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!?