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?