Wednesday, 20 August 2014

The First Nearly No Birds Posting

Birds are the best but at times the outlay of the planet earth actually overwhelms the birds for even the most focused self-centred bird addict for brief periods at least.  Last week work took me to the northern tip of Baffin Island for an aerial survey of marine mammals. Any work with the word Arctic attached is bliss for a birder.  The Arctic is a huge domain. There are many bird bleak areas. In fact much of the Arctic is that way. 

Pond Inlet on Eclipse Sound in northern Baffin Island is a destination for tour ships and Arctic adventurers. The tides between mainland Baffin Island and Bylot Island (a Baffin Island rebel island) are strong and dynamic. There is a lot of marine life thriving here.  There is a lot to learn about the place but narwhal congregate here in summer which is why we were doing aerial marine mammal surveys.  

In the off-time before and after 'work' there was interesting birding to be had from the community watching the swarms of kittiwakes and fulmars looking for food over the riptides.  Pomarine Jaegers were numerous challenging the kittiwakes for their meals of Arctic cod.  

On the way to my work there were living glaciers at work on the same project of grinding valleys out of rock for the last multi-thousand years..

A glance out the window of our twin otter survey plane on route to the start of the morning's surveys over Eclipse Sound.

There was no end to the glacier shots one could take on the way to work.  Too bad there were two layers of plexiglass between the lense and the outside world.





Wayne Renaud at Pond Inlet scoping the kittiwake flocks for Pomarine Jaegers hunting out in Eclipse Sound. Snow Buntings, Lapland Longspurs and ravens were routine sightings from our seawatch location. On one occasion two juvenile hornemanni Hoary Redpolls fed on the slope near us.  You really don't know hornemanni HORE until you've seen the true northern redpolls. They are so big they probably could not physically even mate with any other 'race' of redpoll.  It was the one time I did not bring my camera with me but great views with the 30X scope.

Classic scene of a flock of kittiwakes roust up by a Pomarine Jaeger in Eclipse Sound. That is the mountainous Bylot Island in the background some 12 km away

If you look closely there is a fish in the beak of that Red-throated Loon en route to a feed a youngster on a small pond some ways back in on the barrens behind Pond Inlet.



Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Afternoon Birding in Iqaluit

On the way to do some Marine Mammal Surveys at Pond Inlet, NU at the north end of Baffin Island,  unexpected logistics meant that we had to overnight in Iqaluit, NU at the south end of Baffin Island.  It was the first sunny day after several days of rain in Iqaluit.  Wayne Renaud and I took the 'downtime' to do some local Iqaluit birding on foot. A three hour walk along a river and back on the road to hotel produced a few birds.  Birds were uncommon, except for raven and gulls. There were no shorebirds or waterfowl though the habitat looked good. There were about 100 gulls on rocks in the river. Not close and on the wrong side of the sun it was difficult identify everything but we did see one adult Lesser Black-backed Gull, 4 Great Black-backed Gulls (subadults), 15 Herring Gulls, 40 Glaucous Gulls and the rest unidentified.  LBBGs breed at this latitude in Greenland, a possible source of this bird.

Passerine list was six Northern Wheatears, all juveniles (three singles and a group of three), about 10 Snow Buntings and six Lapland Longspurs. These three species are local breeders.

Caught in the act of being a wheatear, this bird was surprised to see me peak over a rock. Wheatears are unnecessarily wary.  

What does a bird often do before flying? Yes - another species for the "while shitting photo list".  

A glimpse of the patented white arse that gives wheatear its name.

Quiz photo.

Answer: juvenile Horned Lark still be fed by a parent.




Monday, 11 August 2014

Cory's Shearwater ! - Newfromland Style

Cory's Shearwater occurs naturally and by will within legal Newfoundland waters, but just. Being a warm water species most of Newfoundland waters are non-Cory's habitat because of the overpowering influence of the unstoppable Labrador Current that sweeps strongly south and around Newfoundland affecting our everyday life. Warm Gulf Stream waters meet with the Labrador Current off southern Newfoundland in the deep water beyond the Continental Shelf Edge. I know from experience that Cory's Shearwater is part of the normal avifauna in warm water +19C  just off the shelf waters south of Newfoundland. and St Pierre et Miquelon - and well within the 200 nmi EEZ. And from good authority know that they occur up on top of the shelf a little bit adjacent to these deep waters. Cory's also occurs with some regularity on the southernmost Grand Banks in and outside the 200 EEZ. In adjacent parts of Nova Scotia Cory's is more routine of shelf waters but the water is also much warmer here in summer than Newfoundland. One year, perhaps abnormally warm, I saw small numbers of Cory's Shearwaters from the North Sydney, NS to Argentia, NF ferry. It was late August when water temps are at the warmest.  The Cory's started on the NS side of the crossing and continued in small numbers until south of St, Pierre et Miquelon. There has never been a duplicate result from that crossing but in recent years ferry crossings are done mostly during darkness.

Shearwater watching on the Avalon Peninsula during the capelin season is one of Newfoundland's great spectacles. Day counts from a single location are often in the five digit zone, sometimes six.  Great and Sooty shearwaters in varying ratios make up the bulk of the species. There are always a few Manx. After decades of summers enjoying the shearwater and the general seabird spectacle without ever seeing a Cory's Shearwater I assumed it was never going to happen.  Some birds like fulmars for example, scavengers of the sea and common in Newfoundland waters year round do not respond at all to the capelin spawning. Maybe Cory's Shearwater don't eat small fish (unlikely theory!) or maybe they just don't like getting their feet cold in the Labrador Current.

On 10 August 2014 thanks largely to lighthouse keeper Cliff Doran's luring I found myself at Cape Race for the 4th day out of the last six.  By the time I got there on Sunday afternoon most the shearwaters had floated offshore. Capelin feeding seems to quiet down in mid-day.  Not only that there were periods of rain and dark skies.  I was wondering if I should not have burned all that gas and time to be at Cape Race again. The seabirds still present were very close as there was some capelin being captured. After a couple hours of enjoying the views I was about to pack it up when I found myself looking at a shearwater flying away with a gray wash between the shoulder blades and on back of the neck. It turned back toward me revealing its full dirty neck and yellow bill. I knew what it was but also knew this couldn't be happening. Yet I was standing on solid ground looking at a Cory's Shearwater feeding off the Cape Race lighthouse.

For the next twenty minutes I had the bird in sight most of the time. It leisurely coursed back and forth 100-200 m offshore cruising over the other shearwaters and seabirds sitting on the water. Twice it hit the water getting a capelin though it never rested on the water. I was standing by the old fog horn building. Photo taken with 840 mm lens using ISO 1600 and 3200 under dark skies.  All here are large crops.

The first of 230 photos. Even if this was the only shot the solidly brown head and neck say Cory's Shearwater.

The grayish upper back and hind neck usually contrasted with darker brown wings.  This is often a good clue of a possible Cory's vs Great even at good distances.  In better light the grayish shown is actually buffy brown. 

The bull neck, large head and bill are often impressive next to a Great Shearwater

Wish I could have heard what the Cory's was saying as it banked showing its snowy white belly and clean white under wings.  

Another view of the white belly and under wings.  There is some moulting of under wing coverts spoiling the immaculate white under wings of a fresh Cory's Shearwater. 

Pretty rough looking, the Cory's was undergoing wing covert moult.  The uniform dark underside of primaries rules makes it your basic Cory's Shearwater subspecies/species that includes the Azores as its breeding range.  

Another view of satiny white belly and if you hadn't noticed by now that stonkin' yellow bill with a black tip. 

The Cory's Shearwater was a great glider. It moved slowly but surely often near stall out speed it seemed. Where as the Greats appeared pumped up on caffeine with frequent rapid burst of wing beats to keep airborne with more abrupt changes of speed and angle of movement. 

Compared to Greats, Cory's Shearwaters seem to have narrower rear ends and tails with thicker shoulders and wider wings.

The paler upper back and neck contrast with the darker wings of Cory's. On Great Shearwaters the back is either darker than the wings like this individual or the same.  Right now the Greats are in or just about in a fresh set of wing coverts and back feathers. These are strongly edged in white, sometime including the back.  Depending on light and distant the upper side of both these species looks uniformly dark.








Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Shorebird Photography Thwarted

During my week off work shorebird photography was one of my goals especially adult Semipalmated Plovers with big breast bands. Easy enough. There is Renews and Bellevue. Two great locations for shorebirds.  Tuesday was Renews. I stationed myself among the rocks where I 'knew' the shorebirds would appear as the tide rose. There was an odd dire dearth of shorebirds on Tuesday. And those that were there chose the other side of the harbour to rest at high tide. 2 1/2 hours waiting and not one photograph.

A rare photo of Kelp Man taken by Alison Mews through the wind shield of her car at Renews. She almost blew the opportunity thinking it was a fancy beef bucket sticking out of a pile of kelp until she noticed movement beneath the kelp and realized it was indeed Kelp Man.  

On the way home stopped in at Mobile to see the Little Gull that just will not go away.  Never was a Little Gull so stationary in the history of Newfoundland birding. It is so attached to a couple of rocks that if Herring or Great Black-backed Gulls are sitting in its place, it will fly up and down the shoreline until the site is free again.







Today it was Bellevue Beach for shorebirds.  The tide was right for arriving early in the morning and making the 30 minute walk down the beach to the tidal flats for excellent views and good photo opts of many shorebirds of good diversity Newfoundland style.  Either I forgot to look at the weather forecast or didn't notice the mention of possible rain. I arrived at 07:15 as rain started and continued non-stop until I gave up and left at 11:00. I could see many shorebirds running around on the mussel beds through my scope included some red Red Knots. Also at least three Bonaparte's and 9 Black-headed Gulls.

This Bald Eagle sat in the rain next to my car for 45 minutes. It was one of at least ten eagles loafing in the area.

Forget about shorebirds tomorrow. It will be a seabird day at Cape Race.  Post tropical storm Bertha will be weak and pass too far south to have much positive effect.  The NE winds should keep the fog down allowing views of the good numbers of shearwaters recently building up in the area.


Monday, 4 August 2014

I am Bringing a Chair



Anything can happen to this projected path of tropical storm/hurricane Bertha between now and Thursday when it will pass closest to Cape Race. The path is all well out at sea, much of it beyond the continental shelf where bird life can be very sparse. However it will be in warm subtropical waters all the way. When it travels south of Nova Scotia and then hits the shelf edge at the southwest side of the Grand Banks and crosses the middle of the Grand Banks it will be going through some relatively productive waters.  The warm waters off the SW Grand Banks is poorly known but extrapolations from only slightly better known waters off the NS banks etc can send one's imagination of the possibilities into outer space.

I'll be happy enough if the storm keeps this track. I tend to be away when tropical storms affect Newfoundland. Not only will I be here for this one but I already have this whole week off for vacation time.  I am prepared to be a Cape Race for a big seawatch sit on Thursday. Good shelter behind the old foghorn house in a NE wind. I am bringing a chair.

[Image of probabilities of tropical storm force winds]




Thursday, 31 July 2014

Little Gull at Mobile

The first day out birding after 35 days at sea on a seismic vessel working off Newfoundland started with a bang in the form of a LITTLE GULL at Mobile.  Little Gull occurs every 2 or 3 years in Newfoundland. Nearly all the records are 1st summer birds occurring between mid June and August and are frequently associated with capelin feeding birds. This bird fits the pattern.

It was sitting on a rock next to a 1st summer Black-headed Gull.  It came back to this rock all day long allowing St. John's birders to drive the 40 minutes to Mobile and easily see the bird. This makes it one of the easiest Little Gulls ever in Newfoundland.  It could hang around a few more days.  The masses of Atlantic Puffins feeding half way out the cove indicates the capelin are in there. I saw the Little Gull choke down a capelin. 

The attached photos are big crops.  





Little Gull with Black-headed Gull.

Little Gull with Common Tern.






Tuesday, 15 July 2014

A Vagrant Black Guillemot in Newfoundland !? - An ID Quirk.

For the last three weeks I've been on a seismic ship working off Newfoundland in the Orphan Basin and area. Only 13 July I was very surprised to see a black bodied alcid flying along side the boat. First of all alcids are scarce out here in the summer. We go days without seeing one.  Thick-billed Murre and the occasional Atlantic Puffin and Dovekie are being seen sporadically. Most of these birds show plumage characteristics indicating they are subadults.  With recent news of a Tufted Puffin on Machais Seal Is, NB a black bodied alcid flying by at sea 300 km northeast of Cape Freels had potential!.  When I got binoculars on the bird I think I was more surprised to see that it was a BLACK GUILLEMOT than anything else.  In all my years of offshore experience in Newfoundland I think 5 or 10 km was the farthest offshore I'd ever seen a Black Guillemot.  I have seen them well offshore in the Arctic when among pack ice but never in the open ocean.

I didn't have my camera at hand when it flew past. Five minutes later it flew by again. This time the camera was next to me but I was inside the ship's bridge and had no choice but try for a few quick shots through the glass.  This I did for the record shots.  When looking at the pictures I was surprised to see dark wing bars in the white wing patch.  I briefly entertained the idea of Pigeon Guillemot but the pictures also showed bright white underwing coverts which I knew was right for Black Guillemot and wrong for Pigeon Guillemot.  Presumably this is a subadult Black Guillemot retaining the dark bars in the wing that are familiar in winter.

Black Guillemot is a common, ubiquitous, 12 months of the year bird on the Avalon Peninsula. We generally ignore them.  In breeding plumage I have not noticed one with dark wing bars, however I did see such in a photo I took from Cape Spear one summer.  It could be I don't look close enough or maybe the subadults move away from breeding site along the coast in summer. The literature says that subadult Black Guillemots do retain black wing bars in summer.




These photos taken  through glass and cropped show dark lines in the white wing patch, probably dark tips to median coverts.  A Pigeon Guillemot has a strong dark bar in the white wing patch formed by dark bases to the greater coverts.  Pigeon Guillemots also have blackish underwings.
13 July 2014 300 km ENE of Cape Freels Newfoundland.

Thought I'd slip this Bobolink in while I am able to get on my blog. It came aboard the ship while 400 km NE of Cape Freels, Newfoundland on 11 July 2014.  The fresh feather edgings should make this a juvenile.  Early indications are Bobolinks will have a good breeding season in the Northeast this year because of the late mowing of hay fields due to the cold spring delaying growth of grass.  Maybe this will be the start of a good Bobolink fall in Newfoundland.

ADDENDUM
I found these photos in my collection showing a breeding plumage Black Guillemot with dark wing bars flying by Cape Spear, Newfoundland on 22 July 2006.  I did not notice the dark wing bars in life.  It seems likely breeding plumage Black Guillemots with dark wing bars are normal (probably sub-adults) but I have been over looking this for decades.

The bird on the left has dark wing bars. Note how similar it looks to the bird on right with clear unmarked white wing patches. The bird on left is presumably a sub-adult while the bird on right a full adult.  Photo: 22 July 2006 at Cape Spear, Newfoundland.

This is a blow up of the picture above showing clearly the dark tips to median and some lesser wing coverts forming faint wing bars.

Same bird with wings up showing the classic snow white underwings of Black Guillemot.