Saturday 31 December 2016

2016 Birding

I spent the entire year in Canada and managed to see 349 species of bird.

This post is heavy on the photos:

The year started off strong when Ed, Alison and I found this Sabine's Gull at St. Vincent's in late January. One of very few for North America in the winter months:

Much of the winter birding in Newfoundland relies on gulls for our entertainment. This gull stood out from the crowd:
Probable Thayer's Gull

Another highlight from the winter was this Fieldfare in Lumsden - a Eurasian species, with about 9 records in the province:

One of my goals this year was to spend more time exploring areas that have less coverage. I managed to get to Terra Nova National Park in central Newfoundland for a weekend.
Spruce Grouse is fairly common across the island - especially Terra Nova - but nonexistent on the Avalon peninsula:
A welcome introduced species to our woodlands!

One May 29-30, Catherine and I did our annual big day in support of Bird Studies Canada. We raised over $1500 and saw a record 96 species in a 24 hour period on the Avalon peninsula. Willow Ptarmigan was one of our highlights:

The day after the big day I came across this Cave Swallow - only the second record for the province, and likely an individual from the Bahama race, adding to its significance:

While trying to relocate the swallow, Blair Fleming and I found this Euro Golden-Plover:

As I've now gotten more used to, the breeding season rushed by and young birds were starting their lives with gusto. This Horned Lark was in an unfamiliar plumage:

One of my favourite photos from 2016 - an Arctic Blue sunning itself on the coastal barrens at Cape Spear:

In late July two rare terns graced us at Renews: a Royal Tern and Sandwich Tern

Then it was back across the island before heading to Nova Scotia, Ontario, and BC for 3 months.

A Merlin chasing a Great Blue Heron from its territory in the Codroy Valley:

An unprecedented influx of Cory's Shearwater to Newfoundland waters occurred in early August. It will be interesting to see if the phenomena repeats itself in 2017.

In BC I was fortunate to start with a 3-day weekend of all-out birding with John Reynolds. One of the highlights was getting great looks at Lewis's Woodpecker:

The other birding highlight from this month in BC was the annual pelagic off of Ucluelet.
Black-footed Albatross:

In Ontario I took some time off work/school to volunteer at Long Point Bird Observatory.

Migration was in full swing and allowed me to significantly improve two aspects of my birding at Long Point:
identifying birds in flight, and familiarizing myself with chip calls of sparrows.

Large flocks of Common Terns provided great entertainment:

Back in Newfoundland by early November:

I returned just in time to enjoy some excellent finds, including this Hermit Warbler:

December has passed and now it's back to studying the gulls - our birding lifeline in St. John's during the winter.

A recent Kelp Gull was one of the most surprising birds of the year in the province:

2017 promises to be an exciting year: I have a couple of big trips planned, and some longterm projects I hope to start to move forward on - more on these later.
In the spring I will be graduating from medical school and beginning my career. Lots of unknowns still, but these should be sorted out within the next couple months.

Have a great 2017 - may you enjoy many hours enjoying and learning about our nature!

Tuesday 20 December 2016

"Sooty" Fox Sparrow in Newfoundland

The Fox Sparrow is a very common species in Newfoundland from early April until the end of October, with a few individuals over-wintering on the island every year. It is also an extremely variable species with 13 or more different populations described, which are clustered into four unique "groups".

Our Fox Sparrow, fits into  the group of "Red" Fox Sparrows. It isn't hard to see why:

The "Red" Fox Sparrow has the widest range of our 4 groups and is the only group found in the East.  The other 3 groups are restricted to the Western half of North America.

"Red" Fox Sparrow singing at Long Pond, St. John's, Newfoundland

Anyone familiar with our "Red" Fox Sparrow who visits the West coast will have no trouble noticing the differences. The most common group out West is the "Sooty" Fox Sparrow which breeds as far away as the Pribilof islands in Alaska and as far South as Washington state. This group, as the name suggests, is significantly dark and lacks the intense red colouration of our Eastern Fox Sparrows.

Having seen the "Sooty" group of Fox Sparrows in BC over the years I knew there was no way of confusing our red ones for their sooty ones. But I never really thought of them as possible vagrants in the East. That was until Dave Shepherd, of Long Point Bird Observatory fame, reported a "Western" Fox Sparrow at his feeder in Portugal Cove South, Newfoundland. He and his wife, Julie, immediately knew that it was something different and took the time to observe and study the bird and concluded that it was of the "Sooty" group - which has been confirmed by various experts.

Here it is:

This is the breeding range of "Sooty" Fox Sparrows based on eBird reports:

And here is the wintering range of "Sooty" Fox Sparrows:

Definitely a group restricted to the coastal area West of the Rocky Mountains!

A closer look reveals that there are very few records of "Sooty" Fox Sparrow in the East, with the Newfoundland bird appearing in orange:
Quite possible a first record for Atlantic Canada!

Certainly, it is under-reported in the East since it doesn't have full species status, and feeder watchers (where a bird like this would show up) might pass it off as a regular sparrow. Perhaps this sighting will spur more interest in these Western Fox Sparrows and more records will be dug up or discovered.

The Portugal Cove South bird was first found during a harsh winter storm with winds gusting up to 130km/h. It could barely stand up and wasn't looking very healthy on its first day. But, thanks to a generous supply of seeds, it was back to full fitness today.

Look at those dark flanks! The streaking towards the back blurs into a sooty gray wash.

For those interested in the sub-species identification of this bird it has been suggested that it belongs to the fuliginosa sub-species by some, and the sinuosa/townsendi sub-species by others. Personally I don't know enough to make an opinion on this, and the resources I read provided very limited differences between these sub-species. Even online articles were inconclusive.

Like many species, the more Northern populations of Fox Sparrow migrate the furthest South, which makes them more susceptible to finding their way far off course. This would suggest that our bird may belong to one of the more Northern sub-species.

The undertail coverts of this Sooty Fox Sparrow were quite striking with a buffy/tan colour as the base, with chevron-shaped markings on each of the feathers. The "Red" Fox Sparrow, at best, has faint markings similar to these but often shows no discernible markings on the undertail coverts.

The "Sooty" Fox Sparrow really is a different beast. But just because it's different doesn't mean it should be its own species (although some people have already designated it as such). Drawing arbitrary lines is always difficult with highly variable species like the Fox Sparrow.

Some other random highlights from today:

This adult female Harrier was seen hunting the coast along the Cape Race road:

I've had an interest in studying these late December harriers in Newfoundland ever since the late Martin Garner put out some excellent books on the frontiers of bird identification with harrier as one of his favoured groups to study. The obvious hope, for me, is to turn one of our December harriers into a European Hen Harrier.

This is my first time getting good enough photos to study the finer details of a December harrier in Newfoundland. The outermost primary (P10) seems to have three dark bars, and P8 (the 3rd outermost primary) has 5 dark bars - both features suggesting Hen Harrier. But the neck streaking seems to strongly favour our regular Northern Harrier.

Definitely something I will be studying more keenly in the future.

And the continuing White-winged Dove in Renews:

Wednesday 9 November 2016

It's Good to be Back!

I returned to Newfoundland last Wednesday after travelling the country for 3 months. I had 4 solid days of exploring the Southwest area of the island before going back to school/work in Grand Falls-Windsor.

Here are some of the highlights from those 4 days:

One of the first moments of excitement came while doing a short seawatch at a headland near Port-aux-Basques. This bird "migrated" by, while being chased by some gulls.
Any ideas what it is?
Answer is at the bottom of this post!

The biggest rarity came on Friday morning when John Tuach, who I was birding with, pointed out a shorebird roosting nearby. I immediately recognized it as a dowitcher and knew the significance of this. Any dowitcher in November in Canada is almost certainly going to be a Long-billed Dowitcher (...unless you're Alix d'Entremont who keeps finding Short-billeds in southern Nova Scotia this week). Somewhat amazingly there has only been one previous record of LBDO for the province (Nov 6-7, 2005 in St. John's).

Unfortunately the bird didn't come close for stellar looks, so these distant shots will have to suffice.

In the first photo note the hunched back while the bird is feeding. Often described as having swallowed a grapefruit, Long-billed Dowitchers are best distinguished from their shorter-billed cousins by this "general impression of the shape".

A key feature I was previously unaware of is the extent of white on the leading edge of the axillary area. Short-billed's, apparently, have more uniform markings in their 'wingpits'.
Thankfully I took a video just before this bird started preening and stretched out its wings. A still-frame from that video, below, shows that signature LBDO feature.

The barring on the flanks also seems to fit more with LBDO.

The easiest and most reliable feature to distinguish SBDO & LBDO is the pitch of their call note. I didn't manage to get a recording of this bird call, but based on my recent experience with LBDOs in Vancouver I felt that the call was classic for LBDO.

Let me know if you see any other features from these photos that suggest one species or the other!

As usual the scenery in this area was fantastic:

A few hours after finding that dowitcher we came across this Pacific Loon - only the 4th record for the province (and the first away from the Avalon peninsula). 

Another distant shot of the Short-eared Owl that flew past the headland with a gull in hot pursuit:

Sunday 18 September 2016

BC Pelagic off Ucluelet (18 Sept)

Today I joined the Edmonton Nature Club on a Pelagic trip off of Ucluelet, BC.
Ever since I started following bird sightings from BC I've dreamed of joining one of the near annual September pelagics off of Vancouver island.

Today that dream became a reality and we setoff from Ucluelet at 6:50 and returned by 3pm, travelling ~50km offshore to the continental shelf.

The list of birds with rough estimates on #'s is at the bottom of this post. 8 were new species for me, including 1 new family: albatross!

Thanks to James Fox for organizing this great event and the trip leaders who did a stellar job getting everyone on these birds.

Within 15 minutes of leaving the harbour we were seeing hundreds of shearwaters. All of which were Sooty Shearwaters. This early rush of shearwaters faded off within an hour as we travelled further offshore and into the fog. The next 1-2 hours was relatively slow, but still exciting for me with my limited birding experience on the West coast. The highlight in this "dead zone" were low numbers of Cassin's Auklets.

Around 9:30 we emerged from the fog bank and approached the continental shelf. Shearwaters were flying in every direction in decent numbers. On the horizon we saw a large fishing ship and headed straight for it knowing that seabirds would be attracted to its by-catch. This is where the excitement really was for the day and we circled the fishing ship for 2 hours taking in great looks at thousands of shearwaters and other seabirds.

In no apparent order:

Pink-footed Shearwater

Northern Fulmar

Pink-footed Shearwater

Poor photo of a Buller's Shearwater, one of ~3 seen today.
This species was on the verge of extinction in the 1930's, due to hunting and introduced mammals on their breeding islands. But there are now an estimated 2.5 million individuals thanks to habitat protection and aggressive efforts to eradicate rodents from their breeding grounds. The majority are thought to breed on offshore islands around New Zealand - a country that is doing a lot of great work for its native fauna, and we are reaping the benefits all the way over here in Canada :)

90% of the birds we saw at the continental shelf are thanks to this big bad thing!
A factory fishing ship?
The increasing numbers of some seabird species throughout the worlds oceans are thought to be thanks to the by-catch of these kinds of machines. Or the increasing numbers could simply be a reflection of our increasing knowledge on these birds.

Hundreds of Sabine's Gulls were in the area. The majority of which were adults, but several juveniles as well:
The middle bird is a juvenile (brown inner half of the wing), while the other 2 are adults (note the light grey inner wing, and yellow tip to the bills).

Seeing an albatross in real life is said to be a life-changing experience.
Exhilarating to see the first one fly-by the ship, and even more thrilling to see 30+ more over the next couple hours!
Black-footed Albatross

South Polar Skua - aged as a juvenile based on the cold grey colouration to the body

A juvenile... but a bird that hatched somewhere in the Southern hemisphere during our winter.

Fork-tailed Storm-petrels were surprisingly abundant, but naturally, difficult to photograph

Pink-footed Shearwater - the most abundant shearwater at the continental shelf

Common Murre - the only really familiar species for me today - was the most abundant alcid species of the day

Seabirds taking it all in:

The route we took:
The Southwest corner of Canada, near the border with Washington state.

Off of Vancouver island

Approximately 50km straight offshore from Vancouver island

Species list:
Totals based on eBird lists, and in brackets the frequency of observations (i.e. how many eBird lists included that species).

Greater White-fronted Goose (Anser albifrons)36

Cackling Goose (Branta hutchinsii)85

Northern Shoveler (Anas clypeata)12

Green-winged Teal (Anas crecca)1

Surf Scoter (Melanitta perspicillata)2

White-winged Scoter (Melanitta fusca)4

Pacific Loon (Gavia pacifica)1

Black-footed Albatross (Phoebastria nigripes)40

Northern Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis)200

Pink-footed Shearwater (Ardenna creatopus)500

Flesh-footed Shearwater (Ardenna carneipes)2

Buller's Shearwater (Ardenna bulleri)4

Sooty Shearwater (Ardenna grisea)1,124

Short-tailed Shearwater (Ardenna tenuirostris)5

shearwater sp. (Procellariidae sp. (shearwater sp.))300

Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel (Oceanodroma furcata)200

Leach's Storm-Petrel (Oceanodroma leucorhoa)20

Brandt's Cormorant (Phalacrocorax penicillatus)10

Pelagic Cormorant (Phalacrocorax pelagicus)1

cormorant sp. (Phalacrocoracidae sp.)10

Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias)2

Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)1

Black Oystercatcher (Haematopus bachmani)9

Black Turnstone (Arenaria melanocephala)18

Sanderling (Calidris alba)3

Red Phalarope (Phalaropus fulicarius)2

Red-necked/Red Phalarope (Phalaropus lobatus/fulicarius)1

South Polar Skua (Stercorarius maccormicki)3

Pomarine Jaeger (Stercorarius pomarinus)2

Parasitic Jaeger (Stercorarius parasiticus)1

Common Murre (Uria aalge)60

Cassin's Auklet (Ptychoramphus aleuticus)14

Rhinoceros Auklet (Cerorhinca monocerata)12

Tufted Puffin (Fratercula cirrhata)3

alcid sp. (Alcidae sp.)2

Black-legged Kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla)1

Sabine's Gull (Xema sabini)500

Heermann's Gull (Larus heermanni)1

California Gull (Larus californicus)179

Herring Gull (Larus argentatus)11

Glaucous-winged Gull (Larus glaucescens)45

gull sp. (Larinae sp.)203

Arctic Tern (Sterna paradisaea)2

Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon)1

Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus)1

Northwestern Crow (Corvus caurinus)200