Friday, November 30, 2012

Where is our Yellow-legged Gull?

By this time most years, a Yellow-legged Gull has already put in an appearance. Where is our YL Gull this year?

Is it because no one is out there looking for the gull? Or is it that someone may have seen it and not been sure of the ID? I know I have been looking over every gull that has a darker mantle.  I have been sufficiently satisfied that the gulls I have scrutinized have all been Lesser Black-backed Gulls.  How can I be sure?  Well, I went back to re-read Dave Brown's blog where he dedicates a lot of time and pictures to describe the unique characteristics of the Yellow-legged Gull.  I have no intention of repeating his well-presented overview and would recommend you check out his article at:
 In the meantime, I will present a few very quick tips I garnered from his article:

1) As shown in the first picture, the YLG has a snow white head (and of course, yellow legs) from about mid-December onward.
2) At this time of year (November), the YLG can have streaking on the head and face. The  streaking can look darker around the eye. There is never streaking on the breast of the YLG. This streaking will gradually disappear from the back of the head to the front as the month progresses.
3) This third picture is of a Lesser Black-back Gull taken just last week in a parking lot. Because this bird doesn't have any breast streaking and does have extensive head streaking, it is a little more difficult to ID. I would advise looking for the answer to this question on Dave's site. There are actually several reasons he gives.
I found these two LBBGs last week at Forest Pond. I have actually seen about eight LBBGs in Goulds since early Fall. In this picture, both birds have streaking on their neck and breasts - clearly, not YLGs.
This gull, located at Quidi Vidi Lake early this month, gave me reason for pause. It seemed bigger than a LLBG and the markings on the bill seem to indicate an immature bird, I wondered about it enough to send a picture to Dave. He confirmed it is a LBBG. There are a number of differences between the YLG and LBBG including streaking, shape of the head and beak, eye ring, red-line near edge of the mouth and mirrors on their wing feathers. If a YLG turns up, it will be a very interesting exercise to work through all of the descriptors in Dave's article to deduce an accurate ID. In the meantime, I am learning more about the LBBG which will help me when I do see a YLG. Let's hope the challenge arises this year.
We also are missing another rare gull. The Slaty-backed Gull showed up in January of this year but didn't stay around very long. There are some similarities between this gull and the LBBG as well. I guess the easiest way to eliminate the LBBG is the SBG has pink legs, not yellow. I hope it comes out of the water, if I see one.

The best opportunity to see one of these special gulls may be around Quidi Vidi Lake, where (in the past) they have been spotted on the water as well as in the surrounding area including rooftops (like Santa) and ball fields. Keep hunting as there may just be a rare gull around already!

Thursday, November 29, 2012

From Kelly's Brook to Cape Spear

 The Blue-gray Gnatcatcher and warblers lingering at Kelly's Brook have created quite a stir. The area has been swarming with people wanting to get a glimpse of these great little birds. Now, that weather has turned cold, it might be a good idea to give them a real break so that they can focus on finding food.
Yesterday morning dawned with a temp just above freezing and no wind.  For me these are ideal conditions for a stroll around Cape Spear. On the way out, I saw few birds: A Pine Grosbeak, a Northern Flicker, a flock of American Goldfinch and very few Dark-eyed Juncos.  It was easy to make a speedy drive to the Cape. For today's post I have included a mix of birds I have seen at Cape Spear this month.  This shot of an immature Common Eider was taken around the 10th. It was the lone eider in the area.
On yet another day when there was very little activity at the point, when this great White-winged Scoter decided to do a fly-by fairly close to shore. At first it came in heading North, but then made a U-turn and went back South.

On the same day as I saw the scoter, I spotted this small white and gray bird sitting on the water. It was too far for me to get an ID with my binoculars.
Even with a photo, I am unable to tag this bird with an ID. All I could do was say what it was not:  It was not a Guillemot, not a Long-tailed Duck, not an Eider, and not a Scoter. The possibilities are shrinking. I am going to take a wild guess that it is a Shearwater, species unknown.
Quite early in the month, there was a lot of shearwater activity.  Of course the weather conditions made viewing them very difficult. The drizzle, mixed with high winds and a feisty ocean swell, made it very difficult to see.  Nevertheless, there were numerous Greater and Sooty Shearwaters, mixed with a few Black-legged Kittiwakes, Northern Gannets and what I think is a Northern Fulmar.
The size, shape and coloring of the white bird in this picture just didn't look like a typical sea gull.  It was impossible to get a look at its beak, but I would bank on this being a Northern Fulmar. The Cape always offers an unpredictable mix of sea birds, making it a "place to go."
In fact, I am often surprised by other things I find at Cape Spear such as: Breakfast on the Edge, a Snowy Owl, an Ovenbird, a Yellow-billed Cuckoo, hundreds of whales and more. Yesterday, was no different. I saw this boat, at first, from a distance and because of its color and the way it sat low in the water, I thought it was a military boat. Then, I heard several loud pops echo across the water and watched the water spray in the trajectory of the gun. It finally dawned on me, these were bird hunters. I guess this is the season, but I cringed for every little black and white bird that flew by. I was rooting for them to turn around and go the other way. So is the cycle of life! Many Newfoundlanders graced their table with "turr," the local name for Murre.  When I first came to NL, I was boarding for about two months and can remember turr being on the menu. Don't think I could eat them now. Nevertheless, this is a tradition that deserves to survive. 

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Barnyard Whimsy

 Once a year, I try to get to Lester's Farm Chalet. The freshest of the fresh foods and the idyllic setting are the main attractions for me. During my childhood, I spent a lot of time around farms and returning to one, no matter how briefly, brings up a lot of good memories.

On a recent visit to the bard yard off Pearltown Road, I was greeted by new animals and fowl that I don't remember seeing there before. Upon arrival, this great little Scottish Highland cow was strolling up the path straight toward me. Given the horns, I was pretty cautious and got back in my car.  Not to worry, the little guy strolled on by heading for a bin of cabbage.
The Scottish Highland is the oldest known breed of cattle dating back to the sixth century.  It is the oldest pedigreed cattle breed in the world and the first to be registered. What a special treat to be able to see it up close.
Juxtaposed with the Highland was what I believe to be a Newfoundland Pony. They are few and far between these days. The Newfoundland Pony evolved from several breeds of horses brought over to Newfoundland by the early European settlers. In 1935 there were nearly 1000 Newfoundland ponies documented around the province. By 1997 when this pony was declared a Heritage Animal, there were only 144 remaining on the island. I vividly remember during the 1970's when small herds of these creatures would roam freely through the town of Gambo, often raiding gardens and knocking down fences, to the chagrin of the residents. Nevertheless to me, it was a great taste of how life was before so many controls placed restrictions on freedom.
I was totally shocked to spot these Helmeted Guinea Fowl in the barnyard. This domestic breed hails from West Africa but has been documented back to  1475 BC in Ancient Egypt.
Guinea Fowl have a reputation of being a bran yard bully, but on this day at Lester's Farm, they were on their best behaviour.

Roaming around the barnyard were several species of chickens. I spent a lot of time yesterday searching the Internet in an attempt to identify these breeds.  After several hours of searching, I was only able to find one of the three.

This species, I think, is the Silver Grey Dorking. While searching the many chicken sites, I realized that I knew quite a few breeds of chicken, and I was reminded of how attached chicken-owners can become to their pets.

There is such a great selection of animals and fowl at this farm that it shows just how much thought went into populating it.  I should add that this is only a small portion of the animals kept by the Lester family. The storefront farm on Brookfield Road also maintains a petting barn with even more birds and beasts.
Of course, what would a barn yard be without a resident goose? I think this goose is a Twentse Landgan. There are so many different breeds of domestic fowl that to master all of the breeds would require a lot of study time.  The truth is, you don't have to know the breeds in order to enjoy them.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Nashville Warbler

 Persistence paid off! It is hard to know what to do when there is a bird around that I want to see badly - keep looking or wait for it to settle in somewhere. The Nashville Warbler presented me with this delimma .  It was first spotted on the lower Rennie's River by Paul Linegar on November 9, 2012.  I had hoped it would be as easy to relocate as the Wilson's. I was wrong.
Returning to the area time and time again, I only got one fleeting glimpse of this bird as it moved around tree branches. I didn't really see it. Worried that if I didn't see it, the bird might just vanish and the opportunity would slip away.
However, if I had been patient, I could have saved myself a lot of time.  The Nashville Warbler has now settled in at Kelly's Brook where it has been seen regularly by many people over the last two days.  
If the bird stayed around, it was likely that it would find its way to Kelly's Brook with its swamp-like habitat. There is actually an interesting mixed flock assembling in the area.  On site yesterday was the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (first found by Bruce McTavish on November 9), a Yellow Warbler and the usual array of juncos, chickadees, teal and the frequent visiting Belted Kingfisher.   While watching for the warbler yesterday, a Sharp-shinned Hawk swept in chasing a Black-capped Chickadee without success.
All of these small birds are steadily moving up and down the brook. Now, that they are in this area with a small range of movement, the chances of getting a good look at the migrating birds are quite high. Dave Hawkins and John Williams have taken some remarkable photos of these birds over the last few days. To enjoy their work, please visit their links provided on the right side of this screen under the heading, "Bird Links."

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Stout Snouts!

While recently trying to describe a bird that got away, I was asked what its beak looked like. I couldn't say because I really didn't see it, but this got me thinking. Do I even look at the beak when trying to identify a new bird? Maybe subconsciously, but not as a rule of thumb. I tend to look at size, color, wing bars, and habitat. Maybe I should, by design, make an effort to get a look at the beak. As this picture (shot in Arkansas) of a Brown Thrasher and a Northern Cardinal illustrates, bird beaks vary tremendously.

Cardinalidae is a group of passerine birds that are often brightly colored, and have large, short and wide, conical beaks. These birds are capable of breaking open large, hard-shelled seeds.
The bird most often seen in Newfoundland sporting an equally big beak is the Evening Grosbeak. (No need to explain the Grosbeak part of the name.) (These pictures were taken in the yard of Paul and Catherine Barrett in Goulds - the best place around to see this species.)
When I first saw this bird, I was really shocked by the beautiful colors and the enormous beak.  It is a tool of such crushing strength, so powerful that it can crack open olive or cherry pits. Just imagine doing this with a hammer. It would take a forceful blow. While I would not be inclined to put my hand too close to this bird, I think they are relatively tame. I say this because of a recent picture of a brave, young birdwatcher in Goulds where she was petting the Evening Grosbeak.
Another bird common to Newfoundland falling in the Cardinalidae family is the Pine Grosbeak. It, too, can break open hard shells to extract the sweet seed within.
It is said that on a quiet, windless day, the sound of cracking seeds produced by these birds can be heard across a significant distance.
Even the young Pine Grosbeak is well-endowed. Yet, like anything, it needs practice before it takes on the toughest of seeds. This family of Pine Grosbeaks was feeding in my yard in the summer of 2011. The immature bird was being fed from the black-oil sunflower seeds in my feeder.
Despite the ability to chow-down on hard seeds, there were many Pine Grosbeaks found this year eating the sweet seeds produced in the dandelions. These must be such a treat for these birds because they were willing to tolerate the presence of people in order to finish the meal. So where is this bird found? High or low? Well, in the winter, when ground seeds are not plentiful, it is most likely that this bird will be found sitting atop an evergreen enjoying the cone crop.
Then, there were the visiting Rose-breasted Grosbeaks (found at the Barrett feeder) who also enjoyed the  sunflower seeds. The beak, an eating utinsel, provides insight into the primary diet of birds. Nevertheless, the RB Grosbeak that has an instrument capable of cracking open hard shells also enjoys fruit and insects.
It is interesting that birds in this group tend to show up at feeders and often stay a while to enjoy the free supply of oil-rich seeds. This provides a great opportunity to learn more about their behaviour.
The Dickcissel, also in the Cardinalidae family, is capable of using its beak to crack open hard shells, too. I really hadn't thought about this, because this beak doesn't seem to be nearly as stout at the grosbeaks shown above. The Dickcissel (unlike the Pine Grosbeak that often feeds in the tops of trees) is known to forage the ground or perch on low, seed-laden plant stems. The Dickcissel is omnivorous and also enjoys insects. The shape of its beak is more pointed and enables it to enjoy more easily its favorite foods.
The Blue Grosbeak has a varied diet, using its large beak to extract the meat of seeds, often from plants and catch grasshoppers (its favorite), beetles and more.

I guess what all of this adds up to is pretty important: 1) The beak can provide very useful information about species identification; 2) It offers insight into the diet of the bird; and 3) It provides information about the habitat in which the bird will most likely be found.

Hand-in-hand with the beak, the diet provides clues about whether the bird will be seen in treetops, foraging on the ground or teetering on plant stems and seed pods.

Since all of this valuable information can add up to being able to identify a bird better, I will now ensure that when I see a bird and am trying to get a quick ID, I will undoubtedly include a look at the beak in the process.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Holy Cow!

You gotta love it! Every trip out looking for birds offers up something special. This great pair of Jersey Cows was alongside the road in Renews. I just couldn't drive by without stopping to admire them.

Soon they were checking me out.  I wondered how many birds they had seen just standing around in a field in Renews. As most birders know, Renews is a birding "hot spot." Oh, if only cows could talk!
I'm sure they tried to tell me, but I just couldn't quite get it.
Then, there was the Purple Cow hiding away in the cavity of a tree on the Rennie's River Trail. I'm sure it saw that darned Nashville Warbler dozens of times! That's about the same number of times, I have tried to see it:-(.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Pink-footed Goose - November 19, 2012

I was out and about early this morning, so I decided to take a jaunt to Goulds to check out Forest Pond. There were a number of diving ducks that, from a distance, seemed to be Ring-necked Duck and Scaup, as well as the Pied-billed Grebe.

On the way out of town I was driving up the main road when I thought I saw a goose in a field with some crows and starlings.  I wondered if it was a domestic goose since I have seen so many of them lately. Anyway, I thought I should check it out and turned around to go back.
The goose was some distance from the road and the morning sun was playing havoc with views.  I watched from the car until I saw it fly a short distance. Nope! This was not a domestic goose.  I got out and at least put myself on the right side of the road to get a better look.
It milled around for a while, and I was able to see the bright pink feet. I placed a couple of phone calls from the site, but they both went to Voice Mail. Could this be a Pink-footed Goose? Yep.
It was particularly alert and sprang to attention with each passing car. This bird was big! It seemed much bigger than the one I saw a few years back. Then, again, that was a long time ago.  I left the crow in this picture to offer an illustration of its size.
When I got home, I asked for help to confirm the sighting and posted the report right away. Dave Brown and Jared Clarke confirmed the identity.  This bird represents the second reported Fall sighting in Newfoundland. Check out the link to Birdtherock on the right side of this page under "Blog List."
Suddenly, all of the crows and starlings lifted off. The goose followed. He circled around the field at least three times before falling in behind a group of three scaup flying by and soon, disappeared in the distance. What a nice surprise this morning!  It was the last thing I expected to see.

Our Pink-footed Goose was reported through the American Birding Association yesterday: