Friday, September 30, 2011

Baby Cedar Waxwing

 First of all let me say that I did not figure this one out on my own. On August 18, 2011 I managed to get one picture of the gray, fluffy little bird at Bidgood's Park. I had never seen anything like it.  So, what's new?

I sent the picture to two people, not knowing who would have time to reply to me. Both responded that this was a baby Cedar Waxwing. Then one changed his mind because it doesn't have a yellow tail.
 I "Googled" baby Cedar Waxwing and came up with a number of very young birds that had a more pronounced mask and a yellow tail. None looked just like this one. The blue eye ages this little bird to be very young. Maybe too young to have a yellow band on its tail?

This ID would fit the time and place as Cedar Waxwings were present at the park for at least a 4-week period over the summer. Unfortunately, I took this picture so long ago that I can't remember what other activity that I saw around this bird. There are often many clues that help with the identification, in addition to the "look" of the bird. Time, place and surroundings can help. Next time I see something that is totally new to me, I will surely take account of additional info that will help when I try to figure out what it is.
It is hard to imagine that this puffy little gray bird is going to transform into this beautiful, sleek song bird. I took this shot at Pippy Park last Spring when the berry-feeding birds were finishing off the few remaining berries that survived Winter.   Check out this little Cedar Waxwing having a bath.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Many Faces of the Swamp Sparrow

 I have said it before and I will say it again, not every bird is a picture perfect exemplar of its species. Over the summer I have collected a number of pictures of many birds, as you can imagine. Today, I have selected a few Swamp Sparrows to illustrate my point. So if they don't all look alike, how do you know it is a Swamp Sparrow. I am going to share some of the features that helped me even when the bird looks very different.
 These first two pictures are great examples of a Swamp Sparrow in its breeding plumage. It is considered among the rusty-capped sparrows when it is in this breeding season. Sometimes the cap looks really reddish and other times not so much.  This bird has black showing in the superloral but the guides that I have don't mention this even though some of the illustrations show it.
 The Swamp Sparrow has a black line that starts behind the eye and runs the length of the head. It widens as it moves back. There is also a thin black malar that frames a white throat.  The Swamp Sparrow is also classified as a streaked sparrow. This is because of the streaks on its back and the hint of streaks on its gray breast. Now, the two pictures above do not show any breast streaking but rather show plain gray. The back is quite rusty and in the bright light can look really red. (Note the tail on this bird.)
 This little bird was photographed later in the summer. This bird does not have a reddish cap but shows two brown stripes on the head separated by a gray streak. What? They have a red head....they have a brown and gray head? How am I supposed to tell the difference.  This bird seems to have a yellowish lore. Isn't that supposed to be on the Savannah not the Swamp. Discounting those differences,  this little Swamp Sparrow does have the black line behind the eye, a gray eyebrow, brownish/gray cheeks, slight black malar, white throat, gray wash breast and rusty back and buffy sides. These are all key to IDing this bird.
Not every bird will step out in the light in full view to help me with the identification either. Some hide away and I have to use what I can see to try to determine the species. This bird has the black malar, white throat, gray wash breast, buffy side and rusty back and tail. Hmmm...must be a Swamp. Note the little smudge on the breast. Some guides mention this as another feature of this bird.
 Then there are the total aberrations. This is a very good example. It does not look like a Swamp Sparrow so I had to run my checklist on features that I can pick out: 1) Reddish crown on the head 2) Gray wash on the breast and 3) A hint of buff color on the side of the breast.
There is no distinct malar, white throat, no black line behind the eye and what's up with the seemingly forked tail. Taking just the three features that I could confirm, I sorted through the books and no other bird has these exact markings. 

 I drew the tenuous conclusion that this was a Swamp Sparrow but doubting myself, I sent the pictures to someone who would surely know. I got confirmation that it is a Swamp Sparrow and likely an adult because a juvenile doesn't yet have the reddish cap. So what happened to all of the other standard facial and  throat  plumage?  Who knows but this really illustrates that this identification thing is a skill that will evolve over time with experience and lots of reading and looking. That's why I take so many field trips. There is no better way to learn than to get out there and see the differences.

 Now this little bird also posed some challenges but not so much as the one above. I see: 1) Smudge on breast 2) Buffy sides 3) Rusty wing and 4) Grayish breast. 

(I'm sure there will come a time when I can spot and identify a Swamp Sparrow in the moment. Sometimes I can do that now but other times it requires more "looking.") 

 The bird then popped out in the open and I got a better look. I am now able to see a faint line behind the eye and a grayish/white throat. When I combine these descriptors to the ones above, it turns out that the only bird it can be is a Swamp Sparrow.

As if identifying the standard plumage of birds in breeding plumage, winter plumage, female, male, juvenile and adult plumage, there are still the unusual variables that come into play. It is also relevant to mention that the Swamp Sparrow undergoes two adult molts per year.

Now, here's a challenge! I have added this last picture to this post because I have been trying to go through different checklists to identify this little bird but so far, I have come up with nothing. I have no idea what it is. The bird was at least 1000 yards away from me when I saw it and I was sure that it looked different but this is the only not-so-blurry shot that I got. Any ideas?

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Greater Shearwater

 When I go through bird books, I tend to flip past the pages that contain pictures of birds that I don't think I will ever see. Such was the case with shearwaters. What were the chances that I would see these sea bird flying by at long distances around Cape Spear? Well, a sea bird phenomenon that happened in Outer Cove Beach during the second week of August 2011 changed all that. This flock-shot contains images of seagulls, Black-legged Kittiwakes, Sooty Shearwaters and today's showcased bird - the Greater Shearwater.
 Nothing prepared me for the thousands of birds I would see in this small area. It was a chore to isolate and photograph single birds. I did manage a few record shots in the late evening as the sun was setting. In this image I got one of each: A Sooty Shearwater and a Greater Shearwater going their separate ways.
 Why the delay in posting these pictures?  The truth is I had so many images that it took me a long time to sift through them.  The time has come to get to the big sets of images to clear off my computer. Anyway,  news requires timeliness while Nature is timeless.
 Typically the Greater Shearwater only comes to shore to breed. So what brought in thousands of them within feet of the shoreline? Fish. There must have been a million small capelin  flowing in and out with the tide and thousands of sea birds swirling overhead and diving for a meal. When one bird would come up with a capelin, others would swarm the bird and try to take the fish away. Seagulls were most guilty of this lazy behaviour.
 Prior to seeing these sea birds this year including the Storm Petrel at Bellevue Beach, the only bird that I had seen that walked on water was the Pied-billed Grebe. This summer I got a lot of up-close viewing of this behaviour and it is quite amazing. They are fast, very fast as they push off on the top of the water to "water run" upon take-off.
 This bird has a tube nose with large nostrils which I understand is used for filtering water. This large nose also holds a secret weapon. As a method of self-defence, this bird can emit a foul odor from the nostrils to ward off danger.
The Greater Shearwater breeds in the South Atlantic and moves north after breeding season. I am sure that the abundance of small fish available here will ensure that the shearwaters continue to come back to us.
 This event was likely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see so many of these birds, so closely and so engrossed in their natural behaviour that they never seemed to notice the hundreds of people who flocked to the shoreline to watch them.
No sooner than the capelin spawned and disappeared so, too, did the shearwaters. A visit to the beach on the day after their departure was eerily calm and peaceful. It was like the amazing "National Geographic Moment" never even happened.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Yellow-bellied Flycatcher - August 12, 2011

 It is hard to believe that it has been over six weeks since I took these shots but it is so. It was on August 12th when I drove to Blaketown to see the Little Blue Heron. It was a dark, damp and foggy morning and the heron was perched atop a tree across the water. I knew that there was no chance of getting a good picture of it. Since I had seen a number of these birds before, I decided to move on....along the shoreline on the way home.
 There was nothing stirring at the beaches near Blaketown so I headed toward Spaniard's Bay. It was just past Heart's Content when I spotted a road named Beach Road. I thought that would be another opportunity to check for shorebirds. Much to my delight I spotted my first little bird of the day. This Yellow-bellied Flycatcher was moving from tree to tree in the distance. I slowly got out of the car with my binoculars and camera in hand. I watched it in the distance for quite awhile. It was not going to come to me without help. I began to pish very lowly.

Whohooo! It worked. It came near me and continued to be active at first moving from tree to tree and then it settled in for a studio photo shoot.  It was a stunning little bird and is a perfect example of what a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher looks like.

The Yellow-bellied Flycatcher is the most common flycatcher found in Newfoundland and is among our breeders. Since we do get some other visiting flycatchers it is good to be able to identify the Yellow-bellied so that it can be quickly eliminated when another flycatcher does turn up.  The Yellow-bellied is the only eastern flycatcher that has a yellow throat. That is the first and deciding factor of weather it is a Yellow-bellied.
 It has quite a broad eye ring that is pale yellow. Its upper back is olive green and the bird from the back view can look totally green. It has two whitish wing bars with it underparts being pale yellow.
Its lower mandible is pale orange and it shows well in this shot. Often times it is hard to distinguish this feature when in the field. Its short tail may in some ways accentuate this little birds big head. I was quite taken by surprise last year when I saw my first Yellow-bellied Flycatcher. Even from afar I thought it was a great little bird. After the 15 minutes that I had with this one, I thought it was a "stunner."

 According to resources this bird is supposed to be secretive, staying low in the thicket making it very difficult to see. This one was not like that at all. It seemed to enjoy having company as it was all alone in the woods on this day. It was so close that I can almost see my reflection in its eye.
It pleases me to be able to post a series of good pictures for a change. All of the pictures that I have uploaded lately have been very poor. It begs the question, "Will I ever turn out quality bird shots?" Shooting nature is very difficult as there are so many variables that come into play. Nonetheless, I do have a number of better than average pictures waiting in the cue to be posted. The common factor among the photographs that turned out well  is that the bird stayed around long enough for me to adjust settings and keep trying. When this happens, I learn a little bit more about shooting in ever-changing weather and lighting conditions. Who said progress must be speedy?  I think in retirement that it is okay to take it slow and easy and above all, enjoy the experience.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Philadelphia Vireo

 It is a real treat to see a vireo. I certainly didn't expect to see three species of vireos this year. With a bit of luck last year I happened upon a White-eyed Vireo which is quite rare here, and I really thought that would be it for me with vireos. However, this year turned out to be a vireo year.

On Saturday another birder and I decided to make a trip to the southern shore as far as Renews. We used the entire day and I don't know how the time went so quickly. Our ultimate destination was Bear Cove Point Road.

 We had seen several great little birds prior to arriving a Point Road so we were really primed to see some more. We headed into the road and drove the whole distance to the light house and did not see one bird, not even a robin. Ugh! This did not look very promising.

On our way out we stopped very often and began to do some "pishing."   Little by little some birds began to show up. We saw many Yellow-rumped Warblers (very common at this time), several White-throated Sparrows, a Fox Sparrows, a Northern Flicker, a raptor (probably a Sharp-shinned Hawk) and alas, a little yellow and gray bird - a Philadelphia Vireo.
 There had been several reports that there were sightings of a Philadelphia Vireo on this road and there it was. We found it and re-found it three time. Try as I did, I just couldn't get a good picture of it. I had been adjusting the settings on my camera all day to deal with the variable lighting conditions all day and I was not "set" for any of the opportunities.
Nevertheless, I am happy to have gotten the record shots and really enjoyed pursueing this bird.

Newfoundland falls within the breeding range of this bird but I had not seen one ever before in my last two years of searching the woods high and low. Where do they stay all of the time?

This Philadelphia Vireo was flipping about at around eye level and below staying in the alders. Sometimes it was near the road and sometimes it was about ten feet from the edge of the road.  As I moved to get closer it would move up the road always keeping a distance of about 20 to 30 feet ahead of me. It didn't seem spooked but just liked to have its distance.

Other than this little bird, we did not find any of the other rarities that had been reported on this road. In all likelihood we arrived too late (just after noon) to catch the great action. It is a real challenge to drive straight to Renews without stopping in to check out so many good birding spots along the way.

In reality a day of birding is so relaxing and exciting all at the same time that is really is okay to not see any special or new bird. When that does happen it is off the charts!

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Northern Parula

 I have been seeing so many new birds lately that I can hardly keep up with my pictures, the information and my desire to get out birding while the birds and weather have been equally as good.

On a day-trip to Renews and back yesterday we had a great day. After two days of very few birds moving around, they seemed to have found their wings yesterday.  We made several stops on the way to Renews and one of the most special stop was at La Manche. It is there where I found this Northern Parula (a first for me.)

When we first arrive in La Manche we were inundated with Hermit Thrushes. Contrary to my reading, these birds were not shy. They sat nearby and totally entertained us. I will share more about them at a later post.

I then began to work my way up the road as the flock of thrushes and sparrows moved along. I came across a very busy area of birds fairly high on a hillside. I watched and was sure that there were many warblers among all of the busy birds but I couldn't get a good look at any of them.

Then out popped this little bird with a bright yellow breast. It stayed all of ten seconds and I got only two shots before it was gone. Why did it go?  Well, just as everything was getting good, along came a huge, loud oil truck bounding down the gravel road. Everything scattered. I waited a while and walked on with the plan to return to this spot.  On the way back birds were beginning to move in again. (I got two very interesting pictures of another bird, parts only, that are being reviewed now in the hopes of making an ID.)

I am sure that I would have been able to get more shots, but the oil truck was now lumbering up the road again on its way out. It is so hard when you are on the edge of something good and circumstances arise that change everything. This pretty well marked the end of the birding on this road for this day. It is a very promising area and it took a lot of self-discipline not to drive back down this morning to check out these birds again. Perhaps later in the week when the wind dies down, I may make a short trip.

The Northern Parula is an uncommon visitor to Newfoundland but is most likely found annually during migration. I recall that one was found in Goulds in May of last year and another was reported on the Cape Spear Road just this week.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Dark-eyed Junco - Juvenile

Over the last three years the most frequent visitor to my backyard feeders has been the Dark-eyed (Slate-colored) Junco. At times I have had flocks of 60 birds. This has given me a great opportunity to observe and learn the behaviour and the plumage transitions of this species.  During the summer the numbers of juncos visitors to my yard drop and are replaced by members of the finch family including Purple Finch, American Goldfinch and Pine Siskins.
 It was at the end of July when the juvenile Dark-eyed Juncos began to visit the yard for the first time. They look very different from the adult male and female birds but are easily and quickly identified by their distinct flesh colored beak and while outer tail feathers. It is interesting to note that this little juvenile has a "buffy"color on its side which bears some resemblance to the markings of the Dark-eyed (Oregon) Junco.
It was a joy to watch the young birds in the yard. This little junco was very awkward as it tried to hold fast to the branch during the high winds. It and others would stumble, struggle to get airborne and fall off the perch as it tried to maneuver a place at the feeder. It reminded me of a toddler who wants independence but will get a few hard knocks along the way.
While free to move around at will, these little birds still like to be fed by their parents. I often watched as an adult bird would put seeds from the feeder directly in the mouth of the young.

I found it very interesting that the young of the species are less apt to stay among their own. The juncos would fly around and "play" with the A. Goldfinch, Purple Finch and Pine Siskins. They chased each other around the yard like old friends. I observed similar behaviour among a group of adult Dark-eyed Juncos yesterday that had a Ruby-crowned Kinglet among them. It, too, was chasing and mingling very nicely.

I read this week that many ground feeding birds have white outer tail feathers and that this is an adaptation over time. When one flees from danger, the white flashes boldly sending warning signals to the others birds around.  This must be particularly useful when the neighbor's cat hides under my giant Hostas.

Since July the juvenile juncos have undergone several stages of change as they transition into their mature plumage. The warm browns, streaks and "buffy" colors are being replaced by dark gray and darker brown colors with a stand-out white belly. These birds are among a group of birds often referred to as Snowbirds and they will be around all winter. Just this week I noticed the flock in my yard is beginning to grow again as the numbers of finches diminish. I topped my my feeders with their favorite mix and welcome them home.

Friday, September 23, 2011

White-winged Scoter

 For my international readers I would like to introduce Cape Spear. It is the most north easterly point of North America and is a favorite tourist spot as well as a major draw for Newfoundlanders year around. Many come just to sit and look out to sea, others come to watch the swell of the ocean and the waves crashing against the rocks. It is usually possible to see fishing boats, container ships, cruise liners, supply ships and sail boats moving in and out of the St. John's Harbour from the lookouts. There are times when whales fill the water,  icebergs drift into shore and sea birds gather to feed on plentiful capelin.

 Birdwatchers frequent this venue all year round. In fact Cape Spear is "like a box of chocolates...." Sea birds fly by in abundance, sea ducks can often be seen in large rafts, kittiwakes nest on the shores, shorebirds dance on the rocks, and sparrows inhabit the low grassy areas of the hillside. Snow Buntings show up in the fall as well as other vagrant birds that stopover.  The road to Cape Spear and the East Coast Trail also welcome warblers, thrushes, orioles, and so much more. I'm sure that a list of all the birds sighted at Cape Spear and surrounding area would be very lengthy.

 On September 8, 2011 I was standing in the lower lookout talking to a tourist who had come to see a Black-legged Kittiwake. All of a sudden we spotted two dark birds in the distance but by the time he redirected his scope, the birds had gone.

We remained looking out to sea watching the Northern Gannets' powerful dives into the water when all of a sudden two White-winged Scoters headed our way from the distance.

I got a good look with my binoculars when I realized they were going to give us a very close fly-by. I was able to get these three pictures as they flew quite close to the lookout. This was without question my best look at this sea duck.  We should be seeing more of these birds as this species winters in the waters around Newfoundland.

While Cape Spear is often a very busy place, there are those rare times when I have happened out to the cape to be the only one there able to drink in all of the magnificence of nature without distraction.

Oh, yes... I forgot to mention the wind. It is usually on the really windy days when I find myself there alone. The reason is obvious...the wind in this area can knock you off your feet!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Long-tailed Duck - Summer 2011

 Amid the flurry of all of the warblers, vireos, sparrows and the occasional rare vagrant, it is easy to forget about the sea ducks that frequent the waters around Newfoundland.

It was a really nice surprise to come upon this pair of Long-tailed Ducks of the shore of Bear Cove Beach.
 This turned out to be my closest look at the Long-tailed Duck and my first look at them in their breeding plumage. Although it seems that they are in the molting process they still have the darker face and head of the breeding season. As the waters around Newfoundland serve as a wintering area for this duck, this pair seems to have arrived early to stake out their territory. 
 It is interesting that all three times that I have seen this sea duck, it has been in this same area.
 Because this pair is molting, their plumage is not exactly as it appears in the guides.  So what else is new? Nevertheless, it is clear that these birds are not exactly the same and I have concluded, perhaps erroneously, that there is a male and female. The male shows with the larger, lighter eye patch.  I read that this bird actually has three distinct molts but the guide only shows two. Time to dig deeper to learn more about this bird.

There was no sign of the long tail on either of these ducks. The male in the guide shows with a long tail in both winter and breeding plumage.  So why is it missing here?  It may be possible that it is submerged.  Really, the guide is only a starting point for learning about birds.  Each bird has its own story that is surely not included in field guides. This require more reading. For me, I am still in such an early stage of learning that it is a sign of progress just to be able to note differences and ask questions.  I'm sure time will drive me into deeper reading when I have already developed a basic knowledge base.

This seems to be the female that shows no distinct eye patch. and more white on the neck. The color of the bill is also darker than the male.

It is interesting to watch how sea ducks quickly take note of people nearby and begin to slowly but steadily drift farther from shore. They typically don't take flight but just ride the wave off into the distance.  I have also noticed this to be the case with grebes and loons as well. If hoping to get pictures of these birds or get extended looks, it is wise to keep a low profile while watching.