Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Newfoundland: The Avalon Peninsula in June

When one thinks of the worlds great birding destinations Newfoundland doesn't always come to mind, however, I'd argue that it should. Situated literally on the edge of the earth, Newfoundland is deemed one of the four corners of the world by The Flat Earth Society and it's easy to see why. The rugged coastline is made of up ancient fjords and jagged, precipitous cliffs.It is those cliffs that attract millions of seabirds to Newfoundland each Spring.
A very small portion of the seabirds nesting on the rugged coast surrounding Cape St.Mary's

Newfoundland's Avalon Peninsula is home to North America's largest colony of Atlantic Puffins (260,000 pairs) and the world's second largest colony of Leache's Storm Petrels (620,000 pairs). Aside from that there are 10's of thousands of Common and Thick-billed Murres and sizable populations of Razorbills and Black Guillemots and that's just the Alcids! The numbers of seabirds are literally mesmerizing. On more than one occasion I have been guiding people only to look see them staring agasp, at the spectacle before them. On one trip in particular I found myself in this state as I watched over 300,000 Alcids running on the water and taking to flight ahead of our approaching boat. The ocean was churned to white water by feet and the wings of the Murres and Puffins. It was one of the most stunning things I have ever witnessed. The sheer magnitude of life that was mind-blowing. It is something that I will never forget. In fact,I was so awestruck that I never even lifted my camera, I just took it all in. In fact, there is often so much going on, it's hard to know where to focus your attention. Do you look at the Humpback whale breaching or the swarms of Alcids flying by?Our Alcid breeding colonies are a photographers dream and here are a selection of photos taken by Jason Dain.
Common Murres on their nesting islands, Witless Bay, Newfoundland
Common Murre
Razorbills, Witless Bay, Newfoundland
1 of 500,000 Atlantic Puffins nesting in Witless Bay, Newfoundland
Fantastic photo ops abound!
After you are finished your jaw dropping experience with Alcids in Witless Bay, you are ready for a different, yet equally awe-inspiring visit to the Cape St.Mary's, Gannet colony. Both Witless Bay and Cape St.Mary's are well within driving distance of St.John's (Newfoundlands, capital city). 

At Cape St.Mary's you will visit the famed 'Bird Rock'. Bird rock is a 100 m sea stack, separated from the headland by just a few meters. There is no need for a 'big' lens to get great photos of the Gannets and Black-legged Kittiwakes. There are thousands of both species nesting meters away and this is a magical opportunity to observe the complex mating rituals performed by the Northern Gannets and they reinforce their life-long pair bonds.
Gannets preening each other as a hungry chick awaits a meal. Note Gannet chicks often lie with their heads down motionless to rest, the chick in the upper right is fine!

Prime nesting spots on Gannet rock are much sought after and hotly contested!
Northern Gannet delivering nesting material

The worlds largest member of the Deer family.
le="clear: both; text-align: center;"> While in the area it's always worth having a look for exciting mammals as well, since both Moose and the worlds southern most here of Woodland Caribou can also be seen here on occasion.

Woodland Caribou. Newfoundland's Avalon Peninsula hosts the southernmost herd in North America
If you feel like taking a break from seabirds, Newfoundland's Avalon Peninsula has a nice selection of the more sought after breeding boreal species. High on everyone's want list is Boreal Chickadee. Boreal Chickadee is truly a bird of the Canadian Boreal Forest. Breeding throughout Canada, but being particularly common in Eastern Newfoundland.
Boreal Chickadee
There are many other Boreal specialties breeding in the somewhat stunted, Spruce and Fir dominated forests of the Avalon Peninsula. Among them are the fan favourite Pine Grosbeak.

Pine Grosbeak Newfoundland
Pine Grosbeak
This large member of the finch family is known locally by several names, two of the most colourful are 'Mope' and 'Foolish Looper'. The names are derived from their somewhat lethargic movements and their tendency to be exceedingly tame, often allowing very close approach. Other Northern Finches that are likely to be found include White-winged Crossbill and Common Redpoll, not to mention, American Goldfinch, Pine Siskin and Purple Finch.

Also among our more sought-after songbirds you will find a nice selection of Warblers. While the Avalon Peninsula is not the most warbler-rich part of the province. However, it does have good populations of the northern Boreal species and in combination with the remarkable sea birding, makes for some of the best bird in June, anywhere in North America. Some of the more likely species you are to encounter include, Blackpoll Warbler, Mourning Warbler, Northern Waterthrush, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Black and White and Wilsons Warbler. A short drive off of the Avalon Peninsula will net you a number of other species as well. Included below are just a small sample of the Boreal warbler specialties.

Black and White Warbler

Blackpoll Warbler

Wilson's Warbler
Northern Waterthrush

No article on the Avalon's specialty birds would be complete without include two of my all time favourites, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher and Black-backed Woodpecker. Both of these are at the top of the lists of visiting birders, since they are northern species, which can be difficult to find in the more southern climes of the US and southern Canada.
Yellow-bellied Flycatcher is often much easier to find than the much more elusive Black-backed, but with patience and a keen ear, one should be able to track down a Black-back. Of course, the assistance of a top quality bird guide doesn't hurt either ;)
Yellow-bellied Flycatcher

Black-backed Woodpecker

This has been a very brief introduction to birding Newfoundland's, Avalon Peninsula in June.The area has so much to offer the travelling birder, not the least of which is a a rich cultural experience, fantastic food, great music and an overall fantastic time with some of the nicest, most genuine and sharing people, you will find anywhere in the world. If you would like assistance in planning your Newfoundland adventure, Birding Newfoundland is here to guide you every step of the way from itinerary planning, custom guiding and all inclusive tours. You can find us at

Monday, June 18, 2018

The History of Tufted Duck in St.John's, Newfoundland

The history of Tufted Duck in Newfoundland is a very interesting one. It perfectly highlights how quickly things can change in just 20-30 years. Tufted Duck, by all accounts is rare bird in North America, it is listed a code 3 species for the ABA area, meaning it occurs annually, but in very small numbers. In most places in North America, a single Tufted Duck gets people quite excited. After all it is a primarily a European species, breeding throughout temperate Eurasia and has yet to be confirmed as breeding in North America (more on that later). It is a member of the genus Aythya, which also includes the Scaup, Redhead, Canvasback,Ring-necked Duck, Ferruginous Duck, Hardhead (yes that's a real species, look it up!) and the Pochards. As, well, it's flashy, Primarily black and white, but it's head has an iridescent quality and of course the breeding plumage males have that tuft!
Tufted Duck (adult male, breeding plumage)
Tufted Duck (female)

So anyway, what's the big deal about Tufted Duck and what's so interesting about it's history in Newfoundland? In looking at eBird data for Tufted Duck the first report for the species in Newfoundland was in October, 1986. Now it's entirely possible that that there are earlier records (and there probably are), but they would have been singles here and there, they were a legitimate rarity.

Starting somewhere in the early 2000's Tufted Duck numbers in Newfoundland began to increase dramatically. The chart below, which displays the high count for Tufted Duck in St.John's between the years 2000-2018 shows the explosion in their numbers. Our Tufted Ducks usually begin to arrive in early October and numbers build over the fall, usually peaking in early winter. The numbers then remain stable until May when there is a drastic decrease.
We used to be happy if we had a handful of overwintering TUDU's. Then one year we had a dozen, then 20, then 50. The all time high was 84 this year. How much higher can it go?

The working assumption is our Tufted Ducks come from Iceland, where they breed, then migrate to Newfoundland to winter, then returning back to Iceland in Spring. That seems strange because why wouldn't they just stay and breed in Newfoundland? There is plenty of appropriate habitat and the very similar Ring-necked Duck does quite well here. However, the instinct to migrate is very strong and likely strong enough to cause they birds to make the long trip back to Iceland each Spring. Having said all of that, there is some suspicion that a few may be sticking around to breed, since we have been seeing the odd Tufted Duck X Ring-necked Duck and even some suspicious looking Tufted Duck X Scaup hybrids. It may be just a matter of time before we get our first breeding record of Tufted Duck in Newfoundland.
Tufted Duck hybrid
Tufted DuckX Ring-necked Duck
Note the grayish wash on the flank, which is typical of RNDU, versus the pure white flanks of TUDU. Also note the partial tuft, which of course is absent in RNGU
Spread wing of the TUDUx RNDU. Note that the pattern of white in the wing is about mid way between what would be expect for either TUDU or RNDU

I would normally spend some time discussing the identification of Tufted Ducks and how they are best separated from similar species, however, I will discuss all of that and more in this winters Duck Identification work shop. In that workshop, you will learn everything you wanted to know, and more, about Duck identification in Newfoundland.

You can book through my website at

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Little Bird, Big Voice!

I remember the first time I heard a Ruby-crowned Kinglet singing. I thought what the heck is that! I search and searched looking for what could be singing so vociferously. Then when my binoculars fell on a Ruby-crowned Kinglet I could hardly believe it. How could such a loud, long song, come from such a small bird!

Sine that time Ruby-crowned Kinglets have been the bane of my birding efforts on more than one occasion. I remember doing bird surveys and straining to hear distant warblers, when all of a sudden a Ruby-crowned Kinglet starts wailing away from the tree tops. These birds have attitude to spare!

However, if they aren't singing Ruby-crowns (RCKI) can be somewhat difficult to see and they don't always show that nice Ruby crown.
Ruby-crowned Kinglet- The ruby crown is barely visible in this photo
and is often not visible in the field
What is always visible is a bold eye ring, a wing bar and those yellow/gold edges to the flight feathers. As well, RCKI's constantly seem agitated and flick their wings nervously as they move about. This is something most warbler species, do not do (Ruby-crowns aren't warblers of course, but are often with them in mixed flocks). As well, it's worth noting their call note at this time, since they only sing during the breeding season, the rest of the year their scratchy call note is all you'll hear.

Ruby-crowns are one of the first arriving songbirds in Newfoundland often arriving in late April or early May, when it is still quite cold. Interestingly, they leave quite early as well, since their numbers  thin out significantly into August and they can be hard to find in September.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet showing off it's ruby crown

While they are in Newfoundland they do some amazing things, including lay a truly massive clutch of eggs. Ruby-crowns can lay up to 12 eggs and while each egg weighs on 1/15 of an ounce, the combined weight of the clutch can weigh the same as an adult Ruby-crowned!While you would think that all that singing and egg laying would burn a tremendous amount of energy, these frenetic birds are incredibly energy efficient and metabolic studies of Ruby-crowns have found that they can burn up to as little as 10 calories a day!

I'll leave you with a couple more photos of these little gems. See what I did there...gems...the bird's name is Ruby-crowned Kinglet...Ok, enough of that! Stay tuned for upcoming posts that will include more species profiles, quiz birds, ID features and much much more!

A red mohawk any punk rocker would be jealous of!
Notice me!

Friday, June 15, 2018

Old Friends Reunite!

I was looking through some old photos and came across one that I hadn't seen in a long time of two Yellow-legged Gulls, photographed together at Quidi Viki Lake, in St.John's, Newfoundland in early October 2011. While Yellow-legged Gull is a major rarity in North America, it has become somewhat of a Newfoundland winter specialty over the last 15 years or so, with one or more birds usually present from September- March. On this particular day I located two Yellow-legged Gulls together among a mixed flock of Gulls loafing in a ball field near Quidi Vidi Lake. While I was super excited  to see them, you can imagine their surprise when they saw each other some 2500+ km's from their Azores home! My fiance added the caption at the time.I thought it was amusing and figured I'd share it :)
YLGU's, presumably of Azorean origin. The individual on the right is perhaps a little more typical of fall birds with a more extensive hood of streaks. They are completely white headed by Christmas.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Species Profile - Yellow-bellied Flycatcher

In keeping with the theme of highlighting Newfoundland's breeding Boreal species, today I've decided to take a closer look at Yellow-bellied Flycatcher.

Arriving in the last couple days of May or early June, this diminutive flycatchers song is part of the sound track of the Boreal Forest, along with Fox Sparrow, Blackpoll Warbler and Northern Waterthrush- just to name a few.

It's song is an almost comical 'chebek', or sometimes shortened to just 'bek'. It also uses a whistled 'chu-eee', which is oddly similar to the call note of Semipalmated Plover! Aside from those two common vocalizations it also has a lesser used third vocalization, which is a burry, 'churrr' (listen closely at 1:21)note. It often uses this call when moving from branch to branch or during inter-specific interactions.
Yellow-bellied Flycatcher

Yellow-bellied Flycatcher is by far the commonest flycatcher in Newfoundland and is often the only expected Empidonax flycatcher in the Eastern half of the province. In some central locations and South Western Newfoundland, the Empid situation gets a little more complicated, since Alder Flycatcher and Least Flycatcher are also possible (the latter being somewhat rare). However, with some experience, separating Yellow-bellied from these two species is relatively straight forward.

 Yellow-bellied is just that, yellow! In breeding plumage at least, it is significantly more yellow below than either Alder or Least, which can be quite pale. It's is also a more even green above, in relation to our other Empids- both Least and Alder can have some grayish areas on the upper parts, with least sometimes being quite grayish on the back of the head. It's most distinctive facial feature is it's bold yellow-buff eye ring, which is often peaked at the rear of the eye. Least Flycatchers eye ring can be similar, but never as yellow. Well, this wasn't meant to be an ID Empid ID piece, I'll save that for another post!
Yellow-bellied Flycatcher (note the yellow belly!)

This has been a very trying breeding season for Yellow-bellied's this year with June temperature being, well below normal, with some areas experiencing heavy frost and even significant snowfall and freezing night time temperatures. Since Yellow-bellied Flycatchers feed almost exclusively on flying insects, they have been seen by meany people desperately searching for food on lawns and in other areas one would not usually see them.
Note the thick buffy eye-ring, peaked at the rear

Note the strongly bi-colored bill that I forget to mention in the body of the post!

Now into the middle of June, the Yellow Bellied's have been back for only a couple of weeks and they are already about 25% of the way through their stay in Newfoundland. It's a race against time for late migrants like the Yellow bellies. They migrate all the way from Central America to the northern Boreal forests, for at the most, a little over two months, only to turn around and endure a massive journey back to their wintering grounds. Lets hope our weather improves soon so these birds can get down to doing what they came here to do.

I'm not entirely sure what to talk about next, maybe something historical.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Some Notes on the Identification of Juvenile Crossbills

I received a couple of photos from local birder Shawn Fitzpatrick today of a juvenile Crossbill. He never had exceptional looks at the bird but did manage to grab several photos. Quite often Crossbill identification is relatively straightforward. We have two species to consider, Red and White-winged. White winged Crossbill (owing to its name) has white bars on it's wings. In fact, it's often referred to as Two-barred Crossbill in Europe. As well, males of both species are shades of Red and females shades of yellow, they are different tones ,and as I said, identifying them generally isn't overly challenging.

However, in case I'm referring to, the bird was a juvenile, so entirely streaked brown and the photos were from essentially front on, so you really could not see if the bird had wing bars or not.So here is the bird in question.
Juvenile White-winged Crossbill (Photo Shawn Fitzpatrick)

Let me explain how I went about identifying this bird. The first thing I noticed about this bird was it's bill. One of the differences in White-winged and Red Crossbill is bill size (there are many types of Red Crossbills with varying bill sizes, but typically, Newfoundland Red Crossbills have larger bills than White-wined, it is both thicker and longer). This birds bill struck me as somewhat thin, not appearing overly robust or strong and seemed to narrow a lot towards the tip.
Juvenile White-winged Crossbill (Photo Shawn Fitzpatrick)
The next thing that struck me was the length of the tail. One thing I have always noticed is White-winged Crossbills are a relatively long tailed Finch. Look at the birds tail in the second photo, notice, it's length notice how quickly it tapers as it extends from the birds back, almost like you pinched it between your fingers. Not look at the actual tail feathers. Notice how far the tail feathers extend beyond the under tail coverts, this bird has a tail. When you see them at some distance, their tail length is almost reminiscent of Pine Grosbeak- though certainly not as long.At any rate it is significantly longer than Red Cross bill, which at times hardly seems to have much of a tail at all. When you see Red Crossbills in the tree tops, you often don't notice their tails that much, since they are quite short. Note this, when you are viewing Crossbills in the future.

Juvenile Red Crossbill, Newfoundland
Juvenile Red Crossbill- Note the difference in bill size with the above bird. Note especially how the upper mandible tends to be thicker towards the tip.

One other feature that kind of struck me about the bird above was the pattern of streaking. The streaks seemed fine, on a relatively pale base, especially around the side of the face (ear coverts). I'm pretty sure this is variable and will change quickly as birds mature, but the bird in the first two photos, has a facial pattern kind of reminded me of Pine Siskin. Now look at the bird in the photo just above. Note how the face is a little more solidly coloured.

One other feature that I noted in the second photo above was the amount of fine streaking on the birds shoulders (scapulars). Note the juvenile Red Crossbills above, how plain brown the shoulders are. I'm not entirely sure how reliable these feature are, there are perhaps at best an accessory. It's something I'll continue to look for when I see these species.

I'd like to thank Shawn for send me the photos and inspiring this post.

The Charismatic Boreal Chickadee (Poecile hudsonicus)

One thing I have gained from guiding over the years is much greater appreciation for our native Newfoundland species. That is one of the great things about guiding, you never really get complacent about your 'common' local species, because you are always aware of how special they are to your visitors.

One species, we as Newfoundlanders, tend to take for granted is Boreal Chickadee. While it is quite similar to the much more widespread Black-capped Chickadee, there is just something about it. Maybe it's their insistance to fend for themselves, and not rely on bird feeders; maybe it's their hoarse voice. For whatever reason, they are a species that has always captured my heart and it's easy to see why it's such a sought after species for visiting birders, from more southern locales.

I'll leave you with several photos. Stay tuned for upcoming blogs, where I will continue to showcase some of our native Boreal species and will include some interesting identification tidbits as well!

Thanks for reading!

While perhaps not the best photo, I like how this capture the spirit of the Boreal Chickadee, unfazed by winters icy grip!

One of my favourite photos of the species that I've captured. This pose really ups the 'cute' factor!