Sunday 29 December 2013

The Winter Robins are Arriving

With the abundance of dogberries (mountain ash) on the Avalon and in fact all through Newfoundland this winter we were expecting robin flocks. Sometimes it takes until Christmas for the flocks to build and the birds to enter the city of St John’s.  December 28 was perhaps the real good official first sign of city robin action.  Lancy Cheng found a flock feeding behind Cavell Ave.  He called me over and together we watched the flock of 150 which had moved a couple hundred metres farther east.  John Williams and Dave Hawkins appeared with their cameras.
Lancy and I were checking each robin for European thrushes especially Redwing and Fieldfare but not limited to those possibilities!  We didn't find any but it was good to get back into winter robining mode again.  This should be the start of a good month of this favourite winter activity.  Alvan Buckley also saw 100 robins in his neighbourhood on Roache Street.  Make sure you know what a Redwing and Fieldfare looks like and beware of starling and female Purple Finches often feeding on berries with the robins that give even veteran robiners a start now and then.  GOOD LUCK.

Some American Robins gorging on dogberries on 28 Dec near Quidi Vidi Road/Forest Road intersection.

This is a practice test. Find the mega in this photograph from near the Fluvarium, Long Pond taken January 2007.  BTW the Fluvarium area is perhaps the best place for robining in the city. The base of Signal Hill is another hotspot, Bally Haly Golf Course is good. But Redwings and Fieldfares have shown up in every part of the city over the decades. Go Find One. It can happen to you!


Friday 27 December 2013

St John's CBC foretells Bleak Winter Ahead

The St. John's CBC held on 26 Dec 2013 under blue skies, light winds, deep snow and cool temperatures was picture perfect day for February!  Waay too much snow on the ground for this time of year. The count total of 60 species was 15-20 species below the recent averages. There were no warblers, no waxwings, no wigeons - no wow factor.  Despite a heavy cone crop finches were rare. And with all these dogberries only hundred or so robins.  The early freeze sent many city ducks packing which is probably a good thing. Wigeons need grass to graze on.  Hopefully the 60 wigeon (half AM, half EUR) migrated to some place where they could live. The Eurasian Wigeon that have been wintering here in numbers for the last 10-15 years of warm winters probably have no idea where to go when it gets cold in St. John's. Hopefully the Americans will lead them to greener pastures. 
There is concern about the Tufted Ducks. Most of the scaup that try to overwinter in the little areas of open water at the St. John's ducks ponds departed when things froze. But the Tufted Ducks didn't go. They've never been anywhere else. They migrate to St. John's, presumably from Iceland, and winter here in an artifical setting.  Numbers have been building every year. This year there was a significant increase from the 55 last winter to 78 this winter.  They are all crammed in a tiny pool of water at Burtons Pond that can hold a maximum of 80. They don't eat. If it gets colder and snowier where will they go? Will they expire? It is survival of the fittest and smartest. Birds are always experimenting, trying to expand their ranges.  Will this winter put an end to St. John's as being a wintering destination for Tufted Ducks? It should. St. John's is not a fit place for Tufted Ducks to overwinter.  It is a marginal existence at the best of times.
While it was mostly doom and gloom all around (LOL) there were some bright-ish moments.  The group that I was part of with Ken Knowles and Jared Clarke were surprised by a flock of 8 Lapland Longspurs at the dump.  The species is an October migrant with very few during winter.  A Red-throated Loon, again an October migrant through St. John's with very few stopping becuase of the deep water and rocky bottoms, was genuine surprise in St. John's harbour where any loon is unsual at anytime.
This Red-throated Loon in St. John's harbour on the CBC was in an unusual location at an unusual time of year and provided unusually excellent photo opportunities.

The bird below is a Common Loon for comparison. It was photographed in St. John's harbour the day after the CBC. While a common wintering bird on the Avalon seeing one within the harbour is an unusul event.  Great Cormorants and Black Guillemots regularly feed in the harbour, maybe loons should too.
The wide open grassland plains created at the St. John's landfill perhaps enticed a group of eight Lapland Longspurs to stay for Christmas at least.


Tuesday 24 December 2013

Newfoundland Herring Gull in Breeding Plumage on Christmas Eve

With Christmas shopping all done and official holidays from work in effect, Christmas Eve was a free time holiday.  Perfect time for gull watching at Quidi Vidi Lake.  Spent most of six hours watching the mouth of the Virginia River where gulls were coming to bath and drink.  Did not see any rare species but there were, as always, a number of rule-bending gulls seen. Just two gulls are presented here. Both are adult Herring Gulls.
The first three shots are of a Herring Gull in breeding plumage with a completely white head, brightly coloured bill and bright marigold yellow-orange orbital ring. White headed Herring Gulls are rare but not unheard of in December in Newfoundland. Typically the first white headed gulls begin appearing by mid January but are pretty rare until the last days of January. During the first week of February white headed HERGs become regular and quickly become more common every day of the month. Just so happens it was an individual with extensive white in the primaries.
An adult Herring Gull with pure white head, bright marigold orane-yellow orbital ring and brightly coloured bill of breeding plumage on the early date of 24 Dec 2013.

In the fully spread wing note the mirror on P9 easily meets with the gray finger of inner web and the small black marks on P5. 

The second bird is a Herring Gull in full winter plumage typical for the time of year but with even more white in the wing tip including a broken subterminal bar on P9 which is very uncommon.



Friday 20 December 2013

Christmas Holidays 2013

Sixteen days of holidays start tomorrow. The Avalon Peninsula is a good place to be birding in December though it doesn't have to be this winter-like!  There will be robin flocks to go through for Redwings.  Gulls to check at Quidi Vidi Lake for the Yellow-legged Gull and as of yet undiscovered rarities, hopefully including a Slaty-backed Gull. Cape Spear will be good for seabirds.  Lingering warblers will be very few with this cold weather but feeder sparrows and allies could include some nice rarities.

Let the birding begin!

Ivory Gulls on ice pan off northeast Greenland on 11 Sept 2011.

Wednesday 11 December 2013

300 Snowy Owls in Newfoundland Weekend - An Explanation

On Saturday 7 December Ken Knowles, John Wells and I counted 91 Snowy Owls on the Cape Pine road and adjacent St Shotts area. The next day at Cape Race about 20 km to the east I counted 206 Snowy Owls. This adds up to 297 owls when you add in four more I saw near Cappahayden it turns into a 301 Snowy Owl weekend.
 This mega Snowy Owl influx into southeastern Newfoundland started  at Cape Race. Weekend counts go like this - 3 on 15 Nov; 42 on 23 Nov, 138 on 1 Dec and 206 on 8 Dec.  Snowy Owls appeared in other eastern extremities like Cape Spear with a maximum of 12 and Cape Freels with a maximum of 6. There were numerous sightings of singles here and there in eastern Newfoundland as well but there was a paucity of records from western Newfoundland.
 Snowy Owls were also appearing far offshore on ships and oil platforms. At Cape Race Snowy Owls were seen flying in off the ocean as well as flying high, fast and far south into the abyss. One made it to Bermuda. Surprising none have been reported from the Azores yet. 

 Meanwhile the rest of Atlantic Canada and the eastern United States was also enjoying one of the biggest inflixes of Snowy Owls in living memory (some birders have not lived that long!).  But none of the counts from these areas touched what was happening at the southeast corner of Newfoundland.
Where did the owls come from and why?  I won't go much into the classic explainations for Snowy Owl irruptions in the south right now but below is some information about the possible source of the Snowy Owls that I got today,
First I found out where Snowy Owls were in low to normal numbers in the Canadian Arctic (Rankin Inlet on western shore of Hudson Bay, Igoolik on the Melville Peninsula and northern Baffin Island including Bylot Island - information thanks to Alastair Franke, University of Alberta).   Greenland was also ruled out as a source where David Bortemann in communication with biolgists working around Greenland reported normal or low numbers of Snowy Owls during the summer of 2013.  In the end several sources pointed to Northern Quebec as having a big lemming year and a boom year for Snowy Owls.  I don't have many details yet but this mind boggling picture below is probably enough to answer the question about the location of the source of the current Snowy Owl influx in eastern North America.
A Snowy Owl nest in northern Quebec in 2013 with 70 lemmings and 8 voles brought to the nest even before the eggs have hatched. (photo by J.F. Therrien, lifted from Arctic Raptors Facebook page)

What follows are some Snowy Owl pictures from the December 7/8 weekend at Cape Pine and Cape Race. One intriguing feature brought to my attention by David Bortemann was the little ear tufts shown by most of the owls.  Yes we all know Snowy Owls have little ear tufts that you sometimes see but the ear tufts were visible on most the owls. Was it becuase the owls were so skinny and with no fat between the ears the skin was pulled tight and the ear tufts became erect???? Yah that is reading a lot into it but the fact is that most of these owls up close are showing ear tufts.You don't see it often on the multitudes of internet Snowy Owls.

Below are just a few Snowy Owl photos from the 301 Snowy Owl weekend at Cape Pine and Cape Race. Note the little ear tufts on every bird and compare this with other images found on the internet.



Tuesday 10 December 2013

Purple Gallinule - Close but Again No Cigar

On Sunday 8 December Paulette King found a strange bird dead in her Clarenville back yard. Being the size of chicken but iridescent purple and green with long spidery yellow toes she knew she had something exotic. Through her friend Lena who knew someone who knew someone an email eventually reached me with the following photos attached asking if I could help identify it.

The front and back half of Purple Gallniule photographed with a Smart Phone. It was found freshly dead in the backyard of Paulette King in Clarenville on 8 Dec 2013.
 Up to this point no birders have seen a free wild Purple Gallinule in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador. There are probably a dozen records for the province and most of them are December/January when cold fronts sweep over the southeast US freezing out Purple Gallinules.  When forced to move and it seems that some of them get caught up with a large Low pressure area and go with the flow of strong southerly winds  They go with the flow until they get tired and drop into the sea or keep going until they get to Newfoundland. After they get here they probably wish they died first. December/January records are usually in weird places like fishing boats offshore, a hedge in a backyard or a garage. There were two very large and powerful Low pressure areas with strong south winds during the week before the gallinule's appearance.

I have seen two live but uncountable Purple Gallinules in Newfoundland. The first was in Pierre Ryan's bathroom in the late 1980s. Pierre works for CWS.  It landed on a government resreach vessel around Christmas time.  When it was brought ashore, Pierre received it and kept in his bathroom  for a couple of days before it entered a better rehab situation. 

On 30 Dec 2005 I was out making the birding rounds in St. John's on an unseasonable warm and sunny day after the passage of a deep Low pressure area. I got a call from the receptionist at the CWS office saying someone had just brought in a Purple Gallinule and there is no one  to take it. Can you come for it?  As it turned out a motorist had seen it running around Forest Road where I had already been that morning. He thought it needed help so he caught it and brought it into the CWS office.

I went to the CWS office and got the bird and decided to release it at Long Pond marsh. Being an unseasonably warm autumn the marsh was still unfrozen. It seemed like the best situation available for a Purple Gallinule in Newfoundland. I called a few friends to witness the release. It took to the marsh like it had never left.  Within a minute it slipped into the privacy of the grass and reeds. That night winter returned with a 40 cm of snow and cold north winds.

The Purple Gallinule in the back window of my car enroute to Long Pond marsh for release on 30 Dec 2005.


The Purple Gallinule in the marsh habitat a few seconds before disappearing into the vegetation forever on 30 Dec. 2005.