Friday, January 31, 2014

2014: The Year of the Horse

 Happy Chinese New Year!


 This makes today a perfect day to enjoy a feast.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

We've all been there!

 Time and time again, I went to Pier 17 in the hopes of seeing the Bonaparte's Gull only to find the area empty, the birds too far away, the birds tucked in to sleep, blinding light or poor visibility. Disappointed, I would leave thinking I'm never going to see the Bonaparte's this year.
 This same scenario plays itself out over and over as birders go to known areas where birds have been spotted. Whether it is the Virginia's Warbler, the Peregrine Falcon, the Blue-winged Teal, the Northern Goshawk, the Barrow's Goldeneye....the list is endless.... birders walk away shaking their head about the inability to spot an elusive bird.
 There really is a limited window of opportunity before the bird takes off for good. This makes it imperative to keep on looking in the hopes of making the connection before the bird's departure.
After more than a dozen trips, several hours of looking and a tank of gas, I finally saw the Bonaparte's Gull sitting with a flock of Black-headed Gulls. It blended in so well, I could easily have missed it again. The black beak and slightly shorter legs confirmed I was looking at it! I was surprised to see how aggressive it was with the Black-headed Gulls. For no reason at all, it would jump up and poke the other birds.

Breathing a sigh of satisfaction, I can now turn my attention to finding other roaming birds reported in the area. How many times will I have to walk Long Pond to see the Northern Goshawk? How many times will I have to drive Rennie's River to see the Cedar Waxwings? Perhaps, if I weren't so impatient, I would just wait. I will surely see these birds in good time.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Wood Duck Photo Array

 'Tis the middle of winter, and there really aren't many birds to chase. Fortunately, this great Wood Duck at Quidi Vidi Lake is always game for a little action.
 He was a little difficult to find during the first few days of his stay, but he seems to have settled in nicely now.
 Yesterday, I dropped down to the lake with some food for the ducks. This small duck is pretty scrappy. Despite its diminutive size, it jumped into the mix of black ducks and mallards to ensure he got his share. Seen here licking his tongue out, the Wood Duck was trying to free himself of a piece of grass he picked up while grabbing food.
 The larger ducks often took a poke at him; but undaunted, he continued to scramble for his share.

 The Wood Duck is about the prettiest duck that routinely visits the fresh waters in St. John's. There are other really nice-looking ducks like the Hooded Merganser, Ruddy Duck and Bufflehead that drop in from time to time, but they are typically unapproachable.
 This Wood Duck was reported by Andrea Dicks on January 17, 2014. As of the 28th, it was still there. Let's hope is stays around a long time.
 Off topic: I was recently thinking about all of the birders from novice to experienced in the province. Without any difficulty at all, I could come up with about 50 birders who regularly "bird" and report from coast to coast. The number certainly seems to be growing.
 With the expanded, Mactavish article in The Telegram, I think there is a good possibility the number of casual and serious birders will grow. Way to go, Bruce!
I am holding my breath waiting for the next great report. Sadly, the Purple Gallinule recently reported did not survive the Newfoundland elements. I think that is the second such demise of that species in recent months. For a vagrant bird to survive winter here there must be many favorable circumstances. What does that mean? Well, to a winter birder it means - get moving quickly if a winter bird is reported.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Barrow's Goldeneye and Barrow's/Common Hybrid

 Two weeks ago, Alison Mews and I did the CBS and CBN winter bird run. While it was a beautiful day and we saw lots of great birds, we missed the target bird ....the Barrow's Goldeneye. So, this weekend we tried again.
 Sometimes trying to find one special bird in Spaniard's Bay, among so many and at such distance, is a lot like trying to find one single star in deep space.
 Other times, that special bird just appears and close to shore at that.
 When we pulled into the lookout at Spaniard's Bay, I didn't even have the ignition turned off before Alison announced, "There it is." I fumbled with the car key, my binoculars and fetching my camera before I could lock onto the bird. Yep! That was it!
 I'm not sure that the bird guides really do justice to the distinct difference between these two species. Once seen, side-by-side, there is no doubt the Barrow's Goldeneye shows much darker with a distinct black and white ladder along the back above the wing. The face has a crescent-shaped white patch, differing from the roundish patch of the Common Goldeneye.

 The Barrow's also has a black spur running down the shoulder which is absent in the Common Goldeneye. The head of the Barrow's can often be a glossy purple, but that is not the case on this particular bird. It's head was as green as all of the Common Goldeneye in the area.
 While it is often said that picking out the Barrow's in a flock of Commons is difficult, I didn't find that to be the case. The biggest challenge is distance. When these birds are close enough, identification is a snap.
 Even when the bird is tucked in for a rest, the differences are still apparent.
 Since 2003, there have been regular reports of a hybrid Barrow's and Common Goldeneye at Spaniard's Bay. Until this weekend, I had never seen it.
 This trip we got a great look at it. As we drove up along the shore road, this great little bird was floating close to the rocks. It wasn't long before it flew away, but there is no doubt about it. This bird didn't fit the description of either the Barrow's or the Common Goldeneye. Yet, it had characteristics of both.
Note how purple the head is on this one, the crescent-shaped face patch is prominent, but the laddering above the wing is somewhere in between the markings for the Barrow's and the Common Goldeneye.

The most important choice when birding sea ducks is to stay in the car if possible and speak softly. These birds seem to have a sixth sense about safety. If they detect humans, they will either quickly drift offshore or they will out-right up and leave. To get the photos we got which are the closest and best I have ever had, we sat in the car and waited for the small flock of birds to drift toward us.

Well, the second time was a charm, and unless something special shows up in the area, my winter trips to CBN have come to an end. General observation: There were many more birds in the area two weeks ago than on this weekend.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Goat Walk

While this goat is clearly not a bird, it isn't a dog either. Nevertheless, I saw these two goats going for a walk on a leash downtown.

They were actually better behaved than most dogs. Charming!

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Great Cormorant - A New Appreciation

 Ask anyone what their favorite bird is, and it is not likely they will say cormorant. Ask a fisherman and they likely will say the cormorant is their least favorite bird. Why? Because some fishers have correlated the drop in fish stocks to the increase in cormorants, so they must be depleting the fish stocks. I don't think there is any evidence to support this. In fact, a Great Cormorant needs only one pound of fish a day to get along just fine.
 In St. John's, we see Great Cormorant and Double-crested  regularly. It really just depends on the season and location. Quidi Vidi Lake has hosted both species, but never before have I seen the number of Great Cormorant gathered around the fresh waters as there are this year. On the weekend, I counted 11. Beyond Quidi Vidi, I have seen them at Long Pond, Virginia River and Kent's Pond. They seem to be everywhere.
 There are no songs of endearment about cormorants and few poems extol their attributes.  In fact, lore reports that when a Cormorant shows up it is a harbinger of bad news. If that is the case, St. John's is in for a doozy of a year!

The cormorant is a rather gangly creature with a disproportionate frame: The neck is really long, the body stocky, and the tail short. Its most fetching feature is its full, four-foot wingspan, best seen when the cormorant stretches is wide wings to dry after a swim.
 Despite the fact we regularly see this species around the harbour or zipping by at Cape Spear, the cormorant typically prefers warmer seasons. Over time, they  have adapted to the cold, and northern populations seem to be increasing.
 In a recent Telegram article and on his blog, Bruce Mactavish shared photos of a Great Cormorant gobbling down a good-sized sculpin, a thorny fish. Remarkable! This cormorant pictured here quickly made away with this smaller fish caught at Long Pond and continued fishing. I can't help but think about those few moments when the fish continues to wiggle its way down the throat and in the stomach. Yuck!
 In Whiteway, there is a rock named for cormorants that breed there - Shag Rock. Shag is a word commonly used to refer to cormorants here, but the term shag actually was originally used to describe the European Shag that boasts a large crest on the top of its head. Whether flying, drying or just grouping in large numbers, it is hard to ignore this bird. Taking a closer look just may enhance appreciation.
For comparison, I have included this shot of a Double-crested Cormorant that stayed a long while Quidi Vidi about two years ago.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Otter's Lunch

 While driving Old Petty Harbour Road today, I came upon four otters lying on the ice enjoying their lunches.
 I pulled off on the narrow shoulder of the road and grabbed a few shots of one of them before a car came along.
 This otter had a big fish and was working away at it, quickly. Otters eat approximately 1/3 of their body weight in a day. With otters weighing anywere from 35 lbs to 100 lbs, that could amount to a lot of fish. Although fish is not all they eat, but when fish are obviously as plentiful as they are, why not? I wonder if the fish in First Pond are good for people....
 With the teeth on this creature, the truth can eat anything it wants to.
With those teeth and those bear-size claws, I will keep my distance for all otters in the future. They are cute to look at, from a distance.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Conception Bay

 Each year there are a number of off-the-beaten-path locations that birders just have to visit. Among these is Conception Bay South and North. This area actually requires two visits in an effort to see seabirds in the winter and shorebirds in the summer.
 I recently made one of these trips with Alison Mews. It was a beautiful day - sun shining, reasonable winds, snow-covered landscape, and lots of birds. Every now and then, I would just have to pause to drink in the experience.
 The trip begins in Chamberlains where a variety of sea ducks gather including Common Goldeneye, Red-breasted Mergansers and scaup. The one bird we were hoping to see in this area, a Bonaparte's Gull, was not to be found.
Along the way, we checked Conway Brook finding four Green-winged Teal and Pond Road where we found plenty of mergansers, goldeneye and scaup. Avondale is one of the few locations where seeing the little Buffleheads is pretty much a given.
 Holyrood is always good for Common Mergansers; yet, there seemed to be less this year.
 On a beautiful day, even an American Black Duck becomes special.
 Some of our best views of the ducks moving around the shoreline came in Harbour Grace where there were plenty of Common Goldeneye and Greater Scaup zooming from one location to the other. There were also at least two American Wigeons in the area. The high numbers of scaup were notable at most every stop.
 There were a few really good opportunities to see some of the ducks close-up. With the sun shining, the vibrant colors on the varieties of ducks necessitated long gazes through binoculars to enjoy every moment.
A lone Tufted Duck sat just off from a large flock of scaup in Harbour Grace. This was the only Tufted we saw all day.

While in Spaniard's Bay, we scanned the few birds in the area to try to locate the Barrow's Goldeneye. It was nowhere to be seen. Sometimes, missing the Barrow's means another trip to the area is required as that is the only location on the Avalon where it is possible to see this species.  I think I could handle that.