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's of east coast birders 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.

Comparison of Yellow-legged Gull, Lesser Black-backed Gull and American Herring Gull in Newfoundland

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.

Yellow-legged Gull in Newfoundland

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.

Comparison of Yellow-legged Gull and American Herring Gull

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.

Yellow-legged Gull, St.John's, October

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

Yellow-legged Gull in Newfoundland

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 a="" adult="" all="" almost="" also="" and="" another.="" anything="" apical="" based="" be="" being="" black="" br="" but="" closed="" closer="" display="" evenly="" fact="" for="" fully="" get="" grown="" have="" in="" is="" larssen="" little="" lying="" mark="" may="" michahellis="" moderately="" most="" narrowly="" not="" note="" observation="" of="" olsen="" on="" over="" p4.="" p5-p6="" p6-p7="" p7-p8="" p8-p9="" p9-p10="" pattern="" personal="" potentially="" primaries="" primary="" reliable="" s="" separated="" separating="" show="" spaced="" spaces="" spacing="" spots.="" spots="" states="" subspecies.="" that="" the="" they="" typical="" very="" we="" widely="" will="" wing.="" ylgu="">
Yellow-legged Gull in flight

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.

Yellow-legged Gull in flight

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

yellow-legged Gull in flight in St.John's

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 17="" a="" azorean="" br="" have="" mirror="" oct="" of="" on="" p9.="" photographed="" s="" st.john="" ykgu="">
Yellow-legged Gull,spread wings

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.

Yellow-legged Gull, Newfoundland

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.
Yellow-legged Gull, Newfoundland

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.

Yellow-legged Gull, Newfoundland

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.

Yellow-legged Gull, Newfoundland

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.

Yellow-legged Gull, showing head, gonys spot, orbital ring

Photographed Oct 14/2009 at St.John's
Yellow-legged Gull, showing head, gonys spot, orbital ring

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.

Yellow-legged Gull, showing head, gonys spot, orbital ring

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.

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!!!

Jack Snipe, Birding in Newfoundland
Jack Snipe- Ferryland, Newfoundland

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

A Discussion of Common Snipe vs Wilson's Snipe

Discussion of the first record of Common Snipe for Newfoundland

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.

Below I will discuss this record and will provide some context by comparing it to the only other record of Common Snipe in Canada. I will also discuss the identification of Common Snipe from a North American perspective and illustrate some important ways of distinguishing Common from Wilson's Snipe.
Common Snipe, February, 2011, Newfoudland
First record of Common Snipe for Newfoundland, February ,2011. Many more photos
and comparison with Wilson's Snipe below


Common Snipe is a major rarity in North America. It's currently listed as an ABA code 4 species but is essentially unknown from the vast majority of the continent. It is recorded regularly from the islands off Alaska and perhaps the mainland as well and may even breed there in small numbers. Aside from that, I think there is maybe a record for California,  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.

In the paper at the link above the authors note that Canada's first Common Snipe (Labrador, winter 1927) was taken by a native women who also amazingly shot a Jack Snipe the same day. The authors speculate about the chances of that happening and wonder if it could ever happen again. Interestingly, it did happen again 84 years later and this time on the island of Newfoundland. A Jack Snipe was discovered in the same small town as the Common Snipe referenced in this article. Unfortunately, it was seen by just a single observer and disappeared, but they did many to capture this photo!

These two occurrences of Common Snipe and Jack Snipe happening together bear a number of similarities. The winter of 1927 saw a monumental cold weather movement of birds in the UK. This phenomenon occurs when the UK experiences longer than normal spells of extremely cold, snowy and icy weather. During this time its common for birds to flee the colder areas of the UK for more southern, coastal areas which are unaffected, or less affected by the wintry conditions. The winter of 1920 turned out to be a perfect storm because the cold weather movement of birds in the UK perfectly coincided with unseasonable mild weather in Newfoundland and Labrador and moreover there was a tremendous weather system in places that carried birds that overshot the southern UK during their movements all the way across the Atlantic to the shores of Newfoundland and Labrador. During this event there were 100's if not thousands of Northern Lapwings seen in eastern Newfoundland. So many birds were involved it was noted at the time that many Newfoundlanders were eating Lapwings for Christmas dinner!
weather map north atlantic December 1927, Northern Lapwing invasion
Note the flow of air directly across the Atlantic from the UK to Newfoundland and Labrador

While an event on the scale of the 1927 Lapwing invasion likely could never happen again, mainly due to large decreases in the numbers of that an other species since that time, it's evident that European waders can and do get displaced to Eastern North America, during these 'cold weather movements. One can only imagine the European species that went undetected during the great 1027 event! The February 2011 Common Snipe record should not be terribly surprising to anyone who has followed my blog, or Newfoundland birding news. There was a huge cold weather movement of birds in the UK in the late fall and early winter of 2011. This brought us (Newfoundland) about a dozen Northern Lapwings, Common Chaffinch, unusual numbers of Common Teal (about 3X average) and more Common Gulls than usual. Not too mention 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. So while the numbers were not on the scale of the 1927 event, the list of European species involved was quite impressive.

Description and Identification

So, now that we've given the record a little context, lets move on to the identification. Correctly identifying a Common Snipe in North America is no easy task. It was extremely helpful that this time bird was in a perfect area to be photographed. It was feeding in a wet area on the side of the road in a small community, together with a Wilson's Snipe. This was very fortuitous, since it allowed for directed side by side comparisons between the two species. Another helpful feature of ( at least these particular Snipe)Snipe is they like to preen and they like to stretch their wings. Over 3.5 hours of observing both the Common and Wilson's Snipe, they both did some preening and stretching, which allowed me to capture critical field marks.

At the time separation of these two Snipe species was 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 features 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.

 (Direct Comparison with Wilson's Snipe)

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.

Comparison of Wilson's and Common Snipe in Newfoundland
Wilson's Snipe left and Common Snipe Right
Note the pale overall appearance of the Common Snipe, in life it appeared much buffier on the breast and upper flanks. Also note longer bill, broader and more bull lines on the back, longer bill etc

Comparison of Wilson's and Common Snipe in Newfoudland, 2011
Common Snipe Top, Wilson's Snipe bottom left and Common Snipe bottom right.
Tors Cove, February, 2011

Axillars and Under wing Coverts

The axillars were mostly white, with relatively thin white bars, that seemed almost, broken or washed out. In comparison to axillars of Wilson's Snipe, which always has at least as much black as white in the axillars and looks very dark. The median and greater under wing coverts appeared 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 under wing. The differences in the under wing can create different impression of the bird in quick flight views, since Common Snipe can appear very white in the under wings while Wilson's appear darkish or dusky.

Comparison of Wilson's and Common Snipe axillars and under wing coverts in Newfoundland 2011
Common Snipe left; Wilson's Snipe centre and Common Snipe right.
Tors Cove, Newfoundland, February 2011

Secondary Tips

In this instance the secondary tips of both birds were 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. This can also be an important clue in flight identification (couple with under wing colouration), since the white edge created by the secondary tips should be noticeable in Common Snipe, while not really at all in Wilson's Snipe.
Comparison of Wilson's and Common Snipe secondaries in Newfoundland
Note the much broader white tips on the secondaries of the Common Snipe in front. Compare to the outstretched wing of the Wilson's Snipe in the back, which has a barely noticeable white edge to the secondaries. Note also the broader pale edges of the scapulars compared to the Wilson's Snipe in the background.

Tertials and Scapulars

In general Common Snipe are a brighter and paler bird than a Wilson's Snipe and this fact is especially highlighted by the tertials. In Common Snipe the tertials tend to show almost as much rufous coloration as black. This is contrast to Wilson's Snipe, which shows predominantly dark tertials, with think pale bars, that are buff to rufous. Also note the portions of the scapulars shown have much thicker rufous internal markings in comparison to Wilson's as well.

Comparison of Wilson's and Common Snipe tertials in Newfoundland
Common Snipe left and Wilson'r Snipe right. Note the differences % of rufous and black in bth the tertials and scapulars for both individuals.


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, while Common usually have 14, but may occasionally have 16 or 18.

Common Snipe showing spread tail in Newfoundland
Note the pattern on the outer tail feathers with limited barring. Also note the rounded shape.
Photo: Paul Linegar
Wilson's Snipe showing spread tail
Note the much more extensive barring on the outer tail feathers of this Wilson's Snipe, as well as more pointy
tips to the tail feathers

Further Comments

I am updating this in July, 2018. Since the original 2011 bird there have also been records of Common Snipe in both 2014 and 2015. It seems possible that Common Snipe may be an annual vagrant to eastern Newfoundland in winter. It would also seem possible that Common Snipe may be a stealth vagrant to other parts of Eastern Canada and the NE US as well. Hopefully, this article will help those who are seeking to find Common Snipe in North America and conversely, it should also be of some use to European birders, seeking to find Wilson's Snipe in Europe.

Common Snipe, Tors Cove Newfoundland, February 2011
Common Snipe, Tors Cove Newfoundland, February, 2011

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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.

Gyrfalcon, Newfoundland

This poor photo doesn't do the bird justice!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Iceland Gull Identification 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.

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