Tuesday 6 November 2018

Newfoundland's FIFTH GRAY HERON - Nov 2018

On Friday evening the 2nd of November 2018 Shawn Fitzpatrick and Karen Mercer came across an apparent Great Blue Heron at Renews, Avalon Peninsula.  Great Blue Herons being rare on the Avalon with most appearing in spring and summer was quite unexpected in November.  Both Shawn and Karen took photos in the failing dusk light.

The photos were circulated Friday evening.  The photos were very grainy at high ISO  required due to the dark conditions but they showed features that were nothing but full of promise for GRAY HERON.  Claiming a bird of that rarity magnitude requires more than a 99% looking good to be confirmed.

The next morning I was there way too early in the dark.  Finally a crow cawed and a kingfisher rattled. The world was waking up. I set the scope up on a point where I could view most of the nooks and crannies of the inner part of the Renews harbour.  I was on my third careful scan of the shoreline when I saw the heron neck sticking out over some shoreline rocks about 100 m away.  I liked what could be seen. The tact sharp black marks on the pale gray neck were ideal. I waited a couple of minutes for it to round the point of rocks that were hiding its legs.  It turned the corner walking my way revealing its silky white thighs with each stride. It should not have been a surprise considering all the supporting evidence leading up to this moment but it was a euphoric moment to see for sure that it was a GRAY HERON. 

 I enjoyed the scope views for a few minutes before sounding the birding alarms. It was a dark overcast drizzly November morning.  How was I going to get photos of this bird before the crowd got here. I noted where the bird was heading along the shoreline. If I could get over to the 'dyke' before it did I could wait in my car with camera ready for it appear. I got there just a bit too late.  Its head poked over the grassy ridge just as I was in position and about to turn off the engine.  It froze and I froze.  The bird was far too nervous even at that range.  I felt it was going to fly and it did. It flew across the harbour. 

The first picture. The Gray Heron noted my presence over a grassy ridge.

Meanwhile, Alison Mews and Ethel Dempsey arrived. Together we drove to the other side of the harbour to look for the bird. Driving across the gravel beach to get to a back cove we realized the bird was 'right there'!!! Nothing we could do. The bird spotted us before we saw it.  Again it flew across the harbour.  Okay, so this bird was showing its European roots in being extremely wary as most European birds have evolved to be to avoid being eaten. Following the bird around the harbour was not going to work. It would take a different approach.  Waiting for the bird to come to you was the only way.  Meanwhile more birders and photographers arrived. Chasing the bird back and forth across the harbour was the name of the game.  One could get great views of the Gray Heron through a scope.  Even good binocular views were not that great. Good photo opts were near impossible with the chase until it flushes routine. 

My Plan B was park the car on the dyke and wait for the bird to be flushed from somewhere else and hope that it would land in front of me.  Miraculously that worked almost immediately. The bird was so close I was afraid to click on the camera until it turned around so I could see it front on. It did that more or less. It was standing in deep water hiding part of the patented silky white thighs. The dark light was still so bad I had to use ISO 3200.  The bird was not alarmed by the madly clicking camera as it stalked small sculpins in the shallows. It paid no attention to my bright blue car on the brown and gray dyke. I knew it was going to happen but the sound of crunching gravel beneath car wheels creeping out on the dyke came too early  The heron heard it too. It became alert and yup flew back across the harbour.  I felt blessed with that three minutes of intimacy with the GRAY HERON.

Some have wondered if the Gray Heron on the Grand Banks on 30 Sept 2018 could be the same bird as Renews on 3 Nov 2018. They are not. The Grand Banks bird had less brown in the back (scapulars) and finer more neatly patterned black neck streaking. In these comparison photos below there are details in the bill that prove the difference.  The Grand Banks bird showed dull colours with the upper mandible showing a pale tip and an intrusion of orange along the cutting edge at the midway point. The Renews birds shows a uniform dark upper mandible right to the tip and brighter more intense orange-yellow lower mandible.

 Gray Heron 30 Sept 2018 on Grand Banks

Gray Heron 3 Nov 2018 at Renews

The previous four records of Gray Heron in Newfoundland are listed below.  More details on the Grand Banks bird can be found just two posts before this one.
  1. 1996 11 October at Lear Cove, near Cape St. Mary’s, found moribund. The bird died the next day in a bird rehab centre. Body was donated to Memorial University but was not correctly identified until several years later.
  2. 2013 10 March to 12 June at Little Hearts Ease, Bonavista Bay. The bird may have been present since January. Photographed and viewed by many.
  3. 2016 5-6 May at Bonavista and same bird (?) 19 May into June and maybe all summer at Comfort Cove, Notre Dame Bay.
  4. 2018 30 September  on an offshore supply vessel on eastern Grand Banks 330 km east of Cape Race.

Wednesday 24 October 2018

Two Pink-foots - We'll Take 'Em

Pink-footed Goose lost its mega rarity status in North America around the turn of the century. A small and ever so slowly growing number are now expected during the winter in the New England States.  It is seen regularly in autumn migration in Quebec and somewhat so in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.  This is a long way from the first North American Pink-footed Goose for North America in May 1980 at St. Anthony.  I saw that bird. Paul Linegar saw that bird.  Norm Chesterfield, the first person to see 500 species in Canada came to see that bird. When news of two Pink-footed Geese spotted by Carol McDougall at  Branscombe Pond in St John's came over the rare bird line at 11 am today I thought to myself - "Great, it will be nice to see two together and with other geese".  There was no exploding out the office door and speeding through traffic to see the bird soon as possible.  I could wait until lunch hour to drive the ten minutes from work with other rules-of-the-road law abiding citizens. Most birders in St. John's were over saturated with images of Pink-footed Goose after one spent December to April with the tame ducks at Bowring Park a few years back.

The light was fantastic on the flock of 18 Canada and 2 Pink-footed Geese.  Low mid-day October sun light is a beautiful thing. The birds were just a little bit far for cameras.  Even the 840 mm was not really enough but a little cropping made the photos more revealing.   Here are some of the pics.

It remains to be known whether we will see these two Pink-footed Geese again. This has been a game changing fall for Canada Geese in St. John's.  Up until this year only the occasional one or two or three Canada Geese would enter St. John's and maybe feed on the grass in a fenced off ball field or Bally Haley golf course. This fall there has been a couple of flocks of 20-30 geese. One flock frequenting Virginia Lake and feeding on the pond weed.  Another flock of about 20 geese has been sporadically seen at Mundy Pond and perhaps the same flock seen feeding in at field off Brookfield Road. It might be this flock that the the Pink-footed Geese joined.  There are now harvested cornfields in the Goulds that would be excellent forage for geese. And last time I checked Bally Haley there were five Canada Geese there.

We need these Canada Geese as decoys to lure in wandering rare Greenland geese such as these two Pink-footed Geese. It should be noted that the Virginia Lake goose flock includes an interesting hybrid goose that I like to support the thinking is a Canada Goose x  Greater White-fronted Goose.  Below are some pictures of this interesting goose.

Sunday 21 October 2018

A Believe It or Not late Oct Baird's Sandpiper w/juv WRSAs

Baird's Sandpiper causes more anxiety among Newfoundland birders than any other shorebird species. It is a very scarce migrant during the period 20 August to late September and occasionally up to mid October. It becomes a case of looking too hard at similar species, mainly juvenile Semipalmated Sandpipers with somewhat similar scaly looking upper parts. However, the real season of Baird's look alikes is in the latter half of October.  Juvenile White-rumped Sandpipers are far more scaly on the upper parts than the Semi Sandpiper ever is. The juveniles start appearing in mid September but numbers really take off in mid Oct to mid Nov. Entire flocks of super scaly topped sandpipers are everywhere. They show up in odd locations for a sandpiper like parking lots, random lawns, roadways and of course kelp covered beaches. They become the dominant shorebirds species after the 3rd week of October. 

If someone reports a Baird's Sandpiper in late October it is met with skepticism.  Today 21 October 2018 I came across a nice flock of 38 White-rumped Sandpipers feeding around a wet area where manure piles are stored on Pipeline Road, Goulds (site of the June 2018 Sandhill Crane).  The  drizzle and south winds gusting to 80 km/hr likely grounded them. There were only two adults in the flock. the rest were spiffy juveniles.  It seemed to be a pure species flock but then I saw one with a buffy upper breast walking  toward me. This doesn't look right.  Then it turned side on and I saw the buffy side of head and neck. That is all I needed to know this was a Baird's Sandpiper.  Very unexpected.  The late date was one thing but the fact that it was travelling with White rumps also seemed odd.

The immediate need was to get pictures. Although people generally trust my bird IDs there are some birds that no matter who you are one feels a lot better having seen the picture. It was not real close and the wind and blowing fog made for poor conditions but no excuse will do.  I had only 20 minutes with the bird before the whole flock of birds vanished after a Mourning Dove flew in!  Pointed wings like a Merlin I guess.

The Baird's Sandpiper in the middle has a more uniform scaly back pattern than the majority of juvenile White-rumped Sandpipers

The buffy neck and side of head of this Baird's Sandpiper is the best field marks when separating it from a White-rumped Sandpiper which is always grayish here.

The Baird's Sandpiper has a nice buffy breast with vertical pencils streaks that is cut off in an even line.  The fresh plumage juvenile White-rumped Sandpiper on the right has an uneven lower border to breast streaking on a white-ish back ground. Juvenile White rumpeds show a variable amount of rufous edging to the scapulars. Baird's never show any rufous in the back but neither to do all White rumps. White rumps begin moulting out those red scapular feathers while in Newfoundland and replace them with plan gray feathers in preparation for the winter season. The presence of rufous eliminates Baird's but the lack of it is insignificant.

This picture shows the uniform scaly pattern of the Baird's next to two out of focus juvenile White rumps still with plenty of rufous showing in back.

The Baird's

A comparison of the buffy neck colour of the Baird's vs the gray neck of the juvenile White-rumped.

This is the same juvenile White rumped above and below. Note how new plain gray feathers have grown in replacing the rufous edged feathers during its juvenile stage.  

Tuesday 2 October 2018

Gray Heron on the Newfoundland Grand Banks Sept 2018

On 30 September 2018 at about 10 AM a GRAY HERON landed on the vessel I was on located 330 km east of Cape Race, Avalon Peninsula, Newfoundland. (Note: the EEZ limit is 370 km so the bird was within Canadian waters).  There had been three days of light to moderate east and southeast winds prior to its appearance.  The winds were easterly across the Atlantic from southern Europe to the Grand Banks. Stalled post-tropical depression Leslie located between Newfoundland and the Azores was the cause of the winds.  This was the 4th record of Gray Heron for Newfoundland. The bird stayed on the vessel for eight hours.  It left under the cover of darkness. It appeared quite alert and healthy. It very wary of any sighting of  human on the boat.

The first picture. It was very foggy day. It took a good while before I knew it was a Gray Heron and not a Great Blue Heron.

 I got down on the main deck and looked out between machinery for better views. The first peak at the trademark white thighs.

It was actually the sharp black lines on the neck that started adrenaline rush. I knew it was as Gray Heron then.  The white thighs up to this point were difficult to be sure of through binoculars in the early views.

First look at the white headlights on the front of the wing as the bird caught its balance during a swell.

 The bird got nervous and flushed a few times providing some bonus views.

The white 'headlights' clearly obvious and quite striking compared to the rustiness on of the Great Blue Heron.. 

The legs are shorter on Gray Heron than the Great Blue Heron.  The feet make up about half the leg extension beyond the tail.  There is more leg showing on Great Blue.

There is a little more contrast in the pale gray upper wing coverts and the dark flight feathers compared to Great Blue Heron.

Screaming white thighs leave no doubt of the Gray Heron ID in this picture as it comes in for a landing.

Tuesday 4 September 2018

The Little Egret Two Months Later

The Spaniard's Bay Little Egret was big news on 1 July even though non-birders had been iphone snapping it for at least two weeks. It was a classic breeding plumage Little Egret. The 11th record for Newfoundland.  The bird hung around for the summer. It took a week long vacation across  Conception Bay to Kelligrews but returned to Spaniard's Bay where the feeding was just too good to leave. I visited Spaniard's Bay on 1st September to look for shorebirds and hoped to see if the Little Egret was still around. Surprisingly it was easy to find by the main bridge in Spaniard's Bay. 

It was in a place where I could drive my car behind a building and point the camera out through the car window between the weed stalks. The weed stalks hide most of me and broke up the image of the car. The bird was probably already used to vehicles since it was feeding next to a busy road. We became intimate over the next hour and a half. Not sure that it ever seriously acknowledged my presence but I felt blessed to watch it from point blank range.

The following pictures shows the bird in various poses.  The two spaghetti plumes on the back of the head have been moulted away as expected in late summer. See my July 2018 blog posting of the bird in high breeding plumage.  

The following is the series of photos I selected from the multitudes.

For those that don't know a Snowy Egret, the Little Egret is a slightly bigger species with a somewhat heavier neck and longer bill. The classic field mark of colour of the lores being yellow on the Snowy Egret and bluish on Little Egret are evident o all of the following pictures. The dark yellow marks at base of lores is wholly typical of Little Egret and does not indicate anything to do with a Snowy Egret.