Thursday, 12 April 2018

Sluggish Start to Spring 2018

It is a cold start to spring in eastern Newfoundland.  Warm temperatures have been a fleeting few hours usually accompanied by rain and winds that could tear the binoculars off your neck. Overall birds are arriving close to schedule. We did have an exceptional influx of Great Egrets and a few other southern herons after one particular storm on 22 March. Most of these birds were out of reach for Avalon birders unfortunately. Who knows what we missed by not scouring the Burin Peninsula right after the event.  There was a little trickle over to the Avalon to help brighten the early spring mood. So far the weather systems are out of character for the coveted prolonged NE air flow from Iceland that we need for collecting our share of the Golden Plovers and other birds migrating from Europe to Iceland.  But it only takes one well placed storm with enough strength to unload some European flavour on the Newfoundland spring. Think RDF.

Here are some bird photos from the this month on the Avalon Peninsula.

This Great Egret at Biscay Bay on 8 April had already been living for two weeks on the abundant Newfoundland stickleback.

This Great Blue Heron at St. Mary's on 8 April was also catching sticklebacks. On the Avalon Peninsula the Great Blue Heron and Great Egret are of equal rarity status

The St. Vincent's Pacific Loon present for its fifth winter was elusive this year. Loons and alcids were in low numbers all winter at the location.  These snaps on 8 April were long distance crops between wave troughs.  That chin strap is exceedingly obvious on in the photos. The smooth snaky neck paler than the back (middle two photos) is the best thing to look for when trying to find the bird among the distant Common Loons. 

The arrival of the Newfoundland hornless Horned Lark in early April never fails to stir the feelings of spring. This one was part of a group four at Trepassey on 8 April.

Snow Bunting migration was stalled by bad weather in Labrador which resulted in a delivery of small flocks throughout southern Newfoundland.  A flock of 30 feeding on bird seed at the Cape Spear parking lot provided good opportunities to photograph this flighty species. 

This Clay-coloured Sparrow looks a little rattled after a long winter at a Trepassey bird feeder, here on 8 April.  It acted healthy and energetic.  This bird represents Newfoundland birders who are worn and frazzled after a long winter but still have the energy to enjoy what spring is going to bring us. We are ready for the revitalization. 

Saturday, 31 March 2018

Borealis Common Eider in Bold Display

The 18 March 2018 I had an opportunity to take many photos of a flock of 1500 Common Eiders feeding at Cape Spear, Newfoundland. Borealis is the common wintering subspecies of Common Eider wintering in Newfoundland. It was only in recent years that I realized borealis was on the rare side in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and the New England States. The more southern subspecies dresseri makes up the eider populations in these parts. The segregation of these two populations over time has resulted in two recognizable forms.  Dresseri nests in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Maine. Borealis is the Common Eider nesting in the eastern Arctic.  Common Eiders breeding along the coast of Labrador need more careful study. The break, and merging of features is thought to occur mid way along the length of the coast of Labrador. It is possible that Canadian Wildlife Service personal who have banded eiders on nesting islands along the coast of Labrador have insight on the zone of dresseri vs borealis. The reality is we do not really know.

On the Avalon Peninsula, Newfoundland large numbers of borealis over winter.  Up to 1% of the adult drakes can be identified as dresseri. There are others that seem to be in betweeners and may represent birds from the merging zone on the Labrador coast. 

This blog posting is intended to show run of the mill borealis eiders, males and females plus some dresseri.

THE DRAKES - Borealis

Borealis Common Eider drakes are relatively easy to differentiate from dresseri. As you look through these photos note 1) the nearly banana-yellow bill, 2) the short and pointed frontal lobe projections of the bill into the forehead 3) the complete lack of any green wash below the black cap.

THE DRAKES - Dresseri

Classic dresseri stick out like sore thumbs among the borealis. There is a serious business going on in that 'nose'.  The frontal lobe broadens out to a rounded dull green intrusion far up into the forehead. Equally distinct for this subspecies when you look a little closer is the green wash along the bottom border of the black cap. Check with the borealis photos and see this area is always white with them.

THE HENS -  Borealis

The separation of female Common Eiders down to subspecies levels is a new world.  All I know is that borealis come in a range of colours from ashy-gray (<2%) to a rich reddish-brown.  I am unaware of what use if any the shape of the frontal lobes of of females will be.  Photo sharing among those from the  Maritimes and Newfoundland could help smooth out the way to the answer .

Note the gray bill and different head shape and the richness of plumage of the classy adult female King Eider in this picture.

Dive ! ! !

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Carrot Bill at Cape Spear, Newfoundland - V-NIGRUM NAILED !!!

March 18, 2018 was a good day for eider watching at Cape Spear, Avalon Peninsula, Newfoundland. March is  usually the best month for eider numbers on the Avalon as the pack ice covers much their feeding areas on the northeast coast.  After a good morning flight of eiders close by the rocks and trying for flight shots in the heavy snow squalls with poor results, I went back in the afternoon when the snow was supposed to let up.  The eiders were no longer flying but a flock of 120 was feeding by the rocks and the light was getting good as the sun broke out in the western sky. In the mornings we are looking east into the rising sun at Cape Spear. Not good.

I got down on the rocks and manged to get unusually close to the eiders by keeping out of sight. The photo opts were the best. There was one female King and a male dresseri among the standard borealis  but it was the superb opportunity to get excellent photos of our always wary common borealis eider that I was happiest with. Then strings of eiders started arriving from the south and without hesitation joined the flock until there were 1500 eiders. They all started swimming toward my hiding place in the rocks.  The sun had gone out and the snow squalls were starting up again but I was not going to miss this. Amazingly the eiders did not notice my head and camera peering around my rock as they started diving. I was firing off the camera at full tilt not even looking at what eiders might be in the shots. I was wanting as many good examples of borealis  as I could get. There were a few adult drake Kings in this flock also.

Then down the long lens in the flurry of mad snapping I caught the sight of a bright orange bill on a Common Eider. It was the Carrot Bill sign we are always on alert for. It could mean the so called Pacific Eider, also known as v-nigrum, from the western Arctic.  I kept the camera pointed on this bird with the finger down on the hammer just in case this was the real thing. I didn't risk trying to find it in the scope or even binoculars for fear of loosing it in the mass of ducks.  At any moment they were likely to stop feeding and swim off shore like they do to work on crushing the sea urchins in their gizzards to make room for some more.

It looked surprisingly good in the camera being larger than the other eiders and the orange of that bill needed no imagination. Then it started preening. I fired rapidly hoping to get even the slightest angle on the under side of the throat and hopefully capturing the patented black 'V' branded under the chin of v-nigrum. I just finished praying for it to rear up and flap its wings when it did just that. The next 12 shots captured a prominent black 'V burned into the white throat.   Elation! As I looked at my booty on the back of the camera the whole flock did move offshore as predicted. But I had got what I wanted.   V-NIGRUM was NAILED 

This was the third confirmed record of Pacific Eider for Newfoundland. BUT in the last three winters there has been a little wave of highly suspect Pacific Eiders accidentally photographed by people after King Eider shots among big flocks of Common Eider.  It is not the surprise it once was.  The Pacific Eider could be sneaking through the central Arctic more often for now as warmer summers create more open water passages from the Pacific to Atlantic.

Here are the photos.

The very first photo. The look of a freshly peeled carrot stands out in a flock of Newfoundland winter eiders which are 99% borealis race with light yellow to rich yellow bills.

A cropped photo shows some of the patented marks of a v-nigrum. The green wash spreads under the black cap unlike borealis, but similar to dresseri from the Maritimes which were also in this flock of birds.

Depending somewhat on the posture of the bird the forehead bulges and creates and less horizontal edge to the black cap. Compare with the borealis

The v-nigrum is a big bird. The extra long sloping bill helps give this bird a more muscular feel.

There is the patented black 'V' on the under side of the chin. It is near impossible to see this feature unless it does something like this bird is doing. Apparently some v-nigrum  lack this mark and some borealis  can have it.

Here is a borealis  Common Eider showing the virgin white under side to the chin.

The v-nigrum  made no mistake it was going to be counted practically standing on the water to show off the 'V'.


In a little while I hope to have another eider blog posting showing the variations in the borealis  Common Eider, males and females.