Monday, December 30, 2013

Overview of 2013 - Warblers and Wading Birds Top the Chart

 As another year comes to a close, I enjoy reflecting on how the birding year shaped up. When 2013 began, I had 234 birds on NL my life list. At that time, I set a goal to see one new bird per month. There certainly were times during the year when I didn't think that would happen. Then, without fanfare, rare birds began to appear in the city or within travelling distance from St. John's. As the year ends, I am happy to report I exceeded my goal and saw 20 new species this year, bringing my life list for Newfoundland to 254, far beyond my expectation.
 During the year, I added three new warblers (my favorites), including a Blackburnian, Virginia's and a Canada Warbler (the only one I found.) The rarest and most unexpected of these was the Virginia's Warbler (found by Dave Brown) which set the birding community on fire.
 In no proper order, I have uploaded a series of pictures of some of my new birds for
the year. Actually, the first one was this Ivory Gull that showed up at QV Lake on February 27. This one was my find. I chased a lot of other great birds found by others, but there is nothing quite to satisfying as locating a really good bird on my own. This bird also set off a good chase by the birding community who were able to locate more at Topsail Beach and around.
 Areas outside of St. John's hosted a number of great birds (new for me.) This Sandwich Tern was found by a bird tour group in Renews. A Franklin's Gull was found by Chris Ryan in Witless Bay. Unfortunately, I don't have any pictures as I viewed it through Chris Brown's scope when he relocated the bird.
 With appreciation extended to Bruce Mactavish, I was able to sweep up three new species at Holyrood during a really rough storm in late September. These included Parasitic Jaeger, Pomarine Jaeger and  Red Phalarope. These birds were not even on my radar.
 Having only seen one phalarope (a Red-necked Phalarope found by Les Sweetapple in Ruby Line Pond a few years back,) I really enjoyed watching these Red Phalaropes in action. There was plenty to take in on that day, better than a 3D movie.
 This Common Ringed Plover was first found by Ken Knowles in Renews. It was a tricky bird to re-find as it blended in so well with all of the Semipalmated Plovers. Locating this bird in the crowd was almost as rewarding as finding a new bird on by own.
 Portugal Cove South is always good for a rare bird or two each year. This Greater White-fronted Goose managed to stay around long enough for most birders to see. On the other hand, a Tundra Swan was just a tease. It would show itself and then disappear over the ridge and not return for hours. Three trips to Portugal Cove South did not net the swan.
 There were a couple of other places that managed to lure in a number of good birds. One of these was the community of Fairhaven where two Little Egrets were reported in May and  stayed around for quite a while.
 However, no birds seemed to stay around as long as this rare Gray Heron. It would move in and around the area making it a little more difficult to locate, but it would always reappear. This great bird stayed in Little Heart's Ease for months. Aside: Birding is a great way to travel around this beautiful province. I have visited so many communities as a result of a rare bird visit.
 Back to Renews... it was here the Tricolored Heron put in an appearance. It only stayed around for a couple of days, so I felt quite lucky to see it. However, it did not come easy: John Wells, Anne Hughes and I waited this one out. After several hours, it was John that sounded the alarm the bird had appeared. Staying only about ten minutes, it flew off again.
Torbay gave us two great birds this year. There was a Yellow-crowned Night Heron that stayed in the area for about six weeks. It was likely the heron that lured more birders than usual to the area which led to the discovery of this Scissor-tailed Flycatcher (by Dave Brown). However, it took a couple of looks to actually identify this unexpected, rare bird. There were exciting times during the year, for sure. Other species I saw for the first time (in NL) this year include the Brown-headed Cowbird, Chimney Swift (out of the blue, two flew across Kent Pond,) Gyrfalcon, Harlequin Duck, and Ruby-throated Hummingbird.

While not a new species for me, I would be remiss if I didn't mention the extreme influx of Snowy Owls this year. Anyone who wanted to see one had many opportunities.

According to eBird there were 18 less species reported across Newfoundland and Labrador in 2013 than in 2012. I think this is a result of sweeping up birds seen by birders who don't use e-bird and reporting them in the 2012 count. It would be really good if all species were reported on eBird by the birder who found it during the coming year. E-bird has the capacity to be a great reference tool, easily accessible and usable, to document the many species seen throughout all time. It is never too late to start using it.

What does 2014 hold in store for us? So many of the rarities that appeared this year were totally off the chart. Is it possible that could happen again? I really hope so.

Oh yes, I experienced my first night owling trip this year. While  I came up empty-handed, I loved the experience will try again this year.

Notable: There are some locations like Renews, Portugal Cove South and Trepassey that just keep on giving. Then, there are many little, unexpected areas of this province where a good number of rare birds just appear. (Check Bruce Mactavish's weekend report in The Telegram.) Credit is also warranted for the many non-birders who have reported sightings of unusual birds. With their help, we have been able to enjoy so many exciting birds.

The new year is only a few hours away, and I can hardly wait to get out there to see what I can find!

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Slim Pickings

 Winter has buried me in! For nearly a month, I can never leave the house without having to shovel or snow-blow a long and wide driveway! It sure takes the fun out of going out. Once again this morning there is about an 8 inch drift of fluffy snow waiting for me, so here I sit in the warmth of my office avoiding the chore.
When I have made the effort to clear the way, there aren't many birds to see. I have checked the typically "birdy" locations only to find very few little critters hopping around. I even trudged through the deep snow in White Hills and was only rewarded with one Song Sparrow and this blazing orange-headed Golden-crowned Kinglet. I think he is as perturbed as I am about all of the cold weather, high winds and deep snow. As I look at the long-range forecast, I'm not holding out much hope for my traditional January 1st bird hunt around town. Yet, I continue to hope we soon get a break in the weather so that we can enjoy the few birds that are around.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Purple Sandpipers at Cape Spear

 We had one nice day this last week sans wind, snow or rain. I seized the opportunity to get out during the morning to enjoy the conditions and see what birds I might see. Unable to resist the drive out to Cape Spear, I was rewarded for my efforts. Walking around the trail, just below the cannon, I spotted a few sandpipers. In this first shot there are 17 Purple Sandpipers sitting on the ledge. I watched for a while and strained to see them well in the hopes of finding the odd-one-out reported late last week.
 In short order they lifted off and gave me a great opportunity to get pictures that I could really scrutinize for anything different. In one shot, I counted 87 of these arctic sandpipers. Even then, I didn't get them all in the picture.
 Totally synchronized, they flew past me showing their upper markings and then flipped over to display the underside. Try as I did, I could not find anything different among them. However, the show was spectacular.
 Soon the sandpipers returned to the rocks below me. This is the largest flock of Purple Sandpipers I have ever seen, and it was amazing.
 I decided to give them some alone time and returned to the look-out to get a better look at the two Black Scoters hanging out in the surf.

 As one was steadily calling. I couldn't help but wonder why.
Then, in short order, I saw the reason. Another Black Scoter was flying in, and I guess the call was a beacon to let the in-coming bird know where they were. Being very close to shore, I was able to get great looks at them.

It was actually the scoters and an odd incident that led me to get and walk around. I was sitting in the car in the parking lot scanning the area when I first spotted the scoters. I was contemplating whether to get out to make the walk.

While sitting there, a man drove up, got out of his car, donned his hat and gloves and reached into the car to pull out a long, sling-back case to throw over his shoulder. The case wasn't a typical gun case, but the shape was. "Uh-oh," I thought. Those scoters might be doomed. In an effort to prevent what I feared might be about to unfold, I got out and walked the lower trail while he walked the upper trail. When I reached the first look-out, I was stunned by the mournful, wailing sound coming from up above. The man was near the signs on the upper look-out blowing some type of horned instrument. What was that sound? If I had to compare it to anything it would be similar to an eerie whale song. What was going on? Not wanting to be too invasive, I didn't put my binoculars on him, but continued my walk toward his location. Then, without any further fanfare, the haunting sound ended. When I reached the upper deck, he was gone. What was that all about? I have long since given up trying to understand what I see and hear at Cape Spear. Nevertheless, I always find it engaging.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

First Winter Male King Eider

 Upon arriving at Cripple Cove on Monday, the first group of water fowl, a small flock of eider, began moving out of the area. Despite the harsh effect of the late-day sun, it was apparent one of the brown eiders was different.
 The first difference I noticed was the white breast suggesting the odd-one-out was an immature. But,  that wasn't all that was different. The beak on this bird was definitely different, so much so that it changed the shape of the head.
I was mystified by the large white eye ring because none of the photos in my guide showed that. This is the first time I have seen eiders this close to shore, so my experience with the immature or female King Eider head is nil. It is OK to stare at book images day in and day out, but for me it takes a good, live look at the birds in front of me. Seeing the differences in the beak and the head of a King side-by-side with a Common  has imprinted the King Eider beak into my mind.
Hesitant to make the call that this might be a King Eider, I sent the photos to Bruce Mactavish who confirmed this to be an immature male King. This morning I looked at several hundred images of King Eiders and found only four that resembled this first winter male King Eider. How nice it was to be able to study this bird relatively close. The only King Eiders I have seen before were full-on adult male Kings through a scope. It is hard to misidentify them. While they are really great, this one is better because it provided yet another opportunity for study. As always, thanks Bruce for your help. (Be sure to click to enlarge images for a better look.)

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

My First Harlequin Ducks

 Some things are just meant to be. I have been chasing a Harlequin Duck for two years now, with no luck. My latest attempt was in Witless Bay when I followed Ed Hayden's directions in pursuit of a female Harlequin. While I had no luck, I did have the most amazing hike around the bay on the Beaches East Coast Trail. I left thinking that was just what I needed on that day.
 Well, this weekend, Catherine Barrett invited me to join her on a trip to Cape Race. On Sunday, I was more responsible opting not to go but rather do a long list of chores. It turned out that she thought she was unable to go. Well, that changed, and she called me again on Monday. About mid-morning, I was much less disciplined and decided to go. Why not?

With very short days, we made a beeline to Cape Race. In under two hours we were counting Snowy Owls  1, 2, 30, 50, 80 100! It was amazing to see them flying overhead, sitting near the road and dotting the distant landscape. It was like some reward route in Super Mario.
 We saw Common Eider, Long-tailed Ducks and some other small birds in the distance. Interestingly enough, there were no loons to be seen nor Snow Buntings. We drove on to the Cape and had no luck with the Gyr. We scanned the skies both near and far, nothing that slightly resembled the Gyrfalcon. On the return route though, we did see a very interesting little warbler (had to be a warbler). It darted out in front of us and back into the trees again not to be seen again. After a failed,real effort to relocate it, we headed to Cripple Cove.
 We got out and began to scan the waters in different directions. Shortly thereafter, Catherine started to jump up and down. I thought she had the Gyrfalcon, I rushed over. By that time she could speak and said "Har-le-quin" on each jump. She knew I had been hoping to see one and was so happy to have found it for me. Well, it turned out the brown lump wasn't one, but two Harlequin Ducks. A beautiful male and female were riding the waves rolling in on their rock. Unlike the Long-tail Duck or the eiders that swam off at the sight of us, these two seemed quite comfortable to stay.
What a treat! These two lovely birds really made our day. Now, that seems odd to say after having just seen 100 Snowy Owls, but we expected them. We did not expect to see this handsome pair. What a terrific day! Thanks Catherine!

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Three Snowy Owls, Two Humpback Whales and Me

 After several days of being indoors, I decided to follow the sun all the way to Cape Spear to see what the high winds of the last 48 hours may have blown in. When I arrived, I was alone. It was one of those glorious mornings at Cape Spear when the magnitude of the place just fills you up.
 I watched some fussy crows acting out at the top of the hill and wondered if they might be guiding me to an owl. I continued my stroll down the path toward the lower, most southerly lookout. Several gulls dotted the water in the distance while the Black Guillemots  were feeding closer to shore.
 I walked on. When I reached the boardwalk just before the main lookout, I was surprised by a Snowy Owl that just burst on the scene in front of me. I was ill-prepared for the moment, but I tried to capture it just the same.
 This dirty-footed, immature Snowy Owl flew right in front of me and landed on a rock. The relentless crows would not leave the owl alone.
 They wouldn't rest until they drove it off the rock and escorted it to sea. I sensed the owl really didn't want to go.
 Wow! I just stared as the owl disappeared in the distance. With the crows gone, it was hauntingly quiet. I watched a humpback move around the cape and continued my walk toward the cannon, I could almost hear the cadence of the changing of the guard echoing from the WW II bunkers.
 Rapt in the aura of the Cape, I was once again caught off guard! There on a nearby rock was another Snowy Owl. I'm sure he saw me before I saw him. This owl had clean feet, so I knew it was not the one that just flew out to sea. It lifted off and glided to the hilltop where it screeched on its brakes to land on the short runway.
 The troublesome crows had returned and began to torment this bird. It wasn't long before they drove it toward the old lighthouse and far beyond.

I was enjoying my walk so much that I headed to the trail. There was not a bird to be seen in the area. Exhilarated by my walk,  I decided to go back down the trail to the lookout once again. There, I was met by a third Snowy Owl. Totally unexpected, I missed the best photo opportunity ever as that bird that flew all around before heading to the barrens below the lighthouse. Wow! Wow!

Going to look for birds certainly brings its rewards, but when amazing birds like Snowy Owls just land at my feet, seemingly out of nowhere, the feeling is indescribable.