Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Fall Red-eyed Vireo

By mid-October in Newfoundland, small woodland birds become scarce.  That makes it even more exciting to happen upon an uncommon one. Strolling up and down Blackhead Road near Cape Spear, dodging traffic and watching for a familiar flick of a branch, is commonplace from early August to the end of October. That stroll yields many special birds.  It was in that location that I saw my first Red-eyed Vireo and several, thereafter.

I can't really describe what it feels like to find a great little bird like this, but it makes time stand still. The experience crowds out thoughts of anything else and thrusts me into the moment.

Eagerly studying the movement of the branches, I was rewarded this day when one of the last Red-eyed Vireos popped out in the open where I could see it.

This little bird wasn't as bright as others that I saw earlier. Perhaps it was due to the overcast day or perhaps it was just a normal part of its transitioning into winter. It isn't possible to see the red eye in these shots, and I understand that a juvenile does not yet have a red eye. That might also account for its dull colors.

For me, all of the questions do not pop into my head as I see the bird in a flash, but only come to me when I study the pictures after the fact. For sure, I will read up on this bird before the season next year so that I can attempt to identify young and old on the spot.

As the days lengthen, so does my anticipation of what is to come.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

A Saturday Morning Around Town

This has not been a winter of rarities around the Avalon. I keep checking the bird postings hoping that something really special is going to show up. Even waxwings would make me happy at this point.

When rarities are scarce, what's a birder supposed to do?  Get out and enjoy what is here and enjoy the chase for the hard-to-find ones that are here.

I took a drive out to Cape Spear this morning and came across several flocks of A. Robins from New Cove Road to Shea Heights, to Blackhead to Cape Spear.  Saw a great adult Bald Eagle filling up a tree top just before Blackhead Road.
I managed to see several flocks of Pine Siskins, Purple Finches, three Pine Grosbeaks, Blue Jays and A. Goldfinch. The new one for me today was a Ruffed Grouse, a new one for my Winter List and Year's list that is.  I was fortunate that another birder with whom I had chatted earlier, turned around and came back to tell me about a Hairy Woodpecker that he saw just west of Maddox Cove Road.  On the way back he spotted the grouse and waved me over as I drove up. In all likelihood that will be the last bird that I will be able to add to my Winter List as Wednesday is the last day. 

I found this Song Sparrow in Maddox Cove. While I have seen four or five around during this winter, they are still scarce enough to grab my attention.

 I struck out with the Red-bellied Woodpecker this morning as well as the Lincoln Sparrow. WhenI  returned home, the snow had just started and my backyard activity picked up.  I tossed out some feed and stood very still by my patio door and enjoyed a couple of Purple Finch and some Dark-eyed Juncos.
I haven't had many Purple Finch this year, so I still get excited when they drop in. They didn't stay long, but I was able to shoot some pictures through the glass without disturbing them.
 Today, it was only a pair of P. Finch.  Come to think of it, I did notice today that the birds seem to be pairing up all around.  That is a good sign of "out with Winter; and in with Spring."

I really looked my backyard Junco's over closely today.  There is a lot of brown on the female, much more than we realize when looking at them at a distance.
I took quite a few shots of the Juncos and will probably post them before too long.  I don't get much time to go birding these days, but I still feel the pull, all the time.
It was really an unexpected pleasure to be able to go out this morning.  When I heard the wind roaring last night, I didn't think there would be a chance that I would go out in it. Nevertheless, at 7 a.m., not a branch was stirring and the temp was inviting. When an opportunity like that arises, I just have to get out. I am not the only one as I ran into four other birders this morning ,and I am guessing that more have travelled down the Southern Shore today.

I will check the postings now to see if there is some place else that I should be right now.

Thursday, February 23, 2012


 I have been remiss in taking gull pictures this year. Few opportunities arose and when they did, I didn't have much time.
 One of the nicest gulls to photograph ( Black-headed Gull, aside) is the Ring-billed Gull. As winter fades and spring arrives, the changes in this gull are amazing.  The bill and the legs become bright, bright yellow, sometimes even look orange. The streaking on the head fades and becomes pure white and even the mantle seems to become a little darker.
This gull is much smaller than the ever present Herring Gulls and the winter Iceland Gulls. The ice is going out of Quidi Vidi Lake which makes it harder to access the many species of gulls. With a little luck, we will get at least one more cold snap and the gulls will appear once again.  Did I just say that? Well, it is obviously going to be a long time for the spring birds to arrive, so we should enjoy the birds that stay with us during the winter.
We had two rare gulls visit us in St. John's this winter: the Slaty-backed Gull and the Yellow-legged Gull. I tried several times to see the YL Gull but with no success this year.  It must have moved on. In the meantime, a Slaty-backed Gull came early and stayed late.  I have been able to see this rare gull from northeast Asia at least three times.
I don't know what it is about this species but for the last three winters, at least one has found its way here. When thousands of gulls are sitting on the ice, its distinct gray back stands out.  However, every gull that has a dark gray mantle is not a Slaty-backed Gull.  It is easy to confuse this bird with a Lesser Black-backed Gull.  Gull identification, especially the immatures, is difficult. When in doubt, hang around the lake long enough and a knowledgeable gull watcher will show up to confirm your sighting, or not!

As I reviewed these recent pictures, I realized that I may have lost the best opportunities to photograph gulls this year. Nevertheless, I will keep checking the lake over the next few weeks and hope I can salvage some of the remaining cold weather.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

A Short Jaunt Becomes an Excursion

Anticipating fair weather on Saturday morning, I thought I would take a quick run out to Cape Spear to see what has happening. It is always nice to share these outings, so I asked M. McMillan is she would like to join me. By 8 a.m., we were in the car, but I had to make a detour first.
 Since this weekend encompasses the Backyard Bird Count and my backyard was pretty quiet, I wanted to see how some other feeder yards were fairing.  We checked a couple of locations before we headed to Strawberry Marsh Road.  There seemed to be very little activity, until we reached Strawberry Marsh Road, that is.
There were birds everywhere, more than a hundred!  Robins were singing, E. Starlings were "wheeing," Purple Finch, Juncos, A. Goldfinch and a few B. C. Chickadees were everywhere!  It was another one of those moments when you just don't know where to look. 
I pulled off to the edge of the road, and we just marveled at what we saw and heard.  I opened the sunroof on my car and was able to get these few shots of a beautiful male Purple Finch. Not wanting to interrupt the event, we just sat and gawked. It was surely a feeling of spring in the air.
We did eventually make it to Cape Spear where we heard the Hairy Woodpecker before we saw it.  Other than American Goldfinch, there weren't many birds between Cape Spear and Goulds.  When we reached Goulds, we ran into Catherine Barrett who was getting in her car to head out to Cape Spear.  We convinced her to join us and we headed to CBS to look at some sea ducks.  There were numerous Scaups, Common Goldeneye and mergansers (both species).  We checked several places before heading back. As one last detour, we headed to Bidgood's Park where we spotted this Northern Shrike sitting atop a tree some distance from the road. We watched and tried to confirm its ID when it flew a little closer to us, and we all agreed, that indeed, it was a Northern Shrike.  That makes seven that I have seen this winter.  How can that happen when I didn't see a single one the two winters before.  It's a wonder....birding is always a wonder!

Friday, February 17, 2012

Backyard Bird Count Starts Today

Today is the day to look out the window for 15 minutes and take note of what you see.  For the next four days, it is an opportunity for citizen science and it is great to be a part of it.


For more information, visit this site:

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Yellow Warbler - Better than a Stick Bird

Looking at the yellow stick bird posted earlier made be long to see the greatest little yellow birds that populate our woods and walking trails in the summer - the Yellow Warbler.
 These beautiful little birds return to Newfoundland in May, among the first warblers to return and sing their little hearts out. One of the best and earliest places to see Yellow Warblers is around Mundy Pond. Early in the season, they are everywhere.
These shots were taken in mid-August of 2011 at Bidgood's Park. This one seems to have a little fluff left around the top of its back which makes me think that it is one of the crop of 2011 babies.
 No matter how many times I see this bird, I have to stop and enjoy it.  It is quite common to find other warblers in the same area as the Yellow Warbler, these include the Black and White, Wilson's and a Northern Waterthush.  It seemed last year that Blackpoll were not quite as common but they, too, were around.

The days are getting longer, the sun is shining warmer and the birds that are around such as the American Goldfinch and Robin are beginning to brighten up and gradually transition into their breeding plumage.  Can Spring be that far away?

I can already imagine myself wearing short sleeves, shorts and sunglasses strolling through the wooded areas and loving every minute of it.

Stick Bird

 This has been a year of very few feeder birds. Juncos have been the only backyard bird that I can count on. Regular visits from two Northern Flicker brighten up the yard a bit.  For the last week or so, I have seen a couple of American Goldfinch and a few Purple Finch early in the morning.

Three or four Robins have been passing through in the early morning hours, too.  Last year I was getting a lot of finches, including large flocks of Pine Siskins.

In the absence of all of these visitors this year, maybe I need a Stick Bird!
On Saturday when our birding group reached Portugal Cove South we checked a feeder that is known to attract a lot of great birds, but it was empty....except for this Stick Bird. It was bright, colorful and happy, as it had the feeder all to itself.

I wonder if this little Stick Bird attracts birds to this feeder. I think there are two important things that I need to add to yard this summer:  hedges and a stick bird. Then, even if no birds show up, I can enjoy the cheer of always having a colorful little bird in my yard.

Time to top of the feeders to attract as many birds as possible for the Backyard Bird Count coming up this weekend. Great fun and contributes to science, too.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Amazing Kestrel

It was the lure of seeing an American Kestrel that saw us travel up the soft, rutted Cape Race Road yesterday.  Catherine Barret navigated us safely up the road and was first to spot the target bird, to boot!
It sat patiently on the wire, just as earlier reported, and waited for us to draw near. It stayed for a while, and I was able to get some record shots of the event.
This is such an interesting falcon, even though it didn't seem to be sporting its finest plumage. With a burst it flew off the wire and landed on the ground.  Soon, it lifted off and flew back to the wire. It repeated this several times.
 It spent a lot of time in the air while we were there but on a couple of occasions it landed fairly close to us on the ground, all things considered. The American Kestrel is the most common falcon of North America, but is not readily seen on the Avalon. It does, however, breed on the west coast of Newfoundland.
There was this one opportunity where I was able to capture the rusty color of this bird. For me, it was the distinct facial markings that I found most interesting.  The American Kestrel is the smallest of the North American falcons, and judging by the absence of the large black stripe at the end of the tail, I am guessing that this is a female.  I read that the female of this species finds its wintering grounds first and is later joined by the male before breeding season.

I also read that wire-sitting is one of their regular routines which makes them easy to find in open areas.  I have included a series of very poor photos here of the American Kestrel in flight.
I wanted to share these pictures because I found it very interesting to see this bird's flight in stop action.  It was swift and used its strong wings to thrust itself up like a bullet.
At the time, I thought this bird was flitting around so much because we were there, now I think that is only part of the reason. In two of the images, there is a particle of something in the picture. Could this be an insect? This bird bolted upright in mid air and headed straight for the dark object. It looked like a praying mantis.
Then, it bent over as if it were eating something that it caught between its claws. This is another bird worthy of long-term observations. This was my first time to see an American Kestrel, and it made quite an impression on me. Will I ever take on the tricky navigation of Cape Race Road, I don't think so.

Close Encounter with a Gray Jay

 What a fantastic day we had yesterday!  Catherine Barrett rallied Margie McMillan and me to head to the Southern Shore for a full day birding. We stopped at numerous locations on our way to Cape Race and were able to see a steady stream of birds all day.
On the drive down, Margie spotted Gray Jays. We backed up and had a good look.  There were three. The Gray Jay is a bird that we don't see that often on the Avalon, so even though it is a common bird in NL, it was not common to us.
A little farther down the road, Catherine spotted a Gray Jay sitting atop a tree, and we backed up again.  There were two this time, for a total of five Gray Jays in one day.  My camera was set to take some distant shots, and I didn't expect to get anything notable.
Then, Margie began to throw some biscuits out the window. Much to my surprise, in flew a Gray Jay.  I was fumbling with my camera, adjusting settings, trying to get my seat belt off and all the time, saying "wait, wait, I'm not ready."
The morsels continued to fly out the window, and I managed to get a more appropriate setting on my camera and started shooting right away.  I haven't had a close encounter with a small bird in a long time, and this was exciting.
 In no time, there were two Gray Jays just feet away from us scrounging every bite. They jumped out of the woods, looking like they had springs on their feet.

 When the treat was gone, they flew back up into the woods, only to return again when another biscuit appeared.
These two were a very happy pair and typical of their demeanor, they were fearless. These birds are known to eat from hand or to rob a picnic table with a crowd sitting around.
 Despite their boldness, they kept a watchful eye on us, taking no chances.  The sound of the shutter constantly clicking also seemed to get their attention.
 It was a very special treat to have an opportunity to watch these playful little birds enjoying every bite.
I could have easily stayed for an hour enjoying the Gray Jays of the Southern Shore.  This was a real learning experience for me because I have never seen them as close as this or in this mode. Some of the food disappeared really quickly.  When I looked their behaviour up, I learned they coat food with saliva and store it away for later. I wonder if that is what they were doing when they flew off with a large chunk of biscuit in their mouth.
 This bird is also known as a Whiskey Jack, and I have heard them referenced by this name by people who spend a lot of time in the woods, like hunters and loggers.

This was not our most rare bird of the day, but it was, indeed, our closest and most fun.

Note:  Click on the image to enlarge it.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Dickcissel -2011

 On that same foggy, misty day in the middle of October that I saw my first Blue Grosbeak, I also saw my one and only Dickcissel for 2011. They were dining together, along with a large flock of House Sparrows.
Not wanting to disturb the special visitors, we stayed in the car to look and take these pictures. Thee was a fine wall of gray mist between me and my target but that didn't stop me from recording the event.
This bird is really out of its range but according to multiple reports on the discussion group, they find their way here regularly. This is the third Dickcissel that I have seen in two years and two of the three were on the Southern Shore.  The other one showed up at a feeder in Portugal Cove. All of them were found in the fall which fits with their migration.

Sometimes when a rare visitor shows up in one place, it will return to a nearby location in future years. For instance, last year a Northern Mockingbird showed up and stayed in a yard by Rennie's River for a long time last winter.  This year a Northern Mockingbird showed up less than 5 minutes from that same location, but this one disappeared, only to reappear about six weeks later just a block or two away from the original sighting. This one continues to be on the move as it has not been seen in more than three weeks.

A similar series of events happened with the appearance of a Yellow-breasted Chat. One was spotted last year where it stayed at a feeder for quite a while before it disappeared. This year, only a five minute drive away, another one has appeared. This one, like the mockingbird, is restless and won't stay in one place very long.

Are these the same birds returning or are they new birds who just happened to land in a close location?  All of these questions that I have make be think that banding and tracking is a great idea.

Not having all of the answers really adds to the appreciation birding.