Saturday, February 26, 2011

Yellow-legged Gulls of Newfoundland

Let me preface this post by saying this is not meant to be a treatise on the identification of Yellow-legged Gulls,there has already been lots written on that topic and better presented than I'm capable of doing here. I'm writing this purely to show what our Yellow-legged Gulls look like in hopes that it might assist other birders in finding Yellow-legged Gulls outside Newfoundland. I'll present evidence to demonstrate that Newfoundland YLGU's are likely of the subspecies atlantis and will also include criteria for separation from possible hybrid look-alikes such as HERG X LBBG. Even though its nice having the monopoly on this species for North America,I suspect a few YLGU's are flying under the radar of east coast birder in other provinces and states.

Most of what we know about Yellow-legged Gull in North America comes from the hard work done by the 'Godfather' of Newfoundland gulling, Bruce Mactavish. Bruce had been finding these mysterious Yellow-legged, dark mantled birds for years before they were ever considered a separate species and long before anyone else cared about them. When I got on the gull watching scene around 2000 a lot of the ground work was already done.

Over the course of the last decade St.John's has seen at least one or two Yellow-legged Gulls every winter. At one point last fall we were able to identify 4 different individuals residing in St.John's in October,which is probably an all time high. Currently there are two individuals in town.

I often get questioned by visiting birders and even locals about what subspecies our YLGU's belong to. Well we kind of assume ours are atlantis(probably from the Azores). I say assume because maybe we can't be 100% certain, but we do have some good supporting evidence to support such a claim. Features of Azorean atlantis( also useful for separation from similar species) displayed by typical Newfoundland YLGU's include the following:

1) mantle color (The rare shade of gray)between Herring Gull and graellsi Lesser Black-backed Gull, but tending closer to LBBG. However, this can change dramatically depending on light conditions and the background substrate, i.e. grass,water, snow.

YLGU in back. Compare mantle color intermediate between HERG in front and LBBG in middle. Also note the head shapes of the three birds- photographed St.John's Oct 14,2010.

Looking quite dark mantled in late day sun. Notice pure white headed from a distance and typical blunt ended "butter knife" shaped bill, created by a steeply curved upper mandible. Photographed St.John's Dec 2/2009.

Here with Herring Gull.Compare difference in mantle shade. Also, note pure white head,deep red orbital ring and gape and thick yellow legs. Photographed St.John's Feb 01,2010.

2) extensive head streaking(late summer-late fall)- over the last few years we have been finding YLGU's in late summer (August). This has allowed us to see the dense head streaking characteristic of atlantis and Azorean birds in particular. The streaking is most dense around the eye as in LBBG and is mainly restricted to the head, rarely a few spots reaching the nape or throat- NEVER the breast as in some LBBG, HERG and LBBG X HERG hybrids.

Head fully streaked appearing more dense around eye (streaking appeared darker in life). Also note active moult state with all primaries either growing or replaced, with only p10 retained. LBBG's seen on the same day still had a number of unmoulted primaries. Photographed Aug 30/2010 at St.John's.

Almost appearing hooded from a distance is characteristic of Azorean YLGU's.Dark marking son bill are probably acquired as a result of basic plumage since there are no other apparent signs of lingering immaturity. dark markings in the bill seem rare in our brand of YLGU. Also notice active moult state with p9 and p10 still growing. Photographed St.John's Oct 08,2006, by Bruce Mactavish

Another photo displaying extensive winter head streaking. Photographed St.John's Oct 11/2010

Photo displaying remnants of winter head streaking. When YLGU's lose head streaking they tend to retain it in the lores and forehead the longest. Seen here on Dec 28/2010. Most Newfoundland YLGU's are white headed by early January or late December. Birds such as this can appear to be pure white headed from a distance.

3) primary pattern- extensive black on outer 4 primaries, p6-p10. Always a black band of varying width(often thinish) on p5 and occasionally a black mark on p4 on the inner web only. This is purely a guess but I'd say that <20% show a black mark on p4. Also potentially of note is the primary spacing on the closed wing. Olsen and Larssen states that adult Michahellis will fully grown primaries show evenly spaces apical spots on the closed wing. The YLGU's we get have anything but evenly spaced apical spots. In fact they all display a typical pattern of p5-p6 moderately spaced , p6-p7 being a little closer, p7-p8 most widely separated, p8-p9 very narrowly separated and p9-p10 almost lying over on another. Spacing of primary is based on personal observation and may not be reliable for separating YLGU subspecies.

Note extensive black in wing tips and sharp demarcation of black primaries against grey portions of the flight feathers. Mirror on p10 only,black in p9 and p10 reaching primary coverts and full band on p10 typical of atlantis YLGU's. Also a mark on p4 restricted to just outer web.Based on my research this seems more typical of Azorean YLGU's, but many Azores birds do not not have it. When it is there it seems to be restricted to the inner web. Photographed at St.John's Nov 11,2010.

Similar wingtip as above. Photographed at St.John's Dec 02.2009

This is the more common primary pattern for Newfoundland YLGU's,with black in outer six primaries ,mirror on p10 only, with a thinnish band on p5. To my knowledge we have never had a YLGU with a mirror on p9. This would seem to be supporting evidence of the Azores being the point of origin for out YLGU's since according to Olsen and Larssen <2% of Azorean YKGU's have a mirror on p9. Photographed St.John's Oct 17,2010.

Another typical primary pattern for Newfoundland YLGU's. The thickness of the band on p5 can vary,but its always there and when thin is always thicker on the outer web. Photographed Jan 14/2008 Bruce Mactavish

4) structure- Newfoundland YLGU's tend to present as a fairly compact bird, relatively short and seeming powerful, thick legs, with a full breast and wide shoulders. The head tends to show a sloping forehead with a flat crown and angular nape. In certain postures YLGU's can show a somewhat unique flat topped head with a sharply squared crown. Our YLGU's often look slightly smaller that Smithsonianus Herring Gull. They are equally chesty, but their seemingly shorter legs may create this impression.

Showing typical head shape with sloped foreheard,flat toped head and angular crown. Note also the hunched appearance of this individual, this might be a subtle jizz feature for our YLGU's. Photographed at St.John's,Oct 11/2009.

Here showing the extreme flat head and angular crown that which is is typical of the species, but especially atlantis. Note this bird apepared a little darker in life, but in certain lighting YLGU's mantle shade can be close only a couple shades darker than Smithsonianus Herring Gull. Note also the intensity of the deep red orbital ring. Photographed Feb1é2010,St,John`s.

Some atlantic YLGU's can appear more round headed especially when alert. This bird is quite white headsed for the date. Photographed Oct 11/2009 St.John`s.

Another typical fall YLGU,with extensive hood of streaking restricted to the head,showing characteristic head shape, deep red orbital ring and blunt tipped bill all characteristic. Photographed Oct 08/2006 Bruce Mactavish.

Bart Parts- As it`s name suggest YLGU`s have yellow legs as adults. Apparrently a small minority can have flesh colored legs, but all of the YLGU`s we`ve identified in Newfoundland have had dull to bright yellow legs. Along with leg color orbital ring color is another importan tfeature in YLGU. In alternate plumage all YLGU have brightédeep red orbital rings. IN basic plumage the orbital ring tends to take on varying amounts of orange coloration. Bill color and shape are also good markers in YLGU. The species is known for having a thick bill with a sharpely curved culmen,creating a blunt tipped bill. There is repots in the literature of YLGU`s gony spot bleeding into teh upper mandible. While I`ve seen this feature in some of our YLGU`s, this is not the case for all of them. Below are a few head shots featuring orbital ring and bill coloration and shape. Leg color acan be seen well in the previous images.

Photographed Oct 14/2009 at St.John's

Photographed September 2006 at St.John's, Bruce Mactavish

Two individuals showing characteristic basic plumage bare parts coloration. Note orbital ring and gony orange/red- red. By late December into January both the orbital ring, gony spot and gape of these birds starts to turn a much deeper red. See the next photo for an example.

Note the much deeper red orbital ring and gony spot of this alternate plumaged YLGU. Photographed Feb 01/2010 at St.John's.

Essentialy nominate Michahellis should be a little larger, slightly paler mantled,have less head streaking in late summer/fall (not appearing hooded), appearing longer legged and stand a greater chance of having a mirror on p9, with almost 50% of nominate Michahellis showing this feature. I can't recall a single Newfoundland YLGU ever showing a mirror on p9. If around 30-50% of Michahellis have a mirror on p9 (according to Olsen and larrsen) one would think we would have seen one that displayed that feature by now.

Circumstantial evidence that supports my claim that Newfoundland Yellow-legged Gulls originate in the Azores is provided by a couple of immature birds that have been identififed as being of Azorean stock. These include a 3rd winter bird from 2008 that seems ot have been widely accepted as an Azorean atlantis. As well, there is a 2nd winter bird from 2007 that seems (to me at least)a shoe in for an Azorean atlantis.

So, for the gull watching trying to find a YLGU, look for a Herring Sized gull with a mantle color between Herring Gull and graellsi LBBG,with a white or mostly white head (after mid December). It must have bright yellow legs, red orbital ring and gony spot (noticeable at some distance). The wings have a great deal of black on the primaries which is sharply demarcated from teh grey portions of the wing. It will most likley have a single mirror on p10 only and must have a complete black band on
p5. after you see al this, take as many photos as you can, call you friends then go home and celebrate a terrific bird!

NOTE: The hybrid discussion and photos are yet to come.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Coming Soon

I just finished my last of 6 days of combined touring with a Z Birding Tours group and a private client and I have to say I'm pretty exhausted. Therefore, I'm not going to have much to say right now except to lay out what's coming.Before all these Snipe madness started I was planning on writing a few blog posts featuring the extreme variability of Kumlien's Iceland Gull. I did get the 1st winter birds covered but still have to cover the 2nd, 3rd years and adults. As well, I was involved in a discussion of Yellow-legged Gulls on the frontiers of bird identification newsgroup and will be posting a nice selection of Newfoundland Yellow-legged Gulls with some discussion as a follow up to that post.

Other that than that I plan on writing some other identification pieces including one on separating wigeons(its not as easy as youn think!) and scaups. I will probably also have something else to say about Snipes.

Aside from identification articles I will be posting a trip report and a general overview of what birding in Newfoundland has been like this winter. After all that is done, if I have anything left I will announce next winters tour and a 2012, mega Newfoundland Birding adventure. I'm really excited about that. There is some potential for some great birds. I am still in the early logistical stages, but I'm looking at something like a 10-12 day tour spanning a good part of the island.

For now I leave you with this video. I was simply in awe when I watched it. I could hardly believe it. Not sure I agree with the whole practice and kinda feel bad for the Wolves, but man those Eagles are awesome!!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Jack Snipe Video

NOTE: this is not video of the NL Jack Snipe***

This has been a busy week with leading a tour group, teaching gull workshop and documenting cryptic Euro mega rarities. Due to this I don't have much time to prepare material for posting. In fact, I'm heading out again with Paul Linegar (finder of the jack Snipe) to do a little "Sniping". Is that even a word? Probably not, well who cares. The point is we are in the midst of an unpredented influx of European birds. It certainly appears that there are multiple Common Snipes and why couldn't there be more than one Jack Snipe?!

Anyway, I'm on my way out, so I'll leave you with this video of a Jack Snipe. This is very much like we hope to see here. Feeding in a wet patch of open ground during a cold snap. Hopefully I'll be seeing this in life very soon!

Jack Snipe

Sunday, February 20, 2011

****JACK SNIPE****

Something extraordinary is happening in Newfoundland right now! The list of european rarities we have been getting this winter is practically unprecedented. Now you can add Jack Snipe to the list. I received confirming photos of a bird photographed 6 days ago. I will be posting photos, I'm just waiting for permission from Paul Linegar who found the bird when it was just about dark. He thought it looked odd but it as really hard to get any detail in the poor light. It then flew and he got another photo. The photos show a perfectly amazing JACK SNIPE!!

I'm dropping tied now after a long day of guiding in which we bagged our target bird for the group, Common Chaffinch. Tomorrow we go Snipe Hunting!!!

Photo taken at dusk on an already dark day. Still though,leaves little to the imagination!! Found and photographed by Paul Linegar

Saturday, February 19, 2011

*****COMMON SNIPE*****

A couple of days ago I got a photo of a pale Snipe found by Bruce Mactavish.He of course was suspicious, as we all were but was not able to get the supporting evidence needed for an ID. It turned out to be the bird documented below as a Common Snipe.

I've had an interest in the Gallinago Snipe complex for a couple of years. Earlier this winter I had seen a Snipe that I was suspicious of being a Common, but I never had a camera with me at the time, so couldn't document any critical details.

Separating Wilson's and Common Snipe is no easy task. At this point I guess it's proper to say the final identification of this bird is pending, but I'm about 99.9% sure. We're just awaiting reply from some European birders who are familiar with the species. Basically it's on my list. It's ticked, I'm counting it. It's a Common Snipe and it will take a large body of contradicting evidence to prove otherwise at this point.

Update experts have weighed in- this is a Common Snipe!!!

When I mentioned continental mega in my previous post it really does accurately describe the status of this bird. It's currently listed as an ABA code 4 species but is essentially unknown from the vast majority of North America. It is recorded regularly from the islands off Alaska and perhaps the mainland as well. I believe it is known to breed in parts of Alaska in small numbers. Aside from that I think there is maybe a record for California, maybe one from British Columbia and that's it. There is an old record from Labrador during the massive Northern Lapwing invasion of 1927, when Jack Snipe was also collected from the same location. This bird represents the first modern day record for eastern North America and is perhaps the first record away from the Pacific Coast.

This record should not be terribly surprising to anyone who has followed my blog or the Newfoundland bird list recently. There was a huge cold weather movement of birds in the UK in the late fall and early winter. This is perhaps what brought us about a dozen Northern Lapwings, Common Chaffinch, unusual numbers of Common Teal (about 3X average) and more Common Gulls than usual. Right, almost forgot and 3 Redwings!!All of the afore mentioned birds were moving in big numbers out of Britain to points further south at that time and it looks like some decided to fly a little further east.

As i said,identifying a Common Snipe is no easy task. It was really only made possible this time because the bird is ina perfect area to be photographed. It is feeding in a wet area on the side of the road in a small community,together with a Wilson's Snipe. If you are incredibly patient you can sit in your car on the opposite side of the road and photograph it. The good thing about Snipe is they like to preen and they like to stretch their wings. Over 3.5 hours yesterday both the Common and Wilson's Snipe did some preening and stretching, which allowed me to capture critical field marks.

It seems that separation of these species is still in its infancy and maybe there is more to be learned.However,the Europeans have the jump on us and have developed a list of useful feature for separating the two. The following is my account of what I saw, my impressions and my reasoning for claiming this bird as a Common Snipe. All photographs were taken by me unless stated otherwise.

Compared to the Wilson's Snipe with which it was associating, the Common was much paler,overall, seemingly lacking the contrasting appearance shown by Wilson's. When seeing the two together or even the Common on it's own, it appears strikingly buff, especially on the breast and on the upper portion of the flanks. When compared directly with the Wilson's Snipe the Common appeared to be much more patterned overall, with more rufous internal markings in most feather groups but particularly the scapulars and tertials. Other general features noted were an apparently longer bill and tail. Both of these features were actually quite noticeable at times. As well, the lines across the back and the edges of the scapulars were very thick and chunky and much buffier than I'm used to seeing in Wilson's Snipe and were obviously different that the one Wilson's Snipe present in the area. Crucial field marks noted and photographed, included the following.

Axillaries and under wing coverts- the axillaries were mostly white with relatively thin white bars,that seemed almost washed out. In comparasion to Wilson's which always has at least as much black as white in the axillaries and looks very dark. The median and greater underwing coverts appear to be mostly white, which seems to be impossible for Wilson's Snipe based on current knowledge, which always shows extensive black barring in these areas creating a much darker underwing.

Secondary tips- easily compared when the birds stretched their wings side by side. The white tips were barely visible on the secondaries of the Wilson's,while they appeared thick and very obvious on the Common, creating the impression of a thick white line.

Tail- Excellent tail shots were obtained by Paul Linegar, showing the spread tail.It shows very well the characteristic outer tail feather pattern of Common Snipe, being much less barred than Wilson's. The COSN had only a singe bar on the outer portion of the tail feather, then a thick white bar followed by a long thick black area. Wilson's Snipe typically has a completely barred out tail feather. As well, you can see that the tips of the tail feathers are rather rounded, which should be diagnostic for Common Snipe.It's somewhat difficult to count the tail feathers, but based on the spread tail shot I count 12. There should be a couple more tucked away, unseen. Wilson's Snipe almost always have 16 tail feathers, which Common usually have 14, but may occasionally have 16 or 18.

Photographic Evidence:

Notice the overall buffy coloration of this bird compared with the Wilson's Snipe below. The scapulars and wing coverts appear much paler due to more and thicker internal markings. Notice the thicker and buffier lines across the back and the scapular edges. Also evident is the relative lack and less apparent flank streaking shown by the Common Snipe above. The streaking almost looks washed out and not as dense.

The photos are not quite to scale, the birds were actually pretty much the same size. Occasionally the COSN seemed a little large to me. The thicker buffier scapular edges are apparent, as well the over all more contrasty and darker tones of Wilson's. Also a hint of the longer tail shown by Common.

Note the darker based tertials shown by Wilson, with very small pale transverse bars.By contrast COSN showing as much rufous barring as black, if not more and appearing much brighter and more well patterned.

Photos displaying axxilary and under wing covert pattern:

Note: axillaries are mainly white with thin, well separated, black bars. Notice the typical WISN axillary pattern of tightly packed, thick black bars visible in the comparison shot. The underwing coverts of the COSN show a great deal of white, especially in the median and greater underwing coverts. This is beyond what is possible for a WISN, which is fully barred black in these areas and is not known to be variable. See the photo below for typical WISN underwing coverts.

Secondary Tips

Note the COSN in front with the much thicker white secondary tips. It is difficult to see any white in the secondary tips of the WISN in the back, which is typical.

Tail and outer tail feather.

Outer tail feather with just a single bar towards the tip. Compare to the photo below showing a typical WISN outer tail feather which is much more barred over the entire length of the feather.

Photo- Paul Linegar

Web Photo

As stated above, if accepted this would constitute the first record of Common Snipe for insular Newfoundland, the first record away from the Pacific coast and possibly just the 2nd or third outside Alaska.


That's all I can say for now. But prepare for the announcement of a continental mega!! News could break tomorrow. Just awaiting confirmation right now, since the identification is tricky.Check back for updates....

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Coolest Bird on Earth

If a post like this looks like I'm stalling for time, it's because I am! I'm still sorting photos and have a busy week of guiding and a gull workshop ahead of me. I spent all day preparing for the workshop tomorrow night and getting ready for a a day of guiding with American guest Larry Haugh. after that I will be co leading a tour with Jared Clarke for Z Birding Tours We'll be looking to clean up on lingering European and Asian vagrants and Newfoundland winter specialties. Hopefully we turn up a new bird or two along the way.

Anyway, enough rambling. The bird I'm referring to in the title is the Gyrfalcon. I refer to myself as being ina state of severe Gyr deprivation. It's a condition brought on by extended periods of Gyrlessness (yes that's a word, I just coined it!. I keep hearing stories from some of my eh hem "older" Newfoundland birding friends about the days when it wasn't a question of whether or not you were going to see a Gyr, but rather how many and what color morph they would be! I can only imagine. Gyrfalcons have been tough to come by on the Avalon Peninsula over the last ten years. In fact I've only seen 4. I remember each and every one of them. The last one being two years ago. It was a short encounter of a dark morph bird chasing a Herring Gull in mid October at Bear Cove on the southern Avalon.

This poor photo doesn't do the bird justice. I was looking over videos on you tube today and thought I would post this one of a white Gyr taking a Willow Ptarmigan.Partly, I'm posting this is because this is something I'm actually hoping to witness someday.I'll be looking for Willow Ptarmigan tomorrow and there just so happens to have been a White Gyr seen in the same area recently. It would be the the ultimate cure to my Gyr deprivation. I'll let you know tomorrow evening if it happened or not, cross your fingers for me ;) Just a heads up,you might want to have the mute button ready to go, just in case this music doesn't suit your taste.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

How Far Would You Go??

Pople bird for different reasons. Some just liek getting out in nature, others live for the thrill of the chase or the adreneline rush that comes when you find a mega rarity. Then there are others who live for the praise and acclaim they receive from fellow birdser for some amazing find. It's true, it feels good to get a pat on the back for uncovering an overdue first record, bit how far would you go? There are those amonung us who need that praise and acclaim so bad that they are willing to falsly claim rare birds just to get it! However, tehre is a problem with this system. After a birder reports a bunch of big rarities that never get refound, people start getting suspicious and soon people start to ignore the reports. The birder is quickly dubbed astringer and people move on.

I was looking over the surfbirds forums yesterday and found something remarkable, not overly surprising but remarkable. Some Armenian birder (appears to have) actually planted a prepared specimen in a tree and claimed it as a rare bird!!Said person then proceeded to photograph the bird and even completed a write up documenting it as a first occurence for the country!! This is birding fraud!! If it's not illegal it's shameful and ridiculous. I have been wondering if in this digital age we would see people doctoring photos in an effort to claim rare birds,but this is taking things to a while new level. Clcik the link below for the actual report and the photo what sure looks like a no longer living, Black-winged Kite.

Black-winged Kite in Armenia

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Iceland Gulls Part 1- Juv/1st winter

This blog will include exact what the title suggests, lots of juv and 1st winter Iceland Gulls. I'm not going to say much about them right now because it's late and I've learned not to get into anything that requires too much thought late in the night ;) So, for now you'll have to be content with photos of 25 juv and 1st winter Iceland Gulls. All of the birds in this post are Kumlien's Iceland Gulls. However, I'll be the first to admit I never scrutinized every one feather by geather, so if you think you see a g.glaucoides in there let me know.

So for the initiated here's the breakdown in the Iceland Gull scene in St.John's, Newfoundland. We have the largest wintering populations of Kumlien's Gulls in the world. In any given day it's possible to see several hundred without even leaving your vehicle, all at close range. As a general rule all Iceland Gull in Newfoundland are Kumliens, until proven other wise.

In case your new to the whole Iceland Gull scene and Iceland Gulls in particular, this is your chance to bail out now before things get ugly! There are currently two accepted subspecies of Iceland Gull, Larus Glaucoides glaucoides and Larus glaucoides kumlieni. This is something which could change in the future, since we really aren't sure what to make of Kumlien's Gulls. One common line of thought is they evolved as a hybrid swarm between Thayer's and Iceland Gulls. Others believe they are just a subspecies of Iceland Gull or Thayer's Gull, outright. I'm not going to state where I stand on the issue, but when you see the amazing and seemingly random variability of traits in Kumlien's Gulls, that hybrid swarm theory seems to make some sense. Anyway, before I bore you with too much, here are the photos. As I said all of these birds are though to be either juvenile or 1st winter Kumlien's Gulls. All bird were photographed between November 25 and the second week of February. I'll try to include dates in the captions at some point.

As you can see from the selection of photos above the variation is pretty great. A couple of these birds push the limits of the currently accepted view of Kuimliens Gull and you can see where lines that separate Kumliens from nominate glaucoides and from Thayer's Gull get blurred. Tomorrow, I hope to add some comments to each of the photos and I'll get around to adding some 2nd and 3 winter birds. I probably won't get to the adults for a couple days. That's when you'll really see the astonishing variability in these gulls. Please check back over the next few days. Also if you search or look through the older posts, I did write a blog about Kumlien's Gulls last winter that some of you might find interesting.