Saturday, 31 December 2016

2016 Birding

I spent the entire year in Canada and managed to see 349 species of bird.


This post is heavy on the photos:

The year started off strong when Ed, Alison and I found this Sabine's Gull at St. Vincent's in late January. One of very few for North America in the winter months:

Much of the winter birding in Newfoundland relies on gulls for our entertainment. This gull stood out from the crowd:
Probable Thayer's Gull

Another highlight from the winter was this Fieldfare in Lumsden - a Eurasian species, with about 9 records in the province:


One of my goals this year was to spend more time exploring areas that have less coverage. I managed to get to Terra Nova National Park in central Newfoundland for a weekend.
Spruce Grouse is fairly common across the island - especially Terra Nova - but nonexistent on the Avalon peninsula:
A welcome introduced species to our woodlands!

One May 29-30, Catherine and I did our annual big day in support of Bird Studies Canada. We raised over $1500 and saw a record 96 species in a 24 hour period on the Avalon peninsula. Willow Ptarmigan was one of our highlights:

The day after the big day I came across this Cave Swallow - only the second record for the province, and likely an individual from the Bahama race, adding to its significance:

While trying to relocate the swallow, Blair Fleming and I found this Euro Golden-Plover:

As I've now gotten more used to, the breeding season rushed by and young birds were starting their lives with gusto. This Horned Lark was in an unfamiliar plumage:

One of my favourite photos from 2016 - an Arctic Blue sunning itself on the coastal barrens at Cape Spear:


In late July two rare terns graced us at Renews: a Royal Tern and Sandwich Tern



Then it was back across the island before heading to Nova Scotia, Ontario, and BC for 3 months.

A Merlin chasing a Great Blue Heron from its territory in the Codroy Valley:

An unprecedented influx of Cory's Shearwater to Newfoundland waters occurred in early August. It will be interesting to see if the phenomena repeats itself in 2017.

In BC I was fortunate to start with a 3-day weekend of all-out birding with John Reynolds. One of the highlights was getting great looks at Lewis's Woodpecker:

The other birding highlight from this month in BC was the annual pelagic off of Ucluelet.
Black-footed Albatross:

In Ontario I took some time off work/school to volunteer at Long Point Bird Observatory.

Migration was in full swing and allowed me to significantly improve two aspects of my birding at Long Point:
identifying birds in flight, and familiarizing myself with chip calls of sparrows.

Large flocks of Common Terns provided great entertainment:


Back in Newfoundland by early November:


I returned just in time to enjoy some excellent finds, including this Hermit Warbler:



December has passed and now it's back to studying the gulls - our birding lifeline in St. John's during the winter.

A recent Kelp Gull was one of the most surprising birds of the year in the province:


2017 promises to be an exciting year: I have a couple of big trips planned, and some longterm projects I hope to start to move forward on - more on these later.
In the spring I will be graduating from medical school and beginning my career. Lots of unknowns still, but these should be sorted out within the next couple months.


Have a great 2017 - may you enjoy many hours enjoying and learning about our nature!

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

"Sooty" Fox Sparrow in Newfoundland

The Fox Sparrow is a very common species in Newfoundland from early April until the end of October, with a few individuals over-wintering on the island every year. It is also an extremely variable species with 13 or more different populations described, which are clustered into four unique "groups".

Our Fox Sparrow, fits into  the group of "Red" Fox Sparrows. It isn't hard to see why:

The "Red" Fox Sparrow has the widest range of our 4 groups and is the only group found in the East.  The other 3 groups are restricted to the Western half of North America.

"Red" Fox Sparrow singing at Long Pond, St. John's, Newfoundland


Anyone familiar with our "Red" Fox Sparrow who visits the West coast will have no trouble noticing the differences. The most common group out West is the "Sooty" Fox Sparrow which breeds as far away as the Pribilof islands in Alaska and as far South as Washington state. This group, as the name suggests, is significantly dark and lacks the intense red colouration of our Eastern Fox Sparrows.

Having seen the "Sooty" group of Fox Sparrows in BC over the years I knew there was no way of confusing our red ones for their sooty ones. But I never really thought of them as possible vagrants in the East. That was until Dave Shepherd, of Long Point Bird Observatory fame, reported a "Western" Fox Sparrow at his feeder in Portugal Cove South, Newfoundland. He and his wife, Julie, immediately knew that it was something different and took the time to observe and study the bird and concluded that it was of the "Sooty" group - which has been confirmed by various experts.

Here it is:


This is the breeding range of "Sooty" Fox Sparrows based on eBird reports:


And here is the wintering range of "Sooty" Fox Sparrows:

Definitely a group restricted to the coastal area West of the Rocky Mountains!


A closer look reveals that there are very few records of "Sooty" Fox Sparrow in the East, with the Newfoundland bird appearing in orange:
Quite possible a first record for Atlantic Canada!


Certainly, it is under-reported in the East since it doesn't have full species status, and feeder watchers (where a bird like this would show up) might pass it off as a regular sparrow. Perhaps this sighting will spur more interest in these Western Fox Sparrows and more records will be dug up or discovered.


The Portugal Cove South bird was first found during a harsh winter storm with winds gusting up to 130km/h. It could barely stand up and wasn't looking very healthy on its first day. But, thanks to a generous supply of seeds, it was back to full fitness today.

Look at those dark flanks! The streaking towards the back blurs into a sooty gray wash.

For those interested in the sub-species identification of this bird it has been suggested that it belongs to the fuliginosa sub-species by some, and the sinuosa/townsendi sub-species by others. Personally I don't know enough to make an opinion on this, and the resources I read provided very limited differences between these sub-species. Even online articles were inconclusive.

Like many species, the more Northern populations of Fox Sparrow migrate the furthest South, which makes them more susceptible to finding their way far off course. This would suggest that our bird may belong to one of the more Northern sub-species.


The undertail coverts of this Sooty Fox Sparrow were quite striking with a buffy/tan colour as the base, with chevron-shaped markings on each of the feathers. The "Red" Fox Sparrow, at best, has faint markings similar to these but often shows no discernible markings on the undertail coverts.



The "Sooty" Fox Sparrow really is a different beast. But just because it's different doesn't mean it should be its own species (although some people have already designated it as such). Drawing arbitrary lines is always difficult with highly variable species like the Fox Sparrow.





Some other random highlights from today:

This adult female Harrier was seen hunting the coast along the Cape Race road:

I've had an interest in studying these late December harriers in Newfoundland ever since the late Martin Garner put out some excellent books on the frontiers of bird identification with harrier as one of his favoured groups to study. The obvious hope, for me, is to turn one of our December harriers into a European Hen Harrier.


This is my first time getting good enough photos to study the finer details of a December harrier in Newfoundland. The outermost primary (P10) seems to have three dark bars, and P8 (the 3rd outermost primary) has 5 dark bars - both features suggesting Hen Harrier. But the neck streaking seems to strongly favour our regular Northern Harrier.

Definitely something I will be studying more keenly in the future.




And the continuing White-winged Dove in Renews:




Wednesday, 9 November 2016

It's Good to be Back!

I returned to Newfoundland last Wednesday after travelling the country for 3 months. I had 4 solid days of exploring the Southwest area of the island before going back to school/work in Grand Falls-Windsor.



Here are some of the highlights from those 4 days:

One of the first moments of excitement came while doing a short seawatch at a headland near Port-aux-Basques. This bird "migrated" by, while being chased by some gulls.
Any ideas what it is?
Answer is at the bottom of this post!


The biggest rarity came on Friday morning when John Tuach, who I was birding with, pointed out a shorebird roosting nearby. I immediately recognized it as a dowitcher and knew the significance of this. Any dowitcher in November in Canada is almost certainly going to be a Long-billed Dowitcher (...unless you're Alix d'Entremont who keeps finding Short-billeds in southern Nova Scotia this week). Somewhat amazingly there has only been one previous record of LBDO for the province (Nov 6-7, 2005 in St. John's).


Unfortunately the bird didn't come close for stellar looks, so these distant shots will have to suffice.

In the first photo note the hunched back while the bird is feeding. Often described as having swallowed a grapefruit, Long-billed Dowitchers are best distinguished from their shorter-billed cousins by this "general impression of the shape".



A key feature I was previously unaware of is the extent of white on the leading edge of the axillary area. Short-billed's, apparently, have more uniform markings in their 'wingpits'.
Thankfully I took a video just before this bird started preening and stretched out its wings. A still-frame from that video, below, shows that signature LBDO feature.


The barring on the flanks also seems to fit more with LBDO.


The easiest and most reliable feature to distinguish SBDO & LBDO is the pitch of their call note. I didn't manage to get a recording of this bird call, but based on my recent experience with LBDOs in Vancouver I felt that the call was classic for LBDO.

Let me know if you see any other features from these photos that suggest one species or the other!


As usual the scenery in this area was fantastic:



A few hours after finding that dowitcher we came across this Pacific Loon - only the 4th record for the province (and the first away from the Avalon peninsula). 




Another distant shot of the Short-eared Owl that flew past the headland with a gull in hot pursuit: