Thursday, April 30, 2015

Kittiwake Double-take

 Just about the time I think I can ID a Black-legged Kittiwake at all stages of development, along comes something out of the ordinary.
 In Witless Bay, I was scanning the group of kittiwakes surrounding the fish plant. Why? Just in case there might be a rare set of red legs among them. Well, you can imagine my surprise when I saw this kittiwake with yellow legs.
I spent quite a while searching around the internet to find an explanation for this. I was absolutely unable to find any such oddity. I sent the shot to Alvan Buckley to ask his opinion. He confirmed this is a Black-legged Kittiwake without black legs.  What caused this? Who knows?
The descriptions and photos I reviewed have all Black-legged Kittiwake having black legs like this one. Maybe this unusual one will spur some conversation about the light legs.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Strange Influx of Jaegers

 It seems this rare appearance of jaegers made me a little trigger-happy with my camera. However, that is okay, because this may never happen again. This first shot shows both a Pomarine and Parasitic Jaeger. How special is that?
While I have seen jaegers at a distance at Holyrood during some pretty strong storms, this is my first opportunity to really "see" them.
 My first close-up glimpse was at the dock in Witless Bay where an adult and sub-adult were feeding near the fish plant. Note the lid-nose which is different from tube-nosed seabirds. There is a sheath that covers the base of the bill.
 I can't imagine the feeding experience was fulfilling as they typically feast on larger prey such as small birds, fish, rodents or whatever they can rob from gulls.
 The name jaeger (pronounced yager, with a long a) comes from a German word meaning "hunter." Parasitic is the name given to one of these jaeger species because of its thieving nature to live off another bird's hard work. They will often harass other birds until they drop their catch and then swoop in to collect it.
The Pomarine Jaeger seen here is the largest of the jaeger species. This bird is also referred to as Pomarine Skua, fitting as they are a member of the skua family. It is also known to catch more of its own food than its parasitic cousin.
 The presence of these birds hanging around on-shore is unusual and provokes numerous questions regarding this strange phenomenon. As many as 20 have been reported.
 Whatever the cause, these birds have been received with open arms by the local birders. So far, they have been here for four days. Will they feed-up and move on?
 There are those in the field who are working to figure out this oddity. Let's hope they can come up with a reason to advance our understanding of these birds.
 In the meantime, it is what it is! They are here, and we are enjoying them.

 I was unable to view the Parasitic Jaegers as well as the Pomarine as they have come ashore at a pier in St. John's that is secure. The only chance to watch them is at a distance and through a chain-link fence. That seems like such a senseless waste for this rare opportunity.
 Also notable, the dark-morph Parasitic Jaeger (seen above) appears to be less active than the other, intermediate morph Parasitic. Is it less healthy? Has it had a better meal?
 These are the best photos I could garner of the intermediate morph Parasitic Jaeger. Here today and maybe, gone tomorrow.
 For more info and an additional perspective, visit Jared Clarke's site at:

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Churning Waters off Cape Spear

 For days we have dodged several significant storms that moved south and east of us. Swirling storm systems have set up east of Newfoundland in a prime position to ensnare European vagrants and drop them at our door step. So far that hasn't happened.
 On several mornings, when I could see through the fog, I have watched the extreme wave action at Cape Spear. These images are evidence that something big is happening off shore.
 Unfortunately, I only had my large lens with me, and these shots really couldn't capture the magnitude of the raging waves crashing against the shore.
 The roar of the swells pummeling   the rocks was deafening and enthralling. Spume fill the entire grounds surrounding the Cape.
 A spectacular view... but there were no birds. Nothing wanted to be tossed around against the rocks. In the distance there were a few Northern Gannets flying by, as well as a few Long-tailed Ducks and Common Eider. However, no sign of anything out of the ordinary.
 Will all of that off-shore activity eventually bring us some special European birds? Only time will tell.
In their place we have been surprised my a very uncommon event of jaegers coming ashore. That will be the subject of my next post.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Biscay Bay Gems

 Biscay Bay is a small community on the Southern Shore originally settled by the Basques. Fishing and root crop farming formed the basis of its survival. The long inlet jutting into Biscay Bay is about one and a half kilometers wide making it a challenge to view birds in this area. Nevertheless, it is always worth a stop and a scan of the area. On most any given day in the winter it is easy to see plenty of Common Loons, Long-tailed Ducks, Red-breasted Mergansers, and Black Guillemots.
 With a little more effort is is also possible to see some species not often seen elsewhere. Among these gems is the Red-throated Loon. This small loon rarely comes close to shore making it necessary to allow the eyes to adjust to the rolling waves and small specks on the water. It would be so nice to see this loon up close, but it tends to favor the far side of the inlet.
On Tuesday, there was the surprise appearance of three White-winged Scoter that blew by.
 It is typically easier to see this species around headlands like Cape Race and Cape Spear, but I have also see them at St. Stephen's this year.
Also among the regular species seen in this area are grebes. The Red-necked Grebe pictured here is the most common, but this is the time of the year when Horned Grebe also move into this inlet. However, none were seen on Tuesday.
The two Red-necked Grebe seen in Biscay Bay were in different stages of plumage. One was well on its way to breeding plumage while the other was not.

(It was interesting to see this grebe - last photo - just up the road in Trepassey in full breeding plumage.)
All in all, viewing sea birds in Biscay Bay is always a challenge and yet, enticing as the potential to see different species is high.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Snowy Owl Upchucks

 On a birding expedition yesterday, our group was able to see two Snowy Owls, each one special. This owl was seen sitting on a mound in the meadow at Portugal Cove South, where it has been seen before. We stopped to enjoy the creature.
While watching this young bird with a lot of streaking, it suddenly expelled a pellet. When an owl is eating, its digestive system separates the edible materials from the non-edible bones, teeth, fur and feathers. The indigestibles of the prey get sent to the gizzard where they are compressed in the shape of the gizzard.
 After compression, the pellet moves into the glandular stomach which produces digestive juices. When all of the nutritious value has been extracted from the food, the pellet is ejected. This process can take from ten to twelve hours. This event often signals the bird is ready to eat again.
Regurgitation  often occurs when the owl is sitting on its favorite roost. . Just before expulsion, the owl takes on a pained expression and the eyes close. As these photos show .... just as the pellet is being expelled, the neck stretches upward and forward, the beak opens, and the pellet just drops out. It was special to watch this happen.

Purple Martin....Sweet!

The direction of my day changed as soon as I opened the nfBirds this morning and found that Brendan Kelly reported finding a Purple Martin on the East Coast Trail near Witless Bay. The day was sunny and one of the warmest we have had so far this Spring, so there was no excuse not to go.

That section of the trail is one of the nicest, and I looked forward to it. The first half km was good going, a bit damp but no snow. The second half of the distance to "12 O'Clock Beach" got worse with every step. I made it very close to the beach, but the last slope up was formidable. I attempted to climb it, but when the branch I was holding to pull myself up snapped, I nearly catapulted to the bottom of the icy incline. That was it....I was not going farther. I settled down on the hillside and stared longingly at the point that blocked my view of the destination and looking with disgust at the glassy trail. After half an hour, I spotted two swallow-size birds go into a tree at the distant point. Too far to see with binoculars, I just stared. Then, to my surprise one of them flew off and in my direction. My camera wasn't even turned on. I scrambled to get it ready as I stared at the Purple Martin. It was sheer luck the bird came to me AND to get my camera up just in time for a shot. Then, it was over. I waited another 20 minutes or so hoping for a repeat performance, but it didn't happen. I headed back down the slippery slopes where I found Ed Hayden heading up. From his report, he made it to the beach and had very good views of the active bird. The second bird? I don't know, maybe it will appear for others heading that way.

There were a few small birds along the way, including a Fox Sparrow.

Monday, April 13, 2015

No Spring Melodies

 Spring in Newfoundland is one of the most depressing seasons. I read reports of the influx of spring migrants to the south of us at the same time as I step outdoors here and tramp through the snow and shiver through the crazy north winds. Is it any wonder the little birds don't venture here for weeks and months to come.
 Typically, the Fox Sparrows arrive before the Black-headed Gulls depart. Well, there are only four Black-headed Gulls left at Quidi Vidi Lake and very few Fox Sparrows are showing up. To date, I have heard no report of any of these few singing.
This morning, I found this little Fox Sparrow pounding the ground at the Blackhead playground, low and out of the wind. I wouldn't sit in the top of the tree and sing either in the biting cold morning wind. At least a few of these birds are showing up. Along the way, I also saw two Pine Grosbeaks chomping away on the few remaining cones near the Maddox Cove turn-off. Those two are the first I have seen in six weeks. For us, it is a long wait for the migrating birds at a time when other North American birders are well into the joys of spring birding.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

What is the prey?

 The presence of Bald Eagles at Quidi Vidi Lake on Sunday morning is as regular as the church bells that ring throughout the city. This morning was no different.
A total of seven Bald Eagles took over the ice. Among them were three adults tussling over a fresh kill. I arrived just moments after the grab near the boathouse. Two freeloaders swooped in hoping to enjoy some of the spoils.
 The successful hunter was not going to let that happen. It fearlessly took on the other two eagles and retook control of its kill.
 While the show was spectacular, I was curious about what type of bird had been felled. Being too far away to get great detail in an image, I have to make do with what I have.
 The bird is small and all dark, seemingly brown. My first thought was a female diving duck. However, I don't see any white on the bird, except a narrow band around the beak. The eye is bright.
 I then began to wonder about a pigeon, but the feet look like a duck.
I watched while the eagle took off with its treasure, and I still have no idea what bird it killed on the lake.
Is it possible there was a lone rare bird, and it had the misfortune of being too slow?