Tuesday 23 March 2021

Winter 2020/2021 Rare Birds

The winter of 2020/2021 was good with a liberal sprinkling of important rarities. It was a mild winter from December to mid February. Mid February through March was closer to average but still a little warmer than average. The following shows only the rarest bird that I saw over the winter. There were other major rarities around such as a Gray Heron on the Burin Peninsula which we looked for but did not see.

Yellow-breasted Chat is a regular fall vagrant with a few lingering late into the fall and early winter.  This bird at Virginia River, St John's (behind The Legion) was extraordinary because it lasted almost for the entire winter. It was well fed on berries and enriched suet but it was not seen beyond 10 March. Close but no cigar. There was a Sharp-shinned Hawk in the area.

This Tennessee Warbler is a super hero.  It was discovered at Kelly Brook, St John's in November and officially survived the winter. It was seen today 23 March. Thanks to the super human caretaking efforts of Gerard Hickey it had plenty of quality food. Other warblers that he had coming to a mealworm feeder did not make it. A Yellow Warbler lasted well into January while two Black and white Warblers stuck it out to mid February.  The relatively mild weather aided in allowing this to happen. This picture was taken 1 Jan 2021.

Common Gallinule is quite rare in Newfoundland and Labrador with one individual every 3 or 4 years. This one arrived in St. John's at Virginia Lake in June 2020. It moved to Mundy Pond in August where it remained into the winter.  It was last seen in mid February when all the water froze. This picture taken 1 Feb 2021.

The Redwing is a transatlantic vagrant. There was an unprecedented number of sightings in Northeast North American this winter with I am guessing close to ten individuals. Newfoundland had three, maybe four.  This bird that John Brattey found on his street in St. John's on 23 Jan was a real crowd pleaser. It was seen regularly for a week then became irregular but started accepting berries at John's feeder. It was last seen in early March. This photo taken 30 January 2021.

This Slaty-backed Gull found at Quidi Vidi Lake, St John's by Lancy Cheng on 12 February kept birders on their toes. It was seen several times until 24 February.  It was thought to be the same individual present last year in February based on identical wing tip pattern. Can we count on seeing it in Feb 2022?  These pictures taken on 16 February.

Bird of the Winter for some. This Spotted Towhee turned up at a bird feeder near Marystown, Burin Peninsula in late February. The two previous provincial records were from the 1990s and seen by very few people. This bird was more obliging for the provincial listers and new for all. Presumably it had been hanging out with juncos since the fall of 2020.  This photo taken on 4 March 2021.

Still high on the Spotted Towhee (320 km from home) when Blair Fleming found this fabulous Fieldfare (3 minutes from home) at Bowring Park, St John's the next day on 5 March. There were enough berries to hold it for a day and a half.  It was rather shy and elusive but many birders got to see this gem that has become a huge rarity with one every 4-5 years after being more regular in the 1980s and 1990s. This picture taken on 5 March 2021.

Spring has just started in Newfoundland with the first Ring-billed Gulls arriving. A half dozen Northern Gannets were at Cape St. Mary's two days. ago.  As we go into April we start paying extra close attention to the weather maps hoping for a wind tunnel from Iceland to Newfoundland that could bring us some European Golden Plovers and allies.  We bird on....

Friday 25 December 2020

Waiting for the Christmas Turkey

Went out for a couple hours between Christmas present opening and the cooking of the Christmas turkey.  The warm fall like weather continues in earnest.  Christmas morning in St. John's reminded me of winter in Ireland - cool but above freezing, green lawns, sunny and no wind.  I went to Quidi Vidi lake to take pictures of the local wildlife.  No rush to do this since the same birds will be at Quidi Vidi lake until April. Actually there will be more birds once all city ponds freeze up.  I sat on a shoreline rock and let the tame birds come to me.

Gulls loafing in the warm Christmas Day weather at the west end of Quidi Vidi Lake.

A drake Northern Pintail touching up a few scapulars.

The reddish tinge to the head of the female wigeon means it is a Eurasian Wigeon.

There was only one male Eurasian Wigeon at the west end of the lake. When the ponds are open the Eurasians prefer Kenny's Pond and Neville's Pond.

Male American Wigeons are a beautiful duck.

The ashy gray head of the female American Wigeon usually stands out.

An American Coot pushes water as it steams across a corner of the pond. This is one of four coots in town at present.

With the closing of the Pier 17 sewer outlet about 6 years ago the Black-headed Gull has become uncommon.   75-100 Black-headeds wintered in St. John's but today there are just three individuals in town. This one has learned to accept handouts of food from people.

Some Iceland Gulls take up street begging. They learn fast. There are a few dozen 1st winter birds among the gull gang currently going after bread if anyone dares throw out any.

Adult Iceland Gull

2nd winter Iceland Gull

There are four or five bread trained Lesser Black-backed Gulls at the west end of Quidi Vidi lake including two returning adults.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year

Tuesday 3 November 2020

Pictorial highlights of Oct 2020

October is an exciting month to be birding on the Avalon Peninsula, Newfoundland. Being at the end of the road for vagrants flying west they have to stop here or face endless Atlantic Ocean. Weather systems are all important for making it happen. The shortage of SW winds in September and October had a negative impact on the number of vagrants, especially southern warblers.  However, the show went on. Vagrants did happen. And there was a significant fast moving weather system  with  powerful far reaching SW winds that did bring a mini wave of goodies 2-5 Oct.  A couple of clear nights with calm winds took care of most of those birds. We presume they try to correct their navigational error and attempt to go back to where they should be on that date in time. In chronological order here are some highlights by photos.

This wet Blue Grosbeak at Cape Spear on 2 Oct was the first sign that something had happened after a 1 October weather system. It stayed and week and was viewed by all.

Dickcissels are a part of every fall on the Avalon Peninsula. This one was at Cape Race on 4 Oct.

The species of the month was Great Crested Flycatcher. One on 4 October at Cappahayden turned into THREE the next day. It occurs about once every three or four years in the province.  I had seen only two previously and those being late 1980s and early 1990s. It was the headliner of the early October event.

A few Indigo Buntings are a standard part of each October.  This tame bird was on Bear Cover Point road on 5 October.

A handful of Yellow-billed Cuckoos were part of the early October event. Seeing two together was an unusual event on Bear Cover Point road on 5 October. 

This immature White-crowned Sparrow that spent a week at Cape Spear shows a yellow bill and pale lores, characteristics of the gambelli race. A high proportion of the very few White-crowned Sparrows that show up on the Avalon Peninsula in fall of this race.

A group of patient birders waiting for a rare male Black-throated Blue Warbler to show itself at Kelly's Brook in St John's.

Common Gallinule is a pretty rare bird in the province. This bird showed up at Mundy Pond, St John's a week after a long staying individual at Virginia Lake (5 km away) disappeared.  Coincidence?  Probably not.

 Somewhere between three and five different Glossy Ibis circuited the Avalon Peninsula during October. This one was at Cape Race on 17 October.

A kingbird on the 23rd October at Renews had to be a record late Eastern Kingbird. Of all the other possible kingbirds out there straying around eastern North America at the time!

Hooded Merganser is not rare but scarce.  Most Avalon birds are females. These two males attracted a lot of attention while feeding at Kenny's Pond St. John's.

Pine Siskin migrating on the coast of the Avalon were but part of a massive eastern North American event.

A Pine Warbler on 31 October at Renews was only the second individual of the autumn up to that point.

It is 3 November as I type.  I might be waiting for a certain epic event to unfold on American TV! What ever happens in THAT event it won't affect the vagrants that await us during November when the really rare ones can happen.

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