Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Yellow-Legged Gull

Today's post is all about the bird and the experience, not the pictures. In January, the buzz went out that a Yellow-Legged Gull had been spotted in the harbour in St. John's. Birders everywhere were rushing to the scene. Then, it was reported that the gull had been seen at Quidi Vidi Lake. All the birders rushed to QV and lined off the banks with their cameras and scopes.

This shot was taken on January 30th, a cold Sunday afternoon. Within an hour there were twice as many spotters. All were shivering in their boots hoping to get a glimpse of the Yellow-Legged Gull. It did not disappoint. It showed up on cue. Thanks to Anne Hughes, I got a brief glimpse of the bird through her scope . It was brief and fleeting. First, the gull sat down, hiding its yellow legs. Then other not-so-special gulls got in front of it and blocked the view. Despite the cold, I planned to wait it out to get a better look and maybe even a picture.

In a flash, the gulls flushed and the YLG was gone! I had missed my chance to get a picture of it. Well, I no longer had free time to go in search of this special gull and soon, winter passed. The rains came and the ice went out of Quidi Vidi Lake. I thought for sure that this rare sighting would go undocumented in my records.

Well, today after work I toyed with the idea of taking a nap or going for a walk. Hmmmm what to do? Well, I decided that going for a walk was better for me so I dressed warm for that brisk wind that was blowing and grabbed my camera. I headed for Long Pond, Pippy Park. Aside from a few Robins near the parking lot there weren't many birds. I walked around the pond and spied some American Wigeons. One of the members of the discussion group was recently inquiring about where they could be found so I went through a trail to the water's edge to get a better look and take a count. Yep, there were American Wigeons, four in fact.

Before returning to the trail, I looked out over the thin ice to see if there were any more Wigeons on the pond. What should I see but the Yellow-Legged Gull? What are the odds of that? There are thousands of gulls in St. John's and ONE Yellow-Legged Gull, and it was all mine for the snapping. The gull was about 50 yards away from shore! I really had to push the limits of my 250mm lens. I experimented with so many settings trying to ensure that I got at least one clear shot. The images uploaded here are less than 10% of the original image size - a major crop!

What makes this gull so special? Well, it's a "come-from-away," just like me. It is a southern European species that rarely finds its way here. Although, it has been documented in Newfoundland before. I am providing a link to the recorded event explained by Dave Fifield of MUN who documented the event in 1997. http://www.cs.mun.ca/~dave/ylgu.html This article gives a great description of the YLG and provides some good photos.

Needless to say, I am delighted that I went for a walk today instead of just dreaming about seeing the Yellow-Legged Gull.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Hudsonian Godwit

Sometimes getting a picture of a rare bird is just a matter of "right time; right place." This Hudsonian Godwit just appeared as I was walking around Quidi Vidi Lake in October. I had my Sony point and shoot camera and sat on the bench to fire away. For a long time he remained hidded behind the many ducks in the area, but in time he did finally move out on his own.

When I got home, I searched all of my books to find out what kind of bird this is. I couldn't find anything to match. In January I finally sent it off to a real birder who came back with many questions: "Where did you find it?" "When did you see it?" and more. The birder thought it is a Black Tailed Godwit. In fact, it looks more like a Black Talled Godwit than a Hudsonian. He sent the picture to two other birders who finally decided that it is a Hudsonian. What is the difference?

Well, there are slight differences in the tail bar and in the shape of the beak. The Hudsonian apparently has a slightly greater bend in the beak than the Black Tailed. The other main difference is the origin. The Black Tailed Gotwit is an Eurasian bird that can most often be found in Asia. The Hudsonian is an Arctic bird that is most often found in western North America including Alaska. In either case, the bird was well off course, and I was there to capture its presence and to help document the bird traffic in Newfoundland and Labrador.

If you ever come across a bird that you don't recognize after a fair amount of research, consult with a regional expert. It might be a very important find - like the Pink-footed Goose. It seems that our visitor this year is the first recorded visit since 1995. Bird records are important.

Don't miss out on the Beak display at The Rooms. Free on Wednesday night, you can view a very old and well-maintained collection of birds in the province. Most of the collection belongs to Memorial University. It is a great place to take children. There is even a birder backpack for them to use and identify birds while viewing the large exhibit.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Iceland Gull

Who knew there were so many different kinds of gulls? Before when I saw flocks of gulls on the ice, on the fields or in the air I thought they were all the same. This winter, I learned different. There are many species of gulls; some very common and some quite rare to this part of the world.

Today, I sorted through my images of the Kumlien Iceland Gull. I almost started to shiver as I reviewed them. Not only did I have to battle gull accessibility, lighting, and lens limits, I also endured some very cold and windy days to take pictures. The snow and rain gets on the lens causing problems, and the wind blows the camera around adding already to my camera shake. Somewhere in between the shivering, I was able to snap a few shots

The above image was taken at QV Lake. The bottom half of that image had buildings showing too prominently behind the gull. It distracted a lot from the image of the gull, so I experimented with the smudge tool in Photoshop to bring the focus back onto the gull.

An Iceland Gull is most easily identified by the absence of black on the wings. The Kumlien variety has grey primaries and tips. The Iceland also has very pink legs, brighter pink than the Herring. Its head is often snow white but it does get streaks on the head during the winter. The beak is more narrow than the Herring Gull but does have the same kind of red mark on the lower beak. The yellow eye has a red eye ring.

This close-up provides a clear view of the red eye ring and beak markings.

The Iceland Gull is a four-year gull. In the four years before it reaches adulthood, the Iceland undergoes several transformations. To illustrate I have provided a picture of an immature Iceland. The mantle has not yet become pale grey, and the bill is still partly back. Over time, the black will lessen and the yellow will appear. The legs will also change from pale pink to bright pink when the gull reaches adulthood. The constant identifier of this gull is the absence of black on the primaries.

I am looking forward to working toward better shots of all of the different kinds of gulls when the weather is warmer. I will have a lot more patience to wait for the bird and the elements to cooperate.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Black-Headed Gull

The Black-Headed Gull is one of my favorite gulls to photograph. They are much smaller than all of the other gulls that frequent the waters of Newfoundland and Labrador. They also have a distinctive white color to their feathers. Their beak and feet are bright red/orange and stand out very well against their white coloring.

Even though the gull in this picture doesn't have a black head, it is a Black-Headed Gull. In the winter the dark head fades and leaves a distinctive black spot behind the eye.

While the winter BHG is a great subject to photograph, they also present a challenge. They, typically, stay to themselves often keeping a respectible distance with other gulls or birds in the same pool of water. However, when feeding they may ignore these boundaries. This gull tends to stay away from the water's edge and does not seem to grow accustomed to people. They will take flight with a mere move in their direction. This behaviour coupled with only a 250mm lens presents many challenges for me to overcome.

This image was taken at Pier 17 in the St. John's harbour. It clearly shows the long, narrow red/orange bill and bright feet. These gulls could be spotted on the north side of QV Lake and in the harbour during the winter months.This image is a juvenile BHG. There are several distinguishing characteristics of the juvenile. Note the brown carpal bar and the black plumage on the tail. Also, the bill has not yet become bright reddish orange. It still appears orange at this stage. The BHG is a two-year gull, meaning it takes two years for it to reach its adult plumage.

When Winter passes, the head of the BHG changes from white to very dark brown (no, not black). The change is first visible near the dark ear spot and spreads toward the beak. It is clear they have their own seasonal calendar that coincides with ours.

In addition to the head color changing, the breeding male will develop a bright pink coloring on its front.

Black-headed Gull Update! I was able to locate some transitioned Black-headed Gulls at Pier 17 this weekend and have included the new pictures to show the transition.

This a fully transitioned Black-headed Gull, with a brown head.

Compare the winter gull image (in flight) with this image. It would be very easy to think that these are two different species. The common denominator is the shape of the bill, the red legs and bill. Note that the legs and bill do darken during the summer.

In earlier blogs, I have talked about the Lesser Black-Backed Gull and the Herring Gull. This would be a good time to compare how each of these gulls is unique. This constitutes three of the ten species of gulls that visit St. John's.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Pink-Footed Goose & Belted Kingfisher

This small goose is a Pink Footed Goose native to Greenland but occasionally, a vagrant will find its way to Newfoundland. This one settled in a small drain pond off the Goulds access road and has been hanging around there for about three weeks now. It is considered a rare bird in this province. While I was viewing the goose, four more car loads of birders showed up. One of the great things about the birder community is that it is so open to sharing the experience with others. Once a rare or unusual bird it sighted, it goes onto the discussion group web site, and flocks of birders rush to see the rare bird.

While hanging around trying to get better lighting for a goose picture, along came a Belted Kingfisher. It was ready for its morning feeding and stayed quite a while. Birding is "like a box of chocolates; you never know what you are going to get!"

Both the goose and the kingfisher are very skittish of people so I was limited to photos that I could take from my car window. I knew the minute that I would get out of my car both subjects would flee. Kingfishers are particularly hard to photograph because they move very fast and will not tolerate people. This is the best shot I have of this species.

A massive hybrid Mallard is also hanging out in the same pond. It is almost as big as the goose. Its head is mostly brown but does have some green. His size certainly helps him to have his way with the ladies.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Bald Eagle

This has been the year of the eagle in Newfoundland. Everywhere you look there is a picture of an eagle and a story to go with it. I have a few of those, too. The Bald Eagle is king of the sky, just like the lion is king of the jungle. He is stately, steady and calm. In tribute to this fine bird, I created a Bald Eagle portrait.

This eagle was particularly accommodating. He struck several memorable poses. First was the stare. I think he wanted to be sure that I a clear shot of that.

Following this shot, he raised his wings as if to conduct an orchestra and posed yet again. This time, perhaps, to make sure that I saw his wide wing spread. I was impressed.

Many people don't realize that crows work very hard to scare off eagles. They are often quite successful. When an eagle moves into an area, a group of crows will swarm the eagle to drive it away. In this case a lone crow is successful in keeping the eagle away from the birds on the ice.

People from all around the province flocked to Quidi Vidi Lake to get a glimpse of all of the eagle activity. There was a report that on one particular day four adult eagles and ten juvenile eagles descended on the ice. It must have been quite a spectacle. In the image below, the photographers with great equipment have gathered underneath a tree where a juvenile eagle overlooks the lake. He seems completely undisturbed by his fame and sat for over half an hour, posing for all.

I learned this year that photographers are willing to do most anything to capture that great shot. One particular day, a gentleman went to the nearby Dominion and bought a fresh chicken. He threw it on the ice, and within minutes, two juvenile eagles appeared out of nowhere to grab the chicken and fly from the north side parking lot to the boathouse. Within minutes, the paparazzi were in their cars flying around the lake. A Stampede! No one heeded the "Do Not Enter" sign just East of the boathouse. Before the chicken was devoured, there were a lot of satisfied photographers.

I have a little eagle story of my own. In December, I joined a group for a birdwatching tour to the South Shore. It was one of the worst days this winter. The snow was steadily falling and was being whipped about by the freezing north wind. Six of us had gotten up at 5 a.m. to meet and start this exciting trip and none of us was too thrilled about rescheduling for the next day. Mile by mile we drove into the blinding white flakes shrouded by darkness. There was an unusual silence in the car, as if to speak would mean to suggest that we turn back.

Finally daylight appeared, and we felt confident that we had gone through the worst and leaned into the day. We stopped at several locations, slipped across the icy paths and tied our hoods tight to keep the wind out. However, none of this was important. Each new bird was an experience. We saw two varieties of Grebes, Loons, Mergansers, Snow Buntings, House Sparrows, Eiders and so much more. By mid-morning we were parked in a basin of one of the many small communities watching a female King Eider. Our guide remarked that it was very rare for an eider to come into shore like that. Then, we realized that we could move the car and get a little closer look. We were easing our way around to the duck, when a Bald Eagle appeared out of nowhere.

The wheels hadn't stopped rolling on the van when I was already out with my camera. Unfortunately, I didn't have my new image stabilizer lens at that time. Nevertheless, I got a few memorable shots. The eagle made a pass and the eider dove. I have one shot of the eagle ready to grab when the ducks legs disappear underneath the water. I watched and photographed the eagle (dark drab day!) set up three times before he mastered the rhythm of the duck.

On the third pass, the eagle was waiting when the duck popped up above the water's surface. The snatch! The eagle grabbed the eider by the neck. A symphony of "Whoaaaa's" came out of the others on the trip. All were so hypnotized by the event that no one else got any pictures. So, by default, that makes mine the best of the event!

Eagles will continue to amaze us and cause people to stop and stare; although not likely at Quidi Vidi anymore this year. Once the ice is gone, the easy vittles are gone, and so too, are the eagles.

Herring Gulls

How about that weather on Sunday? A day to remember, "weather wise" but not "bird wise." I don't know what happened to the birds but it was like they just vanished into the woods. I enjoyed a long drive taking landscape pictures and enjoying the weather but not one small bird made an appearance. It is possible that the few eagles that were circling overhead had something to do with it.

I went out briefly this morning to check on the Bufflehead that was at the Health Sciences Complex pond yesterday. No sign of it today or the Eurasian Wigeons but there were a few gulls there. I snapped the shot above today and decided it would be a good day to introduce the Herring Gull. It is the most common gull in St. John's and very easy to identify. This one is an adult Herring with its Spring coat on already. Key identifiers are the pinkish legs, the red spot on the lower bill, the red eye-ring around the yellow eye. It also has black wing tips with a circle pattern on them. When learning to identify gulls these are the key points to consider: The leg color, the markings on the bill, the eye color and ring, the mantle color and the wing tips. It is best to start with the most common ones first and move to the more complex birds to identify.

This is an adult Herring gull, too. Check the identifiers like the bill, the eye color, the leg color and the tips on the wing. Yet, this gull looks different because it has brown streaks on its head. That's because this Herring Gull is wearing his Winter coat. As Spring comes the heads of the adult Herring Gull will return to snow white, like the picture above.

This shot taken as Pier 17 yesterday shows how wide the expanse of a Herring Gull is. They are large gulls, but not as large as the Greater Black Back. I will talk about the GBB on another day.
This is an immature Herring Gull. Note the streaking on its head, grayish. Note the bill-in-progress. It has not yet matured into the bright yellow bill with the very bright red spot. Its eye ring has not yet become red. All of this illustrates why it is a good idea to photograph the birds you view. Rarely will a bird behave long enough for a new birder to go through the identification checklist. Having a good picture is a great way to go home and review the details with the pictures and reference books.

The one aspect of bird photography that captured my interest so quickly was what I saw when I viewed the pictures closely. This image of a Herring Gull shows how delicate and intricate the feathers are. Gulls tuck their feet up in a straight line when they are soaring through the sky. Every now and then, the light will reflect off the feathers or through the feathers to illuminate the sheer beauty of a bird that many consider to be a nuisance.

Every now and then, I capture an image that lends itself to a little creative "photoshopping," like the image at the top of the page. This picture was taken this morning after I threw some corn bread out to feed the birds. The Herring Gull hopped right over and helped himself. When he left, I wondered how the found the jalapeno peppers in it?
I find the gulls to be a great bird to practice the skill of bird photography. There are plenty of them around. They will pose, swim, lift off, hover and soar above. They can be photographed from ground level - eye-to-eye, from below and above depending on where I put myself. They move quickly and require a quick response and quick camera adjustments. What I have learned photographing gulls is now helping me to shoot smaller birds. And........ I still have so much to learn. The first and most important aspect of a good bird photo is that the eyes and the beak must be in focus.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Diving Ducks

Having seen the Bufflehead duck earlier this week prompted me to review my pictures of diving ducks. I have quite a few! A diving duck is just that - a duck that dives into the water to find food. These ducks can dive up to about 20 feet. One moment there will be 20 sitting on the water's surface and the next moment, there is not a bird in sight. They dive. Most of the time, at least one duck will remain on the surface to serve as a look-out for the others.

Before submerging, the duck will take a leap upward and forward and then, lunge into the water. In a flash the bird is gone. Both of these images of the brown diving ducks are female Scaups. They are chocolate brown with very distinctive white markings above the bill. They have a white band of feathers on the wings that typically is not visible when the duck is resting on the water.

The Greater Scaup is distinguished by its rounded head and green tint on the head. There have been about 40 Scaups (Greater and Lesser male and females) in the St. John's area all Winter. All of the images here were taken at different times and at different places. It is no trouble to tell what a difference the lighting and wind conditions make.

The Lesser Scaup looks a lot like the Greater Scaup. When identifying these two birds, the head is the key. As visible in this image, the head is more pointed than the rounded head of the Greater Scaup. The head is usually a consistent black.

Then, there is the Tufted Duck, it bears some uresemblance to the Scaups but is very easily identified by the tuft of hair that sticks out from the back of the head. The Tufted Duck is also smaller than the Scaups.

I included this image simply because I liked it. The hairdo is shorter and more neat than most Tufted Ducks.

The latest diving duck that I have seen is this Bufflehead. The image was taken from quite a distance and this is a huge crop of a much larger picture. Nevertheless, it is easy to see the similarity between this diving duck and the ones above. The distinguishing characteristic of this duck is the white marking on the cheek. I will go back and try to get a better picture on the weekend.
For anyone who would like to see Eurasian Wigeons, there are two that have been sitting in the small pond in front of the Health Science Complex. Good luck!

Monday, March 8, 2010

A Different Duck

For the last 10 days or so there has been nothing but rain, wind, snow, sleet and did I mention rain? It hasn't been fit to go out, let alone take pictures. At the peril of my camera I did venture out on Saturday to have a good look at the flooding at Quidi Vidi Lake. Considering that this is one of the prime birdwatching areas in the city, I just had to make sure that everything was OK there. It was a dark and dreary afternoon but quite a sight to see a good foot of water covering the roadway near the boathouse. The road was blocked to all traffic. As I scanned around the lake to see benches, the viewing stand and walkways under water, I spied "The Rower." The bronze sculpture that is usually 20 feet from the shore looked like it was sitting atop the water. That was it, the shot of the day. I put my hood up, dawned my gloves and waded through water just to the tops of the soles of my shoes. I quickly uncovered my camera and shot blindly as the rain was pouring on me and the camera. Once I had two clicks, I ran through the driving rain back to my car. The above image is the result.

Quidi Vidi is a great spot for viewing sea birds, ducks, rock doves and the unexpected like a Hudsonian Godwit, the American Coot and this odd little fellow below. It was speculated that this is a domestic duck. It just showed up at QV, pecked the shins of walkers and drew plenty of onlookers. Then within a week, it just vanished again. I have looked up domestic ducks but haven't found anything like this one. He is an odd duck!

I have ducks on the mind this evening. Today, I saw and photographed a Bufflehead duck. It was too far away for me to get a good picture, but I did capture several shots clear enough for record shots. That was my first Bufflehead, bringing my total species sighting up to 53 for 2010. Not bad for a beginner!

I am working on a group of pictures of diving ducks for my next entry. The Bufflehead is a diving duck so I thought it would be a good time to showcase my pictures of Greater and Lesser Scaups and Tufted Ducks, all are diving ducks. There are about 40 Scaups that wintered in the ponds in St. John's this year. They can still be seen at Burton's Pond, QV and Long Pond. They move about quite a bit but you are guaranteed to see them at any one of these places.