Monday 28 October 2019

Whooping Crane Safari to Saskatchewan - 13-20 Oct 2019

My brother Andrew and I went to Saskatchewan in search of Whooping Cranes.  The Saskatoon area is well known stop over area in October. We gave ourselves a full week to find and enjoy the cranes with extra time to enjoy the other birds migrating through the prairies in October.  An area 75 minutes drive north of Saskatoon, near Marcelin, was the place to go in 2019 A good number (50!) of Whooping Crane had been reported here a few days before our arrival.

It was a royal success. On the first day we counted 110 and second day 112 Whooping Cranes. We had up to 64 in sight at one time. The huge birds with perhaps the loudest call of any bird in North America was the most wary species I had ever encountered.  Even at 500 m a car stopping on a little traveled road was enough to spook them. They were spectacular in flight. Huge birds. Photos were mainly of birds in flight. They would not fly over a human being either so even flight shots were all distant.

The spectacularly conspicuous Whooping Cranes needs a lot of space to feel comfortable. It can find these requirements in parts of sparsely populated Saskatchewan. 

Note the rusty bird in between the two white birds.  the rusty bird is a juvenile. We saw only about ten juvs.

Whooping Cranes feeding in comfort a long way from people and in a wide open terrain so it can spot potential predators (coyote) from a safe distance. 


Cousin to the Whooping Crane is the relatively abundant Sandhill Crane.

Sharp-tailed Grouse were fairly easy to see in the same areas as the Whooping Cranes within 30 minutes of sunrise. We saw a group of six doing a mock up of their spring dances in the corner of a remote wheat field.

An adult Golden Eagle looking for injured Snow Geese at Luck Lake caused a big stir. It was one of six Golden Eagles observed during the trip.

 This immature buteo (above and below) was a form of the Red-tailed Hawk, either a dark morph Western Red-tailed Hawk or a Harlan's.  

This stunning adult Harlan's Hawk ( just a race of the Red-tailed Hawk!) was one of the highlights of the trip.

This fat dog with the black tail was one of hundreds of Black-tailed Prairie Dogs preparing for hibernation at Grassland National Park.

Buffalo were reintroduced to Grasslands in 1996 and certainly fit the part now.

Best bird in the Grasslands Nat Park was this close fly over encounter of a gorgeous, pale morph adult Ferruginous Hawk.

See Part II below for the Geese of Saskatchewan.

Saskatchewan Part II - The Geese

The geese in Saskatchewan are amazing. The sheer volume is incomprehensible. Yah! so you come across 50,000 Snow Geese in a roadside lake. No big deal. No one rushes out to see such, for such events are commonplace scattered about the southern half of the province.  They feed in the cut wheat fields in the morning and evening and rest by day in the larger ponds/lakes.  Snow Geese were the most numerous species.  Among the Snows there were always some Ross's.  White-fronted Geese seemed more local.  However, we came across 25,000 resting by day at a lake that also hosted 100,000 Snow Geese.  A local farmer said he'd never seen so many geese as this fall. Canada Geese were abundant but often formed their own concentrations separate from the Snow Goose throngs. Among them it was fun to see the Cackling Geese. Sometimes there were sizable flocks of Cacklers with a few large Canada Geese sticking out like ugly ducklings among the flock. I am a non-believer in giving Cackling Goose full species status. The experience in Sask did nothing to change my mind. There are lots of in betweens. Even among the Cacklers there were differences, some with white breast some with dark breasts, a few with white rings around the neck. There is no doubt that Cacklers are a cute form of the Canada Goose but best left as a subspecies if I could change the rules back to the way they were.

One Bald Eagle fly over caused a mass flush of 30-40,000 Snow Geese feeding in a recently cut wheat field. The sound of that many panicked geese nearly lifted us off the ground.
Beware of low flying geese.

Within the flocks this is what it looks like.

Breakfast in a wheat field.

Pretty easy to pick out the two Ross's Geese by the stubby bills.

One Ross's, One Snow.

There are eight Ross's in this picture.

There are three easy Ross's  and one near Ross's in this flock.

Didn't do so well on photographs of the Greater White-fronted Geese even though they were less jumpy than the Snow Geese. They were my favourite goose to watch.

Speckle-bellies is a secondary name for the White-fronted Goose.

Who Made Who? Three Cacklers with two larger Canada Geese.

Mixture of Cacklers and other Canada Geese

A few large Canada Geese among this flock of Cacklers.

A parade of Cacklers.

Not a goose but related. Tundra Swans were commonly present in low hundreds compared to tens of thousands of geese.

Tundra Swans, gray immatures with white adults.

A sub adult Trumpeter Swan on the right with an adult Tundra Swan. Fairly easy to see the differences in the bill size and shape of feathering around bill in this photo. It was the only Trumpeter Swan we noticed. Not sure of its status in Saskatchewan.

Tuesday 24 September 2019

Another Good Week in September 2019

September 16-22 was a good week for rarities on the Avalon. Nothing mind boggling just a varied selection minor rarities and these four nice birds.  First was a COMMON NIGHTHAWK found by Andrea Dicks while she was walking her dog at dusk at Kent's Pond in St. John's. Those from out of the province reading this blog will be surprised to know that nighthawk was the rarest of the four species shown here. For most St. John's birders it was to be a new bird for their provincial list.  Thinking back I could remember only three other nighthawks I had seen on the island of Newfoundland and none in more than twenty years. The bird performed well each evening for at least a week. Everyone got to see it.  It was fun trying to photograph it in the dusk.  ISO 6400 was the only hope.
 Common Nighthawk 18 Sept 2019 at Kent's Pond, St. John's, Newfoundland.

Next was a juvenile Ruff. It was at the Cochrane Pond manure pile. I visited the location before work on a very dark rainy Tuesday morning and saw this medium size brown shorebird fly in. I was expecting it be a Pectoral Sandpiper. It didn't land but as it turned around to go away I was sure I caught a flash of a white 'U' shaped rump patch. I knew that meant Ruff. Also the bird had a very fluid flight unlike a Pectoral Sandpiper.  I knew it had to be a Ruff but it happened in a flash when a mind has little chance to register all the real facts. I got out of the car and there it was - a Ruff standing next to a Lesser Yellowlegs by a pool of ripe water. A brightly coloured juvenile Ruff.  Newfoundland gets a couple or so Ruffs every year, mostly between May and September. Fall juveniles are the least common plumage to see. It stayed for about three days and was viewed by many others.

The juvenile Ruff with a Lesser Yellowlegs in the Goulds on 17 September 2019.

Note the unique 'U' shaped white rump band. 

The bright wing underwings and clear buffy breast and head have quite a resemblance to the Buff-breasted Sandpiper.

The oddly small head of the Ruff with a Lesser Yellowlegs and Semipalmated Sandpiper.

While I was looking at the Ruff, Dave Brown was finding two Northern Wheatears at Ferryland. Everyone loves a Wheatear. They were bouncing around on the rock walls at the archaeological dig. Luckily one stayed until the weekend giving me a chance to see it.

A fan favourite always - a juvenile Northern Wheatear at Ferryland on 22 September 2019

After an intimate experience with the Wheatear I went warblering in the alders in a couple of old gravel pits in Ferryland.   I heard Yellow-rumped Warblers and juncos as I entered the pit. I walked in that direction.  Warblers and juncos were flying across an open pit to the trees along one edge. I stood trying to identify everything that came - Tennessee, Magnolia, lots of Blackpolls and Yellow-rumps, a few Black-throated greens then ONE OF THE BLACK-THROATED GREENS HAD A YELLOW BREAST... And a dark cheek patch. It was a TOWNSEND'S WARBLER.  In September !!!? We are used to the blast of finding a TOWA in November and December or even late October on the Avalon. There are 24 or 25 records of Townsend's Warbler. This was just one more for the bin but at a new time of year.  Frantically I concentrated on getting record shots of the bird. It was in sight or I knew where it was for 2 or 3 minutes. It was never real close but I was happy to get these results after some serious cropping. It was never found again even with a small group of first responders quickly on the scene.

 A Townsend's Warbler at Ferryland, Newfoundland on 22 September 2019 as record early by 3 1/2 weeks.

Just one more nice week in an already action packed month... Lots of fall yet to come.