Saturday 16 December 2017

Prince 'n Princess Eider at Cape Spear

Eiders are a common winter joy of birding on the Avalon Peninsula. An added spark comes when you pick a King Eider or two out of the flocks. This Saturday morning I was at Cape Spear for a seawatch hoping to see a movement of birds in the calm between back to back to back storms. There was no such flight, in fact it was the opposite with very little flying.  So I turned my attention to the little eider flock feeding off the point. The flock of < 30 birds was made up of immature eiders - all Common Eiders except for two King Eiders, a male and female.  The birds were too close to ignore with the camera despite the heavy overcast and resulting poor lighting conditions. Naturally I focused on the two King Eiders. The impending storm reduced the number of 'tourists' (non birders) to near zero so the birds were feeding relatively undisturbed.

These are the Prince 'n Princess King Eiders present at Cape Spear. In the following pictures note the following features.  The male is an immature, hatched in the summer of 2017. The broad orange lobes of the upper bill where it meets the forehead makes an immature King Eider stand out in an eider flock. The gray breast gradually turns white through the winter.  
Female King Eiders are less obvious but are pretty easy to pick out when you know what their trademarks are. 1) bill is largely gray including tip but there is often a pale ring around bill just before the nail. 2) there is usually a pale spot of feathering next to the base of the bill. This contrasts with the dark gray bill. At close range there is an upturn at the corner of the mouth (gape) creating a 'grin' expression which is characteristic of King Eider. 3) Note the pale eye shadow on the eye lids. This is especially evident in the female. Nothing so obvious on Common Eiders 4) Both male and female King Eiders have a slight bump on the ridge line of the bill. It is more pronounced on the male.  This contrasts with the long straight sloping bill (like a doorstop) of the Common Eider.
There is at least one King Eider in each of the following pictures.  Can you pick them all out?

Sunday 10 December 2017

Winter Listing - The First Ten Days.

Part of the fun injected into winter birding is winter listing.  This is a list of species seen during the three month period Dec-Feb. The game adds new value to late birds or winter rarities. It gets one out a little more and birding places you might not be checking otherwise. The end result is more rare birds get found.  I have been playing the game.  

The first ten days of the winter list season have been interesting. The mild weather means the late warblers are surviving.  I usually carry a camera at all times while birding just in case.  I take record shots of any rarity I come across.  Some the shots below are the definition of a record shot and far from a National Geographic cover shot.

The best bird of the season on the Avalon Peninsula was the EARED GREBE found by Chris Brown at Peters River on the southern Avalon. This was the first record for the province of Newfoundland and Labrador.  Today an AMERICAN GOLDEN PLOVER at Cape Spear was just as mind blowing.

Below is a photographic record of some of the birds that I have seen so far this month.

This EARED GREBE at present at Peters River on 1st, 2nd and 4th of December was a first record for the province. The partial breeding plumage was unusual for December and may indicate the bird has been under stress and/or not feeding well in recent months.

This juvenile AMERICAN GOLDEN PLOVER was a big surprise at Cape Spear today 10 December.  It is the latest provincial record by at least three weeks. It appeared during an intense weather system with far reaching southerly winds and an abnormal temperature of +18C. It appeared healthy.  The four, just about five, primaries extending beyond tertials is right for American GP. It should be only three for Pacific. Coincidentally exactly one year ago there was a juvenile PACIFIC GOLDEN PLOVER at Pt La Haye, Avalon Peninsula, NF.

This Forster's Tern first found in late October at Trepassey remained into December. It is less than annual in the province.

This Clay-coloured Sparrow at Ferryland was keeping company with a Song Sparrow when found on 1st Dec but a couple days later, out of the blue, three more Clay-coloured Sparrows appeared making a record size flock of 4 CCSP in Newfoundland and in December to boot. Krazy.

A Lincoln's Sparrows joins a Song Sparrow in scolding a pisher at Renews on 1 Dec.  

More often than not there is a lingering Prairie Warbler for the ticking in early December.  This one at the famous Kelly's Brook micro-habitat in east St. John's.

Orange-crowned Warblers have never been so numerous in December. I've seen eight this month myself, more than I see in most entire fall seasons Oct-Dec.

It is easy to go an entire year without seeing a Nashville Warbler in Newfoundland. December birds do happen..  This one at Cappahayden on 9 Dec was photographed early in the morning under heavy overcast skies at a distance using ISO 10,000. It worked, just barely.

Common Yellowthroat is surprisingly rare in December. It is far easier to see a Yellow-throated Warbler than this species in December. I think this is only the fourth Common Yellowthroat I have seen in December. Also unusual is that it is an adult male, a plumage we rarely see after the end of August.  This was along the road north of Cappahayden.

Tuesday 5 December 2017

The Crossley ID Guide: Waterfowl - a review.

The Crossley ID Guide: Waterfowl was published in the summer 2017. It is self-published so may not be widely available at present. It is available on Amazon for $40.00.  As in the style of the previous four Crossley ID Guide books, it is a photographic identification guide. This book covers the regular and vagrant species of ducks, geese and swan occurring in Canada and the United States.  It goes into more depth per species than the other Crossley ID Guides.  The 512 high grade glossy pages create a flexibound book with a substantial weight.

Nearly full page or double page spreads attempt to show birds as they would appear in the field through the use of murals comprised of photographs of individual or groups of waterfowl inserted on to a real life background.  The scenes are alive with activity set in appropriate habitat and season for the corresponding species and plumages. The plates are easy on the eye with the learning process setting in almost subconsciously as one takes a walk through the scene. The details and colours of the birds at various distances are believable and accurate.

The common species are shown with an abundance of images. For example the two species of goldeneyes get a combined total of 12 pages of plates. They show perfectly plumaged spring drakes, first-year males and adult males in eclipse, females and even ducklings. There are some scenes showing both Common and Barrow’s Goldeneye for comparison.  Those long time aches and pains most of us Easterners have had about the head shape and bill colour of any plumage of Common and Barrow’s Goldeneye should receive relief and satisfaction with this book.

The 17 pages of scoter plates are an exposé of the obscure female and non-breeding male plumages possible throughout the year while at the same time doing justice to the striking breeding plumage drakes without over shining the spot light. There are numerous images of eclipse male and female Greater Scaup, Lesser Scaup, Ring-necked Duck, Tufted Duck, Redhead and Canvasback to help solve the identification, including sexing and aging, of those challenging brown aythyas. The eight pages of plates devoted to the four North American subspecies of Common Eider, a subject close to my heart, is the most extensive collection of photographs yet published on the subject in any one place.  Yet, I found myself yearning for more examples of close up adult drakes showing the full details of the bill and head.  Those who find joy in dissecting Canada Geese into subspecies will find something to sink their teeth into. The inclusion of ducklings at several stages of development available for most species is a nice plus for this book.

The plates while functional identification aids are often beautiful.  Many look good enough to be enlarged and framed. The Steller’s Eiders coming into land on brassy water with a background of fog shrouded mountains is a beauty. You can almost hear the nasal calls and feel the splashing water in the double page spread of displaying drake Common Goldeneyes.

There is a brief descriptive passage across the bottom of each page of plates.  However, if you can tear yourself away from the pictures you will notice that the back one third of the book is comprised of written species accounts.  The three to four page per species accounts containing a wealth of information are divided into sections with these interesting headings: Other Common or Regional Names, Measurements, First Impressions, ID: In Depth and Similar Species, Year in the Life, Geographic Variation, Sounds, Diet and Feeding Behavior, Nesting, Hunting and Population and Conservation.  Crossley’s easy going somewhat narrative-style rounds out the corners of hard fact and scientific knowledge.

The common species are allotted two range maps, one for the breeding range and another for the winter range.  With such space you might expect some fine-tuned accurate detailed mapping of waterfowl ranges in North America but – NOPE! In fact there are astonishing mistakes. You can sort of excuse the lack of mapping the tiny breeding range of Blue-winged Teal in southwest corner of Newfoundland as it is rather insignificant on such a large scale map.  We are used to that, but when Northern Shoveler is shown as breeding throughout Labrador and Northern Pintail is not shown as breeding at all in Labrador then you are left shaking your head. The wintering range of the eastern Harlequin Duck is shown as Maine to Maryland.  What about the hundreds wintering in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland!? There are several incidents of incorrect mapping of the winter and breeding ranges of waterfowl in Newfoundland and Labrador that would be obvious only to the birders from this province.  You have to wonder where the creators of the maps got their information. The baseline map does not even show the existence of Cape Breton Island or the entire province of Prince Edward Island!  Oh well - you would not a buy a book like this for the range maps anyway.

Ignoring the range maps, I think this book is a masterpiece. The treasure chest of images makes this book invaluable. But who needs this book? Your average field guide to birds covers waterfowl adequately for your basic identification needs. Experts on bird identification will perhaps have the most to gain from this book.  Little things come to light like the dusky underwing coverts of a female Red-breasted Merganser versus the whiter coverts of a female Common Merganser and the solid dark under wings of a female Common Goldeneye which could all magically come into play on a snapshot flyby of ducks on some cold misty January morning. This book has all the particulars for those who want to know a little more.

The Crossley ID Guide: Waterfowl is a visual encyclopedia of North American waterfowl.  The voluminous text is thorough with easy to extract information.  It is a pillar of a reference book that deserves a place in every birdwatcher’s library. This will be my first go to book for waterfowl queries from now on.

The eider watching season is starting up in Newfoundland with a number of Kings already found among the first arriving borealis Common Eiders.

Friday 24 November 2017

Cackling Goose in Newfoundland - Fake News

Spent the last two days in the Codroy Valley in SW Newfoundland looking through waterfowl, especially geese. There were no rare geese except for this Cackler. It was exciting to come across this distinctive form of the Canada Goose that in 2004 gained full species rank! yah- right. What is wrong with distinctive subspecieses?  Anyhow... here is the bird.  

It was about 2/3 the size of the regular Canada Geese. It was also paler grayish. Always easy to pick out by the grayness when you could not see other features.  The short stubby bill and squared off head were classic Cackler.  The stocky short neck was usually apparent. A white ring around base of black neck was a bonus as only some of the Richardson's race of Cackler show this. Richardson's is the common widespread Cackler. The other three forms are Alaskan only breeders.

Below are pics of the bird. It was genuinely cute.  But for those with similar feelings on giving this form of Canada Goose species status I invite you to join the organization call SOS (Save Our Subspecies).  We also protest other species splits like Bicknells' Thrush and Salt Marsh Sparrow.

Sunday 8 October 2017

An October Empidonax at Cape Race, Newfoundland

On 5 October 2017 I turned up an empidonax flycatcher on the Cape Race road. It was in a patch of tuckamore (windy blown stunted trees) between the Cripple Cove turn off and the Radar House. I was lucky to find any bird in the strong SW winds and drizzly foggy conditions. It was feeding on the lee side of the trees next to the road. My initial reaction was Alder Flycatcher because it looked too big and long billed for a Least. I didn't waste any more time looking at it but started taking as many photos as I could during the observation period of less than five minutes, perhaps only 3 minutes.  I stopped looking at the bird when it blew over the top of the sheltered trees and out of sight.  I went on my merry way. When I looked at the pictures on computer that evening. I was baffled at my species conclusion. The primary projection seemed too short for Alder/Willow, the bill looked intermediate in length. There was also the pointed rear to the eye ring which was in my limited knowledge was consistent with the western empidonaxs.  I sent photos a few people who knew empidonaxs far better than I.  I got mixed responses.  Below are photos of the bird.  All are greatly cropped with some light adjusting. I tended to have the bird over exposed against the dark green back drop of balsam fir needles.

THE ANSWER:  It has been pretty well unanimously identified at a Least Flycatcher by the 15 or so people from around North America who viewed these pictures. Still  a rare species with only a handful of autumn records for the Avalon Peninsula of Newfoundland.