Wish I’d been better Organised

For reasons I cannot rationally explain, I have been sorting out exactly what birds I have seen. That might sound a bit obvious but, with the availability of the International Ornithological Congress’ (IOC) World checklist, a checklist including subspecies, the incentive was there to go through all my notebooks and just get it all sorted. The process has naturally been painstaking, there are many splits to figure out plus a few lumps too but I am happy that I am finally there. My motivation was two-fold. One was just curiosity, the other as a direct result of my phylogenetic species concept leanings, I can’t preach if I don’t follow the mantra!

Luckily! I have not been to that many places and so the basic list – ex my residency in Europe and North America, I do know exactly what I have seen there – is already known to me. All I had to do was to sort it out as best I could. The IOC list includes comments where splits or lumps have happened plus there is always Google to sort things out regarding former names. It was frustrating at times and I spent hours leafing through notebooks convinced that I was missing the odd species. In many ways it was remarkable that I remember trips from the dim and distant past as I have been to sleep since then, however, I did dig out the odd missed tick here and there, much to my personal satisfaction. I also had ample chance to remember the many times when I didn’t try harder for something having stated that ‘I just want a good birdy holiday and a big list is not the be all and end all’. I still stand by that but, there are irritating gaps.

Perhaps the most galling thing in doing this is realising that you didn’t see (or at least make a note of) something described as ‘common’ in the field guide. Worse still is when it says ‘very common’ and yes, I have a couple of species missing that fall into that category. The only logical approach would be to re do all of the trips again and be sure to see the ones I supposedly missed, sounds like a crowd-funding opportunity to me, especially as it would be for a very serious purpose and not some foreign jolly looking at great birds…

The upshot of all this tosh is that my official (but not eBird) life list is a checked and double-checked 2698 species. I have 154 families, that is having seen at least one representative of any given family and I have 3587 at sub-specific level, including the nominate.

We are just a few days away from the annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC) and you can be sure that the weather will turn, it will blow and those CBC gems that have been earmarked will not cooperate. This year it will be interesting to see how many of the fall-out birds have lingered. Grey Catbirds won’t be a problem but after that we might be scraping around a bit – many of the goodies seem to have slipped away. In truth, eBird has superseded the CBC with its continual assessment through birder reporting although I don’t see anyone abandoning the CBC in the near future.

It is also winter listing season and so I have a policy of trying to see winter birds new to my list (yes lists again, and?). I don’t go far ad in many cases the birds are where I might go birding anyway – still on course for a 365 year. On exception was a trip to Liverpool recently. We both rather like Liverpool as a town but rarely bird in Queens County. A Yellow-breasted Chat was a good excuse to visit, the year list doesn’t end until, well the end of the year (or the apocalypse whichever comes first). The chat had been found in a cemetery so we went and had a poke around on a cold and blustery day. We didn’t get it and were anticipating coming with nothing more than seven Northern Cardinals in the same bush when a couple of sparrows popped up, one of them quite a pale individual. Photos were taken and one was clearly one of the Clay-coloured Sparrows found by James Hirtle and Dorothy Poole at the beginning of December. The second was a bit darker but the line through the eye clearly does not make the lores so another Clay-coloured.

 

Thanks to a call from Johnny Nickerson I finally got to see Clyde’s Stumpy Cove, Cape Sable Island Snowy Egret. I have no idea where it goes in between its visits to the cove but it was a very welcome winter tick addition and besides, any CSI Snowy Egret is worth the effort.

 

Off Daniel’s Head there is a loose raft of Black Scoters at present. Normally I count them, but during the early part of December the weather precluded much out-of-vehicle time. Recently, even though the cold wind blew and the rain she fell, I set up the van so I could use the birder’s tailgate and did a sea watch. Not the hoped-for shearwaters, that tubenose has probably flown for the year, but a smaller brown blob in with the scoters turned out to be an immature Harlequin. I’m pretty sure there are a few bobbing about on the open-ocean shores of The Cape but it is unlikely that I’ll get out there again this year.

 

Crappy photo but this Common Gallinule chose a small pond near Overton, Yarmouth Co to be resident in and it chose the winter listing period – tick. We are hoping it remains to the CBC, pity it wasn’t a Purple Gallinule though, the same pond did host one pre-Dennis residency in Nova Scotia.

 

This Hermit Thrush posed nicely in early December. Cape Forchu often gets this sort of thing late on.

 

Finally, there are lots of Eurasian Starling around at the moment. This view down the road to Daniel’s Head shows a typical view of not detail.

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East of Ipswich

Sometime in the 1870s, just before tiffin, someone shot a sparrow near Ipswich, Massachusetts. The sparrow was unknown to science and hence called Ipswich Sparrow. I suppose we should be pleased that the type specimen came from somewhere plainly named such as Ipswich. Had it been Salem there would have been a witch hunt! The Ipswich Sparrow lost its uniqueness later when it was found to be a form, a pretty distinctive form, of the widespread Savannah Sparrow. It should be the Nova Scotia provincial bird really, it breeds almost exclusively on Sable Island and we get to enjoy it after the breeding season, sometimes through the winter here in the south.

As part of my tour around the island today, December-5th, 2017, I came across five consorting with a bog-standard version and so took the opportunity to get a comparative shot showing just how quite different they are. Eventually we might see a sea-change in the way we at least recognise the diversity of our birds outside science, and then all my efforts to make sure I record each sub-species I see anywhere won’t be wasted! I think I mentioned before that I lean towards the phylogenetic species concept. Not everyone is familiar with the concept so here, from Encyclopedia.com, is a succinct description.

Phylogenetic species concept (PSC). The concept of a species as an irreducible group whose members are descended from a common ancestor and who all possess a combination of certain defining, or derived, traits. Hence, this concept defines a species as a group having a shared and unique evolutionary history. It is less restrictive than the biological species concept, in that breeding between members of different species does not pose a problem. Also, it permits successive species to be defined even if they have evolved in an unbroken line of descent, with continuity of sexual fertility. However, because slight differences can be found among virtually any group of organisms, the concept tends to encourage extreme division of species into ever-smaller groups.

With no more ado here are the photos:

My tour took in many little sites as I both scouted for the Christmas Bird Count and sought out those fall-out remnants that we might not get in another winter. Aside from the Grey Catbirds that are everywhere (and yet still they are eBird adds), I came up with a new bird for my Clam Point list, White-eyed Vireo. Given the number that have been around it was perhaps the most expected but it is still nice to see one within those boundaries.

Orange-crowned Warblers are also a common sight at present and barely a roving Black-capped Chickadee flock lacks one.

Tomorrow we have a bit of weather heading our way, a southerly storm that just might provide a bit of lively sea watching.

Pterodroma?

In a recent post I included an appalling photo of a distant bird over a rough sea. Nothing unusual there; I occasionally post such images as part of what I call a ‘digital sea watch’, whereby I illustrate the passage enjoyed while undertaking a sea watch, with a selection of documentary shots. The sea watch was dominated by Razorbills, filing past in pulses and totalling 1418 over the two hours I watched. Black-legged Kittiwakes were a factor too, 444 tallied and the hope of something unusual with them was only realised by a couple of Bonaparte’s Gulls and not the hoped for Little, Sabs or even Ross’s, we can dream. A supporting cast of Red-throated Loons (117) and Northern Gannets omnipresent, meant that my notebook overflowed with scribbled counts, I really should take a spiral-bound pad and transcribe later. I also noted Cory’s (late), Great (be gone soon) and Manx (not that surprising) Shearwaters on the occasions when they caught my eye.

The date of the sea watch was Sunday November-19th, 2017 at Baccaro Point, NS. The wind was south-south/east – approximately force 6-8 (Beaufort). The temperature was a balmy, no sticky 16°C throughout, The sea temp was probably around 12°C. The light was flat with no ‘rising sun’ glare; always a problem at Baccaro in the morning which is why I was later in arriving, the visibility was perhaps 5km. I was shooting at around 3000 ISO, using my 100-400 Canon lens fully extended.  It was 11:17 when it happened and so only ten minutes into my two hours and just as I was settling in to what I knew would probably just be a counting exercise.

 A bird at range caught my attention as it was roughly shearwater shaped. I was expecting jaegers and shearwaters, the conditions were ideal for the dregs of the summer/autumn birds to make one last showing near enough to see from land. The bird I was watching was doing odd things, well one odd thing; it was flying in outrageous arcs. To put that better, when a shearwater shears it tends to shear as it moves forwards. This bird went forward but in big loops, arcing high over the horizon. In shape it looked more jaeger-like but longer, slimmer winged. It looked around Great Shearwater size but the range was great, over 1km certainly, and the conditions difficult. I’d not set the scope up because all the previous ‘action’ was within easy binocular range, besides, the wind was causing more car shake than you’d get at a doggers’ convention (or so I’m told) making getting a stable view difficult, and those bloody Razorbills kept passing and I had to count them!

I could see a lot of white on the underside of the bird when it flashed my way but, aside from the shape, little else plumage-wise. I presumed, because you would, that the conditions were giving a Great Shearwater a hard time but I grabbed the camera anyway and took a few shots. The nature of such shots is that only a few come out, the rest lose focus (and bird) as your centre focus spot drifts. I didn’t even review the shots on the back of the camera as, you’ve guessed, another batch of Razorbills went past. I did pick the bird up again again, it wasn’t hard as I just had to wait while it arced up, it was heading past the light and out along the track all sea birds take, away past the distant, but not clearly visible, Cape Sable.

The sea watch continued for, as I said, two hours after which time the pulses had slowed a bit and I’d had enough. I had around 350 photos of grey sea with some recognisable blobs in it, something to sift through in case a Thick-billed or Common Murre had snuck in to the Razorbill packs (they hadn’t). I skimmed the images at home, pulled a few for editing later and did the only sane thing, went out birding again. In the evening I came across the shearwater image and did a double take, then another one. I possibly had something outside the range of my experience. It was a poor image but there was some detail, important detail that whispered pterodroma, not a word we bandy around in Nova Scotia very often.

I decided to take the conservative course and put it on my eBird checklist as a shearwater sp., noting the flight action pending further research and comment. It was also posted here with comments and I was not surprised when I got a few back.

http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S40605005

The one ‘good’ image was sent away to someone who knew Black-capped Petrel, the obvious choice given that the image looks like one. The short answer back was no ad the suggestion that it was a Great Shearwater which, considering the location and time of year would seem the most likely. The flight action was not addressed in the reply.

At this point you sit back and wonder what to do. I took the view that there was enough in the image to investigate a little further using the only medium available, biometrics. In the case of such an image the best you can do is get rough measurements and ratios. I did this using similar images of a know Black-capped Petrel and a known Great Shearwater, both in similar posture. I’ve summarised what I think in the captioned image (ignore the odd capitalisation, poxy programme!) and I’m reposting the original edited and original unedited images here too. It might have been a pterodroma, may Black-capped Petrel, but it could also be a commoner species, probably a shearwater – end of.

 

Now for a few recent photos. There are still a few good birds around southern Nova Scotia, fall-out remnants presumably but we did have another pulse of late migration which may or may not have delivered some additional individuals of already remaining species. We didn’t quite get the batch of south-western rarities we hoped for; they seemed to have largely stalled on the east coast of the US, just not trying hard enough in my opinion. What we do have is a wiz-bang start to the winter listing season of December through February. It really is purely a motivational exercise, like I need motivation, and the data accumulated is quite eye-opening in terms of what we think of as summer birds still being found right up until the cold teaches them a brief lesson.

We don’t seem to get too many Winter Wrens on CSI so one for the winter list was welcome.

Alix d’Entremont found this 1sty Eurasian Wigeon in Yarmouth Co, NS recently. Not an eBird add even though they are, at present, not at all common and haven’t been since we’ve lived in NS.

Didn’t get a Marsh Wren at Broad Brook Park, Yarmouth for the winter list (yet) but the American Coot finally showed. Odd to think I’ve seen one of these ungraceful lumps in the UK, very hard to imagine it flying the Atlantic.

A winter tick Northern Parula from Marsha Rd, Yarmouth and found again by Alix. I do find the odd thing, honest!

The (winter tick) Wilson’s Warbler continues on CSI after being found by, well you can guess.

Boreal Chickadee seems commoner this winter, I hope so.

The top one is a grotty shot of a western Palm Warbler. The rest…

Alix (Yellow-throated Warbler magnet) d’Entremont was not even birding when this Yellow-throated Warbler landed next to him on the rocks at Dennis Point wharf. I went and saw and it even pooped on my van, such an honour.

And on the way home I found another one, about my eighth self-found this autumn so far.

Still waiting on comments on the skua sp., from the Pubnico pelagic, no rush though.

I’ll be writing up an account of the fall-out at some point to so watch this space.

Oh and I had a 1stW Little Gull off Daniel’s Head, CSI but it drifted off, I’ve not re-found it, nothing to see here, move on.

If I get lucky with a Yellow-breasted Chat and a Clay-coloured Sparrow I might just hit 290 this year, and breathe…

Unexpected Gallinule

Just when you have written off the chances of something showing up, right out of range a Common Gallinule shows up. I’m sure I speak for all when I saw we’d have preferred a lively Purple Gallinule instead but Common Gallinule it was and a very unexpected year tick too. On day one, Nov-25th, the bird was not easy to photograph, back-lit all of the time and often hiding in the vegetation. Today it took a while to show but when it did it came reasonably close. In context, Common Gallinule is rare in Nova Scotia as such but common elsewhere. I think it was the third for Cape Sable Island but don’t quote me on that. It follows close on the heels of last year at Clam Point.

 

I keep a list per month, this month got off to a great start with the fall-out birds sticking around. One absentee from the fall-out species range was Wilson’s Warbler, so when Alix said he’s had one nearby I went to look. It proved a good choice as it showed well, along with an Orange-crowned Warbler ; something I seem to bump into almost daily at the moment.

 

It has been a month of gull arrival with Iceland the obvious marker species but also increases in Herring Gulls. Until today I was missing a Lesser Black-backed but Alix (again!) had seen one in amongst the Island Bait Road bunch that I have been checking each time I pass, but that I skipped today so I could look for the gallinule to let Alix know whether it was there or not!

 

For those interested, I skipped past my Cape Sable Island year score from the ‘big’ year 2016 some time ago. I need five more for 250, I may not get them but then I didn’t expect the Common Gallinule so there you go. In NS I have 286 so I’ve also gone past my best NS score of 281, not too bad considering the year list has been the product of my attempt at a 365 birding days year. Still on track.

Seed Run

Periodically it is necessary to go to Yarmouth, be still my beating heart. The object of our visit is usually to buy the stuff we can’t get locally, or at least at the prices available in Yarmouth. Each trip is an opportunity to bird and, for some reason, the Yarmouth area holds more birds than Shelburne at certain times. Our trip today, Nov-24, 2017, had us walking an almost wind-free Broadbrook Park in search of decent views and photo ops of one of the recently discovered Marsh Wrens (eastern).

We started well with a wren chattering nearby and then showing very well. Photos were taken and the bird enjoyed as it skittered and chattered away like an impatient aunt. There were Mallards too.

 

Duties done in the stores, we then repaired to the trail off Prospect Road. Full of cover and berries but no feeders in the back yards, we picked our way along, finding a White-eyed Vireo, a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and a nice flock of Cedar Waxwings, busily gorging themselves on every available red berry.

 

Feeling the need for a House Finch, we then relocated across town to Argyle Street where they duly obliged, along with a bright Baltimore Oriole. The local Northern Cardinals also put on a show as usual.

 

Our final spot to visit was Chebogue Point. It seems we can’t just drive past, just in case. It was an interesting enough roll down to the end with a Killdeer, an Orange-crowned Warbler – the fourth for the day, and a Lincoln’s Sparrow that was uncharacteristically showy.

About Time

I realise I’ve been a bit absent from this blog recently, been busy as they say. It’s also fair to say that I have barely waved the camera at anything, mostly because the weather has been breezy and the birds reluctant to star.

One little project I’ve been working on is uploading bird songs and calls to eBird. Via the magic of Audacity, a sound manipulation app, I find I can extract all sorts of burps and grunts from video taken at various tropical places. Mostly the identification is straightforward, especially when the songster is front-centre of the video clip in question. The problem arises when you are in a jungle scenario and up to ten species can be bellowing at once. Again, some can be easy and we should all thank the Great Kiskadee for telling it like it is; not sure what I mean? This link http://www.xeno-canto.org/ will take you to Xeno-Canto where you can enter Great Kiskadee in their search engine and listen to their song from many places around the tropics, you’ll soon get what I mean.

So now I have the problem of a stack of songs and calls to identify from Panama, Costa Rica, Mexico east and west and Belize. Some of them are clearly enunciated and you would think a doddle to sort out. Others are rapids cheeps and the like and will probably remain in my ‘mysteries’ file ad-infinitum. I could add them to Xeno-Canto, they have a mysteries section, and hope someone familiar with the regions comes up with a name but, despite not having musical hearing – something those who can remember songs and calls must have, I prefer to keep digging until I crack it.

Locally, that is Cape Sable Island with tendrils as far as Yarmouth, the birding has naturally slowed. Because of the weather you have to dig deep to find anything but there are still the odd good sub-rarity out there and, who knows, just around the corner might be another ‘big one’. One bird we did go for was a Marsh Wren at Broadbrook Park in Yarmouth. It was blowing a gale but the bird still came out to play giving good views but no photo opportunities, hopefully I’ll get another crack at that one when it is less windy, say in June!

Around CSI Bonaparte’s can be uncommon at times. Recently a few have been lingering on Daniel’s Head, sometimes coming close too. I saw 11 there on Nov-19, 2017 so perhaps we are going to have a few hanging about for a while. I find very white birds a pain to photograph, the white balance never quite gets it right. This one, a bird of the year which I used to call first-winter but is now re-branded as hatch-year.

 

The fall-out brought lots of Indigo Buntings ad, naturally, some found our yard irresistible. At one point recently we had three together, then two and finally, just the one but it too has now departed. I had expected at least one to hang in there until November 30th, then to go overnight before making the winter list – that is the usual course of action for such winter list prizes.

 

On Nov-19th we had a belter of a south-easterly wind event, short lived but productive. Coupled with the variable but inevitably falling temperatures, Razorbills were on the move. I was a bit late getting to Baccaro but still counted 1418 going south in tight little packs. Black-legged Kittiwakes were moving too (444) and Red-throated Loons (117), all in the space of two hours. I also had an odd bird, logged as a shearwater sp., the photos are awful but it does look odd and behave quite differently too but you can never underestimate the effect the wind can have. On the day (Nov-19) it was actually 16°C, possibly a record for the date, and was part of a weather system that we are all hoping will deliver something good, again.

Here is a shot of one of the Razorbill packs plus the odd bird.

 Around Daniel’s Head there have been three Great Egrets, just about a flock. Today (Nov-20) they were all lined up and I got a few shots of all three together. I don’t care much for photographing large herons and egrets – too big for the frame – but I suppose I’d get over it for a NS Jabiru!

 And now some odd shots. 

I just like this feeding Dunlin.

 

While out looking for a Yellow-breasted Chat we came across two Orange-crowned Warblers, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet and a Northern Parula, my latest ever.

 

We seem to have several Ipswich Savannah Sparrows hanging around Daniel’s Head. All have been scrutinised for coloured bands, part of the study in this endemic breeder, all were lacking.

A Turkey Vulture attending one of the many dumped deer carcasses, this one was at Bunkers Island, as was the Pied-billed Grebe below, quite late for one.

eBird adds, late Barn Swallows (3), Daniel’s Head Nov-20. Below, a Killdeer, Bull Head Wharf.

A not very good shot of the Summer Tanager that hung around Kenney Road for over a week recently.

Big Dip Dodged

The weather has turned into a more November-like form and time in the field requires a warm coat, finally. This doesn’t mean that the birding good times have come to an end though, as the ‘big ones’ often happen in November. We didn’t have to wait too long for the prophecy to come true on November-10 when Ervin came across a bunch of shivering hirundines at the end of Chebogue Point. Any swallow at this time of year is good but the ones we have been seeking are special, Cave Swallow. Sure enough the hypothermic gang contained two that had more sense than their Barn Swallow friends, as they cleared off about five minutes before we got there. We were rather hoping they’d reappear the next day, perhaps busily engaged in chipping insects out of the frozen ground, well one did.

For some years late in the autumn, Cave Swallows have flown north of their core range; far north in fact. Why is complicated. Perhaps they are scouting as part of range expansion, you presume that birds, when they do extend their range look before they leap, they are habitat and food source driven after all. Another possibility is a 180° error in migration, reverse migration, although why would so many suffer the same affliction? A third option is just that they are just stupid, and the premise has some traction given that their wintering grounds would be considerably more hospitable given their diet.

Northern Cardinal is a non-birders bird, so often badly photographed as to make it somewhat taboo for the serious birder to tackle, still, since I’m rarely serious and when one sits up in front of you then you might as well…

While looking for Scarlet Tanagers in Argyle recently this popped up. Called Summer in the field then doubted thanks to a husk of seed giving the impression of it having the diagnostic bill-tooth of Scarlet. Reading up, I hadn’t realised that eastern Summer Tanager has a 15% smaller bill than its western counterpart – split!

A roadside hawk around here is almost always a Red-tailed and it almost always flies off when you stop, almost always.

In any other year an Indigo Bunting in the yard would have me scrambling to get decent shots. Such has been the glut following the late October fall-out that enthusiasm for them is muted. A partially blue one showed up out back so I sat with the camera on lap in full view of the birds and waited. No Indigo unfortunately, I had just had to put up with this yard-tick Lincoln’s Sparrow!

This Cooper’s Hawk dropped by our yard recently, no doubt tempted by the menu, sorry diverse species mix. I took the photo through the window, amazed it came out although it was cleaned recently, we had rain.