Saturday, March 19, 2011

2011 Newfoundland Winter Birding Summary

Since I'm writing a summary of Newfoundland winter birding, one would be tempted to think that winter was in fact over and in most places that would seems a logical conclusion. However, anyone who knows anything about Newfoundland weather knows logical is an adjective that simply doesn't apply.In fact, as I write this we are in the midst of a major snowfall. So while the calendar might say spring, the weather says winter!However, since techically it is spring,I guess this is a good time for a review of what has been one of the most exciting winter birding seasons in the history of Newfoundland birding.

Things got off with a bang on December 1st, when I discovered the provinces 2nd ever Black-tailed Gull at the sewage outfall in downtown St.John's.





later that same day a Slaty-backed Gull was discovered at Quidi Vidi lake. Slaty-backs are annual in St.John's now and along with California, St.John's is probably the msot reliable place to see this species outside of Alaska!! Just last week I discovered a second Slaty-backed Gull at the St.John's landfill, unofrtunately it was far away and behind a chain linked fence, but definitely a different bird based on it's bright yellow bill.



Rounding out the gull action on December 1st were a Yellow-legged Gull and an adult Thayer's Gull,to make for a 14 species gull day in the city.





About a week later the Lapwings started to arrive. During the last half of November through december Western Europe was experiencing extreme winter conditions with heavy snow fall and freezing conditions. In an effort to escape the sudden onset of winter many birds began to migrate from the Nothern UK ad other parts of western Europe into the southern most parts of the UL, France and probably Spain. When this happens we know there is potential for some birds such as Lapwings ( a common cold weather migrant) to turn up in Eastern Newfoundland. It`s hard to put a final tally on the number of Lappers we had in Newfoundland, but I`d guess it was at least 7-10 and probably many more that went unseen. Lapwings were seen off and on until late January.

As we were getting excited by the Lapwing arrivals news broke about a GREYLAG GOOSE that was photographed 180 miles off the NE coast of the island. This represents the second record for Newfoundland (the other on an offshore oil patform a couple years ago)and perhaps only the third for North America. Just a few days later Cliff Doran(Cape Race light keeper) found an Upland Sandpiper at Trepassey. UPSA is a big time rarity in Newfoundland and is practically unheard of in North America in December, aside from maybe a few records in teh some of the more southerly regions of the US. Over the next couple of week we kept ourselves busy looking for Lapwings when suddenly during the last few days of December Killdeer stared to arrive.

Now these were not migrants. Killdeers are not normally found within about 700+ miles of Newfoundland in winter, not to mention being uncommon in all seasons in the province. There were 56 seen on the Cape Race CBC alone. There must have been many hundreds in the province. Unfortunately all seem to have perished as of late February.

Just when we figured things wre about as good as they were going to get news broke on the Anna's Humingbird. Now, this was totally insane. The bird as visiting a hummingbird feeder in teh small community of Brownsdale, Trinty Bay, NW of St.John`s. Although this was completely shocking the record does make sense, since there has been a movement of Anna`s Hummingbirds into the east this winter, with several states and provinces getting their first or 2nd records including, Ontario, Quebec,Pennsylvania and North Carolina.
Photo by Jared Clarke

As January came to end we moved in the doldrums of winter. Well thats what would ahve happened ina normal year, but this year was anything but normal. February turned out to be one of the msot exciting months I've experienced in my dozen years of serious birding in Newfoundland. The month was kicked off with a Common Moorhen. After some careful evaluation it was determined that the bird was most likley a American Common Moohen, although we will never know for sure.


Photo by Jared Clarke

Hot on the heels of the Moorhen came the third North American mega-raity of the winter in the form of a Common Chaffinch. As I wrote earlier there are very few "good" records of Common Chaffinch in North America but we felt this bird was a genuine vagrant.



Not long after the Chaffinch, the Redwing reports started. Well there were actually 3 or 4 individuals, including one that seems to have hung around Portugal Cove South for about three weeks. There were probably more Redwings that went unseen. We generally find Redwing among Robin flocks feeding on Mountain Ash berries. This year there were essentially no Mountain Ash, or Dogberries as we call them, so the Robins were spread out feeding on Cranberries and Patridge berries on the barrens, making it much harder to sort through them and consequently more difficult to find vagrant Thrushes that might be hiding among them.





While Redwings are exciting birds and a huge rarity for most North American birders and in fact Newfoundland is about the the only place in North America where a birder would get more excited over a Long-eared Owl than a Redwing. That was exactly the case for myself and two other birders as we made our way home froma day birding on the southern Avalon in mid February. Long-eared owl is extremely rare in Newfoundland, with just three records. The bird we had in Ferryland was the first to have been seen in the wild by Newfoundland birders. The others were found injured.

Thw LEOW was a great bird and a major Newfoundland rarity, but not of great significance to North American birders, since they are relatively common across much of the continent. However, something much bigger was about to happen. Whil out looking for the LWOW on February 14th a local birder found a small group of three Snipe feeding in small puddle of open water. He photographed them briefly and moved on. It was not until he looked at the photos 6 days later that he realized that one of those Snipe was a JACK SNIPE!!!

Before news broke on the Jack Snipe Newfoundland birders were already in Snipe hunting mode because we had discovered seeral COMMON SNIPE. Common Snipe had been recorded in eastern North America only once previously and that was a single specimen collected in Labrador in 1927. Coincidentaly that year Newfoundland saw
1000's of Northern Lapwings, which were no doubt fleeing unusually bad weather in western Europe.




Aside from all the rarities there has been plenty of good winter birding in Newfoundland as well. We are startin to see good szed flocks of Common Eiders, including a few Kings. There are goodnumbers of Purple Sandpipers present and finches are beginning to stage a bit of an influx. Earlier in teh winter there were moderate numners of Dovekies t be found, which was nice after their inexplicable absence last winter. Throw in a bit of an ivasion of Boreal and Northern Saw-whet Owls into St.John's in February and that tops off a great winter of birding in one of North America's premier birding destinations!

NOTE I will be offering Newfoundland Winter biring tour next January. We will focus on rare gulls,finches and European rarities. It will probably be significantly less expensive that similar tours offered. I'll be posting details on this tour when I get them finalized in about a month. If you think you might be intersted send me an email at dave.browne@gmail.com and I'll give you some advanced iformation.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Tufted X Ring-necked Duck Hybrid

One of the benefits of doing a big year, is it gets you to places you would otherwise not go. A few days ago I made the 160 km trip to Clarenville ( stopping in Arnold's Cove on the way) to add Harlequin Duck and Gadwall to my yer list. Both are birds that I will likely see again later in the year, but in a big year a bird in the hand etc etc....

Anyway, while I was looking for the Harlequin Duck in Clarenville I came across this hybrid Tufted X Ring-necked Duck.


Notice the intermediate features, such as the stubby tuft, the RNDU style white around the base of the bill and at the tip and the gray washed flanks, which are gleaming white in adult male TUDU.


Compare to this adult Tufted Duck

Also worth noting is the wing pattern,which is intermediate between the two species.

TUDU X RNDU Hybrid showing primary pattern intermediate between the two species.

Normally TUDU's show bright white secondaries, with the white extending well into the outer primaries. While RNDU shows greyish primaries and secondaries. When you combine the two it seems you get a pattern similar to that seen in Lesser Scaup,with bright white restricted mainly to the secondaries. Although note in this hybrid the first few primaries show some white as well.

This individual was found a couple of months ago by Bruce Mactavish and I had completely forgotten about it existence,so it was a nice surprise when I saw it. This is a rare hybrid on this side of the Atlantic and is more often seen in Europe. However, over the course of te last decade the number of wintering Tufted Ducks in Newfoundland has increased dramatically, with 35+ in St.John's alone, at one point this winter. There are probably;y that many again, spread out over the rest of the island. If these numbers continue to grow, I wouldn't be surprised to see more of these hybrids. Equally likely and a more appealing option would be the first discovery of Tufted Ducks breeding in Newfoundland. It would seem to make sense to stick around rather than fly all the way back to Iceland each spring. Black-headed Gulls started out kind of like this and they have now established a small breeding colony in western Newfoundland, so maybe Tufted Duck will be next!?

Monday, March 14, 2011

Gyrfalcon Dreams and Ecstasy in Ivory

Well it's been about ten days since I started my Gyr search and I'm still Gyrless!Today aside from looking for Gyrs I went to look for a single King Eider that has been associating with over 3000 Common Eider. When I got to the location the birds we way off shore. I got to looking around the area. I was perched atop a high cliff face. Opposite me were steep cliffs that would soon be covered in nesting Black-legged Kittiwakes, this was a great spot for a Gyrfalcon- we know they've been seen here before.

Anyway, the point of all this is I finally realized that if the Gyrs aren't going to come to me, then I'm going to go to them and so it was decided. I'm going to make the 1050 km drive to the northernmost tip of Nefoundland. This is not a place where you see a random Gyrfalcon, it is within their regular winter range. They are seen there this time of year perched on cliff faces waiting for an opportunity to take some unsuspecting gull or duck. I saw photos taken last year of a Gyr taking an Ivory Gull from this exact location. If I see that, it will be the closest thing to a religious experience I have ever had. To see that scene play out is the pinnacle of birding. I was supposed to be there, but I couldn't make it at the time and I've regretted it ever since.

So, I'll be departing St.John's early on the morning of March 24th, hopefully with a few more people, since I've offered this as tour. With any luck early on the morning of the 25th we'll have our first Gyr,hopefully to be followed by several others.



Internet Photo


I can see it happening like this. A white morph Gyr perched on a rockface with snow covered cliffs in the background. I'm almost salivating , just thinking about it.I do not know the artist but I figure if I'm going to use the painting I should link to his site. It can be purchased here.

Ok, so it's obvious I love Gyrs, but you know that's only half the equation. There is only one bird that for me can rival Gyrfalcon in it's mystic appeal to birders- Ivory Gull. Bruce Mactavish said of Ivory Gull "its the only bird that looks better every time you see it". Ivory Gull will not be a guarentee on my trip and Gyrfalcon is probably more likely. However, I have reason to be optimistic about the possibilities of seeing these Arctic ghosts.




Above Photos property of Bruce Mactavish


Starting around March 18th a pretty strong weather system originating in northern Canada is going to move over northern Newfoundland and looking at the isobars it looks like there is going to be some fairly strong northerly winds associated with ths system. Ivory Gulls loungin on the pack ice in the Labrador sea could be encouraged to move south to northern Newfoundland.



Note the tightly packed isobars over Newfondland bringing winds from the Labrador Sea and hopefully Ivory Gulls to Northern Newfoundland.

Things calm down for a couple days then another system moves in from the southern US and looks like it will itensify offshore, growing as it approaches NL. Looking at the maps, it looks like this system is big and might continue north. If it does it will generate more fierce winds with a northern component- Again good for IVGU and GYR!




I'll end this posting with a series of excellent photos taken by Bruce Mactavish in late February 2010 at the tail end of an Ivory Gull invasion into Northern Newfoundland. Well over 100 Ivory Gulls were seen in that week. I'm not asking for that many, a few will do. Heck even a great experience with one!











All IVGU photos courtesy of Bruce Mactavish

Sunday, March 13, 2011

2011 Newfoundland Big Year- Here We Go Again!

If you've been following my blog for a while you might remember that I kind of did a half-assed big year in 2010. I started off guns blazing, then slowed down and stopped entirely mid summer, before hitting the gas pedal again in the fall. The end result was I finished at 243 species for the year. That's a good total for year in Newfoundland and just 4 species short of the record, but my list should have been much higher. For example I had some very blatant misses, such as Dovekie, Great Shearwater, all three jaegers and both Skuas. On a real big year you should have all of these. As well I never travelled to get any of the tough to get Newfoundland breeders like Northern Hawk Owl, Rock Ptarmigan or Spruce Grouse. On top of that I never really chased any rarities. So in fact I guess it wasn't much of a big year at all. I basically just birded a lot and kept a list, but never did what was needed to really accumulate a big total.

This year things are different, well for now at least. I stated outright in my first blog post of the year that I was NOT doing another big year, well here we are in early march and things have changed. I made the decision about two weeks ago when I was thinking about al of the great rarities that was been seen this past winter. Then I got to think I don't really want to work a real job this year. So the decision was made, one more year dedicated to non-stop birding, then I have to make something of myself ;)

So far I'm at 110 for the year. That's a decent start, but really the number isn't important. What;s important is the number of rarities. Rarities will make or break my big year effort. Newfoundland being an island stuck out in the north Atlantic has only about 150 species. That means if I'm going to get to 260 for the year I'm going to need about 110 vagrant species- that will not be easy, but no worthwhile goal is is easily achievable. So far this year I have added 5 new birds to my Newfoundland list,considering I'm at 326 for the province it's not easy to add new birds. that will give you an idea as to how good the birding has been so far in 2011.

Aside from the legitimate rarities there are some what I will call " must haves" if I'm going to hit 260 this year. This list is comprised of birds that are uncommon breeders, difficult to see birds or bird that are seen on an annual or semi annual basis. So far I'm missing three of these birds, Gyrfalcon, Snowy Owl and Ivory Gull. It's quite possible that I could get GYR and Snowy Owl late this fall or in early winter, but if I don;t get an Ivory Gull in the next 3 weeks Ican forget that one. I plan on putting myself in the best possible position to see one by getting to the Northern tip of the island in a couple of weeks, where with any luck there wll be a few Ivory Gulls to be found not that the pack ice has reached that part of the island.

I'll be posting updates about my big year progress periodically and especially after significant finds or misses. If you'd like to have a look at my current list it can be found in the link immediately under the blog title, or by following this link.

Yesterday while looking for a Harlequin Duck that had been reported I stumbled upon a hybrid Tufted X Ring-necked Duck that was first discovered by Bruce Mactavish in January. That will be the topic of my next blog posting. Look for it tomorrow!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

New Content Soon!

Hey everyone. I was really hoping to have some new content to Post tonight, but I'm afraid its going to have to wait until tomorrow. I'm dog tired after a 12 hours birding day on the southern Avalon. I've spent the last three days birding with John Vanderpoel who is doing an ABA big year this year. he came to Newfoundland to pick up a few of our lingering rarities. We did well over three days scoring Black-tailed Gull, Slaty-backed Gull, Yellow-legged Gull and Common Snipe. We dipped on Redwing and Chaffinch, but those weren't really expected at this point. If you'd like to track John's progress on his big year you can visit his blog here John Vanderpoel Big year

I now have a couple of days off from guiding, but doesn't mean I won`t be birding. I`m doing a big year of my on this year. A Newfoundland big year and this year I`m not taking any time off. My goal is 260 species. Anyway, I`ll have more to say about that and much much more, including an article on YLGU`s vs. hybrids, more Iceland Gulls and lots of new photos. So please keep checking back and I`m sorry for letting the blog slip for a few days.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Gyr Search- Day 1

If your a regular reader of my blog, you've probably noticed me lamenting the dearth of Gyrfalcons on the Avalon Peninsula. Late last night, while working on an article discussing the separation of Yellow-legged Gull from similar Lesser-Black-backed Gull X Herring Gull hybrids, I had a bit of a brainstorm. Could I be part of the problem hereƉ Tht is could I be contributing to my own severe case of Gyrlessness?

That got me thinking. I was trying to remember the last time I actually went off in search of Gyrfalcon. I have never travelled specifically to see them and moreover I've hardly put any effort into increasing my luck around the Avalon. I could drive the 1000+ km's to the tip of the Northern Peninsula nd be virtually guaranteed to see Gyrs and while I'm not ruling that out, it's not in the cards for the next couple of weeks at least.

For now, my plan is to head out to Cape Spear every morning for the first hour or two of day light and try my luck out there. Historically this has been good pace to see Gyrs, especially after a few days of winds with a northern component. Since there isn't any sea ice at all around the Avalon Peninsula any wandering Gyrs will have to find land. Occasionally this happens at head lands such as Cape Spear, where they are sit and wait and hunt unsuspecting sea ducks and other sea birds from the rocky out crops that line the coast.

Ok, well dawn is approaching, so I'd better get going. I'm not loving the idea of having to get into that ice box out in my driveway, but it's a small price to pay for a chance at Gyr nirvana. If I see a Gyr this morning you'll know it. Wish me luck!

I'll leave you with this. Amazing footage yet again of the world's coolest bird...

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Separation of YLGU and LBBG X HERG Hybrids

Since the last post was quite long I thought it better to devote a separate post for this topic. In this post I will cover the separation of Yellow-legged Gull from the very similar Herring X Lesser-Black-backed Gull hybrids. For the purposes of this discussion I will be focusing only on adult birds and the comparison will be made between atlantis subspecies Yellow-legged Gulls and Herring (unknown ssp) X Lesser-Black-backed Gull (presumed Graellsi)hybrids.

This problem of HERG X LBBG hybrids is becoming increasingly relevant as the numbers of LBBG's in North America continue to increase. We have already had several instances of hybridization between graellsi LBBG's and Smithsonianus HERG's. A very well documented example and some nice discussion by Kirk Zufelt can be found here The Expansion of LBBG Some discussion about the discovery of a LBBG paired with a HERG on Appledore Island NH an be found here Appledore Gull As well,there have been several documented insyances of suspect LBBG X HERG hybrids getting friendly with Herring Gulls in Labrador,but no evidence of mating. The issue of HERG X LBBG hybrids is problematic enough, when you consider what a LBBG X HERG paired with a HERG would produce....well I don't even want to think about it!

Anyway, I'm getting off track , the purpose of this article is to discuss the separation of atlantis YLGU's from HERG X LBBG hybrids, so lets get started on that. I'm going to compare Yellow-legged Gull and HERG X LBBG hybrids based on their main points of separation, namely, mantle color, winter head streaking, bare parts coloration and wing tip pattern. I will not make any inferences about moult timing, since for hybrids,this is at best poorly understood,but from my experience most HERG X LBBG hybrids seem to follow a predominantly LBBG type moult schedule.

Mantle Color

This is often the first thing I look for when searching for YLGU's among mixed gull flocks in St.John's. When I'm guiding and I can't find a YLGU for my client I will sometimes seek out a LBBGXHERG hybrid to show them the mantle color we are looking for. This works great because atlantis YLGU's and HERGXLBBG hybrids seem to have identical mantle shades.



Not surpriseingly hybrid HERG XLBBG's have a mantle shade that is pretty much perfectly intermediate between those two species. Incidentally, atlantis YLGU's happen to shade that very same shade of gray. One small difference may be that the hybrids can look a little bluer. That could just be the way I see them.

Winter head Streaking

One of the most well known feature of YLGU's are their tendency to be purely white headed in winter. They are usually not free of the last remnants of winter head streaking until early January, although it's probably possible in December. This is when separating YLGU's from potential hybrids is much easier because the potential pitfall hybrid combos will have head streaking lae into winter and some even early spring. I saw two hybrid LBBG's yesterday and both still had extensive head streaking while the YLGU near by was completely and beautifully white headed and has been that way for almost two months.



HERG X LBBG hybrid- Photographed St.John's Jan 28th


Note the extensive head streaking, even extending down onto the breast. This manner of head streaking would never be possible in YLGU,especially so late into winter.


YLGU- Photographd St.John's Jan 30th

This is what every YLGU should look like by the second or even the first week of Jauary. If there are any remnants of winter head streaking it will be restricted to the lores and forehead. After the first week of jan any YLGU with extensive Head streaking, isn't a YLGU!

Bare Parts

In winter separating YLGU from LBBG hybrids is relatively straightforward. I have never seen a LBBG hybrid show bright yellow legs in winter. In summer all bets are off, the legs get scary bright on these things, but in winter they tend to show at best yellowish or maybe straw colored legs. Often times the legs appear flesh colored with yellowish spots, mainly around the knee joints. By contrast YLGU's ALWAYS have yellow legs. That is except for a very small percentage of apparently fleshy colored individuals. All the YLGU's we've identified in NL, have had nice yellow legs in all seasons, getting brighter as winter progresses. In my experience they are NEVER yellowish, pale yellow, greenish or any other permutation of yellow. If you see a YLGU that doesn't have pure yellow legs, it probably isn't a YLGU!



Note leg color and mantle color compared to immature LBBG to the right. Photographed at St.John's Feb,2009.



In my experience this is about as yellow as LBBG hybrid legs get in winter. These will probably be bright yellow in late spring.early summer. Photographed in St.John's Jan 2009.



Another example of standard leg color for HERG X LBBG hybrid.



Here is YLGU showing probably as dull yellow legs as you will see. Note while they are a dullish yellow, they are still a pure yellow without any greyish, greenish or flesh tones. These become bright yellow by mid December. Photographed in St.John's mid October 2010.


Aside from leg color, there are also differences in orbital ring color and to a lesser extent bill coloration. LBBG hybrids commonly show an orangy yellow or orange orbital ring, while YLGU orbitaj rings are usually deep red. As stated in the previous article, in early fall when at the height of basic plumage some YLGU's can show an orangy red orbital ring. Therefore its important to consider the date of obsevation when separating YLGU's from potential hybrids.



Note: Standard lookng head of HERG X LBBG hybrid in mid winter. Lots of head streaking, extra concentrated around the eye. Orange orbital ring,pale, clear eye and bill with decent sized gony spot with some subterminal black markings in the bill. In my expereince most LBBG hybrids show these black markings in the bill in winter, while only a minority of YLGU's will.



Typical YLGU from late December onwards.Pure white head, deep crimson orbital ring,large red gonys (does not need to bleed into upper mandible), clear, ple eye and clean bill, lacking black markings.Many will also show an extensively red gape line.


Even when streaking headed in latesummer and early fall YLGU's will never show streaking onto the breast and lower nape lik most HERG X LBBG hybrids do.


Primary Pattern.

Separating YLGU's from possible hybrids based on primary pattern is not exactly strightforward, especially since they can show the same general pattern of black on the outer 6 primaries, p5-p10, with a single mirror on p10 only and a black band on p5. Upon closer inspection though there are some differences to be noticed.






While generally quite close to YLGU, ths wing tip shows several differences. Notes especially the reduced black on p8 and the grey tongues eating into the blakc on p6 and p7. As well,there is extremely minimal black on p5, barely forming a thin broken band on only one wing. That smal mirror on p9 on the right wing also is a strike against YLGU.



This wing tip is closer to YLGU than the one above but notes especially the reduced black on the inner webs particularly on p6 and p7. Even more important are the pale moons lie between the blak and gry on p5-p7. These are not seen on YLGU. This is pretty sibtle though and you'd probably want a photo to show them.



Pehaps the most YLGU type wing possible in a HERGXLBBG hybrid. In fact this primary pattern is probably inseparable from msot atlantis YLGU's in the field. There are a couple of differences to note- based on my experience. The pale moons on p5-p7 are still there, much rduced, but still visible. As well,the black sub terminal band on p1 is considerable. In my experience out YKGU's generally show a thinner subterminal band on p10. Ofte when our YKGU's show a subterminal band this thick on p10,they will also have a black mark on p4. Compare teh above wing tips with the YLGU wings below.



Note the thin subterminal band on p10 (no black on p4. Compare p5-p7 with the above birds, notice the lack of pale white moons where the black meets the grey areas on the primaries.



Note the thicke subterminal band paired with black mark on p4. Also lacking pale moons p5-p7. The blakc on mark on p4 is critcal here. According to Olsen and Larssen only %25 of atlantis have a mark on p4. I have never seen a HERGX LBBG hybrid with a mark on p4. Doesn't mean it can't happen, but it's probably pretty unusual.

When identifying YLGU out fo range and especially when ruling out hybrid combinations it's critically important to consider multiple characters and avoid jumping to conclusions based ona singe trait such as leg or mantle color. As you cna see above there is some overlap between YLGU and HERG X LBBG hybrids in many traits and one should be very careful to first rule out this hybrid combination before claiming any YKGU out of range.