Thursday 28 February 2013


The N and NE winds started Feb 25 and are forecasted to go until at least March 3.  A full week of  strong Northerly winds in late winter is going to do something interesting in the bird world.. With the pack ice crowding the NE coast south to Cape Freels an influx of eiders has already been experienced.  Years ago prolonged NE winds in late winter resulted in large numbers of very tired Thick-billed Murres in every cove on the Avalon for a week afterwards. But let's not beat around the bush here. It is Ivory Gulls and Gyrfalcons we want. 
Jared Clarke had a GYRFALCON inland over the back bone of the Avalon between St. John's and Portugal Cove on Feb 26.  And yesterday an IVORY GULL actually did appear at Quidi Vidi Lake at noon yesterday.  A big thanks to Lisa de Leon for alerting me to the bird as it was there barely five minutes before it flew off the east end of the lake and has not been seen since.
Ivory Gull events involving multiple birds are rare on the Avalon Peninsula.  Since I've been here 1982 I can think of just four maybe five big events - two (three?) in late January, one in early and one in late April. So we don't have a lot of information to go on.  Is the bird at QV Lake the forerunner of something really big?  We are hoping. And in a couple minutes I will be getting in my car and driving to Seal Cove, Conception Bay to watch for potential storm trapped sea birds (including the white one).  Anticipation is huge.  While zero is a realistic possibility, multiple Ivory Gulls is highly possible. Ian Jones will be in Holyrood and other will be around town. Lets see what happens.

Adult Ivory Gull on the ice at Quidi Vidi Lake for only five minutes at noon on 27 Feb 2013.
A blow up of the same picture. Will will be seeing these by the flock today????!!!
Think white. Think lots.
BM 6 am 28 Feb 2013

10 am update

No Ivory Gulls reported as of 10 am. Checked out likely locations on the east side of Conception Bay (Seal Cove to Topsail Beach).  Winds will continue NE until at least Monday now but the winds will not be very strong. The Marine Forecast says NE 25 knots every day (about 45 km/hr).  The persistent wind from this direction will help bring the ice to the Avalon. When the ice is here water gets restricted and big concentrations of eiders can happen. The Gyrfalcons hunt in the pack ice. Fingers crossed.  Ivory Gulls maybe.  When there is ice they have freedom to travel far offshore.  They are a sea bird.  The best Ivory Gull numbers on the Avalon Pen usually happen when there is no ice in sight.  However let's not get greedy, there could still be a few Ivory Gulls if he ice comes.  Persistent NE winds might push them near shore.  Who knows what will happen?

The ice map dated 27 February 2013.  Ice should start coming around Cape Bonavista by the weekend.

Saturday 23 February 2013

Common Birds for the Common late Winter Doldrums

The weekends birding around St. John's get pretty repetitious by late February. But really we do have a lot to look at compared to anywhere else in Newfoundland.  We take our interesting birds for granted because we can see them so well at will. To save Saturday I decided to take close up shots of some of our interesting common birds.
Great Cormorants have been in breeding plumage for a month now.  The throat gets whiter and the flank patch appears.  This was preening at Harvey Wharf.

There have been up to four adult Common Gulls present at Pier 17 outfall this winter. Lately they have been loafing at the Virgina River parking lot at Quidi Vidi Lake where there were three Common Gulls today.  This bird was banded last winter in St. John's by Dave Fifield (CWS).  It was in 2nd winter plumage then. So we know this bird is now in its third year. It will be interesting to see how long it lives.
Common Gull # 2. The orbital rings on the Common Gulls are just starting to turn red. But the bills and legs still in full winter colours.
Common Gull # 3.  This individual is a little darker than the others with a more heavily streaked head.

The Tufted Ducks are doing well at Burton's Pond now that people are allowed to feed the ducks again. They are still pretty hungry. There are a lot of ducks to feed there.  Impossible to count now among the mixed duck flock but it looks to be about 50 Tufteds.
This drake Tufted Duck had an extra long crest. 
A typical female Tufted Duck.
A non-typical female Tufted Duck.  This leucistic individual has been with us since November. 
This female Tufted-like Duck is probably a hybrid Tufted x scaup. There is too much white around the bill, especially for late winter. There is often white on the face of young Tufteds when they arrive in October and November.  There is also an odd green sheen on the side of the head and a strong white ring around the bill. This bird has been present since fall.

Thursday 21 February 2013

Northern Eiders at Cape Spear

In late winter the pack ice flowing south from Labrador reaches its southern most limit for the year.  In recent years this southern limit isn't much beyond Cape Bonvista.  The Avalon Peninsula doesn't see much pack ice these years, however the effects of the ice on the northeast coast is felt on the Avalon. The ice displaces large numbers of eiders forcing them to fly farther south. This week the ice was tight against much of the shore south to Cape Freels with fingers reaching Cape Bonavista. The first big flock of northern eiders has been at Cape Spear .

I visited Cape Spear before work on 19 Feb.  It was a windy (50 WNW) and cold morning so there was no one else getting out of the car which worked to my advantage as the eiders are wary of people.  I had not quite reached my sheltered seawatch location when eiders started flying in. I hit the dirt. They were landing off the rocks in front of me and I was completely in the open. Hundreds and hundreds, about 2000 in all.  Had they seen me? Apparently not.  Still exposed to the wind and the stare of the eiders I started looking from where I was.  It was still dusk with a heavy overcast light but the birds were close so the camera came out.  All those first shots were a waste.

For the next two hours I watched the birds feeding by the shoreline then swimming a few hundred meters offshore to start on the digestion of the urchins and mussels. Then they'd swim back into the rocks in long lines and start diving again in the white water.  Eventually I reached my sheltered spot and set the camera up on tripod.  The light was very poor.  Even experimenting with ISOs ranging from 800 to 2500, most of the 20 gigs of photos I took were garbage.  The views through the scope were excellent.  It is always a treat when the eiders are close enough to easily identify them to subspecies.  This flock was pretty pure borealis which is the expected race in winter. 
The real reason we get excited by big eider flocks in late winter is because they nearly always contain some King Eiders.  This flock had six.  three adult male, two subadult male and one female.  The scope views of the drake Kings were fabulous at times.  Some of the photos worked out with a lot of cropping and teasing in Photoshop.  It was an enjoyable experience made possible by the inclement weather ensuring no one else walked down to the point which would have sent the eiders farther offshore if not flying away completely. There is something exciting about these northern eiders, and there will be more. 
Part of the mass of 2000 eider moving in and out like a massive amoeba from the feeding zone by the rocky shoreline to the safety zone a few hundred meters offshore.
Close up the yellow to orange-yellow bills and narrow pointed frontal lobes identify these as borealis, the abundant race of Common Eider breeding in the northern half of Labrador and all through the eastern Arctic. 

Drake King Eiders are the prize among the large flocks of late winter Common Eiders.
This King Eider shows black flecking in the 'shoulder' patch plus a sligthtly smaller frontal shield indicating this is a 2nd winter bird, one year away from being in full adult plumage.

I didn't think there were any female King Eiders in this flock but I found  this one in a series of photos. Can you pick it out!?
A full adult drake King Eider is hard to beat in the world of North American ducks. 

Tuesday 19 February 2013

Perfect Breakfast for a Bald Eagle

Diversions on the way to work in an office include Quidi Vidi Lake in east St. John's.  Anything is possible there among the gulls and ducks. It is easy to view birds from the car.  This Monday morning as I pulled into the Virginia River mouth parking lot about 07:20 there was the back of an eagle on the shoreline just visible over the trail.  According to the white feathers flying it was eating a gull.  It was very close, nearly full frame in the 500 mm lens but partly concealed behind a little rise of land.   It was just a matter of time before a walker came by on the path between me and the eagle so I decided to get out of the car before it was flushed by someone else.
The top of the Bald Eagle was just visible from sitting low inside the car.
Slowly I opened the car door and  stood up. I could see the eagle was eating a first winter Great Black-backed Gull.  It was not that afraid of me as it gorged on breakfast without harassment from other eagles too wary to come in close to the parking lot.
I walked around to get the low sun more in my favour.  Without tripod for fear of spooking the eagle I hand held the big 500mm lens. The 50 km/hr wind was catching the lens hood.  The eagle was surprisingly confiding. It was probably the best breakfast this eagle had had in a long time.
The eagle was aware of my presence but it stayed put as long as I moved slow.  When a passer by finally did come by the eagle carried the gull a little farther out on the ice.
While dead gulls are scavenged as soon as they die at Quidi Vidi Lake, it is rare for one eagle to consume the whole carcass without plenty of fighting with other eagles. This bird enjoyed the whole GBBG in peace because it could handle the human presence.


Sunday 17 February 2013

A Weekend of Ducks and Seals

Birding begins to get pretty routine in late winter.  You start doing the same things over and over but if you keep going out there will be surprises.  Saturday was a  duck day for John Wells and I checking out places as far west as the Isthmus and Clarenville. It was nice to see the hybrid drake  Tufted x Ring-necked Duck at Clarenville.  The sun glare was too bad for killer photos still needed of that bird even though this is the third year it has been here.  A massive flock of 1,050 Greater Scaup along with 135 Common Merganser crowded in the open water at Shoal Harbour was an impressive sight but not easy to capture with a 500 mm lens.
With time on our side we include a side trip to Spaniard's Bay to look for the Barrow's Goldeneye which was easy to find.  As always quite far away for photos.
The Barrow's was a nice view through a high powered scope but required a big crop when viewing photos.
Also at Spaniard's Bay was group of 18 Eurasian and 3 American Wigeon feeding in the tidal shallows.  That is the kind of ratio we like to see. Lots of nice drakes too. 
We took a shot up to Harbour Grace.  Two of the three hybrid American Wigeon x Mallards were accounted for. And they came to bird seed with the Black Ducks and Pintail. Interestingly the American Wigeon present did not.  Wigeons rarely eat bird seed in Newfoundland.  I guess it was the Mallard genes in the hybrids that gave them a taste for bird seed. Got some more photos. 
The female hybrid up close and the drake hybrid out of focus in the background. Do sibling ducks ever mate?  These two kept close to each other.
The drake hybrid American Wigeon x Mallard at Harbour Grace.  This drake and two females appeared in fall of 2011.  They appeared to be all from the same brood.
The drake rears up and flaps wings showing underside of wing but poor view of the speculum which is bluish with a thin white trailing edge. 
We rounded the bottom of Conception Bay seeing 15 Bufflehead at Avondale and plenty of  mergansers and goldeneyes along the way.  We pulled into Holyrood where some seals had been present recently on the ice within the boat basin.  They were still there along with about 20 people taking pictures. Some of the seals were very tame.
The smallish seals I misidentified as harbour seals until later seeing the pictures. They were in fact 1 and 2 year old Harp Seals.  But there was a surprise there. A tiny pocket size seal with silver rings on the back. A RINGED SEAL. While regular on the Northern Peninsula they must be fairly rare on the Avalon.  It was a first Avalon sighting for JW and I. 

This Ringed Seal was extraordinarily tame beside a wooden platform.

The sun was setting over the hill as I tried to get pictures of the tiny Ringed Seal facing away and in the glare when behind it a huge animal pulled itself out of the water on to the ice.  Incredibly it was a BEARDED SEAL.  We see these from time to time in winter on the Avalon but the moment it chose to appear couldn't have been better. 

A Bearded Seal is a huge animal with Texas sized whiskers.  The spotting on this individual probably means it is a sub-adult.
On the next morning (Sunday) I visited Holyrood again hoping for more photos with more daylight.  The Ringed and Bearded Seal were not there. But there was an adult male Harp Seal and about 20 sub-adult Harps.  I got my pictures in the heavy overcast before a small army of seal watchers came by and scared half of the seals back into the water.  The little bit of remaining ice was also drifting away with the wind.  I suspect there will be no ice in the boat basin after tonight's storm and probably no more seals to see.
The adult Harp Seal is a striking looking animal up close.  The wet fur that was rest on the ice is a difficult colour and texture than the dry fur.

Below is s series of photos of the sub-adult Harp Seals. Some so much smaller than the adult I assume are 1st years and others just a little larger were perhaps 2nd year seals. 



Sunday 10 February 2013

Common Mergansers and Arctic Cod

On Saturday 9 Feb 2013 I went out to Holyrood to try for pictures of Common Mergansers before Winter Storm Nemo was scheduled to hit eastern Newfoundland at noon. I knew there was an unusual concentration of Common Mergs at North Arm, Holyrood for the last two weeks.  Common Merganser is only locally common in Newfoundland and very uncommonly do we have a good chance to photograph them.

I arrived at North Arm not long after sunrise.  There was a heavy sea mist rising off the water.  The air temperature was -12C.   A Bald Eagle squealed at me from a tree above the car as I opened the car window for a view. There were plenty of mergs out there in the mist, 63 Common Merganser to be exact and one female Tufted Duck in the cove.  Scenic yes but not great for photography.   Eventually the temperature rose enough so the sea mist vanished.  But the mergs were no easier to photograph. As expected they were extremely wary of people even if in the open window of a car.  A gaggle of 30 multicoloured coloured joggers, all female,  moving along the little used road didn't help. The bottom line was without a blind or something similar along the shoreline there was no way to be close to the mergs for good photos. For the most part they fed from the safety of the middle of the cove. And on this day the heavy dark lead sky with the approach of Nemo added to the challenges. The photos below are big crops and using high ISOs

Watching the mergs for the next couple of hours proved interesting.  I figured the concentration of merganser were feeding on something like smelt that might be collecting in the cove before heading up into freshwater.  But it was Arctic cod.  The mergs struggled with the size of some of fish allowing for photos and then viewing details on the LCD camera screen.  The time lag before swallowing was an opportunity for gulls to steal the fish. This happened regularly.  Waiting Bald Eagles in the trees around the cove were then chasing the gulls that didn't swallow the fish soon enough. 
The Common Mergansers were content to feed in the middle of the cove or closer to the other shore away from human activity.

This group was fooled when they swam around a wharf not expecting me, but they became aware and smartly swam directly away.

Mergs eyeing a stranger on the wharf for just an instant before swimming away at high speed.

A long distance crop of a group of female Common Mergansers.
An increasing NE wind pushed some thin ice into the cove forcing the mergansers to readjust positions.  Excuses for photo quality are ISO 2500 and 100% crop.  A Smew would have made this a great photo.

Various shots of the fish. The proportionately large fins, long thin rear part, dark colour make these Arctic cod and not Atlantic or Greenland cod. I also had a good look at two specimens frozen in the ice by a wharf. 
A few harbour seals were also feeding on the Arctic cod bonanza.