Sunday, 8 October 2017

An October Empidonax at Cape Race, Newfoundland

On 5 October 2017 I turned up an empidonax flycatcher on the Cape Race road. It was in a patch of tuckamore (windy blown stunted trees) between the Cripple Cove turn off and the Radar House. I was lucky to find any bird in the strong SW winds and drizzly foggy conditions. It was feeding on the lee side of the trees next to the road. My initial reaction was Alder Flycatcher because it looked too big and long billed for a Least. I didn't waste any more time looking at it but started taking as many photos as I could during the observation period of less than five minutes, perhaps only 3 minutes.  I stopped looking at the bird when it blew over the top of the sheltered trees and out of sight.  I went on my merry way. When I looked at the pictures on computer that evening. I was baffled at my species conclusion. The primary projection seemed too short for Alder/Willow, the bill looked intermediate in length. There was also the pointed rear to the eye ring which was in my limited knowledge was consistent with the western empidonaxs.  I sent photos a few people who knew empidonaxs far better than I.  I got mixed responses.  Below are photos of the bird.  All are greatly cropped with some light adjusting. I tended to have the bird over exposed against the dark green back drop of balsam fir needles.


THE ANSWER:  It has been pretty well unanimously identified at a Least Flycatcher by the 15 or so people from around North America who viewed these pictures. Still  a rare species with only a handful of autumn records for the Avalon Peninsula of Newfoundland.













Monday, 18 September 2017

Sabine's Gull on Renews Beach

Took the day off work to do some warblering in the alders of Biscay Bay and Powles Head.  By 10:40 the slowness of the morning was starting to take its toll on my perseverance. Too lazy to get out of the car again on Powles Head road, I delayed an extra minute to check nf.birds on the iphone.  I was very surprised to see Dave Shepherd reporting for Richard Thomas and Jeff Harrison that they had a SABINE'S GULL in Renews at 10:15. It was a clear calm day.  Nothing made sense about that. Instead of trying to figure it out I made a U turn. It was the perfect monkey wrench in my plans to really work the alders until 1 pm. A Sabine's was the easy way out.

I flew down the road to Renews. Right away I saw the bird down the beach. I texted the crowd back in St. John's that it was still there. I drove around to the boat launch road. stopped  the car to change to a bigger (840mm) lens. Got out bean bag. Took off seat belt and attached behind me.

I could not see the beach because of the long grass. I knew approximately where it should be. I crept the car along the top of the beach. There were two layers of grass and weeds between my line of sight and the beach. The sun could not have been better positioned for maximum glare.  I located the bird ahead through the grass tops.  In an attempt to improve my angle with the sun I drove inland slightly so the bird could not see me and past the location of the gull.  I crept the car back up on the beach top and saw the gull behind me in better but still poor light. I found a narrow avenue of open light between the layers of grass and laid my camera down on the bean bag and started clicking.

The bird was mostly standing still looking out to sea.  It walked a short distance toward me along the water's edge and picked briefly at the mud. Then it stretched it wings up over it back and without warning went to wing. It flew directly away out through the harbour. No wavering to investigate anything. I watched it until it was a dot in the sky beyond the rock where cormorant loaf. It was over as quickly as that. Five minutes later and I would not have even taken a photo. Below are pics of the bird.

Such an unexpected, if not bizarre record. There was a slight bulge in the neck that might have indicated a health issue with the bird.  This was only my 6th Sabine's Gull from land in 40 years of birding in Newfoundland.  Interestingly only one of those birds was storm related. Once again Renews comes through with the unexpected.

There is no other small immature gull with a uniform scaly wing coverts and and back and with a gray wash over back of the neck.




The slight bulge in the neck was visible in several photos indicating a possible health problem.

The classic white triangles in the wing were visible as the bird flew away.

Monday, 21 August 2017

Yet Another - COMMON RINGED PLOVER - # 3

I arrived at Portugal Cove South on the southern Avalon Peninsula just as Alison Mews and Alvan Buckley were getting out of the car on 19 Aug 2017.  Alvan quickly spotted a suspicious plover that we were kind of looking for after he had a brief look at a highly likely Common Ringed Plover the weekend before in the fog.  Yup - it was a COMMON RINGED PLOVER alright. The big black ring around the neck, strong distinct white supercilium and distinct black markings on the head made it stick out.  But was it the same bird the had been at Biscay Bay 29 July to 3 Aug and then again at nearby Trepassey 5-7 August?  

Photography was very difficult with the heat shimmer rising off the dark coarse sand of Portugal Cove South beach (PCS). But the photos were enough to show that the PCS bird was different than the Biscay Bay bird.  The plovers can greatly changed how the width of their breast band and facial markings look depending on the mood of the bird = relaxed vs hyper active.  Taking this into account the PCS still had a wider black bar and narrower white space on forecrown.  The black tip on the bill covers about 50% of the bill tip on the PCS bird but only 33% on the Biscay Bay bird. Besides that the bird seemed to have a larger or more contrasting white supercilium, possibly slightly darker upper parts and different tone of orange legs and bill base. Bottom line is that the PCS bird is going down as a new bird and 3rd of the summer of 2017 in Newfoundland.

Common Ringed Plover 19 Aug 2017 at Portugal Cove South.

Common Ringed Plover 19 Aug 2017 at Portugal Cove South.

Common Ringed Plover 19 Aug 2017 at Portugal Cove South.

Common Ringed Plover 19 Aug 2017 at Portugal Cove South.


Common Ringed Plover 30 July 2017 at Biscay Bay.

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On a different note, an arguably rarer shorebird in Newfoundland is the Stilt Sandpiper. An unexpected three individuals, each an immaculate juvenile, showed up this weekend on the Avalon Peninsula.

Two juvenile Stilt Sandpipers at Renews 19-20 Aug 2017

One juvenile Stilt Sandpiper at Cape Broyle 19-20 Aug 2017



Thursday, 17 August 2017

One Last Kick at the Avalon Shearwaters

I heard there were still big numbers of birds and whales feeding in the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve. Not just the local breeding puffins, murres, kittiwakes but also shearwaters.  The shearwaters do not always come into Witless Bay area to feed on the capelin but this was a different kind of year. On a whim I decided I needed one last crack at photographing shearwaters. The weather was going to be near perfect with very light winds and an overcast sky on Wednesday morning.  I called the Molly Bawn Whale and Puffin tours at Mobile. They had space. They have a nice small boat that makes you feel intimate with the birds and whales. 

There were masses of birds and whales. It was a spectacle of life. No one could not be in awe of the sheer volume of life and activity. There were large numbers of Common Murres and Atlantic Puffins on the water resting in rafts or diving for capelin. Humpback whales were everywhere.  And the shearwaters? They were present in the low hundreds mostly resting in small rafts or singly. Today Greats outnumbered Sootys. And there were a few Manx. 

Great Shearwaters living around the eastern side of the Avalon Peninsula have been well fed this summer.

The adults are completing their wing and tail moults and looking more like full shearwaters compared to their mid summer grunge look.

This one will be looking complete in a week or so. 

Another freshly finished wing moulted Great Shearwater.

Just a few Sooty Shearwaters were present.

There were several sightings of Manx Shearwater. Typically when first detected they were already flying away or never came close at all. This was a large crop.

A flying Manx


There were many opportunities for photos of the puffins.  Some of the boat participants (from Florida & New York)  were seeing them for the first time.

Hiding and not hiding behind a wave.



The juvenile puffins have been fledging for the last week during the night.  They are programmed to fly alone out to sea under the cover of darkness.  Some are attracted to the street lights in Witless Bay and Bay Bulls and crash land on roads and lawns. An organized puffin patrols rescues the stranded bird during the night.  Some of them were giving to our tour boat to be released out to sea.

Once taken out of the rehab boxed and handled by humans they quickly regain their dignity once on the water and start swimming out to sea. They are vulnerable to Great Black-backed Gull predation at this age. This is why despite the thousands of juvenile puffins fledging every night during mid August you do not seeing any around the nesting islands during day light. They have flown due east in the darkness and by dawn are well out to sea away from their natal islands.  

Even for those saturated with seeing whales this summer the experience on the Molly Bawn was exceptional. When they turned off the engine with whales and birds all around, the huge sounds of the blows were all the more impressive.

Monday, 14 August 2017

Long Sit at Long Beach

Saturday was foggy on the Cape Race road.  No chance of seeing seabirds but shorebirds on the Long Beach were visible.  A group of maybe 40 shorebirds of seven species were gorging on capelin eggs washed up in the coarse sand.  The birds were so busy they were reluctant to fly.  I saw a photo opt even if it was foggy.  I worked my way down on the beach and found a nice flat rock to sit on near the birds for the next two hours. The birds soon got familiar with my presence though they usually kept a 12-15 m radius away except for those that made a nervous dash past me to get to the other side of the beach.

As expected all the pictures were shrouded in a light milky fog.  But with Photoshop magic I was able to get rid of the effect without too much trouble, but not completely without paying for it in other ways. Here are some of the results.

The 20 Ruddy Turnstones ruled the beach. They fought among each other but the other shorebirds gave them a wide berth.

They dug holes in the sand saturated with capelin spawn.  I figured the eggs on the surface were dead and less nutritious then those down deep in the moist sand. Otherwise, why not eat those hove up on the sand?  See those little white spheres? Each one is a capelin egg. 

Don't get in the way of a charging turnstone.

This is the first juvenile turnstone of the season that I have seen or heard about.

There were a few adult and juvenile Semipalmated Sandpipers running about the feeding melee picking at the sand as they went and mostly staying out of trouble.

Adult Semipalmated Sandpiper.

The crisp juvenile Semipalmated Sandpipers above and below are just off the printing press.  Some come out browner than others especially early in the season.



There were a half dozen White-rumped Sandpipers strolling through the main feeding area.  

The White-rumped Sandpipers being bigger than the toy-like Semipalmated Sandpipers dared to steal from the spoils of a turnstone digging pit.

All the White-rumped Sandpipers were adults as expected for mid August but this one pictured above and below was unusual in that it was still in breeding plumage. We don't see them like this often in Newfoundland.  



Only  handful of Semipalmated Plovers worked the capelin spawn beach. Adult above.

This juvenile Semipalmated Plover has a very dark orbital ring which would look blackish at any distance. Just something Common Ringed Plover hunters should be aware of when using this field mark on the juveniles. This is not a rare event.

A Sanderling or two joined in.

A very worn adult Short-billed Dowitcher above and a bright crisp juvenile below were also present probing deep in the loamy sand for the mother load of capelin spawn.


Any place where the capelin spawned this summer will be good for shorebirding. The east end of the beach at Portugal Cove South also had a nice little concentration of shorebirds in the fog on Saturday. The east end of Trepassey beach should also be good though I did not see much there on Saturday...

Happy Shorebirding. We are into the good season now.