Friday 29 August 2014

Cristobal Amazes!!!

Today was one of those days I can see myself telling my grandchildren about in 50 years.

After seeing 10000 Leach's Storm-Petrels, 3 jaeger species, and 1 probable South Polar Skua, Ian Jones and I headed to Cape St. Francis where we had great looks (or at least as good as they get from land) at a young Great Skua exiting Conception Bay South!
Who can say they've seen 5 species of jaeger/skua in one day from land!? Well, I can't, but we sure came close!

2 adult Long-tailed Jaegers hidden in here:


Stunning looks at storm-petrels:

Absolute carnage:

Adult dark-morph Pomarine Jaeger:

But where were the birders!!??

More to come tomorrow or Sunday!

Thursday 28 August 2014

Cristobal Expectations

In short, I'm not expecting much tomorrow in CBS. The winds are too weak (<50km/h), have too much of an Easterly component for most of the night, and won't be strong until early morning to drive large numbers of seabirds into the bottom of CBS (Holyrood). We need stronger winds with a more Northerly component that last for longer throughout the night to push concentrations of seabirds into Holyrood for a bit of morning fun.

That being said, seabirds should be passing by Cape Spear & Cape St. Francis - but visibility will be hampered by the 30mm+ of rain that is expected over the next 24 hours!

Right now winds are peaking around 21 km/h from an ENE direction. By midnight it's expected to be around 44 km/h (NE) and around sunrise winds should have picked up to 50 km/h (NNE).

Generally, for a notable seabird event to occur in CBS we would need winds of at least 60km/h gusting to 80km/h for multiple hours. This storm will produce weaker winds, and for too short a time period. So I don't think there'll be many thousands of storm-petrels in Holyrood tomorrow morning, but there should be a few and hopefully some kittiwakes and phalaropes as well. I'm not expecting to see many or any jaegers at the bottom of the bay.

However, as the day progresses winds should increase and peak to about 60 km/h. This may force birds to fly by Cape Spear and Cape St. Francis - only problem is that there'll be a lot of rain, so visibility will be poor.

What's interesting about this storm is the time of year. I can't recall or find any late August Northeast storms in recent NL birding history - so this storm could result in a different mix of species than usual. The combination of a strong and far-reaching North wind along the labrador coast, and strong onshore winds along the northern Avalon Peninsula associated with Cristobal may produce an opportunity to see Sabine's Gull and Long-tailed Jaeger. Both of these species are quite hard to see in Newfoundland, rarely being seen from land and almost never hanging around in one area for long. However, the peak migration period of both species is between mid-August to mid-September meaning that this is around the most likely time of year to see them if they do get pushed close to shore.

My plan of action is to check out Holyrood at sunrise just in case there is a decent concentration of seabirds. I suspect there won't be and so I will make my way to Cape Spear or Cape St. Francis and hope that the driving rain will be manageable for a seawatch.

Should be some alcids around...

Tuesday 26 August 2014

Cristobal - 3 Days Out

Hurricane Cristobal is currently Southwest of Bermuda as a category 1 storm. By Friday it is expected to be well Southeast of the Avalon. Although this storm is very unlikely to bring southern vagrants to Newfoundland there is a good chance it will push local seabirds close to shore in good numbers.

Over the next 24 hours it is forecasted to travel North past Bermuda before swinging Northeast - the eye of the storm will be pretty much as far away from any land meaning that coastal seabirds like the abundant Laughing Gull are unlikely to be caught in the storm and carried to Newfoundland. There will also be limited winds with a southerly component from Thursday to Saturday because the storm will be passing too far to the East of us. However, a by-product of the storm will be strong and prolonged winds with a northerly component beginning on Thursday and peaking on Friday, and much weaker by Saturday morning. By Saturday afternoon winds will have switched to the West.

Here's the expected route the storm will take over the next few days:

The following wind maps give in indication of which direction the wind will be in, and how far-reaching those winds are. Click here to see the animation of these winds (once you open that page, click the word "earth" at the bottom left of the screen and then click the arrows next to "control" to see the forecasted winds for the coming days).

Winds will be from the Southwest on Wednesday but likely too weak to make any significant seabird movement into Placentia Bay. There should be shearwaters, kittiwakes, and a few storm-petrels there though.

By Thursday around noon there will be Northeast winds going straight into Conception Bay South. These winds will build in strength throughout the day and Thursday night before peaking around Friday afternoon. 

 Nice strong winds coming from the North- Northeast headed directly for Cape St. Francis and straight into Conception Bay South.

Winds on Friday are forecasted to be approximately 25-35 knots (~ 50 - 70km/h)

What does all this mean? Well it's always difficult to predict seabird events with much accuracy but with such strong winds I would be surprised if there are no Leach's Storm-Petrels in Holyrood on Friday morning. The hope is that the first Red Phalaropes of the season will be there, along with a few jaegers. In other words I'm hoping for one of those good ol' Holyrood seabird events!

A storm with similar strength in late September last year brought several hundred jaegers, a Sabine's Gull and thousands of storm-petrels to Holyrood:
See Bruce's nf.birds post here.
Lisa's blog for Jaeger pics here.

Another storm in late May of this year with similarly strong winds brought about 20 phalaropes and a few hundred leach's storm-petrels to Holyrood.

Check out these links for some fun nf.birds postings:
October 9, 2009
October 14, 2009

I couldn't seem to find any reports of seabird events in late August to help give us an idea of what the composition of species might be like for a late August Northeast storm - however, we know that skuas, jaegers, shearwaters, fulmars, storm-petrels, and phalaropes should all be around. We just have to hope that the winds will be strong enough for any or all of them!

The current plan is to be at Holyrood on Friday morning for sunrise. Depending on how things are there I will make my way to Cape St. Francis...

... I do like Cape St. Francis:

I'll be keeping a close eye on this storm over the next few days and will probably post an update on Wednesday or Thursday.

Saturday 23 August 2014

Common Ringed Plover - *NEW BIRD*!

Made my way down to the southern shore of the avalon peninsula today. Was hoping for a good passerine day - which transpired, but that wasn't the main highlight! After 11 species of warbler I got picked up by some other birders and dropped off at Portugal Cove South where after an hour of wandering around I stumbled upon another adult Common Ringed Plover!

This one was on a rocky beach with kelp which made it easier to approach and get up close looks at it. Which was great for local birders Andrea & Lancy who got their first ever looks at this tough to pick out species! And also great for me to get photos :)

First thing that made me look at this bird was the mere fact that it was an adult. All the Semipalmated Plovers I saw today were juveniles. I didn't think much of it at first though because the supercilium wasn't prominent. Then the bird turned towards me and the breast band looked unusually broad. The mantle seemed slightly paler than I would expect for a SEPL - but having no adult SEPLs around made it hard to compare. Luckily the bird was very confiding and I was able to get several up close photos of this bird to confirm that it was an adult CRPL. This is the 14th record for the island, and the second one this month.

My favourite photo of the day:
Shows everything you need to see. Broad breast band, lores meet the gape of the bill, no yellow/orange eye ring, and no webbing between the outer and inner toes.

 One thing I've noted about both CRPLs I've now seen in Newfoundland is that they have a habit of chasing away any Semipalmated Plovers that come too close to it:

Breast band at its broadest:

 Close crop of the face give a better look at the lores and lack of eye ring:

Interestingly, this photo shows a small amount of webbing between the outer and middle toes of the left foot.

But comparing the webbing in todays bird to a photo of a juvenile SEPL taken a couple weeks ago, you can see that the webbing in a SEPLs foot is much more extensive:

Another angle of the birds foot showing very little to no webbing:

2 Common Ringed Plovers in 8 days... Not bad! But maybe we're over looking them and these shouldn't be as notable as I'm making them out to be? Definitely a hard species to pick out from the masses of Semipalmated Plovers - but if you know what to look for and spend some time looking at your Semipalmated Plovers we may very well learn that they aren't as remarkable of a record as we thought!

The real challenge is finding a juvenile Common Ringed Plover!


Northern Waterthrushes were very common today:

Most noteworthy of todays 11 species of warbler was this hatch year Tennessee Warbler:
Note the very pointed bill and supercilium/eyebrow that stands out from the eye line and crown.

Next photo shows the broken eye ring and white undertail coverts. Orange-crowned Warbler can look very similar but has more yellow to the under tail coverts, and a longer tail.

Friday 22 August 2014

Common Ringed Plover - same bird, new photos!

Went back to Bellevue Beach this afternoon with Sir Ed & visiting birder Brett Fried to do some shorebirding. Didn't think we would see the Common Ringed Plover as others weren't able to relocate it earlier in the week - but there it was. This time we got better looks, and improved photos to help seal the case. And it was a lifer for Ed & Brett!

These first 3 photos were taken by Brett - big thank you for sharing them and letting me post them here!

Most important photo of the day is this one:
Note the lack of webbing between the outer and middle toe of the birds right foot (left side of image). This is pretty much the definite character to distinguish between Semipalmated and Common Ringed Plover.
Adult male Common Ringed Plovers in breeding plumage do have a yellow/orange ring around the eye - so that isn't entirely unique to Semis.
And the definition of "semipalmated" has something to do with the fact that there's webbing between the toes - Semipalmated Sandpiper also has webbing between the toes!

 Improved photos of the head confirm that the lores do meet the gape of the bill, and that there is no eye ring (adult male CRPLs shouldn't have an eye ring at this time of year - a hormonal thing maybe?)
Shape of the head is also different between these two plover species. Common Ringed Plover has a more steeped forehead.
Also note that relatively long bill! A subtle feature...
And that supercilium (eyebrow) - prominent, and extends well behind the eye.

Although out of focus the white wing bars are noticeably more prominent versus a Semipalmated Plover:


Before the Common Ringed Plover excitement I scored my 200th self-found species for Newfoundland: a hatch year Canada Warbler. Only 100 more to go to reach my goal :p

Also took my first ever photos of a Boreal Chickadee!

A young Wilson's Warbler:

Plenty of Blackpoll Warblers around:

Truth is that it took us well over an hour to find the Common Ringed Plover. After searching for it for the fist 45 minutes I gave up and began photographing White-rumped Sandpipers and juvenile Semipalmated Plovers:

Trying to take as many photos as I can of juvenile Semipalmated Plovers. Almost thought this one was going to be another Common Ringed Plover because it has no eye ring. But it is a SEPL...
Juvenile Common Ringed Plovers are much more difficult to distinguish from Semipalmated Plovers. This is reflected by the fact that only 3 of the 13 CRPL records in Newfoundland are juveniles!

 Almost 20 juvenile Short-billed Dowitchers were at Bellevue today:

My own photo of the star bird of the day:

Thursday 21 August 2014

The Great Snipe Quest of 2014

I'm on a mission this Autumn to find and photograph as many snipe as possible. The initial goal was to help me learn to age these cryptic birds, but after receiving The Challenge Series book the other day and reading their chapter on aging and separating new world from old world snipe I now have more than one motivator.

The quest got off to a good start today. Of ~25 snipe seen, I managed to photograph 4. No easy feat considering their notoriously skittish nature and amazing camouflauging abilities. The two things in my favour is that they're quite common (even if we don't seem to see very many) and they tend to sit still until you are quite close - so if you find them early, you can get somewhat close for photos.

A lot of conflicting information in the books I own. Some saying they can't be aged reliably at all, others saying they can only be aged in August, another saying about 95% can be aged accurately in August, and 25-95% in the remaining 4 months in the year.

In the field, secondary coverts seem to be the way to age them (if at all possible). Juveniles have a buffy border all along the outer edge of those feathers, whereas adults have a broader buffy region that is more noticeably divided by a black line and is limited to the distal edge of the feather (not along the entire edge)...
Apparently words are incapable of summarizing this feature.

Of the four I photographed, I think this is the only one I might call an adult...  but I can't confirm this:

Clearly I have a lot to learn. Which means more time needed in the field looking at these tough to find birds.

A typical view of a snipe: usually you don't see it, but it sees you...

While sneaking up on the snipe a juvenile Semipalmated Plover was vociferous nearby:
I'll get to writing a post about separating Common Ringed vs Semipalmated Plover. Hopefully it'll be more useful than this one!

Saturday 16 August 2014

Great Start to the Fall Season

For me, autumn begins in early to mid-August with the first signs of migrating birds. Unsuccessful breeding shorebirds begin their migration southward and many young songbirds start moving around in search of food.

Autumn is by far the funnest season to be birding in Newfoundland simply because there's a lot more birds than any other season - the real reason is that many rarities found.

With yesterdays Common Ringed Plover I was still on a bit of a high going out this morning. Alison and I were headed to Cape Spear to search out an overdue Manx Shearwater for her life list. Turns out that local birder Todd Boland had some lined up for us when we arrived.

On our way home we decided to make a short stop in the woods at the bottom of the hill and BAMN there was an adult male Hooded Warbler sitting out near the top of a Larch Tree wondering what all the commotion was about. There were a lot of passerines around and most were curious in our pishing. The Hooded didn't stay up for long and hasn't been seen since. Not sure how many records of this vagrant warbler there are for the island, but I would guess around 15 - 20.

I always thought that late August was the best time to really start working the alders for rare warblers. But luck was on our side this morning. I can't wait to get out and do some more!

There were at least 3 Common Yellowthroats in the area, including this young one:

I never thought it would happen, but a young Gray-cheeked Thrush also emerged from the woods to investigate the sounds - this one was along "warbler alley":

Looking forward for what else is inevitably going to come in what has been a fantastic start to Autumn!

Friday 15 August 2014

Common Ringed Plover!

After countless hours studying and reviewing the finer details of Common Ringed vs Semipalmated Plover ID it has all finally paid off.

This morning I joined 4 other local birders to check out the shorebirds at Bellevue beach. The small tidal flat is rich in mussels and other invertebrates and attracts hundreds of shorebirds at this time of year. I was hoping to get an accurate count of the birds and do a bit of teaching to show the others how to ID some of them down to species and age.

Within 2 minutes of starting the first scan of the shorebirds I happened upon a surprisingly pale Semipalmated-like plover. Then the bird turned towards me and showed off its wide black breast band and I could see the evident white supercilium. The next 1.5 hours was spent trying to study and photograph this bird while it tirelessly ran around the flats at a distance. Eventually it roosted for 10-15 minutes at a reasonable distance allowing us to get some photos.

The bird was never very close, so we never got the full frame photos we were dreaming of. But I do think the photos I got should make a strong case for CRPL. Hopefully Lisa & Frank got some photos to help prove the ID (keep an eye on Lisa's blog for her photos).

While the bird was roosting the wide breast band was more compact and was often not noticeably wider than that of a Semipalmated Plover (SEPL). When it was feeding the breast band stood out as being very broad and even in width.
The white supercilium (white eyebrow) stood out to all of us and was usually the best feature to look for to find the bird when scanning the plovers.

The bird can be found in this picture by looking for that strong white supercilium and relatively pale back.

The CRPL is an adult (and I think it's a male) and is to the left in the following photo. In the middle is a female adult SEPL, and on the right an adult male SEPL. 2 Ruddy Turnstones and a Black-bellied Plover as well.

Note the slightly paler back (which was more noticeable in real life), the much stronger and straight white supercilium, the bird seemed larger at times than nearby SEPLs but that isn't very obvious in these photos. The slightly longer bill can be seen in the below photo if you enlarge it.

Although the right most SEPL seems to have a wider breast band in the following photo than the CRPL, you can see that the breast band is wide along the sides of the breast and narrows towards the centre of the breast - very typical of SEPL (in fact, the breast band is often incomplete and is divided by white along the centre of the breast). Although not visible in this photo, the black breast band of the CRPL was a more even width across the entire breast.

The above photo is the best one I got to show the difference in the lores. On the CRPL the lore is not pinched before the bill, instead it meets the gape of the bill. Whereas in both of these SEPLs you can see that the lore is pinched just before the bill and only meets the bill above the gape. A very fine detail, but an important one in the ID of this species as it is consistent across all ages (beware that some SEPLs do have lores that meet the gape of the bill - I have photos to prove it!!!)

After enlarging all the photos I took I could see no sign of a yellow/orange ring around the eye - another indication for CRPL, and despite the distance it was faintly visible on some SEPLs. However, with the distance the lack of yellow/orange around the eye was difficult to confirm.

The shape of the black cheeks is a useful feature in my opinion to separate the two species (especially for juveniles). The CRPL has a black band that is more even in width across the face, whereas the black band on the SEPL widens just behind the eye.

The breast band was much wider when the bird was feeding, than when it was roosting (didn't get any photos of it front on while feeding). But this photos shows that the breast band width was very variable depending on its position.

Circumstantial evidence for the CRPL:

It rarely associated with the SEPLs. Preferring to stay away from them when there was enough space. Eventually when the tide rose, it was forced to be in the company of SEPLs (as in the above photos) but never flew off when all the surrounding SEPLs flew away - it was one of the last plovers to leave the area when the tide finally forced all the shorebirds away.

The date (August 15) is right on time for previous CRPL records in Newfoundland. I think there are about 15-20 records for the island. One was found at the same location on August 14, 2001, and another last year on August 16 (2013) in Renews. Adults have been found as late as Sept 17, and as early as August 7.

Unfortunately we did not hear it vocalize. And we were never close enough to see the webbing between the toes (or lack thereof).
The lack of a yellow/orange ring around the eye was never easy to confirm from the distance that we were at.

I welcome comments on the ID of this bird. Leave them below, or email me privately (alvanbuckley AT

Thursday 14 August 2014

Greater Yellowlegs & Ring-billed Gulls

Could there be a less enticing blog post title? Two of the most common species that I too am guilty of brushing over 99% of the time.

But today on a drizzly day those were the two species I focused on.

There were 2 Greater Yellowlegs at the West end of Virginia Lake. One was a juvenile, the other an adult - both were actively catching small fish.

First up is the juv:

And the adult:

If you focus on the wing feathers you'll notice that the adult has a lot less white around the edges and at the tip of those wing feathers (i.e. the scapulars and wing coverts) in comparison to the juvenile. This is what gives the juvenile a more crisp and scaly appearance.

The adult also has a more messy breast band:

The juvenile has a more neat breast band - an effect brought about by the fact that the individual dots are more sharply defined:

A closer look at the scapulars and wing coverts of the adult:
Note that there is a mix of fresh gray and old dark feathers. The fresh ones are a light gray, have a dark streak along their centre, and have white around the outer border. Whereas the old scapular feathers are a dark brown almost approaching black, and the old wing covert feathers are brown and look tattered. This mix of worn and fresh feathers is typical of adult Greater Yellowlegs at this time of year.

At the west end of Quidi Vidi there was a handful of Ring-billed Gulls hanging around (as usual).
All the adult Ring-billed Gulls had very limited to no white at the tip of their black primary feathers. Adult Ring-billed Gulls in high-breeding plumage have prominent white tips to these feathers. But by this time of year the white has mostly worn away.

Here's a closer look at the same bird:

This open wing shot of another adult shows that it only has the outer 5 primary feathers remaining. The inner 5 primary feathers of most gulls are usually lost while the adults are incubating the eggs. They then interrupt their molt and wait until after the chicks are independent to resume their pre-basic molt. So it should be shedding these feathers soon.

A closer look. The two outer primaries have what are called white windows. The one on p10 is larger. Some adult Ring-billed Gulls don't have a window on p9.

Here's a juvenile Ring-billed Gull. Very fresh looking!

And the open wing:

There's a lot of secrets hidden within the feathers of birds. Their molt patterns often reflect their behaviour through the seasons.

Male Northern Pintails are now in eclipse plumage: