Friday, June 29, 2018

Diagnosing a Warbler Misidentification

Yesterday I was happened upon a photo of a bird labelled as a Palm Warbler. I was immediately interested in this, since the photo was taken near St.John's and Palm Warblers are quite rare in summer near St.John's. What made this even more intriguing was it was a mostly pale brown/whitish bird, meaning it would have been a 'Western' Palm Warbler.

There are two races of Palm Warblers in North American, the eastern race (Dendroica palmarum hypochrysea) and the western race (Dendroica palmarum palmarum). These two races are fairly easily separated by the extent of yellow on the under parts.

Palm Warbler fall plumage
Western Palm Warbler- note brownish overall, distinct pale supercilium- you can just see a hint of the yellow under tail coverts- also notes this is a fall bird, used to show how dull these birds could be (photo credit: western field ornithologists)

Palm Warbler on Spruce Tree
Eastern Palm Warbler- breeding plumage
Photo credit: web photo

So getting back to the original point, a Western Palm Warbler was photographed in St.John's, or was it? Below is the bird in question. It's odd for sure and I can understand the difficulty in identifying it.I thought it made an excellent example of the possible complexities of warbler identification, particularly as fall approaches.
Unusual Northern Waterthrush lacking streaking

This is an unusual bird to be sure. It's very nondescript and the most notable feature is probably the pale supercilium. This bird would also have been bobbing it's tail, which Palm Warblers also do. However, this bird provide a great learning experience. In birding, always be prepared for the unexpected and always consider unusual versions of typical species before settling on a rarer, less likely species as the identification. Now this isn't always easy to do. You think you've found something exciting, the blood is pumping and things get a little hazy. 

So is this bird a Palm Warbler or not? The answer is no. There a few features that this bird lacks that a Palm Warbler would have. This bird has pale under tail coverts, whereas Palm Warbler has yellow under tail coverts- even the western subspecies. This bird has pale legs, Palm Warbler always has black legs. Another thing I noted is the birds posture in the photo. The bird has a very horizontal posture, and has the front leg raised, which is common of birds that choose to walk rather than hop. Palm Warbler almost always maintains a much more vertical posture and does not walk, it hops. As well, if you are really getting particular this birds bill does look quite thick for a Palm Warbler as well.

If it's not a Palm Warbler, what is it? Isn't it obvious, it's a Northern Waterthrush! It's actually not that obvious because this is a very unusual individual. Typically, Northern Waterthrush has brown streaking over it's entire under parts, including the throat and the under tail as well. This bird seems to lack streaking completely in some areas and at best have thin, blurry streaking on it's flanks. This is all kinds of wrong for Northern Waterthrush, It does however, have the correct upper parts colour, the facial pattern is correct, including the colour and shape of the supercilium. Also, the leg colour is right and the birds posture is typical of what you would expect of a walking, rather than hopping species. Below is a normal Northern Waterthrush for comparison.
Northern Waterthrush in Balsam Fir
Note the extensive streaking below, typical of Northern Waterthrush and compare to the aberrant individual above.
When birding one always has to be aware of many things. The time of year, what's happening with bird migration at the time, your location and the likely or unlikely species for that location. Then when you see something that seems like it might be a rarity, it's always a good idea to consider an aberrant individual of a common species. I would strongly suggest that anyone who is birding in Newfoundland have a copy of the checklist of the birds of Newfoundland, or have access to it online to review. This checklist provides vital information to which species are seen in our province and indicates their likelihood in a given season. In this case, it would  not have been very helpful because, but it's a good idea to have one anyway!

Monday, June 25, 2018

The Identification of Newfoundland Empids

 The purpose of writing this article is to highlight the differences and the similarities in the three species of Newfoundland Empidonax Flycatchers, namely, Yellow-bellied, Alder and Least Flycatcher. I think this article is timely because I've seen many posts by Newfoundland birders and bird photographers over the last month, asking for help with the ID of an Empid they had photographed. This is not especially surprising, since this group of small look-alike Flycatchers, are among the most problematic groups of birds to identify.Through the course of this article,I'll provide a brief introduction to the genus Empidonax adn I will attempt to give you the skills necessary to separate the three Newfoundland breeding Empids. I'll also highlight the critical features to note, when attempting to identify any Empid, anywhere. This is not meant to be an exhaustive, or definitive study on Empid ID, it is intended for the novice- intermediate birder, or even for the experienced birder who has largely avoided Empid identification.

Before I get into the ID stuff, lets back this up a bit and clear up some of the jargon I've been using. So what the heck is an Empid anyway? Simply put an Empid is a member of the genus Empidonax. A group of small Flycatchers, most often, shades of muted yellows, buff, white and green. The name Empidonax is derived from the ancient Greek emphis, 'gnat' and anax, 'master', which seems to make sense, since they feed almost exclusively on flying insects. There are currently 15 species of Empids, of which only 3 breed and have been recorded in Newfoundland. There is one recent fall record of a Willow Flycatcher, that if accepted, would represent the first record for Newfoundland. Since it is ridiculously, identical to Alder Flycatcher, analysis of it's call notes using sonograms were used to identify it as a Willow Flycatcher and not Alder. Both Willow and Alder Flycatchers were once combined as a single species called "Traill's Flycatcher ". However, it was thought that birding was becoming too easy ,so the AOU found it necessary to create new species, that were nearly impossible to identify, to give expert birders more of a challenge.I'm joking of course, if they really felt this way they would split American and European Herring Gulls :)

So anyway, we have three species of Empids in Newfoundland. The most widespread by far is Yellow-bellied Flycatcher. If you see an Empidonax Flycatcher in Newfoundland, it's most likely this species- unless it isn't. The next most common is Alder Flycatcher. Alder Flycatcher is found throughout the province. It is rather uncommon on the Avalon Peninsula, but fairly well represented in the rest of the province in scrubby second growth forests. The third and rarest Empid in Newfoundland is the Least Flycatcher. Least Flycatcher is a rarity just about anywhere in the province at any time, except in the Codroy Valley, where it is generally expected and known to breed in small numbers.It's worth noting that in fall all bets are off, any of these three species could turn up at just about any coastal location during migration.

Now getting to the identification. Generally speaking, these species are dissimilar enough, that if you know what to look for and you get a sufficient look you can tell them from one another (in most cases). When identifying any Empid there are key features to look and I'll summarize them below.
Empidonax Flycatcher diagram showing ID features


Generally speaking Alder is the largest and most robust. It tends to have a big headed look and it has both the longest and widest bill. If you see enough it gives the impression of being broader across the shoulders- a fuller bodied look. Yellow-bellied is the next largest and is generally intermediate between Alder and Least. Least Flycatcher is the smallest of the three and has the slightest, pointiest bill. The differences between all three species are just a matter of millimetres, so it's not like we are talking about huge disparities. All of these traits are relative and become more useful with some experience. Note the Least Flycatchers below aren't exactly in a straight line, so account for that in your judgements.
Empidonax Flycatcher study skins
From left to right- Olive Sided Flycatcher (not an Empid!), Yellow-bellied, 3-6 Alder/Willow Flycatcher, 7-8 Least Flycatcher. Note the differences in the body colouration below, Yellow-bellied being mush more yellow than the other two empids.
Specimens from Royal Ontario Museaum

Wing and Tail Length

For birders in the field, I am mainly referring to the length of the exposed primaries, beyond the tertials on the folded wing. If you don't know what tertials are or can't picture what I'm referring to, then that's an excellent reason to book an online tutoring session with me or attend one of my workshops! :) As for tail length, we are concerned with how long the tail looks relative to the length of the wings. Since longer wings can intersect, covering part of the tail, this can make the tail look shorter than it actually is. This is why many beginning birders refer to gulls as having black tails. What they are actually seeing is the folded primaries that are covering the tail!
Primary projection for several different Empidonax flycatchers
Left: Yellow-bellied, top right : Least, bottom right: Alder
Note the portion of the primaries that extend beyond the tertials, it is very similar in Yellow-bellied and Alder, while Least is considerably shorter.Also note the broader pale edges of the tertials on Least in comparison to the other two species.
Traill's refers to Alder/Willow Flycatchers. The two categories we are most interested in are Primary ex and tail length. 

Least Flycatcher- Shortest primary extension and a relatively long tail compared to body length. Therefore this causes Least Flycatchers to look have more of a short-winged and long-tailed, sleeker look from behind than either Least or Yellow-bellied.

Alder Flycatcher- Alder has the longest tail- but it's also the largest of the three. It's primary extension, which longer than Least is shorter than Yellow-bellied. This creates a moderate look, with both moderately long wings on a longish tail.

Yellow-bellied Flycatcher - Yellow-bellied is intermediate in size between Alder and Least, but note that it has the shortest tail and the longest primary extension. This serves to create a much longer winged and shorter tailed impression than Alder or especially Least.

Eye Ring

Here is a short essay David Sibley wrote about eye rings and their importance in bird ID. Eye Rings are an important tool in Empid ID. Most Empids have a fairly obvious eye ring and the shape, colour and prominence (or lack thereof) of said eye ring, is a critical detail in separating the various species, including the three we are concerned with.
Empid eye rings, showing Least Flycatcher, Alder Flycatcher, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher
Yellow-bellied Left; Least- Center, Alder- Right
Note the differences in the colour shape and prominence of the eye ring.

Least Flycatcher- Has a bold eye ring that is often peaked at the rear of the eye. In my experience it is always white.

Alder Flycatcher- Tends to have a weak eye ring. This seems to be somewhat variable as is the colour. It can range from buff to white, but more often white. It is thinner than in either Least or Yellow-bellied.

Yellow-bellied Flycatcher- Eye ring is similar to that seen in Least Flycatcher. Similar in boldness and also shape. However it differs in colour, it's usually a yellowish-buff colour and never really white, like in Least or Alder.

There are some other differences as well, such as bill width and shape, head shape etc. These features tend to be difficult to discern in the field and their discussion is beyond the scope of this article. Given all the traits discussed above, the absolute best way to distinguish these species or any other Empid is by their vocalizations. 

Empids can be readily identified by their songs and while their calls are unique as well, they can be very similar and a number of species give 'quip' or 'whit' notes in the fall, further complicating matters. Below I will add links to both the songs and typical calls, for the three species in question. They are definitely worth learning!

Least Flycatcher song. Note the song consists of 'che bek' notes given in a rapid burst, usually of 3-5 or more. This is in contrast to Yellow-bellied, which gives a similar 'che bek' note in singles or with more time between calls. This is the typical call note of Least Flycatcher. The call is especially prominent toward the beginning of the recording.

Alder Flycatcher song 'free beer' and call. Call is more of a 'pip' rather than a 'whit'. Can be distinguished from the calls of Least Flycatcher with experience. It has other calls that is uses, but that is the common one.

Yellow-bellied Flycatcher song and call. Song is usually a single 'che bek' note. It can be repeated, but usually with longer intervals in between. The call is quite different being a whistled 'chu wee'

So to summarize. Here are some important points.

Least Flycatcher- the smallest of the three Empids discussed, a bold white eye ring that is often peaked at the rear. It has the shortest primary projection and the longest tail, relative to it's body length.

Alder Flycatcher- The largest of the three Empids we discussed. It has a moderate primary projection and moderate tail length, giving it a more balanced look than Least or Yellow-bellied. It has at best a weak and often thin eye ring, when compared to Least and Yellow-bellied, which is usually white, but can be buff. It is usually whitish below, with a grey wash on the chest.

Yellow-bellied Flycatcher- It tends to more yellow below than another of the three Empids listed here and the only one of the three than has any amount of bight yellow. The grey wash on the chest tends to be less noticeable. It has a bold, yellowish or buff coloured eye ring, not white as in Least and is always bolder than Alder. It tends to have give a long-winged, short tailed impression due to the combination of a long primary projection and a relatively short tail.

Below are some photos of the three Empids, can you identify them?
Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, typical individual

Least Flycatcher, typical individual

Alfer Flycatcher, typical indivual

Yellow-bellied Flycatcher in Newfoundland

These articles are quite time consuming to write if you enjoy them and would like to keep them coming, please considering supporting the page by donating using the paypal button at the top. Please do not feel obligated, but the support helps to cover costs for the Birding Newfoundland website and other costs etc. Thanks and stay tuned for the next one!

I am thrilled to be able to provide educational and entertaining content. However, these articles are very time consuming to write. If possible please considering 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

Saturday, June 23, 2018

What's Next!

In this segment I will attempt to predict new birds that could possibly be added to the Newfoundland list. Some of these will be total long shots, but most will have at least some basis in reality. I will attempt to provide justification based on species migration habits, proximity of other records to Newfoundland as well as, changing weather patters and habitat etc.

I am omitting Labrador for now, now because I have some kind of grudge against Labrador and it's fantastic people, more so because I don't know know about what's possible in Labrador to comment. To put it another way, anything seems to be possible in Newfoundland. In the number of few yeas they've had Yellow-breasted Bunting, Western Tanager and Lewis' Woodpecker!

The last three birds added to the Newfoundland list were Eared Grebe, Willow Flycatcher and Western Meadowlark. Two of these birds presented enormous ID challenges, with extensive analysis of calls (via sonagram) used to finally clinch the Willow Flycatcher. None of these birds were necessarily unexpected. There is a previous record for Eared Grebe from St.Pierre et Miquelon and previous records from elsewhere in Atlantic Canada. Willow Flycatcher has been know to breed occasionally in the southern Martimes. Since it is essentially identical in every way to Alder Flycatcher (aside from song and call) it may be overlooked on occasion. I don't have a lot of information on Western Meadowlark. Considering Eastern Meadowlark is extremely rare in Newfoundland, Western was a bit of a surprise, though not shocking. Again, this can be a very difficult ID, not only because Eastern and Western Meadowlark are extremely similar, but they can also be very secretive, often only allowing brief looks after being flushed (unless they are perched up singing)

So what's next? The Newfoundland list currently stands at 404 species, what might be 405? Well considering we are well into the the breeding season with shorebird migration starting in the next month, I will go with a shorebird. Newfoundland already has a nice shorebird lists with some exciting birds from, North America, Europe and Asia. We've had Marbled Godwit, American Avocet and Black-necked Stilt from Western North America, Northern lapwing, European Golden Plover and Common Redshank from Europe and our most recent shorebird added to the Newfoundland list was Little Stint likely of Asian origin.

This might be a bit of a long shot, but I'l going to go with Long-billed Curlew as the next bird to be added to he Newfoundland list (if a new bird is added between now and October). Long-billed Curlew has been recorded in both Nova Scotia and New Brunswick and there was a Long-billed Curlew shot in St.Pierre et Miquelon maybe 10+ years ago. This is a bird I see happening at Cape Race or maybe St.Shotts. It would be a thrill to find standing near the Cape Race lighthouse or walking the fields at the St.Shotts Sod farm. This is a species I've predicting would happen for a while and it still hasn't happened yet, so who knows.

This may become a regular series, depending on how people like it. In future posts like this I will be a bit more prepared and will try to gain access to photos of the various rarities that I mention, since it's always fun to see photos of rarities from the past.
Long-billed Curlew
Long-billed Curlew-plates from Sibley Guide

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Rarity Round Up- June 15-21

I've been trying to think of regular content for the blog to ensure that I am able to continue to post daily. I've decided to add a new article in the mix called Rarity Round Up. This is essentially a compilation of the rarer birds that have been seen in Newfoundland during the previous seven day period. This is not meant to be an RBA, though you are welcome to contact me for updates if you wish. This is a discussion of the various rarities.I will highlight some of the more special birds, and add a little context to the record, in terms of the birds history or lack there of in Newfoundland.

**Note** If I miss something or make an error please feel free to correct, or remind me!

** Note** These posts will be organized taxonomically, rather than by date.

Rarity Round Up June 15-21

There is a continuing Gadwall at Virginia Lake in St.John's, while on the west coast t(Deer Lake- Codroy Valley)there have been a rash of reports of Northern Shovelers, who are likely rare breeders on the island. There is also a continuing Tufted Duck in St.John's which has been seen at Burtons Pd, on the Memorial University Campus.

The star of the last week has been the Sandhill Crane in the Goulds. A genuine rarity on the island of Newfoundland, you are quite lucky if you have an opportunity to see one of these every few years, but if you are going to see one in Newfoundland, the Goulds has been a good spot over the years.

Not quite as rare but every bit as cool was a Long-tailed Jaegerthat was seen and photographed in St.Anthony. While primarily a pelagic species that comes ashore to nest on the Arctic tundra, Long-tailed Jaeger are occasionally seen grazing on berries on the barrens at coastal locations in Newfoundland. In Spring it is often the sleek looking adults, while in fall the birds seen ashore are often immatures, which present a bit more of a ID challenge.

It's nice to see several reports of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds this week. While it is known that Ruby-throats breed in small numbers in the Codroy Valley, pairs seen in Renews and St.Georges are very interesting!

In Flycatcher news there have been a few reports of Eastern Kingbirds, which isn't too out of the ordinary for the season, as well there were several reports of Olive-sided Flycatchers. There was a also an Eastern Wood Pewee photographed in Gander, where it is extremely rare. The majority of records for Eastern Wood Pewee in Newfoundland are from the SW coast and the Avalon Peninsula.

There was a Philadelphia reported and photographed near Murphy's Pond in the Goulds, where there is also a continuing Gray Catbird. A second Philadelphia Vireo was see in Bishops Fall in central. where a couple of Red-eyed Vireo's were reported as well.

It was a good week for Black-billed Cuckoo sightings with two, one in Trepassey and another photographed on a lawn in Cape Ray. This is a solid rarity in the province, but when we do get records they are often in the latter half of June. Seeing one in the open on a lawn is especially fortuitous, since they are generally quite a reclusive species.

As for Warblers, there were a few reports each of Cape May, Blackburnian and Bay-breasted. This has been a decent year for these three species of 'Budworm" warblers, whose populations seem to ebb and flow in the SW and W portions of the province. The good work of Vernon Buckle in Forteau Labrador, shows that area should not be overlooked, with a pair of Cape May's this week. There was also a Nashville Warbler reported in the Codroy Valley- not too surprising since there are probably small numbers of them there annually in Spring.

Saving the best for last the long staying Purple Gallinule still continues in the Waterford River area of St.John's. The bird is one of about 30 provincial records, but it was the first 'countable' bird that any birder has seen. Previous records of moribund individuals, birds on ships, bird in boxes and specimens, don't make it to your life list.

Hope you enjoyed this quick read, please let me know if this is something you would be interested in having me continue in the comments.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Newfoundland: The Avalon Peninsula in Summer

When one thinks of the worlds great birding destinations Newfoundland doesn't always come to mind, however, I'd argue that it should. Situated literally on the edge of the earth, Newfoundland is deemed one of the four corners of the world by The Flat Earth Society and it's easy to see why. The rugged coastline is made of up ancient fjords and jagged, precipitous cliffs.It is those cliffs that attract millions of seabirds to Newfoundland each Spring.
Gannets nesting on Bird Rock at Cape St.Mary's, Newfounldand
A very small portion of the seabirds nesting on the rugged coast surrounding Cape St.Mary's

Newfoundland's Avalon Peninsula is home to North America's largest colony of Atlantic Puffins (260,000 pairs) and the world's second largest colony of Leache's Storm Petrels (620,000 pairs). Aside from that there are 10's of thousands of Common and Thick-billed Murres and sizable populations of Razorbills and Black Guillemots and that's just the Alcids! The numbers of seabirds are literally mesmerizing. On more than one occasion I have been guiding people only to look see them staring agasp, at the spectacle before them. On one trip in particular I found myself in this state as I watched over 300,000 Alcids running on the water and taking to flight ahead of our approaching boat. The ocean was churned to white water by feet and the wings of the Murres and Puffins. It was one of the most stunning things I have ever witnessed. The sheer magnitude of life that was mind-blowing. It is something that I will never forget. In fact,I was so awestruck that I never even lifted my camera, I just took it all in. In fact, there is often so much going on, it's hard to know where to focus your attention. Do you look at the Humpback whale breaching or the swarms of Alcids flying by?Our Alcid breeding colonies are a photographers dream and here are a selection of photos taken by Jason Dain.
Common Murresm nesting in Witless Bay, Newfoundland
Common Murres on their nesting islands, Witless Bay, Newfoundland
Common Murre in flight
Common Murre
Razorbills nesting in Newfoundland
Razorbills, Witless Bay, Newfoundland
Atlantic Puffin in Newfoundland
1 of 500,000 Atlantic Puffins nesting in Witless Bay, Newfoundland
Atlantic Puffins Newfoundland
Fantastic photo ops abound!
After you are finished your jaw dropping experience with Alcids in Witless Bay, you are ready for a different, yet equally awe-inspiring visit to the Cape St.Mary's, Gannet colony. Both Witless Bay and Cape St.Mary's are well within driving distance of St.John's (Newfoundlands, capital city). 

At Cape St.Mary's you will visit the famed 'Bird Rock'. Bird rock is a 100 m sea stack, separated from the headland by just a few meters. There is no need for a 'big' lens to get great photos of the Gannets and Black-legged Kittiwakes. There are thousands of both species nesting meters away and this is a magical opportunity to observe the complex mating rituals performed by the Northern Gannets and they reinforce their life-long pair bonds.
Northern gannet pair with chick
Gannets preening each other as a hungry chick awaits a meal. Note Gannet chicks often lie with their heads down motionless to rest, the chick in the upper right is fine!

Northern gannet flying over colony
Prime nesting spots on Gannet rock are much sought after and hotly contested!
Northern Gannet with nesting material in mouth
Northern Gannet delivering nesting material

Moose in Newfoundland
The worlds largest member of the Deer family.
le="clear: both; text-align: center;"> While in the area it's always worth having a look for exciting mammals as well, since both Moose and the worlds southern most here of Woodland Caribou can also be seen here on occasion.

Caribou on Avalon Peninsula, Newfoundland
Woodland Caribou. Newfoundland's Avalon Peninsula hosts the southernmost herd in North America
If you feel like taking a break from seabirds, Newfoundland's Avalon Peninsula has a nice selection of the more sought after breeding boreal species. High on everyone's want list is Boreal Chickadee. Boreal Chickadee is truly a bird of the Canadian Boreal Forest. Breeding throughout Canada, but being particularly common in Eastern Newfoundland.
Boreak Chickadee in Newfoundland
Boreal Chickadee
There are many other Boreal specialties breeding in the somewhat stunted, Spruce and Fir dominated forests of the Avalon Peninsula. Among them are the fan favourite Pine Grosbeak.

Pine Grosbeak Newfoundland
Pine Grosbeak
This large member of the finch family is known locally by several names, two of the most colourful are 'Mope' and 'Foolish Looper'. The names are derived from their somewhat lethargic movements and their tendency to be exceedingly tame, often allowing very close approach. Other Northern Finches that are likely to be found include White-winged Crossbill and Common Redpoll, not to mention, American Goldfinch, Pine Siskin and Purple Finch.

Also among our more sought-after songbirds you will find a nice selection of Warblers. While the Avalon Peninsula is not the most warbler-rich part of the province. However, it does have good populations of the northern Boreal species and in combination with the remarkable sea birding, makes for some of the best bird in June, anywhere in North America. Some of the more likely species you are to encounter include, Blackpoll Warbler, Mourning Warbler, Northern Waterthrush, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Black and White and Wilsons Warbler. A short drive off of the Avalon Peninsula will net you a number of other species as well. Included below are just a small sample of the Boreal warbler specialties.

Black and White Warbler in Newfoundland
Black and White Warbler

Blackpoll Warbler in Newfoundland on ground
Blackpoll Warbler

Wilson's warbler in fir, Newfoundland
Wilson's Warbler
Northern Waterthrush while birding in Newfoundland
Northern Waterthrush

No article on the Avalon's specialty birds would be complete without include two of my all time favourites, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher and Black-backed Woodpecker. Both of these are at the top of the lists of visiting birders, since they are northern species, which can be difficult to find in the more southern climes of the US and southern Canada.
Yellow-bellied Flycatcher is often much easier to find than the much more elusive Black-backed, but with patience and a keen ear, one should be able to track down a Black-back. Of course, the assistance of a top quality bird guide doesn't hurt either ;)
Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, while birding in Newfoundland
Yellow-bellied Flycatcher

Black-backed Woodpecker while birding in Newfoundland
Black-backed Woodpecker

This has been a very brief introduction to birding Newfoundland's, Avalon Peninsula in June.The area has so much to offer the travelling birder, not the least of which is a a rich cultural experience, fantastic food, great music and an overall fantastic time with some of the nicest, most genuine and sharing people, you will find anywhere in the world. If you would like assistance in planning your Newfoundland adventure, Birding Newfoundland is here to guide you every step of the way from itinerary planning, custom guiding and all inclusive tours. You can find us at

I am thrilled to be able to provide educational and entertaining content. However, these articles are very time consuming to write. If possible please considering 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
Fatbirder's Top 1000 Birding Websites

Monday, June 18, 2018

The History of Tufted Duck in St.John's, Newfoundland

The history of Tufted Duck in Newfoundland is a very interesting one. It perfectly highlights how quickly things can change in just 20-30 years. Tufted Duck, by all accounts is rare bird in North America, it is listed a code 3 species for the ABA area, meaning it occurs annually, but in very small numbers. In most places in North America, a single Tufted Duck gets people quite excited. After all it is a primarily a European species, breeding throughout temperate Eurasia and has yet to be confirmed as breeding in North America (more on that later). It is a member of the genus Aythya, which also includes the Scaup, Redhead, Canvasback,Ring-necked Duck, Ferruginous Duck, Hardhead (yes that's a real species, look it up!) and the Pochards. As, well, it's flashy, Primarily black and white, but it's head has an iridescent quality and of course the breeding plumage males have that tuft!
Tufted Duck, Adult male, Newfoundland
Tufted Duck (adult male, breeding plumage)
Adult female Tufted Duck, St.John's, Newfoundland
Tufted Duck (female)

So anyway, what's the big deal about Tufted Duck and what's so interesting about it's history in Newfoundland? In looking at eBird data for Tufted Duck the first report for the species in Newfoundland was in October, 1986. Now it's entirely possible that that there are earlier records (and there probably are), but they would have been singles here and there, they were a legitimate rarity.

Starting somewhere in the early 2000's Tufted Duck numbers in Newfoundland began to increase dramatically. The chart below, which displays the high count for Tufted Duck in St.John's between the years 2000-2018 shows the explosion in their numbers. Our Tufted Ducks usually begin to arrive in early October and numbers build over the fall, usually peaking in early winter. The numbers then remain stable until May when there is a drastic decrease.
We used to be happy if we had a handful of overwintering TUDU's. Then one year we had a dozen, then 20, then 50. The all time high was 84 this year. How much higher can it go?

The working assumption is our Tufted Ducks come from Iceland, where they breed, then migrate to Newfoundland to winter, then returning back to Iceland in Spring. That seems strange because why wouldn't they just stay and breed in Newfoundland? There is plenty of appropriate habitat and the very similar Ring-necked Duck does quite well here. However, the instinct to migrate is very strong and likely strong enough to cause they birds to make the long trip back to Iceland each Spring. Having said all of that, there is some suspicion that a few may be sticking around to breed, since we have been seeing the odd Tufted Duck X Ring-necked Duck and even some suspicious looking Tufted Duck X Scaup hybrids. It may be just a matter of time before we get our first breeding record of Tufted Duck in Newfoundland.
Tufted Duck hybrid while birding in Newfoundland
Tufted DuckX Ring-necked Duck
Note the grayish wash on the flank, which is typical of RNDU, versus the pure white flanks of TUDU. Also note the partial tuft, which of course is absent in RNGU
Tufted Duck hybrid wing pattern
Spread wing of the TUDUx RNDU. Note that the pattern of white in the wing is about mid way between what would be expect for either TUDU or RNDU

I would normally spend some time discussing the identification of Tufted Ducks and how they are best separated from similar species, however, I will discuss all of that and more in this winters Duck Identification work shop. In that workshop, you will learn everything you wanted to know, and more, about Duck identification in Newfoundland.

You can book through my website at

I am thrilled to be able to provide educational and entertaining content. However, these articles are very time consuming to write. If possible please considering 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

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Little Bird, Big Voice!

I remember the first time I heard a Ruby-crowned Kinglet singing. I thought what the heck is that! I search and searched looking for what could be singing so vociferously. Then when my binoculars fell on a Ruby-crowned Kinglet I could hardly believe it. How could such a loud, long song, come from such a small bird!

Sine that time Ruby-crowned Kinglets have been the bane of my birding efforts on more than one occasion. I remember doing bird surveys and straining to hear distant warblers, when all of a sudden a Ruby-crowned Kinglet starts wailing away from the tree tops. These birds have attitude to spare!

However, if they aren't singing Ruby-crowns (RCKI) can be somewhat difficult to see and they don't always show that nice Ruby crown.
Ruby-crowned Kinglet, while birding in newfoundland
Ruby-crowned Kinglet- The ruby crown is barely visible in this photo
and is often not visible in the field
What is always visible is a bold eye ring, a wing bar and those yellow/gold edges to the flight feathers. As well, RCKI's constantly seem agitated and flick their wings nervously as they move about. This is something most warbler species, do not do (Ruby-crowns aren't warblers of course, but are often with them in mixed flocks). As well, it's worth noting their call note at this time, since they only sing during the breeding season, the rest of the year their scratchy call note is all you'll hear.

Ruby-crowns are one of the first arriving songbirds in Newfoundland often arriving in late April or early May, when it is still quite cold. Interestingly, they leave quite early as well, since their numbers  thin out significantly into August and they can be hard to find in September.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet showing ruby crown
Ruby-crowned Kinglet showing off it's ruby crown

While they are in Newfoundland they do some amazing things, including lay a truly massive clutch of eggs. Ruby-crowns can lay up to 12 eggs and while each egg weighs on 1/15 of an ounce, the combined weight of the clutch can weigh the same as an adult Ruby-crowned!While you would think that all that singing and egg laying would burn a tremendous amount of energy, these frenetic birds are incredibly energy efficient and metabolic studies of Ruby-crowns have found that they can burn up to as little as 10 calories a day!

I'll leave you with a couple more photos of these little gems. See what I did there...gems...the bird's name is Ruby-crowned Kinglet...Ok, enough of that! Stay tuned for upcoming posts that will include more species profiles, quiz birds, ID features and much much more!

Ruby-crowned Kinglet showing ruby crown
A red mohawk any punk rocker would be jealous of!
Ruby-crowned Kinglet showing ruby crown
Notice me!

Friday, June 15, 2018

Old Friends Reunite!

I was looking through some old photos and came across one that I hadn't seen in a long time of two Yellow-legged Gulls, photographed together at Quidi Viki Lake, in St.John's, Newfoundland in early October 2011. While Yellow-legged Gull is a major rarity in North America, it has become somewhat of a Newfoundland winter specialty over the last 15 years or so, with one or more birds usually present from September- March. On this particular day I located two Yellow-legged Gulls together among a mixed flock of Gulls loafing in a ball field near Quidi Vidi Lake. While I was super excited  to see them, you can imagine their surprise when they saw each other some 2500+ km's from their Azores home! My fiance added the caption at the time.I thought it was amusing and figured I'd share it :)
Two Yellow-legged Gulls together in Newfoundland
YLGU's, presumably of Azorean origin. The individual on the right is perhaps a little more typical of fall birds with a more extensive hood of streaks. They are completely white headed by Christmas.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Species Profile - Yellow-bellied Flycatcher

In keeping with the theme of highlighting Newfoundland's breeding Boreal species, today I've decided to take a closer look at Yellow-bellied Flycatcher.

Arriving in the last couple days of May or early June, this diminutive flycatchers song is part of the sound track of the Boreal Forest, along with Fox Sparrow, Blackpoll Warbler and Northern Waterthrush- just to name a few.

It's song is an almost comical 'chebek', or sometimes shortened to just 'bek'. It also uses a whistled 'chu-eee', which is oddly similar to the call note of Semipalmated Plover! Aside from those two common vocalizations it also has a lesser used third vocalization, which is a burry, 'churrr' (listen closely at 1:21)note. It often uses this call when moving from branch to branch or during inter-specific interactions.
Yellow-bellied Flycatcher in Newfoundland
Yellow-bellied Flycatcher

Yellow-bellied Flycatcher is by far the commonest flycatcher in Newfoundland and is often the only expected Empidonax flycatcher in the Eastern half of the province. In some central locations and South Western Newfoundland, the Empid situation gets a little more complicated, since Alder Flycatcher and Least Flycatcher are also possible (the latter being somewhat rare). However, with some experience, separating Yellow-bellied from these two species is relatively straight forward.

 Yellow-bellied is just that, yellow! In breeding plumage at least, it is significantly more yellow below than either Alder or Least, which can be quite pale. It's is also a more even green above, in relation to our other Empids- both Least and Alder can have some grayish areas on the upper parts, with least sometimes being quite grayish on the back of the head. It's most distinctive facial feature is it's bold yellow-buff eye ring, which is often peaked at the rear of the eye. Least Flycatchers eye ring can be similar, but never as yellow. Well, this wasn't meant to be an ID Empid ID piece, I'll save that for another post!
Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, yellow bellow and eye ring
Yellow-bellied Flycatcher (note the yellow belly!)

This has been a very trying breeding season for Yellow-bellied's this year with June temperature being, well below normal, with some areas experiencing heavy frost and even significant snowfall and freezing night time temperatures. Since Yellow-bellied Flycatchers feed almost exclusively on flying insects, they have been seen by meany people desperately searching for food on lawns and in other areas one would not usually see them.
Yellow-bellied Flycatcher in Newfoundland
Note the thick buffy eye-ring, peaked at the rear

Yellow-bellied Flycatcher in Newfoundland
Note the strongly bi-colored bill that I forget to mention in the body of the post!

Now into the middle of June, the Yellow Bellied's have been back for only a couple of weeks and they are already about 25% of the way through their stay in Newfoundland. It's a race against time for late migrants like the Yellow bellies. They migrate all the way from Central America to the northern Boreal forests, for at the most, a little over two months, only to turn around and endure a massive journey back to their wintering grounds. Lets hope our weather improves soon so these birds can get down to doing what they came here to do.

You can find a more thorough examination of the ID of Empidonax flycatchers in the article, "The Identification of Newfoundland Empids. Which gives a number of great tips for identifying Empids not only in Newfoundland, but anywhere!

Popular Posts