Sunday 31 January 2016

A mid-winter SABINE'S GULL in Newfoundland - A very true story.

At 09:45 31 Jan 2016 my iphone dingled while I was in Blackhead looking at 40 WW Xbills feeding close on spruce cones. It was Alvan Buckley.  I knew he, Ed Hayden and Alison Mews were down to St. Vincents trying to locate the wintering Pacific Loon. I was expecting the text to say they had found it. But nope.  It said something so outlandish that it would have easy to dismiss it as a mistake even if it was Roger Tory Peterson who claimed it except there was a fuzzy but distinctive photo showing a SABINE'S GULL.

The Peterson Gulls of the Americas states  "Sabine's Gull in N. America, almost unknown in winter...." Sabine's is difficult enough to see from land at anytime in Newfoundland. Some of the top birders did not have it on their provincial lists.  Since 1976 I have seen only three Sabine's Gulls from land in Newfoundland and that comes with a lot of sea watches in storms and without storms. The Sabine's Gull is out there at sea.  During my long sentences on seismic vessels on the outer Grand Banks, Flemish Pass, Orphan Basin etc you expect to see a few Sabine's during migration in late May - mid June and August & September. Sabine's are are quite a bit more regular at sea off Labrador.  The theory is that Sabine's Gulls leaving the Canadian Arctic are flying to the eastern side of the Atlantic and then fly south with at least some of them, maybe the vast majority wintering off west and south Africa.  

Why was a Sabine's Gull feeding leisurely in the surf at St. Vincent's beach on the last day of January like all was well? It must have been more than weather. There was a good southerly blow and a fast moving storm that started near Florida passed over the Avalon Peninsula on Friday night/Saturday.  But there should not be any Sabine's Gulls at sea between Florida and Newfoundland in late January.  Unless there are a few Sabine's wintering in the subtropical seas on the western side of the Atlantic and this bird did get caught up in the storm?  This is a difficult one to figure out. But the Sabine's Gull at St. Vincents beach on 31 Jan 2016 was for real. Fourteen people got to see this bird before dark. A hike along the coast got some of us fairly close to where it was feeding and the following pictures were snapped.

Note the gray feathers in the back and dark bar on nape. These areas usually just brown on the birds in juvenile plumage seen in North America during autumn migration.

Thursday 28 January 2016

Chamberlains Sewer Outlet - The New Pier 17

The turning off of the sewer outflow at Pier 17 in St. John's in June 2015 was like turning off the life line for Black-headed Gulls and Common Gulls in Newfoundland. In an average winter 75-100+ Black-headed Gulls over wintered at the Pier 17 sewer outflow. Sometimes counts reached 150 during migration in November.  And Pier 17 has always been the best location in North America for Common Gull with 1-3 overwintering with a half dozen or more different birds going through there per year.

We knew the result was not going to be good after turning off the tap, but somehow we hoped the Black-headed Gulls would find away around the loss of the main source of food at Pier 17 and still be around for us in St. John's. NOPE!  It didn't happen. It is all about the food. Shut down the only restaurant in town and the costumers will go elsewhere. Where they all went we still don't know. We never really noticed the Black-headed Gulls come into town and leave again.  A handful was all we ever saw at once during the fall of 2015 in St. John's. The St. John's CBC tallied a desperate TWO Black-headed Gulls, the lowest total by far since St. John's CBCs started in the 1960s.

Black-headed Gulls depend heavily on sewer outflows in winter in Newfoundland.  The stretch of shoreline from Spaniard's Bay to Carbonear used to be as good or better for Black-headed Gulls than St. John's back in the 1980 and early 1990s but then they started their sewer outflow manicures. Mainly they piped the raw sewage out in to deep water where the goodies were inaccessible to Black-headed Gulls but just fine for the goldeneye and scaup.  Black-headed Gulls disappeared from this area as well except for Spaniard's Bay where there is a limited tidal mud flat. Here BHGUs can feed in a more natural way - but just a few.

Other locations on the Avalon where Black-headed Gulls can feed in a natural way on tidal mudflats are Bellevue Beach and Arnold's Cove. These areas support fewer than a dozen individuals in winter per location.  The occasional Black-headed Gull will try to make a winter living at other locations around the Avalon - Renews,Trepassey, Branch.

The last sewer outflow on the Avalon that is any good for Black-headed Gulls is at Chamblerlains, Conception Bay.  This has a small flow and can not support many gulls. I was at the Chamberlains sewer outflow today during lunch break.  The 14 Black-headed Gulls was probably the most I've ever seen there in any year. It was good to see them but even better to see a Common Gull.  This place is scheduled to shut down in the fairly near future as well. How rare will Black-headed Gull and Common Gull become in Newfoundland!??

Below are photos from today (28 Jan 2016) at Chamberlain's focusing on the Common Gull.  Note the mirror on the three outer most primaries.  Common Gulls regularly have a mirror on Primary 8.

Monday 4 January 2016

A 10.5 year old Glaucous Gull

On Christmas Day 2015 Vernon Buckle noticed one of the 200 gulls, nearly all Glaucous Gulls, at the local dump for Forteau, Labrador was colour banded.  Forteau is at southern most Labrador on the Strait of Belle Isle, near the Quebec border.  There was dark green band on the right leg and a pale green band on the left leg.  The bands were not numbered and there was no metal band.

It just so happened I had been through a similar situation a couple times before at the St. John's landfill. It took less than two hours after emailing Amie Black at Environment Canada, (CWS) in Ottawa to get the low down on Vernon's colour banded Glaucous.  It was banded as a chick in the summer of 2005 on Coats Island at the mouth of Hudson Bay. So the bird  was 10 1/2 years old. Not a surprising age or surprising location but still interesting to know.  BUT as it turned out CWS records showed that I had photographed the same bird in March 2006 at the St John's landfill! Again not a surprising location but still fascinating to know the travel and age of at least one single Glaucous Gull out there.

Vernon Buckle's photograph of the green banded Glaucous Gull at t.he dump near Forteau, Labrador on 25 December 2015.  Still present as of today (4 Jan 2016)

The same bird in its first year of dump life at St John's, Avalon Peninsula, Newfoundland on 12 March 2006.

Glaucous Gull is a common gull in the Arctic. It winters commonly off Labrador and eastern Newfoundland.  Here in St. John's we are quite spoiled by an abundance of Glaucous Gulls.  Glaucous Gull being king scavengers learn quickly about dumps.  The proportion of GLGU to other gulls at the St. John's dump is miles out of whack with gulls anywhere else on the Avalon. 

Glaucous Gulls live on the ice when it is there. I spent six complete winters at L'Anse-aux-Meadows on the northern tip of the Great Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland.  From January to March Glaucous Gull was the only gull you saw if you saw any gulls at all in the frozen world. Even Iceland Gulls were 'soft' gulls in the world of nearly continuous sea ice in winter. Of course with the right NE storm another gull-like bird that can't live without ice, the Ice Partridge (a,k.a Ivory Gull) was prevalent for hours at a time during most, but not all winters.

Winter Glaucous Gulls have much whiter heads than 99% of Herring Gulls and the majority of Iceland Gulls in winter.  Greenland and Eurasian Glaucous Gulls have on average more heavily streaked heads in winter than eastern North American GLGUs . Both of these birds (above and below this caption) were photographed during the height of winter head streaking on 3 Jan 2016 at St. John's. The pink base to the bill is bog standard on winter adult GLGU and unique among adult gulls in Newfoundland and Labrador.


A shot of the birds that thrive on the sea ice off Newfoundland and Labrador. Some have shorter legs than the others.  Feb 2010, Goose Cove, Newfoundland.