Sunday 29 December 2013

The Winter Robins are Arriving

With the abundance of dogberries (mountain ash) on the Avalon and in fact all through Newfoundland this winter we were expecting robin flocks. Sometimes it takes until Christmas for the flocks to build and the birds to enter the city of St John’s.  December 28 was perhaps the real good official first sign of city robin action.  Lancy Cheng found a flock feeding behind Cavell Ave.  He called me over and together we watched the flock of 150 which had moved a couple hundred metres farther east.  John Williams and Dave Hawkins appeared with their cameras.
Lancy and I were checking each robin for European thrushes especially Redwing and Fieldfare but not limited to those possibilities!  We didn't find any but it was good to get back into winter robining mode again.  This should be the start of a good month of this favourite winter activity.  Alvan Buckley also saw 100 robins in his neighbourhood on Roache Street.  Make sure you know what a Redwing and Fieldfare looks like and beware of starling and female Purple Finches often feeding on berries with the robins that give even veteran robiners a start now and then.  GOOD LUCK.

Some American Robins gorging on dogberries on 28 Dec near Quidi Vidi Road/Forest Road intersection.

This is a practice test. Find the mega in this photograph from near the Fluvarium, Long Pond taken January 2007.  BTW the Fluvarium area is perhaps the best place for robining in the city. The base of Signal Hill is another hotspot, Bally Haly Golf Course is good. But Redwings and Fieldfares have shown up in every part of the city over the decades. Go Find One. It can happen to you!


Friday 27 December 2013

St John's CBC foretells Bleak Winter Ahead

The St. John's CBC held on 26 Dec 2013 under blue skies, light winds, deep snow and cool temperatures was picture perfect day for February!  Waay too much snow on the ground for this time of year. The count total of 60 species was 15-20 species below the recent averages. There were no warblers, no waxwings, no wigeons - no wow factor.  Despite a heavy cone crop finches were rare. And with all these dogberries only hundred or so robins.  The early freeze sent many city ducks packing which is probably a good thing. Wigeons need grass to graze on.  Hopefully the 60 wigeon (half AM, half EUR) migrated to some place where they could live. The Eurasian Wigeon that have been wintering here in numbers for the last 10-15 years of warm winters probably have no idea where to go when it gets cold in St. John's. Hopefully the Americans will lead them to greener pastures. 
There is concern about the Tufted Ducks. Most of the scaup that try to overwinter in the little areas of open water at the St. John's ducks ponds departed when things froze. But the Tufted Ducks didn't go. They've never been anywhere else. They migrate to St. John's, presumably from Iceland, and winter here in an artifical setting.  Numbers have been building every year. This year there was a significant increase from the 55 last winter to 78 this winter.  They are all crammed in a tiny pool of water at Burtons Pond that can hold a maximum of 80. They don't eat. If it gets colder and snowier where will they go? Will they expire? It is survival of the fittest and smartest. Birds are always experimenting, trying to expand their ranges.  Will this winter put an end to St. John's as being a wintering destination for Tufted Ducks? It should. St. John's is not a fit place for Tufted Ducks to overwinter.  It is a marginal existence at the best of times.
While it was mostly doom and gloom all around (LOL) there were some bright-ish moments.  The group that I was part of with Ken Knowles and Jared Clarke were surprised by a flock of 8 Lapland Longspurs at the dump.  The species is an October migrant with very few during winter.  A Red-throated Loon, again an October migrant through St. John's with very few stopping becuase of the deep water and rocky bottoms, was genuine surprise in St. John's harbour where any loon is unsual at anytime.
This Red-throated Loon in St. John's harbour on the CBC was in an unusual location at an unusual time of year and provided unusually excellent photo opportunities.

The bird below is a Common Loon for comparison. It was photographed in St. John's harbour the day after the CBC. While a common wintering bird on the Avalon seeing one within the harbour is an unusul event.  Great Cormorants and Black Guillemots regularly feed in the harbour, maybe loons should too.
The wide open grassland plains created at the St. John's landfill perhaps enticed a group of eight Lapland Longspurs to stay for Christmas at least.


Tuesday 24 December 2013

Newfoundland Herring Gull in Breeding Plumage on Christmas Eve

With Christmas shopping all done and official holidays from work in effect, Christmas Eve was a free time holiday.  Perfect time for gull watching at Quidi Vidi Lake.  Spent most of six hours watching the mouth of the Virginia River where gulls were coming to bath and drink.  Did not see any rare species but there were, as always, a number of rule-bending gulls seen. Just two gulls are presented here. Both are adult Herring Gulls.
The first three shots are of a Herring Gull in breeding plumage with a completely white head, brightly coloured bill and bright marigold yellow-orange orbital ring. White headed Herring Gulls are rare but not unheard of in December in Newfoundland. Typically the first white headed gulls begin appearing by mid January but are pretty rare until the last days of January. During the first week of February white headed HERGs become regular and quickly become more common every day of the month. Just so happens it was an individual with extensive white in the primaries.
An adult Herring Gull with pure white head, bright marigold orane-yellow orbital ring and brightly coloured bill of breeding plumage on the early date of 24 Dec 2013.

In the fully spread wing note the mirror on P9 easily meets with the gray finger of inner web and the small black marks on P5. 

The second bird is a Herring Gull in full winter plumage typical for the time of year but with even more white in the wing tip including a broken subterminal bar on P9 which is very uncommon.



Friday 20 December 2013

Christmas Holidays 2013

Sixteen days of holidays start tomorrow. The Avalon Peninsula is a good place to be birding in December though it doesn't have to be this winter-like!  There will be robin flocks to go through for Redwings.  Gulls to check at Quidi Vidi Lake for the Yellow-legged Gull and as of yet undiscovered rarities, hopefully including a Slaty-backed Gull. Cape Spear will be good for seabirds.  Lingering warblers will be very few with this cold weather but feeder sparrows and allies could include some nice rarities.

Let the birding begin!

Ivory Gulls on ice pan off northeast Greenland on 11 Sept 2011.

Wednesday 11 December 2013

300 Snowy Owls in Newfoundland Weekend - An Explanation

On Saturday 7 December Ken Knowles, John Wells and I counted 91 Snowy Owls on the Cape Pine road and adjacent St Shotts area. The next day at Cape Race about 20 km to the east I counted 206 Snowy Owls. This adds up to 297 owls when you add in four more I saw near Cappahayden it turns into a 301 Snowy Owl weekend.
 This mega Snowy Owl influx into southeastern Newfoundland started  at Cape Race. Weekend counts go like this - 3 on 15 Nov; 42 on 23 Nov, 138 on 1 Dec and 206 on 8 Dec.  Snowy Owls appeared in other eastern extremities like Cape Spear with a maximum of 12 and Cape Freels with a maximum of 6. There were numerous sightings of singles here and there in eastern Newfoundland as well but there was a paucity of records from western Newfoundland.
 Snowy Owls were also appearing far offshore on ships and oil platforms. At Cape Race Snowy Owls were seen flying in off the ocean as well as flying high, fast and far south into the abyss. One made it to Bermuda. Surprising none have been reported from the Azores yet. 

 Meanwhile the rest of Atlantic Canada and the eastern United States was also enjoying one of the biggest inflixes of Snowy Owls in living memory (some birders have not lived that long!).  But none of the counts from these areas touched what was happening at the southeast corner of Newfoundland.
Where did the owls come from and why?  I won't go much into the classic explainations for Snowy Owl irruptions in the south right now but below is some information about the possible source of the Snowy Owls that I got today,
First I found out where Snowy Owls were in low to normal numbers in the Canadian Arctic (Rankin Inlet on western shore of Hudson Bay, Igoolik on the Melville Peninsula and northern Baffin Island including Bylot Island - information thanks to Alastair Franke, University of Alberta).   Greenland was also ruled out as a source where David Bortemann in communication with biolgists working around Greenland reported normal or low numbers of Snowy Owls during the summer of 2013.  In the end several sources pointed to Northern Quebec as having a big lemming year and a boom year for Snowy Owls.  I don't have many details yet but this mind boggling picture below is probably enough to answer the question about the location of the source of the current Snowy Owl influx in eastern North America.
A Snowy Owl nest in northern Quebec in 2013 with 70 lemmings and 8 voles brought to the nest even before the eggs have hatched. (photo by J.F. Therrien, lifted from Arctic Raptors Facebook page)

What follows are some Snowy Owl pictures from the December 7/8 weekend at Cape Pine and Cape Race. One intriguing feature brought to my attention by David Bortemann was the little ear tufts shown by most of the owls.  Yes we all know Snowy Owls have little ear tufts that you sometimes see but the ear tufts were visible on most the owls. Was it becuase the owls were so skinny and with no fat between the ears the skin was pulled tight and the ear tufts became erect???? Yah that is reading a lot into it but the fact is that most of these owls up close are showing ear tufts.You don't see it often on the multitudes of internet Snowy Owls.

Below are just a few Snowy Owl photos from the 301 Snowy Owl weekend at Cape Pine and Cape Race. Note the little ear tufts on every bird and compare this with other images found on the internet.



Tuesday 10 December 2013

Purple Gallinule - Close but Again No Cigar

On Sunday 8 December Paulette King found a strange bird dead in her Clarenville back yard. Being the size of chicken but iridescent purple and green with long spidery yellow toes she knew she had something exotic. Through her friend Lena who knew someone who knew someone an email eventually reached me with the following photos attached asking if I could help identify it.

The front and back half of Purple Gallniule photographed with a Smart Phone. It was found freshly dead in the backyard of Paulette King in Clarenville on 8 Dec 2013.
 Up to this point no birders have seen a free wild Purple Gallinule in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador. There are probably a dozen records for the province and most of them are December/January when cold fronts sweep over the southeast US freezing out Purple Gallinules.  When forced to move and it seems that some of them get caught up with a large Low pressure area and go with the flow of strong southerly winds  They go with the flow until they get tired and drop into the sea or keep going until they get to Newfoundland. After they get here they probably wish they died first. December/January records are usually in weird places like fishing boats offshore, a hedge in a backyard or a garage. There were two very large and powerful Low pressure areas with strong south winds during the week before the gallinule's appearance.

I have seen two live but uncountable Purple Gallinules in Newfoundland. The first was in Pierre Ryan's bathroom in the late 1980s. Pierre works for CWS.  It landed on a government resreach vessel around Christmas time.  When it was brought ashore, Pierre received it and kept in his bathroom  for a couple of days before it entered a better rehab situation. 

On 30 Dec 2005 I was out making the birding rounds in St. John's on an unseasonable warm and sunny day after the passage of a deep Low pressure area. I got a call from the receptionist at the CWS office saying someone had just brought in a Purple Gallinule and there is no one  to take it. Can you come for it?  As it turned out a motorist had seen it running around Forest Road where I had already been that morning. He thought it needed help so he caught it and brought it into the CWS office.

I went to the CWS office and got the bird and decided to release it at Long Pond marsh. Being an unseasonably warm autumn the marsh was still unfrozen. It seemed like the best situation available for a Purple Gallinule in Newfoundland. I called a few friends to witness the release. It took to the marsh like it had never left.  Within a minute it slipped into the privacy of the grass and reeds. That night winter returned with a 40 cm of snow and cold north winds.

The Purple Gallinule in the back window of my car enroute to Long Pond marsh for release on 30 Dec 2005.


The Purple Gallinule in the marsh habitat a few seconds before disappearing into the vegetation forever on 30 Dec. 2005.


Saturday 30 November 2013

Male Pine Warbler for the Viewing - Maybe

Pine Warbler is a vagrant to Newfoundland with the closest breeding populations in New Brunswick and maybe a few breeders in Nova Scotia. It is annual in tiny numbers on the Avalon Peninsula mid October to early winter. Year listers already cashed in on two immature female Pine Warblers present in St. John's in early January 2013 (lower Waterford Valley, Cavell Lane).  Today I came across a colourful male Pine Warbler in the upper Waterford Valley.  It was on the Southside Road in a large group of spruce trees about 100 m down river from the Waterford Lane Bridge.  It was among a large flock of juncos, kinglets and chickadees.  I tied a piece of yellow flagging tape to a spruce tree on the shoulder of the road to mark the spot. I plan to put up at suet cage here as soon as I can muster up the courage to enter a Walmart or Canadian Tire infested with Xmas shoppers. I already have the suet, just need the cage.  In the late 1980s we had FOUR Pine Warblers coming to a suet bag at this location. And there have been at least two Townsend's Warblers in this clump of spruce trees over history. It is a place that should be checked more often. It difficult to see everything in the dense spruce trees on just one visit.  I am hoping by starting a Pine Warbler feeder here more people will visit the area and in turn discover more interesting birds that could be living here.  Attached are pictures of the bird that awaits you. Didn't get much of a photo opt on this first encounter.

Friday 22 November 2013

Weekend Forecast - A Heavy Snowy Owl Fall Warning

The Snowy Owl at Cape Spear on Thursday.
Word of EIGHTEEN Snowy Owls on the Cape Race road today (Richard Thomas, Tony Power) has fueled speculations that this could be a really big Snowy Owl year. The kind that happens every 10-15 years. There are lots of factors pointing to Saturday being an even bigger, maybe much bigger day.  For one thing the winds will be light to moderate NW over night. This should concentrate them at Cape Race the same way the wind concentrates hawks during autumn migration.  For the last two days the Avalon Peninsula has been stuck in the eye of a winter storm that has nailed parts of eastern NF with snow and powerful North winds. Not sure if Snowy Owls would fly through that kind of weather but one thing for sure is they won't be going offshore where a lot of them end up during such influxes. As the storm weakens and pulls away over night there will be NW to West winds across the island. Snowy Owls grounded by the weather in western NF for the last 48 hours will be given a chance to move tonight. They don't know where they are going other than south.  A mass movement over night could focus a lot of them at Cape Race tomorrow. Not only that there should be reports from other places like Cape Spear and within the city of St. John's. 

Dream On.

Plan of action for myself? I am very much looking forward to being on Cape Race road as the sun rises on Saturday morning with Cape Race junkies Ken Knowles and John Wells.

Tuesday 19 November 2013

The VIRGINIA'S WARBLER in Newfoundland - A true story.

Vagrant hunters in Newfoundland are aware of what excellent birds stray into northeastern North America as they are potential finds for us at the end of the road. When Dave Brown called me at 08:55 Thursday 14 Nov 2013 I was just warming up to a computer screen in an office. No words were wasted as he conveyed to me he was glimpsing a grayish warbler with bright yellow undertail coverts behind an apple tree. We both knew what he was talking about without spelling it out.  I screamed across town getting there in 15 minutes flat. By now Dave had seen more of the bird and was sure enough about the identity of the bird to sound the general alarm that there was a VIRGINIA’S WARBLER on the dirt track behind the Country Ribbon chicken processing plant in Pleasantville. The rest is history but not an easy one.

It is 19 Nov as I type. The bird has been very difficult to see and the most challenging long staying Newfoundland rarity ever to photograph. Birding the hillside of brush, fields and weeds checking out the flocks of juncos and chickadees is futile.  It was soon realized that a leafy apple tree growing against the cinder block wall of the chicken processing plant was a semi-regular part of its daily routine. The apple tree became the worship site of birders for hours upon hours waiting for a sighting of the Virginia's Warbler or a lucky angle for a photograph.

Perfectly gray and boring for a warbler, the yellow wrap around rump patch is concealed in this and most views. The gray Nashville Warbler-like appearance excites rare warbler hunters in eastern North America..

Many hours were spent standing by the famous apple tree with the camera, yet I ended up with combined time of maybe 12 whole seconds of  viewing the bird down the barrel of a telephoto lense.  The bird was usually buried behind a maze of gnarly branches.

The brightest part of the mousey-gray Virginia's Warbler is the yellow under tail coverts.  A Virginia's Warbler is hardly within the range of the beautiful colour combinations and designs of most wood warblers. 
A hint of the yellow in the centre of the breast is just visible on this view of the bird but there was never time to notice this detail in life observations.
 A very long distant crop reveals more about the bird's overall jizz of a plain gray warbler with a yellow under tail.  Like all warbler it was a very active and smart looking bird.
Overall these photos confirm the identity of the bird. It is one those rarities that will be a mile marker in the history of Newfoundland birding. The story is still ongoing. 
The Apple Tree

Monday 11 November 2013

A Gyr Buzz - 10 Nov 2013

It doesn't matter how many Gyrfalcons one sees, they never get boring. In fact they are highly addictive. The more you see, the more you need to see another one.  When four veteran Newfoundland birders (Ken Knowles, John Wells, Chris Brown and I) with many Gyrs and great Gyr experiences under our belts over the last several decades were on the Cape Race road on Sunday we were actually talking about Gyrs. When would our next one be? It has been a long time. We recounted the Gyr Years of the early 1990s when for several winters in a row there were so many Gyrfalcons around the St. John's area it was just a matter of going outside. The only question was what colour morph would you see today, with the full hattrick being highly possible.  
It was an exceptionally beautiful morning at Cape Race on Sunday. There was absolutley no wind and a magical light created by thin partly broken overcast. Spirits were high. We were birding well, checking the areas but not finding any surprises. We had just finished covering the Long Beach area when someone looked back up the road we'd just come down and noticed a hawk sitting on a hydro pole. Judging by size through binoculars it was expected to be a Northern Goshawk or Peregrine Falcon.  Two people with scopes already set up took a look but were not saying anything.  They weren't seeing the eye line of goshawk or the moustache stripe of pregerine. It seemed to be a falcon. It was not close and we were looking back into the light glare from the low sun.  Then there was the phrase, "This looks like a Gyr".  At first we knew it couldn't be a Gyr and there must be some other explaination.  We took turns looking through the scopes.  Like a match dropped into a gasoline tank our adrenaline levels shot through the roof as we all came to the realization at the same time that  IT WAS A GYRFALCON.
We carefully leapfrogged the two cars up the road not wanting to flush the bird or miss seeing it fly.  Then a pickup truck drove right past it with no reaction from the bird. We drove ahead and parked the two cars where the road was closest to the pole.  For an hour it stayed there. Maybe it had just come in off the ocean and was resting.  The looks were fabulous through binoculars and microscopic from scopes set up in the car.  But I was hurting for not having my 600mm lens and 2x converter with me. How sweet it would have looked with all that power in the perfect lighting and endless time to try various camera settings. When birding in someone elses car I often do not bring the big lens because it takes up a whole seat. And when vagrant hunting I like to carry the 300mm f4 cause I can have it on me 100% of the time and be always ready to document rarities.  Yes I lost sleep thinking about what could have been but I am overall very happy with the experience. 
It started hunting and moved a few poles east and farther back from the road.  After 90 minutes we left with the bird still present and a warm buzz in our chests that lasted into the next day. Maybe this early Gyrfalcon will be the start of something.

Lots of careful cropping and playing with Photoshop was required to blow this bird up from the small image in the camera. You get the gist of the bird!!

A quick view of the front of the bird as it shifted positions. The blue cere, blue orbital ring and blue feet mark it as an immature bird, probably hatched this year.

The frayed and broken ends to the tail feathers is a strong indication this bird spent a long time in a nest this summer.
When the underwing coverts and breast show more dark than light areas then it is a bona fide dark morph bird according to the Mactavish Rating of Gyrfalcon Colour Morphs.

The ultimate Gyrfalcon is the white morph. This one was from northeast Greenland on 15 Sept 2011. The Mactavish Rating of Gyrfalcon Colour Morphs gives this a 4 out of 10. A Code Ten white morph has a pure white head, pure white under parts and  unmarked pure white tail. Such birds do exist.

Wednesday 6 November 2013

Long Gone, But Not Forgotten Seabird Flight - 27 Sept 2013

Over night on 26/27 September 2013 a NNE gale with fog and rain pushed large numbers of seabirds into Conception Bay, Avalon Peninsula, Newfoundland.  When this happens, (couple times per autumn) some seabirds get trapped by the force of the wind in Holyrood harbour at the very bottom of the bay. This means good seabird watching for birders who get there in time, i.e. when the storm is still at full force. I arrived at Holyrood at dawn on 27 September in the teeth of the gale.  I parked the car on the shoreline in the shelter of a solid spruce tree. I opened the window and witnessed a spectacular seabird show from the comfort of sitting in the car. 
I estimated 20,000 Leach's Storm-Petrels were trapped in the harbour. Up to 250 jaegers were in sight at one time on the water and in the air, with at least 400 tallied during the morning. Strings of Red Phalaropes (2000+ total) were flying in one side of the cove and out the other side. A rare Sabine's Gull was the star rarity of the event.
Trying to capture the essence of the extravaganza with a camera was challenging. The high winds, fog and rain made for very poor light conditions.  A wide angle lens would have helped.  Below are a few chosen photos of the many taken with a 600mm lens. None are field guide quality.
Swarms of jaegers and Leach's Storm-Petrels fight the force of the wind to avoid being blown into the woods at the back of Holyrood harbour.
Sometimes the jaegers would rise high in the air as if to get a visual on just where they ended up during the stormy hours of darkness. There must be a way outta here.

The seven Pomarine and one Parasitic Jaeger (second bird from right) in this photo pretty well summarizes the overall species ratio of the 400+ jaegers seen during the morning.
Adult Pomarine Jaegers - one dark and two light morphs. None of the adults were in pristine breeding plumage.  Tail projections were in various stages of deterioration.  The bodies of light morphs were showing barring of winter plumage. Only a couple of juveniles were confirmed. It is a mystery why juvenile jaegers are almost rare in Newfoundland waters, near shore and offshore, compared to the numbers of sub-adults and adults
Large gulls were having a field day catching the Leach's Storm-Petrels. Here live Leach's are feeding on the oil slick created by a Great Black-backed Gull eating one their cousins!
Strings of Red Phalaropes streamed by the Leach's Storm-Petrels which for the most part were just holding position in the bay. The Leach's also appeared to be feeding on zooplankton concentrated in Holyrood harbour by the wind.
There was the constant 'pik-pik' sound of Red Phalaropes flying by the car.
A few phalaropes stopped to feed, but most just kept going, heading back toward the safety of the open sea.
The prize rarity of the event was this juvenile Sabine's Gull that reappeared several times over the period of an hour. The species is rarely observed from land in Newfoundland.
A dark morph adult Parasitic Jaeger knives into the wind past the car window.  Just one of many great moments of a constantly entertaining five hours at Holyrood.  It won't be the last seabird show at this locaiton.