Sunday 25 May 2014

THAT LOON !! - Gavia pacifica

On 18 May 2014 Alvan Buckley with crew Lancy Cheng, Alison Mews and Ed Hayden discovered a PACIFIC LOON off the beach at St. Vincents on the southern Avalon Peninsula. This was big news for Newfoundland birders. The only two previous sightings for insular Newfoundland were two single observer sightings (no photos) during Cape St. Mary's CBCs in the 1980s and 1990s.  This bird was in partial breeding plumage removing any doubt about separation from Common and Red-throated Loons. The very pale nape, thin bill and lack of white flank patch should rule out Arctic Loon.  

It is kind of mystery why Pacific Loons are so loyal to wintering on Pacific waters.  Birds nesting in the eastern Canadian Arctic need to know there are lots of fish due south in ice free waters off southern Newfoundland. It may take a few eons before word gets around. Maybe this bird off St. Vincents beach will be a harbinger of the good news.

I was on an offshore oil & gas supply vessel when the bird was found with no predictable openings of opportunity in the foreseeable future to see this bird.  So when the chance did come I was on it.  Got off the boat at midnight Friday and just after daylight on Saturday was looking at The Loon.

It was a team effort involving loon-lookers Lancy Cheng, Alison Mews, Andrea Dicks, Dave Smith and Clyde Thornhill. We had the bird for a twenty minute opening in the fog.  We were poised on a bluff overlooking the beach about 800 metres east of the river outflow. It was resting on the surface without any dives for food. The scope views were fabulous but photos were distant. Even using a 840 mm lens the bird was small in the image.
Full size image as viewed through a 840 mm lens from the bluff by the first guard rail east of the river mouth. 
The same image as above but 50% crop.
The same image cropped at 100% size.

Above and below are two of better long distant crops of the 100% valid Pacific Loon in Newfoundland.

There are different kinds of rarities.  The first two weeks of May saw a flood of Icelandic rarities in Newfoundland. The adrenaline level of birders was maxxed out for two solid weeks enjoying the myriad of long distant waifs. The loon was different.  A rock solid Pacific Loon in Newfoundland was like confirming a ghost.  The excitement came with a deep rooted satisfaction.  

Tuesday 13 May 2014

Last Photos of Icelandic Birds

I am off to jail within 24 hours. My annual summer sentence to the oil & gas industry vessels in the offshore regions of eastern Newfoundland begins tomorrow. I leave behind the land part of Newfoundland and all it's Icelandic birds.  While no new birds are showing up many of the birds that arrived during the two weeks of NE winds 25 April - 8 May 2014 are still with us. Not sure why more of them have not left and headed back to Iceland. I lost track of the numbers. It is still possible to add them up but totals for the influx are something like this:

European Golden Plover - 225+ (2nd highest spring total ever)
Black-tailed Godwit - 12 (record smashing beating previous record of two, maybe three in a spring)
Common Redshank - 2 (falling short of the five in 1995 but brings the total individuals seen in Newfoundland and North America to just eight)
Northern Wheatear - three dozen, four dozen, more? I lost track. Biggest influx ever.
European Whimbrel - 1 (low)
European Dunlin - 1 (the first)

Did not find time to go through all the photos taken. Here are some from the last few days from the Goulds on the outskirts of St. John's.

A flock of 43 European Golden Plover sleeping off an overnight snowfall on Cochrane Pond Rd, Goulds on 7 May was flushed by a crow but they circled just once before landing and resuming energy conservation mode.

On the same day in a field not far away on Cox's Lane this flock of 47 Golden Plovers wheels about for 20 minutes over these fields at noon after the snow had melted.  These birds joined the Cochrane Pd road flock where a Newfoundland record high flock of 90 assembled. At least 2/3 of the flock is still present today on 13 May.

The discovery of three Black-tailed Godwits on the river delta at Third Pond, Goulds on 6 May was exciting local news. The birds were far out on the delta and getting more than two in the same photo was a challenge. They regularly flew to a farm field across the pond to feed. Only one has been seen over the last few days. 
A large crop shows the white underwings characteristic of the Black-tailed Godwit.

The closest thing to a Willet wing stripe in Newfoundland this spring is the Black-tailed Godwit.

If there was one regret about the Icelandic Influx 2014 it was not capitalizing on the photo opportunities for Northern Wheatear.  You never get tired of seeing the bright Greenland/Iceland/eastern North American race of Northern Wheatear. Most were wary and executed their patented Houdini disappearing acts at will but there were a few tame ones like this one at Renews beach. Time was limited during this visit, the bird was strongly back lit and I forgot my camera was still set at ISO 1600 from the day before. There is always an excuse for not getting the perfect picture!

For those remaining on land  for the rest of this month - BE GENTLE. Try not to see anything too great while I serve the first term my 2014 offshore sentence. I will return the favour.

Sunday 11 May 2014

Sunday was Spring

Friday night into Saturday saw the first SW winds in Newfoundland for the entire spring it seems.  After two weeks of NE winds holding back spring migrants the dam burst in dramatic fashion. The Avalon Peninsula went from zero warblers to lots of Yellow-rumped Warblers, some Palms and a Black-and-white. There were even a few Barn and Tree Swallows. Ok it ain't no Pt Pelee but it was a beautiful morning on Sunday when the temperature soared to double digits (+10C) and bird song at Bidgoods Park in the Goulds was nothing short of walking through heaven. Singing warblers, newly arrived White-throated and Swamp Sparrows augmented the Fox and Song Sparrow's band, an American Bittern pumped away, snipe winnowed.  By night fall a cold front moved over and St. John's was under a freezing rain warning - back to normal. Spring was on Sunday.

A bonus rare bird showed up at the park. Lisa de Leon and Margie MacMillian discovered an EASTERN PHOEBE on Friday afternoon. On Sunday it was singing up a storm. It was advertising to any female phoebe in the area that it found the perfect home with two bridges over a creek to chose from.  However, it is singing in vain since phoebes are less than annual on the Avalon Peninsula. Small numbers probably breed in SW Newfoundland but there is still no confirmed nesting record for the province. The bird was easily found and enjoyed by most St. John's area birders.
The Eastern Phoebe surveys his newly found domain over the creek at Bidgoods Park.

It sang ardently from a couple of favourite perches.

Not much of a looker really, an Eastern Phoebe is all about character.

Open mouth, insert insect here please. Fee-beee

A Rusty Blackbird also dropped in for a couple of minutes before flying on. Rustys are from time to time seen at Bidgoods but so are Common Grackles. There were several grackles in the area on Sunday.  Both Rusty Blackbird and Common Grackle are uncommon birds on the Avalon. Grackle is locally common in eastern St. John's and can occur anywhere on the Avalon, usually in or near a community and often at a feeder. Rusty Blackbirds live in the woods usually farther back in from the roads than birders venture. So Rusty Blackbird is the better bird for year listers.  Because of the light experience Avalon birders have with blackbirds, Common Grackles are sometimes misidentified as Rusty Blackbirds.  Part of the confusion in fuelled by the Sibley Guide which shows the male Rusty Blackbird with a bluish tinge to the head. In the field one very rarely, basically never sees any colour to the head. Whereas, adults grackles show a strong blue iridescence to the head. Highly visible on the ground, not so easy to see in flight. Grackles come in two sizes, the male and female.  Both have long keel shaped tails but it is less evident in the females. The songs and calls of Rustys and grackles are distinct as well but similar if one is not familiar with them.  The bill on the Rusty Blackbird is very slim and short compared to the business like heavy bill of the grackle.  

Good luck getting your year tick Rusty Blackbird. Bidgoods Park is not a bad place to see them during migration but I don't think they nest there. They do nest around some ponds farther inland on Powers Road.
Note the short thin, almost delicate bill of the Rusty Blackbird and subdued iridescence to the bird including the head. 

The Rusty Blackbird sang a few times before flying on up Powers Road.

The normal blackbird proportioned tail is evident here.  A Rusty Blackbird is not likely to be mistaken for a grackle. 

Tuesday 6 May 2014

Euro GPs in Flight

The rush of Icelandic Vagrants continues to burn uncontrolled.  No new huge megas but it is intriguing that the the farm fields in the Goulds (outskirts of St. John's) seem to turning into a staging area for the Eurasian Golden Plovers. The feeding is good here. The fields are vast relatively speaking on a Newfoundland scale. Numbers have never dropped over the last week or so, only stayed the same or increased. Today the numbers reached a new high when visiting birder Paul Sykes (Georgia) had 43 in the standard plover field on Cochrane Pond Road and 40 more plus a BLACK-TAILED GODWIT on Cox's Lane. The BTGO was new, #10 (!!!) for the spring in Newfoundland. Totally off the scale of anything in recorded history.

The Cox's Lane site seems to be just a temporary field.  I visited that field before and after PS and saw no shorebirds. I'd like to see that godwit, after all it has been about nine days since I've seen one. You must know the feeling?

The NE air flow continues. It is not strong but the complete lack of head winds and frequent good tail winds to help Icelandic migrants veer toward Newfoundland and Labrador has lasted twelve consecutive days. This is something of a record and the forecast is more of the same.  This party is far from over. The rarity binging continues. Spring 2014 is breaking records left and right with no end in sight.

May 6 dawned with 5 cm of fresh wet snow on the ground  in St. John's! A shock to everyone but the kind of atmosphere Iceland Vagrant Hunters associate with good birding.  I had time to check out some of the fields in the Goulds. The Cochrane Pond Road flock of 43 GPs were in shock too. These shorebirds have probably never seen snow before 

I went back to Cochrane Pond Road in the early afternoon with Ontario birder Ross Harris.  At first there were no GPs to be seen but then we heard them. They were flying high over head. For ten minutes we tried to follow them as they flew in wide circles around the fields.  Really seemed like they wanted to leave.  Alvan Buckley saw at least 25 in the field in late afternoon so they probably did not leave yet.  But it will happen eventually.

The flock of 43 European Golden Plovers sleeping off the morning nightmare of 5 cm of snow falling on their field over night.

A few hours later the plovers were flying in broad circles over the farm fields. Some of them were singing spring display songs.

Blow ups of the birds flying over our heads calling.

Northern Wheatears have a leading roll to play in this monumental displacement of Icelandic migrants. I feel short-changed having seen only three so far. Wheatears have the knack of vanishing into thin air. This male and female found by John Wells at Ferrryland on the past weekend make up 66% of the wheatears for me this spring

Sunday 4 May 2014

COMMON REDSHANKS for the viewing.

Part of me was thrilled to the bone while another part of me said 'well there you are, what took you so long' when I first laid eyes on the COMMON REDSHANK at Renews Beach on Saturday. It was Ken Knowles and my first stop of Saturday morning down the Southern Shore. How high can you get on rare birds? Like drinking a good whiskey, the freshness of the high gets a little blurry when you begin to overdose. The Common Redshank came on top of a couple of Black-tailed Godwits, scores and scores of European Golden Plovers and the incredible Ross's Gull that Ken and I had both seen within the last seven days. A bottle of fine whiskey is easy to get but a week good bird highs is something else.

Common Redshank is a common breeder in Iceland and is one of the species we look for during spring influxes of Icelandic birds.  Yet it has occurred in only two previous years: five individuals at four locations within the time period of 28 April to 14 May 1995 and single bird in Happy Adventure in March & April 1999 which had probably overwintered.  

This Common Redshank at Renews was a highly desired bird for all but especially for the people who started birding after 1999. The calls went out and everyone who came saw the bird. Another day with high fives all around.

On Sunday morning there was no Redshank to be found in Renews until 11 am. when Les Sweetapple and Keith Fillier arrived arrived at the main beach as saw TWO COMMON REDSHANKS. Once again all hell broke loose. People like me who had devoured Saturday's Redshank  drove the 95 km south of St. John's to see the new Redshank.

The birds did not get along too well and in the end the original Redshank drove the new bird away at high tide.  Who knows what will be at Renews beach tomorrow. Zero is one option but lately around here the sky has been the limit.

The task of keeping track of the Icelandic vagrants since 26 April is daily effort. I am behind on new weekend additions but the rough numbers of birds so far is.

Black-tailed Godwit - 9
Common Redshank - 2
European Whimbrel - 1
Dunlin (probably Icelandic origin) - 1
European Golden Plover - 150 ish
Northern Wheatear - 16

Bonus Bird
Ross's Gull - 1

Below are some photos of the two Common Redshanks at Renews from this weekend.

All of the above are Bird #1 which arrived on 3 May and was one of the two Common Redshanks present on 4 May.

Bird # 2 (above two pictures) has different barring on the upper flanks and a darker throat. It was chased away by Bird # 1 in mid afternoon.

The Two Common Redshanks at Renews, Avalon Peninsula at 2 pm on 4 May 2014. The left bird was not seen after this chase.  

Thursday 1 May 2014

Farewell Ross's Gull - Thanks for the Visit

The Ross's Gull at Torbay, Avalon Peninsula, Newfoundland 29-30 April 2014 will be on of the highlight reel of the history of Newfoundland birding. So many people (25-30), big by our standards got to see this bird.  I saw the biggest smiles on people I've known for years. People were genuinely happy to see this bird. Everyone got to see the pink body and dark underwings of a tiny gull. Some saw it rather distant through a scope but there was no mistaking it when someone got on the bird!!!  Their voices tighten. You knew it when you saw it.  Some of us got out on the rocky point closer to where it was feeding. Not a straightforward walk especially when carrying optic gear in addition to binoculars. The bird was feeding out here on a tidal line of flotsam, the backwash from the week of persistent NE winds. On Day One it was feeding mostly on the wing. On Day Two it fed mostly while sitting on the water. The light was poor. The wind was cold. Salt spray got on everything.

This might be my favourite capture of all time where I pressed the shutter especially when considering that the bird was never that close and weather conditions (salt spray, driving snow flurries, fully exposed to the strong NE winds) were not easy. This is a big crop.  There is no way to get the correct colour of the body on every monitor out there. I tried this picture on five different monitors with greatly varying shades. In life it was a fiery pink with an undertone of orange. There were many comments that no one had seen a photo or illustration showing the colour of this bird. Even the back and tail were tinged in pink. The black ring around the neck is just starting to fill in.

Various heavily cropped shots of the Ross's Gull as it flew past our perch on the rocks.   The binocular views were sensational. 

On Day Two when the wind died somewhat, it sat on the water a lot picking frequently at the surface.

On Day Two the Ross's was very protective of its little feeding area often chasing away kittiwakes that came too close while leaving a local nesting cliff.  Perhaps it means the Ross's was very hungry. Reminded me of seeing a desperate winter warbler at a bird feeder trying to chase away the bigger juncos.

Meanwhile Newfoundland is still in the midst of one of the greatest Icelandic Invasions of all time. Only 1995 beats this.  Currently we stand at a mind bending 9 Black-tailed Godwits and at least 115 of the relatively routine European Golden Plovers. Still waiting for that third and fourth species of shorebird. (i.e. Common Redhsank and European Whimbrel).  Winds are still pretty good.