘golden’ plovers, American and Pacific, get a full page neatly crammed with pertinent information – a quick reference of the well-known key field marks. 

Birds shared by Newfoundland and Britain have useful entries. There is a page of winter and summer plumaged alcids in flight.  There are some valuable reference images of adult and juvenile jaegers.  Juvenile Arctic and Common Terns are pretty well done.  There is valiant attempt to demystify gulls for the timid.  The most common species get two pages showing the different ages in flight and at rest.  In addition there are full pages showing similar species in flight by age class. Did I mention the shearwater plates? Not bad. Not bad at all.

From a Newfoundland birder's point of view this book is a luxury. You can live fine without it.  However, it enhances the information on European vagrants that we get out of the Collins Guide.  The book also does a better than average job on the gulls, terns, jaegers, alcids and other birds that are also common in Newfoundland.  It is <$40 CDN on

The tiny image of the pink-breasted Ross`s Gull is the Torbay bird from 29 April 2014. Now forever immortalised in a book.

Monday, 1 August 2016

black-billed Arctic Tern

On Sunday 31 July 2016 I was checking a group of 8 terns on the rocks on the lower coast, Trepassey when I came across a tern that stopped me dead.  On first glance it appeared to be a Common/Arctic Tern with a jet black bill, a full black cap and dark legs. In the following seconds I recalled an Alaskan form of the Common Tern with a black bill in adult plumage. Gull-billed Tern was easily ruled out by small bill, short legs etc. Roseate Tern was also swiftly ruled out because of the small bill, smaller than adjacent Common Terns.  What was it? Some species of tern from another hemisphere?

After settling down to look more closely at the bird while snapping photos as I began to fixate on the idea that this was a sub adult Arctic Tern based on short legs, small bill and rounded head. There were small flecks of white in the forehead indicating the idea of a subadult. Brownish hints in wing coverts while at rest and more obvious brown markings across wing coverts that were revealed in flight proved its sub-adult age.

The (nearly) complete black cap with a jet black bill was unlike any other Arctic Tern I've seen anywhere. There is not a lot of information out there on subadult Arctic Terns. The 1st summer (12 month old) birds are relatively obvious with their clean white foreheads and black band wrapped around back of head.  A few of these show up around Arctic Tern colonies on the Avalon every summer.  At this point I am not sure what a typical 2nd summer (24 month old) should look like but I think the Trepassey bird was such.

The black-billed Arctic Tern with a normal adult Arctic Tern and in background an adult Common Tern.

Cropped versions of the above photograph.

Flight shots showing brownish washing on lesser, median and greater wing coverts.

Note the dark legs and the uniform jet black legs.

Below are three photos of  a tern believed to be a 2nd summer (24 months) Arctic Tern taken 16 July 2007 at St. Vincents, Avalon Peninsula, Newfoundland.  The forehead shows much more white than the Trepassey bird.

Arctic Terns 16 July 2007 at St. Vincents beach. Two 1st summer (12 month) birds on the left and the 2nd summer as shown in two above pictures.

Friday, 22 July 2016

ROYAL TERN at Cape Race - 6th for Newfoundland

Today (22 July 2016) while 'working' on whale watching program at Cape Race I saw a ROYAL TERN.  It appeared from the north flying about 75 m above the water and 200 m from shore.  It flew past the lighthouse at 18:10 but circled once in the cove behind the cape and miraculously came back.  It flew back past the light house and north along the shore.  It was flying in a light meandering manner unlike the steady purposeful movement of kittiwakes and gannets going past the lighthouse. 

It was an adult with a full black cap. Typically adults gain a white forehead by late July.  Features that clinch the ID from the Caspian Tern are a) bill being slimmer and orange rather than red-orange, b) underside of primaries showing dark gray trailing edge to feather tips instead of a blackish overall wash on Caspian, c) upper side of primaries on all but fresh spring Royals typically with some or all feathers being blackish. These being silvery in adult Caspian most of the year including the time period in Newfoundland waters, d) tail relatively longer with much more obvious fork.

This is about the 6th record for Newfoundland with mid summer being the peak time. The last record was two together at St. Vincents Beach on 9 July 2012.

Below are  a chronological series of photos of the Cape Race Royal Tern from 22 July 2016.

Where is it now? Where is it sleeping tonight? Chance Cove? Renews? Will it be seen again? Here is the last photo as it flew back north along the coast....

Thursday, 14 July 2016

***COMMON SWIFT*** at Cape Race, Newfoundland

At 1 pm 12 July 2016 Ken Knowles and I entered Portugal Cove South after driving through a No Service zone for cell phones and the phone dangled. We stopped the car to read the text messages.  There was hubbub about a some swift photo that Cliff Doran had taken at Cape Race.  Ken was able to bring up the picture taken by Cliff the Cape Lighthouse keeper on his cell phone and HOLY ###T. While there was concern on the internet chat lines about the tail being cut off in the photo, the long tapered body and very long narrow sabre-like wings was enough for KK and I to abort our planned trip to St. Vincents beach and head to Cape Race. It looked real good for Common Swift.  I called Cliff on the phone. He’d seen the bird an hour ago. It was high over head when he managed to snap one photo before it disappeared in to the low cloud ceiling. 
We raced over the dirt road with eyes to the skies for the swift and stopping to scan places the cliffs at The Drook and Long Beach where we imagined a swift might linger in the lee of the cold north wind to hunt insects.  Got to the Cape and met up with Cliff. He had just seen the bird again ten minutes before we got there!  Hopeless hopes turned into great expectations. It was forty minutes later before I picked up a dark falcon-like bird coming down the road half a kilometer away to the west.  It was THE SWIFT. It flew toward us mostly low over the ground, zig-zagging from the land to over the cliff edge.  It was huge. It had long thin back swept back wings. It was dark.  I consciously made the decision to look at the bird first before trying for photos. Meanwhile Cliff was clicking away madly with his camera in the general direction as I called out the play by play location as the bird passed by a sign, a background radio tower, and clumps of tree etc.  For about 90 seconds maybe 120, we followed the bird as it worked its way closer.  Both Ken and I knew it was what a Common Swift should look like.  Ken had just seen many during an British holidays in June and I had studied many on various visits to Europe. 

The bird was dark. Not black but dark chocolate brown. At times the dark under wing coverts appeared darker than rest of under wing. The exceptionally long swept back wings, the very large size for a swift (like a small falcon), the deep and sharply notched tail was right on for out impression of a Common Swift.  I knew Pallid Swift was a similar looking species but was paler overall and had a large pale area on throat.

Thankfully Cliff did get some photos.  By the time Ken and I got ready for taking pictures the swift had disappeared over the cliff.   By coincidence and through astute birding abilities, Andrew Davis who was on duty working in a whale watching booth by the Cape Race lighthouse saw the bird after we had lost it and got a few photos that would have also clinched the identification. The bird was not seen again despite being on watch till darkness and people watching most of the next day.
Cliff’s photos confirm the identity of this bird.  All are 100% crops. For the most part no adjusting to exposure or sharpening was used.   The small white throat and smaller white forehead area are right for Common Swift. The darkness of the bird plus the throat and forehead patch is not right for Pallid Swift.  I don’t know of any other swifts that are similar to Common Swift.  The North American Black Swift lacks the pale throat patch and forehead and has a much less deeply forked tail.

The RARE BIRDS OF NORTH AMERICA (Howell et al. 2014) state there are three previous records of Common Swift for North America that are substantiated with photos.  This is includes two for Bering Sea, Alaska and one for St. Pierre et Miquelon. In addition to this there are four other eastern North America record (1 PA, 2 MA, 1 other in SPM) that were probably correct identifications but lacked documentation. All of the (3) confirmed and (4) not-quite confirmed records are from late spring and early summer.  There were no previous claims of Common Swift in Canada. 

Common Swift is an amazingly regular vagrant to Iceland with 336 accepted records up to the year 2006. There are also 20+ records for the Azores. The large number of wayward Common Swifts to the mid-Atlantic islands suggest Common Swift in eastern Canada is likely to happen again! 

ADDENDUM - It has come to light there was already a COMMON SWIFT record for Canada from Montreal, Quebec.  A bird found in weaken state in late May 2007. It was brought to rehab where it recovered and was released on 21 June 2007.  It was thought to be a Chimney Swift at the time but was re-identified from photos etc. seven years later as a COMMON SWIFT - FIRST FOR CANADA. Thanks to Jean-Sebastien Guenette for bringing this information to my attention. The article by Samuel Denault can be found here. It is in French.

This is the photo that Cliff posted to FaceBook that caused a stir among Newfoundland birder.

The following photos  of the Common Swift were all taken by Cliff Doran while Ken Knowles and I stood next to him at 2:40 pm 12 July 2016 at Cape Race, Newfoundland.  They are presented in chronological order and all are 100% crops.

The Common Swift flying over Cape Race barrens.

Cliff Doran on patrol. Lighthouse keeper and sharpshooter.  Weapon of choice a 400mm f4 lens + 1.4x teleconverter attached to a Canon 7D.