birdtherock

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This site is the beginning of something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. It’s much more than a blog – it’s an information center about birds and birding in Newfoundland (Canada), geared towards both local birders and those planning/wishing to visit from abroad. For now, I’ve added a few features that you might find helpful, but I’m hoping to add more. So … explore, and let me know what you think.

Hurricane Gonzalo – Big Waves, No Birds

Hurricane birding at Cape Race. The weather cleared quickly as Gonzalo churned past just east of us, but the waves were spectacular!

Hurricane birding at Cape Race. The weather cleared quickly as Gonzalo churned past just east of us, but the waves were spectacular!

It was 0530 this morning when Ian Jones and Bruce Mactavish (aka “one of North America’s most renowned birders”!) picked me up at home. Hurricane Gonzalo was churning just SE of Newfoundland and radar indicated it would zip past Cape Race in just over an hour. Our plan was to meet it there!

Gonzalo, still a Category 1 hurricane, ripped by just miles east of Cape Race in the early morning hours of Sunday, October 20. We were there to meet it.

Gonzalo, still a Category 1 hurricane, ripped by just miles east of Cape Race in the early morning hours of Sunday, October 20. We were there to meet it.

It was a two hour run, and we made great time considering the driving, horizontal rain. The winds were picking up fast, first gusting from the east and north east as the storm approached us, but by the time we reached Portugal Cove South (just 21 km from Cape Race), they had switched around to the northwest – a clear indication that the eye had passed north of us.

Long story short, we arrived at Cape Race to clearing weather and high winds (gusting to 100km/h). We spent the next few hours scanning the water hoping for subtropical seabirds dragged up by Gonzalo, but were sadly disappointed. Good numbers of local seabirds like Northern Gannet, Black-legged Kittiwake and White-winged Scoter were battling the wind and waves, but nothing out of the ordinary. Later in the day we checked out points further west and southwest – Cripple Cove, Portugal Cove South, Trepassey, St. Shott’s and Point LaHaye — all offering up the same disappointing results.

Two significant, and disappointing, factors made Hurricane a bust when it came to birds. First, they eye of the hurricane passed by just east of Cape Race instead of making landfall. Any subtropical seabirds in its midst may have carried on NE with the storm rather than falling out along our coast. Secondly, while the winds looked good initially (see the 3am windmap above), they quickly turned to the northwest as the eye passed Cape Race (see 9am windmap), resulting in offshore winds that would have kept seabirds offshore and out of our sight.

Two significant, and disappointing, factors made Hurricane a bust when it came to birds. First, they eye of the hurricane passed by just east of Cape Race instead of making landfall. Any subtropical seabirds in its midst may have carried on NE with the storm rather than falling out along our coast. Secondly, while the winds looked good initially (see the 3am windmap above), they quickly turned to the northwest as the eye passed Cape Race (see 9am windmap), resulting in offshore winds that would have kept seabirds offshore and out of our sight.

However, the wave action was incredible, with waves that must have been 15+ metres at times rolling, breaking and crashing in spectacular fashion. This is one of the most amazing coastlines in the world, and seeing it in this way just made it better!

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Cape Race shortly after sunrise and the passing of Hurricane Gonzalo.

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Bruce Mactavish (“one of North America’s most renowned birders”) enjoys the action.

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Ian Jones trying to see some rare seabirds through a wall of water!

 

These pics may be a bit deceiving – but our vantage for these photos was actually on a clifftop probably 10+ metres above sea level, and the waves were often crashing above our eye level!!IMG_9448 IMG_9456 IMG_9457 IMG_9473 IMG_9491 IMG_9492 IMG_9502 IMG_9512 IMG_9518 IMG_9525 IMG_9531 IMG_9543 IMG_9545 IMG_9554 IMG_9571 IMG_9575 IMG_9580 IMG_9604 IMG_9607 IMG_9629 IMG_9637 IMG_9662 IMG_9676 IMG_9677 IMG_9687 IMG_9695 IMG_9698 IMG_9737 IMG_9754

Storm a-brewin’ (Gonzalo)

B0JBa6OIQAA8dKQLike most places, weather is often the topic of conversation in Newfoundland. And never more than when a storm is barreling at us. Gonzalo, which as I write is currently a Category 4 hurricane bearing down on Bermuda ~2000 km SSW of us, is the talk of the town this week.

Forecast track of Hurricane Gonzalo (as of this morning, Fri Oct 17).

Forecast track of Hurricane Gonzalo (as of this morning, Fri Oct 17).

Hurricane Gonzalo is the largest hurricane this season, and the first to reach Category 4 status since 2011 (Ophelia). It is a monster that is forecast to continue churning NNE, with most models predicting it will weaken to a Category 1 hurricane or tropical storm before passing just SE of Cape Race early Sunday morning. That track will likely spare us the worst of the damaging winds (which are east of the eye), but we can still expect substantial rain. With memories of the damage caused by Hurricane Igor still fresh in most people’s minds, many people in eastern Newfoundland are feeling a little trepidation. Igor took an eerily similar path as Gonzalo is predicted to make, making landfall near Cape Race on September 21, 2010. At least one model is still holding out on a more westerly path, taking the eye of Gonzalo over land, as well. (Fortunately, some meteorological difference between these two storms suggest that Gonzalo may not pack the same destructive punch as Igor even if it does make landfall.)

According the the National Hurricane Centre (NHC), there is currently a 20-40% chance of tropical storm-force winds over the Avalon Peninsula on Sunday morning. Combined with heavy rain, we could be in for some nasty weather!

According the the National Hurricane Centre (NHC), there is currently a 20-40% chance of tropical storm-force winds over the Avalon Peninsula on Sunday morning. Combined with heavy rain, we could be in for some nasty weather!

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The track taken by Hurricane Igor in September 2010. This was the most destructive hurricane on record in Newfoundland, causing one death and resulting in ~$200 million in damages.

While no one in their right mind (or me, for that matter!) would hope for a threatening storm like this to hit the island, hurricanes do peak the interest of birders. The strong cyclonic winds are known for picking up and carrying birds to far-flung places, and the remnants of hurricanes and tropical storms have a history of dropping off major rarities in the Maritimes and Newfoundland. In terms of potential for rare birds, I would probably prefer a hurricane that swings much further west before reaching Newfoundland, skimming the eastern seaboard of the United States and picking up an abundance of birds like gulls, terns and seabirds. (Larger, strong flying birds like these are best known for arriving after a hurricane … smaller birds are not likely picked up as easily, or at least do not survive the wicked ride). Hurricane Helene took such a path in September 1958, dropping off dozens of Black Skimmers at Burgeo – the only record for the province. Hurricane Wilma (October 2005) was credited with bringing large numbers of Chimney Swift, Swallows, two dozen Laughing Gulls, two Franklin’s Gulls, a Gull-billed Tern and a Black-necked Stilt to southern portions of the island. As often happens, the Maritimes received an even larger number and array of storm waifs – including several Magnificent Frigatebirds!

The more westerly track of Hurricane Helene, which brought dozens of Black Skimmers to Newfoundland ... and who knows what else?!?! Very few hurricanes have a trajectory like this.

The more westerly track of Hurricane Helene, which brought dozens of Black Skimmers to Newfoundland … and who knows what else?!?! Very few hurricanes have a trajectory like this.

Hurricanes like Gonzalo, which stay well out to sea, have less potential for bringing large numbers of such birds. They do, however, have an opportunity to pick up a variety of seabirds that would make my mouth water. Passing over Bermuda and tropical Atlantic waters, gems like Tropicbirds (White-tailed and Red-billed), pterodroma Petrels, and pelagic terns are not out of the question. Hurricane Florence, which took a path similar to Gonzalo’s in 2006, brought a White-tailed Tropicbird (found dead just 300m from my university office at the time!) and the province’s third ever Least Tern (found by a team of birders that included yours truly!). Other storm taking similar paths have turned out to be a bust, producing little or nothing in the way of unexpected birds.

I think I'd vomit if I saw one of these fly over my head following the hurricane on Sunday, but it's a real possibility. Whether I'll get out to look for one is another question! (Photo taken in Hawaii)

I think I’d vomit if I saw one of these fly over my head following the hurricane on Sunday, but it’s a real possibility. Whether I’ll get out to look for one is another question! (Photo taken in Hawaii)

What will Gonzalo bring?!?! Let’s hope for great birds and no damage, eh?

A Very Rare Duck Indeed

It was 10:30am yesterday morning when I noticed the missed call and text message on my phone, which had been left home while I was out running an errand. The messages were from Bruce Mactavish,  and the three words that popped up on the screen were all I needed: “CANVASBACK Kenny’s Pond”.

Like most city ponds, Kenny’s Pond is less than a ten minute drive from my house. A small pond in the centre city, it tends to attract a lot of ducks in the fall and spring – before and after the winter freeze-up. Divers seem to especially like it, and a handful of Tufted Duck had already been found there the past two weeks – brand new arrivals that are likely the vanguard of our annual wintering flock which numbers in the dozens. Greater and a few Lesser Scaup were also gathering there after a summer hiatus out on the breeding grounds. But a Canvasback?!?!? Here?? There had only ever been one Canvasback reported in Newfoundland, and that was more than 40 years ago! Even when a bird like that is long overdue and firmly on our radars, it still comes with a smack of surprise. And a little panic.

It was another hour or more before I could slip away from my morning obligations. My initial panic had settled a bit once I considered the fact that the diving ducks at Kenny’s Pond are used to people (there is a popular walking trail surrounding the pond), and there was no reason to think they (or the Canvasback) would be going anywhere soon. But I was still feeling itchy, and found myself pulling into the pond’s parking lot at noon. It took just a minute or two find the bird, an immature, on the far side of the pond. Even asleep with its bill tucked in, the telltale headshape and light brown plumage gave it away. After chatting with Bruce who was just leaving, I walked around to the other side and settled in for some great looks. Eventually it woke up and started feeding — what a great bird!! The rarest duck on the Newfoundland list, and treat to finally see (and “tick“!).

This immature Canvasback provides just the second record for Newfoundland, with the last one having been more than 40 years ago!

This immature Canvasback provides just the second record for Newfoundland, with the last one having been more than 40 years ago!

There were five species of aythya diving ducks on the pond yesterday (Canvasback, Tufted Duck, Great Scaup, Lesser Scaup and at least one Ring-necked Duck). The dull, rainy weather didn’t make for great photography, but the looks were fantastic. And who knows — maybe it will hang around and I’ll get some more chances.

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Not Just Any Rock …

“This stone gouge may have been used by someone right here in Newfoundland at the same time that the pyramids were being built in ancient Egypt”.

From as early as I can remember, there was an odd-looking rock sitting on a bookshelf in the basement of my grandparents’ house. I always took an interest in it, and eventually found out it was an old “Indian” tool that my grandfather (who passed away when I was seven) had found on Ochre Pit Island in Notre Dame Bay (not far from Exploits Islands, where he lived and which played a big part in my family history).

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This stone gouge, about 9″ long, has been part of my family for decades since my grandfather picked it up on a small island in Notre Dame Bay. It most likely lay there, undisturbed, since its owner lost it thousands of years ago!

Years later, when my grandmother left that house for a more manageable place, I inherited that “rock”. It has always held a special place for me, and has always been displayed prominently in my space – my bedroom at my parents’ house, bookshelves in my various student apartments, and now a display cabinet in my family home. It probably helped trigger my interest in history (and prehistory), as well as providing a sentimental connection to my grandfather who, despite his absence, has impacted my life in many ways.

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Over the years, I did a little research and determined that it was stone gouge, likely made and used by the Maritime Archaic Indians who lived here long before the Europeans arrived. Long before even the Beothuk, who were the only native people living on the island by the time John Cabot arrived in 1497. But I was always reluctant to report this lovely artifact, worried that I might be expected to hand it over to the government or a museum under the Historical Resource Act.

I recently read about the new Community Collections program, developed by the Newfoundland and Labrador Archaeological Society (NLAS), which aims to locate and record artifacts currently held in private collections or by private citizens. I immediately contacted the society, and president Tim Rast asked to come see, photograph and catalog the gouge.

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The gouge is made from green slate, which is common throughout much of Newfoundland and used by every group of people that ever lived here. Once an appropriate piece of slate was chosen, it would have been pecked, ground and polished using other types of stone until it resembled this. A stone gouge like this would have most likely been used in woodworking, which was an important part of life for the Maritime Archaic people.

This illustration, from a book by Florence Cowan, depicts the Maritime Archaic Indians who first settled the island of Newfoundland more than 5000 years ago.

This illustration, from a book by Florence Cowan, depicts the Maritime Archaic Indians who first settled the island of Newfoundland more than 5000 years ago.

I had a great visit with Tim, who seemed genuinely excited to see the gouge and talk about its origins. He confirmed that it was indeed a Martime Archaic artifact, dating back approximately 3500 years and possibly more. The Maritime Archaic Indians were the first people to settle in Newfoundland, arriving from Labrador more than 5000 years ago (their history in Labrador goes back at least another two millennia!). They lived on the island for almost 2000 years, eventually spreading all over the coast before mysteriously disappearing from the archaeological record  3000-3500 years ago. Their presence in Notre Dame Bay has been illustrated by several other finds in the area, but my grandfather’s stone gouge now adds a new piece to the puzzle. It confirms that the Maritime Archaic people visited Ochre Pit Island (previous finds on that island were impossible to date or attribute to specific group).

Ochre Pit Island, in the Bay of Exploits, is named for the red ochre that is visible in the rocks there. We do not know if prehistoric native peoples used this island to collect red ochre for their ritualistic uses, but we do know from archaeological findings that at least one group did visit the island. My grandfather's stone gouge may help shed some light on who those people were.

Ochre Pit Island, in the Bay of Exploits, is named for the red ochre that is visible in the rocks there. We do not know if prehistoric native peoples used this island to collect red ochre for their ritualistic uses, but we do know from archaeological findings that at least one group did visit the island. My grandfather’s stone gouge may help shed some light on who those people were.

For most people, myself included, it is easy to forget that people have lived here for so long. Our notion of human history on this island all too often begins with the arrival of European explorers and fishermen just over five centuries ago, or with the Beothuk people who lived, and so sadly died, here at that time. Yet, sitting on a shelf in my own living room is a vivid reminder that people thrived here long, long before.

This rock was carefully chosen, artfully sculpted, and skillfully used by someone’s hands more than 3000 years ago – someone living a life I can never imagine. As Tim Rast so poignantly reminded me, this stone gouge “may have been used by someone right here in Newfoundland at the same time that the pyramids were being built in ancient Egypt”. Now that’s a history! And not just any rock …

An Odd Case of Common Gull

Gull season started a tad early this year – and with a bit of a bang. Bruce Mactavish first reported an adult Yellow-legged Gull in Pleasantville (east St. John’s) on September 7. Alvan Buckley upped the ante by photographing a presumed third-year Yellow-legged Gull on the same field on September 11 (relocated and photographed again by Bruce a few days later).

However, the star of the show turned out to be an odd-looking gull that Alvan photographed on September 16 while trying to relocate the Yellow-legged Gulls. Most of the features pointed to it being a Common Gull (Larus canus), which in itself is not that unusual in Newfoundland. We get a few every winter. But this one was a headscratcher because, compared to nearby Herring Gulls, it appeared too big and dark for our typical Common Gull (the nominate canus race that originates in western Europe). The size, dark mantle shade, relatively bulky structure and wingtip pattern seemed to suggest that this Common Gull was not so common — in fact, it may be a member of the kamchatka race that occurs in east Asia (Siberia, Japan). See Alvan’s blog for some more discussion.

Those of us looking failed relocate this gull over the next ten days. Yesterday morning, after a solid morning of birding around Signal Hill, Bruce Mactavish and I checked the regular gull locations in that area of town – unable to find it (or anything else exciting) yet again. Switching gears, we decided to head out to Goulds where a flock of American Golden Plover, and tons of gulls, had been hanging out in a freshly plowed field. After a few minutes, I spotted a mid-sized gull with a dark grey mantle sitting on the field — it hadn’t been there moments before. I could easily have passed it off as a Lesser-Black-backed Gull (of which there were several around), but something about the pattern of head streaking gave me pause. Then the dark eye. And the bill. There it was — the “odd” Common Gull!! (Note – this was 20+ km from the original spot, so it wasn’t really on our radar for this location).

While the bright, poorly angled sunlight makes it difficult to photograph and accurately represent mantle shades, this unedited photograph still illustrates just how dark this Common Gull was compared to Herring Gulls in the background. It was darker and unlike any other Common Gull I've seen in Newfoundland. It also looked very different than Common Gulls that I saw during the nine months I spent living in Finland, which included both nominate canus and heini races.

While the bright, poorly angled sunlight makes it difficult to photograph and accurately represent mantle shades, this unedited photograph still illustrates just how dark this Common Gull was compared to Herring Gulls in the background. In life, it was darker and structurally unlike any other Common Gull I’ve seen in Newfoundland. It also looked very different than Common Gulls that I saw during the nine months I spent living in Finland, which included both nominate canus and heini races.

Fortunately, Bruce was just as excited as me to have found this bird, and we quickly organized so that he could photograph the heck out of it (he having the far better lens & camera!). Light was really harsh with bright sunlight and poor angles, but the gull did cooperate by approaching fairly close to our position, parked on the side of a busy road. Over the next hour it made its way to the south end of the field, where we were able to reposition for better (though still very bright) light, and I even snapped off a few mediocre pics of my own.

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Bright sunlight made it hard to capture the real tones and mantle shade, although these came out fairly well. Note the dark grey saddle, which in life was closer to that of Lesser Black-backed Gull (graellsi) than Herring Gull, and notably darker than what we expect in nominate Common Gulls that show up here each year. In fact, the mantle was similar in shade to that of Yellow-legged Gull (atlantis)- a colour we have trained ourselves to recognize!

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This gull also had a darkish eye (which at closer range was found to be brown with a visible pupil rather than completely dark). This feature is found in all races of Common Gull, although the texts suggest that Kamchatka Gull often (but not always) shows a paler eye than other races. The head and bill shape was completely unlike that of other Common Gulls we see here – appearing larger headed with a more sloped forehead and notably longer, more substantial bill. Our “typical” Common Gulls tend to have rounder, gentler looking head shapes with shorter, daintier looking bills – resulting in a very different look.

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Overall, this bird was much larger than the typical Common Gull we see here. In fact, this one was clearly larger than nearby Ring-billed Gulls and at times approached smaller Herring Gulls – similar in size to some Lesser Black-backed Gulls. Our “typical” Common Gulls (presumed canus) more closely match Ring-billed Gull, sometimes appearing slightly smaller and daintier. The literature indicates that Common Gulls tend to be larger and darker the further east you look, with the east Asian (kamchatka) race being the biggest and darkest of the lot.

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There were not many opportunities to photograph the spread wings on this bird, and I managed to miss them all. Fortunately, Bruce Mactavish nailed a few and has kindly given me permission to post a couple here. Here we can see that this gull is in the processing of growing new flight feathers. The outermost primaries, P10 & P9, are still growing in while P8 may or may not be completely grown. In any case we can see a wingtip pattern here that, according to the literature, would be considered typical of the kamchatka race, extreme for heini and likely very unusual or out of range for canus. – Photo: Bruce Mactavish

Another of Bruce's fine photos, this one gives us a better look at the primary pattern. Importantly, P8 is almost entirely black. In fact, all of what we can see is black, all the way up to the primary coverts (note, though, that this feather may not yet be fully grown). There is a full and substantial black band across the tip of P5 and a solid black mark across the outer web of P4. The white "moons" on P5-8 are relatively large, producing an obvious "string of pearl" effect - which is also more characteristic of kamchatka than other races. I sure hop we see this gull again in a few weeks when the primary growth is complete and we can get an even better picture of this intriguing wingtip patter. - Photo: Bruce Mactavish

Another of Bruce’s fine photos, this one gives us a better look at the primary pattern. Importantly, P8 is almost entirely black. In fact, all of what we can see is black, all the way up to the primary coverts (note, though, that this feather may not yet be fully grown). There is a full and substantial black band across the tip of P5 and a solid black mark across the outer web of P4. The white “moons” on P5-7 are relatively large, producing an obvious “string of pearl” effect – which is also more characteristic of kamchatka than other races. I sure hop we see this gull again in a few weeks when the primary growth is complete and we can get an even better picture of this intriguing wingtip patter.
- Photo: Bruce Mactavish

Check out Bruce Mactavish’s blog for more of his excellent photos and further discussion. Alvan Buckley also posted some excellent discussion on his blog following his original discovery of the gull two weeks ago.

The jury is still out while we do a bit more research — gull identification, especially to subspecies level, is never as straightforward as we’d like. But all things considered, this certainly appears to be an excellent candidate for Kamchatka Gull.

While it certainly wasn’t on our radar, there have been a few other claims from the northeast (some of them rather convincing) to set a bit of a precedence. And hell – if we can get Slaty-backed Gulls, which originate in the same part of the world, then maybe a Kamchatka Gull isn’t so far-fetched afterall!

A Little Photoshop Magic

Family obligations have been keeping me close to home a lot the past few weeks – especially this week when I found myself with full-time parenting duties during the day. But while I haven’t been able to get out birding, I did spend a bit of time poking around at some small projects that have been bouncing around in my head.

One of those projects was to come up with a logo for “birdtherock” … especially since I have been toying with the idea of developing it into a small part-time business. Plus, I wanted something recognizable to be able to put on the blog, calling cards, and even as a watermarks on some of my photos. I envisioned working from one of my own photos, incorporating a recognizable Newfoundland bird into a classy, silhouette style logo. Here’s the photo I chose:

A Great Shearwater, as recognizable as any Newfoundland bird and known locally as a “hagdown”, flies directly at me & my camera.

I thought the head-on flight angle and distinctness of the bird would make for a nice silhouette. Here is the extracted hagdown, ready to be immortalized in my attempt at artwork.

GRSH_silhouetteNext I added some text, shaped to the curvature of the wing, and some stylized water both for looks and to add some context to the bird itself.

birdtherock2_smoothedI liked this version, but felt it could use a little more spunk, so used some gradients to give it a more metallic type look. Then, for added measure, I inverted the colour scheme to make the logo white-on-black. I was definitely getting there.

birdtherock_metalbirdtherock_metal_blkAs luck should have it, one of my little girls (age 5) had been watching me work on the image throughout the day and badgered me into helping her make her own Photoshop art. Turns out our little project gave me another idea, so I applied a couple filters to the last image and came up with this one — which I like a lot! (Best viewed large)

btr_banner51.jpgTurned out to be a pretty fun few hours “playing with” Photoshop, and a pretty decent new logo to boot! Different versions for different uses. I’m even toying with a simplified version of the logo as a watermark on some photos. I’d love to hear what people think …

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