Saturday, 19 April 2014

The Mythical Black-backed Newfoundland Robin

The myth that Newfoundland American Robins are black-backed is not true or is at least an exaggeration.  They are far from being all black-backed. Some show black from the head blending into a black upper back and there seems to be a overall darker trend in Newfoundland robins compared to most of the rest of northeast North America.

This is about as black-backed as a Newfoundland American Robin will get. Note the black solidly merging between the head and and upper back. Individuals like this are uncommon but readily found if you look hard enough on any given day. Photo 28 April 2012 Renews, Avalon Peninsula, Newfoundland.

Individuals like this where there is not a sharp division between the black of the head and upper back are common. Photo 8 May 2006 St. John's, Newfoundland.

Today, 19 April 2014, birding was slow so I got down to taking pictures of robins feeding in the farm fields of The Goulds on the outskirts of St. John's. I concentrated on a flock of six and another flock of eight robins in separate fields. In general these birds seemed on the paler end of the spectrum for Newfoundland robins. Because they were feeding within a flock without fighting I wondered if they might be mostly females that just arrived over night. Robin migration has been going on for only two weeks.
This was the darkest of the robins in the two flocks on 19 April.  There was a soft demarcation between the dark head and back but the scapular and mantle feather were all blackish centred.

The above three birds exhibit a distinct demarcation between the black head and gray back but also show black centres to scapular and mantle feathers.

The above three birds are pale Newfoundland Robins. Paler gray above, duller red breast, less intense black heads. Two birds show dark gray centres to mantle feathers and one shows uniform pale gray shading to mantle feathers.

Apparently there is a general trend to darker robins the farther northeast you go in North America. There is seems to be lots of overlap in plumage characteristics, enough so that you can not define an individual robin by the colour of the back. Somewhere along the way word that Newfoundland robins were black-backed turned in solid knowledge. Few people had any reason to dispute this.  These pictures should be enlightening for some. Maybe more photos tomorrow if birding is again slow. 

Curious Fact: The American Robin does so well in Newfoundland, nesting in practically all habitats,  it lays only three eggs per clutch, rarely four as is normal everywhere else. This nest was by my front door in St. John's in 2012.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Very Early Southern Passerine Vagrant on St Pierre, SPM

This incredible record of a White-eyed Vireo happened at St. Pierre, SPM on 9 April 2014. The fast moving storm with far reaching southerly winds (Florida) that went through SPM and Newfoundland on 9 April was surely responsible. What else can be out there?  While extremely early for a southern passerine, St Pierre has had an early April Hooded Warbler and Chuck-wills Widow in past years.  Southern herons of course regularly show up by this time in Newfoundland and SPM.  

White-eyed Vireo photographed in St. Pierre, St. Pierre et Miquelon on 9 April 2014 by Patrick Hacala 

Just discovered there are more photos at this site. 

Monday, 7 April 2014

Looking for Spring, Hanging on By a String

Spring always was a dirty word in Newfoundland. It never comes while we read about great spring migrations in every other part of Canada and the US. This spring seems worse than ever.  No warm spells or SW winds. What seems like a warm spell now and then is actually temperatures reaching norms for the time of year. This weekend was tough if you were depending on spring birds for your jollies.

Saturday still in search of that Common Shelduck seen in Renews on 3 April I widen the search area to include some spring goose spots in the inner parts of St. Mary's Bay.  I discovered both Cootes Pond and Harricott Pond, my two main targets were still FROZEN.  However, found geese in good numbers at two locations in Riverhead and at O'Donnells where normally relatively small numbers of geese appear. In fact my day total of 442 Canada Geese was a personal Avalon Peninsula high for me. No other species of geese and no rare ducks.

Part of the lure of travelling to the southern Avalon Peninsula was to intercept early migrants on their way to St. John's area. Surely I'd hear a Fox Sparrow and see some roadside robins. NOPE! N'ARN! NOTTA! I was surprised to see only three adult Ring-billed Gulls and I was at the locations of two thriving Ring-billed Gull colonies. Where are they!?

The Canada Geese were forced to different areas because regular spring staging sites were still frozen. Here at the Riverhead boat basin 285 geese were feeding on what I think was eel grass.

Geese at O'Donnells also were eating what I believe is eel grass.

The geese at O'Donnell's were flushed by a Bald Eagle. Here they are seen headed for the promise land across the bay, the frozen barrens (breeding grounds) of the Branch Barrens.

Sunday morning I went to Long Pond in St. John's where there were reports that the wintering flock of American Robins and Cedar Waxwings was still present. I was greeted with a wall of singing robins. Nice but there was no promise of spring in these birds, These hardy birds were celebrating having gotten through the winter and were still in winter mode looking a little rough around the edges.  A flicker sang but it too was certainly a wintering bird.
One of about 75 robins at Long Pond singing up a storm eating shriveled dogberries left over from the 2013 crop. The frosty edges to the breast and neck feathers show this bird is still in a winter plumage unlike the glowing spring birds yet to arrive. 

What to do on a rainy Sunday afternoon for a bird buzz?  Trying to avoid Quidi Vidi Lake which reminds me too much of winter birding, I went to the harbour and parked on a wharf.  Entertained myself photographing some tame Black Guillemots and... that was as good as it got. That got mundane so was forced to go to Quid Vidi Lake to survey the spring Ring-billed Gulls. Incredibly a mere 8 but I know there were also about that many at Pier 17 sewer outflow. But this is 6 April. RBGUs should be screaming in every parking lot and pond around town by now.  I noticed a fresh dead Herring Gull out on the ice so sat there in the rain with a Tims to see how long it would take for an eagle to find it even in the rain.  

'Sitting on the dock of the bay, watching the tide flow away....'  These three Black Guillemots are in full winter attire still. There were a couple others farther out in the harbour that were about 90% toward breeding plumage but the majority of guillemots around the coast are still in winter plumage.

I threw bread out the car window in both parking lots at Quidi Vidi Lake.  A total of only eight Ring-billed Gulls came in. I should have been inundated with a screaming mass of them on this date.  

 This soggy adult Bald Eagle flew in out of the rain and fog and landed without hesitation on this freshly dead Herring Gull.  A lucky day for this Bald Eagle wondering where to start on its Sunday dinner.

 The eagle enjoyed its meal without any interruptions from the other eagles grounded by the rain, but it had to keep an eye out for the pesky crows looking to steal their share. 

A brave crow pulls on the wing tip of the eagle.  These Quidi Vidi Lake crows are practiced at the fine art of stealing food from the scavenging eagles.  The crows need the eagles to tear open the gull.

Thursday, 3 April 2014


A male COMMON SHELDUCK was found in Renews, Avalon Peninsula, Newfoundland at 2:30 pm on 2 April by Tony Dunne and  photographed by his wife Yvonne. They knew it was a different duck. When they got out of the car it flew away out the harbour.  At 4:30 pm Tony saw it again flush up off the beach and fly toward the inner harbour. News hit the birding community that evening. By dawn 3 April birders were at Renews.  The place was manned continuously from dawn to 3 pm. And all the coves from Trepassey to St. John's were covered. The Shelduck was not seen.  Renews was by far the best looking habitat around. It had 42 Canada Geese and 20 Black Ducks feeding in the inner harbour. Sea ice was a problem in most coves including Renews.

The bird may never be seen again. The photos clearly show it is a male Common Shelduck. And the exact location on the Renews beach is recognizable in the pictures. The origin of Common Shelduck is always in question in North America.  Weather maps on 31 March show winds from Ireland curving up toward Iceland and then going east and southeast toward southern Greenland (see map below, not easy to read I know, there is probably better map out there). There is a calm area south of Greenland before hitting light easterly winds east of Newfoundland. While not a really strong wind there was not a head wind along the route. The first Common Shelducks would be migrating to breeding ground in Iceland at this time. Didn't see a weather map for 1st April but on that day a strong easterly flow and major snow storm hit the Avalon Peninsula. There were strong northeast winds on 2 April.

Weather map from Monday 31 March showing general wind flow from Ireland to Iceland to south of Greenland.

The odds of an escape Common Shelduck in eastern Newfoundland in early spring seem remote. Basically there is no one in Newfoundland that keeps exotic waterfowl other than fat farm ducks & geese.  It has been a cold and harsh spring. It doesn't seem like a good time of year for a duck to escape and travel - gut feeling, don't worry about the logic! The weather was right, the time of year was right, the location on eastern most Newfoundland coast was right for a natural vagrant migrating from mainland Europe to Iceland. I feel very strongly that this was a truly wild bird and should be counted as a North American record.

Three photos of the Common Shelduck at Renews, Avalon Peninsula, Newfoundland on 2 April 2014. Photos by Yvonne Dunne.

Common Shelduck has not been officially accepted on the North American list of birds, but it is close to happening. There have been a number of very intriguing records from Massachusetts and perhaps other New England States and I believe Quebec has a record or two.  Newfoundland had one on 17 Nov 2009 at Quidi Vidi Lake. There is a pretty good case for making that an official North America record. There were good winds from Iceland during the 48 hour prior to the sighting. It was at a time when the last are migrating out of Iceland. Common Shelduck has only recently started breeding in Iceland and numbers are taking off.  Interestingly it uses a rockier habitat then they use in mainland Europe. Shelduck is a species on the move in Iceland.  

It is because my reluctance to push the record that it never went anywhere. It would be easy to build a good case for in being a wild natural vagrant.  I have been probably brainwashed since my teens by the knowledge that large numbers of Common Shelducks are kept in captivity in North America and they frequently escape resulting in the many off the wall records of pretty obvious escapes throughout interior North America. The thinking part of me said this should be wild bird but there was this deep rooted feeling that it could have been a long distant escapee from mainland North America.  I was torn. It was a bird waiting for a pattern of vagrancy to form.  The Renews bird makes me feel a whole lot better about the QV Lake bird as being wild too. 

Tufted Duck, Eurasian Wigeon and Common Teal are already form a significant part of the normal waterfowl scene in Newfoundland outside of the breeding season. Will Common Shelducks be next?  Bring 'em on!!!

An immature Common Shelduck at Quidi Vidi Lake, St. John's, Newfoundland on 17 Nov 2009. It stayed for only twenty minutes before flying southward over the city. It was never seen again. A good case (weather, time of year, location) can be built for supporting this as being a wild and natural vagrant to North America (photo B. Mactavish).

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Eiders Galore

This is a rushed blog posting. After a weekend with a large flock of eiders off Cape Spear I had intended a thorough post about Newfoundland eiders. But another species of duck found in Renews today has sapped all my energy. Word didn't get out until it was too late to go for it today but we will be there before dawn in the morning for what should turn out to be the first bona fide Common Shelduck for North America. Big blog with photos tomorrow hopefully (never count your photos before you push the trigger).

A spring flock of some 5000 Common Eiders assembled on and off at Cape Spear over this past weekend. Photo opts were there if you planned it right and were lucky. I planned it right but was only partly lucky. No birds fed on the water near my position hidden in the rocks but the fly bys were excellent even in the heavy overcast light. Below are some of the photos. I had only gotten through half of the hundreds taken before this blog posting.

A fraction of the five thousand eiders present off Cape Spear.  The Common Eiders were virtually all of the race borealis. There were King Eiders scattered thinly throughout the flocks. Can you spot the adult drake King here?

The trigger finger starts to quiver as a company of ducks starts to come your way.

Some samples (one above and three photos below) of cropped blocks of borealis Common Eiders in the flocks flying close past my position hidden in a rock crevice.  Note then thin yellow fleshy lobes of the bill running into the feathers of the forehead of borealis.  Borealis nest in the Arctic and south to the mid Labrador coast.  The lobes are greener and much wider on the more southern subspecies dresseri which breeds  from the mid Labrador coast south to Nova Scotia.

King Eiders are the jewels in the rough.  You almost need a spotter so you know where to point the camera in the flocks as the fly by at high speed.  Can you see the female King?

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Costa Rica - The Final Cut (Arenal Part II)

It has been 17 days since Donna and I got back from Costa Rica. It was difficult at first adjusting to the glacial world we live in.  I've adjusted to the weather but the birds! There is an absolute lack of novelty around the Avalon Peninsula in late March.  We try to turn overwintering Ring-billed Gulls into spring migrants. We get excited now that local nesting kittiwakes have moved into St. John's harbour where they will be daily until early August when they go back to sea.  Quidi Vidi Lake was our sanity savoir during the winter with the gulls and ducks.  But in spring we are seeing the same ducks that we've been looking at for months and there isn't anything much turning up among the gulls. Besides those nasty Bald Eagles are keeping the gulls thin on the ground. Spring is desperate times in Newfoundland. After a long winter scraping-the-bottom-of-the-barrel-birding of spring is going to be a mental challenge.  I suggest an alternative hobby to get us though the last week of March and all of April. It is called DYFO  (drinking your face off)  every day for the next five weeks. The consequences will be less severe than trying to live on the satisfaction from spring birding on the Avalon. 

Below are images from a time that seems like a life time ago but were actually just a few weeks back.  

Golden-hooded Tanager is a fairly widespread and locally common tanager in Costa Rica. It is possible to get used to them. It happened to me, but overall they are well up there in the ten most stunning colour combinations of all the Costa Rican tanagers.  They are much smaller than the Hepatic Tanager in the same frame.

A Golden-hooded Tanager waits for a Clay-coloured Robin to finish feeding on a watermelon skin.

Passerini's Tanagers were even more numerous than the Golden-hooded Tanagers at the fruit feeder just off the deck of the Arenal Observatory restaurant.  

Bay-headed Tanagers did not visit the feeders but were present in these trees I heard called 'gumdrop' tree.  This was also where the stunning Emerald Tanagers were found.

Banaquits were commonly seen in the flowers planted around the restaurant.

Although common and a frequent sight, I never got used to the Red-legged Honeycreepers feeding in the flowers. 
Brown Jay is another bird one could forget to photograph because they are so in your face around the fruit feeder.

The only White-throated Robins I have ever seen were the dozen of so feeding around one particular 'gumdrop' tree every morning.

Black-crested Coquettes were uncommon but tame when you found them feeding on the flowers.

This Gray-crowned Yellowthroat was one of the few birds that actually came to my pishing in Costa Rica.  I was trying to get better looks at various seedeaters at the time.

Arenal is a place I could easily go back to. There was plenty I learned about after I departed. For instance the panoramic view of the forest behind this Keel-billed Toucan has visible Lovely Cotinga and Three-wattled Bellbird in the late afternoons if you know what tree to search.

Birders visiting Costa Rica usually land at capital city of San Jose. Thirty minutes from the airport is Hotel Bougainvillea where birders often spend their first and last nights in Costa Rica. The huge garden behind the hotel has lots of nice birds.  It is a bigger hit on the Day One than the last day after already being blasted by Costa Rican bird novelty.  Below are a few snaps of birds in that garden.

Rufous-capped Warbler is probably widespread within its Costa Rican range but the only individuals I saw were behind Hotel Bougainvillea.

Red-billed Pigeon is an attractive woodland pigeon and quite widespread. If you don't take a picture of it on your first day you might forget to do it later.

White-eared Ground-Sparrow has a very limited range in Costa Rica and if don't see it at Bougainvillea you might not see it at all. Shy! Very shy for a so called sparrow.

They are plenty of North American breeding species spending the winter in Costa Rica. At Hotel Bougainvillea Tennessee Warbler was particularly numerous but there were also Yellow Warblers, Baltimore and Orchard Orioles, Summer Tanagers and this Yellow-throated Vireo.  

There is serious exotica on the Hotel Bougainvillea grounds including Squirrel Cuckoos, Grayish Saltators and everyone's favourite to start of a Costa Rica vacation with, the Blue-crowned Motmot.