Thursday 26 September 2013

Record Shots of Yellow-throated Vireo in Desperate Conditions

On 25 Sept 2013 Dave Brown and I relocated a Yellow-throated Vireo found five days earlier by Dave and Jared Clarke in an alder lined gravel pit at Bear Cove, Avalon Peninsula, NF.  A Yellow-throated Vireo looks stunning in the Newfoundland alders. It is a less than annual semi-regular fall vagrant.  The bird was travelling with a Warbling Vireo (also rare, a few per autumn) and a Red-eyed Vireo.  We were getting quite a few looks at the bird.  Photo opts were above average for this usually briefly seen species.  However, the photographing conditions were abysmal - dark heavy overcast, drizzle and fog.  Even setting the camera at ISO 2000 I was getting only 1/160 second shutter speed. But that was all it took when hand holding a 300f4 lens. Distances were also rather great.  The result are some heavily cropped, highly grainy shots that with a little Photoshop love came out as OK record shots of  the beautiful Yellow-throated Vireo in Newfoundland.


Tuesday 24 September 2013

Just a Buff-breasted Sandpiper.

One of the most photographed shorebirds in North America has to be the Buff-breasted Sandpiper.  It is not common anywhere but occurs over a large percentage of North America as a rare to scarce migrant.  For most birders in the populated eastern North America, Buff-breasted Sandpiper has a special meaning.  It is uncommon enough that most of them get reported. Because it gets reported so often on rare bird lines, news of its presence often goes in one ear and out the other.
In Newfoundland it is annual in small numbers late August to early October.  You can pretty well be assured of ticking this bird every year if you can visit the St Shotts sod farm or follow up on reports from other locations on the Avalon Peninsula.  Personally I missed Buff-breasted Sandpiper for the last four or five years in Newfoundland because I was away during the window of opportunity.  I was starting to miss them to a point of craving some good views. In 2013 I am home for the tail end of their migration. With access to the St Shotts sod farm being compromised by a bridge under repair, I was happy to hear that 2 Buff-breasted Sandpipers had been found on a plowed field in the farmland of the Goulds only 20 minutes from home.
On Sunday I found the duo reported the day before by Gene & Karen Herzberg.  I'd forgotten about the rich burnt-buff colour on the back of the neck.  Everything else about the bird came back in no time. It really is a pretty little bird.  I watched them through a scope but soon the urge to get photos surfaced. There was no chance unless they walked close to the road.  With camera set on tripod hidden behind a bank of old fireweed plants they eventually walked by me at reasonably close range with 840mm of power. The low early morning sun added a golden glow to the birds.
A Buff-breasted Sandpiper in the golden light of sunrise seek invertebrate in field near St. John's.

On Tuesday (today) I was back. It was humid afternoon under a very heavy overcast sky. About 50 American Golden Plovers had dropped into the field after the overnight rains. The two Buff-breasts were still there patrolling the entire field on foot. They cover a big area swiftly.  I was content with prolonged views through the scope. Before I left I sat in the car for a final count of the golden plover when I realize the two Buff-breasts were walking my way.  I got the camera ready on a bean bag resting on the window sill.  It was as if I had the birds on a remote control device and made the birds keep on walking toward me until they could walk no closer without falling into deep ditch. 
A high stepping buff-breasted Sandpiper at about 12 meters out the car window.

 I floundered under the pressure. The birds paraded past me at 10-12 meters. They were wired and never stopped moving. The whole experience lasted <20 seconds.  There were numerous tall weeds obstructing clear shots of the birds. The sky was very dark. Even at 800 ISO I was getting only 1/500 sec. This is not enough to freeze the bobbing head of a strutting BBSA. The Canon EOS Mark IV does a pretty good job at ISO1250 if you don't have to crop. That was my only regret. Other than that there were no regrets on how I handled the situation. Maybe if the camera was set to ten frames per second I would have got more shots in the clear, but past experience has taught me the sound of machine gun fire is likely to alarm any bird within ear shot.
A Lark Sparrow enjoying the free seed at Cliff Doran's bird feeder at Cape Race.

Friday 20 September 2013

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron (juv) photo shoot at Torbay, Newfoundland

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron is pretty much annual in Newfoundland. In recent years it has been a more than once per year. Nearly all are juveniles in the time period August to mid-September. Frequently they are observed feeding on lawns and not in a wet land as one might expect for a heron.  Newfoundland earthworms seem to be a substitute for aquatic meals.
When news of one in Torbay on the lawn of Gerald Manning surfaced you had to go see it.  It wasn't straight forward. It took 45 minutes before I saw it and then only for ten minutes before it decided it was time to fly off to roost for the day in some thick woods. 
Below are a few snaps taken in the heavy overcast conditions.



Monday 9 September 2013


On the evening of 4 Sept 2013 I was sitting in my room on a seismic ship far off the coast of Labrador.  A co-worker Sarah Penney on another seismic ship on the northeastern Grand Banks sent an email.  The subject line said. " Brown booby? " Sarah is a smart person. Give her any task and she'll figure out how to do it, but her knowledge of birds was very limited to say the least. As I opened the email  I was wondering what this bird was going to be thinking (hoping!) this really can't be a Brown Booby can it?  Below is the picture.  I felt like a wooden stake had been driven through my chest. I could have been on that boat!

Immature Brown Booby 4 Sept 2013 on a boat located on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, approximately 300 km ESE of St. John's. Photo with an IPhone by Sarah Penney.
The was the second record of Brown Booby for Newfoundland. The first was in late July 2012. It was photographed on a tour boat at St. Anthony on the tip of the Northern Peninsula.  There has been an unexplained presence of non-storm related Brown Boobies on the eastern US over the last three summers or so. New Brunswick, like Newfoundland, had its second ever this summer.  It was in the Bay of Fundy in early August 2013 (Durlan Ingersoll) and this after NB's first just the year before, or was it 2011?   Whatever it is that is driving these Brown Boobies far north of their normal range may continue for another year or two. Barring the right hurricane, this is our only hope, and faint at that of seeing this subtropical seabird in Newfoundland.
Two days ago word of a possible Lewis's Woodpecker at English Point surfaced.  Where the hell flames is English Point? And when was this bird there and are we going to get to see the photographs?  The answers came swiftly thanks to Patsy (forgive me Patsy that I can't remember how to spell your last name!!). Patsy writes regularly about birds at her bird feeder in St. John's and about birds she sees during her summer sojourns to the Labrador side of the Strait of Belle Isle.  It was a friend of Patsy's named Dale Suley at English Point next to the more familiar place name of Forteau, Labrador who photographed a strange woodpecker in her yard on 6 July. The bird stayed around for about two weeks.  No bird is unmistakable but when someone claims to have photographs of a Lewis's Woodpecker the odds are high that is what it will turn out to be.
A Lewis's Woodpecker at English Point, Strait of Belle Isle, Labrador on 6 July 2013. Photo by Dale Suley.

A jaw-dropping rarity for Labrador or anywhere in the east. There is one other for the province.  Dave Fidler of Ontario found one at Cowhead, Northern Peninsula, Newfoundland in mid August 1986. It stayed a couple of weeks with a few fortunate birders (me!!!) getting to see this one.   There was one a few years back on Cape Breton Island, NS in early June at a bird feeder for a day or two. I don't believe there are any other records for Atlantic Canada.  Records of Lewis's Woodpeckers in eastern North America are few and erratic in nature with hardly a pattern of dates that would lead one to speculate why they went so far out of range. 
What will be the next incredible rarity and will we have a chance to see it this time!?

Tuesday 3 September 2013

Sabine's Gull among Kittiwakes

Sabine's Gull is a rare in Atlantic Canada.  Migration routes take eastern Canadian Arctic breeders to the European/African side of the ocean during spring and autumn migration. A few individuals splinter off from this route and show up in the offshore Newfoundland.  But Sabine's Gull from land is a significant rarity in Newfoundland. In nearly 4 decades of birding in Newfoundland I've seen Sabine's Gull only twice from land.  1) L'Anse-aux-Meadows 10 Aug 1991 and 2) Cape Race and the next day off Daley's Cove in late August 2010. Both were adults in breeding plumage.
Currently I am on a seismic vessel working in the northern Labrador Sea near the pathway for birds leaving the Canadian Arctic. But even here they are few and far between with only a handful during days of extensive looking.  I was lucky enough to get photos an a juvenile near the boat with kittiwakes (abundant here).
Sabine's Gulls are a unique and beautiful gull. They are unmistakable at close range but at long range the juv Black-legged Kittiwake can look deceivingly like a Sabine's Gull.  The problem comes when people do not realize just how white the triangle on the inner wing of the juvenile kittiwakes looks at a distance.  The confusion starts with the field guides that typically show this area as gray, similar to the rest of the upper wing and back. This is not wrong. At close range this is more or less how it is.  But at long range things are different and this triangle appears noticeably whiter than the rest of the wing and upper parts of the kittiwake.  In overcast skies the white triangle contrast is more dramatic.
Even myself with considerable seabird experience is often working on the identification of a long range juv kittiwake.  I see the white triangle and ponder the bird. I wait until I detect the colour of the back as being pale gray or see the diagonal black wing bar, then I know it is a kittiwake. Many times the bird is too far away to determine this so I assume it was a kittiwake.  I would never label a bird as a Sabine's by elimination, i.e. the back not looking pale gray or not seeing the black bar.  You need something solid before you ID a Sabine's in Newfoundland.  BTW adult Sabine`s have gray back too but a shade and a half darker than kittiwake.
Adult Sabine's Gulls are pretty well always going to have a dark hood while within our borders. They wait until arriving on their southern wintering grounds to moult to winter plumage.  Occasionally a 1st summer bird is seen in Newfoundland waters during the summer. These look like adults with a mostly gray head but seem to loose it early, so adult-like birds without a gray hood are possible from mid summer onward. (one off Cape Pine by Cliff Doran in July2013).
Below are photos of juvenile Sabine`s Gull in the north Labrador Sea on 31 August 2013.
A juvenile Sabine`s Gull on the north Labrador Sea on 31 August 2013.  Note the small size compared to the kittiwakes. It is actually only the size of a Bonaparte`s Gull but the size difference becomes less apparent in flight and exposing that big wing pattern.

The fully spread wing revealing the patented Sabine`s Gull pattern.
Juvenile Sabine`s  Gull and juv Black-legged Kittiwake.  Difficult to imagine how the two could look the same even at long range.  On the kittiwake you can see the whiter tinged feathers on the inner triangle. That black bar serves to enhance the division of the whitish to very white looking triangle from the rest of the wing.  The black bar seems to vanish on long distant birds but when you can see it you know it is a kittiwake.

A field guide style posed photo showing the juv Sabine`s and a juv and adult kittiwake. A genuine Sabine`s Gull is a genuine thrill in Newfoundland and Labrador.