Thursday, October 28, 2010

Evening Grosbeak

 My birding activities started early yesterday morning when I went to Kelly's Brook to try to catch a glimpse of the Kentucky Warbler that showed up there early this week. I spent more than two hours in search of the little yellow bird and was about to leave when I noticed that I had lost the lens hood on my camera so I took one last dart in through the wooded trail. While there, two Black-capped Chickadees flew into a tree. A Song Sparrow popped out on a branch. This got my attention. I began watching the activity
and there, big as life, flew the Kentucky Warbler up onto a tree branch. It stayed for about 20 seconds and I got good looks, but I couldn't get a single picture because of all of the leaves and branches between me and my target. It flew off and I saw it very briefly one more time before going. (I also found my lens hood.)

Since I didn't get any pictures of a new bird yesterday, I went in search of the Evening Grosbeak that have been frequenting the feeder of one of the
birders in Goulds. She offered me the opportunity to visit the feeder in hopes that I would see these great birds.

Shortly after I arrived, I spotted the Evening Grosbeaks sitting high atop a tree, several of them. I watched and took some pictures. They flew off, leaving me satisfied that I had seen them and got a few record shots.

Activity at the feeder around the house seemed to be busy with Juncos, Black-capped Chickadees, Red-breasted Nuthatches, and Blue jays.
Great entertainment. I stayed to watch them for a while.

It must have been 10 to 15 minutes of activity when I noticed the flock of Evening Grosbeaks moving back into the area. They flew around the tree tops for a while and then a brave group of females decided to chance the feeder, even with me standing about 20 feet away.

Soon the males began to get into the action. In no time, all members of a flock of about 10 Evening Grosbeaks were flying back and forth to the feeder, feeding off the ground and perching on the nearby swing.

What good luck!  Even the sun was over my shoulder providing a great opportunity to capture the moment. This was particularly special because earlier this week I took a walk down a nearby trail in the hopes of seeing these birds. Nothing. The only bird activity I saw on the trail was one Northern Flicker and I flushed a grouse.

 As I review my pictures, I think I can do better. I am thinking about waiting for a sunny day and heading back to the feeder. This time I will take my tripod and see if I can get some really good shots.

The Evening Grosbeak is common to Newfoundland, particularly the Southern Shore. Yet, this is my first time to see them. They are beautifully adorned with brown, yellow and white that flashes in the sunlight.  They are also a gregarious bird and of course, they have a very large beak for which they are named. The Evening Grosbeak belongs to the finch family.

At times there were as many as six birds on the feeder at once. It was nice when this handsome couple showed up at the feeder without all the rest. It provided a great look at the differences between the male and the female. They look like they own this feeder.

Just for fun, I have done some creative work on shots of a male and female Evening Grosbeak in flight. This is how an artist might render these two beautiful birds.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Top Coastal Destination: Avalon Peninsula, Newfoundland

" National Geographic Traveler magazine has selected Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula as its top rated coastal destination.

The magazine’s November issue says the peninsula, the easternmost point in North America, is a "blustery realm" that is home to "brightly painted fishing villages and the lively city of St. John’s."

The magazine says visiting the Avalon is "like going back in time — close-knit communities, a strong local culture reflected in music and art, and unspoiled scenery."

This confirms what I have come to believe over the summer. I have travelled extensively around the Avalon and accumulated many images of the rugged coastline, lighthouses, fishing communities and so much more. Some of the sights are so breathtaking that little can compare. While I have many landscape photos that I may share over time through this site, I have chosen to show you a very unexpected and charming addition to my summer travel experience.

While driving to Witless Bay to go on a boat tour, I noticed a small brook in Mobile with several small boats on it. I hit the break right away. I am quite practiced at doing that because I have slammed on the breaks many times
when birdwatching. When I walked back to the brook, I was so surprised and pleased to see more than a dozen hand-crafted boat models. They were meticulously crafted. When I went down the embankment to get a better look, I was awestruck. There, built into the hillside, was this wonderful miniature fishing stage. There is so much detail showing the fisherman's work. The women are also actively involved in splitting, salting and drying the codfish. This is a wonderful little treasure found quite by accident. There is no fee nor fanfare, just an
artisan who loves his heritage and has chosen to share it in this way.

Two weeks later following a tour to Mistaken Point near Cape Race, I was driving back to the Trans Canada Highway when something small and unusual caught my eye. I hit those brakes again and returned to the spot. I couldn't believe it. Someone had crafted an entire miniature fishing village around a stream. The village had fishing stages, homes, outhouses, laundry handing on the line, a school, a church - everything you can imagine. It must have taken years to build this little community. There were no signs, no advertising, and no barriers. Visitors are welcome to take a stroll through this little community that sits on private property and must be a great source of owner-pride when visitors stand and stare.

It seems to be that these wonderfully crafted, three-dimensional works of art capture the real spirit of the people who inhabit the top coastal destination in the world.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Redhead Duck

 Surprise! Surprise! Just when you least expect it, a rare bird appears! This is my first rare bird find and now I wish that I had more pictures.

On Saturday, last, when I was working to get some better shots of the Pied-billed Grebe, I noticed this red headed duck drifting among the other diving ducks. I was hidden away behind some trees, lying in wait for the grebe to come near. It never did but a group of scaup, Tufted Ducks and this sleepy Redhead Duck drifted fairly close to shore where I was standing.

At the time, I didn't have my binoculars with me so I wasn't sure if it might be a Green-winged Teal or a Eurasian Wigeon. When I downloaded the pictures and looked closely, I realized that it wasn't either of those kinds of ducks. I thought it might be a Redhead Duck, but I certainly wasn't sure. Yesterday, I sent it to Dave Brown for identification. When I ran into him today, I asked about the picture and he reported that he hadn't received the e-mail. I wonder where I sent that! Anyway, I resent it to Dave today, and he just confirmed that this is, indeed, a Redhead Duck. He also provided this information. The last report of a Redhead in Newfoundland that he is aware of was in 2005 when there was a group of 10 to 12 in St. John's. Prior to that, the only other reports that he knows of was one in 1995.  This bird is typically found in the west and seldom found in the Northeast.  How does it feel to be the finder of a rare bird? Absolutely terrific!

Monday, October 25, 2010

Bonaparte's Gull

 Following a tip from the Discussion Group, I hurried over to Quidi Vidi Lake to get a look at the newly arrived Bonaparte's Gull.  When I arrived, it was, as reported, sitting on a buoy some distance from shore. As usual, the sky was gray and drab. With my binoculars, I was able to get satisfying looks and thought that would be it. Then three good things happened. First another Bonaparte's Gull arrived giving rise to the second good thing. The gull on the buoy flew closer to shore to visit with the other gull.
 I followed along the shore to the south side of the lake to get a better look and was able to get good views of this bird in flight. During this time, the third good thing happened. The sun popped out! I was afraid the gulls might go quickly so I didn't take the time to change the settings on my camera to accommodate the sun. That was a bad move on my part because most of the following pictures look washed out.
 By the time I got around the lake, the Bonaparte's flew right in on cue and landed right in front of me.
As you can guess, all of this happened very quickly, and I kept shooting. Now there were two. Both of these gulls are already into their Winter plumage, although one of them had more dark markings than the other.
 These gulls were not afraid of humans. This one swam straight over to me. I wonder where it was before it came to QV?
Still bold and confident, it came right up to shore and rested on the water's edge for a little while.
As you can tell by the differences in colors of all of these shots, the sun and clouds were doing all kinds of tricks with my photography. It is impossible to set the camera and expect to shoot for even 5 minutes without a lighting change. That is just the weather in St. John's. As I check through my gull list, I find that this is my 13th gull species to see on the Avalon Peninsula, including the Black-legged Kittiwakes. During my outings last year, I never saw a Bonaparte's. That makes for a special beginning to the gull season for me this year.

Updated: January 9, 2011. On New Year's Day I took a spin around to several of the known bird locations. Among them is Pier 17 where many rare gulls have been sighted. On this day as most days this winter, a small Bonaparte's Gull was fishing for food.

 Although I saw two Bonaparte's together in October, no two have been sighted in the same place again. This one seems to be spending the winter with the Black-headed and Iceland Gulls. Despite its small size, it holds its own when foraging for food.
This bird is similar to the Black-headed Gulls except: 1) It is smaller 2) Its beak is black, not red/orange and 3) Its legs are much lighter in color than the Black-headed Gull.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Pied-billed Grebe

 Yesterday morning dawned with some great sunshine; never mind the dark clouds on the horizon. We decided to start our Saturday with a great breakfast out and a walk around the pond. I was not really intending to do any birding or to even happen upon a special bird, but this did not deter me from taking my camera. It is my constant companion.  We started our walk around Kent's Pond that sits in the shadow of the province's government building - the Confederation Building.
By the time we got half way around the pond, the sun had succumbed to the clouds and a nasty little rain squall came up. I tucked my camera inside my coat, and looking much bigger, we walked on. Within minutes, the sun popped out again. We were nearing the end of our walk when I noticed a small bird on the water. There were Black Ducks, Mallards, Greater Sculps, Lesser Scaups and Tufted Ducks there, but this little duck was much smaller than all the rest and was swimming alone. Once I was able to see its profile, I knew right away that is was a Pied-Billed Grebe. My lucky
day! The bird was some distance from the shore and the sun was not working in my favour. The Pied-billed Grebe is known for its evasiveness and true to form, it began to drift even further away. I took a couple of record shots and planned to return later in the day, hoping that I could get the sun over my shoulder for the next round of shots.

When I first returned in the afternoon, the grebe was nowhere to be seen. It was nice out so I walked again. Then, I spotted the Pied-billed Grebe nestled among some water lilies. I moved close to shore and stayed behind some trees, out of sight. Despite the fact that the grebe was very far away, I started shooting. It actually started moving toward me. I thought for sure my patience had paid off, and I was going to get a fair shot from a short range. Well, that didn't happen. Someone who was walking her dog, off-leash no less, let the dog get away and it started chasing another dog and barking, etc. This was just enough to spook the grebe that dove and didn't resurface for more than ten minutes.
 When it did resurface, it went through a wing-drying performance that I haven't seen any other duck do. It flapped its wings much like a cormorant and stayed with them outstretched for quite some time. I didn't get any great shots because the duck was too far away but I did get a chance to learn more about the behaviour of this tiny little duck. When last I saw it, it was spooked by yet another dog and it walked, ran on water to get wing and fly off to another section of the pond. This was a great sight.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Bird Watching in Newfoundland

It was about this time last year that I began to develop an interest in the birds that surrounded me. I began to look more closely at the common birds that appeared on my walks or in my back yard. At that time I was just breaking in my new digital SLR Canon. Before I knew it, I realized that my visual memory was not that great so I decided to take pictures of the birds that I saw so that I could study them more closely when I got home.

It was in December 2009 that I took my first bird watching tour with Dave Brown. The excitement of getting up at 4:30 a.m. to join a group of like-minded people to drive to the Southern Shore in a blustery snow storm was "the hook." On that day we happened upon an adult Bald Eagle that snatched a Common Eider right out of the waters before us. That event solidified my interest, and I began my very rewarding hobby of bird watching. I have lived in Newfoundland for nearly 30 years and had never seen an Atlantic Puffin, a Murre (except on the dinner table), or a Northern Gannet. How could that happen? Who knew that people travelled from all over the world to watch the many birds that live and pass through Newfoundland.

I have since learned that Newfoundland is considered the crossroad of birds. More rare and uncommon birds land on this island than in most any other place in North America. If I am on the ball, I will be able to see local delights and have a glimpse of very special birds like the European Golden Plover, Great Egret, Sandhill Crane, Scarlet Tanager, Slaty-backed Gull, Yellow-legged Gull and many more. All of these birds I have seen this year, and they are not in the Newfoundland Bird Guide. I used to think that book was the "be-all and end-all," but that is not the case. I have seen so many birds this year that are vagrants and do not appear in that guide. This book is a basic representation of birds that are common to this province.

The Scarlet Tanager is a classic example of a great little bird that is rare to this province but does show up from time to time. The only predictors for this kind of occurrence are the weather and the calendar. Birdwatchers in the province are very quick to report these types of rare occurrences on the NL Birds Discussion Group via Google.
(Note: This is the most often viewed bird on my blog.)

There are many bird sanctuaries and ecological reserves on the island of Newfoundland. These include : Cape St. Mary's Seabird Colonies, Witless Bay Sanctuary and Ecological Reserve, St. Georges Area Bird Sanctuary, Terra Nova National Park, Eliston Puffin Island, Grand Codroy Estuary, Gross Morne National Park and of course the nearby islands: Gannet Islands, Funk Island and Baccalieu Island. Thousands of seabirds flock to these areas for breeding each year. There are many tour boats that visit these sites and with a little luck in the right season, several varieties of whales frequent these areas. It is a blast of nature at its best.

Of course there are many more areas of Newfoundland that are birding hot spots such as Quidi Vidi Lake that boasts the greatest variety of seagulls than any other place in North America. More than one dozen species of seagulls have been recorded in the small inner-city pond that hosts the oldest sporting event (the Regatta) in North America. There are so many small ponds and fields in and around the city of St. John's that see uncommon birds drop in on a routine basis. These special, rare or uncommon birds include: Garganay, Gadwall, Pink-footed Goose, European Golden Plover, Sandhill Crane, Wood Duck, Laughing Gull, Hooded Merganser and more. There are always spots to check. I am unfamiliar with areas off the Avalon Peninsula because I haven't expanded my hobby that far yet. There is still so much to see in St. John's. In due time, I will surely venture out to other places. Most notably, the Codroy Valley attracts a very different collection of birds than St. John's.

Then there is the Southern Shore of the Avalon Peninsula. It seems when the weather is at its worst, birding the Southern Shore is at its best. The Cape Race Road that is home to the Cape Race Lighthouse (the first place to receive the Titanic distress signal) and Mistaken Point (home of the oldest deep water fossils in the world) seems to attract many vagrants. It is thought that when they are blown off course, they see the light from the light house and land in or around that area. The weary birds may stay awhile to rest up before moving on.

Cape Spear, near St. John's, also is a great spot to see seabirds. There were recent visits from a Yellow-billed Cuckoo and a Great Egret on the road to Cape Spear. I  photographed the Snow Buntings, Common Eider, Purple Sandpiper, and White-winged Scoter off the point of Cape Spear.

Birding these areas really requires the expertise of local birders who know just where to look. On the Avalon Dave Brown offers regular individualized birding tours to local birders and to visiting birders who are looking for specific birds. He is very diligent and knowledgeable, and his success rate is very high. There are also local birders who are listed at who are always happy to guide new and seasoned birders around the area. For new birders there are bi-monthly bird walks around the Botanical Gardens in St. John's. A recent walk yielded my best pictures of a Baltimore Oriole.

The birders in the province tend to think that many more uncommon birds land on this island but because the population of birders is small, the birds go undetected. It seems that most birds are documented on the weekends because that is when most local birdwatchers have the time to go in search of new and unexpected species. The number of birdwatchers may be small but the outcome is big. The Telegram, the local newspaper, carries a weekly feature on birding in the province in Section D. This can probably be accessed through the Internet. This article is written by Bruce McTavish who certainly knows what he is talking about.

Birding in Newfoundland is top notch and so are the resources.  If you are in search of a special birdwatching destination, check with the local birders to plan ahead to provide the best opportunity to see that special bird on your list. Visit the links provided in the right column of this blog to find the local experts. It will be an experience that will knock your socks off. If planned in the right season, you can see icebergs, whales and a host of historical and memorable places. If you are just touring the province, be sure to make the bird sanctuaries an incidental part of your trip; it could turn out to be the highlight.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

European Starling

 Since last winter I decided to try to document some of the many transitions that the European Starling undergo on their way to maturity. Winter, Spring, Summer or Fall, these birds are in my yard. Sometimes there are so many that I can't count them all. This group of adult European Starlings looks very small because they have tightened up their bodies for protection from the wind and snow.
 Alas, Winter passes and Spring has brought many, many new European Starlings to add to the already too-many numbers. The juvenile European Starling is a brown, sooty color with very little color on the body and only a tinge of gold on the wings. It somewhat resembles the female Brown-headed Cowbird at this stage.
 As Spring passes into Summer, the sooty little bird begins to develop some breast markings that clearly identify it as a European Starling. An aside:  I wonder why there are very few of these birds in Central Newfoundland when there are so many on the Avalon Peninsula.
 Summer draws to an end and by now the juvenile European Starling has developed a strong iridescent color all over its body.
 In this shot, the head looks black and the bird has a mussy hair-do. Despite the nuisance nature of these birds, they are really something special to look at.
 This is a mature European Starling as the yellow on the bill indicates. By this stage all of the scraggly look of the immature birds has disappeared and the bird is sleek and colorful. Often these birds are seen in large flocks that sit on wires or perform an areal act waving through the sky. It is worthwhile isolating one or two birds and really looking at the amazing mix of colors all over their body.
 This immature European Starling is moving very close to the look of the mature bird above, but the bill is still black.
 In this image, the birds looks different from any other picture. The mix of brown on the wings catches the sun and makes them look like some exotic tropical bird.

It was this juvenile European Starling that landed on my deck this morning that prompted me to organize my Starling pictures and post this blog. The mix of green and gold on this bird has not yet developed the iridescent color. This is a beautiful example of a fall-coloured bird.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Purple Martin

 The Purple Martin has quite a fan base. While it is quite common in the mid to eastern U.S., this little bird travels a long distance to winter in Venezuela and Brazil. Across the south it is common the see multi-story Martin houses and gourds hanging in back yards to attract the Purple Martin.

It is believed that they are very effective in ridding the yard of unwanted insects.
I found this Purple Martin family in northern Arkansas. It's a wonder I have any pictures at all. I was in the centre of a large lake when I spotted some small birds in a tree on the shoreline. I couldn't ask the tour guide to move us closer so I tried to steady myself as much as possible and started firing away with my Canon.

When I reviewed the pictures, I was quite surprised to find that I had caught a shot of the young being fed. That is the shot I would have tried for if I had been directly under the tree.

Northern Harrier

    The Northern Harrier is very common   in Newfoundland, as far as raptors go. I have had several opportunities to photograph them but so far, I have not even got a "good" picture yet. The pictures above show and immature Northern Harrier with its white rump flashing. I encountered that bird while drive along Marine Drive. I spotted it in the field and it was pretty close. I was moving along about 50 km per hour, with a car behind me. All I could do was grab for my camera and shoot out of the window while driving. I watched where the bird went and pulled off to try to follow it on foot. I looked for
over 30 minutes and could not relocate it. I missed that chance.

The remaining record shots presented here are of an adult Northern Harrier in flight. I have come up on them briefly on dark days and on one sunny day. This last picture is the clearest and best of the lot.

As I look at these three latest raptor postings, I realize how much more work I have to try to get better shots. Unfortunately, these hawks are not as
predictable as an Osprey or Bald Eagle. In their cases, they tend to return to the same sight for several days in a row. I can wait for them. Finding these hawks is by happen chance and luck.