Wednesday 12 June 2019

Town Willet Evicts Black-tailed Godwit

After supper on 10 June Tony Dunne noticed a strange looking shorebird standing with a yellowlegs at "boat harbour" in Renews.  A relative of Tony's secured a picture which he then gave to Clara Dunne who then forwarded the picture for me to identify.  I always look forward to opening a picture of something the Dunnes of Renews can't identify. Everything rare happens in Renews. Once again it was a nice rarity.  It was a  Black-tailed Godwit - a surprise in June.

Black-tailed Godwit has become a very regular Icelandic vagrant to Newfoundland in late April and May.  This spring there had already been one in The Goulds and another in central Newfoundland at Buchans of all places.  Black-tailed Godwits must be going through a population increase in Iceland to account for the increased regularity of them in Newfoundland over the last 5-10 years.

Early the next morning I left St. John's to go look at the bird. There was enough daylight before 9 am to see the bird and get back to town in time for 9 am start time at the office.  I arrived in Renews at 6 am and soon ran into Bill MacKenzie who had already checked the main beach with no success.  We drove around to the town side of the harbour and found the local Willet, a late migrant Black-bellied Plover,  several Greater Yellowlegs and a number of Spotted Sandpipers.   By 6:40 there was no place left to look and we'd had enough of looking at the present shorebirds when the godwit sailed in from above. The orange neck, brilliant white under wings and black tail all obvious as it came in for the landing. BINGO.

The brilliant early morning sun was totally in our favour for looking at the bird.  There is something special about that patented shade of bright orange on the bill and breast that is unique to Black-tailed Godwit and brings a warming to the rarity storage section of the heart no matter how many you see.  We watched the bird probing around the kelp covered rocks in the falling tide and were taking pictures from within our cars. It was working it wat closer to us. Great views.  I didn't know this at the time but the camera was having trouble focusing on the bird.  The brilliant low morning sun was reflecting off the bird in a blinding light.  Even though the centre focus spot was fully covered by the bird, the camera was focusing on the dark, light absorbing kelp just behind the bird.  While 90% of the photos were not in focus 10% were and they came out OK.

During the 40 minutes of observation the local Willet chased the godwit three times.  It would run at it. The godwit would at first just keep ahead of the charging Willet by running or with brief flights.  But in the end the godwit flew away. We lost sight of it flying across the harbour.  And from what following people said it seemed the godwit did not come back until late in the day.  There has been a lone Willet spending the summer at Renews for more than ten years. For a couple of years it had a mate and on a least one year produced young that I do no think reach fledgling age. Newfoundland is east of the Willets main nesting range in Nova Scotia.  This outlier that keeps coming back to Renews with high hope is like the lonely bull.  It dreams of bliss but is frustrated year after year.  It probably considered a shorebird larger than itself but with a wing stripe to match as potential competition lest a mate did come around.   

The Black-tailed Godwit at Renews, Newfoundland on 11 June 2019. Age and Sex?  The relatively short bill should indicate male and the limited amount of orange on breast should indicate female or maybe it is a sub-adult 1st year male.  Speculating.  

The immaculate white underwings are more startling white than any other shorebird.

The Black-tailed Godwit on the left is being hurried out of town by the Willet. Note the similar white wing stripes. The Willet is not used to seeing a wing stripe rivaling its own. 

Don t mess with me! The Renews Willet.  BossBird of the Renews tidal flats late May to August.

A picture of the Goulds Black-tailed Godwit on 28 April 2019.  This must be an adult male. Note the intense colouring of the head and neck

More Pictures from 13 June 2019


Wednesday 5 June 2019

Beauty in the Beast

In mid April 2019 on a Saturday evening a photo of Turkey Vulture appeared on Newfoundland Birding Facebook. It was sitting by a guard rail along a road near Trinity. Dang! Details took a while to come in. It was seen only once that afternoon. I hummed and hawed on the off chance we could recognize the guard rail when we got in the general area that was at least 3 hours drive away. Details were skimpy. Besides I already had eager Sunday plans to look for white Gyrs. There had been individuals regular as a Gyr can be regular at nearby Cape Spear and another at Bay Bulls. I'd already had exciting encounters with both these white Gyrs but I of course wanted more time with them. But Turkey Vulture would be new for my Newfoundland list.  Newfoundland has a wide moat around it, wider than a Turkey Vulture should ever cross making it a very rare visitor now and forever.

I went to bed weighing out the options of Turkey Vulture and the long drive with iffy odds of finding or two separate White Gyrs within 30 minutes of home.  Earlier that evening I presented my dilemma to a prominent US birder from the Northeast that I'd been corresponding with on subspecies of juncos ID of all things.  He made it clear what his choice would have been when he said "Not only all birders but ALL PEOPLE would go for the Gyrfalcon over a Turkey Vulture".   I went for the Gyrs but missed. They were not around.

I have never lived in a place where Turkey Vultures were common.  I've visited a good many places where Turkey Vultures were indeed very common and soon became background images on the daily birding ventures.  I admit to reaching the image saturation point quickly.  But before I arrive in such a location I look forward to the fact that I am going to be seeing plenty of these great masters of the updrafts once again.  

In Newfoundland we don't see birds soaring on updrafts rising from the ground.  Yes Bald Eagles, gulls and of course Gyrs ride the air current created by blasts of winds deflecting up wards off a rock cliff face.   TVs are masters at catching warm rising air, a manner of flight that is so beautiful to watch.

After birding in Newfoundland for four decades and imagining what it would be like to encounter my first Turkey Vulture, I thought of places like Cape Race in October during a westerly blow, or St, John's in November/December or maybe somewhere unexpectedly sitting on the roof of a hourse in some urban center. But most of all I really did not think it was going to happen.  

On 30 May an image of a Turkey Vulture sitting on a telephone pole in La Manche Provincial Park appeared on Facebook. It had been taken on 28 May by park ranger Chris Hearn. It was for real and it was close to home. The next day Alison Mews and Ethel Dempsey went for a look. They found the true to life Turkey Vulture sitting on a light pole. The Newfoundland Whatapps line went wild. I phoned On-the-Spot Alison and told her to please keep an eye on the bird while I jumped out of my office chair and blasted past the receptionist who knew exactly what was happening even though she didn't understand a word that I said as I slid my marker over to the Out of Office position.  

The 45 minute drive took 44 minutes because there were so many sh*t slow, adrenaline deficient, Sunday-style drivers on the winding weekday road, not to mention two dump trucks and one delivery truck each towing a line of feeble traffic passers. But Alison, Ethel, Jared Clarke and Chris Ryan were there focused on the bird when I arrived.  

Parked the car on the narrow gravel edge, grabbed camera instead of scope and ran across the road. I was faced with nothing but a solid boreal forest of fir with a  few white birch mixed in. They told me to stand here and look.  I was looking but could see only the roadside boulders and trees.  Further guidance suggested to look farther back - and there it was - a TURKEY VULTURE IN NEWFOUNDLAND. 

It was sitting cold on the top of a broken off fir tree. I mounted the camera on a tripod. The doubler was already on the 600 mm lens. Through a needle hole through the woods the magnificent Turkey Vulture was digitally captured.   No Turkey Vulture ever looked so wonderful. 

No Turkey Vulture was ever so much appreciated as this bird was at La Manche Provincial Park, Avalon Peninsula, Newfoundland  (31 May 2019).