Tuesday 23 December 2014

Saturday 6 December 2014

Townsend's Warbler # 19. They Keep On Happening - Why!?

There are practically no rare species on the Newfoundland bird list of just 400 species that an ardent student of vagrancy can not see a pattern of vagrancy in agreement with the general pattern for Eastern North America. Newfoundland has a strangle hold on the North American occurrences of some Icelandic species. You wouldn't necessarily expect to see a reflection of European Golden Plover, Common Redshanks. Common Ringed Plover and Black-tailed Godwits that have happened over time in Newfoundland in the rest of North America since we are so close to Iceland and the migratory path of these European species. That makes sense. But the occurrence of one bird continues to absolutely baffle everyone. It comes from western North America.  The species has to fly over eight Canadian provinces to reach Newfoundland. Newfoundland gets a good share of the autumn Dickcissels, Lark Sparrows and Yellow-headed Blackbirds that head east each year but no province or state in the eastern half of North America can come close to matching the NINETEEN TOWNSEND'S WARBLERS that have been recorded on the eastern most peninsula in North America - The Avalon, Peninsula, Newfoundland.

On 5 Dec 2014 Clifford Doran photographed Newfoundland's 18th Townsend's Warbler on the west bank of Northwest River, Trepassey. Today, 6 Dec 2014 ken Knowles, John Wells and I went to Trepassey, arriving at dawn, to look for this warbler and any other birds that might be present in this worthy rarity hunting grounds.  Warblers are never a given. To shorten an interesting but long story. John Wells re-found the Townsend's Warbler # 18 while Ken and I were looking at Townsend's Warbler # 19 about 750 metres away. We were in contact by cell phone while each was watching their respective TOWA. Absurd in every way but not so out of line with the occurrences in Newfoundland.  We've seen two on the same day once before. And these two birds making a total of three for the fall of 2014 is matched by another year back there in the 1990s.  

I have no theories. I've scratched my head raw trying to figure out this virtual abundance of Townsend's Warbler on the Avalon Peninsula, Newfoundland. Other western warblers have a sparse history with just one each of Hermit, Black-throated Gray, Virginia's and Audubon's.  No MacGillivray's .

Attached are photos of Newfoundland Townsend's Warbler #19. There could be more out there. Tomorrow is a Sunday. 

Prepared with a 300mm f4 lens I was ready for a record shot no matter how difficult the conditions. I could carry the lens all morning. as it turned out the light was bright and there were no branches in the way. I would have benefited from the 1.4x converter. 

Townsend's Warblers never get old in Newfoundland!

Friday 28 November 2014

Snowy Owl Echo Invasion - Here We Go Again

On Wednesday (26 Nov) I was surprised to see two Snowy Owls at Cape Spear. Cape Spear gets only small numbers of Snowy Owls. It is almost an event when one actually shows up there. Two on the same day usually means something is up. But there had been no hint of a Snowy Owl influx this fall. That is until I realized that Diane Burton saw five Snowy Owls at Cape Freels on the same day.  This confirms that something is up but it was still odd not to have any warning such as a few single Snowy Owl sightings prior to group sightings. There was of course a couple of single Snowy Owls that over summered at Cape Race and St. Shotts area and these were being seen regularly through September and October.

On Saturday I knew I had to check out the Snowy Owl scene at Cape Race. Cape Race at the south east end of the Avalon Peninsula and Newfoundland and Canada is a major collection area for Snowy Owls on the move. They have to stop here or head out over the water to never-never land (some do).

It was a perfect morning for counting Snowy Owls. Light winds, mostly cloudy and no snow cover. The white owls stick out for kilometres on the flat open tundra-like barrens. I was predicting double digit numbers. Maybe in the low teens but was prepared for 50 or more. It turned out to be 38 Snowy Owls.  The birds close enough to reveal details were heavily barred as expected for birds of the year. One bird was strikingly white and small and was likely an adult male. Only a handful were close to the road. Since I was the first vehicle down the road at dawn I got the good looks.

After last fall/winter's mammoth invasion of Snowy Owls in which we know many suffered from starvation and died at Cape Race, it was with mixed emotion that I enjoyed looking at these beautiful birds again. They were looking fat and round and alert unlike the memories of some of the pathetic, barely alive, birds hanging on in January of this year.

We will see where this goes. The peak numbers may be yet to arrive.  NW winds last night and NE winds tonight followed by more NW winds might help pile up more of them on the Avalon.  There is meadow vole sign but could it ever be enough? There are plenty of shrews but they are not more than snacking on jelly beans to a Snowy Owl.

A fresh and alive looking Snowy Owl beside road to Cape Race, Newfoundland on 28 Nov 2014. It was continually looking around in all directions.

That Snowy Owl could be reduced to this!  This is the remnants of a Snowy Owl photographed today that died at Cape Race last winter.  In spring Snowy Owl skeletons with wing feathers attached were an all too common sight on the Cape Race barrens. There was some evidence of cannibalism. No carcass is wasted in desperate times.

In the theme of white, this Great Egret at Portugal Cove South could nourish a Snowy Owl within the next couple weeks as it is unlikely to leave now and is destined to freeze soon after the freshwater does.

Saturday 22 November 2014

Eastern & Western Willets - SOS

This blog has nothing to do with current birding. There has been a drought in my blog postings due to a November-long sentencing to a ship off eastern Newfoundland where the birding has been monotonous.  Here is a filler posting until my release after which more frequent blog entries should occur. 

In early May 2013 I took a ten day holiday in southern Alberta for general birding and photography. The prairies are another kind of ocean supporting a rich and varied bird life - all of it novelty for a Newfoundland birder.  

All birds were fair game for the camera including Willets. I knew prairie Willets were larger and paler than east coast breeding Willets.  I do not get a lot of exposure to any Willets.  There are only a few pairs of Eastern Willets breeding in Newfoundland.  And except for occasional trips to Alberta during summer I basically see no other Willets.  Below are a selection of Western Willet from Alberta early in the breeding season.

Western Willet  8 May 2013 near Medicine Hat, Alberta

Western Willet 7 May 2013 at Lake Pakowski, Alberta - still not in full breeding plumage?

Western Willet 8 May 2013 near Medicine Hat, Alberta (more heavily barred than average)

Western Willet 8 May 2013 near Medicine Hat, Alberta.

Western Willets in a wrestling match 7 May 2013 at an isolated cattle watering hole in the middle of no where southern Alberta.

Soon after returning to Newfoundland with images of many Alberta Willets fresh in my mind I saw a member of the returning pair of Eastern Willets at Renews Beach, Avalon Peninsula.  I was instantly blown away at how small and heavily marked it was.  It had squat little legs and a short bill. Surely a different species.  At least as different as Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs. Then the alarm bells went off. I was breaking my own rule of Save Our Subspecies - SOS.

The Renews, Newfoundland Eastern Willet in June 2009 above and 2011 below. Probably the the same bird in each picture and possibly the same bird I saw in 2013. So different from the Alberta Willets. 

The recent rash of splitting hairs and creating full species out of perfectly good pairs of subspecies has been an irritation for me. It was the creation of Bicknell's Thrush that pushed me over the edge to start a movement of one person to Save Our Subspecies (SOS).  The Bicknell's is even a poor example of subspecies in my books let alone a pathetic excuse for full species. In the same league was peeling Saltmarsh Sparrow away from the Sharp-tailed Sparrow complex.  Yes there is an interesting selection of different looking Sharp-tailed Sparrows from an interesting range of breeding habitats.  All kissing cousin, all one species in my books.  

Cackling Goose is another sick species in the SOS rule book.  When visiting Saskatchewan during fall Whooping Crane season amid masses of migrating geese, I noted the local birders didn't bother with Cackling Goose even though it was numerous and sometimes was in pure flocks among Ross's and White-fronted Geese and no regular sized Canadas.  Now the splitting of Winter Wrens! And talk of splitting White-breasted Nuthatches.  Why? What is the point? Instead of being close cousins supporting each other as a strong species unit, they are being separated into weak species. What is wrong with a species having groups of within exhibiting different dialects, different shades of the same colour?  Look at Europe. All those little countries jammed into together. They've been there long enough for people to have developed different languages and identifiable physical features - yet they are all the same species. Why not the same way of thinking for birds.  Save Our Subspecies.  I could go on and on here with irritant species.

On the other hand there are some birds I'd like to see be officially made into a full species in North America.  I am so glad we were given back the Bullock's and Baltimore Oriole.  Waiting for the return of Audubon's and Myrtle Warblers.  Pet wants for splits involve Eurasian vs North American pairs.  Whimbrels with white rumps should be split from the North American Whimbrel.  And the teals. Look at the picture below taken in St. John's, Newfoundland on 1 March 2011.  Don't you feel a spark of excitement seeing all those European ducks in a North American pond.  They just feel like a different entity. That is good enough for full species status in the Save Our Subspecies society.  

Common Teal and one Green-winged Teal 1 March 2011 at Mundy Pond, St. John's, Newfoundland. Don't you feel the urge to tick something good here?

Wednesday 29 October 2014

Warbler Month Starts on the Weekend

November is the exciting warbler watching month on the Avalon Peninsula. The leaves fall off the trees making it easier to see the lingering waifs. The richer areas with the last morsels of greenery become magnets or at least hangouts for warblers living here beyond their time. Flocks of the ubiquitous junco and little bands of chickadees become comfort groups for warblers pushing the limits of survival in November in Newfoundland.

Twenty-nine species of warbler have been recorded during the month of November in St. John's. Some of the more outstanding species have been Cerulean Warbler, Kentucky Warbler and Hooded Warbler.  But it is the western warblers that really brings out the smiles on birders. 

The western warbler count for the St. John's and neighbouring areas is 16 Townsend's Warbler, one Black-throated Gray Warbler, one Hermit Warbler and one Virginia's Warbler.  Nearly all of these were found during the month of November. We are in desperate need for another Black-throated Gray Warbler.  It is surprising especially considering the number of TOWAs that there had been only one Black-throated Gray (1 Nov to 5 Dec 1992 - Waterford Valley).  We are lucky to have the one Hermit Warbler from Blackhead 11 to 13 Nov 1989.  Last November's Virginia's Warbler in east St. John's was a dream come true.

Newfoundland is full of paradoxes when it comes to bird records but none is more bizarre than the high frequency of Townsend's Warbler. Sixteen records for the Avalon Peninsula is more than most states and provinces in the eastern half of North America have tallied. Fourteen of these have occurred within the St. John's city limits. Even more remarkable is that 11 of these have occurred in the Waterford Valley, an area roughly 300 x 1500 meters. This probably means we are missing lots more in other areas.  There are two records for the Greater Renews area proving that the Townsend's Warbler can occur outside of the city. BTW all of these November western warblers were seen well, most over a period of days or weeks, most by many observers and all but three TOWAs photographed. In other words solid records. 

The new header photograph to mark the start of Warbler Month for this blog is a Townsend's Warbler on the banks of the Waterford River. St John's on 1 January 2013. It was the only individual to make it into January. Most are found in the middle two weeks of November with some of them making into December.  

This Townsend's Warbler found on a St. John's CBC on 26 Dec 2012 stayed alive until 5 January 2013 along the banks of the lower Waterford River. It was a real crowd pleaser.

This Townsend's Warbler found on a rainy Sunday along the Waterford River trail was, unlike most individuals, just a 30 minute wonder.  It was not seen after it choked down this dangerous looking spider. 7 Nov 2009.

Bowring Park in the Waterford Valley is an excellent place to find a November Townsend's Warbler. This was by the main duck pond on 19 Nov 2007.

Proof that a Townsend's Warblers can occur outside of the city of St. John's is this one at Bear Cove (south of Renews) on 20 Oct 2012. This is the earliest date for the province.

So the time is here. Start pounding the sidewalks on the weekends, and your lunch breaks during the week. The rewards are out there with some big prizes to be found.  The month goes by fast. Every day is precious in November.

ADDENDUM - Newfoundland's 17th Townsend's Warbler was photographed on 8 Nov 2014 by Brian Hill in his backyard in Mt. Pearl, Avalon Peninsula.  Right on time.  It would be a  stretch to add this to the Waterford Valley Townsend's Warbler List but it was at least in the Waterford River drainage basin!

Sunday 19 October 2014

Gonzalo at Cape Race - A Great Big Sea Show without Birds.

Ian Jones, Jared Clarke and I went to Cape Race to meet Hurricane Gonzalo head on at dawn on Sunday. Our timing was good. Gonzalo could have done us a favour by passing with his eye in sight of Cape Race.  Maybe even then there would have been no special birds to see. The storm passed over nothing but open ocean except for a Bermuda visit.  There are only so many good sub-tropical pelagic seabirds possible between Bermuda and Cape Race in mid October.  But the exceptionally high speed at which the Eye of Gonzo was passing us (57 km/hr) might have been good enough to drop us a gift or two had it come a little closer. 

The backside of the storm hit just as we got to the lighthouse. Very strong NW winds were blowing the tops off the incoming storm swells rolling in from the south east. It created an impressive scene. It was easy to imagine how any seabird would give up hope of fighting the conditions and just try to keep alive by going with the flow of the wind.  Gannets, the biggest and strongest seabirds, were challenged by the winds as they rocketed through the furrows and over the waves on reduced wing surfaces. Kittiwakes had wings curved back like a falcon as they strained to maintain control. The birds were not having a good time.

While the birding was lackluster the wave watching was exhilarating. My rule of never taking scenery shots went right out the window.  There was no containing the urge to capture the incredible scene. I spent more time taking scenics than looking through the scope. [I promise this will not happen again].

Regular Cape Race sea watchers will recognize this view and realize the massive volume of water sent airborne.   This happened a hundred times during our 2 hour watch.

Scopes were abandoned as seabirders (JC left, IJ right) turn into wave watchers.

 Colossal volumes of water were being thrown far out of the sea.  I ran from this one. But there was no need it was just some foolish internal auto survival reaction.

Experienced Cape Racers will recognize this rock to the left of our seawatch location.  Sometimes in the winter it gets topped by a big wave but on Gonzalo Day it was frequently obliterated. See both pictures below.

Two storm chaser personalties from The Weather Network were on the scene and were not disappointed with plenty to film. 

Professional storm chasers and seasoned Cape Race birders watch in awe as series after series of big ones roll in.

View to the west.

A distant headland to the west smashes a big wave to smithereens. 

IJ gets bored and tries a little acting while JC and I take the snaps.

He lived.

A view of Cape Race lighthouse as we drove away in the unseasonably warm humid tropical hurricane air. The only thing missing was a g-o-o-d bird.  

Thursday 9 October 2014

Canvasback is Rarest in Newfoundland

Without too much research it is probably safe to say that Canvasback is rarer in Newfoundland than any province or state in North America. With the first record in November 1973 and the second today 9 October 2014 it is the rarest duck on the Newfoundland list. Right in there with Common Shelduck tentatively on the list with two records in last five years. Even Garganey is more routine with four records. So it is easy to understand why every birder in town descended on Kenny's Pond behind the St.John's Holiday Inn after I stumbled across an immature CANVASBACK there.  I was using the cell phone outside in the wind when phone calls were met with periods of confused scepticism and silence when I said CANVASBACK at Kenny's Pd.  Some people thought I was saying "Ken is back".  As if  Ken was even away. One person responded with " a Canada-what?"  It was difficult news to swallow I know. THERE IS A !!#&%&^#!! CANVASBACK DUCK AT KENNY'S POND NOW !!! Once the messages got through the common response was " I am on the way".

The rest is history. And we expect a long history with this bird as it looks settled down with the 35 other aythya ducks present (4 species including nine Tufted Ducks).  Kenny's Pond is a favourite among St. John's aythya until freeze up in December.

Whoops, looks like I've been detected. I was thinking it was the slightly more regular but still very rare Redhead duck before it whipped out the bill.

No confusing that one of a kind profile especially among some smaller Tufted Ducks.

Already tamed and associating with the human desensitized wild ducks (Greater Scaup, Lesser Scaup, Ring-necked Ducks, Tufted Ducks, American Black Ducks), I wonder how this would have affected our thoughts on its provenance if it had been say a Common Pochard!? 

Sunday 28 September 2014

Anything but an Everyday Common Gull

On September 16 Alvan Buckley texted me while I was imprisoned on a ship 200 miles off the coast of Newfoundland asking if I'd heard about the possible Kamchatka Gull in St. John's.  My response was 'get a life, it ain't gonna happen in Newfoundland'.  Then he directed me to the photos which can be seen on his blog site http://alvanbuckley.blogspot.ca/2014/09/gull-help.html  I was floored. This Common Gull does look extremely unusual.  It was so large compared to the Herring Gulls in the picture. So dark above. And look at the size of that bill!?

I am not easily sold on off the wall birds that look like a text book example of something so it must be that species or subspecies. Instead I try to imagine an alternative explanation for looking like that. But this bird was so different. Maybe there was a legitimate case for labelling this 'Common Gull' as Kamchatka Gull - the eastern Siberian subspecies of the Mew/Common Gull complex.

The gull could not be located despite frequent visits to the fields around Quidi Vidi Lake where it was first seen. Finally the bird resurfaced today some 20 km away in the farm fields of Kilbride (corner of Goulds bypass and Ruby Line).

Jared Clarke spotted it first.  His first words were 'there is the Kamchatka Gull, or is it a California Gull?".  It was sitting down on the newly plowed field. For a few seconds we had to figure out what it was. Asleep on the field the dark upper aparts and size really were worth entertaining the California Gull option - bird still missing from the provincial list. The plain yellow bill proved it was a Common Gull. The size and dark upper parts confirmed that this was the bird found 12 days earlier by AB. 

Below are photos of the bird. The afternoon sunlight was very harsh. The bird really stood out as something different when compared to Herring and Ring-billed Gulls around it.  It was easily over looked as a LBBG when scanning over the 200+ gulls feeding in the newly plowed field.  The following photos show little comparison with other gulls. Hopefully more encounters with this bird over the next while.