Friday, 9 December 2016

Perfection Blemished - An Injured adult Ivory Gull

At 11:25 a phone call into the office was directed to me.  It was Ken Knowles.  Why was he phoning this number? He usually texts or calls my cell phone? And why was he screaming IVORY GULL at Quidi Vidi Lake. Was I asleep at my desk.?  Not likely since it was before noon. No this must be for real. WHAT!? Adult Ivory Gull at west end of Quidi Vidi Lake right now.  It finally registered.  Ken told me to alert the crowd. My fingers were all over the keyboard. I couldn't for the life of me remember how to post a sighting on nf.birds something I'd done hundreds of times over the years.  I couldn't remember who I should text, who I should phone. All I wanted to do was get down the stairs to my car and get to QV Lake.

It was torturous 15 minute ordeal in traffic to get to the lake. Ken was at the east end of the lake because he said it had flown that way but I decided to the check the west end beach where it was first seen and sure enough there was a white duck-like bird with a blue, orange tipped, bill standing on the beach preening among the pigeons and domestic and wild ducks. I jumped out of the car with camera and binos. Alison Mews was already standing there taking pictures of her lifer. Catherine Barrett and Lancy Cheng drove up. Lifer for them too. OMGs all around  Pictures etc.  Meanwhile I was getting a sick feeling.  Ken has said the bird had some oil on the neck but we could see this was not oil but an injury. Not fresh, no fresh blood but there was skin showing and photos showed there was an actual round hole in the bare skin. Did it go through the skin into the muscle?  Don't know.  Pictures showed a swelling ringing the circular hole. It looked like something healing. Maybe an old infection.  It was also a bit messy below the hole where perhaps it had been scratching.  Ivory Gulls unlike gulls have needle sharp hooked toe nails for holding on to ice.  They could hurt themselves scratching too much with those weapons.  

The bird had a good side but even here the somewhat disheveled look of the bird was apparent. I was not enjoying this experience. I was glad to see an adult Ivory Gull but was unhappy to see the most beautiful bird in the world in this condition. After 15 minutes it flew west up over the trees and the city and was not seen again this day. Tomorrow is another day.

I can brag like rock star listing off the number of his sexual conquests and say with some accuracy that my life total of Ivory Gulls is about 3,500 individuals. Yes three thousand five hundred. I kept track since the first one in late December 1975 at L'Anse-aux-Meadows, NF.  Most of my Ivory Gulls were at three locations 1) L'Anse-aux-Meadows, NF 2 ) Avalon & Bonavista Peninsula NF and 3) Northeast Greenland. Ivory Gull is not a bird where seeing one is enough. It is quite the opposite. The more you see, the more you need to see them.  For those who have never seen an Ivory Gull you might consider avoiding the chance because once you get a taste, the need to see another is worse than before.  You are addicted.

When I got home this evening I couldn't look at the photos of today's bird but but did take a trip down memory life and indulged in some of the multitudes of Ivory Gull photos in my collection.  I stayed in Newfoundland. Below are some beautiful examples of the worlds greatest bird (after white Gyrs and maybe Ross's Gull).

Ivory Gull (injured) 9 Dec 2016, Quidi Vidi Lake, St. John's, NF

Ivory Gull 1 Feb 2007, Quidi Vidi Lake, St. John's, NF.  This bird was present for about two weeks and became everyone's pet and walked up to birders for hand outs of bottled moose, chicken hearts and chopped liver. 

Ivory Gull 3 Feb 2007, Quidi Vidi Lake, St. John's, NF

Ivory Gull 1 Feb 2007, Quidi Vidi Lake, St. John's, NF.  At sunrise waiting for its breakfast after a frosty night.

Ivory Gull 21 Feb 2010, Goose Cove, Northern Peninsula, NF.  Does it get better? Seal hunters on the  Northern Peninsula don't consider them gulls. I also think they are something as distinct from gulls as are jaegers and terns.

A 'speckity' immature Ivory Gull 20 Feb 2010, Goose Cove, Northern Peninsula, NF.

Ivory Gull 21 Feb 2010, Goose Cove, Northern Peninsula, NF.

Ivory Gull is not afraid of Glaucous Gulls which it commonly occurs with.

Ivory Gull 20 Feb 2010, Bear Cove, Northern Peninsula. NF

Ivory Gulls 20 Feb 2010, Bear Cove, Northern Peninsula. NF

Ivory Gulls 20 Feb 2010, Bear Cove, Northern Peninsula. NF

Monday, 5 December 2016

PACIFIC !?!?! GOLDEN PLOVER - Dec 5, 2016 in Newfoundland

Attached are rushed pictures just to get images of this plover out there for opinion.  It was at Pt. La Haye, St. Mary's Bay, Avalon Peninsula, Newfoundland found today 5 Dec 2016 by Ken Knowles and myself.  It was refound later in the afternoon 1 km away on the barachios beach and seen by Paul Lineger, Vernon Buckle and Alison Mews.

Photos have been sent to shorebird experts for opinion but surely there can be only one answer - Pacific Golden Plover. More later tonight or tomorrow.

CONFIRMED !!! Highly experienced shorebird enthusiast Killian Mullarney of Ireland was the first to reply with this endorsement.  (8 pm 5 Dec 2016). 
100% Pacific. It simply could not be more perfect...the overall structure and 'character', the short primary-projection involving just three tips, the longest two almost the same length, the yellowness of the crown, sides of head and upperparts, maybe even the proportionately big bill (though this last is very subjective and sometimes dominica can look heavy-billed). Obviously European Golden Plover is a completely different bird when views are this good, but it is nice to see a glimpse of the grey axillaries in one shot!

Friday, 2 December 2016

The Frosty Tern - An Appreciation of a Good Looker

I was birding in Cape May County, New Jersey for the last week of October 2016. One of the species I enjoyed coming from a Newfoundland point of view was winter plumage Forster's Terns. The adults had clean frosty white uppers parts and a sharp black eye patch.  The young of the year had shorter tails, dusky markings in upper wing coverts and more fine speckling on the crown but the same black eye patch.  The Forster's Tern in breeding plumage resembles a Common Tern in appearance. In winter it becomes a much different looking bird.  They recall a small gull in appearance and even in some of their manners of feeding over the surf. 

Below are a bunch of Forster's Tern photos from New Jersey that were in danger of lying buried and never seeing the light of day along with myriads of other digital files on the HDs. 

First winter

First winter

First winter

With an adult Bonaparte's Gull

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Tis the Season of the Slaty backs.

On 23 November 2016 Lancy Cheng photographed an adult SLATY-BACKED GULL at Quidi Vidi Lake, St. John's, Newfoundland.  It was the first Slaty-backed Gull in St. John's in 4.8 years! And that after a stint of some seven consecutive winters from 2006 to 2012 with at least one Slaty-backed Gull to look for in the city. We are hoping Lancy's discovery will lead to another winter of Slaty-backed Gull watching and further inspire gull watching at The Lake.

This is how St. John's Slaty-backed Gull watching all started.  Way back on the 28th January 2006 two gull watchers with an appetite were scanning the gull flocks resting on the ice at The Lake (a.k.a. Quidi Vidi Lake, St. John's, Newfoundland).  I was standing by the penitentiary with a little bit of elevation so I could see all the gulls at the west end of the lake very well with a scope. There was plenty to look at and no where else to go on a Saturday morning so I stayed there for a good while soaking in the views.  Just as I was considering changing my point of view of the lake, a familiar little gray car pulled up on the snowy road below me.  It was Dave Brown, the other serious gull watcher on the lake that Saturday morning.

He got out of the car not even wearing his binoculars.  Right away I sensed something was up.  He scrambled up the snow bank to my perch and mumbled stuff only a gull watcher could interpret. 

 "A&)hjaf U)(UJ  ad a _*(&)uj  adaljkf Y(U*laj f !!!!!. "  

It was a perfect description of a Slaty-backed Gull, Our Ultimate Dream, but seen all too briefly before the gulls all flushed from his position by the Virginia River outlet, that Dave was not sure what he had seen was for real. Some of the gulls had flown down my way. What? I responded. You said it flew down this way. Well could this be the bird here that was suddenly now in my field of view swimming in the limited bit of open water!?"

It was a gull with a dark slate bluish-gray back a little different than the shade of gray of a hybrid or pure Lesser Black backed Gull. The head streaking was a beautiful smokey gray pattern in character with other Pacific Coast gulls namely the Mew Gull, Glaucous-winged Gull as well as Slaty-backed. The white band formed by the folded tertials looked quite wide, yes it was indeed beautifully wide and so white. The white tips to the primaries were substantial but not overly impressive. The bill size did not impress us.  This had to be a Slaty-backed Gull but we needed to see the colour of those legs to send in the catalyst to crystalize the impressions.  When it got up on the ice to preen and we saw the brilliant bubble-gum pink legs we were completely satisfied that we were looking at a bona fide SLATY-BACKED GULL.  At last!!!

The rest is history, an interesting and on going history. This began a seven consecutive winters (2006 to 2012) of Newfoundland Slaty-backed Gulls involving as many as 14 different individuals.  All were adult except for one 3rd winter bird. Birds were individually identified by wing tip patterns, winter head streaking and general size. Only one bird was thought to be a returning individual which was present for three winter 2006/2007 to 2008/2009.

Below is a list of all Slaty-backed Gulls observed on the island of Newfoundland. It should be noted that Vernon Buckle surprised us all by photographing an adult Slaty-backed Gull on the Labrador side of the Strait of Belle Isle at Forteau on 11 April 2016.  

The Complete List of Slaty-backed Gulls for Insular Newfoundland ; compiled by Jared Clarke*

  1.  Adult; Jan 28 2006 – Feb 12 2006 (St. John’s)
  2.  3rd winter; Mar 19 – Apr 2 2006 (St. John’s)
  3.  Adult; Apr 23 – May 7 2006 (St. John’s)
  4.  Adult; Nov 26 2006 – Mar 25 2007 (St. John’s) *
  5.  Adult; Dec 31 2006 (St. John’s)
  6.  Adult; Jan 22 – Feb 26 2007 (St. John’s)
  7.  Adult; Dec 24 2007 – Jan 2 2008 (Lewisporte)
  8.  Adult; Jan 8 – Mar 15 2008 (St. John’s) *
  9.  Adult; Jan 12 – 20 2008 (St. John’s)
  10. Adult; Dec 1-2 2008 (Corner Brook)
  11. Adult; Dec 28 2008 – Feb 21 2009 (St. John’s) *
  12. Adult; Feb 3 – March 25 2009 (St. John’s)
  13. Adult; Oct 27 2009 (St. John’s)
  14. Adult; Jan 14 – Mar 6 2010 (St. John’s)
  15. Adult; Dec 1 2010 – Mar 27 2011 (St. John’)
  16. Adult; Jan 1 – 25 2012 (St. John’s)
  17. Adult; Nov 23 2016 (St. John’s)

* Jared and I shared many of the initial discoveries and many intimate encounters with the St. John's Slaty-backed Gulls. This was back in the good old days when we could birdwatch freely at the St. John's dump all day every Sunday of the winter season. 

The very very first photograph of a Slaty-backed Gull in Newfoundland at Quidi Vidi Lake on 28 Jan 2006 - an historic day in Newfoundland birding. Those brilliant legs!

The same bird the next day when observed at the St. John's dump with the 'string of pearls' captured on both the upper side and underside.  This was back in the day when the Canon 10D and the 400 mm f5.6 lenses was the ultimate birder/photo combination. 

January 13, 2008. A large billed bird. Everyone's idea of a standard Slaty-backed Gull but in fact it was the most 'honking' sized individual of them all. 

January 13, 2008.  This is a small billed Slaty-backed Gull. It was present all winter with the above bird, though never actually seen close enough to acknowledge each others presence. This bird was thought to be present for three consecutive winters - the only returning individual as far as we could tell.

Some birds had clear staring eyes while this one had dark speckling in the iris. Same individual as above.  The pink orbital ring being consistent and one of the clinchers (if needed) to separate from hybrid Lesser Black-backed and Herring Gulls which should have orbital rings in the range of yellow to red.

January 22, 2011.  A lightly streaked headed bird but note the streaking as is typical for SBGU includes the whole neck. You can't see it so well on this picture but the streaking on the breast usually rounds off to a neat rounded bib on the upper chest unlike LBBG or HERG or hybrids.

A heavily streaked Slaty-backed Gull arriving a month earlier than any other on 27 October 2008. Note the brightly coloured bill, especially the base, which like Glaucous Gulls becomes pinkish on adult Slaty-backed Gulls in winter.

Life of leisure is no guarantee even for Siberian royalty in St. John's when an eagle flies over and every bird panics.   This pigeon sideswiped a Slaty-backed Gull during a mass exodus caused by a low flying Bald Eagle. The upper parts are somewhat over exposed in this photo

One of the standard wing patterns of Slaty-backed Gull. P8, the third outer most primary can be total dark like this with this bird or can show a 'pearl'.

A couple more examples of wing tip patterns of Newfoundland adult Slaty-backed Gulls.

Sunday, 20 November 2016

The Chin-strap Loon

In late May 2014 a Pacific Loon was discovered at St. Vincents Beach, Avalon Peninsula by Alvan Buckley. It was going into breeding plumage. We hoped it had wintered here with the many Common Loons that choose this area in winter. Sure enough it did come back for the winter of 2014/2015. St. Vincent's Beach is a tough place to watch loons. They are usually distant. There is no shelter at all anywhere that you can observe the loons from. You can't get anywhere near the edge of the beach for the salt spray. The car can not be parked in a good place to scan the water. There is always a big swell on. The beach faces south meaning you are staring into the sun all winter long, when there is a sun. The bottom line is that getting good views and photos is a challenge and luck. In fact what we have been satisfied with is still far from great and photo opts near impossible. 

Today I had better than average luck with the Pacific Loon. First of all it was great to know it is back. The loon flock was fishing and loafing in the area off Peters River that was the most sheltered part of St. Vincents Beach during gale force SE winds.  It was still 200 m away at its closest approach but the shots taken with 840 mm lens blown up to 100% show parts of the loon we rarely get to see even with the scope.  The chin strap was showing up unusually well today. Maybe it was more prominent early in the season than it will be later in the winter. Maybe it was because I was near sea level instead of being up a bluff looking down at the water.

Profile of the Pacific Loon showing characteristic puffy nape, rounded crown, straight bill (looking rather thin today), the smooth line of contrast between the dark neck and white throat and look at that chin strap. None of the other species of loon show this.  It is not always so easy to see.

The smooth snaky curve of the neck of the Pacific Loons adds grace to the bird.  A slight turn of the head and the chin strap disappears. Difficult to see in this photo but with scope a stripe on sides of the neck is slightly darker than the back of neck.  The back of neck of Pacific Loon is paler gray-black than the blackish back. You need good light or close view to detect this. On Common Loons in full winter plumage the back of neck is the darkest part of the bird - in good light looking darker than the back.  Warning this feature does not work outside of winter season.  Faded sub adult Common Loons in spring and summer can look quite bizarre including very pale necks.  

This all you need to confirm a Pacific Loon!

Chin strap.

More chin strap.