November – Good Birds, Terrible Photos

November is always an exciting month in Newfoundland birding. While most of the busy migration season is behind us, this is the time of year when the “real” rarities often show up. The list of “megas” that have been recorded here in November is staggering and includes real gems like Corn Crake, Wood Sandpiper, Curlew Sandpiper, Long-billed Dowitcher, Slaty-backed Gull, Cave Swallow, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Redwing, Townsend’s Solitaire, Black-throated Gray Warbler & Hermit Warbler — just to name a few!

This November has started off quite hot … no “megas” yet, but lots of quality birds. One of the most intriguing so far has been a Meadowlark discovered near Kenny’s Pond, St. John’s on November 7. I arrived less than an hour after Alvan Buckley initially found it, hoping for a glimpse and maybe a few photos. True to form, it was very secretive and almost impossible to see on the ground as it skulked in the grass of an abandoned, overgrown soccer field. Over the next hour we saw it in flight several times, and several cameras were able to snap some poor photos as it sailed from one side of the field to the other. My photos were far from stellar, but c’est la vie!

Terrible Photo(s) #1 - A Meadowlark (Eastern? Western?) that was discovered in St. John's on November 7. It was seen over the next few days, but the cryptic nature of this bird and its plumage means we may never know which species it was!

Terrible Photo(s) #1 – A Meadowlark (Eastern? Western?) that was discovered in St. John’s on November 7. It was seen over the next few days, but the cryptic nature of this bird and its plumage means we may never know which species it was!

Meadowlark is only reported in Newfoundland every five years or so, and all previous records have been presumed Eastern Meadowlark by default — since the two species are extremely difficult to tell apart in fall and without hearing their voice. Yet, initial photos of this bird indicated that Western Meadowlark (!!!) had to be considered more carefully. The tail pattern seemed to fit this species better, although the information varied between different field guides and reference books. We have even tried to record it calling, with little to no luck. Long story short, the jury is still out on this bird — and may remain so. But we are still awaiting some expert comments. (For a more detailed summary and better photos, check out the excellent post on Alvan Buckley’s blog.)

With a little extra freedom this holiday weekend, Alvan Buckley and I decided to get together for a full day of birding on November 11. I have a little tradition of birding “underbirded” places on the southeast Avalon in early November – a day I jokingly refer to as my “Off The Beaten Track Tour”! Sticking to that plan, we thoroughly birded small communities from Brigus South to Renews. We started off on firm footing, finding Red Crossbills, an Orange-crowned Warbler and Baltimore Oriole in the little hamlet of Brigus South (which probably doesn’t get looked at any other day of the year!). Our next stop in Cape Broyle produced a Black & White Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Lincoln’s Sparrow, and Evening Grosbeak … nothing too exciting, but all quality birds for the time & place. Then Alvan spotted our first (minor) rarity of the day – a Northern Mockingbird hanging out in the tangles of a damson tree. It flew off before we could get too close, although I managed a few mediocre record photos when it returned a while later.

Terrible Photo #2 - A Northern Mockingbird in Cape Broyle. This is an annual rarity in Newfoundland, although I certainly don't see one every year.

Terrible Photo #2 – A Northern Mockingbird in Cape Broyle. This is an annual rarity in Newfoundland, although I certainly don’t see one every year.

(Not Quite) Terrible Photo #3 - Killdeer. I even struggled to get a nice picture of a relatively tame bird!

(Not Quite) Terrible Photo #3 – Killdeer. I even struggled to get a nice picture of a relatively tame bird!

Next on our route was Calvert, which produced another Orange-crowned Warbler. Ferryland, filled with potential but rarely checked during fall, always seems to deliver in November. On this day, we found a lingering Yellow-rumped Warbler and Killdeer in the northern part of town. After splitting up to cover more area, Alvan and I converged in a lush area known as the “pig farm delta” which has seen its share of good birds over the years. We soon spotted an interesting bird tucked into some distant alders … and when it flew we both exclaimed “KINGBIRD!” at the same time. It was a Western Kingbird … an excellent (though nearly annual) bird in Newfoundland! It hung around long enough for a few other birders to arrive and see it, although distance and tough light made it impossible to photograph. But terrible photos are better than none, I guess!

Terrible Photo # 4 - Western Kingbird, Ferryland. This is an excellent bird in Newfoundland, and "probably" our bird of the day. Too distant, tough light ... all the regular excuses.

Terrible Photo # 4 – Western Kingbird, Ferryland. This is an excellent bird in Newfoundland, and “probably” our bird of the day. Too distant, tough light … all the regular excuses.

COTE_Nov112014_0294

Terrible Photo #5 – Common Tern

Motivated to keep birding, Alvan and I headed south to Renews (driving past some other great, underbirded places on the way!). I had hardly stopped the car on the south side of the harbour when Alvan pointed out a tern over the water. Any tern is rare in November, and there was momentary excitement as we fumbled for our scopes and cameras. It was fleeting, however, as we soon realized it was a Common Tern … still rare at this late date, but not as exciting as we had hoped. (Another had been seen at Cape Race two days earlier, suggesting they may have arrived on the very strong southerly winds of the weekend).

Terrible Photo # 6 - Common Terns are long gone from Newfoundland  in November. This one must have arrived on the strong southerly winds of the past few days. It didn't look happy.

Terrible Photo # 6 – Common Terns are long gone from Newfoundland in November. This one must have arrived on the strong southerly winds of the past few days. It didn’t look happy.

We moved on to check the rest of town, not seeing much of note. Then we split up again, and I searched out some junco flocks at the edge of town. Another Orange-crowned Warbler popped in with one small flock … followed by another pale, non-descript bird that peaked my interest. After getting a few good glimpses through the alders, it appeared to be a vireo … and a good one! It (and the entire flock) dissolved into the trees and disappeared before I could get the confirming looks I wanted, and I knew one of (if not “the”) best birds of the day had just slipped through my fingers. Was it a Warbling Vireo, or something even rarer?? I guess I’ll never know for sure, but that image is burned into my head and will nag me for the next few days. Arrrgh … If only I’d been able to get just a few terrible photos!!

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