Wednesday 30 April 2014

The ULTIMATE BIRD = Ross's Gull

After lunch on Tuesday 29 April 2014 I was at work reading the newsgroup nf.birds and I noticed this paragraph at the end of Ed Hayden's post.

At Torbay Beach, at noon, in addition to the Kittiwakes, Ring-billeds, Herrings, Black Guillemots and Red-breasted Mergansers, a small bird the size and shape of a Red Phalarope was feeding from the ocean surface. It had a very obvious salmon-pink head, breast and belly, with slightly dark markings on the side of the head. It has white undertail coverts, gray mantle, dark underwings and a dark beak thicker than a Red-necked Phalarope, though I couldn't detect a pale base. It flies around a bit and hovers occasionally over the waves. I couldn't find an image to fit the colour in my references, but the closest I could come to it as a guess is a Red Phalarope, so it could be a moulting Red. Still there at noon when I left.

I responded with this

ED!  That little pink bird with gray under wings couldn't be a small gull could it !!!!!?

I think I am going to have to leave work right now to go check that out!!


And then I left work.
I alerted Ken Knowles about the possibility of his life long most wanted bird being at Torbay beach close to where he lives. Together we looked and scanned. For twenty minutes nothing, nothing nothing. We were about to try other areas when way off in the distance (500+ m) I saw a pink body and dark gray under wings. The rest is history. Everyone got to see the bird though pretty distant from the beach it was possible to get closer out on the point by cutting through some woods off Motion Lane.
The scene from the beach in Torbay. This shot with a 600 mm lens. I couldn't even see the bird through the lens.

The Ross's Gull from the point. Lots more photos to go through yet. Watch this space.

This was the first Ross's Gull in Newfoundland since 1991. There were about ten records between 1976 and 1991.  I can never decide which is my favourite bird, Ross's Gull, Ivory Gull or Gyrfalcon.  I guess it all depends on which one I am looking at at the time. Whatever, as Ken pointed out yesterday as we were walking back to the car with brains full of pristine Ross's Gull images 'this sure makes all these Icelandic strays seem insignificant'.   He was right. Nothing leaves you with that glow the morning after like seeing one the world's Ultimate Birds.

As I type at 10 am the day after I hear the bird is back.  How can I sit at this office desk while that bird is out there feeding away in the surf.  I feel an early lunch starting about NOW!

Monday 28 April 2014

Icelandic Invasion Tally - 26-28 April 2014

New areas searched today producing eleven new European Golden Plover at three locations. Five at Lumsden by Roger Willmott, three not far away at Cape Freels by Carol Sparkes and three new ones in a field in the Goulds by Ed Hayden. Amazing none were found at Cape Bonavista after 3 1/2  hours of scouring.  Good winds continue for a few more days. Other places searched today included Clarenville, Bellevue/Arnold's Cove and Spaniard's Bay/Harbour Grace areas.


two at Renews, Avalon Peninsula, 25-27 April
two at St. Paul's Inlet, Northern Peninsula, 27 April

one Renews, Avalon Peninsula, 26-27 April
three Cape Race, Avalon Peninsula, 26 April
six St. John's airport, Avalon Peninsula, 26 April
two Sally's Cove, Northern Peninsula, 26-27 April
two Pouch Cove, Avalon Peninsula, 27 April
one Goulds, Avalon Peninsula, 27 April
two Ferryland, Avalon Peninsula, 27 April

five Lumsden, East Coast, 28 April
three Cape Freels, East Coast, 28 April
three Goulds, Avalon Peninsula, 28 April

28 April 2014

29 April 2014

Almost lost in the Icelandic Vagrant hunting melee is unusual numbers of Snowy Owls present for late April.  Part of it seems to be a recent influx (last half of April). Birds are being reported from the TCH on the Avalon Pen even.  This photo is one of five present at Cape Bonavista 28 April 2014.

Sunday 27 April 2014

Icelandic Tally 26-27 April 2014

More searching for Icelandic Vagrants on Sunday turned up a few more of the same species. Four Black-tailed Godwits present in the province is a record high for one year.  Below is the tally to date in order as discovered.

two at Renews, Avalon Peninsula, 25-27 April
two at St. Paul's Inlet, Northern Peninsula, 27 April

one Renews, Avalon Peninsula, 26-27 April
three Cape Race, Avalon Peninsula, 26 April
six St. John's airport, Avalon Peninsula, 26 April
two Sally's Cove, Northern Peninsula, 26-27 April
two Pouch Cove, Avalon Peninsula, 27 April
one Goulds, Avalon Peninsula, 27 April
two Ferryland, Avalon Peninsula, 27 April

Monday is a work day but there will be a team heading to Cape Bonavista and probably one to Cape Freels. We don't know yet what is out there between St. John's and Gros Morne National Park.

Couldn't resist a quick afternoon trip to see the godwits at Renews again this afternoon. Stunningly beautiful birds to have so tame and so rare. A couple snaps below.

Is there a more beautiful shorebird in the world? It has everything going for it - colour, size, shape, elegance, and style. 27 April at Renews, Avalon Peninsula, Newfoundland.

Worlds apart in character from the familiar American Golden Plover, the European GP is like a big robin hunting worms on pasture land. 27 April 2014 at Renews, Avalon Peninsula, Newfoundland.

Saturday 26 April 2014

Icelandic Invasion - Cashing in the Chips for Day 1

Birding 13 hours leaves little time to deal with hundreds of digital photos at the end of the day. Attached are photos of the two Black-tailed Godwits and one Eurasian Golden Plover at Renews on 26 April 2014. Today there was a total of 12 Euro Golden Plovers seen at four locations in Newfoundland. This is only the beginning of an Icelandic Invasion. Will be hunting for Icelandic birds for the next two days. A few pictures of some nice birds from today.

This vagrant female Rose-breasted Grosbeak crawling around in the grass at St Shotts lighthouse bucked the trend of Icelandic vagrants.

Friday 25 April 2014

IT'S HAPPENING !!! - The Tip of the Golden Iceberg

It is a breathless Friday evening. Wired to the max. Tony Dunne of Renews, the same non-birder that found the Common Shelduck on or about 3 April emailed photos of two breeding plumage BLACK-TAILED GODWITS from Renews today!  We had been watching the weather maps carefully for the last couple of days. The projected isobar map predictions were getting better every day. Sunday to Tuesday is looking particularly interesting. I was already indicating to people at my work I would likely be missing on Monday.

The appearance of TWO BLACK-TAILED GODWITS in Renews today ahead of the best looking part of the easterly wind event is exciting for several reasons. BTGO is pretty rare in Newfoundland. On average maybe once every three years in spring, most in first half of May. Only once before was there a duo which happened to be the last NF sighting in 2011 at Little Catalina around May 21, quite late. Surely the relatively common European Golden Plover is here also.

Black-tailed Godwit is a jewel compared to the more regular European Golden Plover.  And it just so happens tomorrow is the 26th of April which is known among veteran Icelandic vagrant hunters as Magic Golden Plover Day. More first arrivals, the biggest flocks, the best Golden Plover events have all happened on 26 April.  Tomorrow is a Saturday. The winds are looking great.

It has been a desperately poor spring in Newfoundland. We have been on a string of hope for the even the most basic pleasures of spring birding that everyone else in the civilized world takes for granted. We watch the weather maps for the possibility of an Icelandic handout. It is like going from rags to riches overnight.  You cannot count on it but if it happens WE ARE READY with our mouths wide open.

These two Black-tailed Godwits are not likely to be an isolated event.  Bruce has been wrong on predictions before but the feeling is overpowering,  this is could be the Tip of the Golden Iceberg.

The weather map from today 25 April 2014. Not perfect but not bad. No head wind for a European bird that wants to cross to the Newfoundland side.  This is an important first step. It usually requires two huge Lows to span the Atlantic and then line up to produce a good continuous eastward flow across the Atlantic. It is not a common event. 

This is the projected map for Monday. It is similar for Tuesday.  We've seen promising maps in the past that failed to produce but these all looks dynamite.  

Watch this space!

Saturday 19 April 2014

The Mythical Black-backed Newfoundland Robin

The myth that Newfoundland American Robins are black-backed is not true or is at least an exaggeration.  They are far from being all black-backed. Some show black from the head blending into a black upper back and there seems to be a overall darker trend in Newfoundland robins compared to most of the rest of northeast North America.

This is about as black-backed as a Newfoundland American Robin will get. Note the black solidly merging between the head and and upper back. Individuals like this are uncommon but readily found if you look hard enough on any given day. Photo 28 April 2012 Renews, Avalon Peninsula, Newfoundland.

Individuals like this where there is not a sharp division between the black of the head and upper back are common. Photo 8 May 2006 St. John's, Newfoundland.

Today, 19 April 2014, birding was slow so I got down to taking pictures of robins feeding in the farm fields of The Goulds on the outskirts of St. John's. I concentrated on a flock of six and another flock of eight robins in separate fields. In general these birds seemed on the paler end of the spectrum for Newfoundland robins. Because they were feeding within a flock without fighting I wondered if they might be mostly females that just arrived over night. Robin migration has been going on for only two weeks.
This was the darkest of the robins in the two flocks on 19 April.  There was a soft demarcation between the dark head and back but the scapular and mantle feather were all blackish centred.

The above three birds exhibit a distinct demarcation between the black head and gray back but also show black centres to scapular and mantle feathers.

The above three birds are pale Newfoundland Robins. Paler gray above, duller red breast, less intense black heads. Two birds show dark gray centres to mantle feathers and one shows uniform pale gray shading to mantle feathers.

Apparently there is a general trend to darker robins the farther northeast you go in North America. There is seems to be lots of overlap in plumage characteristics, enough so that you can not define an individual robin by the colour of the back. Somewhere along the way word that Newfoundland robins were black-backed turned in solid knowledge. Few people had any reason to dispute this.  These pictures should be enlightening for some. Maybe more photos tomorrow if birding is again slow. 

Curious Fact: The American Robin does so well in Newfoundland, nesting in practically all habitats,  it lays only three eggs per clutch, rarely four as is normal everywhere else. This nest was by my front door in St. John's in 2012.

Thursday 10 April 2014

Very Early Southern Passerine Vagrant on St Pierre, SPM

This incredible record of a White-eyed Vireo happened at St. Pierre, SPM on 9 April 2014. The fast moving storm with far reaching southerly winds (Florida) that went through SPM and Newfoundland on 9 April was surely responsible. What else can be out there?  While extremely early for a southern passerine, St Pierre has had an early April Hooded Warbler and Chuck-wills Widow in past years.  Southern herons of course regularly show up by this time in Newfoundland and SPM.  

White-eyed Vireo photographed in St. Pierre, St. Pierre et Miquelon on 9 April 2014 by Patrick Hacala 

Just discovered there are more photos at this site. 

Monday 7 April 2014

Looking for Spring, Hanging on By a String

Spring always was a dirty word in Newfoundland. It never comes while we read about great spring migrations in every other part of Canada and the US. This spring seems worse than ever.  No warm spells or SW winds. What seems like a warm spell now and then is actually temperatures reaching norms for the time of year. This weekend was tough if you were depending on spring birds for your jollies.

Saturday still in search of that Common Shelduck seen in Renews on 3 April I widen the search area to include some spring goose spots in the inner parts of St. Mary's Bay.  I discovered both Cootes Pond and Harricott Pond, my two main targets were still FROZEN.  However, found geese in good numbers at two locations in Riverhead and at O'Donnells where normally relatively small numbers of geese appear. In fact my day total of 442 Canada Geese was a personal Avalon Peninsula high for me. No other species of geese and no rare ducks.

Part of the lure of travelling to the southern Avalon Peninsula was to intercept early migrants on their way to St. John's area. Surely I'd hear a Fox Sparrow and see some roadside robins. NOPE! N'ARN! NOTTA! I was surprised to see only three adult Ring-billed Gulls and I was at the locations of two thriving Ring-billed Gull colonies. Where are they!?

The Canada Geese were forced to different areas because regular spring staging sites were still frozen. Here at the Riverhead boat basin 285 geese were feeding on what I think was eel grass.

Geese at O'Donnells also were eating what I believe is eel grass.

The geese at O'Donnell's were flushed by a Bald Eagle. Here they are seen headed for the promise land across the bay, the frozen barrens (breeding grounds) of the Branch Barrens.

Sunday morning I went to Long Pond in St. John's where there were reports that the wintering flock of American Robins and Cedar Waxwings was still present. I was greeted with a wall of singing robins. Nice but there was no promise of spring in these birds, These hardy birds were celebrating having gotten through the winter and were still in winter mode looking a little rough around the edges.  A flicker sang but it too was certainly a wintering bird.
One of about 75 robins at Long Pond singing up a storm eating shriveled dogberries left over from the 2013 crop. The frosty edges to the breast and neck feathers show this bird is still in a winter plumage unlike the glowing spring birds yet to arrive. 

What to do on a rainy Sunday afternoon for a bird buzz?  Trying to avoid Quidi Vidi Lake which reminds me too much of winter birding, I went to the harbour and parked on a wharf.  Entertained myself photographing some tame Black Guillemots and... that was as good as it got. That got mundane so was forced to go to Quid Vidi Lake to survey the spring Ring-billed Gulls. Incredibly a mere 8 but I know there were also about that many at Pier 17 sewer outflow. But this is 6 April. RBGUs should be screaming in every parking lot and pond around town by now.  I noticed a fresh dead Herring Gull out on the ice so sat there in the rain with a Tims to see how long it would take for an eagle to find it even in the rain.  

'Sitting on the dock of the bay, watching the tide flow away....'  These three Black Guillemots are in full winter attire still. There were a couple others farther out in the harbour that were about 90% toward breeding plumage but the majority of guillemots around the coast are still in winter plumage.

I threw bread out the car window in both parking lots at Quidi Vidi Lake.  A total of only eight Ring-billed Gulls came in. I should have been inundated with a screaming mass of them on this date.  

 This soggy adult Bald Eagle flew in out of the rain and fog and landed without hesitation on this freshly dead Herring Gull.  A lucky day for this Bald Eagle wondering where to start on its Sunday dinner.

 The eagle enjoyed its meal without any interruptions from the other eagles grounded by the rain, but it had to keep an eye out for the pesky crows looking to steal their share. 

A brave crow pulls on the wing tip of the eagle.  These Quidi Vidi Lake crows are practiced at the fine art of stealing food from the scavenging eagles.  The crows need the eagles to tear open the gull.

Thursday 3 April 2014


A male COMMON SHELDUCK was found in Renews, Avalon Peninsula, Newfoundland at 2:30 pm on 2 April by Tony Dunne and  photographed by his wife Yvonne. They knew it was a different duck. When they got out of the car it flew away out the harbour.  At 4:30 pm Tony saw it again flush up off the beach and fly toward the inner harbour. News hit the birding community that evening. By dawn 3 April birders were at Renews.  The place was manned continuously from dawn to 3 pm. And all the coves from Trepassey to St. John's were covered. The Shelduck was not seen.  Renews was by far the best looking habitat around. It had 42 Canada Geese and 20 Black Ducks feeding in the inner harbour. Sea ice was a problem in most coves including Renews.

The bird may never be seen again. The photos clearly show it is a male Common Shelduck. And the exact location on the Renews beach is recognizable in the pictures. The origin of Common Shelduck is always in question in North America.  Weather maps on 31 March show winds from Ireland curving up toward Iceland and then going east and southeast toward southern Greenland (see map below, not easy to read I know, there is probably better map out there). There is a calm area south of Greenland before hitting light easterly winds east of Newfoundland. While not a really strong wind there was not a head wind along the route. The first Common Shelducks would be migrating to breeding ground in Iceland at this time. Didn't see a weather map for 1st April but on that day a strong easterly flow and major snow storm hit the Avalon Peninsula. There were strong northeast winds on 2 April.

Weather map from Monday 31 March showing general wind flow from Ireland to Iceland to south of Greenland.

The odds of an escape Common Shelduck in eastern Newfoundland in early spring seem remote. Basically there is no one in Newfoundland that keeps exotic waterfowl other than fat farm ducks & geese.  It has been a cold and harsh spring. It doesn't seem like a good time of year for a duck to escape and travel - gut feeling, don't worry about the logic! The weather was right, the time of year was right, the location on eastern most Newfoundland coast was right for a natural vagrant migrating from mainland Europe to Iceland. I feel very strongly that this was a truly wild bird and should be counted as a North American record.

Three photos of the Common Shelduck at Renews, Avalon Peninsula, Newfoundland on 2 April 2014. Photos by Yvonne Dunne.

Common Shelduck has not been officially accepted on the North American list of birds, but it is close to happening. There have been a number of very intriguing records from Massachusetts and perhaps other New England States and I believe Quebec has a record or two.  Newfoundland had one on 17 Nov 2009 at Quidi Vidi Lake. There is a pretty good case for making that an official North America record. There were good winds from Iceland during the 48 hour prior to the sighting. It was at a time when the last are migrating out of Iceland. Common Shelduck has only recently started breeding in Iceland and numbers are taking off.  Interestingly it uses a rockier habitat then they use in mainland Europe. Shelduck is a species on the move in Iceland.  

It is because my reluctance to push the record that it never went anywhere. It would be easy to build a good case for in being a wild natural vagrant.  I have been probably brainwashed since my teens by the knowledge that large numbers of Common Shelducks are kept in captivity in North America and they frequently escape resulting in the many off the wall records of pretty obvious escapes throughout interior North America. The thinking part of me said this should be wild bird but there was this deep rooted feeling that it could have been a long distant escapee from mainland North America.  I was torn. It was a bird waiting for a pattern of vagrancy to form.  The Renews bird makes me feel a whole lot better about the QV Lake bird as being wild too. 

Tufted Duck, Eurasian Wigeon and Common Teal are already form a significant part of the normal waterfowl scene in Newfoundland outside of the breeding season. Will Common Shelducks be next?  Bring 'em on!!!

An immature Common Shelduck at Quidi Vidi Lake, St. John's, Newfoundland on 17 Nov 2009. It stayed for only twenty minutes before flying southward over the city. It was never seen again. A good case (weather, time of year, location) can be built for supporting this as being a wild and natural vagrant to North America (photo B. Mactavish).

Wednesday 2 April 2014

Eiders Galore

This is a rushed blog posting. After a weekend with a large flock of eiders off Cape Spear I had intended a thorough post about Newfoundland eiders. But another species of duck found in Renews today has sapped all my energy. Word didn't get out until it was too late to go for it today but we will be there before dawn in the morning for what should turn out to be the first bona fide Common Shelduck for North America. Big blog with photos tomorrow hopefully (never count your photos before you push the trigger).

A spring flock of some 5000 Common Eiders assembled on and off at Cape Spear over this past weekend. Photo opts were there if you planned it right and were lucky. I planned it right but was only partly lucky. No birds fed on the water near my position hidden in the rocks but the fly bys were excellent even in the heavy overcast light. Below are some of the photos. I had only gotten through half of the hundreds taken before this blog posting.

A fraction of the five thousand eiders present off Cape Spear.  The Common Eiders were virtually all of the race borealis. There were King Eiders scattered thinly throughout the flocks. Can you spot the adult drake King here?

The trigger finger starts to quiver as a company of ducks starts to come your way.

Some samples (one above and three photos below) of cropped blocks of borealis Common Eiders in the flocks flying close past my position hidden in a rock crevice.  Note then thin yellow fleshy lobes of the bill running into the feathers of the forehead of borealis.  Borealis nest in the Arctic and south to the mid Labrador coast.  The lobes are greener and much wider on the more southern subspecies dresseri which breeds  from the mid Labrador coast south to Nova Scotia.

King Eiders are the jewels in the rough.  You almost need a spotter so you know where to point the camera in the flocks as the fly by at high speed.  Can you see the female King?