Monday 31 August 2015

Piping Plover at Cape Spear - LOST

A report of a Piping Plover on the side of the road at Cape Spear of course lead to skepticism on my part.  Could it be a Snowy Plover? What about a Greater Sand Plover? Or maybe a Mountain Plover? Although these have never been recorded in the province they sounded somewhat more realistic than a Piping Plover on the side of road on the Avalon Peninsula at the end of August.  A few dozen Piping Plovers nest in the southwest corner of the province from Burgeo around the corner at Port-aux Basques and up to Stephenville. There is an outpost pair at Shallow Bay GMNP and still occasional sightings from a former nesting location near Cape Freels. Piping Plover is accidental on the Avalon Peninsula. In the past three decades I can think of only two records - one from Bellevue Beach and a female that Richard Thomas found at Portugal Cove South one May not long ago and that one was seen by a number of people. Piping Plovers are also early departers from the stronghold breeding sites in Nova Scotia. I believe they are all gone before the end of August.

What was one doing on the side of the Cape Spear road on a busy Sunday on 30 August? It must have been very lost and disoriented. It fed on the gravel shoulder next to the pavement with constant cars and loud motorcycles passing within a meter or two. Semipalmated Plovers which regularly frequent the parking lot and Cape Spear grounds are typically wary of vehicles.  It seemed physically healthy and appeared to be finding lots to eat. I saw it eat a couple of large insects but most of the time one could not see what, if anything, it got every time it picked at the ground.

Where did it come from? This was one time when I wished there were a few leg bands burdening the plovers life and blemishing the look of the beautiful bird so we could find out where it was hatched.

The viewing and photo opportunities were exceptional.  I sat in my car on the opposite side of the road and fired away. There was hardly enough room to get the car off the pavement. Had to be careful to draw my lens inside the car so passing cars would not bang into it. 

It frequently picked at the ground in plover fashion but could not see what it was getting.

Stomp out Smoking

Near sun set the plover slowed down and tried to rest on the edge of the road but was continually disturbed by passing cars yet never moved more than two meters back from the road edge.

Tuesday 25 August 2015

Shoe-In Yellow-legged Gull at Quidi Vidi Lake

On 18 August I checked the gulls on the ball fields at QV Lake looking for Yellow-legged Gulls as they regularly arrive during the third week of August. I actually saw very suspicious looking bird but due to bright sunlight and gulls being flushed by a dog walker and shortage of time on the way to work I left it. Wasn't sure of the shade and actual colour of mantle. I didn't get a photo. There weren't any gulls on the fields next morning before work and... well it didn't matter anymore because later the same morning was the discovery of the White-winged Tern which changed everyone's focus for days!

Alvan Buckley making the rounds on Sunday 23 Aug independently discovered the same bird. He sent around a few photos confirming this.  It did look like a good candidate for YLGU.  On Monday morning there were gulls present at the ball fields but not the gull of interest. Tuesday morning (today), Alvan located the gull in the ball fields.  Got some pictures and texted me.  I got there at 08:40. found the bird right away among the 300+ gulls present. Started taking pictures through chain fence.  A grounds-man was about to do some work on the field so I got out of the car ready for a flight shot.  Oddly the gulls didn't even fly at first.  Eventually only half the birds flew up but went to just the next field.  Dull foggy conditions meant slow shutter speeds, bad for flight shots. However, the bird looks right on for a YELLOW-LEGGED GULL. It is difficult to convey the little details that add up to right feeling you get when you have a genuine YLGU especially when these details are subdued during heavy moult.  A pale  Lesser Black-backed Gull or a hybrid LBBGx HERG are the ID challengers.  I won't even try to go through all the details now. The bird is a mess now but will gradually start looking better. Typically August arrivals linger and are regularly seen until at least November and if lucky it will overwinter.  

Attached are some snaps from this morning. Take them as you will. Expect better pictures over the coming weeks or months.

The common pose of  relaxed YLGU shows a short steep forehead and flat topped head with steeply dropping nape.

Head streaking restricted to forward part of head with a mainly white nape is classic YLGU. most of the HERGs don't have any head streaking yet.

(YLGU in the back) Just two unmoulted primaries. The majority of HERGs (in front) with several old primaries at this time.

Out stretched head and neck shows the mean/tough look of a YLGU that is often lacking when the bird is relaxed.

An indication of how the  black wingtip pattern will look like when finished moulting - sharply demarcated from rest of wing from below and above.

Monday 24 August 2015


Skipped Day IV of the White-winged Tern show at Chamberlain's Pond and birded elsewhere for the day but on Sunday had to go back for more.  John Wells and I drove out for the tern watch and were part of a small crowd that got a great show 09:30 - 12:00. It waits for the temperature to warm up enough for the flies to come to life.  One wonders what will happen when day time highs temperatures drop this week to below 20C. Even Common  Terns were noticeably less numerous than five days earlier.

The pictures all start to look the same after a while but it is hard to stop.  The overcast light produced a black and white look to some. Frustrations reigned universal on getting an Autofocus fix on the bird. But those using only binoculars were happy with the close passes.  

Friday 21 August 2015

WHITE-WINGED (BLACK) TERN in Newfoundland - Day III

The White-winged (Black) Tern continues to entertain at Chamberlains Pond while feeding and Manuels Yacht club when resting.  The pictures get a little better each day as we figure out its habits.

A few of the 300 keepers from today.

Thursday 20 August 2015

White-winged (Black) Tern in Newfoundland - Day II

Day II of White-winged (Black) Tern in Newfoundland was quite similar to the pattern and timing of activities of Day One of Discovery.  Makes one wonder how long it has been here working this routine!!! Some are speculating that maybe it could be back in 2016 and we should start looking for it in June.

Photo buffs, which is pretty well everyone these days, are still agonizing for the ultimate shot. The bird is easy to see well with binoculars and a scope but is always a photo challenge. It is often just out of reach. The smooth plumage of the buoyant swift moving bird is hard for the AF systems to grab on to when the background is always beach rock, forest or houses. 

We are really getting to know this particular White-winged (Black) Tern and the species overall. A huge privilege in Newfoundland. It is an amazingly graceful striking looking bird. This is unanimous among the perhaps 30? people who have now gone to see the bird. A Black Tern is a gull in comparison to the fluid flighty movements of a White-winged (Black) Tern.

Here are a few snaps of the day....

Early in the morning it sat on the beach across the channel from the yacht club. 

During the morning relaxation period it was regularly flushed by crows or rowdy Common Terns.

When temperatures rose and insect life was mobile over Chamberlains Pond it was frequently present at that location. The pond is encompassed by residential housing.


Wednesday 19 August 2015

WHITE-WINGED (BLACK) TERN - Yet Another Dream Answered

The coffee I bought on the way into work was left on the office desk unopened for four hours all because of a phone call.  At 09:10 Paul Linegar phoned all out of breath.  White-winged Black Tern at the Manuels yacht club he breathed.  His excitement was real but how could he be so certain since in the post breeding plumages of White-winged Tern are very similar to Black Tern which is also rare, not even of annual occurrence in Newfoundland? He said he was using an old Petersen guide he found on the boat he was on as he left the yacht club with a friend.  I asked a few questions about head details from what I could remember on the finer points required to clinch the identity of a fall White-winged Tern.  As the phone connection broke up he conceded that maybe he was not sure of the head details.

I didn't want to sound off a false alarm on a White-winged Term to the public domain so I phoned a Ken Knowles and a John Wells and told them about a tern, maybe a Black Tern but Paul thought it was White-winged Tern.  Twenty minutes later I was on the scene looking for a Black Tern.  Not much to see but a few Common Terns and gulls on the gravel bar.  Ken, John and Anne Hughes arrived. We looked around seeing nothing. Then a small group of tern flushed from way down the beach.  I saw one with a black body, so it seemed. Then it reared up and I saw the BLACK UNDER WING COVERTS. John saw it too. It was instantaneous euphoria that changed the rest of the day for every birder on the northeast Avalon.  Paul had forgotten to mention the bird was still in breeding plumage!  It was a stunning near full breeding plumage WHITE-WINGED TERN, First for Newfoundland.

The first responders to the scene of the WHITE-WINGED TERN getting their first looks in flight from the  Manuels yacht club.  

The WHITE-WINGED TERN left the yacht club flying directly over my head.  Note the patented black under wing coverts. They are whitish on a Black Tern. The white flecking around the head and neck show that it was starting to loose the breeding plumage. I am pretty sure the date is late for a North American  Black Tern to be in mostly breeding plumage. Wonder if it is an unusually late date for a WHITE-WINGED TERN in this plumage?

Eventually we figured out the WHITE-WINGED TERN was feeding just two minutes north of the yacht club at Chamberlain's Pond.  It would feed on flies on the surface of the pond for 10-30 minutes then head back to the gravel bar at the yacht club to rest and preen. The bird was still not close and the background of houses and trees distracted the AF systems on the cameras. Below are a few keepers out of hundreds of misses.  Even these are big crops. The photos are never good enough to satisfy a rare bird photographer. But hey, this bird is a keeper no matter the photo quality. Could have easily gone a life time without seeing a WHITE-WINGED TERN in Newfoundland.  It was a very beautiful bird with the rarity status and overall sum of quality approaching the value of the April 2014 Ross's Gull at Torbay. Maybe tomorrow for the million in one photo.

Monday 17 August 2015

A Couple of Late Summer Nesting Details

On 8 August 2015 as John Wells, Ken Knowles and I were cruising through the community of St. Mary's checking out the usual birding points and were surprised to see three Barn Swallows flying overhead on Road X.  August is a poor month for Barn Swallow records. Most Newfoundland records occur during the spring and fall migration periods, May-June and Sept-Oct. We carried on with our day.  A weekend later on 16 Aug I found myself on the same Road X in St. Mary's with those swallows still flying overhead. Lingering Barn Swallows in August rang every alarm bell. There were now five Barn Swallows, three with full adult long tails and two with short tails like one-year old or perhaps juveniles. Against the bright white sky it was difficult to see details of the plumage. Impatiently I walked over to the closest building which as it turned out was not being used and BINGO there was a Barn Swallow nest over the door light shade. There were the arses of two nearly fledged young pointing in my direction.  I didn't want to cause a premature flush of the young birds so hung back.  I got the camera out of the car and got theses snaps.

The arses of two not yet fledged Barn Swallows on a nest at St. Mary's is quite a rare sighting in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador. 16 August 2015

The large deposit of droppings beneath the nest perhaps indicates more than two young were involved.  The two short-tailed Barn Swallows flying with the three adults over the nest site were possibly just fledged flying young from this nest. 16 August 2015

On a family outing aboard one of the Witless Bay Ecological Reserves tour boats on 15 August I noted an encouraging abundance of nearly fledged kittiwakes on the cliffs.  Hopefully the parent birds were still able to find a food supply good enough to finish off the rearing of the young even after the spawning capelin moved offshore.

Lots of nearly fledged kittiwakes sat on the nests at Gull Island. Witless Bay Ecological Reserve on the latish date of 15 August.

There were plenty of Common Murres standing around doing 'nothing'.  

I could hear the familiar cries of young murres from within this mass of murres on Gull Island but could not see any of the fluff balls.  Seems late in the summer for this many murres to still be massed on the breeding site. Not sure if there is a significance to this or if it is my ignorance of the breeding chronology of Gull Island Common Murres.