Jaegers in the Fog

I often associate Jaegers with fog. Here in Newfoundland, we most often see them in late summer as they harass the swarms of Black-legged Kittiwake feeding on capelin along our coast – often accompanied by ample fog. In my mind’s eye, I imagine them on their breeding grounds on the sub-arctic tundra, shrouded in moody mist. Heck – I can hardly even picture a jaeger in nice, sunny weather.

So I should not have been surprised to find myself photographing an adult Pomarine Jaeger in the fog this morning. BUT I was surprised … mostly since it was standing just metres away in the middle of a city ballfield, and was the seventh Jaeger I had seen in the city this week!! Very odd, indeed.

This adult Pomarine Jaeger was sitting out the fog in St. John's ballfield, munching on a dead gull. It was one of several around the city and part of much bigger, very odd event taking place the past few days.

This adult Pomarine Jaeger was sitting out the fog in a St. John’s ballfield, munching on a dead gull. It was one of several around the city and part of a much bigger, very odd event taking place the past few days.

It is rare opportunity to see this majestic bird so up close and personal in Newfoundland ... most sightings are distant birds harassing gulls over the ocean.

It is rare opportunity to see this majestic bird so up close and personal in Newfoundland … most sightings are distant birds harassing gulls over the ocean.

The first sign that something unusual was happening came in the form of an email on April 25 … a photograph, taken by Lillian Walsh in St. Lawrence (Burin Peninsula) showing an adult Pomarine Jaeger. It was one of two that she said had been cavorting with gulls in the town harbour that morning. Seeing jaegers at such close range is odd at any time of year in Newfoundland, and especially in early spring when they are usually migrating well out to sea. We have had some moderate onshore (northeasterly) winds this week, but certainly not enough to bother these very seaworthy birds. Maybe this was just one of those strange, one-off occurrences??

Nope. Later that same day we got word of a grounded jaeger in a small green space right in the middle of St. John’s. It must have gotten disoriented in the morning fog and arrived at this unusual location. I relocated the bird an hour or so later … appearing exhausted and possibly with an injured leg. It flew short distances if approached too closely (we attempted to capture it twice, hoping to release it near the ocean), but otherwise seemed unwell. It did fly off on its own accord around dusk, but was unfortunately found dead the next morning.

This unfortunate Pomarine Jaeger appeared exhaisted and/or injured when discovered in a city green space on April 25. It eventually succumbed to its troubles and is now part of Memorial University's ornithology collection.

This unfortunate Pomarine Jaeger appeared exhausted and/or injured when discovered in a city green space on April 25. It eventually succumbed to its troubles and is now part of Memorial University’s ornithology collection.

Since then, more than two dozen jaegers have been reported at widespread locations all over the island’s northeast coast – and there must be many others unnoticed or unreported. At least five jaegers (3 Pomarine, 2 Parasitic) have been hanging out in St. John’s harbour the past two days, resting on gravel flats near an industrial wharf and occasionally harassing the gulls feeding at a nearby sewer outlet. Another was spotted in a mid-city pond and feeding on a Ring-billed Gull carcass (did it kill it???) at a ballfield across the road. Several (including at least one Parasitic, which is even more unusual than Pomarine in April) were hanging out near a fish plant in Witless Bay, sometime appearing sickly. At least one was killed and eaten there by an otter, while another killed by a mink in Port Union (Trinity Bay North).

At least five jaegers were hanging out in St. John's harbour, including these two conspirators making a fuss with the local gulls.

At least five jaegers were hanging out in St. John’s harbour, including these two conspirators making a fuss with the local gulls.

Most of the birds reported have been Pomarine Jaegers ...

Most of the birds reported have been Pomarine Jaegers …

however, at least three Parasitic Jaegers have been identified. This species is much less expected at this time of year and may even represent the first April records for Newfoundland.

however, at least three Parasitic Jaegers have been identified. This species is much less expected at this time of year and may even represent the first April records for Newfoundland.

Why this is happening remains a mystery. The weather alone cannot explain it, since winds have certainly not been “that” strong, and these birds can easily handle much stronger gales. Pomarine Jaegers are regular migrants at sea in April, but Parasitic are not. There has been no sign of starvation in other seabirds such as Black-legged Kittiwake (which jaegers most often harass to steal food from), so a shortage of food is not obvious. The widespread nature of their arrival does not support the idea of a singular environmental incident (e.g. contamination/poisoning). Some of the birds appear relatively healthy, while others quite sick and/or exhausted. Whatever the cause, it is unprecedented in Newfoundland’s birding history, and will go down in the books as “very odd, indeed”.

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Say “Ahhhhhhh”. After a thorough check-up, I concluded that this bird was much healthier than some of the others I had seen this week. Maybe it was the nutritious gull it was eating!

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Tweets, Terns & Plover Winds

Keen birders are often watching the forecast, especially the winds. And here in Newfoundland, April is a time to be looking east, waiting for trans-Atlantic winds that might deliver wayward migrants from Europe & Iceland. Winds have been excellent for the past 48 hours or so, and are still blowing onshore along the northeast coast as I write this … prime for the arrival of exciting vagrants like European Golden Plover, Northern Wheatear (both nearly annual here) or something even rarer.

Winds like these have been blowing almost directly across the Atlantic the past few days ... perfectly aligned to bring us some wayward European/Iceland migrants (Screenshot: April 22).

Winds like these have been blowing almost directly across the Atlantic the past few days … perfectly aligned to bring us some wayward European/Iceland migrants (Screenshot: April 22).

Earlier today, I was alerted to tweet from Nial Keogh aboard the RV Celtic Explorer (a research vessel), indicating that some Golden Plovers (preumably European) were spotted flying west in the mid-Atlantic this morning … way out to sea and headed in our direction. Despite the fact it was more than 1000km away, Newfoundland was still the closest landfall and they were headed this way. Heads up … check your fields and coastal grasslands!!

European Golden Plover is one of the most expected Icelandic birds to show up in Newfoundland ... almost annual here, but almost unheard of anywhere else in North America. Last spring saw a huge invasion ... could these winds be bringing us a few more??

European Golden Plover is one of the most expected Icelandic birds to show up in Newfoundland … almost annual here, but almost unheard of anywhere else in North America. Last spring saw a huge invasion … could these winds be bringing us a few more??

I also received a text from the unstoppable Alvan Buckley, who had just spotted two Arctic Terns in Renews harbour. This is several weeks early for our usual arrivals, but pretty much on time for those arriving in Iceland. Previous April records (there aren’t many!) have usually coincided with trans-Atlantic winds and were thought to be of European/Icelandic origin, and I expect the same of these.

Arctic Terns don't usually arrive back in Newfoundland until May. Previous April records, including two seen today, are probably Icelandic birds which tend to migrate earlier.

Arctic Terns don’t usually arrive back in Newfoundland until May. Previous April records, including two seen today, are probably Icelandic birds which tend to migrate earlier. (This photo, however, is from last summer)

Interesting winds continue for the next few days … maybe we’re in for a few surprises!! I myself could use a Eurasian Oystercatcher or Meadow Pipit to brighten up the month 😉

 

The Trickling Back of Spring

To most people, spring doesn’t simply “arrive” in Newfoundland. It fights and claws its way back, while winter works like the dickens to maintain its icy grip. April can be like purgatory here on the island – somewhere in between two battling seasons, deceptively mild and promising one minute and bitter cold the next. And this year has been no exception!

WinterStages_9731But to birders, signs of spring start popping up long before the promise of warm weather. Black-legged Kittiwakes and Ring-billed Gulls begin returning to our coast in late March, looking fresh and bright after a long winter abroad. Horned Larks can often be found on coastal headlands and kelpy beaches, waiting for the last patches of snow to disappear on the grassy barrens. Northern Gannets head north from more temperate waters in early April, catching their first glimpse of Newfoundland in more than five months. Common & Thick-billed Murres start rallying for their precious few inches of personal space on the steep breeding cliffs, while Atlantic Puffins begin spring repairs on their family burrows. American Robins, the first harbinger of spring that most people will notice, arrive in the first week of April to show off their bright red breasts and spring melodies. Not to be outdone, Fox Sparrows come in on the same winds and belt out their ethereal tunes. Spring has sprung, despite the lingering snow and yo-yo temperatures. Each and every bird that arrives, unseen as they might be, helps peel back the icy fingers of winter. And I’m ready for that.

The return of Black-legged Kittiwakes is probably the very first sign of spring in Newfoundland, even if they go unnoticed by most people who are still occupied with shoveling snow in late March.

The return of Black-legged Kittiwakes is probably the very first sign of spring in Newfoundland, even if they go unnoticed by most people who are still occupied with shoveling snow in late March.

Horned Lark also begin returning at the very first crack of spring - often the first migrant songbird to return.

Horned Lark also begin returning at the very first crack of spring – often the first migrant songbird to return.

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A growing number of Northern Gannets can be spotted migrating along the coast by the first week of April.

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Spring is a busy time of building and repairing nests, from the smallest songbird to the largest seabird.

Murres may have less distance to travel after a long winter out at sea, but their return is no less notable.

Murres may have less distance to travel after a long winter out at sea, but their return is no less notable.

Real estate is hard to come by in the crowded murre colonies, and spring must be crazy as each pair establishes just a few inches space on a narrow cliff ledge!

Real estate is hard to come by in the crowded murre colonies, and spring must be crazy as each pair establishes just a few inches space on a narrow cliff ledge!

Soon, the famous Atlantic Puffin colonies along our coast will look like this again - alive and colourful.

Soon, the famous Atlantic Puffin colonies along our coast will look like this again – alive and colourful.

Even to non-birders, the return of bright and vocal American Robins is a hallmark of spring in Newfoundland.

Even to non-birders, the return of bright and vocal American Robins is a hallmark of spring in Newfoundland.

For serious birders, spring also bring the potential for rarities that have strayed off the beaten path during migration ... and in Newfoundland, European stragglers make for the most excitement. In 2014, more than 300 European Golden Plovers were reported across Newfoundland in early May - a huge (though not quite record!) invasion of this nearly annual rarity. Will we see any this year??

For serious birders, spring also brings the potential for rarities that have strayed off the beaten path during migration … and in Newfoundland, European stragglers make for the most excitement. In 2014, more than 300 European Golden Plovers were reported across Newfoundland in early May – a huge invasion of this nearly annual rarity. Will we see any this year??

Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers: A Newfoundland Enigma

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is common throughout most of its range in North America, but not so much in Newfoundland. It is known to be a scarce breeder in western and central parts of the island, where scattered areas of hardwood forest (primarily birch) exist. It is presumed absent on the Avalon (which has limited hardwood) except during migration when it appears sporadically. The true range and abundance of this species on the island is somewhat of a mystery, however, since most potential breeding areas are isolated and almost never surveyed or visited by birders. Anecdotally, sapsuckers have been seen less in recent decades, even in areas where they were known to have bred in the past.

Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, like this beautiful male in St. Mary's on April 7, are scarce breeders on the island and rarely seen outside of migration.

Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, like this beautiful male in St. Mary’s on April 7, are scarce breeders on the island and rarely seen outside of migration.

However, an interesting pattern of sightings on the southern Avalon started coming to light in recent years – especially in Trepassey where a report several years ago led birders to discover an apple tree that is covered in sapsucker holes and indicates years of visits. Several Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers have been seen in Trepassey during spring and (to a lesser extent) fall in the past 3-4 years. Where they are breeding remains a mystery — maybe they head off to other parts of Newfoundland, or (as some have suggested) maybe a small population is making use of pockets of suitable habitat along river valleys on the southern Avalon.

As their name suggests, sapsuckers specialize in harvesting and eating sweet tree sap. They drill shallow holes, allowing the sap to run out.

As their name suggests, sapsuckers specialize in harvesting and eating sweet tree sap. Hardwood trees, which are not very abundant anywhere on the island (and especially not the Avalon Peninsula), provide critical breeding habitat for this species.

A rash of reports on the southern Avalon (at least four individuals at Ferryland, Trepassey, St. Mary’s and Mount Carmel) this past week added a new twist to that conversation. Early for Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers (even in the Maritimes where they occur much more commonly), it was assumed that these were overshooting migrants that arrived on recent strong southerly winds rather than part of a more regular pattern. And maybe they are. But a visit to two yards in St. Mary’s (St. Mary’s Bay) where one male has been visiting for a week now, raised some interesting questions. Homeowners reported that sapsuckers have been visiting their yards and trees annually for at least a few years now, and the presence of old holes support those claims. One gentleman even reported seeing two last year. They generally stay for a few weeks, and then move on … but to where??

This stunning male Yellow-bellied Sapsucker has been frequenting a few yards in the little town of St. Mary's for the past week or so. At least three others have been seen on the southern Avalon in recent days, indicating a much larger than usual arrival of this otherwise very scarce bird.

This stunning male Yellow-bellied Sapsucker has been frequenting a few yards in the little town of St. Mary’s for the past week or so. At least three others have been seen on the southern Avalon in recent days, indicating a much larger than usual arrival of this otherwise very scarce bird.

St. Mary's hardly looks like paradise for a sapsucker. With the exception of a few bird and Norway maples in local yards, habitat is pretty limited.

St. Mary’s hardly looks like paradise for a sapsucker. With the exception of a few birch and Norway maples in local yards, habitat is pretty limited.

The view over the mouth of St. Mary's Bay is nice, though - so maybe these birds have been coming for the scenery ;)

The view over the mouth of St. Mary’s Bay is nice, though – so maybe these birds have been coming for the scenery!

Newfoundland is a very under-birded and under-surveyed island … there is plenty left to learn. The range and abundance of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers is just one small part of a puzzle that has lots of missing pieces.

Here is the yellow belly that gives this species its name ... and the red throat that makes this little fella male.

Here is the yellow belly that gives this species its name … and the red throat that makes this little fellow a male.

Sapsuckers drill telltale holes in a straight line, allowing the sap to run down the trunk.

Sapsuckers drill telltale holes in a straight line, allowing the sap to run down the trunk.

They tend to do circuits in a territory, revisiting fresh holes to suck (or lick!) the sap.

They tend to do circuits in a territory, revisiting fresh holes to suck (or lick!) the sap.

The top photos in this collage show fresh holes with sap running down the tree (the ons on the right were drilled while I was watching!). Below is a line of old holes from a previous year, indicating that this yard has seen sapsuckers before. The homeowner reports that one or two have been visiting every spring for a number of years now.

The top photos in this collage show fresh holes with sap running down the tree (the ones on the right were drilled while I was watching!). Below is a line of old holes from a previous year, indicating that this yard has seen sapsuckers before. The homeowner reports that one or two have been visiting every spring for a number of years now.

The sap was running well on this cool but sunny morning.

The sap was running well on this cool but sunny morning.

Waiting ... waiting ... just a little to the right ...

Waiting … waiting … just a little to the right …

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This female (note the white throat) has been visiting a yard in Ferryland for a few days now. It was far less cooperative than the male pictured above, and this was about the only clear photo I got!

Peek-a-boo! This female (note the white throat) has been visiting a yard in Ferryland for a few days now. It was far less cooperative than the male pictured above, and this was about the only clear photo I got.

This immature Yellow-bellied Sapsucker was visiting an apple tree in Trepassey during October a few years back. Until yesterday, it was the only sapsucker I had seen on the island during more than ten years birding!

This immature Yellow-bellied Sapsucker was visiting an apple tree in Trepassey during October a few years back. Until yesterday, it was the only sapsucker I had seen on the island during more than ten years birding!

Long Necks & Bills

Winter is still trying to hang on here in Newfoundland, and its icy grip was felt with a little fresh snow, ice and freezing rain during the first two days of April. But signs of spring ARE starting to pop up – the first bright American Robins singing from the treetops, a handful of refreshed-looking Ring-billed Gulls joining the bedraggled few that stayed around for winter, and the arrival of Black-legged Kittiwakes all along the coast.

One unusual, but not unexpected, sign of spring was a Great Egret spotted on Friday (wayward as they are, a few sometimes arrive on April winds – probably wondering where and how they made such a wrong turn!). The location wasn’t too surprising, either … Long Pond, just a few blocks from our house, is one of the few marshy ponds that are partly open this time of year and has probably seen more egrets than most places in Newfoundland. I managed to find an hour in the late afternoon to go check it out …

Ouch! Cccccold feet! How did I end up here??

Ouch! Cccccold feet! How did I end up here??

Despite the ice and snow, this fella seemed to be doing quite fine and catching plenty of small fish. Like most egrets that arrive here in early spring, it will likely make its way back south once the winds cooperate.

Despite the ice and snow, this fella seemed to be doing quite fine and catching plenty of small fish. Like most egrets that arrive here in early spring, it will likely make its way back south once the winds cooperate.

Long Pond, in the centre of St. John's, has seen it's share of wayward egrets. I photographed this one there in mid-April several years ago.

Long Pond, in the centre of St. John’s, has seen it’s share of wayward egrets. I photographed this one there in mid-April several years ago.

My birding time has been limited lately, but I did take some time out last week to go look for a very probable Common Snipe that had been found in Ferryland, hanging out with up to three Wilson’s Snipe. I must have picked the wrong day, since during my four hour stakeout, only two of the four snipe could be found at any of the places I checked – and both were clearly Wilson’s Snipe. The suspicious snipe has been seen since, but remains unconfirmed since confident identification of these two species is complicated and requires photos of underwing details that they are not prone to showing. (Some informative photographs and great discussions about this individual are available on the blogs of Bruce Mactavish and Alvan Buckley, who both spent some time with it.)

Here are the two Wilson's Snipe that made an appearance during my visit to Ferryland last week. A far more interesting snipe failed to show up for the party!

Here are the two Wilson’s Snipe that made an appearance during my visit to Ferryland last week. A far more interesting snipe failed to show up for the party!

Another bird wondering why on earth it decided to spend the winter "here" ...

Another bird wondering why on earth it decided to spend the winter “here” …

I managed to spot two more Wilson’s Snipe on the drive home – one at Tors Cove and another at Bay Bulls. Four snipe on the day, but all of them a tad disappointing!

Common Redpolls have been scarce on the Avalon in recent years, so I was happy to encoutner a few during a recent visit to my parents' house in Notre Dame Bay. I almost forgot how much I like them!

Common Redpolls have been scarce on the Avalon in recent years, so I was happy to encounter a few during a recent visit to my parents’ house in Notre Dame Bay. I almost forgot how much I like them!

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These photos were taken during a lull in a mid-March snowstorm … weather that suits these birds, but not photography.