Tuesday 7 June 2016

A Summer of Avalon Seabirding Ahead

The summer season of birding on the Avalon Peninsula of Newfoundland is about to begin. As the chance of spring migrants fades away, Avalon birders often look to the sea for their birding jollies. The capelin will spawn at sometime, or a couple of times as it seems some years, over the next couple of months. The concentrations of Great and Sooty Shearwaters, kittiwakes, terns local breeding alcids, Northern Gannets and big gulls feeding close to shore can be spectacular.  

There are scarce and rare birds to look for among the throngs of commonality.  These can be seabirds not normally found near shore like jaegers or maybe a skua. Maybe a rare small gull like Little Gull or Laughing Gulls will make your day.  If really lucky a rare southern tern is a huge treat.

Cory's Shearwater is regular within Newfoundland waters but only near the southern borders of the 200 nmi limit.  This photographed from land at Cape Race on 11 Aug 2011 demonstrates the species is possible from land. There was heavy Great and Sooty feeding activity just off the rocks at the time.

Manx Shearwater is routine in small numbers from shore in summer whether there are capelin around or not.  Capes like Cape St. Francis, Cape Spear and Cape Race or your best bets. It is always a little treat to spot them among the throngs of Great and Sooty Shearwaters.  

Skuas are really quite rare from shore in Newfoundland. Consider yourself very lucky if you see one and triple lucky if you have an opportunity to identify it. South Polar and Great Skua are among the most difficult duo of seabirds to separate at sea.  Close looks like this one photographed from a ship on the Grand Banks are relatively easy if you know to look for the smooth dark brown back and upper wings with a distinct pale shawl around back of the neck. This is a classic South Polar Skua in Newfoundland waters. South Polar Skua is the most numerous skua during the summer months but most of the summering Great Skuas are subadults, which lack or have restricted marbling in the back and upper wings making them very similar to South Polars at a distance. 

Often there are subadult jaegers accompanying the swarms of capelin gorging kittiwakes near shore.  Seeing 20 or more in a day is not that unusual. But it is unusual to see any that are easy to identify since most of them lack the trade mark elongated tail feathers.  Through size comparison with kittiwakes and methods and manner of hunting, eventually you start to come up with some sort of ratio of Pomarine to Parasitic.  That attached Pomarine Jaeger shows solid dark underwing coverts probably making it an adult in non-breeding plumage rather than a subadult which should be marbled there.

Adult Long-tailed Jaegers are one of the most beautiful seabirds in the world. They do migrate regularly through Newfoundland waters but in the far offshore regions to the Northeast. Late August gales can drive a few adults inshore. Meanwhile the more difficult to identify subadults spend the summer all over Newfoundland  in the offshore waters.  A few come near shore during the capelin season. It takes a while to gain the confidence to identify these individuals. A photo can be very helpful.

Leach's Storm-Petrel is the default storm-petrel in Newfoundland.  We have the largest breeding colony in the world at Baccalieu Island (2 million pairs). They prefer not to be within sight of land during the daylight hours but there are often a few stragglers flying near shore after sunrise. They regularly get caught on the inside of barrier beaches during foggy nights and onshore winds, particularly at St. Vincent's Beach. Here you can see them sitting on the water by daylight as they ponder their predicament.  NE gales are rare June-August but when it happens you can see hundreds of Leach's trapped temporarily at the bottom Conception Bay at Holyrood. This picture was taken at Holyrood during an early August gale.

The Wilson's Storm-Petrel is missing on many Newfoundland birder's lists and for good reasons. It is very scarce in our waters except in the warm waters on the southern extremities of our provincial boundary. It is possible to see it from shore on the Avalon in some years even during uneventful summer weather. But in most years it is difficult enough to get even when spending a month on a ship on the Grand Banks. This picture, however, was taken from a ship on the Grand Banks. Not often  can you see the feet projecting beyond the tail while watching from a ship or land.  Wilson's have  unique flight mannerisms and different shape. The problem is that there are 50 ways that a Leach's Storm-Petrel flies depending on wind and whether it is feeding or travelling. Their shape changes with the wind.  It is a common mistake to think you've seen a Wilson's because it is flying different than you thought a Leach's could fly. It is all described in the books but until you've seen a Wilson's Storm-Petrel once you don't know how different they are from every one of the 50 ways a Leach's flies.

Southern terns are major rarities in Newfoundland but mid summer is the time when wanderlust subadult birds from the US east coast end up on the shores of the Avalon on their own will riding the prevailing SW winds of summer. Yet they are rare enough that we can name most of the records. The two Royal Terns above, including the one in flight, were at St. Vincent's beach on 9 July 2008 (thanks Tom). St Vincents Beach is PRIMO for summertime southern terns, rare summer gulls especially Laughing Gulls etc. A summer Sandwich Tern has been seen here.

This ratty old 1st summer Sandwich Tern landed on a vessel I was on 300 km east of Cape Race on 27 June 2008.  Dark band across the secondaries visible in flight revealed age.  It was only the second record of the species for the province at the time. Another one landed on a longliner not far away about the same time, Plumage details proved they were different birds. It has also occurred in summer at Renews and St. Vincents.  It will happen again on the Avalon.  It is gonna look good too.