Monday 8 February 2016

Gulls and Ducks on a Trip to North America

A quick visit to Laira Bridge over the River Plym on January 28th and I quickly found the black necked grebe busily diving for fish at low tide with 4 little grebes - I had some lovely views of it in the bright sunlight even though it spent most of its time underwater. Scanning upriver and I found 2 male and 3 female red breasted mergansers, my first sightings this winter on the Plym, along with a great crested grebe, but I only had a free hour for birding before heading off home as I had lots to do to get ready for my trip to North America the next day.

Black Necked Grebe, River Plym

January 29th and it was off to Heathrow Airport with friends Julie and Matt for a trip to New York, Niagara Falls and Toronto to celebrate Matts 50th birthday. On the drive to the airport I saw a roe deer and 2 muntjac deer on the grass verges of the M4 along with plenty of red kites overhead despite the grey and windy conditions.

The previous week had seen a massive snow storm hitting North America and bringing New York to a standstill but the weather had improved and our trip was actually milder than expected although there was still ice and snow hanging around on the ground. With a storm system rattling across the Atlantic to the UK as we flew to New York we took a more northerly route and flew over Greenland and the gelid Arctic tundra which looked amazing in the sunshine.

Frozen Arctic from the Plane

Arriving at JFK in New York on the afternoon of Saturday 30th and the first bird I saw was a male house sparrow flying around the arrivals hall quickly followed by starlings outside perched on wires and feral pigeons feeding on the ground amongst mounds of snow - not an overly exciting start! On the drive to Manhatten in the fading light I had brief and distant views of gulls, geese and ducks but over the next few days I managed much better views of all of these species and got some good photos too.

A boat trip out to the Statue of Liberty on Liberty Island on January 31st was beautiful in the calm and sunny conditions with the stunning backdrop of the Manhatten skyline - my third visit to the Statue and each time it has been the same gorgeous weather. The birding was as good as ever and while everybody was admiring the Statue I was scanning around for birds. Easily noticed were Canada geese and brent geese of the pale bellied type while ring billed gulls, American herring gulls and buffleheads were also easily seen. Further away on the water were goldeneye, scaup, red breasted merganser, great black backed gull and Slavonian grebe while 2 double crested cormorants flew past and a seal briefly surfaced before disappearing, never to be refound.

A "Grey" Grey Squirrel at Battery Park, New York

View of Manhattan Skyline from Statue Of Liberty Ferry

Statue of Liberty

Male Bufflehead

Female Bufflehead

Pale Bellied Brent Goose

Adult Ring Billed Gull

2nd Winter Ring Billed Gull

2nd Winter Ring Billed Gull

1st Winter American Herring Gull

1st Winter American Herring Gull with pale eye

The following day and a birdwatching session in a snowy Central Park was as good as ever too. The bird feeding station in The Rambles had been moved to a nearby area but was very busy with birds feeding despite a lady busily restocking all the feeders. Downy woodpeckers were feeding on what looked like cooked pumpkin smeared into pine cones while a brown creeper fed on the same orange pulp smeared in the bark of a tree. The seed feeders had American goldfinch, tufted titmouse, house finch and white breasted nuthatch on them with white throated sparrow and house sparrow feeding on the ground beneath them.

American Goldfinch, Central Park

Female Downy Woodpecker eating pumpkin smeared in pine cone

Brown Creeper

Brown Creeper eating pumpkin rubbed in tree bark

White Throated Sparrow

The ponds in the park were frozen over but the reservoir was mostly ice free with ruddy duck, shoveler, 2 male and a female gadwall, hooded merganser, a female goosander, an American coot, Canada goose, mallard and a double crested cormorant seen along with ring billed, great black backed and American herring gulls preening and roosting

Male Hooded Merganser, Central Park

Male Hooded Merganser

American Coot

Elsewhere in the Park I saw red tailed hawk, American robin, blue jay, a Northern cardinal, a red bellied woodpecker and best of all, a yellow bellied sapsucker - some excellent views as it fed on sap in small wells it had made in a pine trees bark.

Juvenile Red Tailed Hawk, Central Park

Red Tailed Hawk

Blue Jay

Blue Jay

Northern Cardinal

Yellow Bellied Sapsucker

Yellow Bellied Sapsucker feeding from sap pits in bark

Temple Of Dendur rescued from flooding caused by Aswan Dam construction in Egypt - Metropolitan Museum of Art, Central Park, New York

View from The Brooklyn Bridge

February 2nd and it was off to Niagara Falls in Canada by train, a 9 hour journey but comfortable and relaxing after 2 busy days of sight seeing (and birding). The first couple of hours followed the course of the Hudson river which was covered in large areas of ice and looked stunning in the sunshine. The highlight were bald eagles resting in trees or on the ice floes and flying past, both adults with white heads and tails or all brown juveniles being seen. Also seen were Canada geese, goosanders and mallards but more interesting were 9 tundra swans on a lake near Syracuse, 8 adults and a juvenile of what is considered the American race of our Bewicks swan.

Niagara Falls was stunning but snow and ice free unlike my previous visit. The town of Niagara Falls was much less exciting, being a tacky and kitschy slice of Americana but much cleaner, tidier and smarter looking than a scruffy and mucky looking New York was.

A day of sight seeing on February 3rd and there were plenty of gulls swirling over the water and roosting on rocks both above and below the Falls and mostly ring billed and American herring but with a few great black backed as well. Best of all was a first winter Iceland gull I found amongst them, beautifully pale looking in the sunlight but a little distant and presumably a Kumleins gull, the American race of Iceland gull. Hooded merganser, goldeneye, gadwall, Canada goose and an American coot were also seen on quieter areas of water away from the rapids.

Horseshoe Falls, Niagara, Ontario, Canada 

1st Winter Iceland (Kumleins) Gull, Niagara

1st Winter Iceland (Kumleins) Gull

That evening and it was back on the train for the 2 hour journey to Toronto, unfortunately in the dark but after a very enjoyable day of sight seeing and a fabulous meal in the revolving restaurant of the Skylon Tower with amazing views of The Falls.

Horseshoe Falls from the Skylon Tower, Niagara, ON

American Falls from the Skylon Tower, Niagara, ON

Toronto was much more relaxed than New York despite the skyscrapers and traffic, Canadians seem much more chilled and less neurotic than Americans, and we had a good time seeing the sights. We visited the ROM (Royal Ontario Musueum) on February 4th  which has the most amazing collection of dinosaur skeletons - on our last visit it was closed for renovation and it has been something we have always wanted to revisit. Also of interest (to me) was the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition, only 7 Canadian dollars more on top of the entrance fee (about 4 English pounds) and well worth it with some stunning and thought provoking images that kept me occupied for a good hour - the exhibition had a video of images of Dartmoor which was a lovely surprise and did induce feelings of homesickness in me, I sometimes forget how beautiful it is where I live.

T-Rex at the ROM, Toronto

A "Black" Grey Squirrel, Toronto

On our last day in Toronto (February 5th) we visited the CN Tower in the morning and in the afternoon I has a walk along the waterfront by the shores of Lake Ontario for a final bit of birding before the night flight home. There was still a little bit of ice around on the water and it was noticeably getting colder but the sun was shining and I had some excellent views of the ducks and gulls present.

The highlight was a very smart looking adult Kumleins gull roosting with the ring billed gulls, a large looking bird with pale grey primaries. It eventually flew off when an American herring gull flew overhead, chasing after it and calling before settling on top of a lamp post, and I then regularly saw it patrolling back and forth along the shoreline.

Adult Iceland (Kumleins) Gull with Ring Billed Gulls, Toronto

Adult Iceland (Kumleins) Gull with Ring Billed Gulls, Toronto

Ring Billed Gulls, Toronto

A close runner up though for bird of the day were long tailed ducks, they were all along the quaysides and gave very close views despite continually diving for food. Another close contender was a black duck feeding amongst a group of mallards, some excellent views but possibly a hybrid bird as mallard and black duck frequently cross breed to the detriment of the black duck genes. 

Male Long Tailed Duck - Winter Plumage

Male Long Tailed Duck

Female Long Tailed Duck - Winter Plumage

Male Long Tailed Duck

Male Long Tailed Ducks

Male Long Tailed Duck

Male Long Tailed Duck

Male Black Duck

Male Black Duck

Also seen were red breasted mergansers, mute swan and scaup all spread out across the bay but it was getting dark and it was time to head off to the airport for the flight home.

Male Red Breasted Merganser with Male Mallard

Male Red Breasted Merganser

Male Scaup

Male Scaup

At the airport we were very lucky and were upgraded from world traveller (steerage class) to world traveller plus (steerage plus class) - Julie and Matt were upgraded at the check in but we were upgraded at the gate as we boarded the plane, and very nice it was too with more leg room, a glass of champagne before take off and proper cutlery and crockery with the meal. But best of all was a view of the Northern Lights from the window! - looking North as we crossed the Atlantic in the dark we could see a grey-green glow on the distant horizon that came and went and occassionally rippled like a wave, a shame we were much further south this time than we were on our flight over as we would have had some great views of the lights but it was a great end to a great week away.

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