Monday, 30 November 2015

Weekend Warbler Haul and By-Catch

The November 28 & 29 weekend is still prime November Warblering in St John's if there has been no periods of cold weather. But a cold front to pass over St. John's with rain just after dawn on Saturday was a threat to warblering.  I was expecting it was going to be a gull watching Saturday morning but thought I'd take a chance before it rained and walked five minutes down Waterford Bridge road to the graveyard and try to see the Blue-headed Vireo found by John Williams and Dave Hawkins early in the week and seen at least once afterward. I'd seen only one later Blue-headed Vireo in Newfoundland.

Blue-headed Vireo was the first bird I saw and one of the few birds present. Nice views of this attractive species. It seemed to be getting insect life to eat. An Orange-crowned Warbler joined it in a rhododendron bush.  The dark sky was threatening but thought maybe I could get in a quick pish at St. Mary's school.  Got lucky with a Northern Parula at the top of the hill. A scarce bird at anytime in eastern Newfoundland there have been only a handful of November sightings. Went to check out the make shift feeder that someone has put up near the old folks home. Suddenly I was looking a THREE Orange-crowned Warblers in one little green bush growing out of a chain link fence. Then a/the Parula flew in and joined them. Then to the right there was a late Ruby-crowned Kinglet and a Black-and-white Warbler.  Things were happening so fast I had to be careful not miss anything. No pishing required. There were lots of chickadees, juncos and goldfinches present as well.   I tried to follow the nucleus of the flock. Warblers petered out. The rain started. I had to be satisfied with that even though the stink of mega was thick in the air.

The Blue-headed Vireo in the Waterford Bridge Rd graveyard. 28 Nov 2015

The flashy and flighty little Northern Parula at the top of the trail by St. Mary's School. 28 Nov 2015

One of the most routine warblers during November in St. John's but just try to find one outside the tall Norway maples of the city anywhere else on the Avalon in November. It never happens. 28 Nov 2015

The rest of Saturday was rained out. Went to bed that night planning a full on assault of the Waterford Valley for Sunday. Sometime in the middle of the night there was a change.  Began thinking about the non-warbler megas that could be lurking down the Southern Shore not being seen. Flycatchers, sparrows etc. I ran with that instead. Got to Cape Broyle at dawn on Sunday.  It was eerily dark and very very still. For the first couple or three hours it was magical getting the birds out. They wanted to see you. So many sparrows, juncos by the swarm, Golden-crowned Kinglets were vermin. You could cut the rarity stink with a knife. Finally a sign. Two bright Baltimore orioles with a large junco flock behind the church in Calvert.  And then the most intense yellow ever on a yellow-breasted chat in the wet alders appeared. The beautiful mossy green back and the snow white spectacles framing the surprised bright black eyes. No chat ever looked better but it it a relatively 'common' rarity.
This photo does no justice to the views through binoculars of this Yellow-breasted Chat at Calvert.  29 Nov 2015

By 11 am the sun started breaking through the clouds as the air cooled off even more. The magic feeling for finding birds was over. The birds were still there but harder to dig out. Never did find the mega I was hoping for. A  Grasshopper Sparrow near the end of the day at Cappahayden was at least the first one of the year in the province. The only other warbler was an Orange-crowned Warbler. Meanwhile I had been in texting contact with John Wells who found three new warblers in east St. John's a Yellow-throated, Prairie and Wilson's.  It made me wonder what I would have found if I'd spent the day in the Waterford Valley. I was still happy to have put in the effort down the Southern Shore where for certain there are some extremely rare birds just waiting to be found. Oh why are there five long days between weekends!

It was a big day for finding sparrows with late November high  totals of three Lincoln's and eight Swamp Sparrows. This Lincoln's Sparrow at Cappahayden was watchful of the three bullying Swamp Sparrows it was associating with.

Bird of the day was this Grasshopper Sparrow on Murphys Lane.  Sometimes it pays to be lazy and pish from the car. I doubt this shy bird would have exposed itself if it could have seen all of me. As it was it present only briefly. 29 Nov 2015

Only my second warbler of the day but the 5th Orange-crowned Warbler of the weekend.  It ended a pretty good weekend of birding. 29 Nov 2015 at Renews.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

November Warblering - A Lost Passion

Waaaaaaay back in 1983 on November 16th a handful of birders in a euphoric state stood in front of maple tree on Waterford Bridge Road that contained seven species of warblers. There was an 8th species of warbler found in the same yard. Six other species of warbler were seen that day in St. John's.  A ridiculous 14 species warbler were seen on November 16, 1983 in St. John's, Newfoundland. 

Let's see if I can remember the list Townsend's and Pine were both new for the province that day. The other bird in that yard was a Prairie Warbler only the 2nd provincial record. A Hooded Warbler seen but found the week before was a provincial first. There were multiple Wilson's and Cape May Warblers. There were some Black-and-whites, one Common Yellowthroat,  a Yellow or two, Yellow-rumped, 2 Yellow-throateds, probably Palm, Nashville I think, and certainly Orange-crowned.

Thus began a the phenomena of November Warblering in St. John's. That was over three decades ago. There have have been changes over those three decades.  There seems to be fewer individual November warblers.  Even when allowing for the less pointed effort by November Warblering Booldhounds there definitely seems to be fewer individual warblers happening in November. Part of this could be fewer vagrant warblers to start with. Maybe smaller numbers of warblers during fall migration overall. Maybe fewer of those mysterious November aphids on the abundant Norway maples of St. John's that might entice warblers to linger in the city.  

Modern day birders hardly know the reasoning behind pounding the sidewalks and listening for Black-capped Chickadees between the houses. It isn't fun birding as you know people are in the houses staring out at you on the sidewalk with a finger ready to dial 911. But the rewards can be huge as the die-hards know striving to drive another shot of warbler-rarity into their veins.  But those die-hards are now getting old and losing momentum. Most of the people present at the 1983 Warbler Tree are now sitting on the birding shelf collecting dust or have fallen off the shelf. The newer birders never really understood what it was all about.  The act of November Warblering in St. John's is but a lost art.  

Two of the twisted nails from the 1983 Warbler Tree were out warblering today.  John Wells (The  1983 Warbler Tree discoverer) and moi among the first on the scene in 1983, were out on this exceptionally beautiful sunny November day.  JW found a Pine Warbler and Wilson's Warbler around Long Pond. He birded all the way down the Rennies River and Kelly's Brook without another warbler score.  Yours truly spent four hours in the Waterford Valley in the morning. The only warbler was a Pine Warbler just outside the chain link fence bordering the vast yard containing the 1983 Warbler Tree. I think I could recognize the tops of the famous tree.  Later in the afternoon I added a nice looking Nashville Warbler and an Orange-crowned Warbler to the list in the Waterford Valley graveyard..

You know things are different when the bog standard Black-and-white Warbler which was the bog standard boring warbler to find at all the best warbler hunting areas are now getting hard to find.  It was some sort of relief today that five warblers of four species were found but I fear the bottom has fallen out of the effort.  The passion of November Warblering in St. John's is all but dust the wind.

A dull immature Pine Warbler behind St. Mary's School on Waterford Bridge Road. It was about 5 seconds flight from the famous Warbler Tree of 1983 where the first Pine Warbler for Newfoundland was found by John Wells in 1983. We've learned so much since then.  Pine Warbler is now found annually.  

It is always exciting to pish in a warbler with the chickadees and juncos in November for the odds of it being a true mega rarity are high.  There is always a little disappointment when you identify it as a relatively regular November warbler such as this Orange-crowned even though it is an interesting looking bird

Looks are often quick with photo confirmation never a guarantee.  Thanks to modern day capabilities of digital photography the picture above can be turned into the picture below.

A Nashville Warbler is a medium quality November Warbler because it is a fairly rare breeding species with no stake out locations to find it at any season.  It is one of the more regular November Warblers in St. John's. 

An enlarged crop of the bird on the same branch as below.

Nashville Warbler is an OK warbler to see in November but there are bigger rewards out there RIGHT NOW !!!!! 

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Mid Nov Meandering in the Rain

Sunday 15 Nov 2015 was wet and cold but not to waste free time I went car birding around the bay - Conception Bay and Trinity Bay. A few photos happened along the way, nearly all from shelter of car.
What! A female Barrow's Goldeneye so close? Not so quick. The bill is yellow and the forehead steep. But things are not right. The bill is too big and the wrong shape, It lacks the shaggy crest look. Below you can see the bird in more relaxed mode with a typical rounded head of a Common Goldeneye. The bird with it also had a brownish bill unlike the gray bills with yellow tips in winter plumage. Need some research but I wondering if these are first year males. They have rather white necks and breasts. Beware of the yellow bill, go for bill and head shape.  photos from Bay Roberts.


A Sanderling on the beach beside the road at high tide in Spaniard's Bay.

The three hybrid American Wigeon x Mallards are back at Harbour Grace for the 4th? 5th? winter. This is a long distance crop of two of them.  No real need of it since they are tame and will come for bread but I had no bread and it was too wet to get out of the car. You can barely see the yellow leg of the bird on the right.

During a 20 minute break in the rain at Bellevue Beach I got out of the car to get as close as I could to some gulls across a channel and surprised a Red-throated Loon resting in a quiet cove out of the northerly gale.  I was partially conceal behind a rose bush while the loon checked me out with its head held up high to sniff the air.

The targeted highlight of the trip was the 1st winter LITTLE GULL at Bellevue Beach.  Ed Hayden had found it here on 11 Nov.  Little Gull is rare enough in Newfoundland with an average of less than one per year and nearly all them being 1st summer rat heaps June to Aug. A fresh fall 1st winter Little Gull was treat.  I was not going to be able to walk out the beach so was relying on picking it out with the scope across the channel from the town site.  I had misjudged the tides as per usual for Bellevue. While the mud flats were never exposed while I was there, a tide rip developed in the channel and the small gulls were feeding on small fish (sand lance). This included the Little Gull, 10 Bonaparte's and 5 Black-headed Gulls.  Of course they hugged the far shoreline but I got as close as I could by the graveyard and had some nice scope views and managed some record shots in the failing late afternoon light between rain storms.

Little  and Bonaparte's on the the beach with a Black-headed Gull over head.

The black pattern on upper wing is similar to kittiwake.

The Little Gull was feisty and often participated in chasing gulls that had caught a sand lance. Here harassing a Bonaparte's. 

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Rare Bittern Exposé

There are certain birds you keep in the back of your mind as possible finds during the Autumn vagrant hunting season. When I walk the little wetland at Long Beach Least Bittern is one of the birds I fantasize will flush up. When I am at the back of Mundy Pond, I always scan the edge of the cattails for a Least Bittern  clinging onto the vegetation.  I remember the story of Don Barton flushing a Least Bittern at Burton's Pond several times in early December eons and eons ago. I was always envious of long time birding buddy John Wells who saw a Least Bittern at Quidi Vidi Lake when he was a teenager in early September 1971! I recalled a story about the legendary Les Tuck being offered a Least Bittern for sale by a fisherman on the St. John's waterfront.  Just a couple years ago a photo surfaced from a non-birder of a Least Bittern standing in the middle of a lawn somewhere on the Burin Peninsula.  I know there are other records of Least Bittern on file of non-birder encounters with stressed out vagrants. Least Bittern was high on my Mythical Bird Want List.  If I died never seeing one in Newfoundland it would have been understood.  

On Monday morning Alison Mews texted me at work saying she and Ed Hayden were looking at a probable Green Heron at Virginia Lake. It was an excuse to bolt out of the office even though I'd seen my share of Newfoundland Green Herons but none for a good many years. I got there in 15 minutes. The heron was not in sight.

Where was it?  It was clinging on to the side of those cattails over there.  WHAT!!!! Are you sure it wasn't a Least Bittern?  Did you say you had a picture? As soon as the LCD screen lit up on the back of Alison's camera I saw the brown clump of a bird stuck on to the side of the cattails.  Alison you found a LEAST BITTERN !!!!!

Thus began the first of many waits of eternity for a glimpse of a bittern virtually made of dead cattail stalks. Over the following 72 hours pretty everyone in town who was a half birder or more came and saw. It was not a given.  At least one person made five visits before connecting.  The clumps of cattails were just far enough away on the other side of the lake that the bittern could go about its business without interference from people standing on the other shore with telescopes but it was a little too far for cameras and binoculars.

When in sight it sat grasping onto the cattail stalks in one position for an hour at a time moving only its body when stretching below to catch sticklebacks. It caught many.  When we couldn't see it we don't know what it was doing. Probably laughing at us.  

An uncropped photo taken with a 1200 mm lens showing the distance challenge which at least made sure the bittern could be its self not knowing it was being watched.

The same picture above after cropping. Going on limited information available I figured it was a male because it had black in the back.  But because the black was not fully covering the back it was not a full adult.  Because the wing coverts lacked internal markings of a juvenile I am guessing the bird was one year old this summer and now going into its second winter of life.

Thanks Alison.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

A few Early Oct 2015 shots

A few early October shots destined to get lost in the shuffle unless they get posted now.

An exceptional confiding adult American Golden Plover on the side of the 'road' to Cape Pine, Avalon Peninsula. The low late afternoon light was excellent. The bird was on the wrong side of the car requiring some Thai-chi moves to stick the lens around Tony Lang who also taking snaps out his window. These crowberry barrens probably once fed Eskimo Curlews on their way south.

Big bill/small bill.  One of the two Hudsonian Godwits that made Mundy Pond, St John's part of their daily routine sizes up against a newly arrived Lesser Yellowlegs on 6 Oct 2015.

Adult drake Eurasian and American Wigeon stand side by side in the wharf at Nevilles Pond, Paradise. They are showing off their fully white adult wing covert patch despite the rest of the bird being a mess for now.The ratio of 21 AMWI :1 EUWI will change over the nest two weeks as the Iceland Expressway opens up.

Young cormorants of the year rest on a rock at Cape Race.  It is easy to see which one is the Great Cormorant in this picture.  The distinctions between the two Newfoundland cormorant species are not that difficult and are well illustrated, in the Sibley Guide for example, but the two species are regularly misidentified in Newfoundland. Cormorants are worth a second look.

A least one locally bred Rough-legged Hawk is being regularly seen hunting from the wires along the St. Shotts and Cape Pine road.  It is quite tame.

A young bull moose towers over the old growth fir forest of the Cape Race road at dawn on Sunday. 

Thursday, 1 October 2015

A few Common Shorebird Photos

Birding during the autumn on the Avalon is basically vagrant hunting 100% of the time. The frequent thrills make it a rewarding activity but other parts of birding suffer. For me photography of nice common birds goes down the drain during fall migration.  Last weekend was extraordinarily cold and it seemed liked the supply of southern vagrants hanging around had vanished and there was no hope of new ones arriving.  This allowed me to do things a little different in that I could enjoy the common birds more and some photography even.  The cold north winds meant that south facing St. Shotts beach would be free of the camera eating air-borne salt spray that is so prevalent here on most visits. I had seen plenty of shorebird here in Saturday. The camera finger was itching but there was no time for photography. Sunday (27 September) was different. I made the time. St Shotts beach for photography was my objective of the day.  As per usual a sure-thing planned photo session is always flawed in some way. This time it was the very dark overcast sky and the frequent passes of raptors kept the birds away much of the time. But overall it was a very rewarding 3.5 hours standing on the beach behind my camera, 840 mm lens and tripod.  The birds eventually ignored me and near full frame shots were the everywhere I pointed the camera.  We are talking only a few species here, mainly Dunlin, White-rumped Sandpipers and the ubiquitous Semipalmated Plover.  I have not figured out how to convey the beautiful full frame shots off the camera to a reduced image size suitable for posting on this Blog. So much of the finer beauty is lost in the downsizing.    

The juvenile Dunlin are in the process moulting into winter plumage. Right now they come in varied individual patterns mixing bright oranges and blacks with the incoming muddy gray feathers for winter.


Newfoundland is at a lull in the migration of White-rumped Sandpipers. The peak of adults (above) has passed and the juveniles (below) are just starting to appear. There are always a few adults among the main wave of juvenile in October and November but this bird above showed far more breeding plumage on 27 Sept than most adults even in early August.  


The Semipalmated Plover is a very common shorebird during fall migration in Newfoundland. It is everywhere. Absolutely no adults left by now just endless juveniles, all tame, docile and birder friendly.  I added a couple dozen more portraits to my photo collection of this species for potential use down the road when needed to support the ID a juv Common Ringed Plover .

There are 4 Dunlin, 2 White-rumped Sandpipers and 1 Semipalmated Plover in this shot. You can see them all?

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Looking GOOD for a Newfoundland LITTLE STINT

A rushed post to get the first images of what seems to be a good LITTLE STINT at Renews, Avalon Peninsula. Images are small. Bird was far away and was using a 420mm lens. Tomorrow hoping for better.

Description: First impression was WOW look at that peep. It is so red and so white.  Little Stint came to mind first even though most of my Little Stint experience comes from photos.I had long ago concluded that I would not be trying to find one of these near impossible to ID birds among the common and highly variable juv Semipalmated Sandpiper in Newfoundland. It was a long afternoon chasing the bird around the harbour trying to get a decent look let alone a photo.  It was an hour after the initial sighting that I had seen enough that maybe I should tell someone but was torn between telling the world about a high potential false alarm.  First I phoned Alison Mews and Ed Haydon who I knew were close by. And then texted Alvan Buckley who I figured would take the gamble and go for it.

By late afternoon seven people had seen it. Some were returning from birding farther south when they saw us looking. Even a female RCMP officer stopped for a look with a sincere interest in what we were looking at. I got a One Free Speeding Certificate for everyone.

It was reddish. Hardly orange like some of the juv Semipalmated Sandpipers.  That is margins of scapulars, most wing coverts and tertials.  There were two sets of distinct white lines running down the scapulars. Also a particularly strong rufous cap. It had a good split supercilium which is said to be a good mark for Little Stint when present.  There were two strong short bars on side of the breast within a light wash of rufous - another good mark for Little Stint.  The wing coverts and scapulars were all solidly blackish.  Semipalmated Sandpipers have some grayish based scapulars.  The wing tips appeared to extend just slightly beyond the tail which is good for Little Stint. 

There was only one juv Semi Sand present for comparison.  The Semi was a fair bit larger and fatter. The suspect Little Stint was more slender, less puffy. The under parts were very white contrasting with the head markings.. Semipalmated Sandpipers often have a slight tinge of buffiness to the under parts, especially those at the orangest end of the scale. Also the bill and legs seemed a little blacker, more jet black compared to a Semi. By the end of it I knew to look for slightly longer legs and that is the way it was when next to the Semipalmated Sandpiper.

Below are some of today's pictures showing some of the features mentioned above.  Small images. Hopefully better tomorrow.

ADDENDUM - These photos were sent to a half dozen notable shorebird experts on both sides of the Atlantic with an unanimous response that it is a totally classic juvenile Little Stint.