Thursday, August 23, 2018

Common Ringed Plover in North America: Records, Analysis and Identification: Part l

The purpose of this article is simple. It is meant to be a thorough discussion of the presence of Common Ringed Plover in North America. I will examine all the records for the species of North America, discuss trends in vagrancy for the species; and I will examine the identification of Common Ringed Plover in detail. I will examine a number of unusual individuals of both Common Ringed and Semipalmated Plover in an effort to find the best and most consistent means of separating these two species in all plumages.

While this article is intended for North American birders identifying Common Ringed Plover, it will certainly also be of use to European birders who are seeking to identify Semipalmated Plovers among flocks of Common Ringed Plovers.

Range, Records and Pattern of Vagrancy

Lets gloss over some brief compulsory range information.Semipalmated Plover breeds across the northern portions of the Canadian Arctic, and Alaska, south to Newfoundland and perhaps parts of Nova Scotia. The very similar Common-ringed Plover is primarily an Old World species breeding across northern Eurasia and making it as far south as Northern France.

In North America, Common ringed Plover breeds in Greenland as well as, Baffin Island and perhaps in scattered locations in Alaska as well. Semipalmated Plovers winter in parts of the southern US and throughout coastal South America. Common-ringed Plovers on the other hand head for extreme southern Europe and Africa.

Common ringed Plover also occurs as a vagrant species in North America. It is extremely rare outside of Alaska  and Baffin Island but there are at least accepted records for 6 US States and 4 Canadian Provinces (based on current eBird data). However, there are more records for Eastern Newfoundland, than for the rest of Canada (excluding Baffin Island) and the lower 48 combined, with near 20 records since 2006! Below are all of the records for Common Ringed Plover in eBird.

Records for Common Ringed Plover for Mainland Canada and the Lower 48

1989, Nova Scotia - October 7th (no details)
1990, Massachusetts - September 5 (adult)
2000, Quebec - July 7th (adult)
2003, New Brunswick - August 26th (adult)
2006, Washington - September 23rd (juvenile)
2010, Massachusetts - September 11th (juvenile)
2010, Quebec - May 29th (adult)
2011, California - August 24th (adult)
2013, Massachusetts - May 20th (adult)
2014, North Carolina - May 15th (adult)
2014, New York - August 24 (adult)
2016, Ontario - August 20th (adult)
2016, Illinois - September 14th (juvenile)
2017, Nova Scotia - September 1st (heard only)
2017, Massachusetts - September 12th (juvenile)

There are a total of 15 records for mainland Canada and the lower 48 (listed in eBird). There is some notable information which can be gleaned from these records. First, notice the increase of records from 2010 onward. I think there could be a number of factors at play, but chief among them are, more birders and a better network connecting them ; the boom in digital bird photography, which has allowed many of these birds to be photographed and the ID's confirmed ; better field guides and photos on the internet, which have improved our ability to id cryptic species such as Common Ringed Plover.

Of the 15 records, 12 are adults and just 3 are juveniles. This makes sense, since juvenile Common ringed Plover can be very difficult to identify in the field. I think it is likely that there will be an increase in the number of juveniles identified over time, as our ability to separate them from the extremely similar Semipalmated Plover improves.

It's also worth noting the timing of the records. The vast majority of the records are in late summer, primarily the last week of August through the first half of September. It would seem that adults are possibly any time during the late summer shorebird migration, while records of juveniles were confined to mid September. This is not surprising, since juveniles of most shorebird species migrate later than adults. I will discuss the Spring records separately, later.

Records for Common Ringed Plover for Newfoundland

1980 - August 24, (adult)
         - September 21 (adult)
2001- August 15th (adult)
2006- August 20th (adult)
          September 16th (adult)     ( an adult female and juv at the same location)
          September 16th (juvenile)
2007- September 2nd (adult)
2008- July 27th (adult)
2009- September 15th (juvenile)
2010- August 7th (adult)
2011- September 4th (juvenile)
2013- August 16th (adult)
2014- August 23rd (adult)
          August 15th  (adult)
2017- July 29th (adult)
          July 10th (adult)
          August 5th (adult)
          August 19th (adult)
          August 26th (adult)
          August 28th (adult)
          August 29th (adult)
          September 10th (adult)

Many of the Newfoundland records come in two years, 2006 and 2017, when there were 4 and an astounding 8, different individuals recorded. The CRPL invasion of 2017 (to eastern Newfoundland) probably merits its own article, and that is something I will explore at a later date. Other than the two big years, Common Ringed Plover is essentially annual in eastern Newfoundland, though it was notably absent from 2015 and 2016.

For a discussion of the 2006 influx, see the following North American Birds article " An Influx of Common Ringed Plovers in Southern Newfoundland in autumn 2006" I coauthored with fellow birder, Jared Clarke.

It is also worth noting that distribution of the records of CRPL in Newfoundland. All, but two of the records are from the eastern or southern edge of the Avalon Peninsula. This is probably partly due to the eastern facing edge of the Avalon being well positioned to collect stray birds from Europe, but it's also worth noting that this is by far the most birded part of the province. There are many excellent shorebird areas in other parts of the province, that get sparse coverage at best, so undoubtedly many CRPL's must pass through Newfoundland undetected.

The timing of records for CRPL in Newfoundland seem to mirror those of records elsewhere in North American, with adult occurring from mid August though early September and juveniles almost exclusively in the first half of September. As well, the proportion of adults to juveniles is also very similar, with 3 of 22 CRPL's in Newfoundland being juveniles and 3 of 15 CRPL records outside of Newfoundland pertaining to juveniles. As stated above I would expect to see the number of records of juveniles increase as our ability to identify them with confidence increases.

Where do Vagrant Common Ringed Plovers Originate?

There are 3 subspecies of Common Ringed Plovers (Charadrius hiatcula)

C.h.psammodroma- breeds from the Ferroe Islands and Iceland to Arctic Canada

C.h.hiatcula- breeds in Britain, south Scandanavia, Northern and Eastern Europe

C.h.tundrae- breeds from northern Scandanavia to Russia

It would seem to make sense that birds that have appeared Washington and California would belong to the Russian subspecies C.h. tundrae, since that is the commonly occurring species in Alaska. As for the records in the eastern half of North American, the situation is a bit more murky, with perhaps both psammodroma and hiatcula possible. Separation between these subspecies is difficult and to my knowledge people have not tried ( or have not been successful) identifying vagrant CRPL's in Eastern North America to subspecies.

C.h.psammodroma migrates from it's breeding grounds in Arctic Canada and Iceland to the coastal Africa. It is conceivable that these individuals get drifted off course, or perhaps some individuals get mixed up in flocks of Semipalmated Plovers. To me of more interest are the few Spring records of CRPL.

The vast majority records for vagrant Common Ringed Plovers in North America are in late summer, as part of the annual autumn shorebird migration. Only 3 off the 37 records documented in this article are Spring records, all occurring in late May. Interestingly, there aren't any Spring records for Newfoundland. This is notable since Newfoundland routinely gets European (Iceland bound) shorebirds in Spring, with European Golden Plover being annual and a number of records of other European shorebird species including, Common Redshank, Black-tailed Godwit, European Oystercatcher etc. I think the Spring Common Ringed Plovers on the eastern seaboard, are birds that had been drifted to  Eastern North America in fall and then over winted with Semipalmated Plovers in the extreme southern US or South America and then migrated back North along the east coast of North America, where they are then detected. This is the situation that is thought to be responsible for many Spring records of Ruff, Little Egret, Garganey and other European species.

Common Ringed Plover Identification (adults)

It is my experience that adult Common Ringed Plovers stand out fairly well in a group of Semipalmated Plovers, provided you have some experience with Semipalmated Plovers. Even from a distance they often appear slightly paler, perhaps slightly larger, with a distinct supercilium that trails the length of the auriculars. Common Ringed Plovers often appear as though the black face mask has been pulled more snugly, thus extending lower on the face. As well, often the entire auricular is black, extending all the way to the white band on the neck. In Semipalmated Plover the facials mask often fades to brown as it nears the side of the neck. All of this combines to give Common Ringed Plover a more contrasty look to the head in general. These features, although subtle, combine to create a different looking bird even from a distance, and gives the observer reason for further scrutiny.
Common Ringed Plover in Newfoundland
The Common Ringed Plover is the first bird on the left. Note how it appears different from the two Semipalmated Plovers. Don't be concerned with trying to pick out fine detail, just note the different impression you get from the bird; the more contrasty face and paler upper parts.
There isn't always this much difference in the thickness of the breast band. Note also the more extensive white forehead, with sharper contrast against the paler head. Also note the difference in the face. See how the black lores of the Common Ringed on the left are consistently thick versus the Semipalmated on the right, whose lores thin notably near the bill.
Note the paler look of the Common Ringed on the left. Common Ringed's often appear a paler, sandier brown than Semipalmated. Also, note the more contrasty look of the face, created by more extensively black auriculars and a more impressive supercilium. 

So far I have focused just on the impression a Common Ringed Plover gives when you see it among a flock of Semipalmated Plovers, but things are quite that easy. now it's time to break down some of those details we mentioned above (and a few others) and take a closer look. Recognizing a possible Common Ringed Plover is only part of the work, now it time to focus on clinching the ID!

I am going to focus on several key features that help to distinguish these species. It's worth noting that most of these features are variable and there is some overlap between the species. I will explain, when necessary, which features are the most reliable and most useful and which have the most overlap.

The key features I will focus on are;

- face mask ( auriculars and lores)
- white forehead
- orbital ring
- bill size
- breast band
- upper parts colour
- toe webbing ( or lack thereof)
- wing stripe (in flight)

Face Mask (do the lores meet the gape)

By face mask I am referring to the black area on the face that wraps around the cheeks on the side of the face, from the auriculars to the base of the bill. Of particular importance is the width of the black lores and if they extend to meet the gape.

Common Ringed Plover head pattern
Collage of Common Ringed Plover facial patterns
Note** - how the lower edge of the face mask extends to meet or dips just below the gape.
             - also note the shape and extent of the white supercilium. Note how it trails along the upper edge of the dark auriculars
             - dark orbital ring
             - note how the white forehead extends to form a point towards the inner edge of the eye, or even extending below the eye
Note how contrasty the faces of these Common Ringed Plovers above look with the extensive supercilium and dark face mask. Then compare these to the collage of Semipalmated's below. Pay particular attention to the gape, note the dark lores do not meet the gape line on the Semipalmated Plovers below. Also, notable are the pale orbital rings and much less extensive or lacking supercilium (this is quite variable). It's also worth noting the white fore head. Notice that Common Ringed Plover there is a greater tendency for the pale forehead area to reach the orbital ring or to terminate in the point just in front or below the eye. At this point you should be starting to see some notable differences in the head patterns of these two species. We will now compare the two side by side to highlight some of the features already discussed.

White Forehead Patch (shape and extensiveness)

One of the features that I've always found helpful is the shape of the white forehead in Common Ringed Plover and how it often forms a point reaching the front of the eye, or many times extending below the eye in a very narrow line. If you note above, Semipalmated seems ( I say seems because there is always an exception) to always have a relatively thick dark area between the white forehead and the eye. Below we will look at a couple of side by side comparisons to nail this important point home!

Comparison of Common Ringed and Semipalmated Plovers
Semipalmated Plovers above and Common Ringed Plovers below. Note the difference in the shape of the white forehead patch, especially how it forms a point towards the eye (and often reaches the orbital ring) in Ringed Plover. There is almost always some dark area separating the white forehead patch from the orbital ring in adult Semipalmated Plovers.
Orbital Ring Colour

The other important feature to note on the face of any Semipalmated or Ringed Plover is Orbital ring colour. Look again through the photos above and note the differences in orbital ring colour between the Common Ringed and Semipalmated Plovers. Any Common Ringed Plover being claimed in North America should have a dark orbital ring, just as any Semipalmated Plover being claimed in Europe or Asia should have some yellow or orange/yellow in it's orbital ring.

Having said that in high breeding plumage some Common Ringed Plovers DO have yellow orbital rings! This should be gone by the fall when most Ringed Plovers are seen in North American, but it might be a concern for potential Spring records.

Common Ringed Plover head, yellow orbital ring
Note the yellow orbital ring. Even if a bird such as this was seen in North America, it should be identifiable based on the extensive supercilium, and and facial mask which meets the gape. 
One character that people often cite when speaking of identifying Common Ringed Plover is the breast band and specifically how thick it is. While this is a not able feature, in my experience it is not at all reliable, there is some overlap between Common Ringed and Semipalmated Plovers in this feature AND the relative thickness of the breast band can change dramatically based on the birds posture.

Sure the breast band of an average Common Ringed is thicker than that of a Semipalmated, but it really is only a supporting feature at best. Note below some examples of breast bands in Common Ringed and Semipalmated Plovers.

Just to give an idea of how deceiving breast band thickness can be. The bottom bird is a Semipalmated Plover. This is probably the largest breast band I've ever seen on a Semipalmated Plover, but it shows the danger of relying too much on the thickness of the breast band for separating these two species.
Another feature that is of dubious usefulness is bill shape and size. I have seen 7 Common Ringed Plovers in Newfoundland. For most of those birds I could convince myself that the bill was larger; mainly longer, kind of appearing as though the outer 1/3 was extended just a little more. I think in direct comparison you can see that Semipalmated Plover does have a stouter, less tapering bill. However, this is very subtle and is likely some overlap involved, especially when comparing males Common Ringed's with female Semipalmated's or vice versa.

When it comes to separating Common Ringed and Semipalmated Plovers there are two absolutely fool proof characters to look for and they are, toe palmations and call. The problem is depending on how far away the bird is or the substrate it's feeding on, the feet may not even be visible and even if they are, you will probably want a photo to actually observe the webbing or lacktherof.

It is VERY important to note that both Common Ringed and Semipalmated Plovers have partial webbing (semipalmations) between the middle and outer toes (however, the webbing on Semipalmated is much more extensive). However, only Semipalmated Plover has webbing between the middle and inner toes. See the photos below to clarify this.

Comparison of toe webbing of Common Ringed and Semipalmated Plover
Semipalmated Plover left and Common Ringed Plovers on the right. Note the much more obvious webbing between the middle and outer toe of Semipalmated Plover and slight webbing between the middle and inner toes. Common Ringed on the right shows very slight webbing between middle and outer toes and no webbing between middle and inner toes.
Call Note

Aside from the toes other sure fool proof way to separate Common Ringed and Semipalmated Plovers is by call. Semipalmated has quite a sharp 'pew-it' or chu-wee, while Common Ringed has a much softer almost mournful 'too'li'.

The problem with using call notes for ID purposes is, it can be hard to isolate the call from one shorebird among a big flock, but if you can the call is certainly diagnostic.


That pretty much sums it up for the adults. In the Part ll of this article I will discuss the identification of juveniles and will also look at some more problematic individuals of both species. It's important to remember that when identifying either a Common Ringed Plover or Semipalmated Plover out of range, that a number of characters must be used to secure the ID, since there is overlap in some features and other features are very subtle.

In general most adult Common Ringed Plovers seen in North America, occur between mid August and mid September. They generally will appear paler than their Semipalmated congeners, with more contrasty faces, owing to a more extensive white supercilium, darker auriculars and dark lores that reach down to the gape. An important and apparently consistent feature is the shape of the white forehead, which is wider in Common Ringed and often reaches the orbital ring, terminating in a point at or below the eye. While Common Ringed Plovers have thicker breast bands on average than Semipalmated, this character should be used with caution, since there is much overlap and the apparent thickness of a birds breast band can change dramatically with the birds posture {whether alert with neck raised (thickest) or relaxed with neck squat down against the body (thinnest) }.When possible the two diagnostic features are the lack of palmations between the middle and inner toe on Common Ringed and differences in call note. While difficult to see in the field, quite often it's possible to obtain photos of the birds toes, which help greatly in securing the identification.

**Note** there differences in the amount of white in the wing, that I didn't discuss, mainly because I never had any good flight shots. I will discuss that feature in the follow up to this article and will update this article in time as well. As it stands there is more than enough information in this article to identify any out of range Common Ringed Plover.

Lastly, I would like to thank those who contributed photographs, namely my good friends and local Newfoundland birders, Bruce Mactavish and Alvan Buckley.

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy some of the other 120+ articles on the Birding Newfoundland Blog. Some of the latest articles include.

(select blog archive in pages, to see all previous articles)

I am thrilled to be able to provide educational and entertaining content. However, these articles are very time consuming to write. If possible, please consider subscribing to the blog with a very small monthly fee via the subscribe button. This will help to cover costs of website maintenance and all the other expenses that go into producing the content. Whether you subscribe or not, you will still have access to all the content, the small subscription fee is just a means of showing your support. Thank you!

Support Birding Newfoundland- subscription options
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Sunday, July 29, 2018

The Ptarmigan of Newfoundland

Ptarmigans are great birds and in fact, many of the "chickens" or game birds are among my all time favourites. While they are nice to see, there is often nothing easy about finding them! This is perhaps due to the fact that these birds are also prized by hunters, so Ptarmigan have a reason to be wary.

Ptarmigan are plump birds, with short legs and small conical bills, which are perfect for cracking seeds or plucking berries from their barrenness habitat. All Ptarmigan belong to the genus Lagopus. This name is fittingly derived from the Greek lagos, meaning "hare" and pous meaning foot. This is in reference to the birds feathered legs and feet, which help them stay warm and gain purchase on their, rocky and often icy terrain.

Newfoundland is home to two species of Ptarmigan, Willow and Rock. Our Willow Ptarmigan is also known as Red Grouse in the UK. While neither species is particularly easy to find in Newfoundland, Willow has a much greater range and is by far the species you are most likely to encounter.

Range and Habitat

Willow Ptarmigan

Willow Ptarmigan are found throughout the province of Newfoundland, most often in coastal, rocky barren areas, where they are quite unlikely to encounter a Willow! Some of the best areas are on the Avalon Peninsula, on the barrens between Cappahayden and Portugal Cove South, Cape Race Rd, and the Cape Pine Road.

Willow Ptarmigan are known by several names locally and one of them is "patridge". While Willow Ptarmigan is not a correctly a patridge, part of it's diet certainly consists of the "patridge berries", (known internationally as ligonberry) which grow in dense patches on the subarctic barrens of coastal Newfoundland. The windswept coastal barrens on the Avalon Peninsula will often have exposed patches of these berries, even in winter and if they are snow covered the Willow Ptarmigan have a solution for that as well- they simply dig through the snow to reach them!

Of course, Willow Ptarmigan also make use of a variety of seeds and insects as well, in the warmer months. I have seen Willow Ptarmigan feeding on the seeds from exposed branches of Alder bushes sticking up through the snow on several occasions.

Rock Ptarmigan

As for the much less common Rock Ptarmigan, their range is much more restricted in the province, primarily due to their apparent association with high altitudes. If you want to see a Rock Ptarmigan in Newfoundland, there are few choices as far as locations, and none of them are easy to get to! The way pretty much everyone in Newfoundland see's their Rock Ptarmigan is by climbing Gros Morne Mountain. The summit is about 800 meters and the hike takes a 5+ hours at least. At the top, you may or may not be rewarded a with Rock Ptarmigan, that is the chance you take! It would appear that Rock Ptarmigan stay true their name, their habitat is very rocky, add that's putting it lightly!
Gros Morne Newfoundland, Rock Ptarmigan
Gros Morne Mountain, Newfoundland


Identifying Willow and Rock Ptarmigan in Newfoundland is actually quite easy, since the two almost never overlap. It is worth noting though, that both species change their appearance seasonally, to provide better camouflage against their surrounding environments. I will include a series of photos of both species below that will highlight some of the identifying features, differences and seasonally changes that both species undergo.

Willow Ptarmigan, Newfoundland
This female Willow Ptarmigan has begun it's moult to it's white winter plumage. In years with little snowfall a white Willow Ptarmigan stand out on against the barren ground. Some Willow Ptarmigan on the Avalon never turn fully white, while others do.

Willow Ptarmigan flock, Newfoundland
Flock of Willow Ptarmigan in breeding plumage, Cape Race Rd. The vast majority of times I've seen Willow Ptarmigan I have seen them by flushing them off the roadsides while driving slowly. Ptarmigan and other games birds will often frequent the edges of gravel roads to collect 'grit'.

The rufous necks and breasts of the above male Willow Ptarmigans are unique to the species and make them easily separable from other Ptarmigan species when in this plumage. Male Rock Ptarmigans are a well patterned gray or grayish brown and never have the rufous tones of Willow Ptarmigan.
Male Rock Ptarmigan in Newfoundland
 Rock Ptarmigan (male). Note the colour of the neck and breast especially and compare to the birds above, Rock Ptarmigan is much colder in appearance.
Male Rock Ptarmigan, partially moulted to winter plumage in Newfoundland
Rock Ptarmigan (male) part way through it's moult to winter plumage. When completed the bird will be totally white, except for the dark lores, red comb and black tail.
Photo: Alvan Buckley

Male Rock Ptarmigan, partially moulted to winter plumage in Newfoundland, Canada
Another shot of a moulting male Rock Ptarmigan, you can get a sense of the elevation in the background
Photo: Alvan Buckley

The photos above display both Willow and Rock Ptarmigan in either breeding or transitional plumage. Lets take a look at the stark white winter plumage, noting especially how well it allows these birds to blend into their snowy surroundings.
Willow Ptarmigan, winter plumage, Newfoundland
A completely white individual. Note that it lacks the dark lores shown by Rock Ptarmigan in similar plumage. Also note the relatively thick bill (for a Ptarmigan) which is evident even in this photo.

Willow Ptarmigan, winter in Newfoundland
Some Willow Ptarmigan retain elements of their breeding plumage throughout the winter. Is this the same of all populations? At times the wind swept barrens where these birds live has frequent sections of exposed ground, in those cases this plumage might be a more effective camouflage than a the above bird, which is totally white.

Rock Ptarmigan in winter in Newfoundland
Rock Ptarmigan (male) winter plumage, note the black lores and thinner bill than seen in Willow Ptarmigan
I will conclude with a couple of close shots allowing comparison of the bills of both Willow and Rock Ptarmigan. Note the thicker bill of Willow Ptarmigan.
Rock Ptarmigan and Willow Ptarmigan
Willow Ptarmigan on left and Rock Ptarmigan on right. Note how much thicker the bill of Willow Ptarmigan is than the Rock Ptarmigan on the right.

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy some of the other 120+ articles on the Birding Newfoundland Blog. Some of the latest articles include.

(select blog archive in pages, to see all previous articles)

I am thrilled to be able to provide educational and entertaining content. However, these articles are very time consuming to write. If possible, please consider subscribing to the blog with a very small monthly fee via the subscribe button. This will help to cover costs of website maintenance and all the other expenses that go into producing the content. Whether you subscribe or not, you will still have access to all the content, the small subscription fee is just a means of showing your support. Thank you!

Support Birding Newfoundland- subscription options
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Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Birds of Newfoundland: Dovekie AKA Bullbird

If you were ask a rural Newfoundlander where you might find a Dovekie, you would likely be met with a confused look. However, if you asked where you could find a Bullbird, then you would likely become engaged in a lengthy conversation about the diminutive Alcid, and when you left that person's house, after eating a meal and meeting their family, then you would be back on your search for a Dovkie, AKA a Bullbird!

Yes, Dovekie goes by many names. There is the scientific name, Alle alle, Bullbird in Newfoundland (as explained above),or Little Auk in the UK and Europe. Regardless of the name, with which it's called, all birders agree that seeing a Dovekie is a great thing, and often the highlight of a birders year.When you think about it. It's easy to see why Dovekie is so beloved by birders. It really does have all the key elements to be a birders favourite.


Dovekie ranks high on the cuteness scale. It's a pudgy, big headed and yet small at the same time. On the water it looks like a black and white nerf football with tiny little wings. Dovekies sit low on the water and often seem to be tilted forward, like the weight of their head is causing them to tip. Indeed, they do not look like a bird capable of thriving in the North Atlantic in winter, yet they do. Which brings us to our next point.

Dovekie calling, birds of Newfoundland
Dovekie in breeding plumage, Greenland.
Photo: Carsten Egevang


Dovekie is far from a rare bird in the grand scale of things, but rarity is a relative term. For North American birders Dovekie is often seen one of two places, Alaska (where there is a small breeding population) and Newfoundland (where they winter). Of course, they are seen other places as well at times. If you take a winter pelagic trip off the North Eastern seaboard in winter you may encounter Dovekies. As well, they can also be seen in the other Canadian Atlantic Provinces. However, as a rule, Newfoundland presents the best, easiest and most civilized way, for many North Americans to have their Dovekie experience. Quite often Dovekies can be see at VERY close range in Newfoundland in winter. At times, I have seen thousands of Dovekies in a single day. While, there are other places to see Dovekie in winter, can they claim that? To see Dovekies go about their business in the bitter oceans off of Newfoundland in winter is a great experience and if you have not see it, you should! This brings me to the final reason for the love affair between Dovekies and birders.

Dovekies in flight, birds of newfoundland
A flight of Dovekies in Greenland
Photo: Carsten Egevang

There is something remarkable about those birds that choose to live life under the harshest possible conditions. While most birds are fleeing Newfoundland to escape our winter, Dovekies are just arriving to bask in it. Dovekies have found a way to thrive under circumstances that would be perilous to most other bird species. Having said that, not all Dovekies make it through the Newfoundland winter unscathed. During intense winter storms there are occasionally 'wrecks' of Dovekies. Essentially, some birds are driven by the harsh 100+km/hr winds into Bays, or worse, onto land. In the photo below I am holding a Dovekie prior that I rescued prior to release.

rescuing a trapped Dovekie
An OLD! photo of me holding a Dovekie that I rescued from the rocks. You can really get an idea how small these birds are when holding them in your hands.
Photo: Ken Knowles
Dovekie escapes from Herring Gull
Dovekies are small but they are fighters! Against all odds this bird escaped and was none the worse for it's encounter with this Herring Gull
Photo: John Williams

I have helped many people see their first Dovekie over the last 20 years, and not one of them were let down, no one was disappointed. Seeing a 6 inch long bird that weighs 150 grams expertly maneuver crashing waves and fierce swells, really is a sight to behold, and one that often leaves a lasting impression on a person.

This is the point in the article where I would like to take a minute to indulge in a little shameless self promotion and mention the Birding Newfoundland, Winter Birding Experience Tour, January 12th-17th 2019! Of course, Dovekie will be one of the star attractions but not the only one. Read the tour description for a full list of species and details. Now back to the article :)

So we have established that Dovekie are truly loved and I've tried to explain some reasoning for this. Now lets get some background information, where do these birds breed, what do they eat, who eats them? Yes you won't want to miss all the scintillating details of the traditional Inuit dish Kiviaq, which I've heard described as 'the Turducken from hell'!

Where do Dovekies Breed and Where do they Winter

Dovekies breed in Greenland, Iceland, Nova Zemeya Don't be afraid to use the link to see where this place is, I had to), and Svalbard. In North American they are known to breed on a number of islands in the Bering Strait and the Bering Sea.

Greenland hosts some truly massive numbers in the order of 30-60 million pairs! While Dovekies don't have a massive breeding range, they manage to cram a lot of individuals into their limited range. Dovekies will cram nests into rock crevices or beneath large rocks on these very precipitous slopes, where like other Auks, they lay a single egg.

Dovekies Greenland, birds of Newfoundland
A mass of Dovekies, Greenland
Photo: Carsten Egevang
As I previously stated many Dovekies winter in the waters off of Newfoundland and in other parts of the North Atlantic. They can also be found in the Norwegian sea. Wherever they are found, they feed primarily on small crustaceans called Copepods. If necessary they will also take other marine invertebrates and even small fish.

Dovekie in Newfoundland in winter
Dovekie in winter plumage. Note that Dovekies lose their black bib in winter and are all white below with white wrapping around the side of the head forming a cheek patch. This cheek path can be seen from quite some distance.
Photo: John Williams
We have learned a bit about Dovekies so far. We know where they breed,  where they winter and we know that birders love them. You probably already knew the later, since you are likely among their admirers! When possible, I like to include interesting facts about species that I highlight, including their meaningful interactions with humans. Do you remember when I mentioned Turducken from hell, it's time to explain what I meant by that.

It would seem that food can get quite scarce when you live in Greenland, I mean even the Dovekies leave in winter! So native Inuit had to be extremely ingenuitive to ensure they had enough food to make it through the long harsh Arctic winter. You likely have heard of the saying 'make hay when the sun shines'? The Inuit applied this to capturing Dovekies during the short Greenland summer. 

Thousands of Dovekie would be harvested, but how to store them without them rotting before winter? One solution is to take a Grey Seal, skin it, but leave the blubber lining, you don't want to waste that!. Then you take about 400 or so Dovekies, complete with bills, feet, feathers and stuff that seal skin until its full and then sew it up. You then take this Dovekie-stuffed Seal sausage, and bury it under rocks and let it ferment for a few months. After a few months you dig it up and voila you have the Inuit delicacy known as Kiviaq! After this extended period of fermentation the Dovkie meat is said to smell very ripe and I can believe it! I think I can almost smell it though the screen.

Kiviaq: Native Inuit delicacy of Grey Seal skin, stuff with Dovekies and left to ferment.

Hopefully, you enjoy the article and maybe even learned a little something about Dovkies and maybe even gained a new dinner recipe! I'll end with another amazing photo from Carsten Egevang, a great photographer who has spent considerable time in the Arctic doing a variety of activities, including taking breathtaking photos. Since I lost my Dovekie images when a hard drive crashed I thank everyone who contributed photos who made this article possible. I strongly recommend checking out Carsten's website here, where among other things you can purchase some amazing wall art.

Dovekies in flight in Greenland
Backlit Dovekies, note their characteristic shape in flight, a nerf football with wings!
Photo: Carsten Egevang

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy some of the other 120+ articles on the Birding Newfoundland Blog. Some of the latest articles include.

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Sunday, July 22, 2018

Separating Spizellas: Identification of Clay-coloured vs Chipping Sparrow in Fall Plumage

While the identification of breeding plumaged Sparrows is generally quite straight forward.Note in the photos below there is nothing difficult about separating these species in Spring. However, things tend to get much trickier in fall, when these Sparrows lose their more distinctive features, in favour of a more drab appearance, not to mention the appearance of juveniles.

Clay-coloured Sparrow singing in Newfoundland
Clay-coloured Sparrow, Newfoundland, June
Chipping Sparrow in Newfoundland in June
Chipping Sparrow in Newfoundland, June

For this article I will be focusing on the genus Spizella and more specifically the Clay-coloured and Chipping Sparrow complex. From a Newfoundland perspective this generally isn't a big deal, since both Chipping Sparrow and Clay-coloured are rare in the province, aside from a small breeding population of Chipping Sparrows in SW Newfoundland. However, both Chipping and Clay-coloured Sparrow are see in Newfoundland in fall in small numbers, usually in October. A flock of 4 Clay-coloured Sparrows in Ferryland on the Avalon Peninsula last fall was extraordinary, since these birds are generally seen in singles, since they are a vagrant to the island. Before

So, there is some reason to be familiar with these two species, which seem to cause birders some trouble. However, if you know what to look for I'd argue that most individuals of these two species can be separately fairly easily. If you do not have a working knowledge of the facial features of Sparrows and the terminology, I'd recommend you take a quick look at this article I write earlier this summer, which will give you a nice refresher!

There are a few features we will key in on to separate these two look-alike species, namely, facial pattern,  and rump colour.

Facial Pattern

Both Chipping Sparrow and Clay-coloured Sparrow have complex facial patterns, but there a couple of key features to note when trying to separate them that I will highlight in the photo below. Note especially differences in the shape, extent and darkness of the eye line, and the lores (area between eye and bill) as well as the submoustial stripe. The presence of a darker submoustacial stripe often on Clay-coloured Sparrow tends to more clearly devide the malar from the malar from the throat, meaning that the malar is often more noticeable on a Clay-coloured than a Chipping Sparrow in the field.

As well, the cheek pattern (auriculars) on a Clay-coloured Sparrow tends to less defined. In Chipping Sparrow the dark eye line, being more noticeable provides a clear border for the upper edge of the ear coverts. Chipping Sparrow has a weaker submoustacial line, it's malar  (pale line formed by the bottom edge of the ear coverts and and sub moustachial line) is not as prominent and seems to blend more with the throat. 

There is a lot of technical jargon in these two paragraphs I know.!If you can't follow it, see the link above for a break down of all of the facial feature of Sparrows. Read these paragraphs a few times if you have to and refer to the photo, so you can see the differences.

Note especially the darker more prominent eyeline and lore of Chipping Sparrow. Clay-coloured on average has more noticeable moustache and sub moustachial stripe and always has pale lores

Based on what you learned above, which species is this?

Rump Colour

Fortunately even if you flush one of these species and you see it fly away there is important information to be gleaned! Aside from differences in facial features these species have characteristically different rump colours. This holds true for all individuals, both juveniles and adults. Chipping Sparrow always has a gray rump, while the rump of Clay-coloured Sparrow is always brown. Note the differences in the photo below.
comparison of Clay-coloured and Chipping Sparrows
Note the gray rump of the Chipping Sparrow on the left and the brown rump of the Clay-coloured Sparrow on the right. Also, note how the gray rump of Chipping Sparrow contrasts with the brown back, while the rump and back of Clay-coloured is much more concolourous.
I'll conclude with a couple more, unlabelled photos, see if you can applied what you learned in the article to identify them correctly and confidently!

Clay-coloured Sparrow
Easy right!?
Chipping Sparrow
Which one?

Please check the rest of my blog for 100+ other articles, including many more ID articles, general interest pieces etc. Also, if you would like to know when we post new content, follow Birding Newfoundland on Facebook. To get information on tours and ID workshops please see our website!

You may also be interested in,

An Illustrated account of Dovekie, AKA Bullbird

Northern Goshawk: An Episode of Raptor on Raptor Violence!

Birder's: A Subculture?

Answer to the quiz birds above are, 1) Clay-coloured, 2 Clay-coloured and 3 Chipping

I am thrilled to be able to provide educational and entertaining content. However, these articles are very time consuming to write. If possible please consider subscribing to the blog with a very small monthly fee via the subscribe button. This will help to cover costs of website maintenance and all the other expenses that go into producing the content. Whether you subscribe or not you will still have access to all the content, the small subscription fee is just a means of showing your support. Thank you!

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Saturday, July 21, 2018

Birds of Newfoundland: Solitary Sandpiper

As it's name suggest Solitary Sandpiper is a bit of a loaner. It's not a bird you will see in big flocks like other Tringa Sandpipers, such as Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs. You might see a small flock of a few individuals but that's about it and even that is a rare occurrence.  Solitary Sandpipers can't seem to get along with one another. Unlike many other species of shorebirds that will flock together to migrate, Solitary Sandpipers are territorial and aggressive towards one another year round.

Their solitary nature is the primary reason why this species of shorebird remains a bit of a mystery. Solitary Sandpiper was first described in the early 1800's, but no one found a nest until 1903. There is good reason for that, since people were probably looking for their nests on the ground, which is where virtually all shorebirds nest. However, Solitary Sandpipers (along with close relative Green Sandpiper) are the only shorebirds that nest in trees! They actually reuse the nests of other species, such as American Robin and other songbirds.

juvenile Solitary Sandpiper Newfoundland
juvenile Solitary Sandpiper, Cape Broyle, Newfoundland, August

Status in Newfoundland 

Solitary Sandpiper is rare on the island of Newfoundland. If you are lucky you might see one or two a year on the Avalon Peninsula. It's possible the species might occur more regularly in western portions of the province. They do however breed in Labrador, though I don't believe they are overly common there.

Part of the rarity of Solitary Sandpiper in Newfoundland is likely due to it's habit or migrating alone, as well as it's choice of habitat. Solitary Sandpipers are mainly found in freshwater, at the edges of small ponds, or even large puddles. Occasionally, they are seen in brackish areas as well, but they usually don't remain there long.

Where and When to see Solitary Sandpiper in Newfoundland

As I stated above, Solitary Sandpipers are most often seen in freshwater pools, or pond edges. They are extremely rare in Spring in Newfoundland, but they are regular in small numbers in late summer  (early August- mid September). On the Avalon Peninsula, some of the regular places they have been seen in the past include, Ruby- line Pond in the Goulds (before it grew into a marsh), Forest Pond, Cochrane Pond Road, Cape Broyle (the brackish pool there where the tame ducks are), Renews (some of the inland areas) and a few other places around Portugal Cove South and St.Shotts sod farm. People who aren't local will have to forgive me, you have no idea where these places are :)

Identification Pitfalls and Similar Species

Solitary Sandpiper is a member of the genus Tringa and is perhaps most likely to be confused with other members of that genus, though confusion with immature or basic plumage Spotted Sandpiper is also possible for inexperienced birders or if the views are fleeting. 

In Newfoundland Solitary Sandpiper is most likely to be confused with Lesser Yellowlegs, especially a random Lesser Yellowlegs in a field or other freshwater site, where one might expect to find Solitary Sandpiper. Lesser Yellowlegs are most often seen in flocks of the much more common Greater Yellowlegs and usually in harbours at low tide and other coastal sites.

Both Solitary and Lesser are medium sized Tringa Sandpipers. Their bills are similar in length and similarly coloured, though Lesser's is somewhat thinner towards the tip and straighter. Solitary Sandpiper's bill is greenish with a variable amount of black on the outer half and ever so slightly drooping.
Solitary Sandpiper Newfoundland
Note the slight droop in the bill at the tip

Comparison of Solitary Sandpiper and Lesser Yellowlegs in Newfoundland
Solitary Sandpiper left and Lesser Yellowlegs right

In direct comparison Solitary Sandpiper and Lesser Yellowlegs are relatively easily separate. Note especially the following differences,

Facial Features

- Solitary always has an obvious, thick eye ring. In comparison to Lesser Yellowlegs, which does show a bit of an eye ring, but it blends into the pale supercilium, so it isn't as noticeably. Note that Solitary Sandpiper lacks a pale supercilium making the eye ring the dominant facial feature.


- Solitary Sandpiper has a greenish bill about the same length as Lesser yellowlegs but is usually thicker towards the tip and dropped slightly at the tip as well. Lesser Yellowlegs has a thin, straight bill, that is never dropped.


Solitary Sandpiper has green or greenish/yellow legs, whereas Lesser Yellowlegs has orange/yellow or bright yellow legs.


- Solitary Sandpiper shows a dark rump versus the white rump shown my Lesser Yellowlegs

Solitary Sandpiper flight, Newfoundland
Solitary Sandpiper showing characteristic dark rump. 
Note that any Spring Solitary Sandpipers or late fall, i.e. beyond 2nd week of October, in Newfoundland should be scrutinized with Green Sandpiper in mind. Green Sandpiper is the closely related European counter part of Solitary Sandpiper. They two species look very similar but Green Sandpiper has a white rump! Note that there currently are not any records of Green Sandpiper in Newfoundland and I don't think there are any in Eastern North American, BUT it could happen, so it's better to be prepared when it does!

Green Sandpiper in flight
Note the obvious white rump of this Green Sandpiper

I am thrilled to be able to provide educational and entertaining content. However, these articles are very time consuming to write. If possible please consider subscribing to the blog with a very small monthly fee via the subscribe button. This will help to cover costs of website maintenance and all the other expenses that go into producing the content. Whether you subscribe or not you will still have access to all the content, the small subscription fee is just a means of showing your support. Thank you!

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Thursday, July 19, 2018

Northern Goshawk: An Episode of Raptor on Raptor Violence!

This incident I'm about to describe happened a number of years ago, but it lives with me to this day as one of the most amazing, surprising and impressive things, I have seen in my 20 years of birding in Newfoundland.

It was in early October and I was birding on the south eastern portion of the Avalon Peninsula, in a barrenness area called St.Shotts.  The area is characterized by subarctic tundra and is virtually treeless, except for an area of stunted conifers that grow within a river valley. I was making my way out a dirt road within the community when I spotted a soaring Raptor. I stopped and got my bins on it- juvenile Northern Harrier. It was not a surprising sighting, since Northern Harriers are well known in the area.What happened next was very surprising!

Suddenly a second bird appeared and went into a stoop striking the Harrier! The birds tumbled briefly in the air before falling to the ground. I wasn't able to see what the other bird was, since everything happened so quickly. I jumped out of the car and ran to the area. The ground was very uneven, sloping. A mixture of grasses, stunted shrubs and rocks. I made my way over a small mound and there it was, a female Goshawk mantling over a Northern Harrier and not looking too pleased about my presence!

Northern Goshawk Kills Harrier
Northern Goshawk shortly after taking a Northern Harrier, St. Shotts, Newfoundland.
Incidents of raptor on raptor violence are somewhat of a rare thing in the bird world, but they do happen more that you may think. Northern Goshawks in particular seems to have a taste for the flesh of their Raptor brethren. In Europe Goshawks are well documented predators of Ural and Tawny Owls, but have been found to have preyed upon a selection of other raptorial species such as Long-eared owl, Short-eared Owl, Common Buzzard, Honey Buzzard and Common Kestrel. It has been suggested that Northern Goshawks have has serious detrimental effects on the population of Long-eared Owls and Ural Owls parts of Europe.

While science may suggest that Goshawks are a legitimate threat, the Northern Harrier clearly was not aware that it was a possibility on the Goshawks menu. It did not seem to see the Goshawk as a threat and it paid dearly for it. But what would cause a Goshawk to resort to taking what seem like a risky prey item, in the Northern Harrier?

In this area, Northern Goshawks probably prey mainly on Snowshoe Hare and Willow Ptarmigan. Snowshoe Hare populations are cyclical and though I can't remember, it's quite possible that there may not have been many Hares around that year. Similarly, Willow Ptarmigan numbers on the Southern Avalon Peninsula were low that year and as a whole seem to be lower than they were in the late 90's and early 2000's. Due to these factors it's possible that the Goshawk was formed to broaden it's perception of prey in include the Northern Harrier.

Northern Goshawk eating Harrier in Newfoundland
Northern Goshawk consuming Northern Harrier, St.Shotts, Newfoundland.
The Goshawk watched me just as I watched it. It would pluck a few feathers, then eat a little, the entire time it's gaze was fixated upon me. After I documented the scene with a few photos I backed off and let the Goshawk finish it's meal. When it was satiated it picked the Harrier up in it's talons and flew off with it, disappearing into the treed area in the river valley.

Never before or since, have I seen another incident involving one Raptor killing and consuming another Raptor. However, anyone who has mistakenly wandered too close to a Northern Goshawk nest knows just how vicious these birds can be. While I live for thrill of discovering rarities and unexpected species in unexpected places, scenes like this remind me pf why I started birding in the first place. I hope you enjoyed the article, if you have ideas for future content please feel free to mention in the comments or even better yet like my Birding Newfoundland facebook page where you can stay up to date on all our latest news. Information on personal guiding experiences, as well as up coming Tour info can be found here. Thanks and see you guys in the next one!

PS: check out the rest of the page to reveal 100+ more articles!

I am thrilled to be able to provide educational and entertaining content. However, these articles are very time consuming to write. If possible please consider subscribing to the blog with a very small monthly fee via the subscribe button. This will help to cover costs of website maintenance and all the other expenses that go into producing the content. Whether you subscribe or not you will still have access to all the content, the small subscription fee is just a means of showing your support. Thank you!

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