Friday 23 August 2013

James Bay Shorebirding - peeps

Shorebird numbers in the James Bay coast were dominated by peeps. Most abundant were Semipalmated Sandpipers, and White-rumped Sandpipers (1 000 - 10 000 per day). But, Least Sandpipers were also common (usually less than 300/day).

Least Sandpiper (LESA)

By the time my group got there 80% or more of the Least Sandpipers were juveniles. On our second day, Ross and I observed 2 juveniles standing side-by-side that looked noticeably different:
Both of these LESAs are juveniles, but the one on the right is much paler. The one on the left, is, in my opinion, a typical looking LESA. The paler one seems to be at the extreme end of 'expected' variation, and may even be pale enough to be considered slightly leucistic. What are your thoughts?

Semipalmated Sandpipers (SESAs) often flocked together:

Over the course of my 2 weeks, I observed 3 SESA's that stood out because of the amount of red colouring near the base of their bill. The redness of all 3 individuals was limited to this area which is a good indication that they were eating in mud that stained their faces a different colour. I wonder why only 3 of them had this stain?

Adult SESA with unusual red/brown stain

Juvenile SESAs were generally tamer, were in smaller flocks, and fed further inland than the adults.

White-rumped Sandpipers (WRSA) were also abundant. We saw no juveniles, which isn't a surprise. The adults that we saw displayed the whole range from breeding to winter plumages. This individual is fairly advanced into its basic plumage: it has replaced its mantle, scapular, and some of its wing covert feathers.

The WRSA's tended to be more common in the rocky areas.

Adult SESA on the left, adult WRSA on the right:

Juvenile Bonaparte's Gulls were seen everyday:

Barb and I saw a wolf that came fairly close:

We also saw Black Bears almost daily - this one was fairly close to our favoured strawberry patch:

Wednesday 21 August 2013

Satellite tagged birds

While in the Mackenzie Delta (Northwest Territories) this summer, I helped put satellite transmitters on 6 birds: 3 Whimbrels, and 3 Hudsonian Godwits.

Two of those Whimbrels are now in Atlantic Canada - 1 is in Newfoundland :)
The third one has left Atlantic Canada and is well on its way to Brazil, it undertook what is apparently a longer than 10 day non-stop flight (see the first link)!

All three Hudsonian Godwits are currently along the Hudson Bay coast. Interestingly, all 3 of them took indirect, and seemingly unusual flights to get there:

Tuesday 20 August 2013

James Bay shorebirding - Part I

From July 30 - August 14 I joined Mike Burrell, Ross Wood, & Barb Charlton for daily shorebird surveys.
Our location was hither:

Although we did not find any crazy rarities (like a PRFA...) we did see several thousands of shorebirds, which I would prefer any day!

From the chopper you can see the 3 huts we lived in and the bay near the top of the photo. The camera is pointed towards the West:

Here's a selection of the shorebirds we saw:

Our group counted over 300 Hudsonian Godwits every day, some days reached 600. After spending a summer with these beautiful birds it was great to see the various stages of molt of migrating birds. The bird on the right is much more progressed towards its winter plumage than the one on the left.

We managed to find at least 3 colour banded Hudsonian Godwits. This one has an engraved white flag with "MK". It was banded somewhere in Canada, I'm not sure where though.

HUGO flock:

Marbled Godwits weren't plentiful in our area. Most days we saw less than 10, and most were flybys.

Short-billed Dowitchers were only seen at the Southern most point in our daily hikes where there was a creek mouth. The creek attracted higher concentrations and diversity of shorebirds, likely due to the increased nutrition in the area. A group of 3 SBDOs regularly visited the creek mouth.
Check out the bent beak on the bird on the right. Their beaks are very flexible, allowing them to probe into the mud and move their beaks around to find worms.

At first I thought these 2 birds represented two different sub-species. But now I believe that they're both Hendersonii SBDOs, but the one on the left has more dull winter feathers than the other.

Wilson's Phalaropes were uncommon. I only saw 2 or 3 (can't remember... and our eBird checklists haven't been submitted yet :p  ) - including this fairly fresh juvenile. It still had down on its head and neck!
(Least Sandpiper in front)

Red-necked Phalaropes were similarly uncommon. The only place we saw them was at the creek mouth. At first we were seeing adults that were molting into basic (winter) plumage. But by the last day there was a group of 5 spankin' juveniles.

Sex bomb:

I only saw Red Knots on 2 days (our group saw them on 4 or 5 days). These juveniles allowed a close approach:

Pectoral Sandpipers were common in our study area. We almost exclusively observed adults; however, by the last few days we had found at least a few juveniles.


Unlike small peeps, I find PESA juveniles rather difficult to pick out and confirm. They do look 'crisper' (have a more scaly look), but the adults seem to look fairly fresh as well. The scapulars and coverts are more rounded on the juvenile, there is a more noticeable white 'V' on the back/mantle, and the streaking on the breast is more buffy.

Peeps to come soon!

Nice bum, where you from?
 -mosquitoes invading

Saturday 17 August 2013

One for the Gyr

(Apparently this didn't get posted 2 weeks ago when I had hoped it would... so here it is - buying me more time)

As I alluded to in a previous post, there were several predators that regularly harassed the shorebirds in our area on the Mackenzie Delta. The most unexpected of these, and most exciting was the Gyrfalcons!

And yes, there was more than one! And it gets even better :)

On our first day at camp it didn't take long to notice 2 falcons regularly hanging out around an abandoned communication tower that was literally 500m from our camp.

At that time, the area around their nest was entirely flooded so I wasn't able to get close to their nest and territory.

Soon enough the water receded, providing plenty of area for them to land on the ground where the adults often fed:

We soon learned where the favourite perches of the female and male were. The male preferred the very top of the tower, while the female usually hung out lower and closer to the nest, which was only about 1/5th of the way up the tower.

On June 21st, I climbed the 15 meters up the tower to look into the nest. I thought my biggest threat would be the adults if they decided to dive-bomb me. But they remained on their perches and only stared at me. I was however surprised by how loud and scared the chicks were when I stuck my head up. I decided to only remain long enough to get a picture before leaving:

On July 10th I returned to the nest with determination to ignore the screams of the chicks. By that time they had grown many more mature feathers, including their flight feathers. But they were still flightless so they couldn't flee my approach.

Although it doesn't seem like it in this picture, the bird on the right was noticeably larger than the one on the left. The size difference is probably due to gender, not age.

The main purpose of this visit was to see what birds they fed on, and to make sure there were no satellite transmitters from Whimbrels of Hudsonian Godwits in the nest. The transmitters cost over $3000, so it was worthwhile to see if one had made its way into the nest. Thankfully, no transmitters were found; however, many bird remains were found in the nest, and on the surrounding bog.

Here's a photo of all the bird parts we found:

We only managed to identify the remains of 3 species:
Willow Ptarmigan: By far the most common prey, with a minimum of 10 individuals found.
Whimbrel: Easily the second most common prey, with a minimum of 4 individuals found!
Northern Pintail: we found an intact head of 1 Northern Pintail.

Here's one of the Whimbrel wings:

The white primary shaft of the outer most primary confirms that this is a curlew species (Whimbrels are a type of curlew):

Kind of gruesome, but at least it's identifiable as a Pintail!

Willow Ptarmigan foot. We were surprised that Willow Ptarmigan were their favoured prey because there was no suitable habitat for ptarmigans close by, yet there were many breeding pairs of Whimbrel. Why would they fly several kilometers just to catch ptarmigan? Probably because it's an easy bird to catch, and there's a lot of meat on them.

Looks frightening, but I only suffered a tiny scratch on one of my fingers after the ordeal:

On June 19th the adult Gyrfalcons demonstrated their strength by chasing down an adult Peregrine Falcon that strayed too close to their nest. Both adults were on its tail, with the female directly behind the Peregrine, and the male also behind but higher than the other 2 birds. Eventually the adult Gyr's drove the Peregrine to the ground where they made quick work of its existence. Within 2 minutes they abandoned the dead Peregrine and returned to their watch posts by the nest.

 True story.