Monday, August 13, 2012

Newfoundland III: the rest of the best (#229 + update #131))

I almost forgot to post these little guys, which we had seen along Battery Road in St. John's. There were lots of juvenile gulls around but I just had to laugh at this nest, so exposed on the roof, and the chicks just walking around, awkward looking as they are.

Another one of our hosts in Newfoundland, Tina, was actually a wildlife biologist with the Newfoundland Parks Service...i.e. she studies birds for a living! Then I realized that this girl had my dream job and I need to do something about it. The fact that she was about the same age, and according Matt, even looked like me was a little crazy. Anyway, she was awesome and gave us lots of hints and it was great to bird-nerd with her. She laughed at how badly I wanted to see a gray jay (she said, "don't worry, you'll get your gray jay!").

As bizarre coincidence would have it, I just happened to flop one of the guidebooks open to the right page while we were in the right area that mentioned a tern colony at McIver's near Corner Brook. This was never on the original itinerary but we changed course to check it out. The book said it was Arctic terns but I only saw commons (I think I might have seen some Arctic terns later on, a would-be lifer, but I said "I'll get a pic later"---which completely backfired on me). The colony is a small little island close to shore. it would have been nice to have kayaks to get a little closer, but not sure that's even a good idea when they are nesting.

gone fishin'

tern colony is the little island, so luckily they have no land predators like cats, raccoons, etc. Needless to mention how cute the little villages are in Newfoundland.

The next big personal birding moment was on the path at the spectacular Western Brook Pond in Gros Morne National Park when I spotted something dusky close to the ground in a bush---it was awkwardly hopping around, and I wasn't sure what it was until I saw the parent nearby---GRAY JAY! FINALLY! I've wanted to see one of these so badly, mainly because of their behaviour of being cheeky little buggers, and while they didn't do anything too crazy, shy is not the word I would use to describe them. They just hopped about doing their thing. They are much bigger than I imagined, and the juveniles look almost like crows because they are all black. Since we go to Algonquin Park in Ontario often enough, I thought we'd see one there for sure, but so far we haven't. So Tina was right, we got our gray jay, but it was a near miss, and we only saw these two!

#229: Gray Jay; Western Brook Pond (Gros Morne National Park), Newfoundland; July 2012

We also saw a few more boreal chickadees---OMAGOD SO FRIKKIN CUTE

We did often see some brownish ducks out in the water. I thought nothing of it, like I would at home, assuming they'd be either mallards or black ducks. Matt told me to take a picture to get a better look anyway so I did, an after reviewing it told him, yeah, it's just some brown ducks. I should have clued in that they were brown ducks in the ocean...that's different. So glad that I didn't immediately delete the picture because when I got home I realized that those brown ducks were eiders! Tina had told us we might see eiders up north, but I had envisioned male eiders--very distinct from the females, which are quite plain looking, aside from the slant to their bills. I'm cursing myself now for not having taken the time to get a better shot. I'm going to study this hopefully be able to call whether they are common or kings.
At the end of the trip we shifted around our schedule because I decided I really wanted to see Bonavista, where John Cabot supposedly first landed in Canada. In the end this turned out to be a great game-time decision. We saw some truly amazing scenery there and wildlife spottings too.

When 3000 km in a rental in such a short time frame started to get to Matt and me and we were right about to strangle each other, this little guy came to the rescue and allowed us to cool our heads because he was so awesome. Tina had said we'd have a good chance of seeing Spruce Grouse/Rock Ptarmigan if we hiked up to the top of Gros Morne, but we didn't end up going because of the schedule switch up and because the day we were going to do it was pretty foggy so there wouldn't be much point to it. So it was nice to see a ruffed grouse anyway :)
We never did spot an Arctic Tern, which are supposedly abundant in Newfoundland. But we certainly saw lots of common terns.
I think I counted a juvenile pigeon guillemot in Alaska but didn't have the treat of seeing adults then. I loved watching them swim around the turquoise waters of Cape Bonavista with their bright red feet underneath. I certainly don't think they help them to camouflage themselves but they must help in some other way--mating I suppose. Newfies call them "sea pigeons" because they are so abundant--But I only saw them in Bonavista. Very cute little buggers though.

*UPDATE - January 1, 2013*
Thanks to Rob for pointing out that these are actually Black Guillemots (see comment below). They look extremely similar, but the white wing patches are uninterrupted on the Black Guillemots and the range map is certainly different! That makes this one...
#131: Black Guillemot, Cape Bonavista, July 2012

On our way back to St. John's from Bonavista we made another last-minute decision to go through Elliston, the root cellar capital of the world (yes, really) and also home to the annual Bird Island Puffin Festival. It is the best place in North America for watching nesting puffins from land. There is a bit of land that juts out into the ocean and then a little island just past it where the puffins nest. We arrived late in the day but there were some guys there with some huge guns (no I don't mean weapons, or biceps) who seemed to have been there all day. It's kind of a dream for bird photographers because since you don't have to get on a boat to see them, you can get nice stable shots and use a tripod. Which is funny because I'm not actually going to post any shots from there. I mainly enjoyed our last evening in Newfoundland just being there--soaking up the views and the salty coastal breeze.

That's everything! Newfoundland was an amazing experience, for the birds, but also for everything else, which I really didn't even get into or share here (that would have made for crazy long posts---I guess that's for another blog, or facebook at least!). The wildlife, the scenery, the lifestyle, the people; it was all unreal.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Let me bird off Cape St. Mary's - i.e. the most amazing birding experience of my life! (#228)

Cape St. Mary's was such an incredible experience that I had to dedicate a full post to it. In the car Matt and I were discussing our "Top 5" and "Top 3" lists of the trip and we both agreed that, over everything else, Cape St. Mary's was probably #1. Toward the end of our trip we heard a woman from San Francisco inquiring about birding spots at the visitor centre in Bonavista, so I approached her. I asked her if she'd already been to Cape St. Mary's (not in Bonavista)--she tried, but went to St. Mary's instead by mistake (easy enough to confuse, I suppose...actually I almost did it too...), and ran out of time. And I literally told her to turn around and drive the 3 hours back and go see it. She didn't (oh noooo, we have a "schedule" and "reservations"--her loss).

After a fun little incident of nearly running out of gas on a long stretch of road with no gas stations, no towns, no people, and apparently no other traffic in either direction, we arrived at Cape St. Mary's. But before that, just as we were crossing a bridge in the quaint little town of Branch, we spotted some odd ducks. And I'm not talking about awkward people, but really, odd ducks.

look ma, I can do it too!

Bewildered, I had taken lots of pics but could find nothing even close in my book. So, we continued on to the intended destination of the day, Cape St. Mary's, which was surrounded with a heavy fog. We are told that this is the case an average of 26 of all days of July. I asked the guy in the visitor centre if we'd be able to see anything, and he assured me that yes, we would. So off we ventured, into the fog, and not seeing much of anything, when Matt tells me to look up and there are these things gliding overhead--a steady stream of Northern Gannets cruising, silently, just above me...and I mean just above me...maybe 10 ft. It's as if they don't even take notice that I'm there, they are so casual about it. Because the fog was so thick you'd sort of just start to see them once they were already almost right over you--it's hard to describe but was totally surreal.

We continue along this incredibly beautiful path--beautiful is a weird word to use, since I could barely see a thing--really just a hint of things through the fog, but I think I'm referring to just begin surrounding by grass and sea and nothing else, and a small picturesque trampled path in front of me. There is something to be said for the dense, salty sea air...just makes you feel so good and alive and healthy...makes you wonder if we were really ever meant to live inland. so we get a little farther along the trail and then it just drops into this spectacular cliff (well, at least the fog wasn't so dense we could see that!) and there are thousands of gannets, some above us, some gliding in front, more circling below and yet more way down below in the water. It's a sight I'm not sure I could do justice in describing.

Totally in awe, we had no idea that it would get even better, and we took lots of videos and pictures before the going got...incredible. Eventually we made it to the main "bird rock," and there was another young couple already posted there (neat people, actually, but that's another story). Then, the fog just magically lifted and the couple turned to us and said "you've got good timing!" They'd been waiting there for 2 days waiting for the fog to clear! Turns out that's the story most of the time--people are always saying how great our timing is, or how we bring the good weather--what they don't know that I'm secretly stockpiling karma points.
So what did we see? Literally, thousands and thousands of gannets, nesting right in front of, flying all around us. I think I ended up sitting there for at least a few hours, just watching them, mesmerized. I was quite happy not to go anywhere, quite happy that we had dedicated an entire day to this. Their behaviour is very peculiar and fascinating, and the longer I watched, the more I noticed. It took me a little while to notice the little chicks that were under their bodies, or the way the came in to land on each other, or the way they smack their beaks together, or how the male bites the females neck when he comes into land, or how aggressive they get for territory and how they would fight, and literally, push each other off the edge of the cliff.

Honestly, I was quite happy to just watch them. It's not often that you get to just watch birds do their thing, and there is so much going on that no pictures would ever communicate (that's why I took videos!). They could be elegant and brutal at the same time--when they fence and preen each other it seems so delicate and almost affectionate, but then they can go to stabbing at each other, landing on each other, biting each other and fighting each other.

some of the murres I mention in the video--imagine this picture x 100

got some nest material

Eventually the fog rolled back in and the party was over--we headed back to the visitor centre and I had a good chat with one of the park staff about the birds, asking him lots of questions about what I had seen and what I had thought about.
  • Like how they smack their beaks together--"Are they just getting to know each other?"--"oh no, they already know each other all right. They're bonding" (took me a minute to realize he was saying "bonding" and not "banding," which is sounded like to me...gotta love that accent). Watch the video and I think you'll agree to where the term "necking" came from. Yeah they are totally making out!
fencing gannets.

  • He took the time to explain the one with its mouth open and moving its throat (looked like it was calling out or something) was panting, since birds don't have sweat glands like we do---that's the same reason the crows all sit around with their mouths open on hot days. 
bleating gannet with chick underfoot

  • I asked him if there was some kind of hierarchy as to the locations of the nests, and noted how they seemed aggressive and would push each other right off the cliff--and some had cozy spots while others were rather precariously perched on the tiniest of precipices. And he explained how they not only return to the colony but return to the exact nesting location--as if it had a postal address 131 Bird Rock. They won't reproduce until they are about 5, at which point they have to find their own spot, and that's why the colony is expanding outwards from the sea stack to  neighbouring cliffs, which are less sheltered because they are on the mainland (and when I say mainland, it's not really the mainland, because we are still in Newfoundland, after all). If one tries to take another's spot, they will, literally kill or be killed--these birds don't mess around! 
arranging the nest - pulling up dirt
  • I also asked him about the neck biting I had seen and he explained that the males will land and bite the female's neck (Or, "honey, I'm home!"--don't think I would take too kindly to that!) and then they proceed with the bill-whacking (or "fencing," it's called), and then they can finally settle in, or the other can take a turn heading out. I get the submission thing, but I think he might be taking it a little far here. 

  • Mr. Park Officer also explained that they are mates for life...but he is quick to clarify--paired for life, but certainly not monogamous. 
  • Finally I also asked him about the odd ducks and showed him the pictures on my camera. He chuckled a bit and asked if I'd seen them down in Branch. He said there's a farm that had Pekin ducks (yes, as in Peking Duck for dinner) and that they had interbred with the wild ducks and hang out at the inlet. So, mystery solved!

Pretty fascinating stuff, and an awesome visit to Bird Rock. On the way out to the parking lot, we saw that there was a lighthouse there, which we couldn't see 20 metres away from us on the way in. And that is how thick the fog is in Newfoundland. And I asked myself for the first of many times--what is the point of a lighthouse if you can never see it? And I became familiar with the blaring of the foghorn--far more effective in the given conditions. It's funny how quickly it comes and goes--in a matter of 5 minutes you can go from sunny and bright to....can I count all the fingers on my hand in front of me?
I took this picture when the fog was actually not the bad

I'm sure you appreciate accuracy but I think you'd rather see it like this :)

Our first hosts, whom we stayed with for 3 nights in St. John's, had given us a whole disc holder full of Newfie music CDs they burned for us (did I mention how awesome Newfoundlanders are?). Actually we spent most of the trip listening to them and by the end of it were singing along and had picked our favourites. One of the traditional Newfoundland songs that we heard a few times was "Let me fish off Cape St. Mary's." Of course we got pretty excited and were like...."we are going there!" or eventually..."we went there!"

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Newfoundland (and new-found-birds) (#224-227)

Ruby Wednesday
I'm outside tonight, tending my little garden and hear a little motor above my head. I look up, and it's my good friend Ruby, whom I've been a little out of touch with. He/she hovers for a moment and takes off in a huff, reminding me of the things I have been neglecting: 1) replacing the sugar water in the feeder and 2) keeping up to date on my bird blog. I hang my head in shame at the ants that have collected in the feeder and take it down, set it inside meaning to fill it and start back in the garden. Not long after, he/she (or another friend Ruby) returns and I feel like an ass for not having done it right away. Clearly the stuff is in high demand, and they love my garden as much as I do. So I head in, clean it out, hang it up, and sit and wait. No action until the mosquitoes found their own nectar, and now I'll have to wait until another day to catch up with old friends. If you can't wait that long, you can get your fix now:

Ruby Tuesday by The Rolling Stones on Grooveshark

In other (sort of) local news, I found myself lawn bowling in the middle of Toronto last week, and looked up, and wouldn't you know, there was a whole whack of chimney swifts above my head! I was distracted enough that I had someone sub in for me, but didn't go to the get the camera. But I have been wanting to see one for a long time! It's too bad I can't share pics here. 

On a whim Edge and I decided to hop, skip and jump ( over to Canada's beautiful east coast. We've been interested in visiting Newfoundland for a while now...for one because we loved Ireland so much and heard it was similar (sort of...) and for two because the commercials are so damn convincing!

A lot of the birds in Newfoundland are much like the ones at home--it's not like you are headed into the tropics or anything, but out there you get lots of sea birds that don't come anywhere near landlocked Ottawa, and that was a special treat!

Our first day we drove a good part of the east side of the "Irish Loop," stopping at one point to hike a little section of the Beaches Path, where we got our first views of ATLANTIC PUFFINS (heart is screaming!!) right from the shore. They were still a bit out for good seeing but they are kind of...unmistakeable. In a matter of a few minutes we had our first two lifers of the trip--the puffins, and also BOREAL CHICKADEES. CUTE! I'm sure any Newfoundlander would laugh at how excited I was too see this so-apparently-common bird (not the only "common" bird there that was a lifer). They look just like the black-capped, but something about the colouring just makes them seem oh-so sweet...and soft. It was a little odd to get a few lifers on our trip of birds that we do have in Ontario--I just haven't found them (In the end, I think by the end of the trip there were at least three that would meet that criteria)

#224: Boreal Chickadee; June 30, 2012; Beaches Path, Newfoundland

We also got our first views of the trip of Greater Black-backed and other gulls. This path is close to Witless Bay, where a humpback was hanging around, and which where there are four islands that are ecological reserves and bird colonies. While the birds nest out on the island in high concentrations, the odd few venture closer to the mainland area.
Herring Gull by the sea
 Matt decided the following day that he really wanted to go out to see the whales in the bay, and this meant we'd get to get closer to the ecological reserve islands, so we readily forked over our cash to Ecotours, a company that runs a small zodiac out into the bay and to the islands. The zodiac was great because it was fast and manoeuvrable and we were weren't with a hundred other people on a huge boat. We had to wear these huge full-body orange life suits that were kind of ridiculous--felt like we were preparing for disaster in Antarctic waters or something! It just happened to be Canada Day and I was feeling particularly patriotic being able to take in the stunning richness of this little corner of our country.
nothing short of spectacular
The first 45 minutes were spent admiring a magnificent humpback whale and a few Minkes in Bay Bulls, and the second half we spent cruising around the big island. As we approached we got a good strong whiff that tells know you are approaching a sea bird colony. It's home to the largest North American colony of Atlantic puffins, but there were also Common Murres in abundance, Black-legged kittiwakes, herring and black-backed gulls, and razorbills. The island is also home to a significant number of Leach's storm petrels, which we unfortunately did not see, as we learned that they are nocturnal and hide in burrows all day.

Now of course we saw puffins in Alaska, but not Atlantics! Actually, I think I did see puffins as teeny tiny specks in Ireland in 2009 (?) at the Cliffs of Moher, but it was too windy to take a boat out (I was still in love with puffins back then, even before the birding thing happened). It's worth noting that puffins are called "sea parrots" or "clowns of the sea." I'm more inclined to call them the "cuties of the sea."

#225: Atlantic Puffin; July 1, 2012; Witless Bay Ecological Preserve, Newfoundland

check gull in the back for scale. they're tiny!
Thought we had seen razorbills in Alaska (a lot of the birds were similar to Newfoundland), but nope!

#226: Razorbill; July 1, 2012; Witless Bay Ecological Preserve, Newfoundland

There was also an unbelievable number of common murres (common there, anyway). The murres were one of the more abundant birds we saw there. Not great fliers, they would jump off the rocks and sort of splash and sputter over the water if they didn't get a good take-off. Great swimmers though!
Some of them have a neat white line around their eyes. Those ones are "bridled," and are also adults
murres lined up
Both of the murres and the razorbills look so unreal--their markings are so perfect--that they look like they are painted.

I wanted to add some videos so that you could get the feeling of the scale out there. I'll admit that the camera handling is absolutely horrendous (you try shooting a video with a point and shoot on a zodiac in the ocean!) but you get the idea :)

Murres below, puffins on top

So many murres......

Black-legged kittiwake nesting
Us with our captain
The next day we had plans to hike the Spout Path from Bay Bulls. The Spout Path is a section of the East Coast Trail, a 540-km coastal trail. Having already done the West Coast Trail, this only seemed appropriate. Well we set out at noon for a 9-hour hike with only 2 bottles of water between us in 30 degree C weather--we ran into a trail custodian who urged us to turn around and we refused, with dehydration and darkness imminent, but anyways, what I'm really trying to say is that I finally spotted my first pine grosbeak on that hike, perched silently on some low heather (I always thought they'd be higher up in the trees? Although I suppose we had some altitude on our side) and not particularly concerned about us. One more lifer, and one more lifer to add to the list of birds we have at home but I haven't seen. Thank ye for obliging, Mr. Grosbeak!

#227: Pine Grosbeak; July 2, 2012; Spout Path (Bay Bulls end), Newfoundland
Well I'm feeling a little bit like I did after I did after that hike so I'm calling it quits. I can't promise when the next post will be, but I promise it will be good!