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.
When two “Snowy Egrets” were reported in Fair Haven (NE Placentia Bay) yesterday, my mind briefly ran through the possibility that they might in fact be Little Egrets – a similar but much rarer visitor from Europe. However, busy evenings in my house don’t often allow for time to ponder such things, and I soon moved on to more pressing issues (like getting our two young girls in bed after a raucous play date with their cousins!). No worries – Snowy Egrets are a somewhat expected straggler to Newfoundland in spring, anyways.
So when I found a text message on my phone this morning from Bruce Mactavish (who is currently away birding in the SE corner of the province) saying “Let us know if there is more on the possible LIEG”, my reaction was in three very quick but distinct stages:
- Right … I wondered that myself …
- Wait … what does he mean “possible Little Egret”?!?!?!
- Crap … I gotta go to Fair Haven. NOW!
I checked my email to find a message from my friend Paul Linegar saying he had seen photos of the two egrets and felt that they “might” be Little Egrets. I looked at the photo he had sent and, despite being distant and slightly out of focus, it sure looked intriguing. I sheepishly informed my (very understanding!) wife that I would have to postpone our plans for the day and hit the highway … with assurance it was only a little over an hour away and I’d be back right after lunch. In a poor attempt at penance, I hastily cooked breakfast for her and the girls before putting the rubber to the road.
I picked up my old birding buddy Chris Ryan at a turn-off about 20 minutes out the highway and we gunned it through the rolling fog and drizzly rain all the way to Fair Haven, where we lucked into clear visibility under overcast skies. It took only two minutes to find the egret, and just a couple more to confirm it was in fact a LITTLE EGRET!! This is a species that has managed to elude me during my dozen years of birding in Newfoundland, and one I’ve been waiting for. Bingo, baby!
We stayed in the area for a couple hours, watching and photographing the Little Egret and occasionally making forays around the harbour to look for its missing partner. A local gentleman told us there were still two egrets “this morning”, although I later heard that Paul Linegar had also only seen one at 8:00am. Apparently the birds have been seen flying up a small river and foraging in a small steady just upstream, so maybe it was simply hanging out up there. The man also told us that the other bird was often seen drooping its wing when standing, although it seemed to fly well. We can only assume at this point that both birds are Little Egrets, although there is always the possibility that the missing one was a Snowy. Who knows!?!?
So … another nemesis bird off (on?) the list … and a beauty, at that! Sweet. According to my records, this Little Egret marks the ninth record for Newfoundland.
When I got news yesterday afternoon that a Greater White-fronted Goose had been found in Biscay Bay, the gears immediately started turning – How was I going to organize an otherwise busy morning to get down there and look for it?!?!?
Greater White-fronted Geese are rare in Newfoundland, and while they do show up in both spring and autumn most “birders” have only encountered them in their more drab immature plumage as they often appear here in fall. Added to that, the individuals that have been recorded here are invariably from the Greenland race (flavirosostris) that normally winters in Europe, making them somewhat of a continental rarity.
I’ve never seen Greater White-fronted Goose in Newfoundland, and just missed an opportunity to see two that showed up in Twillingate ~April 3 (I had been in nearby Lewisporte visiting family, but returned to St. John’s just hours before the news got out!). The sting of that recent miss motivated me to get things organized – and that, I did. After pawning off some family responsibilities to gullible in-laws, I arranged to join Bruce Mactavish and Ken Knowles on an early morning trip to Biscay Bay.
Despite nagging doubts, we arrived and immediately found the goose grazing on fields about 75m off the road. It was very wary when the car slowed to a stop and flew to the furthest end of the field, staying ~100m from the road at all times and becoming alert every time a vehicle passed. Nevertheless, the rain held off and we got great views and decent (in my case only mediocre) record photos. At no point did we even venture to get out of the car for fear of scaring it back to the arctic!
As an added bonus, we discovered a very dull American Golden Plover in a roadside pool at Portugal Cove South. While European Golden Plover would have been the more expected and generally rarer species, this was just the third spring record for American Golden Plover in Newfoundland (which does migrate through the province in numbers during fall). There is one additional spring record from Labrador. Careful scrutiny of several other shorebird locations on the way home did not help us find much else on the day.
GULLS!! Don’t you love ‘em?!?!?
Gulls are arguably the most notorious, nefarious and challenging group of birds. Not only do they all look different at different ages, but each species look incredibly similar to at least one other, they interbreed like crazy, and “experts” are continually casting doubt as to which ones are even real species. Point in case: Thayer’s Gull. (I won’t hold it against you if you stop reading here!)
I’ve recently received a couple requests to comment on the occurrence of Thayer’s (or at least “Thayer’s-like”) Gulls in Newfoundland. Thayer’s Gull breeds in the Canadian Arctic, and winters mainly on the Pacific coast. It is considered unusual east of the Rockies and outright rare on the east coast. A major issue in Newfoundland comes in separating Thayer’s Gulls from the sometimes very similar “Kumlien’s” Iceland Gull that winters here in large numbers. These two can overlap in almost every respect, have at times been considered clinal variations of the same taxa, and are known to occasionally interbreed.
For avid winter gull-watchers in St. John’s, it is not unusual to see an individual from time to time that, at least initially, appears to be a candidate for Thayer’s Gull. The majority of these birds are first winter types, which arguably are more difficult to “pin down”, and often show at least one inconsistent field mark. Interestingly, potential adult Thayer’s Gulls are few and far between, with solid candidates occurring less than annually. In this post, I’ll give some examples of adult “Thayer’s-like Gulls” that have been observed here in recent years and discuss the challenge of identifying them. The point of this discussion is not to identify each bird to species, and in most cases I won’t even venture to conclusively accept or rule out Thayer’s Gull. Instead, I hope to point out the “pro” Thayer’s Gull features that make each bird a candidate in the first place, and then highlight some of the (often recurrent) concerns that emerge in making that identification.
Candidate #1 (March 2006)
This gull, which was observed at the St. John’s landfill on March 12, 2006, is the only individual that I have seen and feel completely comfortable calling a bona fide Thayer’s Gull. Bruce Mactavish and I had the honour of studying and photographing this bird for close to an hour, and Dave Brown and I saw it briefly at nearby Quidi Vidi lake a few days later … I don’t think it was ever reported again. (You’ll find a much more detailed discussion of this individual here.)
Unlike the other candidates described below, this individual had a full suite of features that were consistent with Thayer’s Gull and would be either very atypical or inconsistent with Kumlien’s Gull. Structurally, it more resembled a Herring Gull than an Iceland Gull, with a blocky squared-off head, sloping forehead and relatively long, hooked bill. The wingtips appeared dark slaty black when folded (as opposed to the more grey-toned wingtips usually shown by even the darkest-winged Kumlien’s Gulls) and showed a textbook “Thayer’s wingtip pattern” when spread (see photos below). The mantle was a shade darker than surrounding Herring Gulls, and the legs and orbital ring a deep purple that appeared darker and richer than typically found on Kumlien’s Gulls. The bill exhibited a pale greenish base and tip that is often noted on Thayer’s Gulls, while the eye was completely dark. While darker eyed Kumlien’s Gulls are not uncommon, close inspection virtually always shows obvious dark flecking.
While a small minority of adult Kumlien’s Gulls may exhibit one or two of the features described above, the full suite shown by this individual makes for an almost no-contest conclusion – Thayer’s Gull. But what about some of the other candidates??
Candidate #2 (March 2009)
Bruce Mactavish and I found another adult “Thayer’s-like” gull at the landfill on March 1, 2009. Like the individual described above, this bird had wingtips that appeared completely black when folded, a mantle barely darker than nearby Herring Gulls, and deep purple legs and orbital ring. The eye stood out as dark from any distance, but close inspection showed this to be an effect of heavy dark-flecking (not uncommon in Kumlien’s Gulls) rather than a completely dark iris. When spread, the wingtips showed a few inconsistencies that, while not necessarily outside the range for Thayer’s Gull, make a solid identification problematic. No doubt this bird would easily pass as a Thayer’s Gull within its normal range on the west coast, but just doesn’t cut the mustard out here on the rock, where only the most “Thayerish” of Thayer’s Gull might be safely identified.
Candidate #3 (January 2010)
This gull, found and photographed by Dave Brown in St. John’s harbour on January 8, 2010, is another excellent example of the tricky situation we find ourselves in. The photos show a gull with all the right stuff to be a Thayer’s Gull … slaty black wingtips when folded, a near perfect wingtip pattern when spread, and an apparently all-dark eye. Even the structure looks great, with a blocky head and sloping forehead that gives a different impression than most Kumlien’s Gulls. However, like most candidates we see, the major strike for this bird is the significant contrast between the blackish outer primary webs and the much greyer inner webs (especially on P10). The head streaking is also quite well defined, compared to the blotchier streaking often seen on Thayer’s Gulls (but again, this varies).
Candidate #4 (December 2010 – January 2011)
This was the longest-staying, most studied of all the individuals described in this post (despite the somewhat less quality photos I have to offer!). Originally pointed out by Dave Brown, most birders in St. John’s (and plenty from away) saw this bird over the course of several weeks since it was reliably found at one sewer outfall in the harbour. In life, this bird could often be picked out from surrounding Kumlien’s Gulls by virtue of its slightly darker mantle which is not clear from the photos.
The eye appeared to be completely dark and not simply dark-flecked as in many Kumlien’s Gulls. My two concerns with this bird, however, are the somewhat petite structure (the head and bill were not noticeably different from many typical Kumlien’s Gulls) and the contrast of the black outer primary webs with the notably greyer inner webs – a trait seen more often in dark-winged Kumlien’s Gulls than in known Thayer’s Gulls. Otherwise, the overall wingtip pattern could be considered fine for the latter.
Candidate #5 (February 2011)
Another one-time wonder found and photographed by Dave Brown, this gull would not easily be confused with Iceland Gull. In fact, at first glance the dark eye was the only trait that made it stand out from surrounding Herring Gulls. Unlike several of the gulls described above, the legs were not a deep purple, but instead matched the majority of Kumlien’s Gulls that we see. When the wings were spread, a typical Thayer’s-type pattern was evident, but again there was that nagging contrast between the black outer web of P10 and the much greyer inner web. Another fine example of an individual that initially looks great for Thayer’s Gull, but closer inspection seems to place it somewhere in the “grey zone” where an extreme Kumlien’s Gull (or possible Thayer’s x Kumlien’s intergrade) cannot be safely eliminated.
Candidate #6 (January 2012)
The only gull in this post from outside St. John’s, I found and photographed this individual at the small landfill in my hometown of Lewisporte (Notre Dame Bay) on January 2, 2012. (Unfortunately, this landfill has since been closed down … too bad, since I also discovered a Slaty-backed Gull there in 2007). This bird initially stood out from the crowd due to its dark eye, darker mantle than nearby Herring Gulls, and black folded wingtips. Structurally, it appeared slightly less blocky and short-billed than most nearby Herring Gulls, not unlike most Kumlien’s Gulls. Despite all my efforts, I was unable to capture a clear photo of the wingtip pattern, meaning some important details such as the consistency of black across both webs are uncertain. Another one for the “grey zone”!!
So there you have it – a few short comments on the challenges of identifying a solid adult Thayer’s Gull in Canada’s most easterly province While intriguing candidates seem to be showing up pretty much annually these days, a perfect storm of issues has made it difficult for us (or maybe it’s just me?) to feel comfortable calling them the “T word“. There is such a huge variation in our local Kumlien’s Gulls that ruling out an extreme example of that critter is no walk in the park. Thayer’s and Kumlien’s Gulls can overlap in almost every feature, and finding a candidate with a full suite of Thayer’s Gull traits that might be considered out-of-range (or at least very atypical) for Kumlien’s Gull is key to making a safe identification – and not so easily done. And we know so little about proposed Thayer’s x Kumlien’s Gull intergrades that it is impossible to rule out such beasts.
Another complication to consider is that some Herring Gulls (especially northeastern smithsonianus and European argentatus) exhibit less black and more white in their wingtips, producing a pattern similar to Thayer’s Gulls. (That opens up a whole other can of interesting worms and should be fodder for another blog post. I’ll challenge Bruce Mactavish to write about these interesting Newfoundland Herring Gulls – this is a test to see if he’s read this far!) Obviously, other characteristics should help in the elimination of these taxa.
In the end, we have had to learn to let a lot of these gulls go unidentified. Admittedly, none of the individuals discussed above could ever be accepted as a Kumlien’s Gull – they’re just too extreme, and in reality are much closer to Thayer’s Gull. In fact, some or all of them may very well be the latter. No doubt not a single one of the birds above would garner even a second glance among a flock of Thayer’s Gull on the west coast.
On a final note (and probably getting myself into a little hot water), I begin to wonder how many of the “Thayer’s Gulls” reported and generally accepted in other parts of eastern North America would stand up to such scrutiny. And what would that really tell us if we found them to be much like the individuals discussed above? Would it simply bring into question their true identities, or would it lend more credence to the possibility that our own candidates are in fact Thayer’s Gulls? We just don’t know enough about these incredible creatures.
References / Further Reading
In case you’re not bored out of your skull already, here is a list of some essential references and related reading you might want to sink your teeth into …
There are two “must-have” books that all larophiles and gull lovers need:
- Olsen KM (2004). Gulls of North America, Europe and Asia. Princeton University Press. New Jersey.
- Howell SGN and Dunn J (2007). A Reference Guide to the Gulls of the Americas. Houghton Mifflin Company. New York.
Since I alluded to the variation in our local Kumlien’s Gulls but really didn’t discuss it, here are some infomative blog posts on the topic by Dave Brown:
An awesome article on the subtleties of Thayer’s Gull variation and identification (in California) by Steve Howell and Martin Elliot:
- Howell SNG, and Elliot MT (2001). Identification and variation of winter adult Thayer’s Gulls, with comments on taxonomy. Alula 7: 130-144.
A related and equally fantastic article on Kumlien’s Gulls (in Newfoundland) by Steve Howell and Bruce Mactavish:
- Howell SNG, and Mactavish B (2003). Identification and variation of winter adult Kumlien’s Gulls. Alula 9: 2-15.
I was checking some local coastline, my thoughts drifting to European shorebirds … when out of the corner of my eye I noticed a small white gull standing on the ice edge.
It will come as no surprise to parents out there that being the father of two small children has had a huge impact on my birding life – in fact, I don’t have much of one these days. But yesterday, being the “doting daddy” paid dividends. It’s Easter, and we’re visiting my family in Lewisporte, at the bottom of Notre Dame Bay. After a big family dinner, our youngest daughter fell asleep in the car – and daddy volunteered to drive around for an hour while she napped. Why not?!?! It’s a fine excuse to sneak in a bit of out-the-window birding.
I was checking some local coastline, my thoughts drifting to European shorebirds that might be lurking around after these great winds of late. After an hour of fruitless searching, I stopped in at the bottom of Lewisporte harbour to check out the gulls. I was watching a Black-headed Gull float by when out of the corner of my eye I noticed a small white gull standing on the ice edge. It was a bit distant, but it sure looked like an immature IVORY GULL!!!
The volume of my heartbeat must have risen dramatically because, at that very instant, Leslie woke up and started kicking the back of my seat. I immediately dropped her off at home, grabbed my scope, stole some moose meat from the fridge and headed back in hopes of much better looks.
I spread the meat on some ice near the shoreline (it was much too thin to risk walking out any distance at all) and set up about ten feet away, camera ready. The Ivory Gull poked around way out on the ice edge for a while, sometimes flying around as if looking for morsels bobbing around in the icy water – but it never showed any intentions of coming my way. After about an hour, it lifted off and flew further out the harbour where other gulls were loafing around.
My father had joined me, and we relocated the Ivory Gull hanging out behind some houses. In fact, it was hanging out on some slob ice just metres away from a private wharf – the looks from that wharf would have been amazing! Fortunately, dad knew the homeowners, knocked on the door and asked if we could head down … No problem, of course. We bathed in awesome, point-blank looks for the next half hour, and I took a gluttonous number of photos as it picked around in the ice and posed. Good flight shots were lacking since the sun was low and bright, casting shadows across its body at almost every angle … but what am I complaining about?!?! Happy Easter to me!!
The iconic Bob Dylan was tapping into one of my dreams when he sang “The Anser, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind”.
Apologies to those of you who might not have “gotten” my [poor?] attempt at humour there on the left, but I do dream about geese more often than I like to admit. And maybe, just maybe, I could smell a few in the wind this morning.
A quick look at some surface pressure maps for today show that a big low pressure system is sitting in the middle of the north Atlantic right now, and the resulting winds are lined up nicely between Iceland and Newfoundland. These are the kind of winds that birders here on “the rock” dream about in spring … the kind of winds that bring European rarities to this side of the ocean. Granted, it is a tad on the early side and I might be more excited if I saw these same maps in mid-late April when Icelandic migration is at its peak — but a guy can dream, can’t he?
For a more detailed discussion of Icelandic/European vagrants that have been recorded here in spring, check out this earlier post.
A number of species begin to arrive in Iceland in March, including Whooper Swan, Common Shellduck, Eurasian Oystercatcher, European Golden Plover, and (yes!!) Graylag Goose. It’s time to turn our attention east once again, and keep our eyes peeled for wayward visitors along our shores. I could do with one of those dreams coming true right about now.
The unique location of Newfoundland, combined with the fact that Common Chaffinch is a very regular visitor to nearby Iceland, suggests that it could/should be expected as a vagrant to Newfoundland on rare occasions.
I was surprised lunchtime Saturday when I checked the local bird news – a COMMON CHAFFINCH (ABA Code 4, 4th record for Newfoundland) was reported coming to a feeder in Corner Brook. I immediately went looking for details, and was soon rewarded when Jeff Siddal (a west coast birder/naturalist) sent me a grainy but very identifiable photograph taken by the homeowners, Hearder and Louise Butler. The Butlers have been actively watching their feeders for many years and are long-time FeederWatch participants – needless to say, they were very excited to be adding this to their list of backyard visitors!
Common Chaffinch is considered one of the most abundant songbirds of Europe, breeding widely across the continent. Northern populations are highly migratory, making it a good candidate for vagrancy outside its normal range. However, the provenance of Common Chaffinch in North America is always questionable since they are commonly kept as cagebirds, and the vast majority of records in Canada and the United States are easily passed off as probable escapees. That being said, the unique location of Newfoundland combined with the fact that Common Chaffinch is a very regular visitor to nearby Iceland (where it does not breed, but occurs often enough that is has become hardly notable) suggests that it could/should be expected as a vagrant to Newfoundland on rare occasions. Our three previous records (two of which have also been in late winter) have generally been considered as wild, and the recent discoveries of a Gray Heron and Fieldfare (the latter having been just 50km away from the current Chaffinch location!) add to the feeling that this may also be a bona fide European vagrant.
The next day (Sunday, March 17) Darroch Whitaker stopped by to visit the Butlers and was able to watch the Common Chaffinch for several minutes. He managed to capture a few excellent photographs, and described the bird as being “extremely skittish … [it] never paused under the feeder, rather would drop in, grab a seed, and dart back to the trees.” The photos seem to show a bird resembling the “coelebs” race typical of western Europe, which of course would be most expected as a natural vagrant to Newfoundland.
An exciting find!! And one that should entertain some of the birding community on the west coast of Newfoundland for the next little while, and torment those of us here on the Avalon Peninsula who just can’t justify the drive. Fortunately, many of us enjoyed the previous Common Chaffinch near Placentia in February 2011, or else there might have been a minor stampede across the highway.
This is one we’ve been waiting for … one of those mega-rarities that we KNEW was going to happen someday, yet dared not dream about. A GRAY HERON has landed! (Our one previous record was of a bird found moribund on a beach in 1996 – it later succumbed at a rehab centre. Another bird arrived live onboard a ship in 2002, after landing there north of the Azores – two others had died enroute.)
A “Great Blue Heron” was reported in Little Heart’s Ease on Saturday – a very early date for any heron in Newfoundland, and especially on the northeast coast. Fortunately, Bruce Mactavish was on the receiving end of that report, and alarm bells started going off in his head. It was only ~10 days ago that he had sent me an email about the “killer winds from Iceland” … and we knew that some early Gray Herons has begun showing up there. Could it be?!?!?
Bruce Mactavish, Ken Knowles and John Wells set out early Sunday morning to check it out. I stayed home (very close to the phone), keeping some family commitments. But when Bruce called to say they had found the bird and were “99.99% sure” it was a Gray Heron … well, let’s just say I broke the news to my VERY understanding wife, helped her get the kids ready for an outing, spread the news and (finally!) hit the road. Two hours later, Paul Linegar and I were on the spot, looking hard … we KNEW it had to be there, but it was playing hard to get. After 30+ minutes, it flew in and landed on the ice. We had good looks for the next 15 minutes as it flew around the estuary and fed along the ice edge – allowing us good looks at all the important field marks – including the all white thighs and leading edge of the wing (both rufous in Great Blue Herons). KILLER!!
The heron then flew off and disappeared, only to be found tucked inconspicuously against the shore on the opposite side of the water. And that’s where it stayed for the next hour and half until we left. As can be expected after a long trans-Atlantic flight (only to find itself in the cold, icy Newfoundland of early March), this Gray Heron looks and acts a bit exhausted. Nevertheless – it was a beautiful bird and an awesome experience. Let’s hope it sticks around for a while!!!