Wednesday 31 July 2013

Big Banded Semipalmated Plover at Renews

On 27 July at Renews there were a few shorebirds including four Semipalmated Plovers (SEPL).  One had a notably broad breast band. It was more than just pose, it was wider than average no matter how the bird moved. There was never any thought it could be a Common Ringed Plover (CRPL) but it shows how wide the breast band can be, in fact wider than some CRPLs.  Heat shimmer was a problem for photography but these three photos show the heavy wide breast band. 

Three pictures of a Semipalmated Plover at Renews, Avalon Pen., Newfoundland on 27 July 2013.

The wide breast band on this individual might make one entertain the idea of Common Ringed Plover. The most obvious features eliminating the possibility of CRPL are the lack of white line above the black cheek patch, the presence of an yellow orbital ring (not so easy to see on this bird) and the white of forehead does not extend to eye.

The five pictures above are of an adult Common Ringed Plover at St. Shotts, Avalon Pen., Newfoundland on 7 Aug, 2010 seen by Ken Knowles and myself. 
The overall high contrast of the black head markings and breast band immediately give the CRPL a distinctly different look from the SEPL.  A real Ringed Plover is not just a different Semipalmated but feels like a genuine species.  The critical field marks are the lack of coloured orbital ring and white from forehead curling under the eye. The obvious white line above the black eye mask is a necessary field mark for CRPL but some male and many female SEPL have some sort of a pale line here as well. Other more subtle marks add to the overall jizz of the CRPL such as smaller white throat area and the white forehead patch being proportionately wider horizontally and narrower vertically.  The adult CRPL that have shown up on the Avalon Peninsula have all been rather pale above, with brighter more yellow-orange legs and a little bigger than adult SEPL.  An adult Common Ringed Plover really stands out if you know your Semipalmated Plover. While it has turned out to be semi-regular in tiny numbers on the Avalon Pen in August it is still a huge rarity and should always be documented with photographs.
Now is the time to start looking...

Monday 29 July 2013

St. Vincents terns in the Fog

Saturday birding around the Southern Avalon Loop was mostly a drive in very dense heavy wet fog.   The sunny weather, high temperatures and tropical humidity experienced farther inland was overruled by the cold ocean resulting in fog along the coast. With little to actually see, the tern colony at St. Vincent's became more interesting. The birds are nesting close to the road. If you are careful not to park too near a nest which could keep the bird from incubating, and you STAY IN THE CAR, you can have some excellent studies of Common and Arctic Terns with binoculars. If you have a big telephoto lens you can get some pictures. Whatever you do, do not walk on the boardwalk that was installed last fall.  This would cause much disruption among the colony. The boardwalk which seems totally out of place going from nowhere to nowhere is probably a good thing for the terns by limiting the ATV activity. A good thing as long as no one actually uses it for a walk!  There are more terns nesting there than previous years.
On Saturday there were several Arctic and Common Terns still incubating eggs. These must be birds that failed at a first nesting attempt. Will there be enough time to raise the young before fall migration? Some other terns were feeding recently hatched puff balls.  And there were a fair number of juvenile Arctic Terns already able to fly but still being fed by the adults. 
An uncommonly seen plumage in Newfoundland (bird on the right) is presumably a 2nd summer Arctic Tern (two years old).  The white forehead, black on parts of upper mandible and blotchy gray/white under parts are signs of immaturity.  It attracted this adult Arctic Tern to land next to it with some calls resembling food begging calls.  The adult has an unusual lump on the lower edge of the bill.

First summer (one year old) Arctic Terns are more routine in Newfoundland. A few usually loaf around Arctic Tern nesting colonies and this age group is regular in the offshore zone off eastern Newfoundland in summer. Common Terns in this plumage are less often encountered here but are also not so easy to identify. The larger bill and overall shape and sometimes darker carpal bar being the key marks.. 
These Common Tern chicks were walking about and did not require the shelter from the dripping wet fog under the wings of the nearby parent standing on guard, but they must have been only a week old.  Will they grow quick enough to migrate south with the rest of its species in early September?
The sandlance being handed to this chick was longer than the bird itself, yet it was still able to swallow it whole and completely.
When in a mixed Arctic/Common Tern nesting colony the Arctics get all the attention from the camera but an adult Common Tern looks pretty good in the soft light under the fog.

Sunday 21 July 2013

Will there ever be enough Common Loon photos?

Is there a species with more books devoted to it?  Who has not seen enough Common Loon photos???  I am one of those. But when my chance came today for some exceptional snaps of Common Loon in bright light do you think I did anything but hold my finger on the trigger?  There was a pair of loons feeding in the shallows of Kingman's Cove, near Renews.  It was early afternoon but the sun was perfectly in my favourite.  Again it was a shooting from the car event.

The green iridescent on the lower neck of a Common Loon shows up well in brilliant sunlight but looks black under cloudy skies.

This mink swimming across the cove was followed by the curious pair of loons until it went ashore near where I was parked. 
The curious pair of loons followed the mink to shore where I was sitting in my car with the camera out the window. 
Coming in closer to watch the mink this loon was getting too close for the camera's focus.
One more point blank photo.  It is impossible to stop taking pictures when a traditionally wily bird is this close.

Time to go.

Saturday 20 July 2013

Bird Photography from a Car

It is Day 3 of my return to planet earth after 36 days at sea off the east coast of Newfoundland. Takes a while to get used to the lush green vegetation, the colourful roadside weeds in full bloom and the smells of soil.  To hurry the euphoric rehabilitation to land life I have been been birding full time around the Avalon Peninsula. For the first two days went to St. Vincent's Beach where a rare Sandwich Tern was seen the week before plus plenty of birds feeding on the spawning capelin. Day 1 was a rain day. Couldn't get out of the car.  Day Two was beautiful with no wind and light sun but the capelin feeding birds flocked off.  You can't win them all.  I was taking pictures of everything that moved. It was good to be back in the photography saddle again.  I realized that indeed I am sitting in the saddle of my Honda Civic for a great many of the pictures that I take.  All the following pictures were taken from the car with 840 mm of lens resting on a bean bag out the window. All but the gull picture. 
Avalon Peninsula Common Loons do well in summer with the abundance of capelin in the saltwater shallows. This one is sheltering near Forest Field, St. Mary's Bay

This adult Least Sandpiper at Coote's Pond is looking pretty frazzled after a hard work out on the breeding grounds on some Newfoundland bog.  It is time for a break. 
St. Vincent's Beach has been home to an Arctic Tern colony for years. It is a fragile existence being next to a busy road, along an ATV track and now a boardwalk has been built right in the middle of the nesting grounds.  The latter may turn out to be a benefit. It keeps the ATV traffic down at least. There were more terns there then I've seen in years
There  were a number of terns incubating eggs on this late date of 18&19 July.  Could these be failed breeders from this colony or another colony?? The ARTE colony at Pt La Haye beach is missing and the Renews tern colony was abandoned part way through the season.  Predators like mink can cause total disruption and abandoment of a tern nesting site. Meanwhile nearly fledged ARTEs were being fed by adults in this colony which is on schedule for a typical breeding season. 
Arctic Terns are simply a beautiful bird. This one stands on guard near the nest in the above picture.
Arctic and Common Terns are an age-old identification challenge but a Common Tern is a completely different species when viewed at close range and still beautiful in its own way.
A few Common Terns sitting on eggs at this site normally all Arctic Terns fuels speculation that there was a late influx of terns from distressed colonies elsewhere.
The Arctic Tern does not have to try hard to look good. Even when sitting on the unnatural railing of a boardwalk its finely tuned physical features stand out.
While waiting for gannets to plunge dive for capelin at the mouth of the Holyrood Pond outflow a full breeding plumage adult FRANKLIN'S GULL flew over my head.  I had my camera ready on a tripod but the autofocus had trouble making the connection until the bird had gained a lot of distance.  This is the best I got of this Class A rarity. But a rarity discovery wasted since it was possibly the same bird that was at Bay Bulls on June 8 only a couple hours flight away. 
On the way home from tern watching nature called and I stopped by alders for some privacy, but this irrate Mourning Warbler was having no part of it.  It must have had young very near by.  I stayed in the car, took a few snaps and moved to another spot.


Tuesday 9 July 2013

Leach's Storm-Petrel photo salon.

DAY 28 OF 35 AT SEA. 
Shearwaters and storm-petrels are tough to photograph well from ships.  They do not come close enough.  Best chances for Avalon Peninsula birders to see and photograph Leach's Storm-Petrel (LHSP) is during Northeast storms in September and October.  Leach’s Storm-Petrels are infamous for being driven inland in the fall. These misdirected birds could be the young of the year which emerged from their nest burrows in September. With the largest nesting colony of LHSP in the world situated on Baccalieu Island (3 million pairs) at the mouth of Conception Bay it is no wonder that thousands get forced into the bottom of the bay during fall gales.  Holyrood is the ‘codend’ at the very bottom of the bay.  During a good northeaster there can be thousands trapped Holyrood harbour.
Observations are possible from within a parked car.  Soon as the lashing rain and winds die down the birds start to return back to open ocean so it is important to be there during the actual storm for full impact.  The views are fabulous through binoculars and photography options seem excellent but the light is always very poor and there is usually horizontal rain. 
During an unseasonal NE gale on 8 Aug 2011 conditions worked out for photography. There is more light in summer than fall and the rain was light even during the peak of the gale.  Plus the birds were not all in a rush to leave as the storm started to depart. There was something driven in to the cove the birds were eating. 
The following are some of the better of the 3000 shots taken that day.  The use of a Canon EOS 1D Mark IV with excellent quality higher ISOs (ISO 1250 & 1600 here) and the 300mm f2.8 lens made these pictures possible.


Wednesday 3 July 2013

Day 22 of 35 at Sea off eastern Newfoundland

Day 22of 35 aboard a seismic vessel off eastern Newfoundland. The days drag on. Time stands still. There is no beginning or end. Steak day on Saturday marks the weeks as they pass.  It is like waiting in an airport terminal for endless days for a flight to get you home.  Working as a Marine Mammal Observer/Seabird Observer my duties involve looking out the window from the ship’s bridge half of each daylight period (about 8.5 hours on watch each day). So far fog has not been a real problem though that is changing as we get into July notorious for fog.  Being one with a high need for visual avian stimuli every day I look at whatever birds I can see from my bridge window perch.  It is mostly Northern Fulmar, Great Shearwater and Leach’s Storm-Petrel - the Big Three.  These are the most common summer species at sea off eastern Newfoundland in the deep water beyond the continental shelf edge and much of the shelf waters as well.  As I look at my umpteenth Great Shearwater of the hour I chant to myself ‘you can never know a common bird too well’ and ‘you are not birdwatching unless you are looking at a bird’.  After a 5-6 week shift at sea I’ve looked at each of these three species more than any species on land over the entire year. 
Great Shearwater is one my three constant avian friends out here on Orphan Basin, Newfoundland.  The adults are in heavy wing moult at this time of year July 2, 2013.
There are perk birds.  Jaegers and especially skuas are star attractions in an ordinary day.  In early summer there are small groups of subadult Long-tailed Jaegers.  These are camera targets when they come close enough. Sometimes they hang for a time in the updraft over the ship jostling one another around. So far they’ve been playing around the wake of the ship but not investigating the ship.  I’ve always said you can’t live on skuas alone. They make up only a minute or two on any day. And many days you seen none, however, they are the best ‘normal’ bird out here.  They can be photogenic if you are ready when they come by the boat. So far they’ve not been circling the boat much but just passing by once.  My photo collection of skuas has not grown much this trip.  So far on this trip I’ve seen 19 South Polar, 9 unidentified skua and no Greats.  Haven’t spent much time in the good skua areas where their target species, the Great Shearwater is abundant.
Five to six week stints on seismic ships is part of my job working for an environmental consulting company.  Since 2003 I’ve spent over TWO YEARS of my life on seismic vessels.  Most of it off eastern Newfoundland on the northern Grand Banks and the adjacent Orphan Basin – an area of several thousand square km.  The ocean east of Newfoundland once a faceless expanse on the map now has meaning. You learn a lot about where birds occur in relation to the oceanographical features on the bottom.  Knowing where you are on the map and seeing the birds around, gives you a sense of what it feels like to be in a particular part of the ocean even though it appears to be trackless water.  It is a rare opportunity to have all this first-hand experience and knowledge of a huge area of ocean off eastern Canada and become extensively familiarity with the seabirds of the NW Atlantic.   Is it all worth the two years at sea? NO!
Every 5-6 week stint at sea is a gap taken out of your life that you don’t get back.  You could be just as well off knowledge-wise with 20% of this amount of time at sea. Now I am talking about trips off eastern Newfoundland.  Seismic trips to places outside of the all too familiar Newfoundland are a different story.
For example two six weeks stints off NE Greenland at 78N to 80N in the pack ice in late summer was pure bliss from start to finish. I hated to go to bed for fear of missing too much.  Ivory Gull was daily, up to a hundred in day.  Felt like we were in the birthplace of Ivory Gull as a species. Watching Ivory Gulls in their domain was an enlightening experience even after plenty of Newfoundland Ivory Gull experience. Then there was the two weeks and 25 different white Gyrfalcons in Sept 2011. That was off the scale by all measures of birding experience. The NE Greenland seismic trips were priceless learning experiences.
One is never enough and there are never too many.  Ivory Gull is one of the most attractive species in the world.  There are almost too many to fit on this one little ice pan off NE Greenland on Sept. 11, 2011.
The first of my two tropical seismic trips was four weeks in the Pacific Ocean off Costa Rica.  A whole host of new and exciting seabirds from the common Wedge-tailed Shearwater, to the rare Christmas Shearwater, to the exotic White Tern and the mythical Swallow-tailed Gull.  Every day was a good day on that trip. It ended too fast.
I was not expecting Swallow-tailed Gulls off Costa Rica.  Their long wings and slow floating wing beats like a frigatebird was not what I imagined for this amazing gull.  Most of the seven individuals seen were following the boat at night. This one on March 26, 2008

One more trip exotic location was the South China Sea south of Taiwan.  Seabirds were in lowish numbers but included some serious species for a Newfoundland birder like Streaked Shearwater (fairly common), Bulwer Petrel, Red-tailed Tropicbird and several Aleutian Terns. It was the spring land bird migration that kept that trip hopping.  We were surveying under a major migratory path of birds wintering in the Phillipines and probably as far south as Australia.  At night I tried to identify some of the masses of shorebirds attracted down low by the ships lights on foggy nights.  Great Knots, Marsh Sandpipers, Curlew Sandpipers were among the most numerous species identified.  Landbirds in daylight included some Siberian specialties like Eye Browed Thrush, Red-breasted (Taiga) Flycatcher Brown Shrikes and the ultimate bird for a ship mate – male Siberian Rubythroat.
A picture is worth a thousand words. Siberian Rubythroat on seismic vessel in South China Sea south of Taiwan, April 16, 2009.
Ok, break is over. Time for another two hour watch on the bridge and more of The Big Three.
Dream On….