Friday, September 23, 2011

Comparing Two "Events"

Well,not surprisingly Hurricane Maria was a bust for pelagic birds. The storm was not set up properly and the tremendous speed with which it spun through Newfoundland made for less then ideal circumstances for sending hurricane waifs to our shores. Although the center of the hurricane passed over the Avalon Peninsula the storm was partially torn apart by strong wind shear from days previous. It became warped further as it entered the cold waters surrounding Newfoundland. This meant that most of the storms force lay in the NE quadrant, which passed east of Newfoundland. Maria produced peak gusts at Cape Race of 108 km/hr. For those of you who know of and have birded Cape Race,this equates to just another windy day at the Cape.

In analyzing this storm during its approach I quickly became more exited by the low pressure system that was moving up the eastern seaboard (responsible for directing Maria towards NL, away from the Eastern Seaboard). In years past fast moving lows (that coincide with offshore tropical systems) that sweep up the eastern seaboard, or move in from the Great Lakes have produced large arrivals of passerines.It was my hope that the same thing might occur when I started looking at the weather maps for Thursday September 15th and Friday September 16th.

In the following paragraphs I'll compare Maria and her associated low with Tropical Storm Chantelle of September 2007 and a low pressure system that swallowed it up and passed over Newfoundland. There are some interesting similarities and differences in the two storms, but as we'll see both looked very similar on weather maps and both produced a fallout of passerines on the eastern Avalon Peninsula, namely on Bear Cove Pt Rd.


Bear Cove Pt Rd is located within the town of Renews about half way down the eastern shore of the Avalon Peninsula. There are two factors which I believe make this road an excellent migrant trap.

1) position- the end of the road is located at a headland which juts out from the coast,perhaps improving this location as landfall point. As well, there is a lighthouse at the point, which might serve as a beacon for wayward birds traveling in the dark. Light beams from lighthouses have long been thought to attract birds.

2) habitat- much of the coastline of the Avalon Peninsula is dominated by barrens and stunted conifers. This is not exactly th preferred habitat for Neotropical migrants. However,when these areas are disturbed by the building of roads there is often a flush of second growth that sprouts up along the roads. In many cases, in Newfoundland Alder bushes grow en mass along these coastal roads. Compared to the surrounding barrens and conifers these alders beds look like oasis' to weary migrating passerines.

Bear Cove on map of Newfoundland
zoomed out map showing the location of Bear Cove Pt in Newfoundland

map showing location of Bear Cove Pt road Newfoundland.
Zoomed in map showing a more local view of Bear Cove Pt

So now that the location for the events has been explained, lets take a look at the weather that helped make it happen. On September 11 2007 there was a deep trough in the jet stream created by a deepening low pressure system over western Ontario. There are also two other low pressure systems located north of Hudson's Bay and Labrador.As you can see by looking at the weather map below there were winds blowing from the Great Lakes directly to Newfoundland. The following day the more northerly low pressure systems moved farther south creating a strong south westerly flow.On the third day Thursday,September 13th, this flow of air that had been SW of the Great Lakes on Tuesday,into Cape Cod and the Maritimes on Wednesday, was now flowing into Newfoundland. When looking at the weather maps pay special attention to the area where the isobars are tightly packed and notice how that tightly packed area moves west to east over the three days.

Fastforwarding 5 years we had a similar system (September 15-17) that brought a big influx of birds to the eastern Avalon Peninsula. Once again there was a deep trough in the jet stream caused by a low pressure system over Ontario and there was again corresponding low positioned to the north over Labrador and Northern Quebec. Looking at the weather map notice how tigtly packed the isobars are over the western Great Lakes, exactly as they were on September 14th, 2007. Once again, just as in 2007 the more northerly low advances south, this time combining with the low over the Great lakes to form a large, formidable low pressure system that was driving air from the southern Great Lakes towards Newfoundland.Between September 15th and 16th the winds whipped through Cape Cod and the Canadian Maritimes, just as they did from September 11th-13th of 2007. The winds made it to Newfoundland by Saturday, September 17th as strong Westerly and South westerlies. On the two days following the passage of the large numbers and a good diversity of passerines were found along Bear Cove Pt Rd.

It took each system three days to make it from the Great Lakes to Newfoundland and on the forth day a fallout of passerines was evident. Below I've paired the days 1,2 and 3 of the 2007 and the recent 2011 systems so you can see the similarities.

infliuence of weather on rare birds in Newfoundland
Add caption
September 11th 2007 September 15th 2011

weather map days before newfoundland bird fall out
September 12th 2007 September 16th 2011

weather maps days in advance of bird fall out in Newfoundland.
September 13th 2007 September 17th 2011

Included below that is a chart that compares the warbler species found after the passge of each system.

There is more to birding then just learning how to identify birds. Gaining an understanding of how weather drive patterns of vagrancy give a birder a significant edge when deciding when and where to concentrate their efforts. Sure anyone can go out and stumble into a rarity but the informed birder know what to expect, where to expect it and knows how to identify it. Of course, it's far from a perfect science and there is still a lot of guess work involved but the more time we spend analyzing weather and then comparing it to bird movements in our area the better we get at predicting events such as those described above.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Speculations About Maria

Well it looks as though we are going to get hit by Tropical Storm/ Tropical Depression Maria. To be quite honest I'm not sure what to expect from this storm. The storm has never been that strong, with winds maxing out at Tropical Storm strength. It has lost many of its tropical characteristics, it does not have much in the way of surface rotation or spiral bands and it's not expected to intensify much, if at all, before it reaches us.

The storm has been out at sea the entire time only coming close to land near the Northern Antilles islands. Due to its pelagic nature its very unlikely that Maria will bring any land birds with it.However, it still might have the potential to carry a rare tern or two our way. It isn't the type of storm that will entraiin birds and drag them long distances, but it's moderately strong winds could certainly persuade some birds in our direction.

I'm still trying to develop a game plan for birding this storm. Right now it's expected that the storm will pass through eastern Newfoundland, somewhere near the Avalon Peninsula and the winds are forecast to be from the south. This isn't exactly the most productive direction to produce a movement of sea birds but southern facing points on the Avalon could be good, that is if it's not too foggy to see!

I'll probably try my luck at Cape Spear. This location is generally better in a N or NW wind, but I've seen some good sea bird movements on southerly winds here as well. If the winds get up to 60+km/hr sustained you can expect to see Storm Petrels and some other tubenoses going by.

If the storm tracks futher to the east and generates N or NE wrap around winds after it passes, then there could be a nice movement and birds like Leach's Storm Petrels and Jaegers will be pushed into Conception Bay. If this happens places like Kelligrews, Seal Cove and Holyrood will be worth checking.

The day after the storm passes it will be well worth checking all coves and beaches on the Avalon Peninsula for any tired storm birds. Possible species (no matter how unlikely) are Black Tern, Least Tern, Sooty Tern, Bridled Tern and Magnificent Frigatebird. Just look everywhere and at every tern. Photograph anything unfamiliar and get the word out if you think you have something unusual.

Good luck!!

Monday, September 12, 2011

#247 Bagged

On September 11th I set off for a day birding with good friend Jarod Clarke. Jarod and I have had some good success birding together in recent years so the day was filled with promise. For example last October we put together a nice string of rarities that included, Blue Grosbeak,Indigo Bunting,Scarlet Tanager,Grasshopper Sparrow, Hooded Warbler and I know there were a couple of others that got away. The year before we managed to pull off a rare 5 species of Vireo day on the southern Avalon Peninsula. This might not seem overly impressive, but when you consider that there aren't any breeding Vireos in eastern Newfoundland, then you see how significant this was. Of particular note were a Warbling and Yellow-throated Vireo. Added to the Vireos were a Prairie Warbler, Yellow-breasted Chat and a Prothotary Warbler.Again not bad!

So we have a history of finding good birds, you get the picture. Since I was entering the day at 246 for the year ( only a single species from the NL year list record) I was feeling confident that the record would fall.

We decided to hit a well known migrant trap to start the day. We quickly found ourselves surrounded by warblers and sparrows. Before long we had Prairie Warbler- nice bird, but I already had seen one this year. We continued birding for migrants for the next couple of hours and added a few more interesting birds but nothing new for the year and after 3 hours digging in the alders we decided a change of scenery was in order. We headed for Bear Cove (100km S of St.John's),which was only a 7 minute drive from our location. The coastal deciduous shrubbery is well known among Newfoundland birders for its ability to collect weary migrants. The list of rarities that have been found there over the years is too long to mention but suffice to say that every Warbler and Vireo that breeds east of the Mississippi had been found there in the last decade! This was also the location of the Orchard Oriole and Golden-winged Warbler that I had found just two days earlier. To make a long story short, today was not the day to find a mega in Bear Cove. We were late getting there, the winds had picked up and the birds were keeping a low profile- no year birds here.

So, from there we headed South and I wasn't worried in the least since we were headed for Cape Race. I've mentioned Cape Race in previous posts. It's located at the extreme SE edge of the Avalon Peninsula and has a list of rarities that can compete with almost any birding location in North America. The Cape itself and the long dirt road leading to it have played host to some of the most extraordinary rarities in Newfoundland and North America, for that matter.

However, things were slow today. We pished the stunted trees along the coast hoping for an exhausted migrant, but nothing. We walked all around the grassy areas and the building at the Cape and again nothing. On our way out the road we were talking about how Cape Race had failed us when we flushed when Jarod yelled stop, what's that!! I slammed on the brakes and looked to the right, raising my bins at the same time. I got on a largish,plump passerine that was flying along side the car. It was immediately interesting, but what was it. We quickly went through the possibilities, Horned Lark, Pipit (the two most common possibilities). But wait it's bright below, Oriole, no that's not right. Then as the bird just passed by it clicked, Meadowlark!! We could not see the Black V as it flew by but the large size (for a passerine) the dumpy look, short tail with white outer tail feather, and pale sandy back and of course yellow under parts, all added up. The bird flew away with strong direct flight that consisted of a series of tight undulations. We watched it fly away, looking as though it wanted to land, but not landing. We lost it after about 100 meters and we failed to re find it.

So that was it, the Meadowlark was my 247th species of bird for Newfoundland this year and I was now co-owner of the Newfoundland year list record. We birded for another 4 hours without anything remarkable happening and got home around 9:00 pm to put an end to a 15 hour day.

It's 9:40 pm now and as I write this I'm thinking about tomorrow. I'll be birding the southern shore again and the next new species will give me sole ownership of the provincial year list record. I'll post an update tomorrow if I'm successful, otherwise it'll be a few days as I continue to work on the Ringed Plover article.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Katia Passes, Bring on Marie

Well Hurricane Katia passed by south eastern Newfoundland today without coming within 300 miles of the nearest land at Cape Race. Due to this storms track far from land and it missing us by such a large margin its not thought that we will get any hurricane waifs from the storm. Having said that I'm still prepared to be surprised by a southern Tern or White-tailed Tropicbird. I'll be birding the Cape Race area tomorrow, so we'll see what's around then.

So Katia was a bust, but no worries there is a new storm that looks like it has some potential according to the latest model readings. This is the 95L that I alluded to the my last posting. It's fluctuated between Hurricane Marie and Tropical Storm Marie over the last couple of days. The storm is having trouble maintaining spin and organization and may in fact fizzle out to almost nothing before it even gets to us. However, it will be entering the warmer waters off the south eastern US in the next couple days and it could very well intensify. If Marie can get her act together and become a real Hurricane the current tracks suggest that it could head straight for eastern Newfoundland. Again, its not thought to get that close to the eastern seaboard, so even if we do get hit, it might not bring a birds. We'll have to wait and see. Here are what the current models are suggesting.

This shows the potential tracks that TS/Hurricane Marie might take over the next week. Tracks this far out are inherrently wrought with error, but the fact that all the models are suggesting a very similar course makes it quite likely that the actual track will be very similar to what's pictured here


Over the last couple of days I added three new birds to my year list and picked up a a bonus bird when I realized that somehow I had forgotten to tick Common Redpoll. The other birds added were Dunlin, GOLDEN-WINGED WARBLER and ORCHARD ORIOLE.

The latter two species are extremely rare in the province. There are maybe 6-8 records of Golden-winged and perhaps just a single good record of Orchard Oriole and this was the second to be well documented and photographed in the province. The situation with Orchard Oriole in Newfoundland is an odd one because it seems to be underrepresented. The species is recorded several times annually in both New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, yes we have two records??!!The photos aren't among the best I've taken, but when your dealing with rarities documentation trumps aesthetics.

With the addition of the above mentioned species my current year total sits at 246. This is just one species short of the single year Newfoundland list record. My original goal of 260 species is well within reach. If I really go hard and we have an influx of good birds 270 might not be totally out of the question, although that's an almost unimaginable number. In fact, 247 was thought to be unbeatable and 260 was thought to be somewhat outlandish, so who knows!

I'm still working on the Common Ringed Plover piece. I need to dedicate a couple of hours to get it clued up. Look for it in the very near future.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Katia Update and Looking Ahead

As promised here is an update on the track of Hurricane Katia. When I last posted a couple of days ago things were looking pretty exciting. The storm was forecast to track relatively close to the eastern seaboard then re curve to Newfoundland. Well, all of that has changed. Now it looks like Katia will come under the influence of a strong low pressure system ( remnants of TS Lee)which will steer it well off the coast of Newfoundland.

Note that all the models have Katia passing well east of Newfoundland. Good news for everyone but birders!

Having said that all is not lost. If the remnants of Lee remains relatively strong and sweeps up the coast combined with Katia, it could still bring us some stuff but will not have the potential to carry pelagic birds. If Katia gets within 200 miles of the eastern seaboard and then passes within 200 miles of Newfoundland it will still be worth looking for waifs that could have been carried in our general direction and then continued to our shores to rest.

Ok so it looks like Katia will be a bust but I'm an optimist. I'll just brush this let down aside and move on. While is this hugely disappointing my years of languishing as a Leafs and Cubs fan have taught me a thing or two about let downs and disappointment! So, just like there is always next season, there's always another storm. I guess its a toss as to what will happen first, a hurricane driven fallout of birds, a Toronto Maple Leahs Stanley Cup or a Cubs world series. Considering its been 54 years since our last hurricane fallout and 45 years since the Leafs last won the cup, it could be close! I won't even mention the Cubs!

Anyway, that next storm is on the horizon, well figuratively speaking. There is a system currently named 95L ( storms don't receive names until they reach tropical storm strength) that's developing off of Africa. This storm is already looking pretty organized with lots of heavy thunderstorms. Its in an area of extremely warm water and it looks to be destined to become a tropical storm and probably a hurricane. its' way too early to consider tracks but its forming south of where Katia formed,which will give it a better chance of getting close to the eastern seaboard. So I'll keep an eye on that one and update accordingly!

One can always hope!!

Look for something on Ringed Plover identification coming up. I found a juvenile Ringed Plover on the southern Avalon Peninsula two days ago. It's the 6th ( 3rd juvenile)I've found in Newfoundland and the 10th provincial record. As a juv its a bit tougher to id then an adult. I'll talk about some of the finer point of separating juvenile and Ringed and Semipalmated in the next update!

ps: the Ringed Plover was 239 on the year. This morning I added a Gnatcatcher for 240. That brings me within 8 birds of the Newfoundland big year record.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Keeping an Eye on Katia and Revisiting Some Old Storms

It's been several months since I last updated this blog. I apologize to my regular readers for the lack of new content. I've gotten inordinately busy with work and life in general. But now that I'm back there are a couple of things I want to talk about.

My Newfoundland big year continues to chug along. It has been a great year for rarities and I've accumulated a list of 238 species seen to date. This currently sits just 9 species short of the Newfoundland year list record. If there are even a few gettable rarities this fall I will likely have a shot at my goal of 260. In my next post I'll do a bit of a recap of my year so far and will include photos and discussion of some of the rarities.

As well,we are in the middle of the Atlantic hurricane season. It has been the second most active season on record and promises to continue to be exciting in the next couple of months. This is not a topic I take lightly. Hurricanes cause enormous damage and disrupt bird populations. However, for birders they can be very exciting because they have the potential to displace birds over vast distances. These storms have been happening since time immemorial and will continue to occur. They will continue to displace birds. If the birds are coming anyway, we might as well enjoy them.

It has been a long time since Newfoundland has seen a hurricane borne fallout of birds. Well, that's not entirely true. In late October of 2005 the remnants of Hurricane Wilma combined with the passage of a strong low pressure system and rained Chimney Swifts, Swallows, Terns and Yellow-billed Cuckoos all over Atlantic Canada. It was perhaps the single largest displacement of hurricane driven birds ever!! Unfortunately, we blew it big time!!! Newfoundland birders failed to organize and there was no concerted effort to look for storm driven strays beyond the Avalon Peninsula. There were a bunch of good birds found on the eastern edge of the Avalon including hundred of Chimney Swifts ( rare in Newfoundland),Gull-billed Tern, Sandwich Tern and a likely Royal tern that slipped through my fingers tips before I clinch the id!

Hurricane Wilma, bird fall out Newfoundland, track analysis

A number of factors combined to make this an extraordinary event. First of all the storm formed very quickly and intensified to one of the strongest hurricanes on record. I believe it had the lowest central pressure of any hurricane ever! It formed during a time (mid October) and in an area (Gulf of Mexico)where huge numbers of birds were migrating at the time. Even though the storm fizzled out and never officially made land fall in Newfoundland it combined with an intense low pressure system that allowed it to entrain birds until they finally escaped near the coast of Atlantic Canada.

To give you an idea of the significance of the movement of Chimney Swifts. Prior to Wilma I had seen 8 Chimney Swifts in Newfoundland in 10 years. On a singe day after Wilma, I saw over 150! Anyway, enough talk of that. I've been trying to suppress the memories of how bad we ( birders) botched this storm.

So moving on. Aside from Wilma you have to go back 53 years to September of 1958, when Hurricane Helene rained storm driven strays all over Western Newfoundland.The most notable species involved in this event were Laughing Gulls ( many hundreds) and Black Skimmers ( 10's). I don't think we have any records of Black Skimmer since.

This exactly the type of hurricane we need to bring in exotic terns and seabirds. Most important is the storms track over Tern rich Cape Hatteras, the speed at which the storm was moving. Couple this with the fact that the storm managed to miss the rest of the eastern seaboard and hit Burgeo, Newfoundland directly as a H1 hurricane. It was the perfect storm for a wreck of exotic sea birds!!

Laughing Gulls in Burgeo, Newfoundland after Hurricane Helen

A photo the day after the passage on Hurricane Helene. Taken from Burgeo Sept 29th 1958. This photo was borrowed from a great paper written by legendary Newfoundland Ornithologist, Les Tuck. it can be viewed here in its entirety. (

Since 1958 we have had a few other storms that have gotten us excited, but none have produced a significant fall out of hurricane birds. When we do get direct or near direct hits from Hurricanes they are often storms that have been well out to sea for the duration of their existence, never getting close enough to the Tern rich areas from Florida to Cape Cod. These storms often form near the Cape Verde Islands in Africa, then track west, north of the Lesser Antilles. They then start to intensify into hurricanes as they enter the warmer water, but often encounter strong steering currents from low pressure systems sweeping out from the eastern US. This results in the storms re curving away from the US coast and towards Bermuda,sometimes tracking on to hit Newfoundland, but more often missing us entirely.

Its still worth birding these storms however,since they have brought us a few good birds. We have had a couple of Least Terns and a White-tailed Tropicbird that have been found after the passage of such storms. Other highly pelagic species such as Sooty and Bridled Tern may also be possible after such storms. Below are some examples of such storms from the last few years.

Hurricane Florence of 2006,classic Cape Verde storm that re curved around Bermuda and was extra-tropical when it passed off the Avalon Peninsula on September 12th. A Least Tern and a dead White-tailed Tropicbird were found after this storm.

This much anticipated late August storm failed to produce anything too exotic, but we did find a rare Least Tern at Grand Bank, Burin Peninsula and there was a noticeable influx of shorebirds into the area.

This utterly useless storm powered in to the Avalon Peninsula on the morning of September 21st. It's winds(that peaked at 173 km/hr) left a path of destruction in its wake and failed to bring a single vagrant sea bird. This is exactly the kind of storm we don't want. If we're going to get battered we should at least get a few avian rewards as compensation!

So all of the above is an incredibly long-winded way of saying I get excited about hurricanes and the exciting birding possibilities they create. All of this rambling is made more relevant by the fact that as I type this Cat 1 Hurricane Katia is spinning its way west, currently lying about 600 miles ENE of the Lesser Antilles. Like other storms and some of the examples above Katia is predicted to intensify as it passes the Caribbean and then re curve in a North Easterly direction around Bermuda towards Newfoundland.

I've been following this storm since its genesis off the west coast of Africa and as of now the various computer models are having a difficult time predicting the track that Katia will take. Its not thought that the storm will hit either the Eastern US or Bermuda, but rather pass somewhere between the two. After that its any ones guess,since predictions of hurricane tracks greater than 5 days out are wrought with error. Well known Hurricane guru Dr. Jeff Masters in his latestBLOG entry said " It is still unclear how much of a threat Katia may pose to the U.S., but it is becoming increasingly clear that Katia will pass uncomfortably close to the U.S. East Coast. The trough of low pressure currently steering Katia to the northwest will lift out early next week, and a ridge of high pressure is expected to build in, forcing Katia more to the west. This decreases the danger to Bermuda, but increases the danger to the U.S. A second trough of low pressure is expected to begin affecting Katia by the middle of next week, and will potentially re curve the storm out to sea before it hits the U.S."

If Katia should track more to the west and pass within a 100 miles or so of the eastern US then re curve towards Newfoundland (giving a track similar to Helene in 1958) we could experience some exciting birding. Storms that stay far out to sea have limited possibilities like Tropicbirds and maybe Sooty and Bridled Terns. When a storm gets close to the US coast a host of new possibilities come into play such as Brown Pelican, Sandwich Tern, Royal Tern, Forster's Tern, Least Tern and others!However, this is a big if! The extended forecast models have been flip flopping over the last few days showing Katia making landfall in Newfoundland as far west as Burgeo and currently show it passing about 100 miles east of Newfoundland.

This is the ensemble model forecast. It basically shows a bunch of possible tracks resulting from various environmental factors, then shows a track median ( the white line). Note that several of these tracks would be very favorable for bringing exotic southern strays to Newfoundland.

Shown here is the storm pulse track which currently shows the storm passing east of the Avalon Peninsula. It is way too early to make an accurate prediction about how close the storm will come to Newfoundland, or how intense it will be when/if it does make it here. Note that several of the models have the storm tracking ina slightly more westerly direction. Shift the median track 200- 300 miles miles to the east and Christmas will be coming early for Newfoundland birders around September 12th!!

So of course, all of this is nothing more than idle speculation, which is half then fun in birding. It's probably half the skill as well. Knowing what to expect, knowing what the possibilities are and where to look for them. Many times the identification is the easy part. The tough part is putting yourself in the right place at the right time and that's something you can't learn from a field guide.

I look forward to following this storm on my blog and updating everyone on my big year exploits. Sorry for the long absence, I'll try to keep the ball rolling with more regular posts this time!

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