Saturday, December 31, 2011

My Year of Birding - 2011

I have had an amazing year of birding with a year-end total of 199 species all on the Avalon Peninsula, Newfoundland.  There have been spills and thrills and hits and misses, but never a dull day birding.  I worked very hard to get this number over 200 but it didn't happen.  I made many trips over the year in pursuit of a Yellow-breasted Chat, a Red Knot, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Black Scoter and a Lapland Longspur with no luck.  These birds remain on my "yet-to-be-seen" list.

Over the year my pictures have improved, my knowledge has increased and so has the mileage on my car.  This photo of the Yellow-bellied Flycatcher (my favorite photo of the year) reminds me of the many quiet moments that I had over the year with a single bird, just the two of us.
 The activity in my back yard decreased this year, maybe because of the abundance of cones and berries in the woods since summer.  Last year I recorded 29 species in the yard and this year the number dropped to 21. However, I did have some special activity.  For the first time a Pine Grosbeak visited my feeder (eating seeds from the ground) regularly for about three weeks.  Then there was my first nesting bird.  A family of Tree Swallows ruled the yard for a long time as they scoped out the home, then nested and then raised their young here.  It was a very interesting process to watch.  Most surprising of all the things that I saw was the gathering of so many Tree Swallows on the day that the babies were first born and on the day that they took their first flight. It was like they all attended a baby shower and then a "life launch." There is so much social behaviour among birds and this was a great opportunity to learn first hand about one species.
This image of a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher is a great reminder of one of the longest and most rewarding searches of the year. The area on the East Coast Trail was abuzz with birds on that day but this little one took over three hours to show itself. The thrill of its appearance was remarkable!
Every time I view the pictures of the Hermit Thrush I have a rush of memories of two different occasions (one on La Manche Road and one on Bear Cove Point Road) where we were surrounded by Hermit Thrush. In the Spring these birds were making all kinds of racket and were everywhere.  On the second encounter while they were ever so busy and plentiful, they didn't make a sound. Both times there were several other species around.
The traffic to my blog has really increased.  In the beginning (February 2010) I had a little over 100 hits a month. Recently, I have had more than 100 hits a day. I can only hope that the content and pictures are helpful and interesting.  As a result of my web postings, one of my pictures of a Spotted Sandpiper in flight is being used in a permanent migratory bird display at the Clarence Cannon National Wildlife Refuge in Annada, Missouri. That was quite an unexpected honor.
I was also told that CBC Radio recently quoted my blog on an item about the Red-bellied Woodpecker.  That really emphasizes the importance of making my content accurate. 

And so another year comes to its end. Last year which was really my first year of birding I was able to see 151 species.  This year I have made great progress. At the end of 2010 my Newfoundland Life List stood at 152. As of today I have now seen 220 species. That means that I saw 68 life birds this year! I would never have thought that was possible. There were many days during the year that I didn't see any new birds but was able to better study many birds. Then there were days that I saw as many as three life birds in one day.  It left me shaking my head in wonder. What will 2010 bring?  Well, I'm sure that I will never match the number that I had this year but I will very likely top up my knowledge of many species. I will be taking on a project for about three months that will surely hamper my ability to go birding this winter.  I will post as much as I can and work hard to keep the blog current.

Today, is the last day of the year and the gale force winds have subsided. I will be heading out soon in pursuit of bird number 200 for my yearly list! I will be looking high and low, far and close in an effort to find one more bird! Maybe there will be a King Eider sitting in the water at Cape Spear:) Post Script:  I spent a great day looking but was unable to find any new birds today so for me, 2011 stands at 199 species.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Sora! Sora! Sora!

In the days of old before much study of bird behavior it was thought that the Sora (also known as the Carolina Rail) would bury itself in mud to ride out the winter. Well, here is living proof that the old belief was unfounded. This is not the first recorded visit of a Sora in St. John's.  Some years back it was thought that there were more than one at Lundrigan Marsh as they were heard whinnying in the area at night.  This is quite a secretive bird and moves around mostly at night.  The visibility of this bird is unusual.  While it prefers to eat mollusks and insects, it seemed very happy to eat the seeds offered up by passing walkers and visiting birders.
Given the black around the base of the bill the dark brown head with a black line down the middle and the distinct bright white lines on the back, I think that this is a male.  I tried to find information about the cinnamon color on the under tail but most pictures show it to be white as well as written descriptions report it to be white. Is this a juvenile?   


This great little bird (just over 9") was found by Alvan Buckley while he was passing some time before picking someone up at the airport. This is so typical of many great finds...they just appear out of nowhere.
This Sora is a very handsome bird.  The early morning light really showed the richness of the browns. The mix of slate gray and the chestnut color eye really "pop" in the wintry setting. The rusty color on the under tail also was very rich.

This Sora seemed most comfortable when it could tuck itself into some weed but the scattered seed was certainly enough to get it out and walking around. It seemed well and from what I read the skittishness  is second nature to this bird.
The typical rail feet are much like chickens.  When the Sora walked it actually seemed to cross one foot in front of the other like a top model on a cat walk.  Except in this case it is far from graceful.
Among the many new birds that I have seen this year, most have been found by someone else and I have rushed to the site to get a glimpse.  A friend and I were talking to Chris Brown about this almost too easy means of seeing new birds.  He called that "skimming the cream."  I'm afraid I have skimmed the cream a lot this year but that doesn't take away from the joy of watching a new bird.
The wind of the last two days has been roaring but the temperatures have been above freezing.  Hopefully, this little rail will be safe in its new environs or will hop on the wind and migrate to a warmer region.  It has been said that one day a marsh can be filled with Sora and the next day they will have all vanished using the cover of night to migrate south.
The Sora are uncommon breeders on the west coast of the province and are more likely to be seen in Spring, Summer or Fall. It is quite uncommon for one to show up in St. John's in winter. Yet, it has taken up residence around a community walking trail. While it quickly became comfortable with birders sitting low and still, it moved about quite freely. However, when someone would come walking down the boardwalk it would high-tail it up over the boardwalk and into the tall grass where it would stay for quite a while until the coast was clear to re-emerge.

Note:  Click on the pictures to enlarge them.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Orange-crowned Warbler

This is the year that just keeps on giving.  When I learned that there was an Orange-crowned Warbler in the St. John's area, I could only think what are my chances of seeing that! It is such a small bird and such a large area. Nevertheless, it is worth a try.

Yesterday morning Margie McMillan and I set out to see the Sora that was found by Alvan Buckley at Kent's Pond.  I was pretty sure that finding it was a sure thing and I was right.  As soon as we arrived three other birders had their telephoto lens trained right on the bird. That is a story in itself for an upcoming post.
Leaving there we headed to Cape Spear where we located several pockets of small birds, the usual species.  It was in the community of Blackhead that we perked up when we spotted a Northern Shrike. Again, those pictures will also come later.  We headed to Cape Spear and walked to the lookout where we saw several Dovekies, Black Guillemot and the Surf Scoters.  Good to know that the hunters didn't get them.
On the way back we decided to try for the Orange-crowned Warbler.  We parked the car, travelled across a foot bridge and within minutes we had reached the trail. As soon as we hit the trail I spotted movement and knew it was the bird.  These were the first "looks."  It was tucked away in the evergreen in between branches and was very difficult to photograph with all of the twigs sticking up.
Finally, it moved into a leafless tree and began the game of cat and mouse.  I could see the eye but couldn't get a shot. It was a flighty little bird moving from one place to another in the blink of an eye. Although, it was staying higher in trees than is typical of this bird. Game on!
When I finally saw the eye it was in the shadows of the branches. Still not good enough.
I tried and tried and knew that every second could be the last with this little greenish bird.
For a moment I saw a glitter in its eye but the twigs blocked everything.
Then its whole face appeared. Now, I had a record shot with substance. This little warbler is an uncommon bird here and should be down in the southeast US now.  The pressure was on to try to capture the moment.  Who knows when I may get another opportunity.

At last I got the face with some light on it. Yeah! You see, in this kind of situation the bird is the master and it is my job to be ready in case it offers a moment to see a good view of it. The rush of the moment is really invigorating and is particularly satisfying when I come away with an identifiable shot of a bird that is known to be very secretive.  There was a report that two Orange-crowned Warblers were seen in the area. We only saw this one.

Then, without notice it lifted off and this time it flew high and out of sight. How long did all of this take? About three minutes at the most. When a sighting like this began and ended so quickly, it left Margie and I standing staring in the distance for a while. When it was clearly gone, then comes the "happy dance" and some a major sense of satisfaction on the walk back to the car.

This shot was just added for the purpose of the index.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Brrrrr Bird Count

I have included images today of some of the species that my Christmas Bird Count (CBC) partner, Catherine Barret, and I saw yesterday.  The CBC is all about counting and not taking pictures so these are old images dragged up just to show the species.
The CBC is a sun-up to sun-set quest to find as many birds as possible in a designated area in a designated radius around St. John's.  Find and count - that is not as easy as it might sound, but it is fun! The day begins with a last minute checklist before leaving the house:  Long johns - check; two pairs of socks - check; two pairs of gloves - check; multiple layers of shirts - check; scarf, warm coat, warm hat - check, check, check. Then there are all of the items to go in the backpack: Binoculars - check; camera - check; field guide - check; bird call - check; notebook and pen - check; sun glasses - check; phone - check; water bottle - check; lunch - check (well, I didn't do so well with the lunch.  After the last two days of festive foods I didn't think that I would ever be hungry again so I dropped the ball on that one.  Thanks to Catherine, I didn't go hungry.) At last everything is ready for departure.

We met a Tim Horton's to have a SMALL coffee (tissues - check!) and plan our day.  We decided to take the early morning to try to locate several rare birds known to be in the city.  No luck there, so we rushed to our designated areas. We started this year with the White Hills.  Given the time of the day and the way the birds were moving around in other areas we had our hopes up that there were going to be plenty of birds. Well, the long and short of that is that the woods around the parking lot offered up more birds than the 2 km. of trails filled with snow that we managed to slip and slide UP! The number of steps we took were not rewarded with an equal number of birds by any means.

We moved on to Virginia River where we scanned the waters and hiked the trail down to a known feeder.  The feeder was the only area on the trail that was hopping but there were only the typical Juncos and Black-capped Chickadees. Then it was off to Bally Haly Golf Course. Up to our knees in snow in some places and slipping on bare ice in others we worked our way around the edge of the woods. We did find one nice little pocket of small birds but again nothing to write home about.
The real highlight came at the end of the day as we were driving North on Portugal Cove Road.  All of a sudden the sky was black, filled with a huge flock of American Crows having a gathering. As we got closer we could see even more filling the trees and rooftops around.  I have never seen so many crows in one place. It was quite a spectacle! Now I have visions of crows dancing in my head!

On a beautifully sunny, cold day Catherine and I had a wonderful day breathing clean, fresh air and drinking in the snow-covered scenery around us.  We noted all birds that we saw and reported our data to the compiler.  While we didn't bring any great new find to the table, we did a small part in covering a region that, too, is important to understanding the overall distribution and quantity of birds on that particular day.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Christmas Bird Count - St. John's, 2011

Today is the annual Christmas Bird Count for the city of St. John's.  The temp is going to be a chilling -10c which will make it tough to get outside and stay all day.

Yet, the sight of a beautiful bird in winter is often enough to warm you up! Any way, this will be a welcome change after all of the holiday flurry.

I will provide an update in tomorrow's post.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Some Rare Birds in Newfoundland during 2011

After a night of over-endulgence I found myself up particularly early this morning. Not wanting to awaken the household I decided to sort through my pictures to turn up a number of the rare birds that have visited the Avalon Peninsula during this year. Not all the rare birds are pictured here as I have misplaced images of the Black Tern and the Rufous Hummingbird as well as missed seeing a number of these birds that strayed into our northern zone.

Among my favorites was this great American Avocet. All of the birds that I have included today have individual posts written about them throughout the year.  If you would like to see more info about the location or the experience, please run a search for the bird in the above search box. 
These birds are not listed in any particular order of appearance but rather the convenient alphabetical order under which I file my pictures. This Anna's Hummingbird created quite a stir in the early months of last year.  Unfortunately, the weather proved to be too much for it.  This was actually a rare year for hummingbirds on the Avalon. In addition to this great little bird,  Rufous and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds also appeared.  I missed seeing the two reported Ruby-throated. Oh well, that is something to aspire for in the new year.
This Blue Grosbeak was a life bird for me.  In fact I was able to see three of these this year.  The birds that I have included today are considered rare or extra rare to Newfoundland. It does seem though that some of these rare birds show up in numbers when they do come.
Most all of these rare birds were "life" birds for me, including this Brant that turned up in Harbour Grace in the Fall. It is birds like this that prompt birds to fuel their tanks, re-charge their batteries and set out to locate and share in the excitement of yet another unexpected visitor.
The Caspian Tern was a first for me as well.  It turned out that several of these birds appeared around the Avalon this year.
This rare Common Chaffinch was a big surprise. Lucky for us birders it stayed in the area where it was first reported by a back yard birder.
 The Common Moorhen is a strange looking bird. It most resembles the American Coot that turn up on the Avalon most every year. 

The Great Egret is the antithesis of the Common Moorhen with its grace and beauty.  While Great Egrets have no reason to be here this year at least four showed up in areas that were easily viewed by many. Even non-birders can't pass this bird up without stopping to enjoy the moment.
The Fork-tailed Flycatcher was another show-stopper during the year. This very rare bird turned up in Renews where the population of Renews must have doubled with all of the visiting birders.
 This Blue-gray Gnatcatcher provided one of my most rewarding birding experiences this year.  Some birds are easy to refind as they are often right where they were reported. This Blue-gray Gnatcatcher was not.  It took hours of looking and working to find it. At last after several hours we were rewarded with a short two minute show. This bird was located on the East Coast Trail near Cape Spear.
The Indigo Bunting was a particularly nice find.  There had been several reported and I checked the areas but could not turn it up. Then one day quite unexpectedly two appeared before me. The irony around this bird find was that when I had it, I didn't know what it was. It was back to the books for me.
 The Little Blue Heron is a common sight in Arkansas but not here. This one found by Dave Hawkins rallied the troups again.  A new path was easily beaten down leading to the edge of a small marshy area where this bird stayed for at least a week. (Note:  Dave also found the American Avocet above. What a thrill it must have been to find these two great birds.)
 During 2011 we had two Northern Mockingbirds. This one stayed in the same location for quite some time last winter.  The latest one I found on a day in late November has not been seen again.  It has to be around somewhere.  I am still keeping an eye out for it.
This little Northern Parula found at La Manche was an exexpected thrill.  I was watching a number of small birds that had gathered on this road early one morning when out it came. I certainly was not expecting this one. This bird is classified as an Uncommon bird in our area but to me, it was rare!

This Red-bellied Woodpecker is still here.  It was located by Anne Hughes around mid-
December and has been putting on quite a show.  Extra suet feeders have been put up in the area and he still seems to be doing very well.  This is a first record of this bird in St. John's.
Over the year we have had three Ruddy Ducks in the St. John's area.  These two were found at Forest Pond by Catherine Barrett.  The pair was a great complement to the male that is pictured below that spent quite a bit of time at Quidi Vidi Lake last spring.

Then, there was the Ruff. Catherine Barrett found this bird at Fourth Pond late one afternoon. All the birders that got in the car right away and set out were able to see the bird.  Those who decided to wait until the next day were disappointed. This bird didn't stay around very long. It could have easily been missed.
 There is something really special about Vireos.  This was the first year that I was able to see several species and to observe their behaviour. Among them was this Warbling Vireo that is among the rare visitors.  This bird was located on Cape Spear Road. Also found on this road by Anne Hughes was a Black-throated Blue Warbler.  While I was able to get a fair look at the bird from inside my car, when I got out to take a picture it vanished into the woods.
Back to Renews...this Western Kingbird turned up on the outskirts of Renews.  It stayed in the same area for about three weeks.  Since then I have not heard any further reports. Even though it looks a little scruffy from its travels it is still a beautiful bird.
I had to walk quite a distance to see this Northern Wheatear but it was worth it.  When I reached the cliff where it was first sighted, I was lucky to encounter Mike Palmeter who already had located the bird.   With his help I was able to see it and watch its flighty behaviour for about three or four minutes before it took off.
Often movies will reference a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. I never expected to see one but a short drive with Dave Brown (who is just clueing up a Big Year for Newfoundland) led us straight to this bird.  Its colors were stunning.
 One of my best finds this year was the Yellow-billed Cuckoo. I was lucky once again to find what I think was the same bird in two different locations. This is a bird that I had really wanted to see so it made the sighting very special.
This Yellow-crowned Night Heron turned up at Quidi Vidi Lake on my birthday.  What a great birthday surprise!  It was one of those one-day wonders as well.  The weather was pretty miserable on that day with quite a lot of rain so maybe he just decided he better move on.
It was my good fortune to come across this Solitary Sandpiper at Forest Pond. When you are new at birding, it is easy enough to tell if a bird is not common but it is not always easy to know what it is.  With pictures and field guides I was able to make an ID of this bird.  I am indeed making progress.
Snipe also caused quite a stir this year.  Two Common Snipe appeared and with the photos and knowledge of Dave Brown they were confirmed Commons. For more info about this you can link to Dave Brown's site through a link on the right of this page.  Also documented this year was a Jack Snipe found by Paul Linegar.  I missed that one.

The rarest of them all this year is the White-breasted Nuthatch that turned up in St. Lawrence.  That is a first record for that bird but unfortunately, I did not get out to see it. Time and distance kept me from making the day-long trip for that one.

Currently, there are two  rare and uncommon warblers regularly visiting feeders in St. John's now.  These are the rare Pine Warbler showing up at the suet feeder at the home of Anne Hughes and the uncommon Cape May Warbler visiting the feeder of Gene and Karen Herzberg.  The appearance of any warbler at this time is the year is rare. By the way it you want to see some really good pictures of these rare birds visit Gene's Flicker page. The link can be found on the right hand side of this page.

Update January 1, 2012: As reported by Bruce Mactavish in The Telegram (December 31, 2011) "Winging it" column:  There was a total of 292 species recorded in Newfoundland and Labrador during 2011. This is 16 more than 2010. Among these there with 19 species of gulls, 38 species of shorebirds, three species of hummingbirds and 30 species of warblers. Amazing!