Monday, April 30, 2012

Fox Sparrow Variations

Studying the images and information about bird identify is certainly very helpful. Typically, the written identification loosely applies to all birds of the species, but when the actual birds present themselves, it then becomes a matter of filtering through the info and matching it to what sits on the branch or flies through the air.
This is clearly a Fox Sparrow, no doubts and yet, its breast is much lighter than many. The rusty streaks have not fully developed.  The rufous color and gray on the face are unmistakable.
The Fox Sparrow is singing a lot already this spring and is often heard before it is seen. When a bird is singing, it tends to sit on a branch a little longer providing a better chance to listen and study it.  The song of this sparrow is described as being one or two whistles followed by a series of thrills or "churrs."  For anyone interested in challenging themselves with bird song identification, check out Alvan Buckley's blog.  He has set up several song identification quizzes.
This Fox Sparrow spotted one week after the one above looks different again. There is a distinct rusty band across its breast with minimal streaking. Yet, it was the song that influenced the identification of this bird. Near or far, familiar or unfamiliar, making an ID remains a bird-by-bird adventure. 

This image of a Fox Sparrow was taken last summer and shows the full-on streaking and rich colors of this species.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Hairy Woodpecker - Female

My experience with Hairy Woodpeckers is quite limited. On April 18, I took a drive to Cape Spear, Petty Harbour and Goulds. My first stroke of luck happened in the community of Blackhead at the playground.
There were two ladies standing inside the fence at the playground snapping some pictures of small birds.  I parked on the opposite side of the road and eased my way into the area.  They were watching juncos and said they heard something different but couldn't find it. I was standing near the light post at the entrance to the playground, when all of a sudden a female Hairy Woodpecker burst out of the woods and landed on the other side of the post.
Wow! She worked her way up the dark side of the post and then popped up on top of the post. This was so unexpected.  The other two birders moved next to me in the hopes that the bird would move into the favorable light.

Then all of a sudden, it flew toward us, taking a sharp turn to end up in a tree on the opposite side of the road. It was inside the fenced yard of the nearby house. In amazement at the close proximity of the bird and its behaviour, we watched and took a few pictures.  It remained in the tree for about five minutes before it moved on. As I said, I don't know much about this species, but I couldn't help but wonder if it were setting up a nest in the area and was defending it by flying towards us. It may be a good area to watch for further woodpecker activity.
Toward the end of my morning of birding, I shot this picture of an ugly Double-crested Cormorant.  Given its yet undeveloped markings and grayish color, I think that this is an immature bird.  There were two bobbing and diving around Forest Pond.  On the same day, I saw five cormorants sitting on the distant rocks with the seagulls at Second Pond. When I checked Fourth Pond, there was nothing around except yet another cormorant sitting at the distant point of land. I have often seen large groups of Great Cormorants nesting along the coastline, but I have never seen so many cormorant grouped together or nearby in fresh water areas. I checked the area the next day, and the large group in Second Pond were gone. Why were there so many, I wonder.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Fooled me once; fooled me twice!

 On our walk out from Cape St. Mary's last Saturday, a quick scan of the rocks along the shore yielded not one, but two white breasted, large raptors. Poor lighting and distance hampered getting a clear look through the binos and failed to yield any detail, despite walking around and attempting to see the birds better from several angles.
Pictures taken clearly showed the large bird with a reddish, brown band below the neck and a white breast. It was impossible to see any detail of the head and beak from the teeny, tiny pictures in my camera.
When we returned to the car, we quickly check the field guide and there was only one large raptor with a white belly - it was a Swainson's Hawk, a rare bird for our area. It was troublesome that there were two as rare birds don't usually travel in pairs. Now, this was a puzzle. What was this bird?

I strained the see the pictures but just couldn't make them any bigger in the small 3' X 2"  LCD screen. At last, we came upon another group of birders who we could ask. In 1 second flat, Chris Brown said they were juvenile Bald Eagles. What? How can that be? I have never seen any eagle or pictures of such an eagle.
Even when the bird flew away, it showed quite a bit of white on its back. Well, it took me quite a while searching for details about the white-breasted juvenile eagle. At last, I found one web site that said this oddity does exist in some juveniles.

On that day, I added several new birds to my year list, but most importantly, I learned of yet another unexpected spin on a very familiar bird. I must have seen at least 50 Bald Eagles since the new year, two with white breast.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Courtship on the Edge

It takes five or six years for the Northern Gannet to reach breeding maturity. When they do, they choose a mate for life. The gannet can live for around 17 years, but the oldest recorded gannet has been 37 years old.  Throughout this time, the bond between a pair of Northern Gannets is strong. They return to the same nest year after year to renew their ties and to breed.
The male gathers materials for the nest, often from materials left over from the previous year. They take their time wooing and re-building their nest. This is no Vegas marriage, it is enduring.

I isolated a pair of gannets at Cape St. Mary's and watched them closely as they went through their rituals. The gannet are often seen clapping their bills together as a show of fondness.  The sound of the clatter can be heard amidst the incessent screaming of the thousands of birds on the breeding grounds.  During this process, they are gentle and playful.
The pair work together to build the nest from existing materials or fresh materials gathered by the male.  Both hold the straw and weave it into a baby bed.
I am assuming the male is the one with its neck wrapped around the female as they lovingly position the straw in place. They simple can't get any closer.
Once set into place the pair enjoy a quiet moment of relaxation and romance of old. There is no sense of hurry or frenzy to get the job done, even though all around them seems to be swirling chaos. It is like they have stepped out of the flurry and are all alone in a romantic spot on the edge.
In a short while, they continue working together to build a strong home to raise their young. Bird behaviour is so naturally unrated and provides a wonderful plot line for many children's books.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Northern Gannet: A member of the Sulidae Family

 The Northern Gannet is a medium-large seabird.  While it often stays close to shore, it feeds at sea, its body is built to accommodate its dive bombing. Last summer off Cape Spear, it was a regular spectacle to see them straighted out their bodies, plunge into the water with a splash, and come up with a fish.
The gannet is such an interesting mix of power, poise and gentility.  It is the sleek shape and look of the bird that my pictures highlight today.
In this image the gannet's shape looks very much like the booby (sulidae) family to which it belongs. The gannet is the largest bird in this family.
It seems to have great power in its long wings. Some can have wing spans from 4.5 to 5.5 feet. That is huge.  Not all gannets are as large as this, though.  I immediately noticed a variance in size as they flew by.  When a large one zipped by, it was phenomenal to see the size and grace. When they initially take off, they are clumsy, but by the time they are aloft, they are a picture of beauty.
In a recent discussion about birds, we talked about how the cormorant looked somewhat haughty with its beak often tipped up.  This is the case with the Northern Gannet as well.  It often seems to strike the upward pose for the camera.
The stunning blue eye ring and facial markings as well as the lines on the beak sit in stark contrast to the white of the remainder of the body. The soft brown color on the head fades into white at the back of the neck. Their size and large black wingtips make for a quick ID when seen far from shore.
All of a sudden when the Gannet stares down the camera, it looks somewhat menacing.

Cape St. Mary's is only one of many gannet breeding grounds. The largest colony of Gannets breed on Bonaventure Island, Quebec, but 68% of these birds breed around the coasts Great Britain and Ireland. Many Northern Gannets winter in the Gulf of Mexico where the oil spill took its toll. I don't know if it is still early in the season, but there are still many bare spots left on Bird Rock.  Maybe there are more to come.

Tomorrow, I will take a look at the courtship of the Northern Gannet.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

More Cliffhangers

Any trip to Cape St. Mary's is subject to fog.  On our drive out, we went through several patches only to emerge into sunshine again.  It had been clear for quite a while until we got near the lighthouse. The fog horn was blaring and fog was all around us.

Knowing that it would take a while for us to walk out to bird rock, we repeated the #1 phrase of the day, "It will surely burn off." We arrived at the mid-way point, having seen one caribou and three Horned Lark when all of a sudden three figures emerged from the fog. Three dedicated bird watchers were perched on the edge of the cliff scoping out the birds. My stomach took a fearful flip, and we continued our trek toward them.
We took the first trail that veered right before bird rock and found Anne Hughes, Todd Boland and Chris Brown settled in and scoping the Razorbills. We moved in closer to the edge  where the ground was covered in long, brownish grass. Large rocks were peeping out from under the grass and gaping holes in between. Uh oh - vertigo!
 I picked my steps very carefully and had just looked at a Razorbill in the scope when all of a sudden, Todd shouted out, "Two Peregrines." For a moment, I thought I had knocked the scope over the cliff's edge. I dug into ground anchoring my footing and raised my camera. I had never gotten a picture of Peregrine before.
I followed them as they zipped by, snapping all the while.  When they had passed, I wondered how Todd had seen them so quickly and even more about how he identified them so quickly. I reflected on how much I still have to learn.
Getting a bit of a fright from my precarious perch and the sudden flurry of activity, I decided to head over to bird rock where I knew I could anchor myself in a safe place for viewing. As much as I get caught up in the moment, I am still quite unnerved being on the edge of a mountain. Even looking through my binoculars throws me a little off balance. Maybe I should tether myself to something!

All that said, there is no experience like being on the edge at Cape St. Mary's at this time of the year.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012


A trip to Cape St. Mary's is quite a long drive from St. John's, especially when you stop to look at everything that flies or sits on the water. This year marks my third trip to the spectacular and rugged breeding grounds of murres, kittiwakes and Northern Gannets. There is nothing to compare!  While Witless Bay offers a nearby opportunity to see the murres and kittiwakes, there are no gannets. Nevertheless, it, too, is an amazing place to view the breeding habits of sea birds and often an up-close view of whales. Wonders such as this are all around us.  Cape Spear during late July and August of last year provided an astonishing view of  hundreds of whales surrounded by puffins and murres sitting on the waters.
At Cape St. Mary's there were thousands of murres - Common, Thick-billed and Razorbills. When gazing at the waters, there is a carpet of murres - so thick that it looks like you could walk on them. How in the world do you determine which species is which?  Only a scope can provide a real means of separating the Razorbills from the Common. Scoping a Razorbill out of the thousands of sitting, diving, skipping and flying murres is no easy task.
Using a scope is a real skill!  The scope has a very narrow field of view, and I am always impressed how skilled users can quickly scan an area and come up with the different birds among the masses. It is, perhaps, my impatience and lack of skill that binds me to my binoculars.  Scoping requires knowledge, patience and skill and the end results certainly yield the best looks at distant birds. My appreciation is extended to the many who use scopes and share the opportunity to see the bird well.
Last Saturday there were thousands and thousands of murres on the water but none on the rocks...until a single Razorbill just popped up on a nearby cliff. It was followed by another.
The two checked out the area and seemed to be talking about whether it was the best place for them. When one flew off, the other remained to lay claim to this small, prized piece of real estate. (The goal is to find a safe spot where the eggs will not roll off the ledge.) This happened several times until they finally lifted off not to return.
These two birds provided the best opportunity to get a really close look at this beautiful, velvet black Razorbill.  The thin white lines on its beak and and lines running to its eyes popped against the black background. The white lines from the beak to the eye are a part of its breeding plumage.
They seemed undisturbed by the presence of about nine people and lots of cameras snapping. Of course, the amount of activity swirling around the rocks and the cacophony  of bird sounds easily drowned out everything else.
As the days go by, more of the same birds will descend upon the area covering every square inch of the ledges in this area.  Then, thousands of baby birds will emerge and grow until they are capable of leaving the nest. I read that Razorbill young cannot fly when they leave the nest so they have to have immediate access to the water.  From the cliff to the water is a pretty far drop, I can imagine all of the resistance as the parents nudge the babies out into the world.

The rocky crags of Cape St. Mary's will be teaming with activity for most of the summer, and each phase of breeding will offer a somewhat different experience for onlookers. For now, it is all about scouting and claiming the best possible spot to set up house.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Ruffed Grouse Often Seen by the Road

 Last Saturday I went on a spectacular birding trip to Cape St. Mary's with Margie McMillan. The variety and sheer numbers of birds that we saw was a fitting reward for our thirteen hours of birding enjoyment. The Ruffed Grouse was certainly not our target bird of the day, nor the best bird of the day, but it was our last. I had very few pictures of this bird, so I started with this one to review the day. The truth is - I took hundreds of pictures, and it takes me a while to sort through them and crop them for uploading.  Little by little, I will work my way toward narrowing down images to share.
On the return trip we traveled toward Placentia to St. John's.  Birds were scarce in the late afternoon, even the American Robins which were plentiful all day long were no longer being seen. We were cruising along when Margie and I spotted this bird standing up by the side of the road.
Screech when the tires, again. Snap went the seat belt as I scrambled to grab the camera at the same time and open the door.  The grouse stayed put, just standing there looking at me. I inched ever so slowly toward it, and it inched even slower away from me. I got really close and was able to get full-frame shots with the sun over my shoulder. As I started to walk back to the car, this bird tip-toed toward the other side of the road. When it reached about 3/4 of the distance, it started to run and disappeared into the woods. I can only imagine it let out a deep sigh of relief that it had escaped with its life.
The Ruffed Grouse can be found in Newfoundland any time of the year. I recall last Spring I went on a couple of guided bird walk in the Botanical Gardens. On one trip, I heard the loud drumming this bird creates in spring when it flaps its wings. Like the American Bittern, it creates a noise that is very distinctly different from any other.  On another walk, I saw two grouse in the woods, one on the ground and the other sitting in a tree.  The last grouse I saw was in early January on Blackhead Road. I have also seen them around Middle Cove, Second Pond walking trail, and in the woods at Long Pond.  Despite the number of times I have seen it, the Ruffed Grouse is always worth stopping for a good look.  Maybe one of these days, I will see one with its tail feathers spread or witness the drumming activity. There is always something new to observe with every bird and you never know when the special opportunity it just around the next bend.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Northern Harrier - Goulds, April 18, 2012

 Another round of warm, sunny weather has motivated me to get outside and enjoy every moment.  Along with the good weather, new birds are showing up regularly.  In the hopes of seeing as many spring migrants as possible, I traversed my frequent route to Cape Spear, Petty Harbour and Goulds.  Just as I was wrapping up my day's activities, I checked to see if Cochrane Pond road was passable.  When I saw the mounds of snow still blanketing the road, I turned up a gravel road to head home.
Near the end of the gravel road, along the treeline,  I saw a group of robins feeding in the field. I pulled over and turned off the ignition to see if any other little birds might pop out of the woods to join them. It was then that I spotted a large hawk rising and dipping over the treetops. I watched as it moved closer.
What was this huge bird?  It definitely wasn't an eagle.  I began to snap pictures to that I could identify it later. I watched as it came closer.  The robins froze in place.
The bird flew over the field and then back to the trees. It certainly seemed to be hunting.
Then it banked and I saw the large white band at the base of its tail.  At last, I knew what it was. This Northern Harrier was a first for me this year. The crows began to gather and at first, monitored the harrier from the trees and then took chase.
Shortly thereafter, the Northern Harrier took one last look around and headed back toward the woods.

 I ran into some birders yesterday who told me that a farmer in the area had told them about a large bird that had been flying over the fields in the area. It was most likely this same bird.  On a return trip to the area the next day, I was surprised as soon as I stopped: A Sharp-shinned Hawk swept into the same area and quickly flew across the highway. Is this Hawk Alley? I looked closely at a silhouette of a large bird in the distance that was behaving like the harrier.  I think it is quite possible it was the same bird.  It seems to be sticking in the area for a while.

For anyone attempting to see this bird, take the gravel road just east of the entrance to Cochrane Pond road and look closely at the field on the left before the bend in the road.  Good luck!