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 hope 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 pattern.
– 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!

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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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Making the Best of a Wet August

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There’s an old adage in St. John’s that summer ends after Regatta Day (the famous rowing races held here on the first Wednesday of August). While that hasn’t really been my experience, this year it held true. Very true. While July was one of the hottest (and driest) months on record for the city, August turned out to be among the wettest and coolest! The rain started on Regatta Day (Aug 6) and hardly let up for the next few weeks. Temperatures rarely climbed out of the teens and sometimes dipped down to single digits, and there were only 5 days without rain the entire month!

But what odds? A little rain, drizzle & fog hasn’t stopped me from enjoying life before, and neither would it now. I started the month by spending some quality time with my father and two little girls (while all the women in our family were traveling in Ireland!), including a few days in Grates Cove, a visit to beautiful Cape Spear and lots of other fun. In fact, those first few days of August were the hottest days of summer, with temps in the mid-thirties!

CapeSpear_EmmaLeslie_6030 CapeSpear_EmmaLeslie_6059On August 5, I headed off to start my last tour of the season — a Wildland’s “Newfoundland Adventure” Tour that had just one guest, a Canadian currently living abroad in Holland and making her first foray to Newfoundland. It was a great week as we enjoyed amazing scenery, tons of whales, historical walks, and even a close-up moose … all while dodging the fog and rain that had begun its big invasion!

Beautiful flowers, such as these White-fringed (left) and Ragged-fringed (right) Orchids were blooming in roadside bogs during our drives.

Beautiful flowers, such as these White-fringed (left) and Ragged-fringed (right) Orchids were blooming in roadside bogs during our drives.

We encountered a Snowy Owl sitting on the barrens near St. Shott's - an unusual sighting here in mid-summer but one of several known to have lingered after last fall's big invasion.

We encountered a Snowy Owl sitting on the barrens near St. Shott’s – an unusual sighting here in mid-summer but one of several known to have lingered after last fall’s big invasion.

We encountered our first fog at Cape St. Mary's, although it moved off during the morning to reveal a beautiful day.

We encountered our first fog at Cape St. Mary’s, although it moved off during the morning to reveal a beautiful day.

Subalpine flowers, like these Diapensia lapponica, grow on the sub-arctic tundra of Cape St. Mary's.

Subalpine flowers, like these Diapensia lapponica, grow on the sub-arctic tundra of Cape St. Mary’s.

Small Purple-fringed Orchids were also in bloom at Cape St. Mary's - often hiding amongst patches of longer grass.

Small Purple-fringed Orchids were also in bloom at Cape St. Mary’s – often hiding amongst patches of longer grass.

A young bull moose graced us by allowing us to get quite close, although he seemed reluctant to share his lunch ;)

A young bull moose graced us by allowing us to get quite close, although he seemed reluctant to share his lunch 😉

The other moose we enjoyed during the tour was on our plates -- this burger served with delicious partridgeberry ketchup at the Bonavista Social Club.

The other moose we enjoyed during the tour was on our plates — this burger served with delicious partridgeberry ketchup at the Bonavista Social Club.

Icebergs in August are pretty unusual, but this has been an exceptional year. This one in Bonavista Bay was the last one I'll see this year.

Icebergs in August are pretty unusual, but this has been an exceptional year. This one in Bonavista Bay was the last one I’ll see this year.

Whales were plentiful in Trinity Bay, and we enjoyed close encounters with twenty or more Humpbacks during our two zodiac trips with Sea of Whale Adventures.

Whales were plentiful in Trinity Bay, and we enjoyed close encounters with twenty or more Humpbacks during our two zodiac trips with Sea of Whale Adventures.

Although most were busy gorging on the schools of caplin, a few enetertained us with some beautiful breaches. This one in front of the historic town of Trinity!

Although most were busy gorging on the schools of capelin, a few entertained us with some beautiful breaches. This one in front of the historic town of Trinity!

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The last day of the tour was spent exploring the beautiful and historic sites of St. John's, North Americas oldest city.

The last day of the tour was spent exploring the beautiful and historic sites of St. John’s, North Americas oldest city.

The rest of the month was family-time – much of it spent hanging out together in Grates Cove. We are fortunate that my wife’s family has an old home there, at the northern tip of the Avalon Peninsula, where we can get back to basics and connect a little with nature, history and each other.

The ruggedness of the sea, coast and barrens at Grates Cove are always a treat. We're fortunate to be able to spend so much time there.

The ruggedness of the sea, coast and barrens at Grates Cove are always a treat. We’re fortunate to be able to spend so much time there.

It was nice to see the first Partridgeberries turning red on the barrens, although it was the blueberries that got most of our attention in August.

It was nice to see the first Partridgeberries turning red on the barrens, although it was the blueberries that got most of our attention in August.

It was interesting come upon some Burying Beetles (Nicrophorus sp) at work alongside one of my favourite walking trails.

It was interesting to come upon some Burying Beetles (Nicrophorus sp) at work alongside one of my favourite walking trails.

The last of our orchids to flower, Hooded Ladies Tresses, were popping into bloom in mid-August.

The last of our orchids to flower, Hooded Ladies Tresses, were popping into bloom in mid-August.

More abundant, but less splendid, was Gall of the Earth - an odd flower that looks sickly even when its in full bloom!

More abundant, but less splendid, was Gall of the Earth – an odd flower that looks sickly even when its in full bloom!

We also visited the Mini Aquarium at Petty Harbour. Although the girls have been there twice with their aunt (my sister), it was my first time … and it was fun. I’ll include some more photos and details in another post …MiniAquarium_Emma_6933 MiniAquarium_Leslie_6935Finally, August ended with more rain as Tropical Storm Cristobal passed south of Newfoundland. More importantly, the wrap-around winds produced by this storm came from the northeast, blowing thousands of Leach’s Storm Petrels into the bottom of Conception Bay. I arrived at Holyrood late in the day, finding the bay alive with fluttering petrels, and a steady stream of them buzzing by at close range as the blasting winds forced them right in over the beach and road. (I’ll do a separate post on this event soon!)

Thousands of Lach's Storm Petrels fluttered over Conception Bay, driven there by the strong wrap-around winds from Tropical Storm Cristobal (August 29).

Thousands of Leach’s Storm Petrels fluttered over Conception Bay, driven there by the strong wrap-around winds from Tropical Storm Cristobal (August 29).

WALRUS, Bay Bulls!

I’ve always wanted to see a Walrus. Then again, doesn’t everyone? The Eastern Arctic population of these big, foreboding critters breed on the Labrador coast, but rarely wander further south. Walrus was once a regular sight in Newfoundland (as well as Nova Scotia and the Gulf of St. Lawrence), but that Northwest population was hunted to extinction by the late 1700’s. Since then, any sighting of a walrus in Newfoundland waters has been few and far between. I know of only a handful in my lifetime. Earlier this summer, one was spotted sunning on a rock in Conception Bay, followed by another (or very possibly the same) spotted by a tour boat swimming around at the entrance the St. John’s harbour. These were one-day wonders and not exactly “chaseable”.

So, when I got home from Grates Cove last night (after a long weekend with no internet or cell phone service) and saw a report that one had been spotted in Bay Bulls harbour throughout the day, my mental engines starting revving. I asked my friends at O’Brien’s Boat Tours to keep me updated on any sightings the next morning and went to bed scheming about how I might see it myself. This could very well be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see a walrus in Newfoundland!

My first glimpse of the Walrus as we approached its perch. (Note the photographer on the rocks above.)

My first glimpse of the Walrus as we approached its perch. (Note the photographer on the rocks above.)

I woke the next morning and decided to take my chances, joining the first boat tour of the day at 11:30am. Shortly after arriving I got word that the walrus, thought to be a young bull (which we later confirmed), was still lazing around on the rocks … and we were off. Along with a small group of tourists (most of whom may not have realized how unusual the sighting was!), I enjoyed great looks and some decent photo opportunities as “Captain Joe” brought the boat in for a closer look. The walrus wasn’t too perturbed, neither by our boat nor a photographer perched on the rocks above it. After a couple passes, I was high on finally having seen one of these amazing beasts and sat back to enjoy the rest of the boat ride on a beautiful, calm ocean. We even glimpsed an Ocean Sunfish on the steam back to port.

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At times, the walrus looked like the majestic beast I expected it to be.

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This walrus happens to be a young bull (male), which we were able to confirm only by getting a look at the underside 😉 Both sexes have tusks and are not so easily sexed at this age on that feature alone.

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Now THAT’S a toothy smile!

Walrus_Sept22014_7809 Walrus_Sept22014_7866 Walrus_Sept22014_7875 Walrus_Sept22014_8007Once the boat was docked, I met my sister Marsha in the parking lot and we decided to head off on foot to enjoy the walrus from land. For a short while we were the only people there, sitting quietly on the rocks above the walrus and enjoying the moment (and the weather!). For its part, the walrus wasn’t bothered at all by our presence, nor that of several other onlookers who eventually arrived. It lazed about, feigning sleep and occasionally rolling over or cocking its massive head to look up at us. All that being said, I left feeling a bit concerned about its health, since it appeared a little “too” lethargic and tolerant of us … sometimes appearing laboured by the very act of lifting its head and shoulders. Although that concern about its well-being (and the growing number of onlookers and boats that will undoubtedly disturb its stay) made the experience a tad bittersweet, I am still left with a warm glow after sharing some time with it. I hope it does well and makes its merry way when the time comes 😉

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After spending much of the afternoon watching the walrus from our perch above, I got the feeling it was very lethargic … maybe a little too much so. I hope it is healthier than it often appeared to be.

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Awwww .. THIS is the life. Don’t get sun like this back home …

Walrus_Sept22014_8172Thanks to Con O’Brien and the rest of the crew at O’Brien’s Boat Tours for helping me find this awesome critter – and for all the other great trips I’ve taken with them this summer. Fine crowd, them!

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