Sunday 18 September 2016

Baird's Sandpiper - A Piece of Cake ID

Just saying the name Baird's Sandpiper in Newfoundland creates a fog of ID mystery. This is partly because of the limitations of Field Guides and the difficulty in capturing the true nature of a Baird's Sandpiper with a photograph.

The ID problem starts when you live in Newfoundland where Baird's Sandpiper is a rarity with 1-5 per year but Semipalmated and White-rumped Sandpipers are common. The Field Guides advertise the scaly back pattern of the Baird's Sandpiper is typically the center-focus of identification. However, numerous juvenile Semipalmated and White-rumped Sandpiper migrating through Newfoundland and Labrador also have "scaly backs".

This Baird's Sandpiper was at Long Beach, Cape Race, Avalon Peninsula, Newfoundland on 16 Sept 2016.

Semipalmated Sandpiper (the two photos below) on the same beach for comparison.

Wednesday 7 September 2016

Alan is Gone - 1954-2016

I was not going to post this as it didn't really seem appropriate for a birding blog but after seeing a great write up by Josh Vandermeulen I decided writing about a great birder was OK for a birding blog.

Alan Wormington was not known to many birdwatchers in Newfoundland. He was an Ontario birder. Alan died at 62 years old on 3 September 2016 where he lived in Leamington, the closest town to Point. Pelee. It was cancer.  He was an intense person who spent more time looking at birds, looking for birds, thinking about birds than perhaps any other Canadian. When birdwatching is your life every day for close to fifty years the knowledge accumulates. It begins to concentrate and purify, maybe it ferments a little and ages like a fine rare scotch. Thoughts about birds become clearer. New ideas rise to the top. Alan understood the birds of Ontario in a way unmatched by anyone.   
I do not remember the first time I met Alan but in the early 1970s we were both teenage birders going to Ontario high schools, or supposed to be. We went on a Thanksgiving Weekend birding trip to New Jersey.  Tom Hince and I took a bus from Ottawa (where I lived until 1973) to Kingston and met up with Alan and Mark Jennings both from Hamilton at the time.  In Alan’s tin box Toyota we drove through the night to New Jersey and spent a great three days birding Cape May and Brigantine. On the way home we drove through New York City to see a few sights and stop for a pizza. It was well into the night when the car broke down in downtown NYC.  Somehow we got it towed to an afterhours garage. We spent the next 48 hours waiting for the car to be repaired while sleeping at the YMCA by night and birding at Central Park and Jamaica Bay National Wildlife refuge by day with just enough money for a one street vendor frankfurter per day. Finally the car was drivable.  Soon as we got back into Canada Alan dumped Tom and I off on highway #401 to hitchhike back to Ottawa because it was mid-October and the winds were east. It was going to be a good day for jaeger-watching in Hamilton. He would miss that if he drove us back to Ottawa. Such was ‘The Worm’.  Hard-nosed when it came to feeding his interest in birds but completely open when it came to sharing the knowledge.
I enjoyed reading Alan’s annual birds reports for Point Pelee. I was interested in the way he saw things. Sometimes it was a little hard to swallow what he was proclaiming even though you had a hunch he was probably right. For example one year there was an exceptional warm spell around Christmas triggering waterfowl from the south to fly north to the Pelee area. He labelled these ducks as record early spring arrivals for the Pelee area.  Absurd isn’t it or was it?  How could anyone call those spring arrivals in December?  Wouldn’t those ducks go back south again when normal winter weather returned in January?  Alan was free to say what he thought because he knew so much more than anyone else.
Alan was a birding pillar. Much of what he knew was passed on to his compatriot birders lucky enough to bird with him regularly at Point. Pelee.  Apparently he was in the process of writing a book on The Birds of Point Pelee.  I heard the book will be picked up and finished by others including another Father of Ontario birding Bob Curry. That should be a good book.
Alan you will be missed.  I was going to ask you what you thought about Black-bellied Whistling Ducks occurrences in Canada. There were three photographed in Newfoundland in May 2016. I am guessing they were likely bona fide vagrants but how do you deal with the possibility of escapees in Ontario? And who am I going to tease when the next Townsend’s Warbler shows up in Newfoundland widening the illogical gap in total number seen in Newfoundland versus Ontario? 
Next time I go to Point Pelee I will see a few people I know and hordes that I don’t but the place will be empty without an Alan Wormington.  Bird migration will continue unabated spring and fall at Point Pelee. The birds will not care in the least if Alan Wormington is watching them or not.  But we the human element will lose out on the cutting edge insight on bird migration at Point Pele without the advantage of Wormington vision.
Hah so you never did get a Ruffed Grouse on your Pelee list!?!?
Alan is gone.  1954-2016 

Kevin McLaughlin - Alan Wormington - Bruce Mactavish at the tip of Point Pelee, Ontario in October 2004.         Photo by Ross Harris.

Thursday 1 September 2016

The Southern Warbler Hunting Season Open

It is with great anticipation that Newfoundland birders enter into September.  It is open season on hunting for southern warblers. The prevailing southwest winds of summer carry on into September providing the air express delivery of misguided southern warblers. We've learned over the years that the alder beds along the coast provide the best yields.  The insect life within the alder beds including the herbaceous undergrowth thrives providing good fueling for hungry vagrant warblers as well as Newfoundland warblers stocking up and getting ready to fly south. Some like the Blackpoll going non-stop to the Caribbean and even South America

It requires work to get the warblers in view.  Everyone has their methods.  I prefer to get inside the alders,on my knees, underneath the 'canopy',  I pish and make chip notes with an Audubon squeaker. The birds have to come close to investigate the source of the curious noises.  The views are intimate. When it is a southern rarity, like the Blue-winged Warbler in the header, taken on 15 Sept 2007 on Bear Cove Pt road, the thrill is intense.  Had I been inside the alders instead of standing on the road when I pished out a Hooded Warbler yesterday on the Cape Spear road I probably would have had more satisfying looks and quite possibly point blank photos.   

Using a Canon 300mm f4 lens without a converter allows one to focus down to 8 feet under the alders and use large f-strops like f10 or more to get a surround body focus with enough shutter speed more or less. Lots of out of focus shots but the in focus shot can be magical. When the bird is large in the image you can get away with using higher ISOs to help combat the low light levels under the alders.

I have been under the alders during the last week practicing on common warblers while waiting for that next southern warbler gem.  See below.

The Black-and-white warbler is totally fearless under the alders and readily approaches within arms reach.
Blackpoll Warblers, while curious and one of the truly abundant Avalon Peninsula species, they are very active and a little shy making them more of a challenge to photograph at close range.

Common Yellowthroats are like tame squirrels under the alders. You could probably hand feed them if you had a handful of caterpillars to offer them.

The Northern Waterthrush is noisy and willing to approach closely but ready to retreat if you move too much.
Bonus encounters under the alders include the Yellow-bellied Flycatcher.  It is only mildly attracted to pishing. It never comes real close but sometimes you get a lucky shot through the alder branches.

Yes, the Black-and-white Warbler again, the easiest bird to photograph under the alders. Will the next Cerulean Warbler or Golden-winged or Kentucky be so easy???