Saturday, November 30, 2013

Snowy Owl Close-up

 Snowy Owls continue to show up around the province. This may be the best opportunity ever for residents of this province to see this amazing bird.
 In my last post I attempted to show many angles of the Snowy Owl. For me it was a study to better learn about this rare visitor.
 On Monday I returned to Cape Spear in an attempt to get a closer look at the Snowy Owl. At the time there were seven birders looking to do the same thing.
 This great bird accommodated us in the best way. It was tucked into a sheltered area where it was dodging the winds, and it planned to stay there.
 When Margie M. and I arrived, an immature Bald Eagle was circling the bird, low and continuously. The eagle would widen the circle and then, return again to hang low over the owl. There were some tense moments as it looked like an encounter was inevitable.
 However, it didn't happen. The owl just watched, but didn't move off its perch.
 Once the eagle moved on, we worked our way closer to the owl. Unperturbed by us, it closed its eyes to rest. Somewhat concerned about the bird's health, I moved quite gingerly to take my pictures and move on.
 While reading more about the Snowy Owl, I found that lethargic behaviour in the daytime is quite common. Perhaps it was just resting for a later-day hunt for food.
 There was no sign of the other three owls in the area, but it is quite possible they may have been in or around the East Coast Trail.
I was thrilled with an opportunity to be able to study the face and eyes of the beautiful bird. What a wonderful opportunity! Occasionally, it would check me out briefly before closing its big eyes yet again.

Well, tomorrow marks the beginning of the Winter Bird Count in Newfoundland. I'm sure I will get out to see what special birds hung on to become a part of a record-breaking Winter Bird List in the making.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

An Irruption of Snowy Owls

 In my mind, this is the Year of the Snowy Owl in Newfoundland. Around fifty Snowy Owls have been reported on the island during November. E-bird is reporting good numbers across the northeast. Unlike Quebec where the Snowy Owl is the provincial bird, we don't see this species every year, making it quite a treat for birders and non-birders alike.
 What a great opportunity to see these beautiful birds! After spotting two distant owls on the barrens off Cape Race road, I was left wanting for more.
 More, I got. Terry James was the first to report a Snowy Owl at Cape Spear last week. Since then, the number has grown to four.
 On Sunday I went to Cape Spear to try and get a close-up look of the visiting owls like several other birders had on Saturday. Close-up was not in the cards, but I did get the best look ever at three different Snowy Owls.
The good views didn't come easy. I had to walk to the top of the hill near the old lighthouse before I caught sight of the first white spot glowing in the sun. Yes!
 It was too far to see well, never mind a picture. That was it! When was I ever going to get this opportunity again? I stepped into the bog to begin my walk on difficult, boggy terrain toward the bird. Fortunately, the light frost helped to firm up the ground.
 I did get close enough to turn the speck in the distance into a beautiful, fluffy white ball of feathers. While the Snowy Owl's coloring is suitable camouflage for an Arctic habitat, its porcelain white feathers prominently expose its presence on the barrens. Look at the "leggings" on this bird. It is suitably decked out for the sub-zero temps in the Arctic.
 What causes Snowy Owls to venture out of their normal range? The answer is usually food. With a Snowy Owl typically eating about 12 rodents per day, there must not be a vole left on Cape Race road. If each of the 42 reported birds managed to eat that amount, they would need over 500 rodents a day to sustain them in a healthy state. Hmm. Maybe Airport Heights needs a Snowy Owl or two. While the Snowy Owl will eat in the daytime, its preferred hunting time is an hour before dark.
 These magnificent birds fly silently because the leading edge of the wings is frayed and the feathers fit together in such a way to break up the air as the bird flies. This gives the Snowy Owl a real advantage when hunting.
 Despite its power and predatory nature, the Snowy Owl is really quite adorable. Like many owls is resembles a cat and appears cuddly. However, when hungry Snowy Owls are around, it is wise to keep small pets and children indoors.
 The last reported irruption of Snowy Owls travelling into the deep south was in 2011. Reports are beginning to come in of birds showing up farther and farther south each day.
Like I might say if I were still in Arkansas, "Well, fan my brow and shut my mouth W-I-D-E open!"

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Clay-colored Sparrow - Cavell Avenue

 It was on December 5, 2009 when last I saw a Clay-colored Sparrow. In fact, this is the first rare species I recorded. Ever since, I have been hoping to see one again to get a better look and to experience a better appreciation for this seldom-seen sparrow. It has been a long time coming.
 It was in the early afternoon yesterday when I received a text message from Alvan Buckley reporting his find. He was in an area I knew well, and I was certain I would be able to see the bird there. Within twenty minutes of getting the alert, I was staring down my binoculars with a Clay-colored Sparrow in my sights. How nice!
 I only took a few pictures, because I feel pretty certain this bird will hang around the feeders in the area for quite some time. I'm sure I will return to look at it over and over. In fact, I would really like to adopt this little one to come live in my back yard. I would feed it well:)

Thursday, November 21, 2013


 While in some areas, blackbirds are considered a nuisance that is not the case in NL. Our most common blackbird is the Common Grackle. Year-over-year, there is a flock of 30 or 40 regularly moving around St. John's. The best chance of seeing them is typically around the Elizabeth Avenue area, although there was recently a reporting of a large gathering of Common Grackles at Bowring Park. I have are also frequently  seen Common Grackles in Renews and Portugal Cove South as well.
 To me, the Common Grackle is a very handsome bird worthy of a stop to watch their gregarious behaviour. The female Common Grackle, as pictured here, has duller tones and a shorter tail than the male's.
 The head, neck and upper breast often glow with a purple metallic sheen while the body is glossy black. This is the largest blackbirds we see in Newfoundland.
 When the light catches the color of the Common Grackle, it really shows Nature's masterful painting.
 The male Brown-headed Cowbird can be just as handsome as the male grackle. However, the female...not so much with its plain brown colors and faint breast streaking.
 The Brown-headed Cowbird has more of a finch-like beak than a blackbird beak and sports a black eye. This particular bird seen in Portugal Cove South has changed quite a lot since September when I first saw it. It may have been molting at the time.
 The Brown-headed Cowbird will never earn the parent-of-the-year award as they often lay their eggs in the nests of other birds and abandon them quickly. I wonder just how long this bird will stick around.
 The Rusty Blackbird is the daintiest of the blackbirds we see with several pairs nesting in Newfoundland each year. Over the summer I saw a pair on Power's Road and another pair on The Road to the Shore in September. It would be nice to see an increased presence of this species.
 A Yellow-headed Blackbird dropped into Portugal Cove South last year. The rarity of this visitor to the province is on par with the Brown-headed Cowbird. What is it about that area that draws in the blackbirds?
Mundy Pond in St. John's has seen the appearance of two Red-winged Blackbirds over the last two years - one male and one female. I also saw one on the road between Portugal Cove South and Trepassey over the summer. They are rare enough to make each sighting a memorable one.
While Newfoundland is not teeming with blackbirds, it is possible to see a variety throughout any single year. Now is a good time to see off-course blackbirds blown in by the strong winds we experience in the Fall.  The large gatherings of European Starling sometimes attract the blackbirds making these large starling flocks a great place to look for vagrants.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Predators of Cape Race Road

 The report of the Gyrfalcon, Snowy Owls and the American Kestrel present on Cape Race road coupled with the ideal weather convinced me to take on the dreaded Drook!
 Margie M. and I headed out around 8:30 and arrived at Portugal Cove around 10:30. It is amazing how quick the trip can be by not dallying along the way. Eager to see all of the amazing predators reported on this road, we headed in with excitement. About 10 km in, we came upon the first - the American Kestrel. It was sitting on a wire fairly close to the road, giving us a great opportunity to see it very well. It was a stunning little male, looking very much like someone's escaped pet bird.
 Soon it was off and so were we: One down and two to go. We drove a long way scanning every inch of the roadside. Nothing! Not a bird anywhere, until... far on the horizon over the barrens near Long Beach, I spotted a distant large, dark bird. It disappeared and reappeared behind the mounds. Then, it turned in our direction and flew at a tremendous speed. It was the Gyrfalcon, and I totally underestimated how fast it could travel.
 Its path was taking it down over a hill, across the road. Being out of sight for a moment, I hit the accelerator to try to catch up with it. Once again, we caught sight of it, zooming across the road and behind a cliff on the seaside near Long Beach. What just happened? I didn't get once single, discernible shot. We sat for a moment, somewhat stunned and half expecting the Gyrfalcon to show itself one more time. It was not to be.
 Reluctantly, we decided to drive out to the Cape and hope for another chance to see it on the return trip. Two down and one to go. We had not seen a single Snowy Owl. That was surprising, since eight were reported the day before. We reached Cape Race, still missing our last bird. We turned around to start the 24km drive out, still hopeful. We got out at Long Beach and walked to the shore. Sandpipers greeted us, and one singled, odd-shaped bird sat on a distant rock. I couldn't get any shot to identify that one. There was no sign of the Gyrfalcon. We piled back into the car and drove on. It was Margie who first spotted the snowy- white spot on the barrens. We stopped, took a look and indeed, we saw a Snowy Owl. Never mind it was at least a km. away from us.

We looked and looked and enjoyed what we could see. Less than a km. up the road, we spotted another sitting atop a high rock on the seaside. It was equally as far away, sitting in worse lighting conditions. Two Snowy Owls - there were no more.

There were so many loons and grebes on the water it was impossible to count them. Many Long-tailed Ducks were also visible all along the shore. When we reached The Drook, we found one Pied-billed Grebe sitting in the freshwater next to the cabin in the area. That was an unexpected bonus.

And so, after four hours driving the road, we saw all three target predators, leaving us wanting for longer, better views of each one.
 Oh, yes... there were about 20 Snow Buntings along the early part of the road on the drive in, but they were not around on the return trip.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Rough-legged Hawk at Cape Spear

 After pacing the road in White Hills for the better part of a day, I felt the need to move around. Hoping to see something special, I headed to Cape Spear. Around Blackhead, small bird activity was scarce, so I drove to the Cape.
 It was pretty quiet in the area, just the way I like it when I want to look for small birds. On the back side of the Cape near the cannon, I was rewarded with a quick look at a small bird eating seeds from the dried weeds. It flew. I followed. It flew again. I followed until it finally flew down by the rocks near the water. I hid away among the rocks and waited, hoping the bird would return. No luck! I really wanted to identify this bird. After about 45 minutes, I decided to go for a walk and return to look for it later.
 I headed up toward the old lighthouse. Once there, figuring the hardest part of the walk was behind me, I headed toward the East Coast Trail for, yet again, one more nice morning hike.
 As I neared the gorge, I was amazed to see this great Rough-legged Hawk rise up and hover for a brief second in front of me. Wow! It flew in my general direction before it veered off  the toward  the cabin at the bottom of the hill.
 Certainly not expecting a Rough-legged, I first thought this might be a Northern Harrier when I saw the white on the rump. Then, I saw the overhead pattern of this light-morph hawk, and it was clear I was looking at my first Rough-legged Hawk in three years. Nice!
As it turned out, there was not one single bird in the trail, nor did the small, unknown bird below the new lighthouse appear again. However, while I was gone, a White-winged Scoter did show up at the point. I drove on to Goulds where I took a cursory look at some of the fields before rushing back to see the Virginia's Warbler. The rare little warbler was being much more cooperative on Saturday than on Friday.

Be sure to check out some of the great pictures of the Virginia's Warbler posted by Dave Hawkins linked at the bottom, right of this page. There also were some other great pictures taken yesterday. Watch for them through the blog links and bird links provided here.

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Elusive Virginia's Warbler!!

 I will leave the exciting reports of this bird sighting to Dave and Bruce to tell it like it was. As it happened, after three hours of freezing yesterday to try to see this bird, I saw it today. In the early-morning hours the trail below White Hills was already lined with birders constantly scanning the area.
 I was just lucky to have been there when Bruce Mactavish relocated Dave Brown's find of yesterday. The birders poured out onto the trail, and the race was on to reach the bird before it took off. We managed to get there in time to see this very rare bird - not just for Newfoundland, but for North America. The shots are poor, and the bird is camouflaged by all of the branches from the apple tree. Nevertheless, it is there, and it was seen. The few seconds of viewing was hardly proportionate to the amount of time spent looking. The best chance to see this bird again will be early in the morning. Fortunately, the weather has warmed a little making it easier for this bird to survive. It actually looked quite healthy.
This mess of branches is what I was shooting through in order to get the pitiful shots I got. The bird is sitting under the apple in the center in this shot. You will need to click on the picture to see an enlargement.

For more info check "Birdtherock" link at the bottom, right of this page.