Wednesday, 12 June 2019

Town Willet Evicts Black-tailed Godwit

After supper on 10 June Tony Dunne noticed a strange looking shorebird standing with a yellowlegs at "boat harbour" in Renews.  A relative of Tony's secured a picture which he then gave to Clara Dunne who then forwarded the picture for me to identify.  I always look forward to opening a picture of something the Dunnes of Renews can't identify. Everything rare happens in Renews. Once again it was a nice rarity.  It was a  Black-tailed Godwit - a surprise in June.

Black-tailed Godwit has become a very regular Icelandic vagrant to Newfoundland in late April and May.  This spring there had already been one in The Goulds and another in central Newfoundland at Buchans of all places.  Black-tailed Godwits must be going through a population increase in Iceland to account for the increased regularity of them in Newfoundland over the last 5-10 years.

Early the next morning I left St. John's to go look at the bird. There was enough daylight before 9 am to see the bird and get back to town in time for 9 am start time at the office.  I arrived in Renews at 6 am and soon ran into Bill MacKenzie who had already checked the main beach with no success.  We drove around to the town side of the harbour and found the local Willet, a late migrant Black-bellied Plover,  several Greater Yellowlegs and a number of Spotted Sandpipers.   By 6:40 there was no place left to look and we'd had enough of looking at the present shorebirds when the godwit sailed in from above. The orange neck, brilliant white under wings and black tail all obvious as it came in for the landing. BINGO.

The brilliant early morning sun was totally in our favour for looking at the bird.  There is something special about that patented shade of bright orange on the bill and breast that is unique to Black-tailed Godwit and brings a warming to the rarity storage section of the heart no matter how many you see.  We watched the bird probing around the kelp covered rocks in the falling tide and were taking pictures from within our cars. It was working it wat closer to us. Great views.  I didn't know this at the time but the camera was having trouble focusing on the bird.  The brilliant low morning sun was reflecting off the bird in a blinding light.  Even though the centre focus spot was fully covered by the bird, the camera was focusing on the dark, light absorbing kelp just behind the bird.  While 90% of the photos were not in focus 10% were and they came out OK.

During the 40 minutes of observation the local Willet chased the godwit three times.  It would run at it. The godwit would at first just keep ahead of the charging Willet by running or with brief flights.  But in the end the godwit flew away. We lost sight of it flying across the harbour.  And from what following people said it seemed the godwit did not come back until late in the day.  There has been a lone Willet spending the summer at Renews for more than ten years. For a couple of years it had a mate and on a least one year produced young that I do no think reach fledgling age. Newfoundland is east of the Willets main nesting range in Nova Scotia.  This outlier that keeps coming back to Renews with high hope is like the lonely bull.  It dreams of bliss but is frustrated year after year.  It probably considered a shorebird larger than itself but with a wing stripe to match as potential competition lest a mate did come around.   

The Black-tailed Godwit at Renews, Newfoundland on 11 June 2019. Age and Sex?  The relatively short bill should indicate male and the limited amount of orange on breast should indicate female or maybe it is a sub-adult 1st year male.  Speculating.  

The immaculate white underwings are more startling white than any other shorebird.

The Black-tailed Godwit on the left is being hurried out of town by the Willet. Note the similar white wing stripes. The Willet is not used to seeing a wing stripe rivaling its own. 

Don t mess with me! The Renews Willet.  BossBird of the Renews tidal flats late May to August.

A picture of the Goulds Black-tailed Godwit on 28 April 2019.  This must be an adult male. Note the intense colouring of the head and neck

More Pictures from 13 June 2019


Wednesday, 5 June 2019

Beauty in the Beast

In mid April 2019 on a Saturday evening a photo of Turkey Vulture appeared on Newfoundland Birding Facebook. It was sitting by a guard rail along a road near Trinity. Dang! Details took a while to come in. It was seen only once that afternoon. I hummed and hawed on the off chance we could recognize the guard rail when we got in the general area that was at least 3 hours drive away. Details were skimpy. Besides I already had eager Sunday plans to look for white Gyrs. There had been individuals regular as a Gyr can be regular at nearby Cape Spear and another at Bay Bulls. I'd already had exciting encounters with both these white Gyrs but I of course wanted more time with them. But Turkey Vulture would be new for my Newfoundland list.  Newfoundland has a wide moat around it, wider than a Turkey Vulture should ever cross making it a very rare visitor now and forever.

I went to bed weighing out the options of Turkey Vulture and the long drive with iffy odds of finding or two separate White Gyrs within 30 minutes of home.  Earlier that evening I presented my dilemma to a prominent US birder from the Northeast that I'd been corresponding with on subspecies of juncos ID of all things.  He made it clear what his choice would have been when he said "Not only all birders but ALL PEOPLE would go for the Gyrfalcon over a Turkey Vulture".   I went for the Gyrs but missed. They were not around.

I have never lived in a place where Turkey Vultures were common.  I've visited a good many places where Turkey Vultures were indeed very common and soon became background images on the daily birding ventures.  I admit to reaching the image saturation point quickly.  But before I arrive in such a location I look forward to the fact that I am going to be seeing plenty of these great masters of the updrafts once again.  

In Newfoundland we don't see birds soaring on updrafts rising from the ground.  Yes Bald Eagles, gulls and of course Gyrs ride the air current created by blasts of winds deflecting up wards off a rock cliff face.   TVs are masters at catching warm rising air, a manner of flight that is so beautiful to watch.

After birding in Newfoundland for four decades and imagining what it would be like to encounter my first Turkey Vulture, I thought of places like Cape Race in October during a westerly blow, or St, John's in November/December or maybe somewhere unexpectedly sitting on the roof of a hourse in some urban center. But most of all I really did not think it was going to happen.  

On 30 May an image of a Turkey Vulture sitting on a telephone pole in La Manche Provincial Park appeared on Facebook. It had been taken on 28 May by park ranger Chris Hearn. It was for real and it was close to home. The next day Alison Mews and Ethel Dempsey went for a look. They found the true to life Turkey Vulture sitting on a light pole. The Newfoundland Whatapps line went wild. I phoned On-the-Spot Alison and told her to please keep an eye on the bird while I jumped out of my office chair and blasted past the receptionist who knew exactly what was happening even though she didn't understand a word that I said as I slid my marker over to the Out of Office position.  

The 45 minute drive took 44 minutes because there were so many sh*t slow, adrenaline deficient, Sunday-style drivers on the winding weekday road, not to mention two dump trucks and one delivery truck each towing a line of feeble traffic passers. But Alison, Ethel, Jared Clarke and Chris Ryan were there focused on the bird when I arrived.  

Parked the car on the narrow gravel edge, grabbed camera instead of scope and ran across the road. I was faced with nothing but a solid boreal forest of fir with a  few white birch mixed in. They told me to stand here and look.  I was looking but could see only the roadside boulders and trees.  Further guidance suggested to look farther back - and there it was - a TURKEY VULTURE IN NEWFOUNDLAND. 

It was sitting cold on the top of a broken off fir tree. I mounted the camera on a tripod. The doubler was already on the 600 mm lens. Through a needle hole through the woods the magnificent Turkey Vulture was digitally captured.   No Turkey Vulture ever looked so wonderful. 

No Turkey Vulture was ever so much appreciated as this bird was at La Manche Provincial Park, Avalon Peninsula, Newfoundland  (31 May 2019).

Monday, 27 May 2019

Point Pelee 4-10 may - Part 2 The Southern Warblers

For Canadian birders the warblers with a breeding range just reaching southern Canada are the daily stars of Pelee birding. This works for Newfoundland birder as well. The southern warblers we look for in September and October in Newfoundland are the same species at Pelee but are in brighter breeding plumage.

Kentucky Warbler is one of the nicest warbler gems to find in the Newfoundland alders.  I've also enjoyed them on their breeding grounds in a few places in the US.  It has always been a highly desired species.  It is never too late. I've been birding 50 years and finally I got my fill of Kentucky Warbler.  A male Kentucky Warbler in Tilden's Woods by one of the main trails. Like many birds it became accustomed to the gentle movement and regular passage of birders and eventually completely ignored them.  It went about its business hopping about the ground vegetation. Andrew, Ross Harris and I enjoyed this male on the first morning of the three days it exposed itself to the whole wide world without losing any dignity. 

Prothonotary Warbler is one of those warblers with a no-fail stun factor. Andrew and I had a male to ourselves feeding around a woodland pool in Wheatley Provincial Park. The angle of the low sun was harsh but we really could not complain about the photo opts. We each took exactly 720 photos.  How do you stop when the bird wouldn't go away!?  We saw others during the week and came away with full satisfaction on Golden Swamp Warbler.

Hooded Warbler is a classic bird of the deciduous forest of the eastern US.  It is fairly well established in limited numbers in extreme southern Ontario. It is one of those southern classics that you bump into regularly as you bird all day every day during your Pelee visit.  Enjoyed great views but ended up with a small choice of photos to look through.

 male Hooded Warbler
female Hooded Warbler

Blue-winged Warbler is one of my fav warblers. I've seen plenty in US and few in Atlantic Canada plus Ontario. I've experience a fill up on Blue-winged Warbler more than once. Andrew and I did OK on Blue-wings finding a few. In fact all the several we saw were self finds.  They are very jumpy and quick in their movements going from curled up leaf to curled up leaf hanging upside down chickadee-like looking for wrapped up insects that none of the other warblers are going after. Two different Blue wings here.

No photos of the one Cerulean Warbler, a female seen for 10 glorious seconds. We didn't see Golden-winged Warbler at Pelee but luckily had sensational views of one in Hamilton the day before we went to Point Pelee.

There were 2, or probably 3, Kirtland's Warblers present at Pelee during our week.  We walked 300 m down a deep soft sandy beach to see this one.

# 500

I arrived in Ontario o 3 May just two species shy of the 500 species in Canada milestone.  Shortly after landing at TO, Andrew and I located  #499,  a Fish Crow stake out at Bronte. It was more or less a given but we spent 2 hours in the general area before encountering a Fish Crow by its quiet double noted nasal call.  And this was thanks to a hot tip from Mark Jennings. We ran into an excited Mark at Bronte Bluffs who had just flushed a good gull off the shore that he thought was a kittiwake but was working out imperfections that his field guide showed = bill colour. It was a no brainer for a Newfoundlander literally raised on kittiwakes & gravy -  but what a great bird for May in Ontario!

Rare May Black-legged Kittiwake on Lake Ontario

Fish Crow #499. Calling with a nasal 'ca-ca, ca-ca" at Oakville harbour.  A small population of Fish Crows is becoming established at the west end of Lake Ontario. Who would guessed that was going to happen just 10 years ago? (Photo Andrew Mactavish)

The table was set. All it would take was one good spring rarity at Pelee to hit the magic 500 plateau. On the morning of 10 May while at the tip of Pelee, the Pelee WhatsApp reported a SWALLOW-TAILED KITE over the Cactus Field heading south!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!  I was standing next to Steve Pike when the news hit. With confidence he said it would come down here.  OK.  Stay where I am.  There were lots of warblers feeding in the winter storm damaged uprooted trees on the east side of the tip but it seemed so trivial when people pointed out things like Chimney Swift and f***k**g Northern Waterthrush when eyes should be to the skies looking for only one thing - the most distinctive and spectacular raptor in the US.  OK I did take more than just a glance at stonking male Prothonotary Warbler that landed on a skinned out stump in front of me.  Then the WhatApps said the Swallow-tailed Kite was at the Sparrow Field! OMG  Yikes. Just on the other side of those trees to the north of where we all stood in anticipation.  The WhatApps went crazy over the next four minutes saying it was going south, flying north and circling over the Sparrow Field.  This was insane. So close yet so far. Last report was that it was going north.  What if it decides to head back up the point without ever reaching the tip!! I panicked.  I ran across the tip to the west side and started up the walkway toward the tram in case I was going to have to chase this bird and catch it before it left the park. Then behind me came screams from Andrew and Jean Iron.  Look UP!
The Swallow-tailed Kite sailed directly over head. # 500 FOR CANADA. photo by Andrew Mactavish

Sailing south off the tip of Point Pelee the Swallow-tailed Kite descended and flew low over the water with heavy loping wings toward Pelee Island

Pelee is Good.

Point Pelee Visitation: 4-10 May - Part I, The Common Species

Point Pelee is one of the most famous birding locations in North America.  It is noted for its spring migration of warblers and other bright birds.  Sometimes large concentrations of migrants find a momentary refuge at Pelee before continuing their journey farther north.  

I have been there maybe a dozen or 15 times over the decades. The allure of Pelee never goes away in a birder. The Pelee longing is always in the back of the birder's mind in May.  There is hardly a better place in Canada to spend a week during first half of May.  When brother Andrew who lives in Hamilton, Ontario with his new found interest in bird watching and bird photography wanted to plan a birding trip together at Pelee in May I was game.  

I knew the birding would be nice. A bird starved Newfoundlander does not need much to make him happy. Even on the poor days at Pelee a Newfoundland birder like the Lammergeier can find subsistence in a worked over dry bone.  As it turned out Andrew and I lucked in an amazing bird packed week. There were two big events.  On 7 May there was big arrival of birds followed by an unprecedented northward diurnal movement of birds north and out of the park. As the birds moved north they concentrated in the narrow strip of trees between Lake Erie and the Pelee marsh. It was exhilarating to see the birds moving swiftly through the trees but frustrating being able to identify only a fraction of it.  When the movement died down the remaining birds settled to feed in the sheltered bushes along the beach. The calm air was swarming with flies. The shrubs were lavishly decorated with candy and the candy was all warblers. 

On 9 May one of biggest reverse migrations of all time happened at the tip of Pt Pelee. Andrew and I parked ourselves in the woods a few tress back from the tip.  Birds were coming through at knee level and tree top level and everywhere in between. We kept an eye on the large tree above us that was constantly changing hands between departing and arriving flocks of orioles, tanagers and warblers.  It was more than anyone could keep up with. Two of us standing next to each other were usually looking at different birds but there was no use in trying to point out each others finds. The river of birds was flowing too fast. I figured that in the peak two hours in that tree above us we saw 150 Scarlet Tanagers, 200 Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and 500++ Baltimore Orioles and many many warblers. When we broke out of the trees to the path on the west side of the tip there were hundreds of people all looking up in awe.  But also down around their feet at pretty warbler gems.  Some of the warbler totals I made up for the 06:30 to 10:30 were 100+ Black-throated Blues, 200++ Black-throated Greens, 100+ Chestnut-sideds, 45 Bay-Breasted, 50 Blackburnians, 100+ Nashvilles...

Birders at the tip of Pelee witnessing the spectacular reverse migration of 9 May 2019.

Everyday in between was good too. Lots of warblers were present everyday.  In the cool weather they were mostly feeding in the greenery on the forest floor and in undergrowth shrubs. There was a lot of insect life here especially compared to the canopy of the Carolinian forest which is late to leaf out.  Photography opportunities were through the roof all the time. It was so overwhelmingly good that I actually took relatively few pictures. You have to be there to experience the reasoning that I find hard to understand now that I am back here in bird impoverished Newfoundland again. The exceptions were the quality southern warblers like Kentucky and Prothonotary. Then things went the other way with  the camera taking 100s of snaps.

Here are some of pictures.  All birders should go to Pelee every May. But the park is brimming to the point of over flow in May so it is a good thing all birders do not go there. I want to again next year..... 

Here are a sample of Pelee Pics. A second posting will follow with the "Southern" Warblers

 Bay-breasted Warbler - never saw so many spring males.

Male Blackburnian Warblers were vermin. A bottomless pit of  great views.

It was total saturation of male Black-throated Blue Warblers. Saw a few 100 over the trip with many point blank encounters.

Good numbers of these beauts but fewer than Bay Breasts.

So common I almost forgot to take a picture of the Chestnut-sided Warbler.

Mourning Warblers get more attention from Pelee watchers than it does in Newfoundland.

Philadelphia Vireos were pleasantly numerous with up to ten in one day. Its cousin the Warbling Vireo was much more common but it was one of the species I forgot to take a picture of.

Nashville Warblers are one of the dirt common Pelee birds that Newfoundlanders enjoy. 

Rose-breasted Grosbeaks are very numerous and often do not mind posing for pictures.

The ridiculous Scarlet Tanager in its simple colour pattern rivals any tanager from the tropics

Veerys and the Wood Thrush (below) are among those birds Newfoundlanders enjoy far more than the Ontarian birders.

Wood Thrush

Yellow-breasted Chats look better in the shade. Here in the bright afternoon sun the deep mossy greens of the back and brilliant lemon yellows of the underparts are lost.

Great-crested Flycatchers are never abundant but suitably common in migration at Pelee.

No one at Pelee enjoys a good look at a Field Sparrow more than a Newfoundland birder.

Wednesday, 22 May 2019

Euro Oyc on 20 May 2019. # 4 for Newfoundland. Photo Salon

 It is a good day when you get a late evening email reporting an oystercatcher in Newfoundland.  Automatically one thinks Eurasian Oystercatcher, especially in spring when the natural winds are generating an air flow from Iceland.  It was Bruce Bradbury who can be thanked for exposing this record to the world. His sister in law Marilyn Gillingham at Lushes Bight, Long Island on the northeast coast of Newfoundland saw the strange bird and had Bruce B to report it to. According to her Birds of North American book it was an American Oystercatcher. BUT that is the expected ID path when using a North American book.  American Oystercatcher has not been recorded in Newfoundland but there are three previous records for the look-a-like Eurasian Oystercatcher.

I hummed and hawed at the ordeal of the long drive to Lushes Bight for a bird I had already seen twice in Newfoundland and had just seen them by the hundreds in Ireland in  February 2019.  With the Victoria Weekend on our doorstep there was lots of free time available.  I was torn. I wanted to explore the southern Avalon Peninsula for additional vagrants. I knew it had not been well covered during the previous week.  It was the European Golden Plover that I found on Friday morning in a farm field in  the Goulds on the outskirts of St. John's that cemented my mind to stay on the Avalon Pen on Saturday to search for more Icelandic vagrants.

European Golden Plover 17 May 2019 Goulds, Newfoundland

A serious search of the southern Avalon by Ken Knowles and myself on Saturday turned up zip-all. Such is the way when looking for Icelandic vagrants. Like veins of  gold these are hard to find birds. On Sunday I stayed on a short leash by personal choice near St John's.  The strong NW winds produced a small flight of Leach's Storm-Petrels in Conception Bay. Not sure if the winds had anything to do with a build up of small herring in a cove near Holyrood where 100s of gannet and a humpback whale were performing spectacular feeding techniques right next to the car.  

News of local birders going for the oystercatcher and being successful was becoming overwhelming.  On the Monday of the long weekend Ken Knowles and I headed out for Lushes Bight. The GPS said it was 550 km drive.  We arrived one hour before the the 10:30 ferry crossing. While in line  for the ferry two more cars of St John's birders arrived.

St John's Oyc Hunters riding the ten minute ferry to Long Island. On the left: Karen Mercer , Shawn  Fitzpatrick and Ken Knowles .  On the Right Side: Clyde Thornhill,  Ethel Dempsey,  Alison Mews and Ed Hayden

First off the ferry Ken and I drove the five minutes to Lushes Bight in three minutes almost squealing tires around the sharp bends on the hilly road. It was a picturesque community of less than 30 houses. It had a wharf or two. Some crab boats were tied up to the wharf. There was a lady in a black coat standing on the side of the road. She had a set of tiny binoculars around her neck.  We stopped to talk. She asked if we were birders looking for the oystercatcher. We said yes and she pointed "There".  BINGO.  The Oyc was standing in plain sight on a rock wall.  It was Marilyn Gillingham. It doesn't get easier than that.

This picture alone is good enough to eliminate American Oystercatcher because it shows the blackish back nearly the same colour as the head. On male Eurasian Oystercatcher the back is nearly as black as the head. This one is thought to be a female based on brownish tinge to back and long bill (fide Anthony McGeehan)

The white wedge up the lower back is very different from the dark back of the American Oystercatcher

The huge white wing stripe is much stronger in the primaries then it is on American Oystercatcher.

There were still remnants of the winter pack ice in the area plus icebergs as seen from the ferry. 

There are three previous records of Eurasian Oystercatcher for Newfoundland and Canada.

1) Tors Cove, Avalon Peninsula, 22-25 May 1995,  
2) Eastport, Bonavista Bay, 3 April-2 May 1999,
3) St. John’s, Avalon Peninsula, 5 August 2006 



 American Oystercatcher late October 2016 in New Jersey

The American Oystercatcher is larger than the Eurasian Oystercatcher. The American also has a much browner back and lacks that ever so conspicuous white wedge up the lower back present on Eurasian.  The American Oystercatcher has less white in the primaries.  

d Ken Knowles. Right Side: Clyde,  Ethel Dempsey, Alison Mews and Ed Hayd