Monday, 29 February 2016

Lucky with a Couple Seaducks

The second last day of February found me doing the Avalon Loop in family style = partial birding/partial Sunday drive. Being a cold windy day I had a good excuse not to get out at some of the places you are obligated to get out at when birding The Loop like Pt La Haye and St. Shotts point. It was not the kind of day I expected to have any luck with photography but in the end I got my best photos ever of adult male Common Eider and White-winged Scoter.

Newfoundland Common Eiders are wary. Especially the old adult males. They are the least likely age/sex classification to give a photographer a lucky break and let you take their pictures. All day there were scattered little groups of eiders feeding in close to shore away from the main flocking areas and this included a high proportion of adult males. Driving back from St Shotts point I noted four adult males feeding off the rocks by the road a little closer to shore than normal. The light was good so I decided to try for a picture out the window.  My 1.4x converter was in the trunk so I reached for the 2x converter and attached it to the 600 mm f4.  Every time I use the 2x converter it is an experiment.  Usually there is not enough light or it is too windy or there is some other reason not to even think about using a 2x converter.  1200 mm worth of power attached to the camera sounds like a dream but in reality the 2x more than doubles your headaches trying to get crisp photos. I rarely use it. 

Waited for the eiders to dive before moving in as close as I could get in the car. When the closest eider came up it swam even closer to shore before diving again only to resurface even closer. The camera started firing away. But not for long.  The eider started looking up at something. I couldn't see what it was, maybe it was an eagle, hopefully not a Gyr(!).  The eider and nearby Long-tailed Ducks all went to wing. I was ready with the camera and as the drake eider flew. In a matter of a minute or two the photo session was over.  I was pleasantly surprised with the results. Closer examination on computer later showed the majority of the shots were out of focus due to movement of the duck on the choppy water but the pictures that were sharp were the best adult drake Common Eiders shots that I have taken. Even some flight shots came out. 

A drake Common Eider in relaxed mode at St. Shotts, Newfoundland on 28 Feb 2016.  This is a typical example of drake borealis, the Arctic breeding subspecies which forms the bulk of the wintering population in Newfoundland.  The narrow, pointed rich yellowish frontal lobes are characteristic. The more southern dresseri has thicker frontal lobes with broad rounded ends of a more greenish colour.  

The eider spots danger overhead.  I did not see what it was that flushed this eider and Long-tailed Ducks from the shoreline area

On full alert with neck stretched high just before flushing.

The flying drake borealis Common Eider.


The under appreciated adult drake White-winged Scoter is shy like adult Common Eiders. This one had an injured right wing which explains the unusual closeness to shore in Biscay Bay and the large amount of white showing in the wing while at rest. The finer details of the bill colouring are difficult to see at the usual range at which we view White-winged Scoters.  The shape of the white eye mark, curved like the Detroit Redwings emblem, is used by Europeans when looking for White-winged Scoters among the very similar Velvet Scoter of Europe.  


A female Common Eider beats some of the legs off a small crab before swallowing. Adult female Common Eiders usually have white wing bars and are often a bright orange-brown colour but range all the way to grayish-brown.

Monday, 22 February 2016

Yellow-legged Gull - St. John's, Newfoundland, 21 February 2016

On 18 February 2016 Lancy Cheng found an adult Yellow-legged Gull at Quidi Vidi Lake St. John's.  This was a bit of a surprise since the gulls at the lake were being checked regularly and there had been no Yellow-legged Gull since the one present from late August to late November 2015.  Naturally the birders were out trying to see this bird and it was seen briefly on each following day including yesterday Sunday 21 Feb when it plopped down on the water to bath in front of about ten birders standing around chatting. This was a good chance for the cameras though the glare was a bit tricky and the bird was very actively bathing, almost continuously, before flying out on to the ice into obscurity among other loafing gulls to preen.

Attached are photos taken during the bathing on 21 February 2016 at Quidi Vidi Lake, St. John's, Newfoundland.

The bright and smart look to a Newfoundland Yellow-legged Gull impresses observers.  There is something about a satiny texture to the white head and a smartness to the unique shade of gray upper parts along with the brightly coloured bill that give the Newfoundland Yellow-legged Gull (thought to be of Azores Island origin) a smart-dressed-gull look in breeding plumage.

The legs including joints and soles of the feet are deep yellow. 

The full hand of the black wing tip is revealed as it lands on the ice.

On the ice preening with the other gulls. The upper parts colour is closer to Lesser Black-backed Gull then Herring Gull. In size it is between an average Lesser Black-backed Gull and Newfoundland Herring Gull.  

The dark mark on outer web of P4 found on75% of Azorean YLGUs. There is a dark almost continuous line on leading edge of mirror on P10. 

Almost 100% consistent with Newfoundland Yellow-legged Gulls is the wider spacing between the white tips of  P7 and P8 as displayed on the folded wing.  Not sure what this means as it doesn't show up in photos of Azorean YLGUs or other races of Yellow-legged Gull.  

Lesser Black-backed Gull vs Azorean Yellow-legged Gull 

It is difficult to put a finger on all the differences between LBBG and Azorean YLGU but it is not usually a debate when you see them in the field especially in breeding plumage or after finished moulting primaries in November. The upper parts colour is a little paler shade of gray than the pale end graesllsii.  One feature difficult to explain but is significant in the field is the facial expression of the bird.  LBBGs have a meek and mild look and the YLGUs have a slightly meaner, colder expression yet while not being significantly larger.  The YLGU seems to have a relatively shorter thicker bill with a more sudden steeply curving culmen.  The red gony spot is large and bright red often washing over in to the adjacent parts of the upper mandible. The YLGU may also have a stronger gap mark running back from the bill.  There is something about the placement of the eye on head, It appears more forward perhaps an impression given by the steeper forehead YLGU (most obvious when in relaxed mode).  

I will not go into all the differences in LBBG vs YLGU but below are comparisons shots trying to show head details.The first two photos are an adult LBBG in full breeding plumage taken on 31 May 2009 in St. John's.  Then two head shots of the YLGU.

Adult Lesser Black-backed Gull, 31 May 2009 St. John's, Newfoundland
Adult Lesser Black-backed Gull, 31 May 2009 St. John's, Newfoundland

Adult Yellow-legged Gull, 21 Feb 2016, St. John's, Newfoundland
Adult Yellow-legged Gull, 21 Feb 2016, St. John's, Newfoundland

Adult Yellow-legged Gull, 21 Feb 2016, St. John's, Newfoundland

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Pine Grosbeak - Newfoundland's Home Finch

Pine Grosbeak is a common year-round resident of Newfoundland and Labrador. It is a widespread summer resident as well as being present every winter regardless of the wild food crop. Some finches like the crossbills and siskins may vanish completely in winters without cones but not the Pine Grosbeak.  In winters of famine they get by eating next year's buds on the tips of the twigs of living larch and spruce trees.  Partridge berries on windswept winter barrens remain intact into spring providing a source of food for Pine Grosbeaks in harder times.  Sometimes Pine Grosbeaks stoop to using bird feeders.  This is a more widespread activity in colder Labrador than on the island of Newfoundland.  This winter Pine Grosbeaks are in their glee with a province-wide bumper crop of dogberries and spruce and fir cones are plentiful.

Nice flocks of Pine Grosbeaks are forming in choice dogberry stands. American robins often associate with them. Last weekend while looking for the Fieldfare at Lumsden it was impressive to see the low hundreds of Pine Grosbeaks indulging on the limitless berries. Yesterday Ken Knowles, John Wells and I searched the Trepassey area for robins of which we found about fifty. There were also a nearly equal number of Pine Grosbeaks in the same area feeding on the excellent dogberry crop.  Ken and I stopped to photograph some of the Pine Grosbeaks that were presenting themselves to us left and right. There was high proportion of bright pink males, at least 66.6% of the total.

Pine Grosbeaks are in the business of eating the little seeds within the dogberries and are usually too busy to wipe off the excess pulp that collects on the bill.  Some of the pulp falls on the snow where robins often make use of it.

Pine Grosbeaks have an air of intelligence about them. They keep an eye on you but generally allow close approach because they have decided you pose little danger. Some people interpret this as a sign of stupidity - hence the name Mope commonly used for the Pine Grosbeak in the province.   Most other birds fly first without even thinking whether you present any danger or not. 

The berries are shriveling up as winter progresses but should still provide a food source to the end of the season.  Looks like there will be plenty of dogberries for the birds right to March 31. 

Females were less inclined to jump in front of the camera. Even this one might be a young male with its rusty, not yellow, crown containing a few pink feathers.

Black-capped Chickadees kept trying to land on us. Someone must be hand feeding them here - Cliff is that you?

Shortly after leaving Trepassey we came across these long-legged sheep by the road to Peter's River.

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

A Saturday Sale on Hybrids - 5 Gulls and a Duck

The morning of Saturday 6 Feb was devoted to gull watching at Quidi Vidi Lake in the hopes of connecting with some great rare gull that we had not yet discovered.  With several thousands of gulls around St. John's, one Slaty-backed Gull or whatever could live undetected for weeks or perhaps one was wandering the North Atlantic up to yesterday and discovered this gull mecca today and decided to drop in.

No rare gulls were seen.  Digging through the gulls always turns up a few hybrids. Some individuals get to be known. Sometimes you find one not yet seen this season. Hybrids get the camera's attention if not just to keep the trigger finger limber lest the rare one shows up. Below is the Saturday haul of hybrids

A familiar individual being rather photogenic for a week or more at the Virginia River mouth. A typical looking 1st winter hybrid Great Black-backed Gull x Glaucous Gull.  The wing tips being same colour as the back is the best way to know it is a hybrid. 

An adult hybrid Great Black-backed Gull x Glaucous Gull.  Even on a bird at rest the excessive amount of white visible on the upper and underside of the folded primaries gives this one away.  The upper parts colour being barely paler than a GBBG is standard for this hybrid combination.

There are two or three adult hybrid Lesser Black-backed Gull x Herring Gulls around each winter in St John's. There are at least two individuals this winter. They look amazing familiar.  I wonder if we are seeing the same birds every winter for a number of years. The legs are typically pinkish-yellow. The shade of gray on the upper parts are half way between a Herring and Lesser Black-backed Gull. The wing tip pattern of this individual is highly typical of Newfoundland smithsonianus Herring Gulls showing gray tongues extending deep on P9-P7.

Glaucous Gull x Herring Gull hybrids are probably outnumbered by GLGUxGBBG hybrids in recent years.  This is a 2nd winter hybrid Glaucous Gull x Herring Gull.  It has a Herring Gull patterned tail. Overall a little darker than average for this hybrid combo.  

 This adult gull resembling a Great Black-backed Gull had a pale back. The wing tip pattern appeared similar to a GBBG but was not photographed or well seen. If you look closely at the third photograph you will see that the tip of Primary # 5 just below the folded tertials has just a small black mark on  the outer web where as the GBBG shows nothing but black in this area.  The jury is out on this bird. It looks like a GBBG crossed with either a Herring or Glaucous Gull.


This hybrid Ring-necked Duck x Lesser Scaup is back at Quidi Vidi lake for its second winter. Can you see how we came to this conclusion?  What you can't see is the spread wing - the white wing stripe spread across the secondaries stopped before the primaries.  

Sunday, 7 February 2016

FIELDFARE at Lumsden

Trace Stagg noticed a different bird out the window of her house in Lumsden while she was talking on the phone. She knew it was different and managed to get a photo of it without losing phone contact. It was a FIELDFARE.  News hit the street by 2:30 pm Saturday.

Ken Knowles, John Wells and I were on the road an hour later. We knew there was not enough time to get there before dark but we could guarantee an early assault on Lumsden driving 75% of the distance (4 hours). We stayed at a great cabin outfit in Gambo called Freshwater Inn. 

After a Five Star breakfast, one star for each strip of bacon nestled under the eggs, hash browns, thick slices of homemade bread, orange juice and a jug of coffee specially made up for us at 6 am since we were the only guests, we drove north. Arrived on site at Forest Road in Lumsden at 07:45. It was a perfect morning being clear, calm and cool (-14C). A coating of freezing rain on the trees from the previous storm sparkled in the dawn light.  The place was alive with birds. Felt like a fallout of birds at Pt Pelee, ON  or High Island, TX  except it was mainly Pine Grosbeaks.  There were also a few hundred Bohemians and a couple dozen Cedar Waxwings and all the finches on the NF list except for Evening Grosbeak and Hoary Redpoll. Robins were present by the dozen but no more.  

There were fewer than 50 robins.  It took 40 minutes (only) to locate the FIELDFARE for two people, and a further painful 30 minutes for the last person (moi) to see it. We spent the next three hours following the Fieldfare around Lumsden but generally around Forest Road area. We found and lost the bird at least 15 times. We never had a long leisurely view. It was incredibly wary. The call was key in keeping track of the bird. We often knew it was near when we couldn't see it.  It was great to see the bird. The first in more than 20 years for the three of us who have logged a combined total of 120 years of Newfoundland birding!!

While similar to a robin in actions it is its own bird. The long wings and tail and long neck give the bird a different look. It is bigger than a robin by ?10%. ?15%.  It flies with a more languid sure flight. It looks like a long distant traveler capable of crossing that Atlantic Ocean.

Attached are some greatly cropped shots of the bird. It was the real thing!

The Fieldfare was never harassed by the robins for hanging out with them despite being different.  It was too big to bully.

The satin white under wings were the best way to follow the bird when in flight among robins and pine grosbeaks.

The pale gray rump contrasted with black tail and reddish back in flight. the head was darker gray than rump.

If only the Fieldfare was a tame as the endless Pine Grosbeaks.