Sunday, 11 June 2017

One Leg in the Door of Summer - Shearwaters

The flight of shearwaters at Pt LaHaye on Saturday was not a pure sign of summer. They were storm driven and not capelin followers. But  knowing  they are out there is sure sign we are close to walking into summer.

I experienced an enjoyable 2 hours of seawatching at Pt La Haye, St.Mary's Bay, Newfoundland on 10 June. Three hours of daylight had already passed before I got there.  The heavy gale force south winds and rain/drizzle/fog were having an effect on seabirds. This is what I tallied in two hours before the storm passed and the blue sky appeared.

Northern Fulmar - 25
Great Shearwater - 350
Sooty Shearwater - 250
Manx Shearwater - 65
Leach' Storm-Petrel- 30
Pomarine Jaeger - 3
Parasitic Jaeger - 1
kittiwake - many 100s
Puffins, murres and razorbills - many 100s
Northern Gannets - many

The Parasitic Jaeger appeared to be an adult. The underwing coverts looked uniformly dark. Jaegers in adult-like plumage during summer usually give away their sub-adult status when they reveal checkered underwing coverts. But not this bird - it seems to be an adult.

A Parasitic Jaeger flying past Pt La Haye on 10 June 2017. It appears to be bona fide adult based on uniform dark underwing coverts. Late date for an adult at this latitude.

I am trying to believe in summer but St. Vincent's Beach was not looking great for summer whale watching on Saturday.

This Laughing Gull was hanging on to the road by its toe nails during the steady 45 knot SW winds at St. Shotts. It was eating plenty of partially dried up earth worms on the road. Laughing Gull is a definite sign of summer. The brown secondaries, primaries & primary coverts say this is bird hatched last summer. A small handful of Laughing Gulls show up every summer in Newfoundland. This is the first of 2017.

How can it really be summer when there are still icebergs floating around the Avalon Peninsula. This one at Ferryland was one of six icebergs for the day.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

A Late Spring Alberta Diversion

Spring is a mean season for human beings in Newfoundland. The weather just refuses to warm up nearly as fast as we think it should. It is embarrassing to say that on 6 June as I write this the Norway maples in my St. John's backyard are ... are just starting to break open their first leafy buds. Only some of them, the minority in fact, most of the leaf buds are still close tight as a nut.

A family vacation to Alberta 19-27 May 2017 was intended to be a family sort of visit to a brother in Red Deer but the warm summer-like weather and leaves full out on the trees made it paradisiacal for three winter weary Newfoundlanders.  Birding was partly restricted but far from curtailed.

Alberta is birding is a mecca of easy eye candy to Newfoundland bird starved birders. There is so much life around those sloughs it is euphoric to witness when coming directly from Newfoundland. Many of the common birds are birds we chase as rarities in Newfoundland. Alberta is under rated or not even rated as a vacation destination for Newfoundland birders. Even a day extension to a business trip to Calgary would produce much birder joy. Birding is easy in Alberta.

My birding joy was marred a little by camera withdrawal syndrome caused by downgrading to a Canon 40D after my beloved 1D Mark IV died completely at a young age of 6 1/2 years.  The 40D was fabulous when it first came out.  It took some getting use to and remembering that it does take good pictures when the birds are close and the light is good. I used only a 300 mm f4 for the following snaps.
Wilson's Phalaropes (female above, male below) are numerous and present in most sloughs of any size.

Yellow-headed Blackbirds are dirt common abundant at sloughs everywhere .

Cinnamon Teal are on the uncommon side but you will not miss them on a days outing around Calgary or Red Deer.

Forster's Terns are common in the larger sloughs.  Try to find a Common Tern in the prairies of central Alberta. I saw just one probably a migrant vs a few hundred Foresters.

Franklin's Gulls are the kittiwake of the Alberta prairies.  Abundant in the larger sloughs but also in fields being ploughed and random locations.

Hundred of Franklin's Gulls and a fair number of White-faced Ibis are nesting in the cattails you can see in this picture at the well known birding locality of Frank Lake about a 45 minute drive south of Calgary.

Eurasian Collared Doves have established themselves at isolated farm houses and small towns on the wide open flat prairie east and southeast of Calgary.

Eared Grebes are super abundant on the medium to large sloughs. Western, Red-necked and Horned Grebes are also present in good numbers in appropriate habitats.

White Pelicans are on the local side but easy to find with a little help or accidentally as they soar high over the prairie. These were feeding together at Pelican Point, Buffalo Lake, 40 minutes ENE of Red Deer.

Alberta Swainson's Hawks are a favourite of visiting easterners. They are plentiful in the Calgary area and most of the southern third of Alberta.

California Gull is another target of easterner visiting the prairie provinces. Not nearly as abundant as the Franklin's Gull, they are a little on the local side but where nesting quite common. They also frequent fast food restaurants where this one was photographed.

The unexpected surprise of the trip was coming across a staggering 150 SABINE'S GULLS at Pelican Pt,  Buffalo Lake, all adults in high breeding plumage. While not exactly close they were still a great experience. Flocks of Sabine's are known to get grounded by bad weather at larger Alberta waterbodies while taking the shortcut from the Pacific Ocean to the Arctic breeding site. But the weather on this day was light winds, sunny and 25C. Maybe they stop here anyways to feed. There were plenty of Franklin's Gulls, Forster's Terns and Black Terns feeding  on insects over the lake. About ten Sabine's are in this photo. The 150 were spread out over a few 100 meters. A man on seadoo drove through the flock allowing for a count of Sabine's among the mixed species flock.

A little trip to the mountains was a frustrating for birding time but this pair of tame Barrow's Goldeneye were present next to a scenic rest stop.

The bird I most wanted to see on the Alberta trip was the Le Conte's Sparrow. I knew where they would be from previous trips. Only 15 minutes from my brothers house near Red Deer there are little colonies of Le Conte's in the right kind of fields. Rather distant with a 300 mm lens, prolonged views through the spotting scope at 50X were brain damaging. 

Alberta is a Birding Heaven for Newfoundlanders.  I never even got to the southeast corner of the province where the prairie longspurs, Ferruginous Hawks and Baird's Sparrow live. Next time...

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

A Couple of Euro Whims

Newfoundland has been on the western end of some transatlantic winds for the last five days or so. The winds are not strong but direct. We were expecting a few transatlantic waifs and it happened. Typical Icelandic species and just a light smattering of birds. Very light. A total of four European Golden Plovers at three locations and a Euro Whimbrel around a ship at sea. Then Ed Hayden found two European Whimbrels at Maddox Cove. White-rumped whimbrels are rarer than Black-tailed Godwits in Newfoundland.  Often just a brief visit at a Cape or headland and up to now always a single bird. Two Euro Whimbrels close to St. John's was a hit among the birders.

The two birds were feeding on narrow steep grassy margins between a fairly busy road and the rocky shoreline. A very unlikely place for Whimbrels of any nationality. I struggled with a backup camera, a Canon 40D while my beloved 1D MarkIV is in hospital. In the dark foggy conditions I realised the advantages of a camera capable of good results at higher ISOs among other comforts I'd taken for granted for the last six years. I missed my opt for flight shots because some ()*&^*^ dial accidentally turned to the Mars shooting mode in the moment of action.

The white rumps and white under wings transforms a pretty ordinary looking Whimbrel into a European star.

Is there a way to tell the nationality of these two birds with there white parts concealed? They seem to have more obvious white borders to the wing coverts or is that just my imagination?

Feeding among boulders on a narrow slope between the road and the rocky shoreline was a very unlikely location to find Whimbrels. They arrived in the fog so probably didn't have much of an idea of their surroundings.

Every time they fluttered their wings there was a response of camera shutters on the road. Many locals stopped to see what they were missing. Most were disappointed to find out it was only birds.

This individual vomited.  Looks like a stomach full of fresh slugs. Slugs are common in the grass. Didn't know anything ate them. Maybe there is a good reason for that.

The other bird looked on concernedly at its buddy hurling but seemed OK itself.

Overall this was the best all round European Whimbrel experience ever in Newfoundland. It was enjoyed by the most people and at leisure and there were two of them.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

The Season called Spring in Newfoundland

Spring weather is probably better on Mars than it is in Newfoundland. As I type this on 20 April it is currently snowing and there is a Freezing Rain Warning posted for tonight in St. Johns and the northern Avalon Peninsula. There is a strip of pack ice  across the entrance to St. John's harbour.  The good news about spring is the high frequency of Icelandic vagrants. Frequently during the spring large Low Pressure areas stall and enlarge in the mid North Atlantic generating an air flow from Ireland & Iceland to Newfoundland and Labrador. Shorebirds wintering in Ireland and the rest of the UK on their way to nesting grounds in Iceland sometimes miss their mark and ride the winds all the way to Newfoundland.  European Golden Plover is the most regular and most numerous species.  It is found almost every spring somewhere in eastern Newfoundland but in good years there can be several hundred with single flocks of up to 60 birds. Black-tailed Godwit is a distant second in abundance, followed by Eurasian Whimbrel and Common Redshank.  The peak period is 20 April to 10 May.

There is mildly promising weather for some Icelandic birds in the next week but the winds are actually surprisingly good from Spain/France to eastern Newfoundland for the next 48 hours. We have a list of outlandish possibilities that could come from that area which are too crazy reproduce here.

Below are a few photos of Icelandic vagrants from our last big influx of Icelandic vagrants to Newfoundland in 2014 just to help whet the appetite..  

Two striking Black-tailed Godwits at Renews on 26 April 2014.

Eurasian Whimbrel at Cape Spear 9 June 2014. It arrived in mid May.

One of two Common Redshanks that were present at Renews beach on 4 May 2014.

A Greater Yellowlegs challenged the stranger (Common Redshank) at Renews Beach 4 May 2014. It was a brief skirmish. The redshank held its ground and did not fly away but went back to feeding soon as the yellowlegs let go.

Sometimes Northern Wheatears add a bit of variety during an Icelandic vagrant show composed mainly of shorebirds. May 2014 at Renews.

It does not matter how many times you see them in Newfoundland  the first one that lands in the spring is a big thrill.  European Golden Plovers WILL happen again. Will spring 2017 be another big influx???  Photo: early May 2014 Renews.

Not all birds of European origin arrive in Newfoundland flying directly across the Atlantic in spring. Some are thought to have flown across the Atlantic Ocean farther south, perhaps from western Africa during fall or winter.  After finding a winter refuge in say the Caribbean it is theorized that such birds fly north through North America in spring.  I am sold on this theory for explaining birds like the two pictured below. Both showed up in mid day during clear blue skies and strong west winds.

Little Egret at (where else?) Renews on 23 May 2015.

Garganey at Quidi Vidi Lake, St. John's on 15 May 2009..  

Sunday, 16 April 2017


It was 3:30 p.m. on the Thursday before the three day Easter holiday when my cell phone rang.  It was Alvan Buckley. He said “I just forwarded you a photo of a loon that Peter Shelton saw at Trepassey”. Sitting in front of my office computer I saw the email arriving and opened it while Alvan was still on the phone.  My finger already hovering over the ‘reject button’ moved back when the picture appeared. A clear, up cut, pointed yellow bill was an obvious foot in the door for building a case for Yellow-billed Loon.
Peter Shelton's photo of an interesting loon at Trepassey, NF on 11 April 2017. It looks rather obvious for a Yellow-billed Loon when you know it is one, but when you are trying to rationalize why this Common Loon looks like a Yellow-billed Loon things get fuzzy.
Alvan asked if I was going for it?  I said no.  I still had not digested the picture and besides I already had plans to be birding Trepassey in the morning. The record was also 48 hours old.  Over the next ten minutes I continued looking at the picture.  The bill was so good.  Clear yellow to the tip and finely pointed and a little upturned.  It had none of the dusky lines along culmen ridge or other areas of the bill typically present on even the whitest washed out examples of spring/summer sub-adult Common Loons.  How could it look any better for a YBLO?  However, I was long ago convinced there was no way a Yellow-billed Loon was ever going to occur in Newfoundland waters.  I had to see why this bird looked so close to a YBLO.  There was not much daylight left and I did have some social plans for the evening but I called Alvan back saying that I was going for it, do you want to come? Yes was his answer. We met at my house at 4 pm and began the 1hour 45 minute drive from St. John’s to Trepassey
Visibility was excellent over Trepassey Bay when we arrived.  We found the mother lode of loons over by the old fish plant site.  But they were nearly all asleep. This was not something we were prepared for.  The few hundred loons trapped by ice for the last week had sought refuge in open water of the inner parts of Trepassey harbour.  With little feeding opportunity the loons had taken on a semi-hibernation mode and were sleeping away the day to conserve energy. Tufted Ducks do the same thing to get them through the coldest parts of the winter in St. John’s by sleeping for days and days.
Using details from Peter’s photo we could eliminate many loons by the amount of white checkering in the back and others were just too dark on the neck.  We’d hover over particular birds of interest, sometimes whistling hoping it would raise its head. Meanwhile, Paul Linegar arrived on the scene to help with the searching.  After an hour looking at several flocks of sleeping loons I decided to move to the location of the old fish plant and scan the ice choked entrance of the harbour.
There were far fewer loons here but at least they had their necks up because they were actively fishing.  Far in the distance I was monitoring ten loons swimming in a line and actively diving. Between the ice pans I kept getting the vibes that one of them was browner and maybe holding its head up higher. The birds were gradually working toward me but still hundreds of meters away. Eventually through the shimmering air the brownish loon indeed had the clear yellow bill we were looking for. I knew I was looking at a YELLOW-BILLED LOON for a full minute before jumping into the car and racing like a madman to get Alvan and Paul. We got back on the bird immediately. They were now only a couple hundred meters away and getting closer. The bird was too far away to pick out naked eye and hardly noticeably through the camera lens but through the scope easy to view.
It was browner.  The bill was amazing. Except for some darkness right around the immediate base of the bill next to the feathers, the bill was clear unmarked yellow.  It was a pale yellow becoming a little more intense at the tip. The bill was held up much like the character of a Red-throated Loon.  The bird was easy to pick out from the other loons but the browner body.  The pale on the side of the head and neck was much more extensive than the COLOs. The hind neck was a darker brown with a fairly distinct even line of contrast with the paler sides.  When viewed from the back it was like a paint roller had been run up of the back of the neck creating an evenly width swath.  When facing away you could see the pale of both sides of the neck at the same time. This is unlike the COLOs which when viewed from the back were all dark. (I know there are endless variations among one year old COLOs in spring and summer. I think these were all adult Common Loons that it was with.)  The pale face was so extensive that when it went to sleep holding its head over it back there were still plenty of pale face exposed making it easy to pick out on this feature alone. The head was also noticeably large compared to the COLOs, it was not so easy to detect the large body size while sitting low in the slightly rough water. 
We watched the bird for 30 minutes as darkness set in and the Yellow-billed Loon went to sleep. We left feeling elated that we had seen the impossible - a genuine YELLOW-BILLED LOON in Newfoundland.   We were looking forward to more views and some good photos in the morning.
Tomorrow came and so did a dozen eager loons lookers. But over night the band of pack ice trapping the loons in Trepassey Bay had loosened up considerably and was drifting back to the open sea. A third of the 300 or loons present on Thursday were gone at dawn on Friday. The beautiful rare loon was among those that departed…
Where did this loon spend the winter? The white spots coming in on the flanks indicated it was an adult. Maybe it will return to Newfoundland waters next winter.  We will never look at loons the same way from this point on. 
Full frame with a 840 mm lens and the loons are still far away. The Yellow-billed Loon is 4th from the left.  Note istlooks browner among these Common Loons.

Major cropping reveals the clear yellow slightly upturned bill and extensively pale face.

More hints at the pale face and yellow bill.

Beside the yellow bill the large head size compared to the Common Loons is apparent here.

Compare the large pale face and bill colour and shape with the Common Loons.

From behind the pale face can be seen on both sides of the head unlike the Common Loons present.

The large blocky head of the Yellow-billed Loon makes the Common Loons look wimpy by
structural comparison .

In a couple months the Yellow-billed Loon should look like this one on a lake in front of a remote mining camp in Nunavut on 5 Sept 2012.  A Yellow-billed Loon is a very special bird no matter where you see it in North America.

Here is an improved version of Peter Shelton's Yellow-billed Loon from 11 April 2017 at Trepassey, Newfoundland.  There is no arguing with that bill.