Sunday 29 March 2015

A Motley Crew of Guillemots

Black Guillemots in Newfoundland are the definition of the word ubiquitous, defined in my dictionary as present everywhere simultaneously.  They are almost a non-bird as you ignore their presence like flotsam on the sea's surface.  Yet it is still a bird of character.  An alcid with spunk.  Despite their ever presence it is not an easy bird to photograph well.  Back in my previous life where we shot all species of Newfoundland alcids for food, the pigeon as we knew them, rarely found their way to the roaster.  Pigeon (a.k.a.) the Black Guillemot is a bird with a head on its shoulders. It is a very alert bird. It is always aware of its surrounding and can take to wing much quicker than your average lead-weight body to wing ratio murre, puffin, Dovekie or Razorbill.  Perhaps it is because it spends a life time around the rocky shores where there are dangers to be aware of unlike the other five species of alcids that spend most of their life on the open sea where they have bags of time to see any approaching dangers.

With a plan and time a photographer could get killer photos of Black Guillemots in both summer and winter plumage but being a happenstance bird photographer, a winter wharf is definitely the best opportunity for a happenstance photo-session with the wily Black Guillemot in winter.

On Sunday morning I was doing the rounds of St. John's harbour when I noticed a winter plumaged Black Guillemot feeding close to the government wharf on the south side of the harbour.  Being a Sunday there were no employees parking their cars in the way along the edge of the wharf giving me the freedom to move the car to the area the guillemot was feeding. 

I got some better than average snaps.  But then I realized there were more guillemots hanging 100 m out from the wharf.  To shortened the story, it turned out there were five Black Guillemots feeding by the wharf. They would swim into the wharf edge and to feed on critters hanging out within the wharf structure, then swim off shore to take a break in the safety zone. It was my opportunity to get close up photos of the birds when they came into the wharf to feed. For some particular reason they were not so wary of my car. I suspect they had been feeding here for a few days and had built up a confidence level in feeding close to the wharf, 

A group of five Black Guillemots still in winter plumage or in the process of changing into breeding plumage, especially the left-most bird in St. John's harbour on 29 March 2015.

They guillemots came into the wharf to feed every 10-15 minutes providing exceptional opportunities for photographs.

All of the birds were adults according to the clean white wing patches. The 1st winter birds should show fine dark barring to some of the wing covert tips blemishing the immaculate wing patch.  

With the pack ice hugging the coast from Labrador to northeast Newfoundland many of the Black Guillemots we see in late winter on the Avalon Peninsula could be Arctic breeders which are said to be whiter in winter plumage.  This could be one of those, however there is so much variation in the plumage of winter guillemots I suspect you can never know for sure if you are looking at an Arctic or local breeder.  

This bird was in the process of turning black.  While there are some birds in near breeding plumage on the Avalon Peninsula now, most are still closer to winter plumage.  

This one was so close it could hear the clicking of the shutter.  

Seemingly relaxed, the rising of the rump is a telltale sign it is about to dive.  

Like this....

A true sign of spring in the Avalon winter landscape is the presence of many Black-legged Kittiwakes in St. John's harbour like this one that ventured over to the wharf.

Thursday 26 March 2015

Common or Mundane Snipe at Ferryland, Newfoundland

On 21 March 2015 Ken Knowles, John Wells and I were finishing up an Avalon Loop trip with a last stop of the day in Ferryland.  There were four snipe in an open wet place among the deep snow pack. There had been several snipe as per usual wintering in Ferryland but they were not usually at this particular spot.  We stopped to look at them from the car. Immediately we noticed one was a little yellower than the other three.  Yellowish snipe have been our first clue to check further for Common Snipe field marks.  It also had thin even barring in the tertials, the second feature we look for when trying to identify a possible Common Snipe.  Both these featured looked excellent in our perspective on Common Snipe. But the next step required to nail the identification was seeing, usually meaning photographing the underwing.  A largely white underwing with the white bars wider than the black bars and even some areas of unmarked white was in our mind was the absolute clincher.

The suspect Common Snipe is facing left. In the bright light the paleness of the bird less apparent than in overcast light.  21 March 2015 Ferryland.

We didn't have a lot of time so left the bird unidentified.  The next day information surfaced that Andrea Dicks had photographed that snipe with the others in late January. In the dull light the suspect Common Snipe looked particularly yellow. This inspired Alvan Buckley to visit Ferryland on 24 March.  His shots included one blurry shot of the underwing of the suspect snipe that showed much promise for Common Snipe.

The suspect Common Snipe. A blurry shot but it shows strong indications of a very white underwing characteristic of Common Snipe.24 March 2015 Ferryland (Alvan Buckley

On 25 March I took the morning off work and spent 3 1/2 hours with the camera trained on the snipe hoping for that one excellent shot of the underwing. It never happened. But I got shots showing some details of the tail and a sneak peek of a partial underwing.

This and all the snipe shots below taken on 25 March 2015 at Ferryland.

Suspect Common Snipe in foreground.

Suspect Common Snipe on right.

A long distance crop revealing some details of the tail.

How many tail feathers?  Wilson's Snipe usually have 16 while Common Snipe usually 14.  In several similar tail shots I get 12-14.  Hard to know if some feathers are hidden from view. 

A vital shot.  This showing underside of outer most tail feather on right side. Is this too much barring for a Common Snipe? Two North American references show widely spaced barring in this feather for Common Snipe but European references show a more diffuse irregular pattern of internal markings.  Could it be North Americans are using east Asian Common Snipe, the source of Alaskan  Common Snipe, for illustrations while the Europeans are using snipe in their backyards???  On Common Snipe this feather is wider thus producing a lower drumming sound during spring display.

Stolen from the excellent book, Rare Birds of North America (Howell et al. 2014). Shows their depiction of the outer most tail feather of Common vs Wilson's Snipe. 

Sneak peek at underwing coverts. They look quite white with small black markings.  Seeing this much leads one to assume the rest of underwing coverts would look like this and thus be a certain Common Snipe according to Newfoundland rules.

A view of the axillars. The white bars being significantly wider than the black bars is another indication of just how white the underwing coverts probably are. Again it looks promising for Common Snipe. On Wilson's Snipe the barring is typically near equal width.

Is this a Common Snipe?  I think it is but still remains to be proved with a good photo of the underwing. The issue of identification of Common vs Wilson's Snipe is still in its infancy. Even when we do know all there is to know it is always going to be near impossible to be sure on a standing bird. Identifications will require details on underwings and outer tail feathers, features that snipe are reluctant to reveal.

Tuesday 24 March 2015

Costa Rica (Cano Negro Region)

I was not sure what I was into when I signed up for a day long trip to the Cano Negro Region of Costa Rica.  Indications of a large marshy lake and a boat trip were somewhat tempered by the reality of the day long adventure. The drive terminated with a 19 km ride on the worst dirt road I've known.  We ended up at a quaint (hah!) settlement at the end of the road. We were met by friendly people who knew we were coming. Funny we saw no other tourists that day.  

We ended up on a small tour boat with a friendly boat driver willing to please. His English was better than my Spanish which basically meant communications were near zero. I read off a list of the birds I'd like to see.  He kept pointing up river after every bird I mentioned as we motored down river.  I have little idea what is to be expected on the river, yes it was a river with steep muddy banks and not the lake I imagined.  But I know the driver put out an extra effort when he knew I wanted to see birds such as Sungrebe and Black-collared Hawk. I was expecting  a 2 hour trip but it turned into a 3 hour pleasure cruise.  

Nicaraguan Grackle was probably the biggest reason to visit the Cano Negro region of Costa Rica.  It must have evolved when the Great-tailed Grackle was still a coastal species.   Definitely an interesting species and a definitely different bird than the ubiquitous Great-tailed Grackle.  Note the thin bill and elongated central tail feathers.

I never saw place where all the egrets, herons, ibis, night herons, and Limpkins were so prevalent. The one species that said this is Not Florida, was the Boat-billed Herons.  

Sungrebe was easily bird of the day.  I was not expecting such bright colours on a marsh dwelller.

A Black-collared Hawk put a good show.  I did not know they hunted fish and frogs in the clear shallow waters of marshy areas.  I savored the unexpected close encounter with this exceptional raptor.   

When travelling by boat in the marsh you end up with close encounters with the wildlife. The common Squirrel Cuckoo was not a planned encounter.

Tuesday 17 March 2015

Homeward Bound from Costa Rica

Sitting in a hotel room near San Jose, Costa Rica getting psyched up for re-entry into winter. For the last two weeks living and breathing in Costa Rica it was so warm that you could have walked around naked 24/7 and never felt a chill. The temperatures were measured by degrees of warm and hot and always humid. Rumours are strong that it is going to be very different upon arrival in Newfoundland. Reports of a recent blizzard and the pack ice reaching St. John's are mind boggling from this point of view.  

Thinking back on the recent warm and hospitable past there are countless bird highlights.  But one moment stands out above the rest. Birding without local help most of my time in Costa Rica including 2009 and 2014 I was short on the deep jungle birds. The birds that shun sunlight and are the colours of shadows in the jungle undergrowth.  The antbirds are the main group I was yearning to get acquainted with or at least glimpse.  The Ocellated Antbird above all was my most wanted bird. Without using play back luring or paying for help from a local guide who know the songs and can imitate them all your best hope is an ant swarm.  Finally the Antbird God took pity on me and let me have it. Actually it was on a tip from Kevin Easterly that people had been running into antswarms on the Sky Trek trail at Arenal.

The tip was not that fresh and I had no expectations of being lucky but the habitat along this trail was beautiful old growth jungle so there was nothing to loose.  I bagged my first view of a Purplish-backed Quail Dove and added an excellent looking White-throated Shrike-Tanager so it was already a successful hike. After the second hanging bridge (240 feet agl I should add!) I heard a commotion in the underbrush close to the trail. A Northern Barred Woodcreeper flew out landing on a trunk but the commotion continued.  There was movement under the greenry slightly up slope at about chest level.  I looked in with binoculars and was face to face with an OCELLATED ANTBIRD! What? this was way too easy. This isn't happening. But it was and it had a friend and another and another.  There were six birds in there bopping around on logs and twigs - every one a striking Ocellated Antbird. I didn't even know Ocellated Antbirds came by the flock.  I imagined them as rare occurring as a lucky single or maybe a duo. And they were so close.

This began a three hour stint of patrolling a ten metre section of trail trying to get better views of the Ocellated Antbirds.  It took awhile but other antbirds began appearing. What I think happened was the Ocellated Antbirds had discovered the overnight resting place of an army ant swarm. I couldn't see what they were doing behind this log they kept disappearing behind. I also at that time could not see any army ants. By the time the ants began swarming over the leaves the Ocellateds vanished into the background but the other birds came in.  Binos views were sensational but photo opts challenging. I had to use ISO 6400 with a 300 mm f4 lens.  Even then all shot between 1/30 and 1/100 second.
My first encounter with the highly desired Ocellated Antbird was looking up under the thick underbrush and seeing an unbelievable scene of six dancing around a log of interest.

The Ocellated Antbird looks even more odd and amazing in life than in the books. There were at least six, probably eight.

Two Bicoloured Antbirds joined the scene but always kept in the back ground.

There were at least three maybe five Spotted Antbirds. Male above and female below.

This male Zeledon's Antbird showed no fear sometimes coming within 2 metres.  My camera could not autofocus on the body but could the eye.  Manual focus would have come in very handy if only it worked on my battered old lens. There were at least two males and one female (deep mahogany brown) present. 

Surprise Surprise. The bonus bird was this Black-headed Antthrush.  It strutted around like a Sora picking at the ground and turning over leaves. The camera had no hope of AF on this smooth bird in the dark jungle until it walked out on the trail in full view!