Saturday 30 November 2013

Male Pine Warbler for the Viewing - Maybe

Pine Warbler is a vagrant to Newfoundland with the closest breeding populations in New Brunswick and maybe a few breeders in Nova Scotia. It is annual in tiny numbers on the Avalon Peninsula mid October to early winter. Year listers already cashed in on two immature female Pine Warblers present in St. John's in early January 2013 (lower Waterford Valley, Cavell Lane).  Today I came across a colourful male Pine Warbler in the upper Waterford Valley.  It was on the Southside Road in a large group of spruce trees about 100 m down river from the Waterford Lane Bridge.  It was among a large flock of juncos, kinglets and chickadees.  I tied a piece of yellow flagging tape to a spruce tree on the shoulder of the road to mark the spot. I plan to put up at suet cage here as soon as I can muster up the courage to enter a Walmart or Canadian Tire infested with Xmas shoppers. I already have the suet, just need the cage.  In the late 1980s we had FOUR Pine Warblers coming to a suet bag at this location. And there have been at least two Townsend's Warblers in this clump of spruce trees over history. It is a place that should be checked more often. It difficult to see everything in the dense spruce trees on just one visit.  I am hoping by starting a Pine Warbler feeder here more people will visit the area and in turn discover more interesting birds that could be living here.  Attached are pictures of the bird that awaits you. Didn't get much of a photo opt on this first encounter.

Friday 22 November 2013

Weekend Forecast - A Heavy Snowy Owl Fall Warning

The Snowy Owl at Cape Spear on Thursday.
Word of EIGHTEEN Snowy Owls on the Cape Race road today (Richard Thomas, Tony Power) has fueled speculations that this could be a really big Snowy Owl year. The kind that happens every 10-15 years. There are lots of factors pointing to Saturday being an even bigger, maybe much bigger day.  For one thing the winds will be light to moderate NW over night. This should concentrate them at Cape Race the same way the wind concentrates hawks during autumn migration.  For the last two days the Avalon Peninsula has been stuck in the eye of a winter storm that has nailed parts of eastern NF with snow and powerful North winds. Not sure if Snowy Owls would fly through that kind of weather but one thing for sure is they won't be going offshore where a lot of them end up during such influxes. As the storm weakens and pulls away over night there will be NW to West winds across the island. Snowy Owls grounded by the weather in western NF for the last 48 hours will be given a chance to move tonight. They don't know where they are going other than south.  A mass movement over night could focus a lot of them at Cape Race tomorrow. Not only that there should be reports from other places like Cape Spear and within the city of St. John's. 

Dream On.

Plan of action for myself? I am very much looking forward to being on Cape Race road as the sun rises on Saturday morning with Cape Race junkies Ken Knowles and John Wells.

Tuesday 19 November 2013

The VIRGINIA'S WARBLER in Newfoundland - A true story.

Vagrant hunters in Newfoundland are aware of what excellent birds stray into northeastern North America as they are potential finds for us at the end of the road. When Dave Brown called me at 08:55 Thursday 14 Nov 2013 I was just warming up to a computer screen in an office. No words were wasted as he conveyed to me he was glimpsing a grayish warbler with bright yellow undertail coverts behind an apple tree. We both knew what he was talking about without spelling it out.  I screamed across town getting there in 15 minutes flat. By now Dave had seen more of the bird and was sure enough about the identity of the bird to sound the general alarm that there was a VIRGINIA’S WARBLER on the dirt track behind the Country Ribbon chicken processing plant in Pleasantville. The rest is history but not an easy one.

It is 19 Nov as I type. The bird has been very difficult to see and the most challenging long staying Newfoundland rarity ever to photograph. Birding the hillside of brush, fields and weeds checking out the flocks of juncos and chickadees is futile.  It was soon realized that a leafy apple tree growing against the cinder block wall of the chicken processing plant was a semi-regular part of its daily routine. The apple tree became the worship site of birders for hours upon hours waiting for a sighting of the Virginia's Warbler or a lucky angle for a photograph.

Perfectly gray and boring for a warbler, the yellow wrap around rump patch is concealed in this and most views. The gray Nashville Warbler-like appearance excites rare warbler hunters in eastern North America..

Many hours were spent standing by the famous apple tree with the camera, yet I ended up with combined time of maybe 12 whole seconds of  viewing the bird down the barrel of a telephoto lense.  The bird was usually buried behind a maze of gnarly branches.

The brightest part of the mousey-gray Virginia's Warbler is the yellow under tail coverts.  A Virginia's Warbler is hardly within the range of the beautiful colour combinations and designs of most wood warblers. 
A hint of the yellow in the centre of the breast is just visible on this view of the bird but there was never time to notice this detail in life observations.
 A very long distant crop reveals more about the bird's overall jizz of a plain gray warbler with a yellow under tail.  Like all warbler it was a very active and smart looking bird.
Overall these photos confirm the identity of the bird. It is one those rarities that will be a mile marker in the history of Newfoundland birding. The story is still ongoing. 
The Apple Tree

Monday 11 November 2013

A Gyr Buzz - 10 Nov 2013

It doesn't matter how many Gyrfalcons one sees, they never get boring. In fact they are highly addictive. The more you see, the more you need to see another one.  When four veteran Newfoundland birders (Ken Knowles, John Wells, Chris Brown and I) with many Gyrs and great Gyr experiences under our belts over the last several decades were on the Cape Race road on Sunday we were actually talking about Gyrs. When would our next one be? It has been a long time. We recounted the Gyr Years of the early 1990s when for several winters in a row there were so many Gyrfalcons around the St. John's area it was just a matter of going outside. The only question was what colour morph would you see today, with the full hattrick being highly possible.  
It was an exceptionally beautiful morning at Cape Race on Sunday. There was absolutley no wind and a magical light created by thin partly broken overcast. Spirits were high. We were birding well, checking the areas but not finding any surprises. We had just finished covering the Long Beach area when someone looked back up the road we'd just come down and noticed a hawk sitting on a hydro pole. Judging by size through binoculars it was expected to be a Northern Goshawk or Peregrine Falcon.  Two people with scopes already set up took a look but were not saying anything.  They weren't seeing the eye line of goshawk or the moustache stripe of pregerine. It seemed to be a falcon. It was not close and we were looking back into the light glare from the low sun.  Then there was the phrase, "This looks like a Gyr".  At first we knew it couldn't be a Gyr and there must be some other explaination.  We took turns looking through the scopes.  Like a match dropped into a gasoline tank our adrenaline levels shot through the roof as we all came to the realization at the same time that  IT WAS A GYRFALCON.
We carefully leapfrogged the two cars up the road not wanting to flush the bird or miss seeing it fly.  Then a pickup truck drove right past it with no reaction from the bird. We drove ahead and parked the two cars where the road was closest to the pole.  For an hour it stayed there. Maybe it had just come in off the ocean and was resting.  The looks were fabulous through binoculars and microscopic from scopes set up in the car.  But I was hurting for not having my 600mm lens and 2x converter with me. How sweet it would have looked with all that power in the perfect lighting and endless time to try various camera settings. When birding in someone elses car I often do not bring the big lens because it takes up a whole seat. And when vagrant hunting I like to carry the 300mm f4 cause I can have it on me 100% of the time and be always ready to document rarities.  Yes I lost sleep thinking about what could have been but I am overall very happy with the experience. 
It started hunting and moved a few poles east and farther back from the road.  After 90 minutes we left with the bird still present and a warm buzz in our chests that lasted into the next day. Maybe this early Gyrfalcon will be the start of something.

Lots of careful cropping and playing with Photoshop was required to blow this bird up from the small image in the camera. You get the gist of the bird!!

A quick view of the front of the bird as it shifted positions. The blue cere, blue orbital ring and blue feet mark it as an immature bird, probably hatched this year.

The frayed and broken ends to the tail feathers is a strong indication this bird spent a long time in a nest this summer.
When the underwing coverts and breast show more dark than light areas then it is a bona fide dark morph bird according to the Mactavish Rating of Gyrfalcon Colour Morphs.

The ultimate Gyrfalcon is the white morph. This one was from northeast Greenland on 15 Sept 2011. The Mactavish Rating of Gyrfalcon Colour Morphs gives this a 4 out of 10. A Code Ten white morph has a pure white head, pure white under parts and  unmarked pure white tail. Such birds do exist.

Wednesday 6 November 2013

Long Gone, But Not Forgotten Seabird Flight - 27 Sept 2013

Over night on 26/27 September 2013 a NNE gale with fog and rain pushed large numbers of seabirds into Conception Bay, Avalon Peninsula, Newfoundland.  When this happens, (couple times per autumn) some seabirds get trapped by the force of the wind in Holyrood harbour at the very bottom of the bay. This means good seabird watching for birders who get there in time, i.e. when the storm is still at full force. I arrived at Holyrood at dawn on 27 September in the teeth of the gale.  I parked the car on the shoreline in the shelter of a solid spruce tree. I opened the window and witnessed a spectacular seabird show from the comfort of sitting in the car. 
I estimated 20,000 Leach's Storm-Petrels were trapped in the harbour. Up to 250 jaegers were in sight at one time on the water and in the air, with at least 400 tallied during the morning. Strings of Red Phalaropes (2000+ total) were flying in one side of the cove and out the other side. A rare Sabine's Gull was the star rarity of the event.
Trying to capture the essence of the extravaganza with a camera was challenging. The high winds, fog and rain made for very poor light conditions.  A wide angle lens would have helped.  Below are a few chosen photos of the many taken with a 600mm lens. None are field guide quality.
Swarms of jaegers and Leach's Storm-Petrels fight the force of the wind to avoid being blown into the woods at the back of Holyrood harbour.
Sometimes the jaegers would rise high in the air as if to get a visual on just where they ended up during the stormy hours of darkness. There must be a way outta here.

The seven Pomarine and one Parasitic Jaeger (second bird from right) in this photo pretty well summarizes the overall species ratio of the 400+ jaegers seen during the morning.
Adult Pomarine Jaegers - one dark and two light morphs. None of the adults were in pristine breeding plumage.  Tail projections were in various stages of deterioration.  The bodies of light morphs were showing barring of winter plumage. Only a couple of juveniles were confirmed. It is a mystery why juvenile jaegers are almost rare in Newfoundland waters, near shore and offshore, compared to the numbers of sub-adults and adults
Large gulls were having a field day catching the Leach's Storm-Petrels. Here live Leach's are feeding on the oil slick created by a Great Black-backed Gull eating one their cousins!
Strings of Red Phalaropes streamed by the Leach's Storm-Petrels which for the most part were just holding position in the bay. The Leach's also appeared to be feeding on zooplankton concentrated in Holyrood harbour by the wind.
There was the constant 'pik-pik' sound of Red Phalaropes flying by the car.
A few phalaropes stopped to feed, but most just kept going, heading back toward the safety of the open sea.
The prize rarity of the event was this juvenile Sabine's Gull that reappeared several times over the period of an hour. The species is rarely observed from land in Newfoundland.
A dark morph adult Parasitic Jaeger knives into the wind past the car window.  Just one of many great moments of a constantly entertaining five hours at Holyrood.  It won't be the last seabird show at this locaiton. 


Saturday 2 November 2013

Saturday Around Town = A Big Empty Space

A wicked forecast of winds gusting to 100+ km/hr and heavy rain pretty well elminated a Saturday birding away from town.  Yet there was an excitment in the winds as they were drawing from the deep south and the +17C predawn temperature assured this was the case. The weather maps showed excellent winds direct from Cape Hatteras, NC to the Avalon.  Surely some good birds will come of this. Wanting to get an early start on the wave of deep southern vagrants I was at Cape Spear parking lot with my Tims waiting for dawn. The car was shaking bad in the wind.  When daylight came I was surprised to see a dozen or more Sooty Shearwaters and one Great Shearwater just off the rocks at the cape in the strong offshore wind. I was scoping the point from within the car in the parking lot. There was no way to bird outside in the high wind and rain.  The shearwater event faded as the light increased. Yet there were still kittiwakes and gannets. You had the feeling if you'd been able to watch all morning something interesting might pass by. Before I left I had one last careful scan of the buildings for potential vagrant Cave Swallows sheltering. 
I left for town. Birded St. John's harbour and Quidi Vidi Lake.  There were 4000-5000 gulls riding out the weather on Bally Hally Golf course and 1500 on a vacant land near the entrance to the Robin Hood Bay landfill. From an excellent vantage point in Pleasantville I was able to scan gulls on the golf course. Went through the flock four times. No rarities. In fact only one Lesser Black-backed Gull.  Saw seven Glaucous Gulls just to remind one what time of year it was. This goes with the few hundred Iceland Gulls in the harbour and Cape Spear. There were four Eurasian &  eight American Wigeon and one Canada Goose grazing on the golf course. Spent time at Quidi Vidi Lake looking at the medium rare Ruddy Duck discovered yesterday by Lisa de Leon.  It was fairly tame already.  Maybe it was the same bird present late last fall for a few weeks.
Then checked out fields in the Goulds for gulls and surprises.  Saw four LBBGs among a flock of just 25 Herrings in a field of sheep.  With time on my hands took a chance and drove over to the Chamberlains sewer outflow.  There was an adult Common Gull there but surprisingly no Black-headeds. I had already seen about 50 Black-heads at the St John's Pier 17 outflow. 
Tomorrow is the last day of the weekend.  Another rain packed Low is forecasted to push through overnight and tomorrow morning. That won't hold back Ken Knowles, John Wells and I from a visit to Cape Race. Anything and likely nothing is possible in this dramatic weekend weather. Stay tuned.
The Ruddy Duck wasn't shy about displaying for anyone walking on the Quidi Vidi lake trail who wanted to stop long enought to watch. 

A 1st winter Black-headed Gull on the shore of Quidi Vidi Lake. The brownish-orange legs and base of bill will turn to vermillion-red by December. 

Common Gulls are typically found by sewer outflows as was  this bird at Chamberlain's, yet it spent more time walking on the artificial turf of a nearby soccer field then foraging at the outflow.