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:

Sunday, 18 September 2016

BC Pelagic off Ucluelet (18 Sept)

Today I joined the Edmonton Nature Club on a Pelagic trip off of Ucluelet, BC.
Ever since I started following bird sightings from BC I've dreamed of joining one of the near annual September pelagics off of Vancouver island.

Today that dream became a reality and we setoff from Ucluelet at 6:50 and returned by 3pm, travelling ~50km offshore to the continental shelf.

The list of birds with rough estimates on #'s is at the bottom of this post. 8 were new species for me, including 1 new family: albatross!

Thanks to James Fox for organizing this great event and the trip leaders who did a stellar job getting everyone on these birds.

Within 15 minutes of leaving the harbour we were seeing hundreds of shearwaters. All of which were Sooty Shearwaters. This early rush of shearwaters faded off within an hour as we travelled further offshore and into the fog. The next 1-2 hours was relatively slow, but still exciting for me with my limited birding experience on the West coast. The highlight in this "dead zone" were low numbers of Cassin's Auklets.

Around 9:30 we emerged from the fog bank and approached the continental shelf. Shearwaters were flying in every direction in decent numbers. On the horizon we saw a large fishing ship and headed straight for it knowing that seabirds would be attracted to its by-catch. This is where the excitement really was for the day and we circled the fishing ship for 2 hours taking in great looks at thousands of shearwaters and other seabirds.

In no apparent order:

Pink-footed Shearwater

Northern Fulmar

Pink-footed Shearwater

Poor photo of a Buller's Shearwater, one of ~3 seen today.
This species was on the verge of extinction in the 1930's, due to hunting and introduced mammals on their breeding islands. But there are now an estimated 2.5 million individuals thanks to habitat protection and aggressive efforts to eradicate rodents from their breeding grounds. The majority are thought to breed on offshore islands around New Zealand - a country that is doing a lot of great work for its native fauna, and we are reaping the benefits all the way over here in Canada :)

90% of the birds we saw at the continental shelf are thanks to this big bad thing!
A factory fishing ship?
The increasing numbers of some seabird species throughout the worlds oceans are thought to be thanks to the by-catch of these kinds of machines. Or the increasing numbers could simply be a reflection of our increasing knowledge on these birds.

Hundreds of Sabine's Gulls were in the area. The majority of which were adults, but several juveniles as well:
The middle bird is a juvenile (brown inner half of the wing), while the other 2 are adults (note the light grey inner wing, and yellow tip to the bills).

Seeing an albatross in real life is said to be a life-changing experience.
Exhilarating to see the first one fly-by the ship, and even more thrilling to see 30+ more over the next couple hours!
Black-footed Albatross

South Polar Skua - aged as a juvenile based on the cold grey colouration to the body

A juvenile... but a bird that hatched somewhere in the Southern hemisphere during our winter.

Fork-tailed Storm-petrels were surprisingly abundant, but naturally, difficult to photograph

Pink-footed Shearwater - the most abundant shearwater at the continental shelf

Common Murre - the only really familiar species for me today - was the most abundant alcid species of the day

Seabirds taking it all in:

The route we took:
The Southwest corner of Canada, near the border with Washington state.

Off of Vancouver island

Approximately 50km straight offshore from Vancouver island

Species list:
Totals based on eBird lists, and in brackets the frequency of observations (i.e. how many eBird lists included that species).

Greater White-fronted Goose (Anser albifrons)36

Cackling Goose (Branta hutchinsii)85

Northern Shoveler (Anas clypeata)12

Green-winged Teal (Anas crecca)1

Surf Scoter (Melanitta perspicillata)2

White-winged Scoter (Melanitta fusca)4

Pacific Loon (Gavia pacifica)1

Black-footed Albatross (Phoebastria nigripes)40

Northern Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis)200

Pink-footed Shearwater (Ardenna creatopus)500

Flesh-footed Shearwater (Ardenna carneipes)2

Buller's Shearwater (Ardenna bulleri)4

Sooty Shearwater (Ardenna grisea)1,124

Short-tailed Shearwater (Ardenna tenuirostris)5

shearwater sp. (Procellariidae sp. (shearwater sp.))300

Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel (Oceanodroma furcata)200

Leach's Storm-Petrel (Oceanodroma leucorhoa)20

Brandt's Cormorant (Phalacrocorax penicillatus)10

Pelagic Cormorant (Phalacrocorax pelagicus)1

cormorant sp. (Phalacrocoracidae sp.)10

Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias)2

Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)1

Black Oystercatcher (Haematopus bachmani)9

Black Turnstone (Arenaria melanocephala)18

Sanderling (Calidris alba)3

Red Phalarope (Phalaropus fulicarius)2

Red-necked/Red Phalarope (Phalaropus lobatus/fulicarius)1

South Polar Skua (Stercorarius maccormicki)3

Pomarine Jaeger (Stercorarius pomarinus)2

Parasitic Jaeger (Stercorarius parasiticus)1

Common Murre (Uria aalge)60

Cassin's Auklet (Ptychoramphus aleuticus)14

Rhinoceros Auklet (Cerorhinca monocerata)12

Tufted Puffin (Fratercula cirrhata)3

alcid sp. (Alcidae sp.)2

Black-legged Kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla)1

Sabine's Gull (Xema sabini)500

Heermann's Gull (Larus heermanni)1

California Gull (Larus californicus)179

Herring Gull (Larus argentatus)11

Glaucous-winged Gull (Larus glaucescens)45

gull sp. (Larinae sp.)203

Arctic Tern (Sterna paradisaea)2

Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon)1

Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus)1

Northwestern Crow (Corvus caurinus)200

Monday, 8 August 2016

Cory's Shearwater invading Newfoundland Waters?

Last Saturday during a 2-hour seawatch at Long Point I watched as a large shearwater sailed South with a group of Great Shearwaters. It had all the markings of a Cory's Shearwater - no collar, dusky facial markings that extended down below the eye into the cheek, and lacked any sign of a white rump. But the range of Cory's Shearwater doesn't extend into the St. Lawrence and seeing them from a headland is extremely rare from the best of locations (in fact there's only 1 previous land based record for the island). So I dismissed that bird as a "shearwater sp." and vowed to study my Great Shearwaters more closely.

The next day while waiting for a ferry to cross the Cabot Strait to Nova Scotia I did a 1-hour seawatch from Cape Ray. Within the first 5 minutes I had another shearwater that looked perfect for Cory's. At this point I thought I was going crazy and clearly didn't know my local shearwaters (there's only 3 local species!) So I hit the books for 10 minutes and reviewed all the information available to me. Sure enough, 10 minutes back into the seawatch another perfect Cory's Shearwater sailed by with a Great Shearwater. It was close enough for me to feel confident in the ID but without a photo I felt a little hesitant because I knew the veterans would doubt the sighting.

Then the ferry crossing started. We left dock just before noon and arrived in Sydney just over 6 hours later. As soon as we got out of the harbour I was seeing small numbers of shearwaters - for the next 6 hours there was almost always a handful of shearwaters within view. Conditions were perfect with cloudy sky (= no sun glare), very little wind (= no white caps, and easy to stand outside on the side of the large ship).

About an hour into the seawatch I resorted to doing 10 minute counts of the seabirds. I tallied numbers for each species within the ten minute period and restarted the count again every 10 minutes. My final count for Cory's Shearwater was 41! This is an unprecedented number for Newfoundland waters. To add to this, Bruce Mactavish is currently 350km East of St. John's where he has seen 14+ Cory's in the last few days - an area he has visited for several years on job assignments and has never seen Cory's before.

For some context: most of the veteran Newfoundland birders have not seen Cory's Shearwater for their Newfoundland list!

Here are some photos of Cory's from the ferry crossing:

Any theories that might explain this unprecedented incursion of this species?

Obviously warming waters could be one explanation. But water temperatures on the Eastern Grand Banks are not above recent averages and I don't know what they are like off Nova Scotia.

Great Shearwaters from the ferry:

The three regular species of shearwater visible from Newfoundland headlands:

Sooty Shearwater - all dark bird, with long stiff wings:

Great Shearwater - the largest of the 3 regular species. Flight not nearly as "stiff". And white underside often visible from great distances.

Manx - the smallest of the three. Can be identified from great distances despite small size due to the very stiff flight pattern with short wings, white undersides, and the relatively small size.

Lots of things I want to write about but absolutely crushed for time right now.