Monday, May 31, 2010

Clay-colored Sparrow

This Clay-colored Sparrow is not a common visitor to this province. I was able to find and get a few photographs in early December before the snow fall.

This is one of the first birds that I photographed and I didn't have much of a chance. It took me a while to realize that it was the Clay-colored and then to get set up for a couple of shots.

It was quite active and I didn't get any clear images but this is a fair record shot.  In several of the pictures that I took, the branches blocked the head of the bird so I didn't post them.  The color of this bird does not seem as rich as the pictures in the books, but the markings are true to the Clay-colored. It is possibly because this is a winter coat.

I am not sure if this is a female or male. After all of the sparrows that I have posted today, it is easy to see how difficult it can be to identify the differences. It is kind of like the seagull series that I posted over the winter.

I have one more sparrow to post in the near future. Now, at last, I can upload my many weekend pictures from from my camera to my computer. I can hardly wait to see them all.

White-throated Sparrow

The White-throated Sparrow is quite common in Newfoundland. I photographed this little bird at Long Pond during February. This is one of the sparrows that over-wintered with the Juncos and Song Sparrow.

This little sparrow has a yellow eyebrow in front of the eye. There are times that it looks quite bright. The yellow often fades into a white or beige line above the eye. It gets its name from the distinct white throat patch.  The head has two dark brown crown stripes and an eye line beginning behind the dye.

On its breast it is grayish with some light streaking.  This bird is often found on the ground or on lower branches of a tree. It also frequented the feeder set up at Long Pond.

Once again, this bird looks different depending on the lighting. In this shot where it is hopping around the ground eating the seed, it looks somewhat smaller than in the above images. The white throat is not visible, so identification is reliant on the head and wing markings and color.

In some light conditions, the color does not look as rusty as in others and the yellow marking in front of the eye looks more like light brown. This is one bird that I need to see the front to identify. There are so many similarities such as the beak, legs, and the shape of the bird that confuse me, even though I have seen this bird many times.
This bird will often come close in order to get food from the feeder. During the winter, I often took bird seed in my pocket. It was good for the birds that spent most of their waking hours foraging for enough food to survive, and it gave me an opportunity to get a closer look.

Song Sparrow

There was a Song Sparrow that wintered at Long Pond this year. This is it. There was a feeder located close to the covered training area and several small birds i.e. this sparrow, a White-throated Sparrow, Juncos and Chickadees could regularly be found in this area.

This shot was taken in February and shows a winter Song Sparrow very well.

The Song Sparrow is most easily identified by the brown streaking that meets up in the middle of the breast and forms what is referred to as a "stickpin."

The images provided in this post well illustrate how difficult bird identification can be. Coloring looks different in different light. The same of the bird looks different depending on the pose of the bird. Some times they look short and fat and other times they look long and slim.

This makes identification quite a challenge at the best of times. There are times that I can only see the front of the bird and other times that I only see the back of the bird.

There are a series identifiable markings on the bird's head, breast, chin, back, and tail. There are distinct shapes of the beak and the feet and legs. It takes constant review of images of all angles and regular reference to the field guides and the help of knowledgeable birders to help me learn the birds. 

Sparrows are good birds to learn on because there are so many different kinds. It will help to sharpen the eye to the patterns and colors. For experienced birders, the song is the identifier. The location where the bird is found is also another clue to IDing the bird.

Notice how different this Song Sparrow looks from the one above.  At first glance the coloring and the shape look different. However, upon closer look, the markings on the face, behind the eye and on the breast are the same. The bird looks much longer in this pose.  It is just an illusion.  When it turns around, it is easy to see the "stickpin" on the breast.  This bird was singing a spring song in April. Seasonal changes in the coat have taken place and the bird is very busy flitting around, singing at the top of its lungs and finding a mate.

I try not to get discouraged if I misidentify a bird, only become more determined to learn them all. Out of the over 100 species that I have seen since January, I think I can identify about 60 of them easily. The others - well, I'll let you know how that turns out.

House Sparrow

The House Sparrow is the one of the most common sparrows around the world. It was first brought to North America from Europe around the mid 1800s. I have seen the House Sparrow in many different places but have yet to get a really good picture of it.  (Shots one and two were added on October 7, taken in Tilting, Fogo, Island.)
I had an opportunity in early May at one of the local hardware stores. A number of House Sparrows had chosen to nest in the loft of the lumber yard.  When I spotted the birds, I asked permission to take pictures in the yard. When given the OK, I went home and got my camera. When I returned to the yard, I asked someone else if it was okay to take some pictures of the birds backing on the lumber yard. I was told it was OK.

I got into position and the birds were beginning to get comfortable with me being there and I started shooting.

There were several House Sparrow of both gender. I was observing how different the female is from the male. The male has bold markings and the female has much softer, lighter brown markings. I took my time trying to get closer in order to get the best images. The females were enjoying the rough surface of the lumber and appeared to be scratching in the early morning. One of them looks zonked out!  I was standing on the hill behind the lumber yard and was making great progress in moving closer to the birds. When I looked up, there were two men walking toward me. One of them must have been the manager. He was quite distressed that someone was (apparently) taking pictures of his lumber yard. I assured him that I had asked permission twice to be there. That did not put him at ease. When he seemed disbelieving that I was taking pictures of birds, I showed him some of the images that I had taken. He still did not seem convinced. I finally asked him, "Would you like for me to go?" He didn't answer right away, so I got the "picture." I left. Needless to say, I didn't get the quality images that I had hoped for.
This is somewhat common when a birdwatcher stops along the side of the road to take a picture of a bird in the tree or feeder of some one's house. People are not accustomed to seeing someone with a big camera pointed at their property. On the other hand, some people are used to it and are very welcoming. Some are even delighted to learn what type of bird is in their yard. Sometimes, it is a very special bird, and people are very proud that the bird made a pit stop in their yard. It is always a good idea to ask if people mind. Most of the time they don't.

Fox Sparrow

I have now seen more than 100 species for 2010. It is a bird bonanza. This weekend I shot around 1000 pictures, and I have a lot of reviewing, deleting, organizing and cropping to do. I haven't even unloaded my camera from Saturday's and Sunday's outings. To try to maintain a manageable number of photos on my computer, I have to review a lot of older shots and delete many.

As I go back through earlier shots, I find it easier to delete now. The pictures are getting better. Yet, in some cases I don't have new images of birds with my 300 mm lens, so I have to keep some of them. That is the case with the Fox Sparrow.

I took these images on Maddox Cove road in early April with my 250mm lens. Unfortunately, I haven't encountered a Fox Sparrow since where I could get better pictures. Nevertheless, I need to post a backlog of birds and decided on this one this morning.

The Fox Sparrow was one of the earliest sparrows to return after Winter. Its song was very impactful since I hadn't really noticed any sparrow song since I began watching birds. This confident sparrow's song is loud and sounds somewhat like a flute. I heard the song from my car as I was driving down the road. I parked and easily located the bird. I stood and listened for a long time while it serenaded.  I almost forget to get the camera clicking. It was my first time to see this species, and it made quite an impression.

The Fox is one of the largest sparrows and is so named because of its rufous coloring. It also has dark grey markings on its nape and upper back. The breast has a large reddish-brown spot in the center with triangular shaped brown spots below. 

There are so many sparrows around now and this is a great time to begin to learn to identify them. In most cases, I still have to come home and look the bird up in the field guides to come up with the ID. It takes a long time to learn all of the variables associated with the different species and groups of birds. I will be learning for a long time. The jargon is "lifelong learning."

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Swainson's Thrush

I took a quick dart to Kent's Pond yesterday afternoon to have a walk and see what I might find there. I was expecting warblers, not a thrush.  I saw, at a distance, a couple of small birds that I could not identify. The usual place at the start of the trail was totally empty.

I didn't hold out much hope for seeing any new bird.  After walking the South side of the trail and backtracking, I started to work the North side. I heard  a Robin and paused for a minute to try to determine its location. Often different birds can be found together.

It was then that I saw some movement in the brush on the ground. I found this very dark brown bird moving among the twigs and fallen branches. It seemed impossible to get a picture of it because of all of the branches between it and me. Focus is totally thrown off by anything in the frame between the camera and the target. I managed to get off three shots before it disappeared in the woods. I didn't think I captured the bird in any of them, but it was gone and that was it.

I hoped against hope that at least I got a clear record shot because I had not seen this bird before and needed the picture to identify it. When I downloaded my images at home, I was delighted to find that I did get one clear shot. It was then that I got out all of my field guides in search of a dark brown bird with a pointed beak. I looked and I looked and there was no bird that looked like this one. Time to ask for help!  I sent the shot to Dave Brown, local birder, and he identified it right away as a Swainson's Thrush. The shot that I have does not reveal the markings on the breast and that proved to be difficult for me. Dave is always so good about identifying the bird and then, explaining the features that led him to the conclusion. Great instruction!

I searched the Discussion Group to try to learn more about when and where this bird appears. It seems that this is a common bird for Newfoundland but not so common for St. John's. The short hours that I spent at Kent's Pond to get some physical exercise led me to at least another hour of mental activity of identifying and learning about this 95th new bird in my 2010 list!

Friday, May 28, 2010

Swamp Sparrow

When you least expect it, up pops the bird of choice. I went in search of a Swamp Sparrow several times only to return home disappointed. Then, last week I was in the bird blind at Long Pond taking "snaps" of Tree and Barn Swallows. During that time I heard the crows squawking and saw them circling. I figured it must be prompted by a raptor so I stepped out of the blind in time to catch a few shots of the raptor circling overhead. As usual, the crows were working hard to drive it away. When that show was over, I was heading back to the blind when up popped this little Swamp Sparrow.  I quickly adjusted the settings on my camera and got about two dozen shots before he lifted off.

Sparrows are a bit tricky to identify. There are many with very similar markings.  The Swamp Sparrow has a grey face, white throat, grey breast and white belly. Notice the line behind the eye and the grey line above the eye.

They also have a reddish crown and rufous back and tail with black lines, as the pictures below illustrate. The Swamp Sparrow is most often found around ponds, bogs and other wet lands. I get that accounts for their name.

A singing bird seems to be much easier to photograph. They are more interested in their song than in getting away from the camera. The sweet song of the sparrows and the warblers fills the woods these days.

The next time you come upon a sparrow, stop to look at the color and markings on the breast, note the lines on the face and the crown of the head.  Look closely to identify the color and markings on the back and tail. If given the opportunity, listen to the song.

Some birdwatchers are particularly astute when it comes to bird song. They can rhyme off the names of several birds that they are hearing but not seeing. It is really amazing to watch someone with this skill. For me, I am still just learning to identify the bird by its look. 

On Sunday I am participating in a 4-hour field session to learn more about finding and identifying both sparrows and warblers. I have already collected a number of photos of both groups and will be posting them in the days to come. If you don't have a field guide, check back here from time to time to help you identify  the birds that you see. There are many wonderful websites with photos and info about birds, but the most helpful starting point is to have narrowed the species of the bird to two or three. Then it is easier to search for info to support the ID. Happy birding, even if it is incidental.

Update:  I found this little bird when walking at Long Pond on Sunday. The lighting and the surroundings make this Swamp Sparrow's colors look richer. Yet, when I go down through all of the discriptors of this little one, it is clear that it, too, is a Swamp Sparrow.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Black and White Warbler

Well, the summer birds are coming in all across the island and in good numbers. The warblers are my bird-of-the-moment. It is amazing how many there are and how striking they look. With this onslaught, I have added several types of warblers and some new sparrows to my list. The list? Well, I have now spotted and photographed 94 species since January 1, 2010.

That may sound like a lot of work but it is anything but work. It is so nice to be outdoors and in the natural environment that birds frequent. I have seen moose, rabbits, squirrels, beavers, otters and of course, lots of birds.

Today, I decided to share my new pictures of the Black and White Warbler. I found this guy at Kent Pond yesterday afternoon and it was still there today. If anyone is interested in checking this out, this bird was located in the trail that runs by the brook toward the Howley Building. Along with him, I found a Red-breasted Nuthatch, Blackpoll Warbler and a Wilson's Warbler. On the South side of the pond, I found a very bright Yellow Warbler.  This morning, I also found a Spotted Sandpiper on the South side of the pond near the wharf. Overhead, there were three Tree Swallows sailing about. They are a challenge to photograph!

Actually, every season, every weather condition and every bird brings with it a set of challenges. These shots were taken in a very shaded area with slim beams of sunlight finding their way through the thick cover of the evergreens. It takes patience to wait for the sun to shine (that's a big one!) and for the bird to then, move into the ray of light and strike a pose. Lighting is probably one of the greatest challenges of bird photography. It is one thing to find the bird and get into position but it is something entirely different to get the light in the right direction and degree.

All of these factors and the thrill of finding a new bird is what keeps this pastime fresh. Every time I go out, it is new and different.  The experience gets richer as I learn more and more.

The Black and White Warbler feeds on the bark of the tree and works its way up and down and all around the branches. It turns itself upside-down and then spins back on top of the branch. This images shows him in one of those odd positions but he remained ever-vigilant to keep an eye on me at all times.

The Black and White is among the earliest warblers to return to the province in the Spring and they are very handsome.  They use the long narrow beak to pick at insects deep within the bark of the trees.

The color of this bird provides great camouflage with the tree bark. If looking for the bird, as with all birds, listen and follow the sounds of the bird. When you are as close as possible, pause and watch for any movement around the leaves, branches or the tree trunk. There is a very good chance that you, too, will find one of the fresh Spring warblers.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Interlude from Birding

It was on August 28, 1972 that I crossed the US\Canadian Border in Halton, Maine to immigrate to Canada. I knew full-well what I was leaving behind, but I had no idea what lay ahead. I had been fortunate to live and visit many modern cities and countries before coming to Newfoundland. I could only imagine that this province must be like the many other places that I had visited.
Thirty-six hours after crossing into Canada, I drove my shiny new red Mustang MACH I down the steep ramp of the MV William Carson into the community of Port au Basque. For the first few minutes there was the surprise of the breathtaking scenery, houses and buildings of bright colors and architecture that I had never seen before and then the back-end of one 18 wheeler after another. The V8 in my car has been "reved" at top speed all the way from Arkansas, but now it could only crawl up the hills and fly down them with an 18 wheeler hot on my bumper.

After about 30 minutes the traffic opened up on the two-way highway and I was moving along again. Now what? No houses, no filling stations, no signs - where was everybody? There were "Beware of Moose" signs along the way but not much else. I began to seriously wonder about whether I would run out of gas or where I might access a privy. I will never forget how dismayed I was about this.

Well, last week I felt the same sense of edginess about whether I would find gas before my tank ran dry. It brought up the memories and feelings of disbelief that I had known 38 years ago. I decided to take a drive to visit a part of Newfoundland that I had never been before. (I plan to do a lot of this.) This time I chose the Bonavista Peninsula. I had studied the map and tried to incorporate some birding into the outing.  Arnold's Cove was the first stop because it touts a bird sanctuary. Well, not much can be said about the sanctuary as there were only a hand-full of gulls there. Not to worry, it was early in the trip. A drive to Arnold's Cove Harbour was uplifting.  There was a grand mix of old fishing sheds, a fisherman doing what fishermen have done for years and a modern, well-maintained harbour that seemed to speak of prosperity. There was what appeared to be an oil-related vessel and one of those 18-wheelers. The sun cast a particularly beautiful light on the busy scene.

I left perfectly satisfied that I had taken the time to see this. The trip was on! From Clarenville the trip North up highway 230 and 235 was next. Shortly after leaving Clarenville, I began noticing that my gas gauge was falling a bit quicker than I anticipated. I began watching for a gas station.  None was in sight and no signs indicating that there would be one. When I reached Lethbridge, seasoned by my no-gas experience of 1972, I stopped and filled up the car. It was a good thing I did because that was the last station I saw until I circled around the whole peninsula and reached Lethbridge again, some 7 hours later. 
From this point, I began to see scenes of an older, more authentic way of life. Images that I more vividly remember from many years ago. After living in St. John's for a while, it is easy to forget that all of Newfoundland has not evolved into a franchise, modern architecture, convenience-driven society. The drive was quiet, few cars were on the road (no trucks) and the scenery was grand. I began to remember more and more about my first exposure to these images.  Small lumber mills were a common sight. In fact, we cut most of the wood that went into the house we built and had it cut at a mill in Gambo in the '70's.

The new style-homes of Clarenville, the cookie-cut barn-sheds had disappeared and minute-by-minute, I felt like I was travelling back in time. When I reached King's Cove, it was a good-sized community but with no signs. I thought that I had reached Bonavista and thought it was a grand little town. I drove on. Then, out of the blue a large town came into view as I crested a hill. I was stunned. There were no signs announcing its arrival, but there was Bonavista.  What a fitting name because this was a beautiful view. I slowed to drive through the town and drink in all that it had to offer. It was immaculate! The roads were narrow, the homes were of a traditional vintage, everything was freshly painted and bustling with activity. My daughter remarked that it was like an expansive Quidi Vidi and she was right. It was wonderful.

It had a beautiful, picturesque harbour that was breathtaking!  As grand as the harbour was, the traditional style homes and gardens were just as awesome. People still have vegetable gardens, animal enclosures for sheep, ducks, geese and chickens. It looked like there was such joy in living in a natural way.

After having a great look at all that was there, it is important to mention what was not there. There was not one McDonald's, Walmart or Irving Station.  I did see a Home Hardware but the franchise sign was low-keyed and the building was in keeping with the other buildings in the community. Hats off to Bonavista! It looks like, by design, they have chosen not to let big business rule their lives. Grocery stores and other shops (and there were plenty) had local merchant names. There was even a sign for Newfoundland Fashions.  I can't remember ever seeing a community of this size that is free of external big business influences. It looked like the best place in the world to raise a family.

I drove right to the tip of Cape Bonavista to have a look at the Puffin breeding grounds. After a short walk out over the rocks, up popped yet another beautiful view, an understatement. To stand there with the wind, the sun and the rugged rocks in control of all of your senses, it is a moment to remember.

After a very healthy pause, it was onward to Elliston. Of course there were no signs. This is conducive to communication. I had to ask people how to get there. The map was helpful but not as helpful as the people were. When entering Elliston, there is one sign that says "Root Cellar Capital of the World." The sign is erected over a root cellar. Eager to see the over 100 root cellars, I drove around the roads. I didn't see even one. There were two men working in a yard, so I stopped and walked over to find out where to go. I asked, "Where do I go to find the root cellars?" The man answered, "Well, my love, just turn around. There's three there and look over there, there's two. They're everywhere."  He was right. I was looking for some "splash" of signs and hoopla but they were there, all there, just nestled into the landscape. He was very helpful, and we even got to look inside as he suggested. The earliest cellars were apparently built over 200 years ago with the latest ones being built in the 1950's. For more info about these cellars visit:    These cellars were a food-line for people in times before electricity. Today, they are just as practical and functional as they were when they were first built.

What struck me was the humble presentation of the cellars. The residents know the history, the legend and the locations, but it has not become a commercial driver for the area. It's as though the preferred communication about the cellars is through word-of-mouth. How wonderful!

Next stop - Trinity. I had read quite a bit about Trinity and even considered attending a photography workshop there. Nothing prepared me for what I was about to see. Trinity is a time capsule. All buildings are of a traditional motif. I saw THREE cars and trucks traveling on the winding, narrow roads, two men cutting wood and clothes handing on the line. Other than that the community was dead still. It was like a movie set, after hours.

There was a grand old church with a very old graveyard surrounding it. The original church was built in the 1700's followed by another re-built in the 1800's and another re-build in the 1900's. The headstones are weathered, but those that could be read date back to the early 1800's. It is likely that many stones with no print remaining are much older than that.
There was a reverence about these stones, this site and this peninsula that is lasting. Coupled with the total absence of noise of any kind, it was like for a brief moment knowing life on this island in 1700.  What a great way to preserve and show respect for those who suffered such hardship and yet, were so happy in their outport life. It was hard to pull myself away from the moment and the place.

As I drove away from Trinity, I came upon an Aquaculture site. A sign of the times! At first I thought, what a shame to have that in this pristine part of the province. On second thought, I considered that this may well be the way forward to enable outport life to co-exist with the fast-pace, economy-driven world beyond its boundaries. It is most important that people can continue to live, by choice, in areas that are free of contamination of all varieties.
It was a joyful and relaxing day. I can hardly wait until my next trip to another peninsula on this island.

May 2-4 Robin

During the weekend, I drove through some back roads in search of new spring arrivals. This drowsy little American Robin flew in and barely got a grip on this post.

His suit looked a little crumpled. I couldn't help but think maybe he imbibed a bit too much last night at a May 24 (twenty-four) party. For anyone who is unfamiliar with this holiday, it marks the unofficial beginning of Summer. Many a campsite is loaded with cases (two dozen -24) of beer to add some levity to the party.

When poor Robbie lost his feet and began to look a little green, I really felt empathy for him. I can remember some May 24 gatherings (many years ago, mind you) where I found my own legs a  little wobbly and I certainly felt green.

Then again, maybe the dogberries are a bit fermented now. Perhaps that was the cause of his misery.

Robbie finally pulled himself back up on his legs. After he steadied himself a bit, he started twisting and stretching. The poor guy got himself in such a knot that he didn't know which way was up. It might have been at this point where I think he may have uttered a little prayer.

Thank goodness no cars were travelling on this road so I had an uninterrupted view of him working through his morning aches and pains.

At last he got himself upright. He was better able to balance himself and there was hope that the day wouldn't be a total loss. However, I couldn't help but notice that his eyes were still pretty glassy.