Catching Up (with a White-winged Tern!!)

It has been an extremely busy summer … which I guess is a good thing when you’re in the ecotourism business 😉 Between Bird⋅The⋅Rock clients and commercial tours with my friends at Wildland and Eagle Eye Tours, I’ve had many opportunities to share the wonderful birds & nature of Newfoundland with visitors from all over the world, as well as lead a fun birding tour in beautiful New Brunswick! With that in mind, I now have a lot of catching up to do – so expect a full summer’s worth of great stories and photo highlights here on the blog over the next few weeks!!

However, the first “catching up” I had to do this week was with a very rare tern that showed up in Newfoundland while I was away. While leading a birding tour in New Brunswick, I received a series of texts about a WHITE-WINGED TERN that had been discovered in Conception Bay South – just 20 minutes from my home! As painful as it was, I soon learned that it seemed to be settled and had some routine habits – a good sign that it might hang around for a few days. Five days later, after concluding the tour, I was headed home and focused on seeing this beautiful bird for myself … until foggy weather in St. John’s forced the cancellation of my flight! Following an unplanned night in Montreal and a reroute through Toronto (my sixth province that month), I finally arrived home on the evening of Tuesday, August 25.

This breeding plumaged White-winged Tern was a very unexpected find when discovered by local birder Paul Linegar on August 19. It is normally found in southeastn Europe and Asia (wintering in in Africa and Australia), and is a very rare wanderer to North America.

This breeding plumaged White-winged Tern was a very unexpected find when discovered by local birder Paul Linegar on August 19. It is normally found in southeastern Europe and Asia (wintering in Africa and Australia), and is a very rare wanderer to North America.

The next morning, I headed straight to Chamberlain’s Pond where the tern was known to feed regularly throughout the day. I scanned the pond and, seeing nothing, stepped out of the car – when THE tern immediately flew in off the ocean and directly in front of me!! It continued to course around the far side of the pond, flying acrobatics and hawking insects off the water’s surface, for about 10 minutes before flying over my head again and out over the ocean, headed towards the nearby marina where it had been originally discovered. I relocated it there a short while later, but it was too far to enjoy or photograph. After some poking around, I found a public access to the long breakwater/sandbar opposite the marina and made the 15 minute stroll along its length to where I had last seen it. It was nowhere to be found, so I waited patiently – until it suddenly appeared out of nowhere and flew by just metres away! Fortunately I was able to raise my camera and snap off a few photos as it glided past – not perfect, but still precious! What a stunning and graceful bird!

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This beautiful bird represents the first record of White-winged Tern for the province – one that local birders may have dreamed about but never “really” expected to see here.

The black underwing coverts seen in this photo are an important feature, distinguishing this mega rarity from the very similar Black Tern (which while still somewhat rare in Newfoundland is by far the more expected species).

The black underwing coverts seen in this photo are an important feature, distinguishing this mega rarity from the very similar Black Tern (which while still somewhat rare in Newfoundland is by far the more expected species).

Notably, two other exciting birds have been reported recently. A moulting adult YELLOW-LEGGED GULL has been spotted in east St. John’s several times over the past two weeks – a virtually annual visitor here but still a huge rarity for North America in general. Far less expected, a highly probably BLACK-BROWED ALBATROSS was reported by a fisherman near Cape St. Mary’s on August 29 – a huge rarity that we are hoping will be spotted again!

Stay tuned to the blog for a series of reports on our adventures this past summer!

Lots of amazing birding, whales, scenery and fun this summer ... check back soon for some photo highlights!

Lots of amazing birding, whales, scenery and fun this summer … check back soon for some photo highlights!

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Another teaser from my most recent adventure - an Eagle Eye Tours trip to New Brunswick and the beautiful Bay of Fundy!

Another teaser from my most recent adventure – an Eagle Eye Tours trip to New Brunswick and the beautiful Bay of Fundy!

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A Garganey in the Marsh

We’ve been watching the winds for the past two weeks, waiting for some European rarities to show up. Eight European Golden Plovers and even a Hobby were spotted in late April by researchers on the RV Celtic Explorer in the middle of the North Atlantic, suggesting that birds were headed our way. Eventually, a Black-tailed Godwit was found on April 29 in the unlikely location of Deer Lake, raising suspicions that more must be out there. But then … nothing.

The winds switched to the south last week, bringing in a swath of regular migrants (yay – spring!), and pretty much dashing our hopes for European gold. So when Bruce Mactavish sent me a text on May 7 to report a stunning drake Garganey in a marsh in east St. John’s, I was a little surprised. Had it arrived earlier on the trans-Atlantic winds, or more recently?? There is a pattern of Garganey showing up in May, and often when the winds would least suggest it. This one would be the fifth record for Newfoundland, all of which were spring males!

Somewhere in this very distant photo is a stunning male Garganey. Honest.

Somewhere in this very distant photo is a stunning male Garganey. Honest.

It took a couple hours, but I eventually snuck away from work and family obligations to go take a look. It was hiding in reeds several hundred metres from the viewing platform where I stood, at the back of a marsh surrounded by inaccessible industrial yards. When visible, looks were pretty good through a scope but much too far for photos. A few people saw it in closer parts of the marsh over the next two days and managed some record photos, but for the most part it remained a bit elusive. It has not been reported since May 9.

This drake Garganey (ABA Code 4) was in St. John's on May 15-16, 2009 ... and very cooperative for at least a couple hours!

This drake Garganey (ABA Code 4) was in St. John’s on May 15-16, 2009 … and very cooperative for at least a couple hours!

A single European Golden Plover was reported from Carmanville (Gander Bay) on May 11, but otherwise there have been no reports and the usual window is closing now. Sure — a GarganeyBlack-tailed Godwit and European Golden Plover is in fact a pretty decent few weeks, but it seems a tad anti-climactic. I guess last year’s show spoiled us!!

European Golden Plovers are rare but regular in Newfoundland, with at least one showing up most years. And that's just what we got this year ... one! (These individuals were photographed in 2014).

European Golden Plovers are rare but regular in Newfoundland, with at least one showing up most years. And that’s just what we got this year … one! (These individuals were photographed in 2014).

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??

2014: Looking Back on a Great Year!

It’s hard to believe that another year has zipped by … and what a year it was! The past twelve months were full of great blessings, highlights and adventures; bringing back some wonderful memories as I sit down now to reflect on them. Amazing birds, extreme weather, fun-filled tours, new friends and even a tropical adventure … 2014 had it all!!

** Be sure to follow the links to earlier blog posts for more details and LOTS more photos!! **

The first bird news for the year was actually a carry-over from 2013 — the invasion of Snowy Owls. Although the large numbers of November and December seemed to have dissipated, reports continued throughout the winter. A few individuals decided to stay, with reports from places like Trepassey, St. Shott’s, Cape Race and Bonavista’s north shore right through the summer. I saw at least one bird in June, July and August! An echo of the 2013 invasion has been taking place this fall/winter, with excellent numbers reported in November and December 2014.

Snowy Owls continued throughout the winter of 2014, following a major invasion the previous fall. This one was photographed in St. John's in early January.

Snowy Owls continued throughout the winter of 2014, following a major invasion the previous fall. This one was photographed in St. John’s in early January.

In January, I was fortunate to host four eager birders on a WINGS Birding tour. We enjoyed prime Newfoundland winter birds like Dovekie, Purple Sandpiper, Tufted Duck, Eurasian Wigeon and thousands of excellent gulls, as well as the very rare COMMON SNIPE that had just been discovered in Ferryland. Several other clients were able to enjoy this bird throughout the winter.

Four enthusiastic birders from across the United States visited St. John's last week as part of the WINGS winter tour. Here they can be seen at Cape Spear, smiling after scoring great looks at two prime targets - Purple Sandpipers and Dovekie!!

Four enthusiastic birders from across the United States visited St. John’s last winter as part of the WINGS winter tour. Here they can be seen at Cape Spear, smiling after scoring great looks at two prime targets – Purple Sandpipers and Dovekie!!

- Photo: Jared Clarke (January 25, 2014)

Equally exciting was the reappearance of our adult YELLOW-LEGGED GULL in February … it had been elusive all winter and not seen at all since December. For several weeks it appeared, almost like clockwork, at Quidi Vidi lake to bathe, drink and loaf on the ice with many other gulls. A number of visiting birders were able to capitalize on this, including several of my clients who had come primarily to “tick” this North American mega.

The Yellow-legged Gull is, in my opinion, one of the classiest looking gulls out there (and I do love gulls!). The combination of bright yellow bill and legs, brilliant red gony spot, and that magic shade of grey add up to one beautiful bird. - Photo: Jared Clarke (February 22. 2014)

The Yellow-legged Gull is, in my opinion, one of the classiest looking gulls out there (and I do love gulls!). The combination of bright yellow bill and legs, brilliant red gony spot, and that magic shade of grey add up to one beautiful bird.

Overall, Newfoundland (and most of North America!) found itself in a deep freeze for much of the winter. With the exception of a week-long thaw in mid-January, it was one of the coldest and snowiest winters in a long time. The extensive ice and limited open water resulted in a big movement of waterfowl, as well as some great photo opportunities with local ducks.

Photo opportunities with Common Mergansers are few and far between ,since they usually stick to larger patches of open water and are very wary. A small group making regular visits to Quidi Vidi have been becoming more tolerant of people and allowing some great looks. - Photo: Jared Clarke (February 22. 2014)

Photo opportunities with Common Mergansers are few and far between, since they usually stick to larger patches of open water and are very wary. A small group making regular visits to Quidi Vidi last winter became more tolerant of people and allowed some great looks.

Ring-necked Ducks breed in Newfoundland, but are rarely easy to photograph. This drake has been hanging out in the relatively small patches of open water at Quidi Vidi since early February. - Photo: Jared Clarke (February 22. 2014)

Ring-necked Ducks breed in Newfoundland, but are rarely easy to photograph. This drake was hanging out in the relatively small patches of open water at Quidi Vidi in early February.

The frigid temperatures and deep snow also resulted in a handful of small owl reports in residential areas. I even caught sight of a Northern Saw-whet Owl as it flew up from a nearby yard and landed on the wires directly in front of my house – unfortunately it only stayed for a moment. Much more cooperative was a Boreal Owl that showed up in a neighbourhood following a big storm in early February … definitely one of my photo highlights of 2014!

Boreal Owls are definitely one of my favourite birds. They are known for visiting residential neighbourhoods in mid-winter, when deep snow has impacted their traditional hunting areas in "the bush".

Boreal Owls are definitely one of my favourite birds. They are known for visiting residential neighbourhoods in mid-winter, when deep snow has impacted their traditional hunting areas in “the bush”.

March brought with it one of the highlights of my entire year – an escape to Hawaii!! I joined my good friend Jody Allair as co-leader for an Eagle Eye birding tour, where we visited three islands with a great group of birders, saw some of the coolest and rarest birds on earth, swam with sea turtles, and hiked on volcanoes. It was genuinely awesome adventure in one of the most amazing and unique ecosystems in the world. (Be sure to read my earlier blog posts – they are jam-packed with photos!).

This male Akiapola'au, one of Big Island's rarest and most special birds, graced us for almost an hour. Check out that crazy bill!!

This male Akiapola’au, one of Hawaii’s rarest and most special birds, graced us for almost an hour. Check out that crazy bill!! It may have been my favourite birding experience of the entire year!

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Green Sea Turtles are quite common along the Hawaiian coasts, but seeing them was still very special.

Redtailed Tropicbirds also nest on the cliffs at Kilauea Point, and were often seen floating by or engaging in their acrobatic courtships displays.

Red-tailed Tropicbirds were one of many (many!) highlights during the tour!

April can be an exciting time in Newfoundland, especially if we get the right winds … and this year we got them in spades. Prolonged northeasterly, trans-Atlatnic winds in late April and early May brought with them an invasion of European/Icelandic birds … including two COMMON REDSHANKS (only the third North American record), a dozen Black-tailed Godwits, several hundred European Golden Plovers, scores of Northern Wheatear, and a Eurasian Whimbrel.

However, the real star of the Euro Inasion was a Common Redshank at Renews from May 3-13. Since it represented just the third record (and sixth individual) for both Newfoundland and North America, many birder came from near and far to see it. A second individual presnt at the same location on May 4 was chased off by the first and never seen again!

This Common Redshank at Renews from May 3-13 was (in my opinion) Newfoundland’s best bird of 2014. Since it represented just the third record (and sixth individual) for both Newfoundland and North America, many birders came from near and far to see it.

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.

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.

Photo: Jared Clarke (April 26, 2014)

The “invasion” was first detected by the arrival of two Black-tailed Godwits at Renews in late April. Over the next 2-3 weeks, a record total of twelve were recorded around the island. Incredibly, I was able to see six of them at four locations!

To make things even more exciting, an adult ROSS’S GULL showed up for two days – considered by many to have been the most exciting bird of the entire year!

Summer was busy with tours and visiting birders … all of whom couldn’t have picked a better year to visit! We had great weather, an incredible showing of icebergs, and lots of interesting nature and wildlife experiences! I had the pleasure of leading four tours with my good friends at Wildland Tours, as well as several private clients throughout the summer – all of whom enjoyed great birds, whales, scenery, wildflowers and, of course, icebergs! And no one enjoyed it more than I did!

The icebergs in Bonavista & Trinity Bays were incredible - in number, size and sheer beauty. Some dramatic skies added to the scene at times.

The icebergs along ghe northeast coast this year were incredible – in number, size and sheer beauty. Some dramatic skies added to the scene at times.

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We enjoyed “lots” of great seabirds during the various tours – including the awe-inspiring frenzy of murres and puffins at Witless Bay Ecological Reserve.

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A couple tours lucked into the amazing scene of caplin “rolling” as they spawned on our beaches. In the North Atlantic, these small fish are a big cog in the wheel of life.

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Cape Pine also produced our first Short-tailed Swallowtails of the trip ... they were plentiful at most headlands during the week.

Short-tailed Swallowtails are always a highlight on my tours … this beautiful little butterfly is limited to very small range, mostly on the island of Newfoundland.

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!

Whales put on a great show throughout the summer – like this one breaching in front of the historic town of Trinity!

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 Newfoundland and are one of many interesting wildflowers seen throughout the summer.

A Little Gull showed up in late July, hanging around for many local birders to catch up with it.

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Little Gulls are quite rare in Newfoundland, and it is especially unusual for one to cooperate and hang around for several days like this one did!

August was very wet in Newfoundland, but I managed to make the most of it – including a great Wildland Tour and lots of family adventures. A major windstorm at the end of August drove thousands of Leach’s Storm Petrels (and other birds) to the bottom of Conception Bay, making for quite a show!

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

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Our family loves ot spend time together and travel in Newfoundland during the summer. One of our favourite destinations in beautiful Grate’s Cove, where my mother-in-law grew up and she still has an old family home that we love!

One of the most exciting events of the entire year for me had nothing to do with birds – but instead a mammal. In early September, I managed to catch up with a WALRUS that was discovered hanging out on a rocky outcrop at Bay Bulls! I have always wanted to see one of these magnificent animals, and this one did not disappoint! My story of this encounter turned out the be the most popular post on my blog, my photos were shared across the internet and picked up by various media, and the sighting was published in a local journal.

Walrus_Sept22014_7948 Walrus_Sept22014_7866An intriguing Common Gull also showed up in September – one that gave the distinct impressions of the kamchatka race originating from eastern Asia. Bruce Mactavish and I had a great experience after relocating it on a field in Goulds, and its difficult to come to any conclusion except that it was indeed a “Kamchatka Gull“. Unfortunately, it has not been seen since.

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This Common Gull which showed up in and around St. John’s in early fall was unlike any other seen here before. Could it really have been a “Kamchatka Gull” from eastern Asia?? Crazier things have happened.

A very rare Canvasback appeared in St. John’s in October … only the second record for the province and the first in more than 40 years! I managed to see it a couple times before it disappeared a couple weeks later.

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

This immature Canvasback provided just the second record for Newfoundland, with the last one having been seen in the early 1970’s!

Later that month, all eyes were on Hurricane Gonzalo as it churned north over the Atlantic ocean towards us. With dreams of tropical seabirds dancing in our heads, three of us met this huge storm at Cape Race just minutes after the eye had passed a few miles east of us. The rare birds didn’t materialize, but the incredible wave action over the next few hours was more than worth the trip!

IMG_9677 IMG_9607 IMG_9531November turned out to be an important month for Bird⋅The⋅Rock … I launched a new website and Facebook page, heralding a big step into the field of eco- and birding tourism. We also hosted an online contest, with Newfoundland birder Diane Burton winning a beautiful canvas print featuring one of my favourite bird photos! A big THANK YOU to everyone who has supported & encouraged me in this new venture!!

CBNT_CSMNovember is also an interesting time for birds in Newfoundland, and this year was no different. The “star” of the month may have been a Meadowlark that showed up in St. John’s – not necessarily because of its rarity (although it was), but because of its ambiguity. Initial photos seemed to indicate that it “could” be a Western Meadowlark, although lengthy discussions and research proved inconclusive. These species are very cryptic at the best of times, and it seems the lines between them are still quite blurry. Other good birds during the month included a Western Kingbird, Northern Mockingbird and several cool warblers (for which November is best known!).

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!

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!

This Pine Warbler, photographed in St. Shott's a few years ago, was making good use of the late fall flies. Pine Warblers are another hardy warbler that get reported more often in November than any other month in Newfoundland.

Pine Warblers are a hardy warbler that get reported more often in November than any other month in Newfoundland.

December was relatively mild across the province, which led to some comfortable (and interesting!) birding during the first few weeks of Christmas Bird Count (CBC) season. I was fortunate to take part in the Cape St. Mary’s and St. John’s CBCs … read the blog posts for more details!

It is surreal to see Bird Rock (left) completely devoid of birds this time of year, when it is bustling with thousands of gannets during spring and summer. Here, John & Ed enjoy a mid-morning seawatch while I hiked over the eastern ridge.

Cape St. Mary’s looks very different in winter (like during this Christmas Bird Count) compared to summer when it is bustling with life.

This drake Long-tailed Duck (locally called "hounds") was feeding at the end of a breakwater in St. Bride's. Between dives, I managed to sneak up quite close by edging along on the piled boulders.

This drake Long-tailed Duck (locally called “hounds”) was feeding at the end of a breakwater in St. Bride’s during the Christmas Bird Count. Between dives, I managed to sneak up quite close by edging along on the piled boulders.

And so ended another year … we said a fond farewell to 2014 and toasted the arrival of 2015 while visiting my family in Lewisporte (central Newfoundland). So, from me and my family to you & yours

Happy New Year!

May the next twelve months bring you lots of joy, peace and outdoor enjoyment – wherever they find you!

 

 

 

 

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!

Wrapping-up: The “Euro Invasion” of Spring 2014

It has been a crazy three weeks! It all began when we started noticing strong, persistent northeasterly winds setting up across the North Atlantic in late April – a system that Newfoundland birders hope for at this time of year. Spring migration of European birds over the Atlantic, especially to Iceland & Greenland, is peaking in late April and early May and history has shown that these weather systems can bring wayward migrants to our coasts.

This fun photo, showing a mega-rare Common Redshank with an iceberg backdrop, is a nice reflection for how spring has been in Newfoundland. Cold, beautiful, and extremely exciting!!

This fun photo, showing a mega-rare Common Redshank with an iceberg backdrop, is a nice reflection for how spring has been in Newfoundland. Cold, beautiful, and extremely exciting!!

The "event" started with two Black-tailed Godwits discovered in Renews, and just kept growing over the next two weeks.

The “event” started with two Black-tailed Godwits discovered in Renews, and just kept growing over the next two weeks.

It all started coming together on April 25, when two Black-tailed Godwits were photographed in Renews. The next morning, the first European Golden Plover was discovered in a field just 100m from the godwits. When eleven more were reported from three other locations across the province (Cape Race, St. John’s and Gros Morne National Park), the alarm bells started ringing. With the winds still blasting in from the northeast and a forecast for them to stay that way for the foreseeable future, we knew we were in for an exciting event. And the birds just kept coming …

A Summary of the Spring 2014 “Invasion” (April 25 – May 13)

  • COMMON REDSHANK 2 !! A single bird present at Renews from May 3-13 was joined briefly by a second on May 4.
  • ROSS’S GULL – an adult at Torbay (April 29-30) was completely unexpected and may have caused more local excitement than any other bird this spring.
  • BLACK-TAILED GODWIT – a total of 12 (!!) reported at six locations island-wide.
  • EUROPEAN GOLDEN PLOVER200+ individuals reported from two dozen locations all over the island & SE Labrador … not quite a record invasion, but very very impressive.
  • NORTHERN WHEATEARDozens reported from locations island-wide – and clearly many more went unnoticed.
  • (EURASIAN) WHIMBREL 1 at Cape Spear (May 3)
  • DUNLIN (Icelandic/Greenland race) 1 at Cape Spear (May 3). This may be of the schinzii subspecies which has very few, if any, previous records in North America.
The breadth of the invasion was evident not only in the number of European Golden Plover reported in early May, but also the geographic distribution across the entire east/northeast coast of Newfoundland and southeastern Labrador.

The breadth of the invasion was evident not only in the number of European Golden Plover reported in early May, but also the geographic distribution across the entire east/northeast coast of Newfoundland and southeastern Labrador.

The largest single flock of European Golden Plovers occurred in Goulds (St. John's), where an initial handful of birds swelled to at least 90 in just a few days!

The largest single flock of European Golden Plovers occurred in Goulds (St. John’s), where an initial handful of birds swelled to at least 90 in just a few days!

These European Golden Plovers, part of a flock of nine, were in an unassuming backyard at Old Perlican on the northern tip of the Avalon Peninsula.

These European Golden Plovers, part of a flock of nine, were in an unassuming backyard at Old Perlican on the northern tip of the Avalon Peninsula.

During that time, I have been able to enjoy seeing many of these amazing birds, visit some of my favourite birding locations, and share the experience with many other birders from near & far. I have especially enjoyed birding with a number of keen birders who visited from all over North America to see these incredible ABA rarities … people from Ontario, Maine, New York, Massachussetts, Michigan, North Carolina, Texas & California!!

I was fortunate enough to see six Black-tailed Godwits in four far-flung locations during  the past few weeks - including two at Renews, two in St. Paul's Inlet, one in Goulds and this one at Old Perlican.

I was fortunate enough to see six Black-tailed Godwits in four far-flung locations during the past few weeks – including two at Renews, two in St. Paul’s Inlet, one in Goulds and this one at Old Perlican.

BTGO_May4OldPerlican_9022After a long, cold but very thrilling three weeks, the winds have finally turned southerly and many of our lingering visitors appear to have moved on – hopefully back to their intended destinations of Iceland & Greenland. Regular spring migration is rearing its head now, with a flood of more expected arrivals from down south being reported in the past few days. While the “Euro Invasion” of spring 2014 is winding down, the awesome birds & birding of these past few weeks will remain fresh in our memories for a long time to come … and we’ll always be keeping an eye on the winds!

Northern Wheatears are rare but expected in Newfoundland most springs. However, these winds brought dozens of reports, likely of birds that would have been destined for breeding grounds in Iceland or Greenland rather than northern Labrador.

Northern Wheatears are rare but expected in Newfoundland most springs. However, these winds brought dozens of reports, likely of birds that would have been destined for breeding grounds in Iceland or Greenland rather than northern Labrador.

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However, the real star of the Euro Inasion was a Common Redshank at Renews from May 3-13. Since it represented just the third record (and sixth individual) for both Newfoundland and North America, many birder came from near and far to see it. A second individual presnt at the same location on May 4 was chased off by the first and never seen again!

However, the real star of the Euro Invasion was a Common Redshank at Renews from May 3-13. Since it represented just the third record (and seventh individual) for both Newfoundland and North America, many birder came from near and far to see it. A second individual presnt at the same location on May 4 was chased off by the first and never seen again!

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The striking wing and rump pattern of Common Redshank is very different than the familiar Greater Yellowlegs that were also hanging out at Renews.

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We seem to have said “Good-bye” to this popular visitor, with no reports since May 13 despite plenty of looking. And so winds down this amazing event that has dominated Newfoundland (and North American) birding so far this spring!