Sunday 31 March 2013

When Starlings Look Good

After 14 days in Nunavut in late winter and basically deprived of birds I am looking forward to going back south to Newfoundland where there are birds.  Even ordinary birds like starlings and crows will look interesting for a few moments. In the last two weeks I've seen two species - ravens are common around the communities and Black Guillemots (little white dots) , a few from a survey airplane. The weather systems over the North Atlantic for the past week or more have looked fantastic for carrying birds from Europe to Newfoundland. It is on the early side but we've had Euro Oystercatcher as early as April 3 and Euro Golden Plover as early as April 8.  Looking at spring arrivals in Iceland for late March there are some interesting possibilities for this time of year - Greylag Goose and Whooper Swan being up there on the dream list.  Hoping to get a few days off work to look around for Icelandic vagrants.
Looking east at the community of Hall Beach located at the NW corner of Foxe Basin while taking off from airstrip in a Twin Otter.  Foxe Basin is the body of water between the west side of Baffin Island and the mainland.  All the area behind the town is saltwater (mainly ice covered) and in the foreground the flat level terrain streches forever into the western horizon on the other side of me.  March 29, 2013.
Foxe Basin on March 30, 2013.  Parts of the Basin are strongly tidal with continually moving ice where there are always small areas of open water harbouring a few Black Guillemots even in the depth of winter but as far as I could tell no other birds. 

Saturday 23 March 2013

Birdless Baffin Island in late March

Currently I am sitting in a 'hotel' room in Cape Dorset, Baffin Island. Cape Dorset is a community of <500 people at the southwest corner of Baffin Island. I am here for work doing aerial surveys for marine mammals in Foxe Basin. I was also here (based in Iqaluit & Cape Dorset) for three weeks in March 2012. It is still winter on Baffin Island in March with temperatures well below freezing all the time. All the snow that has fallen since fall the previous year is still on the ground in March on Baffin Island. From a birding point of view there are very few birds to see in southern Baffin Island in late winter. In a combined total of 27 days spent here from 2012/2013 during March based out of Iqaluit and Cape Dorset I have seen basically nothing but Common Ravens. These birds are common within the communities where they feed at dumps. But you don't see them when flying over land to our survey areas.

There is one exception to the raven-only rule. I did see one single Common Redpoll in late March 2012 flying over the buildings in Iqaluit. It indeed did look large and dark brown even with the in flight only view. Before coming to Baffin Island in March I'd hoped to see redpolls expecting them to be the big pale Hoaries and the big dark Commons. But once here I realized the place is completely inhospitable to any birds. Even ptarmigan are on the missing list. Hunters here say they are present but rarely see them in winter and don't consider them something to hunt.  I can not imagine Gyrfalcons, Snowy Owls or redpolls living here in winter.  Walking around Iqaluit and Cape Dorset I see no tips of willows or any grass sticking up through the snow.  Hill tops reveal bare rock with small amounts of lichen and nothing else. It is the same everywhere along the south coast of Baffin Island much of which I have seen from the air.  Maybe there are some lusher areas farther north on Baffin Island where redpolls and Gyrs might be able to eek out a living but it is difficult to imagine.
I am thinking practially all the redpolls that breed in Baffin Island have to leave for winter.  Gyrfalcons and Snowy Owl probably have to leave the land but they can live out on the ice where there are Dovekies, guillemots and murres to eat. The ice edges and open water areas between Baffin Island and Greenland potentially supports a good population of Gys in winter. Dovekie should be numerous somewhere out there in winter.  Many Gyrs certainly feed around the eastern edge of the ice off Labrador and northern Newfoundland where seabirds, especially Dovekie are likely to be common.

Common Raven is the only bird expected around the communities of southern Baffin Island. They are common around the dumps where this bird was headed at Iqaluit on March 20, 2013

A aerial view of Cape Dorset, Baffin Island in late March 2012. The community is a raven oasis in an birdless Arctic landscape.

Sunday 10 March 2013

* * * * * GRAY HERON in Newfoundland * * * * *

Saturday night I got a call from Gerald Hann of Little Hearts Ease, Trinity Bay (west side) about a bird strange for his area that he identified as a Great Blue Heron.  Within microseconds I processed the news of a GBHE in eastern Newfoundland, in early March after an extended period of far reaching  East and Northeast as highly interesting with distinct possibility of Gray Heron.  Not wanting to blow the report out of proportion I posted the sighting on nf.birds as it was reported to me but to others who I knew would drive at the drop of a hat anywhere in Newfoundland for a Gray Heron I emailed a special Stand By email.  Ken Knowles, John Wells and I were jumping on this right away.
Early Sunday we drove the 190 km to Little Hearts Ease. We easily found the estuary. It was half iced over. Surprisingly there were a few Canada Geese there. Not so surprising was 20 Black Ducks but it at least showed some richness to the somewhat poor looking piece of icy habitat. Within 30 seconds JW spotted the heron resting out on the flats.The dull colours showed it was in immature plumage. We were expecting an adult in spring.
What could we do with a blob of a heron.  We needed to see the colour of the thighs to clinch the ID. Such is difficult enough to be sure of seeing on a Great Blue Heron when active but impossible on a sleeping bird. It flew once, possibly because of our presence though we were far enough away to need scopes for good looks. Once again it flew.  In the first 15 minutes of seeing the bird we had absolutely nothing to go on for ID. 
It sat for eternity mostly obscured on the shoreline beneath a steeply forested hillside. (It was everything we could do to stop KK from rolling boulders down the hill to dislodge the heron.)  Finally a passing Bald Eagle did the trick.  The heron flew out onto the ice. For the next 15 minutes or so we had the bird in the open in the ice being a little bit active and even catching a fish.  We could not see the thigh colour but photos did capture it when landing.  Viewing the LCD screen on the back of the camera we saw what we wanted to see -white. Or was that creamy white.  What ever it was it was not rufous of the GBHE. There was a slight concern that in some shaded photos the thighs looked yellowish.  After looking at the pictures on computer at home the impression of yellow wash on thighs was not a concern.
Other features noted in the field and/or at home was the white leading edge to the wing in flight. There was a small rusty area combined with a white patch at the wrist area which is OK for Gray Heron. There was no other rust in the plumage.  The dark cap yes seemed fairly grayish and not blackish like supposed to be in GBHE but living in a basically GBHE-free environment we do not get to know them well enough to judge that detail in the field.  The dark markings on the front of the neck were sharply defined like black staples all the way down the neck. I've always noted this about Gray Herons I've seen in Europe and in photographs.  The leg projection beyond the tail seemed relatively short for a GBHE but found myself wishing I'd seen some GBHE recently to appreciate this feature better. 
The photos tell all even though fairly long distant crops in dull light,.    Below is a selection. At least ten other birders drove to Little Hearts Ease and saw the heron in the afternoon.  This is a good thing as it was looking a little weak toward the end of the day.  It doesn't put much effort into trying to feed itself.
This was the second record for Newfoundland and Labrador. The first was 11 October 1996 found aliveat Lears Cove near Cape St. Mary's but died and specimen preserved. Other North America records include two from Alaska and one from Florida. There are also a number of records for the eastern Caribbean Island and Greenland.

Saturday 9 March 2013

Quiz Answers

The answers to the gull head quiz are here.
# 1 Common Gull - adult in full winter plumage
# 2 Common Gull - adult in winter plumage with orbital ring turning red for spring
# 3 Iceland Gull - 3rd winter
# 4 Ring-billed Gull - adult loosing winter head streaking and bill becoming brighter yellow
# 5 Iceland Gull - adult with full head of winter streaking
# 6 Iceland Gull - adult with white-ish head. Could be winter plumage
# 7 Glaucous Gull - adult in winter plumage showing characteristic pinkish wash in basal half of bill,
# 8 Herring Gull - adult in spring plumage showing bright orange bill and yellow-orange oribital ring

Some other gulls that have been in this same parking lot in past winters.

This adult Ivory Gull spent two weeks in winter 2008 at Quidi Vidi Lake, St. John's. Here it is first thing in the morning, still with an overnight frosting, waiting to be fed moose sausages.
This Black-tailed Gull was a permanent fixture at Quidi Vidi Lake Dec 2010-April 2011 where it became very tame and eagerly accepted food handouts at the parking lot.

Thursday 7 March 2013

Gull Head Quiz

Not much to post when jailed in an office Mon-Fri.  Last weekend when birding was rather slow in the rain and fog I decided to practise with the new version III 2x Canon converter attached to the Canon 500mm f4 lens on some tame gulls in the Quidi Vidi Lake parking lot.  I know some people do well with converters but I rarely use them, preferring the straight lens then cropping later if need be. On March 3rd I took all the following gulls head shots in the parking lot. There are five species here and no individual is shown twice.  This is a quiz.  There are no tricks or abnormal looking gulls. Answers Friday evening. (Tip: All but one is an adult).
Photo # 1
Photo # 2
Photo # 3
Photo # 4
Photo # 5
Photo # 6
Photo # 7
Photo # 8

Saturday 2 March 2013

Rain Rain and not an Ivory Gull in Sight.

The Ivory Gull dreams have been put on hold for the time being. There was the one adult a Quidi Vidi Lake on Feb 27 found by Lisa de Leon and a 1st winter found by Ian Jones at Topsail Beach, Conception Bay and seen by only two others (Jared Clarke & Dave Fifield) despite a dozen people looking for it. The winds in the forecast petered out to light although still from the NE.  Lots of rain for today and the next three days  as three Low pressure areas blocked from going farther east by a High pressure zone anchored south of Iceland merge into a weakening and confused mess. The general NE airflow will continue and keep the ice concentrated along the eastern shoreline of Newfoundland. It will take stronger winds before we see the ice down to the Avalon.

Consolation for the photography minded has been a confiding adult Peregrine Falcon that has made home the tall poplar type trees on the north side of Quidi Vidi Lake for the last week.  Instead of a cliff, it is using the trees for a place to pluck starlings and rest during the rain.   Don't want to miss this unusual opportunity to photograph this beautiful bird. On Friday I was there with my little 300 f4 lens.  Got these shots.  Hoping to show the bird a 500 mm lens before the weekend is up. 

The Peregrine Falcon eating a starling in its favoured tree on the north side of Quidi Vidi Lake on March 1.

The Peregrine taking a look around at the crows between bites of tender fresh caught St. John's starling.
Content while digesting starling the Peregrine feels safe even with the steady vehicle traffic on The Boulevard and people walking on the QV Lake trail.  This a big crop.