On most every birding trip out of town, I am reminded of the beauty that surrounds us. Two weeks ago at the end of a wonderful day of birding, we were returning to St. John's along the coastline.
That took us into Holyrood. The sun was setting and the colorful fishing gear resting on the docked fishing vessels matched the colors in the sky. It was a perfect finish to a perfect day!
When winter comes, it is so easy to just stay indoors where it is warm and cozy. Every time I venture out, I am reminded that "warm and cozy" isn't everything. Snow is coming on a regular basis now, and if it continues at this rate, the snow from the driveway will reach the rooftop. (Three more batches predicted over the next seven days.) Yet, I am driven to dig a tunnel to get my car out so that I don't miss all of the sights and sounds of winter.
The quickest way to make a winter's day fly by is to get out and watch the birds and scenery fly by.
In Canada, the Great Backyard Bird Count is sponsored by Audubon and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, with Canadian partner Bird Studies Canada. Go to their web site through this link and learn how you, too, can make a small contribution to science and have a good time in the process. http://www.birdsource.org/gbbc/howto.html
Wouldn't it be great if schools encouraged all students to be a part of this great program!
It was on October 10th when I went to Second Pond to check out shorebirds. It was late in the shorebird season, so most any trip at that time was a hit-and-miss kind of trip. To complicate viewing, the pond was being raised from time to time, so high that the rocks were no longer exposed. On top of that, the rocks where the birds hung out were too far away.
On this particular overcast day, I did come upon a group of Black-bellied Plover and Dunlin on a distant rock. From one angle, it looked like only one bird was on the rock, but as I moved around, I did see as many as seven. I suspected that there were even more hidden behind the rock.
A typical cruise through Goulds always included a drive-by of Forest Pond. On that day, I didn't see any birds, but I stopped and got out to have a better look of the shoreline.
It was then that an incontinence of TEN Greater Yellowlegs flew in accompanied by a few White-rumped Sandpipers. Even though I couldn't get very close to the birds, I was amazed because I couldn't ever remember seeing so many yellowlegs clustered in such a small space. I think this was quite late for such a large group to appear. Perhaps they were gathering for their trip south.
Like so many other migratory birds, it is possible to see large groups one day and then, the next day, they are gone. It would be a great find to come across one now in mid-winter, but most likely, I will have to wait until summer to see them again.
What do I do when I go to see a bird that doesn't show up on cue? I make the most of the birds that are around. Such was the case with a pair of American Wigeon who paraded around near the Sora site.
These are really great looking ducks, but I have never gotten any good shots of them, despite many efforts. The light color on their head often washes really white and the dark around the eye often fades out the eye.
At least on this overcast day, I did get some definition around the head and face of this bird. Wigeons tend to return to the city area in late fall and stay around awhile. It was recently reported that there were over 30 spotted in a pond in Paradise.
It time permits and conditions are right, I could easily sit for a long time watching the behaviour of the wigeons and snap lots of pictures along the way.
It's not necessary to wait for the rare bird to show up to enjoy birding on most any day!
When opportunity knocks, you have to answer the call over and over until it smiles on you. I didn't do that and this is what I ended up with:(
To have a Horned Grebe just meters away in an accessible area is very unusual. Of course, as soon as I heard about it, I rushed to Quidi Vidi Lake to get my best look at this special little bird. I did get some good looks but my camera was not as forgiving as my binoculars.
I was only able to go twice due to weather and responsibilities. On both occasion, I was "turned" by the weather. On the first day it was a little brighter (above) but the snow was falling, more and more by the minute. I took cover and didn't make it back to lakeside for several days.
On the second try I arrived at the lake just as the wind picked up and the rain began to fall, sideways and heavily in the high winds. It was torture, and I was drenched. I didn't stay long!
This little bird has a beautiful red eye but my pictures sure don't show it! It's as if my camera was set on gray and white while my hands were shaking in the cold!
I was amazed how close the bird came to shore. The trick to get the best looks were to wait until it dove for food and then try to move closer while it was underwater. It didn't seem bothered by people being nearby as long as they didn't move when he could see them.
This Horned Grebe stayed for more than a week in the same area and was enjoyed my many walkers, photographers and birders who frequent this area.
Then, as the lake began to freeze, the grebe moved on. It was reported on Sunday that it was seen in Quidi Vidi Gut so the opportunity to get close has probably passed, and it did so without me getting one good pictures. I am really disappointed because this opportunity is not likely to knock again.
For comparison, I have added two pictures of a Red-necked Grebe that appeared in Torbay in November. There is no mistaking these two birds. The Red-necked Grebe has a much longer neck and bill.
It is also considered quite unusual for a Red-necked Grebe to come so close to shore. What's up with the grebes this year? Whatever it is, the surprise appearances of both of these birds provided a great chance to study them closely, a chance that I have never had before. That really is better than getting a picture.
Over the last two years I have seen a number of cormorants, some in fresh water but more flying and resting near salt water. So which is which? Well, I have never seen a Great Cormorant in fresh water but I have seen a Double-crested Cormorant around salt water.
So, I guess that I have just assumed that if I see a cormorant like this one in fresh water that it is probably a Double-crested Cormorant. This short-cut to learning was sufficient in my early days of birding but now it is time for me, species-by-species, to render more field marks to memory.
It is actually easier to differentiate these birds during breeding season as the Great Cormorant has flashes of white on the side of their heads. This is not so during the winter. I have provided pictures here of an immature Double-crested Cormorant and of a mature Great Cormorant. That, too, is not great for comparison, but it is all I have at the moment.
The DC Cormorant has a very bright orange/yellow beak and gular pouch at the base of the beak. This is true of DC Cormorants of all ages and all seasons. For me, this is the easiest identifier. Pictures of the Great Cormorant below will show this area to be white.
The immature DC has a pale throat and chest and a brownish belly while the immature Great Cormorant shows with a very pale belly.
The DC Cormorant is about 4" smaller than the Great but unless they are seen side-by-side this is very difficult to discern.
I find it very interesting to see the full frontal view as the bird looks totally different without the profile of the long, hooked bill.
This DC Cormorant that has been seen at Quidi Vidi Lake is quite comfortable with people. It sat on the same spot all the while I was moving around trying to get these shots.
This cormorant was sitting on a pylon near Harvey's wharf the week before the DC showed up at Quidi Vidi. Even though it was with a number of Great Cormorants around salt water, I am pretty sure that this, too, is an immature Double-crested Cormorant. Maybe it is the same one that moved to the lake.
This Great Cormorant has a distinct white patch at the base of the beak. I think as it transforms for breeding season, this patch will become even more white and it will develop the bright white feathers along the side of the head. It will also develop a white patch on the flanks.
This is a very common pose of all cormorants. After a good soaking, they will sit on a dry spot and raise their wings to dry them out. They will remain like that for quite some time. I should also mention that it is very common to see many of these birds clustered together. They seem to be social creatures.
Field guides indicate that the Great Cormorant is uncommon while the Double-crested Cormorant is common. It seems to be the exact opposite around Newfoundland as I frequently see Great Cormorants at Cape Spear, Torbay, Pouch Cove and around the St. John's Harbour.
This shot of a cormorant at the harbour has me a little confused. Which is it? Based on the orange/yellow that I can see at the base of the beak and the seemingly smaller size, I am guessing that this is a Double-crested Cormorant. If that is the case, then there were two near the wharf.
Making any kind of ID of any species is really reliant on knowing the field markings but also on getting that good look from many different angles.
In the first week of November 2012 this Brant was spotted in the shallow salt (probably brackish) water along the side of the road in Harbour Grace. I don't know when the last Brant visited Newfoundland but this one created enough interest for St. John's birders drive the hour or so to get a look.
Just over three months later, the Pale-bellied Brant is still around. Last Saturday Margie McMillan and I were thinking that we were not going to see our target bird for the day. We checked all along the water edges near the road and came up empty handed. Before leaving town we took a drive around to the other side of the bay.
It was funny because I didn't remember how small this goose was, so when I saw it feeding, all I could say is "there is something different." We backed up, pulled in and set the binos on it and we had it!
The Brant breeds in coastal Alaska and the Canadian Arctic and travels south to winter along the Pacific coasts of California and the Atlantic coast from Cape Cod the Carolinas. They can be found in salt marshes and estuaries. Newfoundland is not in its typical range so it is a special treat to see one. This one has stayed so long now that it may stick around till Spring when it is time for it to migrate north again. Hats off to the hunters in the area that have left this great bird alone!
This goose resembles the Canada Goose but is much smaller and stockier. The head and neck are said to be black but in the light that I have observed it, it appears to be very dark brown. Whenthe Brant extends its neck the distinct white collar shows very nicely. This is an indicator that this is an adult bird as juveniles do not yet have this field mark.
While reading a bit about this bird, I found that Skagit County in Washington state is holding an eight-day Brant hunt during this month. The hunt is determined each year by the annual count of birds in the county. If the number of geese counted exceeds 6000, the hunt goes ahead.
This bird is known for its strength and its great long-distance flights during migration. In November I had to opportunity to see this bird in flight. With a two-foot long body and four-foot wing span, there is no doubt that it is a powerful bird. There have been numerous Bald Eagles in this area and it has survive that.
A news report from Morro Bay, California this week reported that the number of Brants making it into their area has dropped 76% since 2001. It is unclear what has caused this decline but speculated that the feeding "up north" may be better, global climate change may have opened up the waters farther north, or more intense storms in the Morro Bay area may be a deterrent. Whatever the cause there seems to be a noticeable shift in where the Brant are wintering.
I always like to have an idea of just how unusual a visitor like this is to the province. One of the best public records of rare bird visits and species arrival patterns is the Google group: NL Birds. I flipped through the references to a Brant and found this record.
Kelligrews lagoon (Conway Brook) - October 12, 2002
St. John's Landfill - Nov 5 2002
Mundy Pond in the baseball field - Nov. 23, 2002
Long Beach, Southern Shore - Oct. 26, 2006 (Possible in-flight sighting)
Chamberlains Pond - Oct 20, 2007
Frenchman's Cove, Burin Pen. (found dead) - Oct 21, 2007
Long Beach, Southern Shore - Nov. 12, 2008
O'Dea's Pond, Bonavista - Nov 10, 2008
Harbour Grace - Nov. 9 2011
With the Harbour Grace Brant this is the first time in five years since this species was recorded in a Winter count. What I didn't find in the postings was the last day that each of these birds was seen. It seems that the Brant shows up here it on its rare visits sometime between early October and middle November.
It was on September 2, 2011 when Catherine Barrett and I got an opportunity to do a full day of birding on the Southern Shore. It was a great day for birding, unusually sunny and warm....perfect for walking the road.
When we reach Renews we headed straight for Bear Cover Point Road which is notorious for attracting rare birds during the Fall. We held out hopes that we might be lucky enough to come upon a rare warbler, maybe even the Prairie Warbler spotted earlier in the week.
We had driven in Bear Cove Point Road about half the distance to the Bear Cove Lighthouse when we spotted two other birders standing on the side of the road with their binoculars raised. That could only mean one thing...they had a good bird in sight. Catherine and I looked at each other with eyes wide open...could it be the Prairie Warbler? Neither of us had seen one before.
We parked some distance away from the action and began our slow walk to the spot. The last thing we wanted to do was scare the bird away. Slowly and little by little, we could see flashes of yellow.
At last the bird came into focus through binoculars, but we will still afraid to move in too close. I began to take some "snaps" to record the event and to get a better look when I reviewed the shots at home. I was surprised to see the prominent white on the outer tail feathers. If I had caught sight of this bird in flight, I might have just written it off as a junco flashing its white tail feathers.
A better photographer would have made more of this opportunity but I certainly didn't.
We only had about 60 seconds before the bird was gone. This didn't give me any chance to reset my camera because it was clear that the bird was flighty and might disappear any minute.
With little notice it vanished. We thought with a bit of luck we might re-find it later in the day. We looked over the area before proceeding up the road. On the way back we thought that we got a brief glimpse of it but there was no opportunity to get any more pictures.
At the end of the day we were very grateful for the two experienced birders who had this one in their sights when we arrived. This happens more than you think. The great birds are often found by people who know what they are doing. Then, on the other hand, great birds sometimes just pop out when you least expect it!
My anticipation to see a Red Crossbill grew with time. I waited a long time before I saw my first and was very surprised to find that it wasn't red at all. Perhaps I have yet to see a "red" adult, male bird because all of the Red Crossbills that have crossed my path are quite rusty, even bronze. It is likely that this bird pictured here is an immature male because of the amount of red showing near the rump.
I have never seen a White-winged Crossbill as close as this so I really am unable to make a body comparison but this little bird is stocky and has very short, strong legs. He is burly! Some may say that the Red Crossbill is tame, easily approached but I think maybe he is just brave!
Belonging to the finch family he has a stout beak specially designed to rip the seeds right out of the tightly formed pine cones. This bird is so apt at crunching and extracting the seed from the husk that the sound may well be the first indication that the bird in in the area.
Twice this year I found Red Crossbills sitting near the road in two separate places picking at the gravel. In this location near Forest Pond the home owner told me that she put out bread crumbs and that the crossbills had been a regular in her driveway. I watched as it stuck its long tongue out to pick up something. When I saw other Red Crossbills doing the same thing on a stretch of road going into Maddox Cove where there were clearly no crumbs, I began to realize that it must be a common practice for this bird to pick at the gravel, even without bread in it.
It seems that the behaviour of this bird can only be predicted by its unpredictability. If there is a plentiful cone crop, it may build a nest and breed in the winter. Every decade or so they have been know to pick up and move south causing a significant irruption in an area were they are seldom seen. They may never return to the same place twice. I did see one Red Crossbill at Bidgood's Park in Goulds but never a second one.
All of these pictures were taken in late September to mid-October. They were also taken near or in coniferous woods. The first time that I saw this species was at a feeder in CBS but that was in a year when the seed crop was very poor. (Images of the Red Crossbill at the feeder were posted on June 21, 2011 and show the females well.) I think they much prefer the natural seed right from the cone.
I found this Red Crossbill to be very different. It appears to be totally gray but at close look some yellowish color is beginning to show on its shoulder. How did I know what species it was? Well the bill it a dead give-away. It is my guess that this is a very young bird. It is amazing how the baby birds can grow to adult size so quickly but still look and act like babies.
This Red Crossbill, along with the immature one above, were found in the community of Blackhead. Maybe it was the light-of-the-day effects but it seemed more red than any one that I had seen before. This is most likely an adult male.
It is a tremendous help to me to learn about the many species by being able to go back and review a series of pictures of the same species taken in different locations, light and seasons. With all of the variables and the opportunity to observe behaviour, I just have to get better at identifying the bird on sight.