Thursday, December 31, 2009

Birding for Winter Specialties in Newfoundland

Over the last two days I have been birding with Keith Camburn, helping him pick up some Newfoundland specialties. He has amassed an ABA list that most of could only dream of. One bird that has eluded him (and many listers) is Yellow-legged Gull and seeing this species was our main focus.

We met yesterday at 8:00 am at Quidi Vidi in a heavy drizzle. Although the conditions were not ideal, the gulls didn't seem to mind and there were decent numbers at the lake. We scanned the flocks a few times and never saw anything but our usual species and a couple of hybrids. At 10:41 it happened. Keith noticed a gull with with a gleaming white head and medium gray mantle, that was easily darker than the surrounding Smithsonianus Herring Gulls. I got on the bird and confirmed it was indeed a Yellow-legged Gull. In fact,it was the same bird that I had photographed a day earlier at the St.John's harbour (see previous post for photos).We enjoyed nice looks at this rare gull until it eventually flushed with the other gulls, for some unknown reason. We would find this gull again 4 hours later in the same location for a second look.With the major target bird out of the way we set out to see some of the other Newfoundland birding specialties such as, Tufted Duck (30+), Eurasian Wigeon, Eurasian Green-winged Teal, Common Gull, Black-headed Gull and Great Cormorant- not to mention over a 1000 Kumliens Iceland Gulls. At that point the light was starting to fade and we decided to call it a day and decided to devote the following day to birding the southern Avalon.

We had a great day today birding on the southern Avalon, seeing many other nice northern birds, that one just doesn't get to see that often in the southern US. Some of the notable species included, Boreal Chickadee,White-winged Crossbill,Pine Grosbeak,Northern Shrike and really nice flock of 250 Snow Buntings! Aside from passerines, we also saw large numbers of Common Eiders and long-tailed Ducks, 2 King Eider, all 3 Scoter Species,Red-necked Grebe and had knee-buckling looks and amazing photo ops, with 70+ Purple Sandpipers.

Purple Sandpiper in Newfoundland

Purple Sandpiper in Newfoundland in winter

Purple Sandpiper near Cape Race, Newfoundland

All of this, combined with the fantastic coastal scenery, made for a nice end to successful visit for Keith and I just happy that we were able to see so many of the birds on his wish list.

I still have some room available on my southern Avalon tour on January 16th,but I'm expecting it to fill quickly.If you'd like to experience birding like this for yourself, drop me an email to book your spot.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Best of Looks at the Rarest of Gulls

Today I made my usual birding loop after dropping my fiancee off at work. I stopped at the sewage outflow and spent about an hour there studying and photographing Kumliens Gulls. Among the Icelands was a very dark winged bird that many characters that are excellent for Thayer's Gull. I'll probably add some photos of this bird tomorrow. In all likelihood this is bird is mostly THGU,but doesn't look perfect for this species and perhaps it's an intergrade.

After I had enough of the Iceland Gulls I moved to Quidi Vidi Lake. Despite the lack of ice,there were actually a few thousand gulls on the lake and in the adjacent fields. I scanned the gulls several times but found nothing of real interest,aside from a bunch of Lesser Black-backed Gulls. So I figured I'd head home,but at the last minute I decided to make one more stop at the sewer outlet.

As I was scanning the gulls I noticed there were quite a few more gulls resting on the remnants of an old wharf. On of these birds looked like a Yellow-legged Gull,so I drove closer to the area for a better look. I was actually able to drive to the exact area where the gulls were resting(behind the Harvey Oil Bldg on Water St). There was a chain link fence separating me from the gulls,but luckily there were breaks in the fence every 10 feet or so,which allowed for some nice Yellow-legged Gull photo ops.

There is something special about Yellow-legged Gulls. The combination of gleaming white head,crimson orbital ring,medium gray mantle and yellow legs, seem to form the perfect gull(for me at least. No doubt, this birds extreme rarity on a North American scale, makes this gull even more attractive. This was perhaps my 15th observation of this species in in the last 3 months,but every experience with this gull is exciting. I was actually so close to this gull today,that when viewed at 60X in my Swaro scope, I could actually count the ridges in it's orbital ring and the scales on its legs- crippling looks at what is arguably the rarest gull that occurs on the North American Continent.

Lets hope that tomorrow presents similar opportunities,as I will be guiding a birder from North Carolina,who has made the, primarily to view Yellow-legged Gull.

Note the very obvious contrast between the black primaries and the mantle and underwings. Even the palest Graellsii LBBG's do not show this much contrast between primaries and mantle. This wing tip pattern is typical of the species,with a single mirror on p10,extensive black on p6-p10 and a black bar on p5 (sometimes there is a black mark on the outer web of p4). Also note the lack of any pale tongues or moons eating into the black on the primaries.

The following 4 photos show the remaining field marks that separate YLGU from similar species. Note the sqarish hear,with peaked rear crown,large bill with steeply curved culmen and large red gonys spot. Crimson red orbital ring is obvious in this species even at some distance. The mantle shade is difficult to capture digitally,but in life if betweeb smithsonianus HERG and graellsii LBBG,but often tending closer to a pale graellsii. Legs are often between a dull to bright yellow and don't seem to show the richer orange tones that you sometimes see in LBBG .

I would also like to take a second to mention a great birding website and resource called .Fatbirder. .It is a great palce to find tons of great birding sites,trip reports for many locations,all over the world and much more. I highly recommend that you take a look of you get a chance.

Fatbirder. - A great resource for birding information.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Winter on the Southern Avalon Encore!! Jan 16th

The first running of my Winter on the Southern Avalon series was held on Saturday December 5th. It sold out quick and everyone had a great time. It was chilly with snow off and on,but despite this, we saw lots of sea ducks,including an amazing experience with a Bald Eagle taking a female King Eider!!For other highlights see my Newfoundland Winter Birds in Newfoundland Weather Blog.

I did a mini two person tour on short notice on Wed Dec 23rd. We birded from Cape Race to Sh.Shotts in amazing clear conditions. We had phenomenal looks at multiple species of sea ducks including, Long-tailed Duck, King Eider,Harlequin Duck and many others. We also had point blank views of Dovekie and Purple Sandpiper. However, the highlight of the the trip was over an hour spent photographing a herd of Caribou at close range! You just never know what your going to see on this part of the island,but you are always guarenteed,breathtaking scenery and multiple species of sea ducks.

As a gesture of thanks to previous participants, I would like to offer a 20% discount on remainng Winter on the Southern Avalon Tours. That means a full day of birding at this amazing location for just $80. The regular $100 fee applies to first time participants.

** Note** With 3 participants or less partial fuel cost is added to the fee.

St.John's Christmas Count

Today I participated in the St.John's Christmas count. Overall, It was a very uneventful day in terms of the doversity of species seen. Our two man team, had just 22 species in the 8 hour day. We had one of the better areas in the city,but you just can't see what's not there. Again,where are the berry and cone eating birds? There is an abundance of natural food all across the island this year,so it's been postulated, that perhaps the Robins,Waxqings and Crossbills, will arrive later than usual in the city. There have been flocks of the above seen west of the Avalon Peninsula,so perhaps they will move east,devouring Mountain Ash and Spruce cones as they go.Here's hoping they arrive sooner, rather than later,as songbird birding has slowed considerably.

Well, it's been a long day,which will result in short blog.I'm in the process of preparing the material for the upcoming Gull workshop II,so perhaps I'll write something gull related tomorrow.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Happy Hollidays

Hey everyone, I just wanted to write a quick blog today wish everyone a Happy Holidays. I was too busy with family obligations to do any birding today. I never even got to drive by Quidi Vidi for a quick 5 minute scan. Years ago I would spend the better part of Christmas day at the St.John's landfill. After I met my fiancee that tradition seemed to die for some odd reason? The dump seems like a great place to spend Christmas day to me,surrounded by thousands of gulls. Oddly Jen isn't so much into the idea..weird :)Of course, the landfill is no longer open to birders, or anyone else for that matter so it isn't even a an option to hold my Christmas day dump vigil these days anyway.

Tomorrow, myself and local birder Alvan Buckley will be participating the in St.John's Christmas count. I'm excited to be able to do the count after a 2 year absence due to work obligations. Now, birding is my work and I'm loving every minute of it! I'll post the details of our portion of the count on my blog tomorrow night. I may also be announcing another upcoming tour, I'm just trying to pull all the details together.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Southern Avalon Peninsula Birds and Caribou

I ran a mini tour on the southern Avalon Peninsula. The weather was truly exceptional with temperatures above zero and sunny conditions all day. Today I was hosting Mark Mcdermot originally from Britain,but now of Washington DC. We were again in search of Newfoundland specialties.

We've had some very strong NE winds in recent days and I had a hunch that some seabirds could be pushed close to shore and in sheltered coves. We were on the Cape Race Rd by dawn and it wasn't much later that were we enjoying spectacular scope views of a female King Eider. We would have great looks at a stunning adult male later in the day. Further along Cape Race Rd we encounted small flocks of Snow Buntings that posed at close range and a very cooperative Lapland Longspur was the third lifer of the day for Mark. Just minutes later we found ourselves with full scope views of 2 male Harlequin Ducks and prolonged looks at a number of Long-tailed Ducks, Guillemots and White-winged Scoters.

On our way out the Cape Race Rd we had still failed to see one target bird that has been unusually difficult to find this year. However,as we neared the end of the road I saw a small black blob, bobbing in the surf very close to shore. I slammed on the breaks and finally got the scope on a Dovekie. We watched the bird for about 20 minutes as it bathed and preened less than 100 feet offshore,this is the right way to see a Dovekie!

Mark mentioned that he had never seen a Caribou. On that note I decided to head to St.Shotts,a small remote town west of Cape Race,in the middle of the barren Avalon wilderness. Just as we entered St.Shotts we saw a small herd of 6 Caribou well out on the barrens. We all enjoyed nice scope views,but I had something better in mind. I headed closer to the small settlement and within 5 minutes we were surrounded by a herd of over 50 Caribou. They were all around the vehicle and were totally unconcerned by our presence. We stayed here for almost an hour enjoying these amazing animals and even got to see two bulls lock antlers on a couple of occasions,something I hadn't seen before.

Generally, we head down the southern Avalon in search of birds,but there is so much more to offer.When you consider experiences such as this and the amazing coastal scenery, it really is an awe inspiring location. The Caribou were the icing on the cake of an already successful day and was a great way to end another spectacular experience on the southern Avalon.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Dreaming of an European Invasion zzzzzzzzzzzzz

I received an email from a local birder who has been in contact with a birding friend in Ireland. Some interesting things happening on that side of the "pond" as of late. Apparently England and Ireland have been hit by an unusual amount of wintry weather,with lots of ice and snow cover when there is usually none. As well, there have been strong offshore winds. This combined with very strong easterly and North Easterly winds in Newfoundland, could very well bring some European flavour to our shores in the coming days.

Should European Thrushes,Lapwings or anything else arrive in Newfoundland they will find mostly open and unfrozen ground,since the vast majority of our show has melted away, with recent mild days and heavy rains.Below, you will find a note that was written in The Auk in 1928.It speaks of thousands of Northern Lapwings that arrived in Newfoundland under similar circumstances,albeit slightly earlier in the year. Now I'm not saying we are going to get a major European invasion, but it's good to be prepared and fun to dream of the possibilities.

Lapwings Invade Newfoundland and Canada. (The Auk,1928)

It is a matter of great rarity and interest when single birds (not wandering seafowl) of European species appear in North America as 'stragglers' travelling on
their own wings; but now has occurred the astonishing fact that hundreds,
perhaps thousands, of Old World Lapwings (Vanellus vanellus) have
visited the northern shores of this western continent during the early
Vol1. 9XL2V8] ] GenerNaol tes. 209

Early in Januaryof this year I began to receive from correspondents
in Newfoundland letters addressed to my Natural History department of
'The Family Herald and Weekly Star' of Montreal, asking the name and
.habitat of unknown birds that had suddenly appeared in various parts of
that big island. From the rough and scanty descriptions given me I judged
that the strangers must be European Lapwings, and consultation with Mr.
W. DeWitt Miller and other ornithologists and their collections at the
American Museum of Natural History in New York, confirmed my conclusion.

These Lapwings were observed first on December 1 and during
that month appeared to be well scattered over Newfoundland, and further
reports rapidly came to my desk, enabling me to publish a fair account of
this novel invasion my page of the' Weekly Star',under date of January
25, 1928. While a few writers mentioned or implied that only a singlebird-
quickly noticed, for nothing like this Plover exists in America--
was seenb y them at the time of writing, most of my correspondents spoke
of 'flocks.' One letter said that 'hundreds' arrived at Harry's Harbor on
December 20, 1927, and flocks are reported on the same day in the Fogo
district--islands adjacent to Cape Fogo, a forward point on the northeast
coast. Severalo ther communication spoke of 'eight' to 'thirty or forty,'
and in general it was made evident that great numbers of these birds
were visible, in companies and over a large territory, from mid-December
to mid-January.

All the letter-writers asserted that easterly gales had assailed the
northern coasts about the time the foreign birds became noticeable, one
man reporting that he had picked up a specimen on the seashore in the
midst of a raging wind. "During the second week of December, 1927,"
to quote a letter from Mr. Theodore Bugden, of Deer Lake, Nfid., "there
was a successiono f strong easterly storms, with rain, followed by cold
westerly winds about the third week .... The birds remained at Deer
Lake for three days only, and disappearing uring a strong westerly wind.
None have been seen since." (A westerly wind there would blow toward
the forested, thinly settled interior of the island.) Other correspondents
note a similar sudden departure from various places--whither no one knew.
On their first coming, as all agree, the Lapwings appeared very weary,
thin and tame, but began at once to search for and find food on the ground;
and as they rested and gained strength they became wilder and noisier.
No evidence is at hand as to whether females as well as males were present,
the small differences between the sexes not being noticeable in the circumstances.
As was to be expected, I presently heard of Lapwings in various parts
of the adjacent Canadian mainland. They soon crossed St. Lawrence
Gulf to Cape Breton and scattered over Nova Scotia, even finding their
way to the remote island of Grand Marian. In New Brunswick they were
quickly reported about the city of St. John, where it is said that 'hundreds'
were soon killed by a great snowfall.

This describes what every Newfoundland birder dreams of. Who knows what else was involved,aside from Lapwings. I'll be taking a birding from Wash. DC to tour the southern Avalon Peninsula tomorrow morning. This will be in the back of my mind.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Bird of the Day Feature

I added a you tube gadget today that plays you tube videos. I plan on using it to feature a bird of the day. it's located at the end of the sidebar. Sometimes it will be related to my blog post that day,other times it will just be a cool bird that I like, or an interesting video.

Note** sometimes the video will change for no reason from my intended video, to some random you tube selection. I'm not sure why this is happening,but it seems to go back to the the intended video if you click on a photo or something,then click back to get back to the blog. I hope to have this sorted out soon.

If you were unable to access the bird of the day,or instead of a bird video you see a random musician or car video etc, please leave a comment and let me know,just so I know how this is working.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Of Berries,Robins and Euro Turds

Newfoundland birders have been commenting for months about the excellent berry crop this year. It was early this summer when we were saying "if every flower produces a berry,then we will have huge berry crop this year". But,why is this important?Obviously berries provide food for birds throughout the winter,but more importantly to birders, they feed Robins- lots of Robins and where you find Robins in winter in Newfoundland, you might just find something more exotic from Europe or Western North America.

When scanning through Robin flocks in winter there are two birds that every Newfoundland vagrant hunter has in the back of their mind, Fieldfare and Redwing. Newfoundland has more records of these European Thrushes than most other provinces and states combined. Of the two, Redwing has been found more often in the last decade,being annual over the past several years,often with more than 1 individual per winter.Fieldfare has been much more difficult in recent times,in fact,there is only a single record that I can think of in the last 10 years.

There is a second reason that we are excited about the possibility of these Thrushes being discovered this year. Eastern Newfoundland experienced a prolonged period of NE winds during October,often with winds spanning the entire breadth of the Atlantic, from NL to the UK, or Iceland. This is just about the time when these European Thrushes are migrating in big numbers. On it`s own, one of these birds would be incredibly difficult to find.Lucky for birders,they have a tendency to associate with Robin flocks,so the search for Fieldfare or Redwing in Newfoundland, often begins first by locating a flock of Robins.

As of today,no real large flocks of Robins have been seen on the island. Scattered flocks of 10-50 birds have been seen,but nothing like some of the massive flocks of hundreds or thousands that we often see gorging on Mountain Ash ( locally referred to as ``Dogberries``). Given that we have such a large berry crop this year,we assume it is only a matter of time until we see these large flocks, and if we are lucky, maybe we`ll find a European visitor among them.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Gull Workshop II Announced

The second installment in my gull workshop series will be offered the weekend of January 23-24. This workshop will be very comprehensive and will cover all species that regularly winter in St'John's.The material will be presented in such a way that I will be comparing similar species in similar plumages. For example, adult Glaucous Gull vs Iceland Gull1,1st winter Herring Gull vs 1st winter Greater Black-backed Gull vs 1st winter Lesser Black-backed Gull, Common Gull vs Ring-billed Gull in all plumage's,Black-headed Gull vs Bonapartes Gulls in all plumage's and more! At the end, I will thoroughly discuss the identification of Yellow-legged Gulls, comparing them to possible identification pitfalls presented by Herring Gull X Lesser Black-backed Gulls and some pale Lesser Black-backed Gulls.

Also, of great importance I'll provide a thorough presentation of the moult cycles for all species we can expect to see. Moult state is something that all experienced gull watchers consider when identifying gulls. Different species moult at different times of year and having this knowledge often makes the difference in some identifications. Of course, everyone will be provided with a soft copy of all the material,in the form of a power point presentation.When the workshop is over you will have the option of participating in an ongoing Quiz bird series that will serve to further reinforce the material learned in the classroom and field sessions.

Due to the comprehensive nature of this workshop I can only accept a maximum of 8 participants.Please contact me if you wish to reserve a spot.( if you are interested but can only attend one day please contact me and we'll work something out).

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Newfoundland Winter Birds, in Newfoundland Weather

In the darkness of night and a steady, thick, snow, I rolled into the Dominion Parking lot at 6:00 am this morning to meet my 5 guests for my Winter on the Avalon Birding Tour. On the drive I was 75% sure that I was going to cancel the tour and hope for better weather tomorrow.However, when I saw 5 perky faces,comprised of a Texan, an Arkensawyer,an ex Brit and 2 Newfs, rearing to go birding, I decided to give it a try. The driving was pretty terrible with a blanket of snow covering the streets and no sign of it letting up. If that wasn't enough it was damn windy and the windchill,although only -10C,felt more like -25C.

Our first stop was in Cape Broyle,it was still pretty dark and we turned up zero birds,aside from a haggard looking bunch of genetically challenged dabblers. We moved on. A few minutes later we found ourselves viewing a flock of 5 White-throated Sparrows feeding along the roadside. We often ignore these common breeders,in our hell bent search for rarities, but somehow seeing them in winter seems different. After about 10 minutes we moved on. The weather was not improving and I was again considering giving in to the elements.However,the optimism of my group, in spite of the circumstances, told me to plow on (literally).Within minutes of moving on we were again stopped,this time viewing a small flock of Juncos, when a small evenly brown bird popped out on the edge of a spruce tree only to to again immediately dissappear. My nanosecond long glimpse told me that this was a Wren but did not afford me enough information to resolve it to species. Now it seemed that the birding gods were playing some kind of cruel joke on us, to dangle this potentially exciting bird in front of our faces, only to take it away again. Seemingly with both the weather and now the birds fighting against us,we trekked on to Ferryland.

This stop produced a large flcok of Juncos with a smattering of Goldfinches and a single Song Sparrow for flavour.Bland birding to say the least,or so I thought at the time. However,neither the lack of exiciting birds, nor blowing snow whipping at our faces could disuade us from proceeding and surely things would liven up in the NF birding mecca of Renews.

As we passed Renews beach I saw a duck bobbing in the choppy water of Renews harbour. I stopped only to find a nice female King Eider. While King Eider is found annually amoung our flocks of Commons, it is not often that one affords such good looks and this was the first I had seen at this location in my 10+ years of birding here. After a few minutes of scoping we decided to more in for even better looks and maybe photos. As we puttered down the ice covered road to the marina we saw a Bald Eagle hovering Osprey style just off the beach.What was it doing,fishing? As we moved in, we were shocked to see the eagle drop from the air only to scoop up the King Eider and fly off. What are the chances? Still in shock by the sheer luck of witnessing such a truly rare NF birding moment, we moved on with buoyed hopes toward Bear Cove.

Bear Cove produced 2 brilliant adult male King Eiders and some nice scope views of Longtailed Ducks,aka Oldswuaw,aka Hounds. Fearlessly, we made the decision to brave the likely white out conditions of the windswept barrens, that lay between us and our next destination, Portugal Cove South.

Upon our arrival in Portugal Cove South we were greeted by a flock of Snow Buntings that seemed totally oblivious to the bone chilling cold, that caused us to retreat to the warmth of our vehicle after only 10 minutes. It was now that I made the difficult decidion to forego Cape Race in favor of more time in Biscay Bay,Trepassey and a possible St.Shotts visit.

Upon thoroughly scanning Biscay Bay the we found a flcok of 20+ Red-breasted Mergs and everyone enjoyed looks at an absolute stunner Horned Grebe. I located a Red-throated Loon but atfer 15 minutes of trying to relocate it for the group, we decided to move on in search of Bohemian Waxwing and Ruffed Grouse for our Texan.

The decision to skip Cape Race paid off,when I saw a small dark blob sitting motionless in the Trepassey Harborat 80kn/hr. It took a while to safely stop the van on the slick roads,but when it finally stopped, we spun around to find an immature Pied-billed Grebe. This was a genuinely rare NF winter bird, only known to breed in a single small pond in the extreme SW corner of the island.It's always nice to see this diminutive little Grebe. After everyone had point blank scope views we were off again in search of Waxwings.

Soon,with the light fading and the wind battering already cold weary bodies, we gave up- no Waxwing,no Grouse and now(of no suprise to me) no long faces either. It was time to head bac.We saw some good birds, we gave it 100% and never wavered in spite of the conditions and a two hour drive, over newly ice coated roads, loomed ahead.

Just when we thought that our birding was over for the day, I noticed 3 Willow Ptarmigan on the roadside. This was a real surprise. These birds can be difficult to find and getting point blank views of these winter plumaged birds camuflaged amoung the snow and rocks, was another treat. Our perserverance was rewarded once again!

Although I was the guide today and the most experienced birder,I learned a valuable lesson about birding.It is so easy ,as birders to become jaded. We set out in search of rarities and if we fail to add a bird to our life list,year list, or whatever other list we are keeping,the day is considered a wash. Today was not about finding rare birds, it was about seeing the birds that Newfoundland has to offer in winter and to take in the winter birding experience. Now six hours have passed since I returned from todays trip,with the vestiges of todays cold still in my bones.Aalthough I never added any birds to my life or year list today,it was one of the most rewarding birding experiences I have ever had.It was those 5 smiling, yet wind burned faces and their undampened enthusiam, that taught me that birding isn't about finding rare birds, it's about enjoying the experience and all that it entails... and to them I say thank you.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Successful Day,but Mega Tired...

For some reason I can never seem to sleep at all the day before a big birding trip,like a big day a Xmas count, or even some regular birding days after storms etc,where I think there is potential for good birds. Last night was no different and the last time I looked at the clock before dozing off this morning it was 5:10.When the alarm sounded at 7:00 I barely made it up.

I met with a Dan Kaspar from Texas today to search for the NL specialties. At first, one might wonder why someone would travel from bird rich Texas to bird in NL in December. Why they get more species on a good Xmas count than we do in a big year! However,if you want to see some species such as Dovekie,Thick-billed Murre,Bohemian Waxwing etc you have to go the North East.When you add Yellow-legged Gull and Tufted Duck to that list you really only have one option, St.John's in winter. As mentioned in a previous blog,St.John's is the only reliable place in North America where one can hope to glimpse this European Gull.

I was extremely hopeful just a couple of days when Quidi Vidi Lake had frozen,however, after a day of rain and temps on the plus side of 0, the lake was 95% ice free. I met Dan at the lake at 8:00. I pointed out the various ducks,including several Tufted Ducks, another St.John's specialty. I would later count over 20 of these in a single flock at a local pond. The TUDU was nice,but gulls were scarce,just a few Iceland Gulls on the shore and a meagre gathering in the water in the center of the lake. We decided to head off in search of Dovekies and return to the lake in the afternoon.

We got to Cape Spear and found a small flock of Common Eiders(no Kings today).We had amazing looks at a flock of about 25 Purple Sandpipers as they dodged waves and fed on the jagged rocks, just feet from the Atlantic ocean. These birds seemingly choose, to winter in the most inhospitable habitat imaginable. After an hour still no Dovekie- I was getting a little worried. Finally I saw something that looked like a black and white nerf football bobbing in the water. I attempted to get Dan on this bird several times but the bird was diving frequently to avoid becoming breakfast for a Great Black-backed Gull. Eventually Dan got on the bird. It was somewhat distant but the Swarovski ATS 80 HD, cranked up to 60X, is pure magic and afforded my guest a great view of this most sought after Alcid.

After this, we moved on the harbour to see Black-headed Gulls,Iceland Gulls and got fantastic looks at Great Cormorants. All these were also target birds. After a quick break we headed back to Quidi Vidi Lake. As we approached the lake things looked much more promising.There were many more gulls at the lake,with a large flock in the center of the lake and another 500 gulls crammed on a small patch of ice in the far SE corner of the lake. To my surprise, there was also a large flock on the fields in Pleasentville(odd to find them there this time of year). We scanned this flock several times from different angles,but we couldn't find a Yellow-legged Gull. We decided to check out the flock that was resting on a small patch of ice leftover from the big freeze earlier in the week. I scanned the flock 3 times and saw nothing other than a few adult Lesser Black-backed Gulls and a nice looking adult GBBGXGLGU(this birds mantle was surprisingly close to YLGU). We were discussing alternate gull watching locations when I finally saw the 'rare shade of gray' sandwiched between a GBBG and a GLGU. I zoomed in and soon Dan was looking at his most wanted target bird... Yellow-legged Gull.

Below are two of four, Yellow-legged Gulls that have been found in St.John's this fall/winter. These photos were taken in October. There is a good chance that the bird we saw today, was the streaky headed individual seen here- now almost completely white headed, except for some light spotting on the forehead and lores.

After enjoying some satisfying looks at the YLGU we set off in search of Bohemian Waxwings and the last hour of light we checked several good locations but failed to see anything notable, other than very recent evidence of a Black-backed Woodpecker,that failed to shoe itself while we were there.

All in all, it was a very successful day. Now I'm off to try to get some sleep before I lead the first installment of the Winter on the Avalon Tour tomorrow. I don't think I'll have any trouble sleeping tonight though.

Kumlien's Gulls of St.John's

I've spent quite a bit of time at our sewer outflow in St.John's this fall/winter, observing the more than 1000 Kumlien's Gulls that can be seen there, at very close range everyday. St.John's is the best location in the world to observe this subspecies of Iceland Gull. I'm particularly interested in studying the variation in Kumliens Gull,which seems endless, at least in regards to their wintip variation, from very black, to almost pure white wing tips.

However,not all characters are this variable. Almost all Kumliens Gull have quite a rounded head and a slight short bill,especially in comparison to Herring Gull,which show a more sloping foredead. The majority of Kumliens are pale eyed,with some as pale as Herring Gull.There are others that have eyes of dark amber, with or without dark spotting.Sometimes the eyes are medium to dark brown. Most have extensive head streaking (often appearing more smudgy in comparison to Herring Gull),while occasionally there are birds that appear quite white headed.However,upon closer inspection, these birds often have a very light brown wash over the head and neck. Invariablym Kumliens have a purple orbital ring,sometimes appearing a light pink/purple.On some birds the orbital ring can very difficult to seem even at very close range. These birds often show only a slight purple pink wash in the orbital ring,just in front of the eye.

Kumliens are very consistent in mantle shade (in my experience) with the overwhelming majority being a shade paler than the average Smithsonianus Herring Gull.On rare occasions, there are birds that appear noticeably darker above than surrounding ICGU's and closely match Herring Gull in mantle color. In my experience these birds often show the most extensive dark in the wing tips as well.

Speaking of wing tips,this is where Kumliens Gulls really get out of whack. The extensiveness of black coloration in the outer primaries is extremely variable. It can range from almost pure white, to being extremely close to Thayer's Gull. These "pseudo Thayers" have medium black coloration on the outer webs of the outer 4 primaries and some even have a small grey mark( always paler than the dark markings in the outer 4 primaries,in my experience) on p5!. With such a high degree of variability it becomes very difficult to conclusively identify a true Thayer's Gull in Newfoundland- the opposite being true in California. We seem to get a few birds each winter that look like good Thayer's Gull 'candidates' in terms of plumage, but these birds are often very slight and look identical to the surrounding Iceland Gulls in structure. As well,particularly in adult birds, there are often other characters that are less then perfect, e.g.eye color,mantle shade,head streaking and most often wingtip pattern.

Essentially, in Newfoundland we are looking for the prototypical Thayer's Gull. For me, this is really the only correct way.Since there seems to be a direct cline from Thayer's to Kumliens,how can one decide where Thayer's ends and Kumliens begins or vice versa? For Thayer's, we need a nice big male with lots of dark brown head streaking,a dark eye,mantle shade at least as dark as Smithsonianus(if not darker) and overall structure tending closer to Herring Gull than an average Iceland Gull. In the wingtips things become a little more complicated. Ideally, p10 would have at least a partial black sub terminal bar, p9 would have a completely black outer web,not interrupted on the outer edge by a white mirror, p8-6 with extensive black outer webs and ideally a black mark if not a broken or full bar on p5. Also, the primaries would be almost jet black with folded wingtip coloration very close to Herring Gull.
Below you will find a series of dark winged presumed Kumliens Gulls all photographed on the same day in St.John's. I will be adding to this collection (especially spread wing shots) in the coming days.

A slight bird. Greyish black wingtips.Note the very rounded head,short bill and very pale eye.

Wingtips appearing quite black but note how much paler they look below. Slight pale brown wash to head,appearing almost white headed from a distance. Slightly less rounded head than the above bird and bill appering slightly larger- perhaps a male?

Wing tip coloration seems pale for Thayer's and note the white mirror that interrupts the black outer web of p9.Note also black markings on p6-p10.

This is perhaps the most Thayer's like Kumlien's Gull possible? Overall this bird has many THGU like feature,but structurally is still very ICGU like and the wingtips seem pale for THGU as well.UNfortunately I never saw this bird fly.

Typical Kumliens Gull structure. Greyish wingtips,not how the mirror on p9 interrupts the grayish black outer web. THGU can show a wing pattern very similar to this,but the primaries are more extensively black.

Next are two birds that are perhaps more comlicated than those above. Any comments on these two birds are very much welcomed.

Bird #1. A good THGU candidate.Wing tip,although lacking a black mark on p5, the extreme outer web of p9 is black, with the middle portion of the black outer web interrupted by a 'mimi mirror' that is separated from the main mirror by the dark feather shaft. I've seen photos of THGU from CA. that match this bird almost exactly.


Bird #2. A somewhat confusing individual.

Surely this is out of range for Kumliens,but what is it??

On a different note, in anticipation of some birding with an American visitor, I went to see Great Cormorants at a super top secret location near the battery. I got this ok photo of a Great Cormorant sitting on a post.

Great Cormorant

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Introduction to Gulls Workshop- January 9th

I have received a couple of emails from people who were interested in the introductory Gull identification workshop but were unable to attend the at the time. Therefore, I will be offering this workshop again on January 9th. We will be focusing on learning feather groups and ageing. Given that gulls can looked markedly different as they age it is imperative to correctly age any gull before attempting to identify it to species. In this workshop I will teach how to correctly age 2,3 and 4 year Gulls. If you unsure what that means,this is even more reason to attend the workshop. As well,before you can age a gull it is essential to know what to look for and to have an understanding of the feather groups that comprise a gulls plumage. After this workshop you should have an good understanding of how to correctly age all gulls that spend the winter in Newfoundland.Participants from the last workshop were thrilled with their new found abilities and were very successful in ageing gulls in our field session that followed the classroom portion and have done well in the quiz gull series that is still ongoing. To book your place in this workshop please contact me via email at Cost and other details available below- click to enlarge the image.

Christmas Came Early

Once again I got out a little later than I wanted to today,but at least I made it out. I made my usual trip to Quidi Vidi Lake,one of the very best gull watching destinations in the world! After I turned onto the road that leads to the lake, it was light a giant beam of light shone from the sky and I think I heard angels singing, aleluya,aleluyah...finally the lake had frozen!! Why is this important? Well, eventhough QV has gulls everyday, the largest concentrations are found when the lake is frozen. Today there were about 5000 gulls on the lake- heaven on earth for larophiles like me.

Most gulls were sitting on the center of the lake, so there weren't really any photo ops but they allowed for great scope views. Of interest amoung the large flock, were about 6 LBBG's,a bunch of interesting hybrid combinations of LBBGXHERG, GLGUXHERG and a GBBGXHERG hybrid. As well ,there was a single genuine Yellow-legged Gull. St.John's is really the only reliable location to see this Eurasian species in North America. Each year birders travel to St.John's to see this species,some see it and leave happy and some don't. Hopefully the lake remains frozen through the weekend when myself and an American visitor will be looking for this and other NL specialties.

Aside from gulls, the ice had concetrated ducks in small patches of open water close to shore. This allowed for a nice study of the Athya complex as Greater and Lesser Scaup and Tufted Ducks allowed for side by study. Also of interest were a female Bufflehead and female Shoveller.

I heard through the grapevine today that a large flock of Bohemian Waxwings were seen in central NF. Hopefully this is a sign that these berry eating nomads are on their way to St.John's, as this is another target bird on my american visitors list.

Not sure what tomorrow will bring- hopefully an earlier rise than in recent days.Perhaps a good day to search for Robin flocks. Also,at some point hopefully I will learn to post images where I want them on the blog,instead of just at the top of the page.....

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Winter on the Avalon Tour-SOLD OUT!!!

The response was great for this tour and it sold out in under a week. I keep my tours to a limit of 5 participants to ensure there is ample time for instruction if necessary. Part of the reason I started offering tours was to share the knowledge that I've accumulated over the last 10+ years of birding in Newfoundland. If your new to birding or visiting from out of town you can contact me to arrange a day trip or check back frequently to see what tours I have coming up. Thanks to everyone who has signed uip for this weekends tour it's gonna be great. I'll post a full trip list and report on Saturday evening on my blog and nf.birds at

Welcome (The Big year)

Hey everyone,

This is day one on my blog. My intention is to update the blog daily with my birding endevours through the winter and beyond. I will be posting bird sightings general thoughts on birding related topics in Newfoundland,as well as trip reports and summaries of the bird tours and workshops that I offer.

In September of this year I decided to do a Newfoundland big year. A personal challenge of sorts to see as many species of birds in the province as possible in 2009. My goal at the time was to hit 250 species. My list has stagnated at 240 and looks as though additions from here will be difficult to say the least. Still though it was a worthwhite experience and lead to more time than usual spent in the field. With the potential to be spending a lot of time in the Codroy Valley again this summer, I'm considering doing another big year,but this time starting on January 1st- we'll see how it goes.

As well I will be leading the Winter on the Avalon tour this weekend (IT SOLD OUT IN 5 DAYS) and I will be posting a trip report and species list from that as well. Attached is a poster that I created to advetise the tour. I'll be offering another tour in early-mid January so look for updates here and on nf.birds. That's it for now......Soon I will be dreaming of Fieldfares!!!

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