Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Short-billed Dowitcher

Bellevue Beach is a veritable hot spot for shore birds. On Saturday another birder and I decided to check it out. For me, the Short-billed Dowitcher was the target bird. I had never seen one before and I must have wanted to really badly because I felt like I hiked to Timbuktu to get there.

All along the beach there was no sign of any shorebirds and the longer we walked the farther away the mussel bed seemed to be. Nevertheless, it was not nearly as bad as the rainy, blustery day that we went in July.
 Alas, I rounded the last bend in the beach and with the low tide, I could see steady movement on the flat. The flood of relief and excitement replaced the exhaustion of the walk and I was ready for birding.

The first birds that I saw were two Short-billed Dowitchers feeding in a low pool of water. Of course, I was looking into the sun so I had to remedy that. Onto the mussel bed I went. With the sound of mussel shells crunching under my feet, I had to move so slowly so as not to flush the birds.
 At last I got the sun behind me and could get great looks at these two golden brown birds.

These birds are uncommon to Newfoundland but have been spotted in the Spring, Summer and Fall. These two seemed to still be in their breeding plumage as I understand that in the Winter they become gray.
They were quite calm and did not flush at my presence. I took several pictures of them and then began scanning the large area that was teeming with other shorebirds. There were so many I hardly knew where to begin. Needless to say, I have many pictures from the day and will be posting them as I can.
I was very lucky to see these birds so quickly and so well, because sometime while I was looking at other birds, they moved and I never saw them again.

This would have been a great spot to pitch a tent and study the birds and their movement as the tides moved in an out....not to mention an air mattress would have been a welcome sight after they long, hot trek to the flats.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Solitary Sandpiper

 I have seen so many new birds over the last three weeks that I hardly know where to begin with my postings. Because of the backlog of pictures, I have processed those of which I have less pictures to keep the ball rolling.

I spotted this Solitary Sandpiper on August 20, 2011 at Forest Pond. It just goes to show how important it is to keep checking known bird spots over and over. You never know when an uncommon bird is going to fly in.
This one didn't stay very long on that day. I have since learned that the behaviour of the Solitary Sandpiper is important to relocating it. Apparently, it feeds in one location and goes to another to roost. I think this was the roosting spot and it was anticipated that it would return. It did from time to time over the next few days and was seen by several persistent birders who kept checking.

While finding an uncommon bird is really special, for me at my stage of learning it was even more special for me to pour over all of the pictures in the guides and come up with the identification. Some of the best clues for identifying this bird were the white specks on its back, the greenish/yellow legs, its size, white eye ring and the narrow white stripe running from the eye to the beak. I must confess that it took be about an hour of checking all of my guides to come up with the ID.

While this bird has been documented to migrate through Newfoundland, it is still considered rare. This has been a good year for us with the Solitary Sandpiper because there were six found in Renews and some other stray reports around the province. It seems we are making up for the lull that we have had during the summer months, possibly due to the weather.

Now, I have a new dilemma: An American Avocet has been spotted about an hour out of town. Do I just pick up and go in chase of this very rare bird?  Maybe....

Monday, August 29, 2011

Doors Open - St. John's, Newfoundland

During the annual Doors Open event in St. John's, several venues are open to the public without charge.  When my eldest granddaughter said she wanted to sleep over at my house, I thought it was a great opportunity for us to participate in "Doors Open."

Given that she is three years old, I chose the Railway Museum as the event of the day. We were up early and on Signal Hill with our breakfast in hand at 8 a.m.  We had breakfast high atop the city and she loved it! "I can see everything!"
She wanted to go into the "castle." With a little luck on our side, Cabot Tower opened at 8:30 and we made our way up the tricky, "scary" winding staircase to the top. We were on our way down when a gentleman was heading up to change the flag. He asked us if we would like to go. Of course!  We followed him out onto the deck and he asked my granddaughter if she would like to help raise the flag.
What a special thing to do!  In no time under his tutelage she learned the hand over hand technique and became a real helper. The man was so kind and even carried her down over those darned steps.  We had already started our day with a "bang."

We then, at her behest, had a walk along a trail. After which, we headed to the Railway Museum.  It was not open yet so we sat on a bench beside the display train pictured above. We made up stories and I tried to intertwine a little real history in mine. It never hurts to learn something along the way. Well, from her story, I learned something, too. I surely didn't know that Barbie came from an outport!
In no time the doors to the musuem opened and in we went. She wondered if the manikins might come to life. I told her to use her imagination and maybe she could see the people moving about their activities. We chose to do a walkabout on our own rather than join the tour. After all, she is three. I gave her some info and she was able to ask questions without bothering anyone else. Success! It was a great experience. She wanted to go to another musuem.
We tried the Johnson' Geo Centre back at Signal Hill, but it didn't open until noon. While she suggested that we wait, I talked her into going to another place. Off we went to Commissariat House. I thought she might enjoy seeing the old house. Great choice!

When we arrived, we went to the Carriage House where they gave her a paper printer's hat and helped her put her name on it with sticky letters. Then we went in front of the house and another helper dressed her up in a period dress and hat. It was such a special experience for her. She became demur on the outside and bursting with excitement on the inside. Wow! How many special things could happen in one morning?

We then started our walkabout in the house. In the first room we came upon quills, ink and paper set up for use. A while back when we went for a walk, we found a quill in the trail. I guess I have not totally lost my grounding in education because instead of talking about bird-related stories with the quill, I told her about "back in the day" when people used to write with quills. And now there it was right there for her to try. We worked our way through the house and talked about the feather bed, the wood fired stove and the boot jack which the guide demonstrated. She looked up at me and asked, "Where is the bathroom?" I asked the guide to show her the potty and its holder. Well, of course, a flood of "why" questions followed that led to more discussion about not having running water or electricity.

It was a morning of wonder and excitement. Amid all of the fun, I'm sure there was a great amount of learning. What a wonderful program...."Doors Open." Every one of the employees at every venue was kind, pleasant and helpful. They made the morning extra special. I was surprised that there weren't more people out enjoying these attractions, but then again, we did start our day quite early.

Bravo to "Doors Open." It was a morning to remember!

Friday, August 26, 2011

Gray Jay - Juvenile

 While the Gray Jay is a common bird in Newfoundland, I decided to post about this one because of its different plumage.

On a recent drive down the Southern Shore, a small bird flew across the road. I have now learned that even one bird can indicate that there are several more in the area. About a kilometer North of the Fermeuse town sign, I stopped the car to check it out.
As expected several different species of warblers appeared. I was shooting pictures of them when they would pop out on a branch and offer up a clear view. While patiently awaiting warbler cooperation, in flew this robin-size gray bird. I didn't know what it was. Not too bright, eh?
It stayed for a while and I got these record shots.  When I returned to the car, I looked up three different species with the Gray Jay being the third one. Nothing in the guide matched the markings on this bird. Now, I was puzzled, as usual.
When I got to Renews, I ran into a birder and was sure that he would know what it was. I was right about that, anyway. With one glance, he said that it was an immature Gray Jay.
This turned out to be the highlight of the day because I learned something new. Hardly a day passes that I don't slowly add a new piece of info to my small bank of knowledge. For sure, I will remember this one because there is something really demoralizing about having a common bird and not even knowing what it is. I guess it is to be expected as this is only the second Gray Jay that I have seen in two years. I would have surely recognized a mature bird.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron

The general public who see unusual birds and report them to the winging it e-mail at The Telegram or to a friend known to "bird" is so important to documenting the many rare visitors to our province. Such was the case with this visiting Yellow-crowned Night-Heron. One walker verbally reported the sighting of a very different bird to a well-known birder who began the reporting cycle. Another walker around Quidi Vidi Lake took a picture with a cell phone and sent it to Bruce MacTavish at The Telegram.  It didn't take long for the bird community to identify this "different" bird as a juvenile Yellow-crowned Night-Heron.
In less than 24 hours the hunt was well underway for this special bird and it was spotted and reported quickly when it was seen eating worms on the grass around the lake. The bird flew up into a tree as people gathered where it stayed for at least an hour.

I had walked around the lake earlier that morning and couldn't find the bird. Another birder walked in the opposite direction and came up empty handed, as well.

I left there and went to check at Virginia Lake, Long Pond, the bog behind Confederation Building, getting pretty wet all the while, but failed to find the bird. Before heading home, I decided to return to QV one more time to see if any one had any luck. I checked out the Southeast end of the lake and was in my car when the call came: "The bird had been found near the boat house." I quickly scurried around to the other end of the lake and met two other birders on the way. There it was sitting up in a Maple Tree frozen in place. I didn't have much time left to linger so I had to head out but I had a smile on my face. Those who stayed got a much better look as the Night-Heron flew down out of the tree and landed on a fence where it was fully exposed.

The Yellow-crowned Night-Heron's typical range is the swatch of states that range from Southern New England, south to Florida and west to Texas. It usually feeds on crustaceans and can be found near fresh water or salt water. This rare vagrant was not seen again since late on that day in mid-August. It was probably there for 48 hours in total. It must have moved to a less busy marshy, area and I count myself lucky to have been able to see it. It is because this Night-Heron remains active during the day that we all got a look.

This is not the first Yellow-crowned Night-Heron to visit the island and hopefully, it won't be the last. Thanks to all who see the rare birds and tell somebody!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Sooty Shearwaters Take Outer Cove Beach

 After a relatively uneventful day birding the Southern Shore, I returned home. As I often do after being out, I check the discussion group and my e-mail to make sure that I am not missing anything. In my e-mail was a note from a birder that I ran into on the Southern Shore earlier in the day. The note said there was an "event" going on in Outer Cove.  I replaced the cold beer that I had just opened with a cold coke and headed out again.

When I got to the beach I was totally unprepared for what I saw. There were birds everywhere: Seagulls of all varieties, Kittiwakes (young and mature) AND most notably, there were Shearwaters (Sooty, Greater and one Manx.) My head was spinning as I tried to watch them all at once. A group of shearwaters is known as an "improbability" of shearwaters. Well, this is certainly fitting because this group of land-locked shearwaters is very unusual. None of the birders can ever remember such an event over the last 30 years.

 The first bird that I tried to focus on was the Sooty Shearwater. I had seen only one of these birds last summer while on a boat tour. It flew by in a flash and was gone again. This was not the case on this late Saturday evening. I looked many Sooty Shearwaters right in the eye.
 What caused this event? It was all about the capelin. Millions of capelin lingered off shore waiting to spawn. The capelin moved in closer to shore and so did the shearwaters. It is interesting that spawning took place on the night of a full moon and then they were gone. Right along with them, the shearwaters disappeared just as quickly as they had come.

Despite the thousands of birds flying around and the cacophony that filled the air, it was possible to isolate a single bird every now and then. I thought how fitting, I am getting "screeched in." It looks so calm and serene but trust me the scene was anything but calm. It made the bird activity at Bird Island pale by comparison.

This bird is brown/grey all over except for the pale under wing coverts.  The bill has external tube-like nostrils. I saw some similarity between the shape of these nostrils and the blow hole on the whales. I wonder if these birds blow out water....

The Sooty Shearwaters provided frequent fly-bys offering up lots of chances to practice panning the bird with the camera in the hopes of getting a crisp picture.
They would also quickly change direction and head straight toward us. With all eyes trained on the bird through view finders or scopes, it is a wonder no one was hit by these large birds.
 Some birds would miss their mark and fail to turn before making a hard landing on the shore. These are definitely not shorebirds. When the birds flew in (interesting that it was only the Sooty Shearwaters that hit the beach, not the Greater) they were so awkward and clumsy on the beach. Few shots were taken of the beached birds because it would happen so fast, and it was a spectacle to see them struggle so as they tried to get back to water.
It looked like their legs couldn't support them on land, especially on uneven and obstacle-ridden areas. Once they hit a clear area of the beach closer to water, they began to start the run on shore that continued as they ran across the water and lifted off again.

I will show images of  "water-walking" in my post for the Greater Shearwaters.

This was an amazing and exciting opportunity to see these sea birds up close and to be able to observe their feeding frenzy as I may never see anything like this again.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Ruby-crowned Kinglet Juvenile

 For me it is hard to imagine that these shots are already a month old. I have clearly fallen behind in postings but that's okay. That just means that I have plenty of material for the future.

On one of those five sunny days in July I darted over to Bidgood's Park for a walk. It was a great surprise when I rounded a bend in the trail and came across a family of Ruby-crowned Kinglets. For a long time, I have heard the singing of a male kinglet. I think he sang throughout the whole nesting process. Then he stopped.
There were at least seven RC Kinglets in a small area on this day and this little one was very confident to just sit in the open and watch me. I returned to the area about a week later and there was not one kinglet to be found. In fact much of the very-busy activity in this park has faded away.

During my walk yesterday it was a job to find any birds. However, I did find two pockets of warblers, mostly Yellow, Black and White and Yellow-rumped. They were in the back of the park beyond the big rock by the river. There they were flitting around high in the tall trees. I followed them as they moved to the lower end of the open field.

While walking back to my car I happened upon another group of warblers and finches. I was just beginning to identify them when a family on bicycles passed by. The birds flushed farther from the trail and I didn't wait for them to return as the foot traffic was beginning to pick up on the main path. It is kind of sad in a way to see the throng of birds that flew in during the Spring fly out in the Fall. That's migration for you.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Little Blue Heron

 It was mid-summer when the word went out that a Little Blue Heron had been spotted in a back yard in Logy Bay. Pictures documented its visit. It was not to be seen again for a few days until it was flushed at Jones Pond. It was never spotted in the Logy Bay area again.

Just a week or ten days ago, a birder spotted this Little Blue Heron in a marshy area in Blaketown. Birders wasted no time getting out to see it for fear that it would disappear again. A resident from a nearby community told me that this bird has been in the area for quite some time often flying over houses some 10 km away.

Yet, there were some birders who made the hour and one half trip only to miss seeing this Little Blue Heron. Could it possibly be the same one?  Who knows.  I made my trip down one morning and arrived around 9:30. The fog had not lifted and the day was not shaping up very well.

This bird was located behind a local business that had a fenced yard. The staff of the business took their role as host to this rare vagrant bird very seriously.  They seemed to keep an eye on its whereabouts and happily guided a steady stream of bird watchers to its location.

When I arrived it was perched high atop a tree on the other side of the marsh, at times shrouded in fog. I waited and watched for about 45 minutes but it never moved. Since I wanted to squeeze in some shore bird searches in the day, I decided not to wait any longer.

I have seen a number of these birds in the South but this is my first one to see in Newfoundland. If you wait long enough, an exciting variety of species is eventually going to find itself right here.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Leach's Storm Petrel

 August 7, 2011, a day of 70km winds, blowing rain and lots of fog, brought in a bird that is very rarely seen from shore. On that day many Leach's Storm Petrels were seen at Bellevue Beach and a Holyrood Harbour. Once the storm died down the petrels disappeared.
Seeing these birds was a special first for me. I rarely see sea birds unless I take a tour boat out to the islands. These birds behave quite differently from the puffins and murres that I see fairly often. They seem to walk on water. How fast must their legs move to keep them in one place on top of the water? This one that we found at Hollyrood Harbour was surfing the waves as it faced the wind.

 These birds live for a long time. The average lifespan is 20 year while the oldest recorded lived 36 years. Food must be more healthy farther from shore. References report that these birds only come ashore to breed. Well, this was the exception to the rule. While quite uncommon, these birds seem to have been blown in shore by the high winds and they were having a great time!
While the Leach's Storm Petrels return to the North Atlantic each year to breed, it is very uncommon to be able to reach out and touch one from shore.  Birders with scopes often report seeing them fly by at Cape Spear.

Sanderling - Bellevue Beach

On that blustery and wet day in August while birding Bellevue Beach, we saw a number of birds as reported earlier. Among them was this little Sanderling. While there were many Ruddy Turnstones and White-rumped Sandpipers, we only found this one little Sanderling. It was staying pretty close to the Ruddy Turnstones and as seen in this shot it is quite a bit smaller.
It is a wonder that it didn't blow away but little as it is, it seemed pretty stout.  The truth is it was handling the conditions better than I was.
 The Sanderling breeds in the Arctic Tundra and is a frequent visitor to Newfoundland during migration. This is my first time to get a look at one of these little birds while it still has some of its breeding plumage. The reddish color on its head will change to gray very soon.
There remains only one more bird to post from the Bellevue trip and it is the best one.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

"The Help:" A Trip Back in Time

 I grew up in Southeast Arkansas, not that far from Jackson, Mississippi during a time of much strife and turmoil.  It was in 1957 when the Governor ordered the end of segregation at Little Rock Central High School. That set off a series of many tense moments and shameful behavior throughout the state for the next ten years. While the National Guard was called in for the Little Rock event to demonstrate a sense of urgency and protect the nine students who showed up to register in a white school, it took almost ten years before all schools in the state were integrated.

The movie, "The Help," told a story of this period but from a perspective never told before. It was striking that it told a story, not of activists or of KKK, it told a story of the gentle souls who helped to hold many households together. Fear was omnipresent and well depicted in the story but the actual violence and shocking events that were unfolding and fueling the fear in every community in the South were omitted. This was clearly a good decision as these stories have been told over and over in many movies including "Mississippi Burning" and "To Kill a Mockingbird." and so many more. The Little Rock Nine have been a sidebar in many other movies.

"The Help" was so powerful because of it authenticity of story, history and subtle detail. I wanted the movie to go on and on. It ended all too soon for me.

Having lived during that era and in that setting, I had a flood of memories of the great moments of our Help. The first picture above is my family home in Star City, Arkansas. Those pictured in this 1917 photo from left to right are my mother, my grandmother, my grandfather, my great grandmother and my grandfather's manservant. Missing from this picture is Miss Josie who had already been with the family for more than 10 years. She started out as the Help but quickly became family and my guess is that she was in the kitchen cooking.

We had a house for Josie on our land where she slept, but mostly she was in the main house all the time. She cooked and she cared for my mother for nearly 50 years.

When my mother was a toddler she was burned very badly over most of her body. Doctors didn't know if she would make it. It was Miss Josie who tended her wounds day in an day out to see her through to a full recovery completely void of physical scars. Miss Josie became family during that time.

Many years later one morning dawned when  she didn't have breakfast ready for everyone when we woke up, it was clear something was wrong. Mother went out to her house and found that she had passed away in her sleep, all alone. It was a sad time for all of us.

By the time that I came along in the family we had two maids. Miss Josie ruled the kitchen. As it was a room surrounded by other rooms, there were four possible doors that I could enter the kitchen. She stood guard over all of them. I was not allowed in the kitchen unless it was mealtime or Saturday morning to feast on the cake batter left in the bowl and on the beaters. Is it any wonder that it was years later that a learned to cook. On the other hand my sister had a big interest in cooking and she was always welcome in the kitchen. I guess Miss Josie was afraid that my bouncing basketball or tennis racket would knock over some of her handiwork. Whatever the reason, I knew my place.

Over the years, the original house evolved into the other pictures above. Josie's house was torn down, huge oak trees were cut down, the house was renovated several times, and the three other family-owned homes were razed. By this time Emily had joined the family. She took care of the house and us. She did everything  but the cooking that a family of five would need from cleaning, vacuuming, laundry, cleaning the fish and all things else. Somewhere along the line my sister started calling Emily by the name of Dean and that became the name that we all called her. Our mother had made it clear that Miss Josie and Dean were the boss of us! They made us laugh, they held us when we cried, they tended our scrapes and filled the house with song. Dean was full of old wives's tales and sayings. I clearly recall her making me get up our of my daddy's Lazy Boy chair when she vacuumed the carpet in the den. She would say, "Don't never let anyone vacuum under your feet or you will never get married." There was a lot of pressure on us southern girls to be sure to get married quickly. Another of Dean's favorite sayings when she wanted us to do something was...."I'll dance at your wedding." There were so many more pearls that came from these two strong, capable and loving women that were very much a part of our life.

After Miss Josie passed away Dean took over the kitchen and other help that frequently changed would come in to do the heavy cleaning. I have so many fond memories of those days. When I turned 16 it became my job to drive Dean home to the Mill Quarters on the other side of town. In those days with all that was going on white people were not welcome in this part of town. (The homes were exactly like those depicted in the movie.)  Yet, because I was with Dean I always knew I was safe. Everyday, when she got out of the car she would caution me, "You get on home quickly now, don't tarry." I always heeded her words because I never felt quite as safe once she was out of the car.

Across the street from our school was a church filled with a large congregation of  the Help and their families. I imagined the inside to be just like the scene in the movie. On many hot afternoons the school windows would be open and a funeral service would be happening in the tired old church. The sweet sound of spiritual music would waft from the open windows and cause my foot to tap. I remember thinking they don't sound sad but joyful. I always wanted to go there but couldn't of course.

When my sister got married, our family broke with all the rules of Southeast Arkansas. Dean was invited, not to handle all of the preparations of the reception but as a guest. She sat alone in the back of the church, and I was so proud to have her there. While no one danced at the wedding I watched as Dean shuffled rhythmically down the sidewalk from the church. I'm sure she had a song in her head and was working very hard at not breaking out into a full-on dance.
While there were some moments that could not be avoided, for the most part my sister and I were sheltered from the worst strife that overtook the South when people sought the real freedom that was promised at the end of the Civil War. There were times when we would happen upon a "sit in" and we would get as far away from the turmoil as possible. These were not easy times.

In "The Help," the authenticity of character, setting, daily routines, architecture, separate entrances, dishes, meals, glassware, diners, furniture, dress, and plot line transported me straight out of 2011 and right back to 1955 when we were embraced by two wonderful women who raised my sister and me. At that time, I was too young and innocent to really appreciate the hardships they had to endure. By 1966, I had lived and learned enough to better understand their plight but was unable to change things.

It was in 1969 while living out of the state that I learned that Dean had killed her husband in self-defence. All those years, she never let on that her home life was so hard. No charges were laid but she soon moved to Detroit to live with her children who I never knew. I never saw nor heard from her again, and I have missed her terribly just as Mother must have missed poor ole Miss Josie.

With the release of this great movie, "The Help," I'm sure many, many people of the South are reliving either good or bad memories of the role they played in this era. For those who find this story so foreign to their life experiences, it is a very important and poignant slice of history that needs to be told to prevent history from repeating itself.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

White-rumped Sandpiper

 'Tis the season for shore birding. That means rain or shine I gotta get out there in the hopes of seeing a rarity as well as better learn the more common shore birds that frequent our beaches.

Such was the case about a week ago when a birding friend and I took on a cold and nasty day in August in search of a verified sighting of a Pacific Golden Plover. With a great deal of gumption we pulled our hoods up, covered our gear and started a long, wet and windy walk down Bellevue Beach.
Along the way we found many Ruddy Turnstones and White-rumped Sandpipers. For me it was my first time to get a good look at the White-rumped and frankly, I misidentified it. What a surprise! When I later learned that I had photographed the White-rumped, I had to go to the books and study yet again.
It may have been the conditions of the day that kept these birds fairly close and on the ground allowing for good looks. Who would want to fly in 70km winds?
 Happy to see these birds but still hoping to see the elusive Pacific Golden Plover, we trekked on through tall grass and soaking bog. With freezing fingers, drenched shoes and pants, we thought surely our misery would be rewarded. Well, it was but not with what we expected. We both had our first look at a Leach's Storm Petrel. More on that in a later post.
It must have been well over two hours that we searched the beach and just stood and stared at the species so close to us. On that day we also got a glimpse of a small flock of White-winged Scoter. All things considered, we had a very fruitful day and even marvelled a little bit at our own stamina to endure the elements. It was truly a memorable day of birding.

Note:  I have gathered a number of photos and have fallen behind a little in my postings. I will eventually get them all up but, you see, Summer arrived this week, and I am so enjoying the warm weather. I really thought that Summer was going to skip Newfoundland this year.  Also, migration is beginning and birds are moving around again. I must follow.