Thursday 20 April 2017

The Season called Spring in Newfoundland

Spring weather is probably better on Mars than it is in Newfoundland. As I type this on 20 April it is currently snowing and there is a Freezing Rain Warning posted for tonight in St. Johns and the northern Avalon Peninsula. There is a strip of pack ice  across the entrance to St. John's harbour.  The good news about spring is the high frequency of Icelandic vagrants. Frequently during the spring large Low Pressure areas stall and enlarge in the mid North Atlantic generating an air flow from Ireland & Iceland to Newfoundland and Labrador. Shorebirds wintering in Ireland and the rest of the UK on their way to nesting grounds in Iceland sometimes miss their mark and ride the winds all the way to Newfoundland.  European Golden Plover is the most regular and most numerous species.  It is found almost every spring somewhere in eastern Newfoundland but in good years there can be several hundred with single flocks of up to 60 birds. Black-tailed Godwit is a distant second in abundance, followed by Eurasian Whimbrel and Common Redshank.  The peak period is 20 April to 10 May.

There is mildly promising weather for some Icelandic birds in the next week but the winds are actually surprisingly good from Spain/France to eastern Newfoundland for the next 48 hours. We have a list of outlandish possibilities that could come from that area which are too crazy reproduce here.

Below are a few photos of Icelandic vagrants from our last big influx of Icelandic vagrants to Newfoundland in 2014 just to help whet the appetite..  

Two striking Black-tailed Godwits at Renews on 26 April 2014.

Eurasian Whimbrel at Cape Spear 9 June 2014. It arrived in mid May.

One of two Common Redshanks that were present at Renews beach on 4 May 2014.

A Greater Yellowlegs challenged the stranger (Common Redshank) at Renews Beach 4 May 2014. It was a brief skirmish. The redshank held its ground and did not fly away but went back to feeding soon as the yellowlegs let go.

Sometimes Northern Wheatears add a bit of variety during an Icelandic vagrant show composed mainly of shorebirds. May 2014 at Renews.

It does not matter how many times you see them in Newfoundland  the first one that lands in the spring is a big thrill.  European Golden Plovers WILL happen again. Will spring 2017 be another big influx???  Photo: early May 2014 Renews.

Not all birds of European origin arrive in Newfoundland flying directly across the Atlantic in spring. Some are thought to have flown across the Atlantic Ocean farther south, perhaps from western Africa during fall or winter.  After finding a winter refuge in say the Caribbean it is theorized that such birds fly north through North America in spring.  I am sold on this theory for explaining birds like the two pictured below. Both showed up in mid day during clear blue skies and strong west winds.

Little Egret at (where else?) Renews on 23 May 2015.

Garganey at Quidi Vidi Lake, St. John's on 15 May 2009..  

Sunday 16 April 2017


It was 3:30 p.m. on the Thursday before the three day Easter holiday when my cell phone rang.  It was Alvan Buckley. He said “I just forwarded you a photo of a loon that Peter Shelton saw at Trepassey”. Sitting in front of my office computer I saw the email arriving and opened it while Alvan was still on the phone.  My finger already hovering over the ‘reject button’ moved back when the picture appeared. A clear, up cut, pointed yellow bill was an obvious foot in the door for building a case for Yellow-billed Loon.
Peter Shelton's photo of an interesting loon at Trepassey, NF on 11 April 2017. It looks rather obvious for a Yellow-billed Loon when you know it is one, but when you are trying to rationalize why this Common Loon looks like a Yellow-billed Loon things get fuzzy.
Alvan asked if I was going for it?  I said no.  I still had not digested the picture and besides I already had plans to be birding Trepassey in the morning. The record was also 48 hours old.  Over the next ten minutes I continued looking at the picture.  The bill was so good.  Clear yellow to the tip and finely pointed and a little upturned.  It had none of the dusky lines along culmen ridge or other areas of the bill typically present on even the whitest washed out examples of spring/summer sub-adult Common Loons.  How could it look any better for a YBLO?  However, I was long ago convinced there was no way a Yellow-billed Loon was ever going to occur in Newfoundland waters.  I had to see why this bird looked so close to a YBLO.  There was not much daylight left and I did have some social plans for the evening but I called Alvan back saying that I was going for it, do you want to come? Yes was his answer. We met at my house at 4 pm and began the 1hour 45 minute drive from St. John’s to Trepassey
Visibility was excellent over Trepassey Bay when we arrived.  We found the mother lode of loons over by the old fish plant site.  But they were nearly all asleep. This was not something we were prepared for.  The few hundred loons trapped by ice for the last week had sought refuge in open water of the inner parts of Trepassey harbour.  With little feeding opportunity the loons had taken on a semi-hibernation mode and were sleeping away the day to conserve energy. Tufted Ducks do the same thing to get them through the coldest parts of the winter in St. John’s by sleeping for days and days.
Using details from Peter’s photo we could eliminate many loons by the amount of white checkering in the back and others were just too dark on the neck.  We’d hover over particular birds of interest, sometimes whistling hoping it would raise its head. Meanwhile, Paul Linegar arrived on the scene to help with the searching.  After an hour looking at several flocks of sleeping loons I decided to move to the location of the old fish plant and scan the ice choked entrance of the harbour.
There were far fewer loons here but at least they had their necks up because they were actively fishing.  Far in the distance I was monitoring ten loons swimming in a line and actively diving. Between the ice pans I kept getting the vibes that one of them was browner and maybe holding its head up higher. The birds were gradually working toward me but still hundreds of meters away. Eventually through the shimmering air the brownish loon indeed had the clear yellow bill we were looking for. I knew I was looking at a YELLOW-BILLED LOON for a full minute before jumping into the car and racing like a madman to get Alvan and Paul. We got back on the bird immediately. They were now only a couple hundred meters away and getting closer. The bird was too far away to pick out naked eye and hardly noticeably through the camera lens but through the scope easy to view.
It was browner.  The bill was amazing. Except for some darkness right around the immediate base of the bill next to the feathers, the bill was clear unmarked yellow.  It was a pale yellow becoming a little more intense at the tip. The bill was held up much like the character of a Red-throated Loon.  The bird was easy to pick out from the other loons but the browner body.  The pale on the side of the head and neck was much more extensive than the COLOs. The hind neck was a darker brown with a fairly distinct even line of contrast with the paler sides.  When viewed from the back it was like a paint roller had been run up of the back of the neck creating an evenly width swath.  When facing away you could see the pale of both sides of the neck at the same time. This is unlike the COLOs which when viewed from the back were all dark. (I know there are endless variations among one year old COLOs in spring and summer. I think these were all adult Common Loons that it was with.)  The pale face was so extensive that when it went to sleep holding its head over it back there were still plenty of pale face exposed making it easy to pick out on this feature alone. The head was also noticeably large compared to the COLOs, it was not so easy to detect the large body size while sitting low in the slightly rough water. 
We watched the bird for 30 minutes as darkness set in and the Yellow-billed Loon went to sleep. We left feeling elated that we had seen the impossible - a genuine YELLOW-BILLED LOON in Newfoundland.   We were looking forward to more views and some good photos in the morning.
Tomorrow came and so did a dozen eager loons lookers. But over night the band of pack ice trapping the loons in Trepassey Bay had loosened up considerably and was drifting back to the open sea. A third of the 300 or loons present on Thursday were gone at dawn on Friday. The beautiful rare loon was among those that departed…
Where did this loon spend the winter? The white spots coming in on the flanks indicated it was an adult. Maybe it will return to Newfoundland waters next winter.  We will never look at loons the same way from this point on. 
Full frame with a 840 mm lens and the loons are still far away. The Yellow-billed Loon is 4th from the left.  Note istlooks browner among these Common Loons.

Major cropping reveals the clear yellow slightly upturned bill and extensively pale face.

More hints at the pale face and yellow bill.

Beside the yellow bill the large head size compared to the Common Loons is apparent here.

Compare the large pale face and bill colour and shape with the Common Loons.

From behind the pale face can be seen on both sides of the head unlike the Common Loons present.

The large blocky head of the Yellow-billed Loon makes the Common Loons look wimpy by
structural comparison .

In a couple months the Yellow-billed Loon should look like this one on a lake in front of a remote mining camp in Nunavut on 5 Sept 2012.  A Yellow-billed Loon is a very special bird no matter where you see it in North America.

Here is an improved version of Peter Shelton's Yellow-billed Loon from 11 April 2017 at Trepassey, Newfoundland.  There is no arguing with that bill.

Tuesday 11 April 2017

Shooting Loons in a Barrel

There were many interesting byproducts of the 9 days of gale to storm force north and northeast winds that hit eastern Newfoundland from 27 March to 4 April 2017.  Most significant was the pack ice that traveled south at break neck speed to come into land along the entire northward facing coasts and east coast of the Avalon Peninsula. The ice carried with it large numbers of harp seals and most noteworthy large numbers of young hooded seals.  A few lucky people got to be where a polar bear came to land.  Unfortunately one bear 'had to be shot' for lingering too long around houses even after many deterrents were tried while the others were tranquilized and flown north into the ice far from land.  

The ice caused some huge concentration of Common Eiders and one lucky observer photographed an immature Ivory Gull. Eventually the main pack of ice actually went south of the Avalon carried by the unrelenting north winds.  Finally the winds broke but then there was a strong Low pressure area generating gale force south winds.  The ice came right back! This time flooding the south shore of the Avalon Peninsula rarely touched by ice even in previous decades when Avalon pack ice was annual in winter.

Birds not used to dealing with the ice got trapped by the sudden appearance of the ice on the southward facing shorelines of the Avalon. Common Loons were most affected. During the heavy rain and wind of 8 April Ian Jones and Jeannine Winkel discovered large numbers of birds in the open water of Trepassey Bay. The ice had jammed in the narrows leaving the large bay unaffected by ice. Most noteworthy was a staggering total of 589 Common Loons.  In a normal winter day a good day total of loons would be 60 or 70. 

The next day dawn foggy but without a wind.  A number of birders went toward Trepassey. The sights were quite interesting.  The Trepassey scene was lower than during the teeth of the gale the day before but as the fog lifted there were still there were 325 Common Loons, 2 Red-throated Loon, 35 Red-necked Grebes, 2 Horned Grebes, 300 Thick-billed Murres, 40 Common Murres, Razorbills, 1 puffin and various ducks.  Also along the shore between Trepassey and Cape Race were at least four pockets of 10-12 loons trapped in tiny patches of water against the shoreline.  So trapped they had no room for a runway to get airborne.  As I write we do not know the fate of these birds. The wind has not done much to move the ice back offshore.

In a more open space behind the wharf at Portugal Cove South a group of 11 Common Loons.found their refuge.  Potentially they could still get away from this confined water space but on the first day of the siege they were content to sit there in a group and wait to see what happened. One thing that did happen was locals drove down on the wharf to look at the odd flock of loons so close. For a photographer it was like shooting loons in a barrel. They had no where to go and they knew it, so remained peaceful so it seemed.

The ice chart for 9 April 2017 showing the limited amount of ice by how is huge the coasts.  The Red colour indicating heavy 100% ice cover.

A picture of The Drook on the Cape Race road showing the extensive ice on 8 April 2017. A rare scene for this location.

Part of a group of 350 adult harp seal 2 km offshore from The Drook.

Some of the loon flock at Portugal Cove South trapped open water behind the wharf on 8 April 2017

One White-winged Scoter kept company with the loons at Portugal Cove South - 8 April 2017

A flock of Thick-billed Murres flying over some Common Loons in Trepassy Bay - 8 April 2017

More Thick-billed Murre flying in Trepassey Bay. Most of them left and flew out over the ice when the sun came out and breeze picked up. 8 April 2017

A group of Common Loons trapped by ice at Long Beach, near Cape Race - 8 April 2017

Cape Race on 8 April 2017

A close encounter with a young Hooded Seal at Cape Spear on 4 April 2017. Saw more Hooded Seals in two weeks than the previous 40 years in Newfoundland.

Saturday 1 April 2017

Raggedy Jackets and Beaters - No Ice Partridge

With much anticipation I slept on & off through the night getting up hours before daylight to reach Cape Spear a birding destination only a 15 minute drive from home. A week of powerful northerly winds capped off with 36 hours of far reaching and intense NE wind drove the pack ice to the Avalon Peninsula in a way we have not seen for years.  Was it too late in the season for Ivory Gull?  In the past 30 year I can think of three times there have been Ivory Gull events on the Avalon in April. What about polar bear?  It used to happen more often than Ivory Gull in April yet while having seen all the April Ivory Gulls, I'd never seen a bear on the Avalon Peninsula.

The ice pack reached the Avalon on Friday. It was still off shore by sunset but overnight the 80-100 NE winds were sure to jam it against the shore.  I got to Cape Spear at 0700 Saturday morning. The driving snow was relatively light but it was full of ice pellets=ice bullets in the wind. I was prepared with full winter whiteout gear suitable for Baffin Island in January (who needs spring anyway!?) including professional grade snowmobile goggles. I decided to leave the scope in the trunk of the car because of the poor visibility and the tripod and scope catches a lot of air which is critical with these kinds of winds.

I always forget how strong a 100 km/hr wind is. You can hardly walk in it. Cape Spear being shaped like an airplane wing seems to exaggerate the force of the wind. I just managed to keep on my feet rounding the tip of the Cape to get to my shelter.

Perfect.  It was ice to my horizon (about 500 m), but seemed to be ice well beyond that. The ice was flowing south at break neck speed. Seals starting appearing to my left and disappearing to the my right. They were all this years young Harp Seals. Some still shedding the white coats of newborns.  These young seals, now on their own, were still not feeding themselves but relying on the fat given to them by their mothers. They were on the ice for the ride.  With the patchy white fluff of juvenile pelage the name given to them by sealers is raggedy jackets. Still very young, the bones are soft and make a juicy snack for a polar bear.  So tender and smooth you hardly have to chew the rich, savory flavourful dark meat.... (at least that what the polar bears tell me).  The new brightly furred seals having shed their white fluff are called beaters. I think because they have to beat their way back north once the ice melts and they get their 'swimming legs'.  These seals are gonna have a long swim to get back north when the ice melts this spring.

Birds were ordinary.  There was a fair passage of gulls flying toward St. John's for a feed.  Flocks of kittiwakes, probably local breeders, were also flying north.  I looked for black legs and inky black eye balls passing by in the snow but no such luck. I waited 2 hours and 15 minutes but no Ivory Gull today. That doesn't mean there aren't some around and  tomorrow is another day.

The highlight for me was getting a few snaps of raggedy jackets. I am not sure that I'd ever seen them in that state of 'moult'. It probably is present for only a couple weeks per years.  Below are some photos of the seals as they passed Cape Spear.....

This young Harp Seal was one of 35 or so that passed close by the rocks at Cape Spear riding the pack ice driven by the Storm Force north winds and Labrador Current.

Small seals among big ice.  There is no place they'd rather be except maybe not so far south today.

Like a snake shedding its skin the white coat Harp Seals acquire dark grey with scattered dark splotches. During this stage of its fur moult it is called a raggedy jacket.

An Iceland Gull working its way against the wind passes by the raggedy jacket travelling with the will of the ice. 

A reference point with the shoreline of Cape Spear and the raggedy jacket riding the ice southward.

There were large rolling swells under the ice. Here at Flatrock the swells released from the pressure of the ice overhead explode in the open water around the Beamer at Flatrock.

This scene I dreamed I could see at Cape Spear today but realistically was an extremely remote possibility.  This is a polar bear with a just killed hooded seal in NE Greenland - Sept 2010.

And when the bear is finished eating, an Ivory Gull (or Ice Partridge as known on the Northern Peninsula, Newfoundland)  might drop in for some left overs. This seal pelt actually discarded on the ice by man was welcomed by this and other Ice Partridge at Goose Cove, Northern Peninsula, Newfoundland in Feb 2010.