Sunday 27 October 2013

Weekend (26-27 Oct) Birding - White-eyed Vireo

It was a nice October weather weekend. Saturday morning Ken Knowles, John Wells and I started at Cape Race. Lots of seabird feeding action off the Cape including 1000+ Great and Sooty Shearwaters, a few hundred Razorbills, lots of kittiwakes and gannets, 3 adult Pomarine Jaegers but no migrant/vagrant passerines in the grass.  With low hopes of finding passerine vagrants we skipped most of patches of tuckamore we might otherwise check along the road when there is hope of finding something. One place we never pass by is the Hooded Warbler Tuck. It is the best patch of 'woods' on the entire Cape Race road.  We had just two birds here, an Orange-crowned Warbler and a WHITE-EYED VIREO. The vireo was kind of thrill we hope for on the Cape Race road.  The looks were brief but good as this skulker stayed in the thick stuff.
White-eyed Vireo was the star of the weekend.  It seems to be part of a new, albiet light, influx of new birds to the Avalon.  A number of other Orange-crowneds and a couple of Nashvilles and other odds and ends were seen in places that were pretty birdless last weekend. Strong South winds tonight (Sunday) might bring us some more interesting birds.

The White-eyed Vireo in The Hooded Warbler Tuck on Cape Race Road on 26 Oct 2013.  It was rarely this much in the open during the 10 minute encounter.  Photo opportunities were very brief and in far from ideal poses.  This shot was major luck.  The next best shot was much worse.  White-eyed Vireo is just less than annual in the province. There are a dozen or so records, mostly during October with a few in November and one in December. 

Orange-crowned Warbler in The Hooded Warbler Tuck on Cape Race Road on 26 Oct 2013.  This is a scarce but routine Oct/November bird on the Avalon Peninsula. 
Move over seal!  This Hudsonian Godwit with a threatening long bill and four Black-bellied Plovers had no effect on this resting seal at Renews on 26 Oct 2013. They landed on the adjacent rock.

This unusually tame mink at the Cape Race lighthouse turned up its nose at Ken's offering of chicken from his sandwich.

A sad looking, out of habitat, Great Blue Heron by the dry dock in St. John's harbour on 27 Oct 2013 was a low excitment vagrant but fits in with the sense that there has been a small influx of new birds to the Avalon because of recent SW winds.

Monday 21 October 2013

Yellow-legged Gull, again - At Last!

Yellow-legged Gull has been annual in St. John's, Newfoundland for more years than anyone can recall. That is until the regular wintering bird vanished in January 2012.  There are usually 2 or 3 around within the fall period mid August to mid December with only one, rarely two, overwintering.  In the autumn of 2012 none were found for the first autumn season in a long long time. None was present for the winter.  Sometimes you don't know what you got till it is gone. We all missed not having a Yellow-legged Gull to look for during the winter of 2012/2013. 
I started looking for Yellow-legged Gull in September at the traditional sites in the fields on the north side of Quidi Vidi Lake and Wishing Well park ball field when I was actually in the province which was not often enough. No luck. I was starting to wonder if the YLGU connection with the Azores had been cut off for some unknown reason.  In the back of my mind I remembered reading that Azorean YLGUs are known to follow tuna schools far offshore, even feeding at night on the bait fish the tuna force out of the water.  This was a good year for tuna in Newfoundland.  Would it be good for YLGU?
This morning it was raining heavy on the way to work - good conditions for lots of gulls on the grass. And there were in fact plenty around Quidi Vidi Lake.  The two ball fields were packed but nothing out of the ordinary.  The grassy slope on Churchill Ave had a few hundred gulls. The terraced slope conceals many gulls that you can't see from the car. You can't get out and look or the gulls will spook.  I angled the car to keep most of the driving rain from coming in the open window.  Yellow-legged Gull hunters are tuned into the rare shade of gray that only they and hybrid Herring x Lesser Black-backed Gulls show. Scan Scan Scan.  BINGO!  I locked onto the rare shade of gray.  Hybrid HERGxLBBG are more numerous than YLGUs. But this was no hybrid. It had a mainly white head, a large bright red spot on the bill and solid yellow legs.  Yup it was Bingo alright.  Just when you thought it might never happen again we have a Yellow-legged Gull in town again.
Yellow-legged Gull  21 Oct 2012. Spot the rare shade of gray and white head. The gulls are facing into a driving rain. The YLGU was preening and flew a few meters before it joined the mass of gulls in the sitting-out-the-rain-pose.  The face and forehead were lightly streaked with gray. The back of the head was white and umarked as can be seen here. Compare with adjacent Herring Gulls.  Try to find an adult Herring, Lesser Black-backed Gull with a head pattern like this in October. You won't.  Same goes for the hybrid HERG x LBBGs. (Of course nothing is impossible with gulls!). This is hardly even a record shot but the best I could do at the time. Hopefully more encounters and better pictures to follow in the coming weeks.

Friday 18 October 2013

Pond Inlet, Nunavut in mid October

I was fortunate to have a seat on a plane surveying for marine mammals in Eclipse Sound, Baffin Island in mid October. We are talking about the northern end of Baffin at 73 N.  Pond Inlet was our base.  Birding opportunities were all happenstance.  Around the community of Pond Inlet Common Raven was the only common species.  It would have been the only species except that Eclipse Sound was still open so there were patrolling Glaucous Gulls.  The other species seen at the town site were three Black Guillemots, one white Gyrfalcon on a quick fly by and a female-type Hoary Redpoll.  While birding opportunities were restricted to making the best of the survey situation, the scenery was the 8th wonder if not the unrecognized #1 wonder of the world.  It was like a pizza topped with everything = Rocky Mountains, glaciers, icebergs, Arctic seas and moody skies. 

The northern-most community on Baffin Island.   Pond Inlet has a panoramic view of Eclipse Sound. Photo from a plane looking east.
Raven has long been considered sacred by people of the Arctic. As a result the species is much tamer in most of the Arctic than anywhere in southern Canada.  Here one rests on a symbolic sacrificial cross during a light snow fall.
Spot the raven on the iceberg.  This is the same iceberg present in the first photo but here taken from the town site.

A small passerine at the latitude of Pond Inlet (73N) on the verge of intense winter and total darkness seemed like a vagrant. But the high Arctic race of Hoary Redpoll (hornemanni) was the perfect candidate for the last passerine to head south. It was a large and heavy redpoll with a long, deeply notched tail.  Unfortunately I had only my 28-135 mm lens since I was about to get on the survey plane. It was only 3 metres away. 

You feel like the origin of the planet earth is staring you in the face when flying around northern Baffin Island.  Only an IMAX camera could hope to capture the full scene.

The northeastern extremity of Baffin Island in mid October. It is unlikely man has ever or will ever step on the land within this snap. Raw Planet Earth. 

Thursday 10 October 2013

My Favourite Big Mistake

On 10 Oct 2013 I was showing Rolph Davis from Ontario some local St. John's area birds. It was a classic beautiful sunny October morning. We went to Torbay to see if the amazing worm-eating Yellow-crowned Night Heron was still patrolling the lawns.  Piece of cake, it was, and it extended the latest date for the species in Newfoundland. Knowing we were in the midst of a Northern Wheatear event we decided to head for Cape Spear for a look for one. Taking the shore road out of Torbay to avoid morning rush hour we turned off on Marine Drive. Not even a minute down the road and this bird came flying up the road at us -cuckoo?, what? yellow belly and dark undertail - WESTERN KINGBIRD!! It flew over the car and we turned suddenly on to a dirt lane. 
Bottom line. For the next hour we searched for the bird but couldn't find it. It was excellent kingbird habitat among a scrub field.  There was lots of bird action and in a gravel parking lot we did find a NORTHERN WHEATEAR. Bonus Bird. Spent some time enjoying great views of this bird.  It even landed on my car.
Northern Wheatear on roof of car.
We continued birding on to Cape Spear and area without any more unexpected birds. Back in the office for the afternoon.  Postings on the nf.birds site indicated people were seeing the Northern Wheatear and Lancy Cheng had refound the Western Kingbird on Seaview Place, pretty well exactly where we'd seen it first.  An hour later the cell phone rang. A bumbling Dave Brown was on the line saying something absurd like "do you want to see a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher?" He and Ken Knowles had gone to see the Western Kingbird.  They taking pictures of it on a wire in bad light when Dave noticed there was something funny about this kingbird!! The rest is history.
I managed 90 km all the way down Kenmount Road where you are lucky to reach the 50 km speed limit most of the time because of heavy traffic. Got green lights all the way home. Well they looked green.  Adrenalin does that to ya. Had to go home first to get my big lens.  City traffic is so so slow when your body is racing at warp speed.
The rest of the afternoon was spent with the bird. It was often invisible in thick foliage. It was never real close. But everyone who came saw it, at least 20 people, mammoth twitch Newfoundland style. It was a short tailed bird, an adult in heavy moult.  At times the yellowish wash appeared to spread across the belly. While I was kicking myself severely for having messed up on a great discovery, I could see how it was very Western Kingbird like at time. Thank God Lancy refound it. Which set off Ken and Dave after the bird which ultimately lead to the correct identification and a lot of happy faces. All is well that ends well. This was only the second for Newfoundland but the first was seen only by a canoeist in central Newfoundland years and years ago. We've been waiting a long time for this bird.


Note old faded and fresh dark feathers in the wing and tail - two generations of feathers indicating it is an adult.  A juvenile would have a uniform set of these same feathers.



Wednesday 9 October 2013

More YCNH - Eating Large Earthworms

The juvenile Yellow-crowned Night Heron that surfaced in Torbay, Avalon Peninsula on 20 Sept 2013 was still present up to at least 6 October making it the latest individual for the province of Newfoundland and Labrador.  I visited it on Sunday 6 October just after a heavy rain.  It was a good time for catching large earthworms.  People in the area were all very familiar with the bird and enjoyed the birds popularity among the birders.
The heron was pulling large earthworms from the lawn like a giant long-legged robin.

It hunted for worms under bushes and stalked them like fish in a pond on the open lawn. 

Frequently the heron ripped the top part of the worm off the rest of its body which escaped underground. 

This Yellow-crowned Night Heron was very tame and provided sensational views for many people during its stay.