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.

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.

Monday, 9 June 2014

Eurasian Whimbrel - A Jinx Broken

My first Newfoundland Eurasian Whimbrel was one in late May 1980 flying out to an island in L'Anse-aux-Meadows harbour.  I could see it feeding on the island for some time but it was too far away to enjoy. My next Eurasian Whimbrel was some 20 years later. It was late July at Long Beach on the Cape Race road. It was among a good size flock of brown rumped Whimbrel. Nice, but our attention was diverted by the three species of jaeger, a Laughing Gull, a Franklin's Gull and a swarm of shearwaters feeding on spawning capelin in the cove.  A few years ago in early May John Wells and I found a Whimbrel on the beach at Renews. Anticipating a great view of Eurasian Whimbrel it turned out to be the first spring record of a brown rumped North American Whimbrel for Newfoundland.  It was just part of my general bad luck for seeing Euro Whimbrels which are relatively regular in Newfoundland.

It took five tries over three days to finally connect with the Eurasian Whimbrel that Dave Brown found at Cape Spear on 4 June. It turned into an hour long leisurely observation. Just what the doctor ordered. Got to see and photograph the white rump as it preened. Took notice of the general pale edged wing coverts and scapulars, pale undertone base of the body compared to the North American Whimbrel. The bill also seemed unusually long for even adult Whimbrels that arrive in Newfoundland in early July (just over three weeks from now!).

Here are some photos of the bird taken on 9 June 2014 at Cape Spear, Avalon Peninsula, Newfoundland

Spectacularly Bad Pixs: N. Gannet & Herring Gull

Since the days of slide photography I've imposed a ban on taking scenery shots to cut down on the cost of film. In the digital era the ban on scenics cuts down the sheer volume of photos.  Scenics includes icebergs. You see plenty of icebergs most springs in eastern Newfoundland.  We whine about the hordes of tourist and iceberg gawkers crowding out Cape Spear on weekends but when I saw the lines of cars along the road at at Cape Spear and saw what they were looking like, even I had the urge to snap a scenic.  I didn't actually have to circumnavigate the anti-scenic rule. If you look close you can seen birds in each photo.
Note the line of gannets flying above the spectacular tunnel in this iceberg.
The next day. Note how the tunnel has become larger and importantly note the adult Herring Gull flying in the foreground.
Trust me, there are kittiwakes flying by in this photo.

Sunday, 25 May 2014

THAT LOON !! - Gavia pacifica

On 18 May 2014 Alvan Buckley with crew Lancy Cheng, Alison Mews and Ed Hayden discovered a PACIFIC LOON off the beach at St. Vincents on the southern Avalon Peninsula. This was big news for Newfoundland birders. The only two previous sightings for insular Newfoundland were two single observer sightings (no photos) during Cape St. Mary's CBCs in the 1980s and 1990s.  This bird was in partial breeding plumage removing any doubt about separation from Common and Red-throated Loons. The very pale nape, thin bill and lack of white flank patch should rule out Arctic Loon.  

It is kind of mystery why Pacific Loons are so loyal to wintering on Pacific waters.  Birds nesting in the eastern Canadian Arctic need to know there are lots of fish due south in ice free waters off southern Newfoundland. It may take a few eons before word gets around. Maybe this bird off St. Vincents beach will be a harbinger of the good news.

I was on an offshore oil & gas supply vessel when the bird was found with no predictable openings of opportunity in the foreseeable future to see this bird.  So when the chance did come I was on it.  Got off the boat at midnight Friday and just after daylight on Saturday was looking at The Loon.

It was a team effort involving loon-lookers Lancy Cheng, Alison Mews, Andrea Dicks, Dave Smith and Clyde Thornhill. We had the bird for a twenty minute opening in the fog.  We were poised on a bluff overlooking the beach about 800 metres east of the river outflow. It was resting on the surface without any dives for food. The scope views were fabulous but photos were distant. Even using a 840 mm lens the bird was small in the image.
Full size image as viewed through a 840 mm lens from the bluff by the first guard rail east of the river mouth. 
The same image as above but 50% crop.
The same image cropped at 100% size.

Above and below are two of better long distant crops of the 100% valid Pacific Loon in Newfoundland.

There are different kinds of rarities.  The first two weeks of May saw a flood of Icelandic rarities in Newfoundland. The adrenaline level of birders was maxxed out for two solid weeks enjoying the myriad of long distant waifs. The loon was different.  A rock solid Pacific Loon in Newfoundland was like confirming a ghost.  The excitement came with a deep rooted satisfaction.  

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Last Photos of Icelandic Birds

I am off to jail within 24 hours. My annual summer sentence to the oil & gas industry vessels in the offshore regions of eastern Newfoundland begins tomorrow. I leave behind the land part of Newfoundland and all it's Icelandic birds.  While no new birds are showing up many of the birds that arrived during the two weeks of NE winds 25 April - 8 May 2014 are still with us. Not sure why more of them have not left and headed back to Iceland. I lost track of the numbers. It is still possible to add them up but totals for the influx are something like this:

European Golden Plover - 225+ (2nd highest spring total ever)
Black-tailed Godwit - 12 (record smashing beating previous record of two, maybe three in a spring)
Common Redshank - 2 (falling short of the five in 1995 but brings the total individuals seen in Newfoundland and North America to just eight)
Northern Wheatear - three dozen, four dozen, more? I lost track. Biggest influx ever.
European Whimbrel - 1 (low)
European Dunlin - 1 (the first)

Did not find time to go through all the photos taken. Here are some from the last few days from the Goulds on the outskirts of St. John's.

A flock of 43 European Golden Plover sleeping off an overnight snowfall on Cochrane Pond Rd, Goulds on 7 May was flushed by a crow but they circled just once before landing and resuming energy conservation mode.

On the same day in a field not far away on Cox's Lane this flock of 47 Golden Plovers wheels about for 20 minutes over these fields at noon after the snow had melted.  These birds joined the Cochrane Pd road flock where a Newfoundland record high flock of 90 assembled. At least 2/3 of the flock is still present today on 13 May.

The discovery of three Black-tailed Godwits on the river delta at Third Pond, Goulds on 6 May was exciting local news. The birds were far out on the delta and getting more than two in the same photo was a challenge. They regularly flew to a farm field across the pond to feed. Only one has been seen over the last few days. 
A large crop shows the white underwings characteristic of the Black-tailed Godwit.

The closest thing to a Willet wing stripe in Newfoundland this spring is the Black-tailed Godwit.

If there was one regret about the Icelandic Influx 2014 it was not capitalizing on the photo opportunities for Northern Wheatear.  You never get tired of seeing the bright Greenland/Iceland/eastern North American race of Northern Wheatear. Most were wary and executed their patented Houdini disappearing acts at will but there were a few tame ones like this one at Renews beach. Time was limited during this visit, the bird was strongly back lit and I forgot my camera was still set at ISO 1600 from the day before. There is always an excuse for not getting the perfect picture!

For those remaining on land  for the rest of this month - BE GENTLE. Try not to see anything too great while I serve the first term my 2014 offshore sentence. I will return the favour.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Sunday was Spring

Friday night into Saturday saw the first SW winds in Newfoundland for the entire spring it seems.  After two weeks of NE winds holding back spring migrants the dam burst in dramatic fashion. The Avalon Peninsula went from zero warblers to lots of Yellow-rumped Warblers, some Palms and a Black-and-white. There were even a few Barn and Tree Swallows. Ok it ain't no Pt Pelee but it was a beautiful morning on Sunday when the temperature soared to double digits (+10C) and bird song at Bidgoods Park in the Goulds was nothing short of walking through heaven. Singing warblers, newly arrived White-throated and Swamp Sparrows augmented the Fox and Song Sparrow's band, an American Bittern pumped away, snipe winnowed.  By night fall a cold front moved over and St. John's was under a freezing rain warning - back to normal. Spring was on Sunday.

A bonus rare bird showed up at the park. Lisa de Leon and Margie MacMillian discovered an EASTERN PHOEBE on Friday afternoon. On Sunday it was singing up a storm. It was advertising to any female phoebe in the area that it found the perfect home with two bridges over a creek to chose from.  However, it is singing in vain since phoebes are less than annual on the Avalon Peninsula. Small numbers probably breed in SW Newfoundland but there is still no confirmed nesting record for the province. The bird was easily found and enjoyed by most St. John's area birders.
The Eastern Phoebe surveys his newly found domain over the creek at Bidgoods Park.

It sang ardently from a couple of favourite perches.

Not much of a looker really, an Eastern Phoebe is all about character.

Open mouth, insert insect here please. Fee-beee

A Rusty Blackbird also dropped in for a couple of minutes before flying on. Rustys are from time to time seen at Bidgoods but so are Common Grackles. There were several grackles in the area on Sunday.  Both Rusty Blackbird and Common Grackle are uncommon birds on the Avalon. Grackle is locally common in eastern St. John's and can occur anywhere on the Avalon, usually in or near a community and often at a feeder. Rusty Blackbirds live in the woods usually farther back in from the roads than birders venture. So Rusty Blackbird is the better bird for year listers.  Because of the light experience Avalon birders have with blackbirds, Common Grackles are sometimes misidentified as Rusty Blackbirds.  Part of the confusion in fuelled by the Sibley Guide which shows the male Rusty Blackbird with a bluish tinge to the head. In the field one very rarely, basically never sees any colour to the head. Whereas, adults grackles show a strong blue iridescence to the head. Highly visible on the ground, not so easy to see in flight. Grackles come in two sizes, the male and female.  Both have long keel shaped tails but it is less evident in the females. The songs and calls of Rustys and grackles are distinct as well but similar if one is not familiar with them.  The bill on the Rusty Blackbird is very slim and short compared to the business like heavy bill of the grackle.  

Good luck getting your year tick Rusty Blackbird. Bidgoods Park is not a bad place to see them during migration but I don't think they nest there. They do nest around some ponds farther inland on Powers Road.
Note the short thin, almost delicate bill of the Rusty Blackbird and subdued iridescence to the bird including the head. 

The Rusty Blackbird sang a few times before flying on up Powers Road.

The normal blackbird proportioned tail is evident here.  A Rusty Blackbird is not likely to be mistaken for a grackle. 

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Euro GPs in Flight

The rush of Icelandic Vagrants continues to burn uncontrolled.  No new huge megas but it is intriguing that the the farm fields in the Goulds (outskirts of St. John's) seem to turning into a staging area for the Eurasian Golden Plovers. The feeding is good here. The fields are vast relatively speaking on a Newfoundland scale. Numbers have never dropped over the last week or so, only stayed the same or increased. Today the numbers reached a new high when visiting birder Paul Sykes (Georgia) had 43 in the standard plover field on Cochrane Pond Road and 40 more plus a BLACK-TAILED GODWIT on Cox's Lane. The BTGO was new, #10 (!!!) for the spring in Newfoundland. Totally off the scale of anything in recorded history.

The Cox's Lane site seems to be just a temporary field.  I visited that field before and after PS and saw no shorebirds. I'd like to see that godwit, after all it has been about nine days since I've seen one. You must know the feeling?

The NE air flow continues. It is not strong but the complete lack of head winds and frequent good tail winds to help Icelandic migrants veer toward Newfoundland and Labrador has lasted twelve consecutive days. This is something of a record and the forecast is more of the same.  This party is far from over. The rarity binging continues. Spring 2014 is breaking records left and right with no end in sight.

May 6 dawned with 5 cm of fresh wet snow on the ground  in St. John's! A shock to everyone but the kind of atmosphere Iceland Vagrant Hunters associate with good birding.  I had time to check out some of the fields in the Goulds. The Cochrane Pond Road flock of 43 GPs were in shock too. These shorebirds have probably never seen snow before 

I went back to Cochrane Pond Road in the early afternoon with Ontario birder Ross Harris.  At first there were no GPs to be seen but then we heard them. They were flying high over head. For ten minutes we tried to follow them as they flew in wide circles around the fields.  Really seemed like they wanted to leave.  Alvan Buckley saw at least 25 in the field in late afternoon so they probably did not leave yet.  But it will happen eventually.

The flock of 43 European Golden Plovers sleeping off the morning nightmare of 5 cm of snow falling on their field over night.

A few hours later the plovers were flying in broad circles over the farm fields. Some of them were singing spring display songs.

Blow ups of the birds flying over our heads calling.

Northern Wheatears have a leading roll to play in this monumental displacement of Icelandic migrants. I feel short-changed having seen only three so far. Wheatears have the knack of vanishing into thin air. This male and female found by John Wells at Ferrryland on the past weekend make up 66% of the wheatears for me this spring