Tuesday, 26 April 2016

NOT a Mediterranean Gull!

This afternoon I received this photo in my email from John Gibbons on the Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland.
Before I could even read the text in the email my eyes immediately jumped to the image and I instinctively identified it as a Mediterranean Gull - and knowing the significance of the species I immediately shared the photo widely.

I've since learned my lesson to be a little more careful and do my homework before starting the sirens.

The bird is in fact a Black-headed X Ring-billed Gull hybrid. Having had no experience with that combo I didn't even consider it as an option.

The reasons this bird is not a Med Gull include the lack of a jet black hood, the eye ring should have two breaks creating crescents similar to a Laughing or Franklin's Gull, and importantly, the primaries have more black than should be found on a Med Gull. In fact, a standing Med Gull should appear to have white primaries.

Here is the same bird in flight:

A very stunning bird. And I apologize to the many people I sent the false alarm to!

And for comparison purposes, I'm including a couple photos of a similar looking bird photographed at Stephenville Crossing in 2005 by Bruce Mactavish:

Hopefully these photos will help me avoid making this mistake again!

In any case, I'm still ready for our Mediterranean Gull to show up. The species is expanding into Northwestern Europe, and Iceland recently had its first record!

Sunday, 17 April 2016

(Another) Adult Little Gull

It was April 22 last year when I saw my first Little Gull for Newfoundland. It was totally unexpected. There had been no previous April records, and what's more, it was an adult - one of very few previous adults in the province. That bird was actively migrating - not missing a beat on its journey North. Who knows where it came from or where it was going. It could have very well been a Little Gull from the European population.

Today I found another adult Little Gull at Witless Bay. This one didn't quite have a full dark head as in last years, but it was getting there.

Perhaps these two late April records are merely a coincidence or maybe in 20 years we'll realize they were the start of a pattern of small numbers of Little Gulls migrating through the island. Only way to know is to keep searching!

Those dark underwings can be seen from a mile away! Always a thrill to watch a Little Gull in flight.

Todays bird was associating with a bunch of bathing Black-legged Kittiwakes. Hopefully it sticks around and others get to see it.

Some interesting transatlantic winds are shaping up over the next few days. Fingers are crossed for some european flavour over the next while :)

Saturday, 19 March 2016

How Crossbills Feed

Crossbills use their specially adapted bills to pry open cones and extract the seeds. They always use their lower mandible such that it points towards the axis/centre of the cone. This means that only part of the seeds can be reached easily depending on the birds position or if the cone can't be removed from the tree and turned around.

Check out how this bird pries open the cone scale with its bill. Click on the picture to see a much bigger version :)

In the next picture you'll see that the same bird has its LOWER mandible pointed towards its LEFT. 
Review the above photo and you'll see that the lower mandible is pointing towards the axis of the cone.

But only 50% of crossbills have their bills crossed in this way. The other half have their bills in the opposite orientation. This bird has its lower mandible pointing towards its RIGHT:

Studies have shown that there is an equal frequency of left-to-right mandible crossings within the crossbill populations. This minimizes overlap in the use of cones and maximizes foraging efficiency.

This adult male is a lefty:

While this adult male is a righty:

Crossbills are an exciting species to observe. They descend upon spruce trees in chattering flocks of a dozen or more, and are often very approachable while they busily pry the seeds out of the cones creating a light flurry of little winged spruce seeds that float to the ground around you.

There is often a wide array of colours visible in a single flock from bright yellow young males to the deep pinks and roses of adult males. The young males can be a blend of yellow and red, while the females are rather greenish-yellow. Juveniles tend to have bolder streaking on the flanks.

Check out this close-up video of a WWCR feeding on a cone to get an idea of how they pry open those cones!

Another interesting tidbit about White-winged Crossbills is that they breed very early in the year to take advantage of maximal cone supplies. With the high numbers of crossbills in Newfoundland this winter I've been expecting to see breeding evidence. So far I haven't found any signs yet - maybe someone will beat me to it?

Compare these two maps of White-winged Crossbill sightings from winter 2014-2015:

And winter 2015 - 2016: