Sunday 27 November 2016

Tis the Season of the Slaty backs.

On 23 November 2016 Lancy Cheng photographed an adult SLATY-BACKED GULL at Quidi Vidi Lake, St. John's, Newfoundland.  It was the first Slaty-backed Gull in St. John's in 4.8 years! And that after a stint of some seven consecutive winters from 2006 to 2012 with at least one Slaty-backed Gull to look for in the city. We are hoping Lancy's discovery will lead to another winter of Slaty-backed Gull watching and further inspire gull watching at The Lake.

This is how St. John's Slaty-backed Gull watching all started.  Way back on the 28th January 2006 two gull watchers with an appetite were scanning the gull flocks resting on the ice at The Lake (a.k.a. Quidi Vidi Lake, St. John's, Newfoundland).  I was standing by the penitentiary with a little bit of elevation so I could see all the gulls at the west end of the lake very well with a scope. There was plenty to look at and no where else to go on a Saturday morning so I stayed there for a good while soaking in the views.  Just as I was considering changing my point of view of the lake, a familiar little gray car pulled up on the snowy road below me.  It was Dave Brown, the other serious gull watcher on the lake that Saturday morning.

He got out of the car not even wearing his binoculars.  Right away I sensed something was up.  He scrambled up the snow bank to my perch and mumbled stuff only a gull watcher could interpret. 

 "A&)hjaf U)(UJ  ad a _*(&)uj  adaljkf Y(U*laj f !!!!!. "  

It was a perfect description of a Slaty-backed Gull, Our Ultimate Dream, but seen all too briefly before the gulls all flushed from his position by the Virginia River outlet, that Dave was not sure what he had seen was for real. Some of the gulls had flown down my way. What? I responded. You said it flew down this way. Well could this be the bird here that was suddenly now in my field of view swimming in the limited bit of open water!?"

It was a gull with a dark slate bluish-gray back a little different than the shade of gray of a hybrid or pure Lesser Black backed Gull. The head streaking was a beautiful smokey gray pattern in character with other Pacific Coast gulls namely the Mew Gull, Glaucous-winged Gull as well as Slaty-backed. The white band formed by the folded tertials looked quite wide, yes it was indeed beautifully wide and so white. The white tips to the primaries were substantial but not overly impressive. The bill size did not impress us.  This had to be a Slaty-backed Gull but we needed to see the colour of those legs to send in the catalyst to crystalize the impressions.  When it got up on the ice to preen and we saw the brilliant bubble-gum pink legs we were completely satisfied that we were looking at a bona fide SLATY-BACKED GULL.  At last!!!

The rest is history, an interesting and on going history. This began a seven consecutive winters (2006 to 2012) of Newfoundland Slaty-backed Gulls involving as many as 14 different individuals.  All were adult except for one 3rd winter bird. Birds were individually identified by wing tip patterns, winter head streaking and general size. Only one bird was thought to be a returning individual which was present for three winter 2006/2007 to 2008/2009.

Below is a list of all Slaty-backed Gulls observed on the island of Newfoundland. It should be noted that Vernon Buckle surprised us all by photographing an adult Slaty-backed Gull on the Labrador side of the Strait of Belle Isle at Forteau on 11 April 2016.  

The Complete List of Slaty-backed Gulls for Insular Newfoundland ; compiled by Jared Clarke*

  1.  Adult; Jan 28 2006 – Feb 12 2006 (St. John’s)
  2.  3rd winter; Mar 19 – Apr 2 2006 (St. John’s)
  3.  Adult; Apr 23 – May 7 2006 (St. John’s)
  4.  Adult; Nov 26 2006 – Mar 25 2007 (St. John’s) *
  5.  Adult; Dec 31 2006 (St. John’s)
  6.  Adult; Jan 22 – Feb 26 2007 (St. John’s)
  7.  Adult; Dec 24 2007 – Jan 2 2008 (Lewisporte)
  8.  Adult; Jan 8 – Mar 15 2008 (St. John’s) *
  9.  Adult; Jan 12 – 20 2008 (St. John’s)
  10. Adult; Dec 1-2 2008 (Corner Brook)
  11. Adult; Dec 28 2008 – Feb 21 2009 (St. John’s) *
  12. Adult; Feb 3 – March 25 2009 (St. John’s)
  13. Adult; Oct 27 2009 (St. John’s)
  14. Adult; Jan 14 – Mar 6 2010 (St. John’s)
  15. Adult; Dec 1 2010 – Mar 27 2011 (St. John’)
  16. Adult; Jan 1 – 25 2012 (St. John’s)
  17. Adult; Nov 23 2016 (St. John’s)

* Jared and I shared many of the initial discoveries and many intimate encounters with the St. John's Slaty-backed Gulls. This was back in the good old days when we could birdwatch freely at the St. John's dump all day every Sunday of the winter season. 

The very very first photograph of a Slaty-backed Gull in Newfoundland at Quidi Vidi Lake on 28 Jan 2006 - an historic day in Newfoundland birding. Those brilliant legs!

The same bird the next day when observed at the St. John's dump with the 'string of pearls' captured on both the upper side and underside.  This was back in the day when the Canon 10D and the 400 mm f5.6 lenses was the ultimate birder/photo combination. 

January 13, 2008. A large billed bird. Everyone's idea of a standard Slaty-backed Gull but in fact it was the most 'honking' sized individual of them all. 

January 13, 2008.  This is a small billed Slaty-backed Gull. It was present all winter with the above bird, though never actually seen close enough to acknowledge each others presence. This bird was thought to be present for three consecutive winters - the only returning individual as far as we could tell.

Some birds had clear staring eyes while this one had dark speckling in the iris. Same individual as above.  The pink orbital ring being consistent and one of the clinchers (if needed) to separate from hybrid Lesser Black-backed and Herring Gulls which should have orbital rings in the range of yellow to red.

January 22, 2011.  A lightly streaked headed bird but note the streaking as is typical for SBGU includes the whole neck. You can't see it so well on this picture but the streaking on the breast usually rounds off to a neat rounded bib on the upper chest unlike LBBG or HERG or hybrids.

A heavily streaked Slaty-backed Gull arriving a month earlier than any other on 27 October 2008. Note the brightly coloured bill, especially the base, which like Glaucous Gulls becomes pinkish on adult Slaty-backed Gulls in winter.

Life of leisure is no guarantee even for Siberian royalty in St. John's when an eagle flies over and every bird panics.   This pigeon sideswiped a Slaty-backed Gull during a mass exodus caused by a low flying Bald Eagle. The upper parts are somewhat over exposed in this photo

One of the standard wing patterns of Slaty-backed Gull. P8, the third outer most primary can be total dark like this with this bird or can show a 'pearl'.

A couple more examples of wing tip patterns of Newfoundland adult Slaty-backed Gulls.

Sunday 20 November 2016

The Chin-strap Loon

In late May 2014 a Pacific Loon was discovered at St. Vincents Beach, Avalon Peninsula by Alvan Buckley. It was going into breeding plumage. We hoped it had wintered here with the many Common Loons that choose this area in winter. Sure enough it did come back for the winter of 2014/2015. St. Vincent's Beach is a tough place to watch loons. They are usually distant. There is no shelter at all anywhere that you can observe the loons from. You can't get anywhere near the edge of the beach for the salt spray. The car can not be parked in a good place to scan the water. There is always a big swell on. The beach faces south meaning you are staring into the sun all winter long, when there is a sun. The bottom line is that getting good views and photos is a challenge and luck. In fact what we have been satisfied with is still far from great and photo opts near impossible. 

Today I had better than average luck with the Pacific Loon. First of all it was great to know it is back. The loon flock was fishing and loafing in the area off Peters River that was the most sheltered part of St. Vincents Beach during gale force SE winds.  It was still 200 m away at its closest approach but the shots taken with 840 mm lens blown up to 100% show parts of the loon we rarely get to see even with the scope.  The chin strap was showing up unusually well today. Maybe it was more prominent early in the season than it will be later in the winter. Maybe it was because I was near sea level instead of being up a bluff looking down at the water.

Profile of the Pacific Loon showing characteristic puffy nape, rounded crown, straight bill (looking rather thin today), the smooth line of contrast between the dark neck and white throat and look at that chin strap. None of the other species of loon show this.  It is not always so easy to see.

The smooth snaky curve of the neck of the Pacific Loons adds grace to the bird.  A slight turn of the head and the chin strap disappears. Difficult to see in this photo but with scope a stripe on sides of the neck is slightly darker than the back of neck.  The back of neck of Pacific Loon is paler gray-black than the blackish back. You need good light or close view to detect this. On Common Loons in full winter plumage the back of neck is the darkest part of the bird - in good light looking darker than the back.  Warning this feature does not work outside of winter season.  Faded sub adult Common Loons in spring and summer can look quite bizarre including very pale necks.  

This all you need to confirm a Pacific Loon!

Chin strap.

More chin strap.

Saturday 12 November 2016

27 Years (to the hour) between HERMIT WARBLERS.

Newfoundland should not even have HERMIT WARBLER on it's list. The first was at Blackhead, Avalon Peninsula 11-13 Nov 1989 was thought of as a once in a life time, or once ever for all time, occurrence.  I remember the day clearly as I was birding on Waterford Bridge Road when John Pratt found me in his car and said to me " I think you want to be a Blackhead right now".  John Wells had just found the unthinkable Hermit Warbler.  The rest was history. This was before computers, well before email, well before digital photography - yet we managed to get full frame slide images of that bird nailing the proof to the cross for eternity.  It was a pure Hermit with an all gray back and no yellow or streaking on breast. 

Every November 11 I reminisce about that day in 1989. It was only one of the great birds that we have for the 11 November holiday - the other significant species being a WOOD SANDPIER at Renews 11-13 Nov about 1996?  As fate would have it on 11 Nov 2016 I was again looking for lingering mega waifs on Waterford Bridge road when Lancy Cheng texted me (imagine what we would have thought of being texted in 1989!) saying that he and Andrea Dicks had seen a Spotted Sandpiper at Mobile.  This was seriously late for Spotted Sandpiper. I recalled the Wood Sandpiper. There was no obvious weather system to explain its occurrence. Could this be a Common Sandpiper?  Without hesitation my new objective was to get to Mobile NOW. Went home for the scope and extra photo gear.  Got to the scene in under 50 minutes from Lancy's call.  I spotted the bird way the hell down the shore well beyond the end of the road.  I found a trail that lead part along the coast. Hanging by one arm from a tree on a steep slippery slope managed some not bad photos. The overall feel was Spotted Sandpiper and it has since been confirmed by Europeans as Spotted Sandpiper. Still this an exceptionally late and perfectly healthy looking Spotted Sandpiper.

On the way back down the trail toward the car I came across a flock of chickadees and juncos. This is what we clue into in the fall for lingering warbler waifs.  Bang a Warbler flew in. High in a Larch.  White underneath. White tail spots.  Two thick white wing bars. Then I saw the black eye centred in a light bulb of yellow. IT WAS A HERMIT WARBLER.....

The alarms were sent from iPhone in the woods.  It was not seen again that day. Next day. After a struggle it was refound on nearby Cod Seine Road by Andrea Dicks.  In the end some 15 people saw it in that area. It took hours for most people get their glimpse.  Photo opts were near impossible. But it was indeed a Hermit Warbler. John Wells, Ken Knowles, Chris Brown and myself were the only people present that had also seen the 1989 bird. 

Attached are the barely record shots of the bird which seems to be a male. The back was gray. No stripes or yellow on breast so not a hybrid with Townsend's Warbler. But speaking of the devil.  There was a Townsend's Warbler in a back yard on Gander Crescent, St John's since 10 Nov. Well not present since then, seen once per day since then.  I lucked into seeing the bird at 3 pm today. So my day list of warblers being just two species was Hermit and Townsend's.  I tried for a hat trick of western warblers looking in the Graveyard down my street where the last Black-throated Gray Warbler in Newfoundland was seen in Dec 1991. 

Maybe tomorrow. There is a good buzz in the air.

The electric yellow-green head of the Hermit Warbler accenting the dark eye and black bill are characteristic of male Hermit Warblers.

Photo hints at the gray back and  wing bars more prominent than cousin Black-throated Green or Townsend's Warblers.

Lack of stripes or yellow wash on breast and more clues about the gray back colour are shown in this photo.  Not much in the way of photos but they confirm the species. Personally I enjoyed few seconds of superb views of the whole bird mostly unobstructed by branches. The intensity of the yellow-green face was impressive. Everyone remarked on that.  It was a stonker.

The extraordinarily late Spotted Sandpiper that resulted in the Hermit Warbler being revealed to the world.

Townsend's Warblers are but a year-bird in Newfoundland. This bird represents the 20th or so provincial record - 2nd in Autumn 2016.

Would not be surprised if another one of these was found tomorrow. 

Saturday 5 November 2016

Forster's Tern at Renews grab bag

Here is a dump of photos from 5 Nov 2016 on a Southern Shore,  Avalon Peninsula, Newfoundland trip. The best was the  Forster's Tern at Renews. A good bird seen well by all that came for it.


One of two Cattle Egrets from Calvert, Avalon Peninsula, NF

Record late Lesser Yellowlegs at Bear Cove

Your classic happy go lucky Prairie Warbler from anywhere in the Avalon Alders. (this one at Cape Broyle)

Wednesday 2 November 2016

October Western Sandpipers made Easy

Western Sandpiper was one of the birds I wanted to see most on a late October 2016 trip to Cape May County, New Jersey. Thanks to a tip from Richard Crossley I found out a few could still be found feeding among the Dunlin flocks on the outer beaches in late October. And also thanks to RC for discussing the difference in moult of Western vs Semipalmated Sandpiper in October which was already spelled out in the great book The Shorebird Guide (O'Brien, Crossley & Karlson 2006) had I cared to read that part!

I was lucky on my first visit to North Wildwood.  Among a mixed flock of 2500 Dunlin, Sanderling, Red Knot, Black-bellied Plover and a few Short-billed Dowitcher were about 30 Western Sandpipers. On two subsequent visits I saw only another half dozen Western Sandpipers among smaller groups of shorebirds. It was all about being there at the right stage of the tide.

Enjoyed superb views of the Western Sandpipers with binoculars and the scope. The rising tide brought the birds in around me. It was heaven for a couple hours on 24 October. Even winter plumage Red Knot and Short-billed Dowitchers were a novelty.

All of the Western Sandpipers were in winter plumage with plain gray scapulars. This is an excellent field mark for separating Western from Semipalmated Sandpipers during October.  Western Sandpipers moult into winter plumage in late September. By October all should be in clean winter dress.  Meanwhile Semipalmated Sandpipers do not moult all the way into winter plumage until they reach wintering grounds in South America.

Here is a juvenile Semipalmated Sandpiper at Avalon, NJ on 27 Oct 2016. Note there is a mix of winter plumage plain gray feathers among the mostly scaly pale-edged juvenile plumage scapulars. A Western should never look like this in late October. All the feathers in the back (mantle and scapulars) should be plain gray with diffuse paler tips in a Western, not sharp pale fringes creating the scaly effect showing in this Semipalmated Sandpiper. Before you can clearly understand this you have to know the difference between the wing coverts and scapulars. Check the Introductions in any bird guide for this information.  The wing coverts of both Semipalmated and Western Sandpiper are 'scaly' in fall and winter.  This Semipalmated Sandpiper was considered on the late side for New Jersey. It was one of only two that I saw. I think we get more of them hanging on to the end of October in Newfoundland.

Below is a series of Western Sandpiper photos taken at North Wildwood, NJ 24-28 Oct 2016.  Note the pale gray mantle and scapular feathers. The scapulars often appeared long and partially covered the wing coverts. Of course the bill is the traditional star feature of the Western Sandpiper. On the longer billed birds the bill length and shape was impressive but this was not the norm among the birds I saw. Most had bills easily matched in length by Semipalmateds that we get in Newfoundland. But there was subtle difference in the bill shape. The way the broad base was glued abruptly on to the face then tapered a little as it curved near the tip.  You could describe some of our Semipalmated Sandpipers the same way but there was still a subtle difference in the bill shape of all the NJ Westerns that I saw but is hard to describe. The front end heavy body look described for Western Sandpiper was apparent and helped a lot in making the Western Sandpiper a very different species than a Semipalmated Sandpiper while still kissing cousins. Also I noted a difference in the way the Westerns were feeding. They would often stop and pause for a fraction of second a bit like a Semipalmated Plover.  Whereas Semipalmated Sandpipers are like a wound up toy and never stop walking. Don't know if this is a routine feature of Western but it was consistent with these NJ birds.

All of the sandpipers below are Westerns. The setting sun warmed up the actual pale gray backs in some shots.      Dig in!

(Dunlin in background)

(Sanderling in background)

If only they all had bills like this beaut.