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  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. 

Sunday 14 September 2014

Trust Me - This is a Yellow-legged Gull - Probably

Identification of the Yellow-legged Gull is like splitting an atom. It is a halfway gull, halfway between the Herring Gull and Lesser Black-backed Gull. The identification of out of range Yellow-legged Gulls must deal with proof it is not a hybrid  HERG x LBBG. A gull with half its genes from a HERG and the other half from a LBBG creates a YLGU look-alike but does not make a real YLGU.  

St. John's gets the lions share of the North American Yellow-legged Gull sightings because of its relatively close proximity to the Azores. The majority of YLGUs identified in St. John's match the smaller and darker race (atlantis) from the Azores.  There is a theory that part of the year Azorean YLGU follow tuna schools out to sea. In mid to late summer tuna reach Newfoundland waters on the southeast Grand Banks and adjacent areas possibly bringing YLGUs with them.

The easiest YLGUs to identify are the adults in winter.  Their white heads stand out from the streaked heads of the other large gulls gulls in winter. This combined with that beautiful rare shade of gray plus details on head and bill shape, leg colour and wing tip pattern - all subtlety different from both HERG and LBBG, add up to create a YLGU which really does feel like a different species and not just a version of LBBG or HERG.

The first YLGU(s) of the season are often discovered in late August or early September loafing in the ballfields and other grassy areas among the buildings and old military housing units on the north side of Quidi Vidi Lake.  At this time they are not a pretty sight with a dirty streaked head and missing outer primaries.   The rare shade of gray on the upper parts, head and bill shape, pattern of head streaking and yellow legs come together to create that warm fuzzy feeling when you are pretty sure you have the real thing.

On 11 September Alvan Buckley photographed a suspicious gull at Quidi Vidi lake that when passed around to the St. John's gull fans was highly suspected of being a Yellow-legged Gull.  Late Sunday afternoon (14 Sept 2014) I saw the same bird in the same field off Janeway Place.  Right away I felt that warm fuzzy feeling starting to grow. We've seen this before in later summer. That rare shade of gray on a gull with a distinct ball cap shaped patch of head streaking and a stumpy rear end caused by a shortage of outer primaries. And of course yellow legs. 

I did not have my 600 mm lens with me but my warbler lens (300 f4) plus a 1.4x converter came in handy.  The correct shade of gray is impossible to create accurately on every computer. My computer used for downloading and processing photos is very bright and sharp. When I save those pictures and bring them to this laptop used for emailing and blogging, the pictures are duller and the gray is bluer and darker. You can not win.  Below are two slightly different versions of the same photo.

 Two versions of the same picture in an attempt to illustrate the correct shade of gray on the upper parts. Note the head streaking concentrated in a ball cap shape on the forward part f the head. This is typical for YLGU and unusual in other large gulls. On a relaxed YLGU this head shape with a steeply rising forehead, level topped head and steeply dropping nape is classic YLGU. But when feeding or active this shape is often lost.

Next to a GBBG for comparison.  A nice view of head profile and pattern of head streaking. The bill shows black markings and pale base because it is a third year bird (hatched in summer 2011).

I hesitated to show this picture next to a Herring Gull that appears overexposed in this photo.  It makes the difference look too great between the mantle colours. The YLGUs that occur in St. John's are typical a little smaller than the average local Herring Gull.  The culmen or tip of the upper mandible drops abruptly to bill tip, more so than typical for HERG or LBBG. Not easy to see in these photos.

A wing stretch reveals lots of information. The extensive black marks on the primary coverts and alula along with the black marks on bill are good evidence this bird is just a year short of being an adult.   If you look close the white tips of P10 and P9 are visible by the primary coverts and there is a dark mark on P4.  The sharp contrast between black of wing tip and the rest of the wing is strong on both the top and underside of the wing. This is standard for YLGU, HERG and HERG x LBBG hybrids (!) but not LBBG

A passing eagle put up the gulls just as I was getting started.  Flying away at a distance shows a fairly life like comparison of the upper part colours of HERG (left side) and the YLGU.

This bird was thought not to be a hybrid HERG x LBBG because of the pattern of head streaking (more extensive and usually includes neck and breast), shape of bill (more pointed), leg colour (pinky-yellow leg), wing tip pattern (less likely to have a black mark on P4 and heavy black marks on P5 and P6). And the over all jizz.  The hybrid HERGxLBBG usually have a HERG sense about them but with a darker unpper parts and strong yellow cast to pinkish legs.

For reference, two fields away and two days previous was this adult Lesser Black-backed Gull.  In early September the adult LBBGs typically have white head and most or all of their old unmoulted primaries.

Thursday 11 September 2014

For The Love of Alders ! !

The best part about September on the Avalon Peninsula is hunting for southern warblers in the coastal alders. People go to Pt Pelee in May to see southern warblers in Canada. In Newfoundland we get 'em in the fall.  I always seem to be away working on a seismic ship or somewhere during September and miss out on September warblering scene.  During this past week I find myself at home. In the last week I've taken two days off work and one Saturday for alder bashing.  The Kentucky Warbler at Trepassey on 6 Sept being the one southern warbler discovery so far but that is a very nice one.  Seeing how good the weather was going to be on 10 Sept and with renewed fear of another sea sentenced coming up, it was time use up another holiday in the alders.  Alvan Buckley didn't need any convincing to skip classes at MUN.  

We ended up with one of the best days ever in the Bear Cove to Cappahayden alders.  The only unusual weather event was a slow moving large oval shaped High Pressure area with plenty of clear weather from here to the NE states, but the winds were not directly blowing from that direction. Maybe strong SW winds on Sunday caused it. Those winds were blowing direct from Cape Hatteras to the Avalon. Whatever the reason we ended up with one day record of FIVE Prairie Warblers, a rare September Yellow-throated Warbler (most are November), a more routine but always flashy Yellow-breasted Chat and the real star was a WORM-EATING WARBLER.  This is the rarest southern warbler on the Newfoundland list. It is rarer than Ceruelan, Golden-winged, Blue-winged, Prothontary, Hooded, Kentucky, Yellow-throated... we still don't have Swainson's Warbler or Louisiana Waterthrush.  This was the 6 or 7th record of Worm-eating Warbler for the province.  

I pished it in under the alders on The Cappahayden Track.  Had some killer views and was lucky to get some snaps.  Took 20 minutes to get Alvan back to the spot and miraculously we pished it in view again. 
The Worm-eating Warbler was shy and managed to stay behind sticks and leaves most of the time. For two seconds it sat still totally in the open where I got five identical shots like this.  More than a record shot this is a Trophy Shot in Newfoundland. Only one of the previous six Newfoundland records was photographed and poorly.

Cropped shot of above.

This is a particularly attractive Yellow-throated Warbler with a large yellow throat patch and bold black flank streaking. No matter how many you see they always look great in Newfoundland. 
Prairie Warblers are confiding friendly little warblers.  It is almost sad thinking how many end up in Newfoundland every autumn. It can't be good for their population.

Wednesday 3 September 2014

Tame Fulmars by a Nunavut Shore

Round two of marine mammal surveys at Pond Inlet, Baffin Island, Nunavut, Canada took place in late August.  Before and after aerial surveying Wayne Renaud and I scoped over Eclipse Sound from a slope by the town museum and culture center.  There were many kittiwakes to look through hoping to find the Big R Gull but no luck yet. One Sabine's was as good as it got. For a Newfoundland birder the 5-20 Thayer's Gulls per day was a treat. Nice through the scope but too far for useful photos.  On the last afternoon a bunch of fulmars were attracted to something on the shoreline. While common in Eclipse Sound and not wary of land like they are in Newfoundland, we hadn't seen them so close as this.  

I walked down to the shoreline and realized the fulmars were taking turns pulling on a piece of fat tied to a piece of fishing line tied to shore.  Not sure of the purpose of this but at least there was no hook on the line. The fulmars were exceptionally tame. Sitting on the rocky shoreline, some birds swam up to me looking for handouts.  You never see this behavior in Newfoundland where you are lucky to see a few from shore during a storm.

The low light was bright. The whites were difficult to capture digitally but the birds were so close snaps had to be taken.  

This Northern Fulmar and others swam within a few meters of me sitting on the shoreline looking at me wondering where the food handouts were.  

A couple dozen fulmars were attracted to shore by a chunk of fat tied to a fishing line.  What the reason for this was, I don't know. There was much squabbling over the one little piece of fat. Fulmars express themselves both in love and war with that strongly hooked bill.

This is the piece of fat all the fighting was about.

About 10-15% were dark morphs.  Surprisingly most of the birds had black coloured nostrils.  Over the years at sea I have been taking photos of many fulmar looking at bill colours. I decided there was no pattern of distribution to the highly variable bill colours.  After seeing the high percentage of black billed fulmars in one location I may have rethink what I thought I knew.

Remember these photos were all taken while sitting on the same rock on the shoreline.

Waiting, still waiting for a chunk of blubber. Maybe bread would have worked.

Kids were throwing rocks at the fulmars farther down the shoreline.

A picture of Baffin Island showing the location of Pond Inlet. We are at 72 degrees North.

Most of the day was taken up by work which was centered around counting these things. A tough job but someone has to do it.   

Post Script; After viewing the photos on this post on my home and office computer I am disappointed with the published result. The fulmars came out warmer than real life.  The problem was using a portable laptop in a hotel room in Iqaluit, NU yesterday.  A slight tilt of the screen changes everything. The particular laptop I use for office field work strongly emphasizes blue shades. My attempts to make it look right on the work laptop made the birds look far too warm for the average computer. Oh well, instead of trying to fix it, I'll look ahead to making the next posting better. That could be soon with the next 72 hours devoted to Avalon birding.