Monday, 5 August 2019

A Brother Comes to Town - To Bird!!!

A trip to Pt Pelee, Ontario in May 2018 changed brother Andrew's life. Already a skilled photographer with a better than "average Joe" knowledge of birds, the two interests came together that spring at Pelee and ignited. It has been non-stop looking for targets to photograph and birds to get to know for Andrew ever since.  Together we visited Pelee in May 2019. We chanced upon a spring when Pelee was at its best for a whole week. It confirmed my impressions that Andrew would benefit greatly from a simple summer trip to Newfoundland. It was arranged.  Andrew's visit was
timed to met the capelin spawning season when the Avalon Peninsula seabirding magic was at its peak.  I picked 20-28 July.  In 2018 that week was quite amazing with a nice selection of rare gulls and sub-adult jaegers of all species and various rare terns.  
First things first.  The Witless Bay and Cape St. Mary's Ecological Reserves are musts for landlubber bird photographers not to mention your average visitor.  Day 1 was a visit to Witless Bay. There are several tour companies offering several trips daily during the peak summer season. I picked a company that I thought didn't try to entertain the visitors with singsongs and weak jokes.  But I guess the need for that has spread to all the boats.  

There were vast numbers of Black-legged Kittiwakes, Common Murres and Atlantic Puffins to see on the way out to Gull Island and you get a few minutes of intimacy with cliff nesters as the boat passes close to the breeding sites. 

DAY 1

Atlantic Puffin thrive on the three main islands in the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve with some 350,000 nesting pairs.  Missing puffin is impossible. 

These pics taken from the boat with a 420 m lens.  Landing on the island is not possible.


Razorbills are relatively uncommon but with a little diligence they are easy to spot on the cliffs, in the air and on the water.

Common Murres are common. They prefer shoulder to shoulder accommodations.



Impossible to resist are the close fly-by puffins. You are lucky one time out of ten to get something in focus .


Whales?  Yes you can get close views whales.  This mother Humpback was following it's calf that was unusually curious about our boat boat circling it twice and even poking its head above water to look at us. The boat tour operators knew this was a successful trip when this happened. $$$$

Day 2

During the capelin spawning season St Vincents Beach is Thee Place to go - usually. It was excellent in 2018.  It was pretty good in 2019.  Sub adults jaegers were putting on a half decent show. There were a few stray Laughing Gulls.  Swarms of feeding gannets and gulls and  at times masses of Sooty and Great Shearwaters coming in near the beach looking to cash in their meal vouchers.  The peak was waning fast.  

On 20 July, two days before Andrew's visit, Ken Knowles, John Wells and I visited St Vincents beach seeing all three species of jaeger including a duo of near adult Long-tailed Jaegers that hung over the beach. 


By the time Andrew and I arrived on 22 July the whales had left and  the shearwater were hanging a km offshore but the gannets were still in close feeding. An impressive swam was diving at changeable locations along the beach just off the gravel. This was the kind of thing Andrew was hoping for. There was lots of clicking.

Gannets diving on capelin schools in close to the beach at St. Vincents. 

It was gentle shallow diving. No spectacular dives required when there is a mass of living fish just below the surface. The gannets were coming up with a beak full of capelin. We could see the dark bodies of millions of  moving capelin swimming just off the gravel shore.


Day 3

Visibility dictates birding on the southern Avalon Peninsula in summer. The warm summer air blowing up from the southwest creates fog when it meets the cold waters of the Labrador Current.  Oh the fog!  The shorebirds migrating south from Arctic duties are a diversion from the mid summer seabird watching. The Whimbrel is a high arctic nester. They, and no doubt the (former?) Eskimo Curlew, fuel their journey with berries which they stock up on during a visit to Newfoundland and Labrador before heading out over the Atlantic nonstop to South America. The old runways at the abandoned air force base at Argentia offer some prime habitat for migrating Whimbrel. The wide open areas of flat ground, sparse grass and crowberry mats provide ideal habitat. We stopped here on our way to Cape St. Mary's.  We counted with a staggering 300 Whimbrel.  They were all adults so extremely wary. Impossible to photograph on the ground we did out best with flight shots.

About 1/4 of the Whimbrel present at Argentia airstrip on 23 July 2019.




A bonus was this Short-eared Owl that we saw carry food to a barely flying juvenile owl hidden in the grass. We left them alone.

Cape St. Mary's is a spectacular seabird colony in a spectacular setting. First timers go ballistic with the camera with so many close up targets. My few pictures don't do the place justice.  Andrew claimed he got almost too many good pictures.

Northern Gannets are the start attraction with 13,000 pairs nesting close by.

I promise myself every time I go there not to take any more gannet pictures but a few more won't hurt. There is a continual parade of them sailing by  the observation post at point blank range.

The few sub-adult gannets present have interesting patterns.

Black-legged Kittiwakes seems to be having a productive nesting season.

I don't pass up an opportunity for close Razorbill pictures.  This couple was getting intimate on a loafing ledge near the top of the cliff by the observation post. 


Day 4

Day 4 was the only rain day of the tour. It was only a light sporadic rain. For some car birding we drove around Conception Bay to try for some shorebirds.  Andrew was happy with his first encounters with Ruddy Turnstones still in high breeding plumage. We checked out a few places finding the standard species. To use up a bit of time we visited a new craft brewery at Dildo, Trinity Bay. We had a plate of wings in their restaurant and sampled a pint of their IPA.  It was good enough that we bought a 4-pack to bring home.  In case you don't believe the name, here is a picture of the can.  You can check out the community of Dildo on the map.  It is in Trinity Bay just south of Hearts Desire and Hearts Delight and not too far from Come by Chance.  Truth is stranger than fiction.


On the way back to St. John's an incoming text reported lots of shearwaters in close at Cape Spear.  This was only 15 minutes past home so we aimed to hit Cape Spear before going home. Andrew was still looking for shearwaters close enough to land to photograph. By the time we arrived the shearwater flight had moved 500-1000 m offshore.  But there were lots of local nesting alcids flying by fairly close in not-too-bad light. While Andrew entertained himself trying to freeze gannets diving into the water , I emptied a 64 gig memory card on mixed alcid flight shots.

Puffins were the dominant species.


Note the white line on the bill of the lead murre, also the bull neck and slightly pot-belly look.  It is a Thick-billed Murre.  A tiny percent of the local nesting murres are this species. A total luck shot.

Not many Razorbills were flying on this day.

The birds were heading to the nearest source of capelin to catch and bring back to the Witless Bay nesting colony to feed their young. There is a constant flyby of puffins and murres at Cape Spear during the summer months. 

Day 5

Andrew had a desire for shorebird photography.  It was time for a visit to Renews. With the car parked on the beach,  the shorebirds were forced in close by the rising tide.  Lots more Ruddy Turnstone photos and a few other odds and ends from within the car.  

Moose are everyone's concern when driving on Newfoundland roads, especially at night and early morning.  We saw this bull with two buddies just out of the frame near the entrance to Renews.  

After shorebirding we visited Clara Dunne's feeder in Renews where Andrew saw his first  Red Crossbills - a group of six or eight.  Clara with her endless hospitality to birders gave us some bakeapple tarts with cream toppings and a cup of coffee.

Still without any real effort put into the landbirds we ventured over to Bear Cove Point road.  Boreal birds we take for granted fell into place like Pine Grosbeak, Boreal Chickadees, a family of Canada Jays and a lucky Black-backed Woodpecker.  And different for an Ontario birder was the selection of breeding warblers that came to every pish.  Wilson's Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler and Northern Waterthrush were the commonest species. 

A curious Canada Jay in juvenile plumage investigated us.

This female Black Backed Woodpecker was a lucky encounter.with the uncommon though widespread Newfoundland breeding species. 

Day 6

It was a drive to Cape Race hoping for good shearwater action.  We saw a few thousands shearwaters but not close enough for meaningful photos. We watched humpback whales breaching while having lighthouse keeper Cliff's famous cake and coffee.  Long Beach, Portugal Cove South beach and Trepassey beach disappointed for shorebirds.

Day 7

The last day was based around St. John's tackling the woodland birds again. We went to some old back roads in the Goulds. A pleasant diversion at the start of the day was at a stinking manure pile that had attracted a number of shorebirds including 15+ Wilson's snipe and a locally scarce Solitary Sandpiper. Mourning Warbler was a prime target.  I knew where several had been singing in the spring.  Pishing got them going. Their distinctive alarm call told us they were close but seeing them in the open let alone locking the camera's AF on one was a challenge.

One quick shot of a scolding Mourning Warbler.

Once again we got lucky with Black backed Woodpeckers. This time a juvenile on the left with the yellow spot on top of the head accompanying its parent female. 

The hunt for Mourning Warblers was called off when the local RBA sounded on the phone. It was a Yellow-crowned Night-Heron at Virginia Lake in east St. John's.  Almost every summer one or two show up.  Always fresh immatures, one wonders if any ever get back to the east coast of the US where they belong.  We saw the heron. It was a long scope view across the lake.  Too far to photograph.  By late morning it was getting hot under the sun. Yes hot can happen in Newfoundland.  It was 29C in the afternoon under a blazing sun with no wind.  We drove along the coast mostly for the drive and then called it off and started early on the farewell to Newfoundland BBQ.

Andrew in action.







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