I Saw an Opportunity and I Took it.

For those of you familiar with the movie ‘Flushed Away’ you will know the line in the title. If you don’t, well it hardly matters but the essence of the thing is that an opportunity to do a Nova Scotia year list has been delivered courtesy of Dorian and I think I may as well embrace it.

Year listing, for me at least, has almost always been the by-product of birding every day. Living on Cape Sable Island is like starting the league with a healthy points total, we get birds, we get rarities and birding effort will result in a higher than most Nova Scotia year total without even leaving the island. We are also next door to Yarmouth County, arguably the best birding county in Nova Scotia. Location is only a part of the equation though, the majority factor being the people and, down here in the un-regarded south, we have great active birders who always share. Add to that the generosity of birders in the Halifax area and, if you want to, you can see a lot of birds in Nova Scotia in a year.

My previous best was 189 in 2017, I think this year par has shifted to something in the 290s. The thing is, how much effort, or more accurately how much money am I willing to spend on it now, well, not a lot really. I think, unless I die suddenly, then I will see another 15 species in and around Shelburne and Yarmouth. Easy stuff, such as Horned Lark and Lapland Longspur should not be an issue; the trickier birds will be any of the warblers and vireos I’m missing plus wrens.

Perhaps the real difference will be made if we make a trip and I’m thinking a few days in Cape Breton for species I won’t see easily, if at all by sticking to the south. Spruce Grouse, Black-backed Woodpecker, White-winged Crossbill and Pine Grosbeak come to mind. There may well be an opportunity to see a Sandhill Crane and Glossy Ibis on the way. But when should we go? I think soon so as to be in the south for any fall-out that we might get down here, I wouldn’t discount another hurricane either; we are still in the unsettled zone after all.

I did a little working out of possible and probable species; factoring in a few regular rarities, oxymoron that it is, and came up with potentially 43 more species available before 2020. That would put a 300+ year list in the frame. Just for the record, my NS year so far has 276 species on it; you can see what I have seen under my name on Bubo.org, a listing website oddly shunned by some stringers. I also have 243 species self-found and 255 photographed this year, all the result of 907 eBird checklists so far, 648 of which are from Cape Island.

Some may consider the pursuit of a year list as pointless, and they are entitled to their opinion of course, but I would balance any year list against the accumulated eBird data. One naturally produces the other.

Also a few recent photos CSI.

 

Black Skimmers passing through Daniel’s Head, Cape Island bird 289 for me.

Dorian Laughing Gulls.

A few Cape Island migrants, Nashville and Prairie Warblers and Warbling Vireo.

Would-be diners on migrants.

The empid is a Least but it looked rarer at the time.

Yellow-headed Blackbird at Johnny and Sandra’s place, my second ever on Cape Island.

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Oh No Not Again!

After a busy time sometimes you just want to chill for a while but circumstance sometimes demands you dredge up that last bit of energy and get on with it. With the Hurricane Dorian fall out this was one of those times, there will be plenty of time for quiet reflection once the birds have all gone and we are back to staring at Herring Gulls and wondering whether they are vaguely Vega.

The first oh no was regarding Purple Martins. The year list I’m not doing is taking on a life of its own and missing Purple Martin when in Halifax on Sept-08 was pertinent so, when Paul found a few Purple Martins at Chebogue Point Sandra and I ventured out, justifying the trip by taking the opportunity to pluck a Solitary Sandpiper from nearby Beveridge Road.

When we got to Chebogue Point we were greeted by at least 42 Purple Martins. Alix counted I think 79 later so it was clearly Purple Martin day at Chebogue. Only a handful were there the next day.

Just not sure what this empid is yet, seems too long tailed for Alder, it was silent.

Beveridge didn’t disappoint although the bird didn’t linger long enough for me to get the lens on it, Sandra did though.

While we were looking at Purple Martins Lucas found a Swainson’s Warbler, guess where!

Now that our local gas stations had returned to the 1990s we were able to fuel up the Quattro and head Hartlen-wards, this time with Mike on board but Ronnie back at work. We didn’t set off until we knew the bird had been seen, although, as it happened, it vanished after Blaine locked focus on it and was not seen again, despite other claims but I won’t use the C word here (and in this context it doesn’t stand for the conventional usage). We looked hard, as did two guys from BC but it was obviously elsewhere. The galling thing is we probably walked past it two days earlier, if only they could play the Trumpet!

Resigned to being Swainson-less, we headed down to Jimmy’s Lane where a Cerulean Warbler put in a couple of appearances, the Kentucky muttered away in the depths a few times and I noted that the warbler numbers were much lower than two days previously also no Barn Swallows, there were hundreds there on Sept-10.

I didn’t say the photos were good! Yellow-throated Vireo below.

So that was it. I was happy with the Cerulean but would have been positively delirious to have seen Swainson’s too. September-13th was spent locally, just pottering around the island and seeing a few bits and pieces. I think Dorian has finished giving but I would not rule out perhaps a Wilson’s Plover, Boat-billed Grackle or even a Carolina Chickadee, has anyone even considered that one?

Next time I intend to be where the eye comes ashore and stay there a few days. Hopefully it will be at Cape Sable Island and accommodation will be easy to arrange!

As I see it the following came to Nova Scotia via Dorian: Least Bittern, Glossy Ibis, Black-necked Stilt, Marbled Godwit, Western Sandpiper, Laughing Gull, Ring-billed Gull, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Sabine’s Gull, Caspian Tern, Royal Tern, Sandwich Tern, Forster’s Tern, Gull-billed Tern, Black Tern, Bridled Tern, Black Skimmer, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Chimney Swift, Yellow-throated Vireo, Purple Martin, Bank Swallow, Barb Swallow, Cliff Swallow, Blue-winged Warbler?, Cerulean Warbler, Worm-eating Warbler, Prothonotary Warbler, Swainson’s Warbler, Louisiana Waterthrush, Kentucky Warbler, Hooded Warbler, Scarlet Tanager?, Summer Tanager?

Species which would also be expected to be here as migrants no doubt were also included but how do you know which is which?

I mentioned the absentees, there are probably many more and it will be interesting to read analysis and debate regarding the Dorian event in future NSBS bulletins.

A Taste of Bourbon

Kentucky is known for a few things, most of which are best avoided, but two are worth mentioning, Bourbon and the stunning warbler that bears the name of the state. Kentucky Warbler is one of those skulkers that is always appreciated when seen well, it is also a rare species in Nova Scotia, one that takes luck and perseverance to see. Normally any found here are single birds and generally only the finder sees them although some people do pretend to. As a result of Dorian there was at least one, maybe two or even three at Hartlen Point, was I going?

I mentioned before about prevarication and the gas situation. Once resolved, it was just a case of getting up three hours before I went to bed but, thankfully, not having to lick road clean with tha’ tongue. The trip in was smooth and the assemblage at Hartlen Point in good spirits and full of anticipation. The day was perfect and the warblers were still around but would we see the ones we so coveted? Our shopping list was simple and my order of desirability was Kentucky, Cerulean, Louisiana Waterthrush. The Worm-eating, Prothonotary and Hooded were gravy.

We split into two groups and went about our task. We found warblers a plenty on the way in so to speak but once down around the Jimmy’s Lane area it went fairly quiet and we covered a fair amount of ground before returning to Jimmy’s where we finally got our Kentucky. For some it was a life bird, I think I last saw them in 2012 in Panama so I was overdue. The warbler showed surprisingly well, perhaps given confidence by the presence of so many other warblers in the area.

So the primary bird was seen, next should have been Cerulean but they would not play and nobody saw the waterthrush again. To make matter worse the other group had seen Ceruelan earlier and we had been back to the spot and failed. We did see perhaps six Worm-eating Warblers and we had an oriole that left us scratching our collective heads, as much because it covered its plumage up, no wing bars were visible.

After over three hours we repaired to the car for refreshments when a message came that there were THREE Cerulean Warblers on Jimmy’s Lane now. I think the legs had gone because neither of us chose to make the walk back, we should have done really.

Our next stop was nearby where three Marbled Godwits aeriated a lawn!

We spent the rest of the day checking out spots for a Bridled Tern but the likelihood is that they went a couple of days after the Hurricane passed, I don’t think there was a report after Sept-09. We ended up on Dyke Road, Grand Desert where we came across a Sandwich Tern, well Cabot’s actually, eventually.

So the day was a success, partial if you cup is always half empty. Dorian just keeps giving, well around the Halifax area it does but still no skimmers were being seen in the south. Perhaps we won’t be so blessed and I’d take that if they all get home OK I think.

Closer to Home

September 9th was to be a home patch day. Apart from missing a few things around Halifax, which now appeared to be gone, I had the hope that the absentees might be coming south so was out in the hope of adding them to my Cape Island list. Terns and gulls recover fairly quickly and so it was not without some anticipation that I decided to get down to Daniel’s Head and stay put a while, just to see what came past.

Terns were streaming past offshore but way, way offshore and far enough away to prevent ID. I was concentrating on another passing group when I decided to go and get the camera from the car. As I did I saw a large tern coming my way, Caspian or, hopefully, Royal. I sprinted (honestly, it was a sprint) and got the camera as it passed over and beyond me. Sometimes the focus does not snap in, this was one of those times. I knew Ronnie was around the bend, about 1.5km away so I called him and he got onto it too. This is my best effort.

With the tide dropping I thought I’d relocate and cover the shorebird arrival from the lump that sticks into the inlet and that seems to have no name. Very quickly a couple of very white terns came towards me, Gull-billed, Cape Island tick #2.

After it had quietened down, I went to The Hawk where the expanse of mud might pull interesting storm birds in. I was right; there was a Royal Tern, perhaps the same one I’d seen earlier, sat out on the mud. This time everyone local saw it.

As I left The Hawk I had a look at the bushes by house #38 and got this Warbling Vireo.

Lunch called, then later Sandra was keen to go out and about looking for storm birds around the island. I was too, obviously, but our endeavours for Dorian waifs were not rewarded. The flats were quiet so we tried one of our bushy spots on the island and came up with this Blue-grey Gnatcatcher – island tick #3 for the day and, thankfully, it did the decent thing and showed itself to Mike and Ronnie too.

News was coming out of Hartlen Point of a warbler arrival, or more likely discovery. Most people had been concentrating on the bigger storm birds while warblers had hardly been noticed. Now there were flocks of them there but Hartlen Point is one of those spots that you need to know well enough to know where to look. Jim Edsall and Dave Currie were game to lead the Hartlen newbies around and, after some prevarication due to no fuel in our cars, I went, Sandra didn’t and I only got to go because Ronnie was already going anyway. The lure of the warblers was too much.

 

Follow the Eye

The day after Dorian had passed.

As I said previously, I’ve never birded a Hurricane before and advice, apart from stay safe, is rather scant as most people are more concerned about practical issues like property damage and using strong enough string while flying their kite. Thinking about it, the destructive winds that mashed local trees would do the same to a bird, so the outer bands were just wind and rain. The eye, that area in the centre was where the birds were, lots of birds.

Following a few hours checking around Cape Island and because the communications network had been truly messed up by the storm, Sandra and I decided to follow the eye. Ronnie and Alix had already gone north but virtually no news came out due to the phone towers failing. This meant that the Rare Bird Alert was silent as we headed to Halifax, the fuel gauge telling us the extent of our limitations. For reasons nobody can answer Nova Scotia gas stations are woefully unprepared for even travellers that want to pee! Most only have one washroom so expecting them to have their own generators and to have fuel reserves to serve their customers post-hurricane, well forget it. The power goes out, we are all screwed.

We did get gas in Tantallon, just short of Halifax, so our range was extended but we still had no news, other than there were lots of birds about. We knew that there was a Black-necked Stilt at Martinique Beach, so that was where we aimed for. Ronnie finally got through, telling us that there were rare terns along the route and with some directions, we were no longer driving along in the dark.

Getting through Halifax was easy enough, Dartmouth however was a pain. All the traffic lights were out and, to be honest, most drivers are shit when not being told what to do. We crawled through, stop-start-stop-start, getting angry with the many ditherers, didn’t they know that we were on a birding mission? Once we got onto the road to Martinique Beach we started seeing birds and the adrenaline really kicked in. A small sand bar had Caspian Tern, some Forster’s Terns and some Laughing Gulls. In Nova Scotia these are good birds, soon the latter two would be familiar, expected even, now a part of the scenery.

The stilt was where it was reported, a Nova Scotia tick. A Marbled Godwit wasn’t, possibly due to the high number of members of the public out who, ideally, should still be cowering in Hurricane shelters and not getting in the way of birders or scaring birds. One dim bint thought it fun to chase tired birds on the beach, words were said!

Because we didn’t arrive until after 11.00am, time on the good birds was limited. We headed for Seaforth and the promise of skimmers. We didn’t have to wait though, finding a bunch off the road we’d just driven, Black Terns and Gull-billed Terns too, three Nova Scotia ticks in less than an hour, so this was birding a Hurricane was it?

Seaforth was great. We found a stilt of our own, had great views of skimmers and were annoyed by a very dim woman who, while her sentiments were sound, her knowledge of avian diversity was awful. She’d told Ronnie that she wanted to put the obviously exhausted skimmers back on the sea ‘where they lived’. If people are going to station themselves on beaches post hurricanes they really should get a better grasp of the situation, especially in relation to the requirements of the species they are trying to keep an eye out for.

We spent the rest of the afternoon going from birding site to birding site, others might call them municipal beaches. There were birds everywhere and they were shattered. Skimmers especially can convey exhaustion really well, perhaps it is the droop of their bills (intelligent design, yeah right!), they also seem to have a sad demeanour but they were alive and some were feeding.

The stark reality of event like Dorian is that tens of thousands of birds die. We were probably seeing a fraction of the contents of the eye when it left land and started out over the sea. For us as birders it was a treat but it was also bittersweet. Barn Swallows sat in the road, too shattered to feed, they would die. Laughing Gulls showed no fear, too hungry to care about their own safety while dog walkers allowed their pets to harass them, perhaps not intentionally but the post-hurricane behaviour of many was at best ignorant. Sadly, the authorities don’t factor in the wildlife implications of a Hurricane and so people are educated to stock up with food, stay indoors, be sure to have water but they don’t get told to take care when tired strays need help.

So far in September the birding had been crazy and required a lot of time on the road. Northern Wheatears, Brown Pelicans and the regular travel for various reasons and the lack of downtime to download photos and write blogs were catching up. Sept-09 would be a Cape Island day; we must have something by now.

These photos of varying quality are all from September-08. The camera only got light use, there were just too many birds to look at.

A Storm is Coming

A different blog post written diary style as an event I’ve often hoped for finally happens although now I am wondering about getting what I wished for.

It was still dark but you could hear the wind, not too loud but enough to be aware of it. It was 6am and Hurricane Dorian was edging nearer. Reckoned to be a high category one, nudging two, this was the first Hurricane to arrive on our shores since 2014. Dorian had already done Bermuda and the somewhere unimportant in the US before tracking north. The official news carried warnings of the inevitable damage; word on the ground was that we were going to get a bit of weather.

The predicted stats are interesting; here is a screen-shot of The Weather Network’s summary.

As it got light I had to decide where I was going to bird this ‘weather’ from, the best and easiest to get to would be The Hawk, at least until high tide when The Guzzle would probably flood the road. At 7am the trees in the yard were dancing but nothing worse than we’d seen before. The yard had been cleared and all the hummer feeders hung inside the Apple Trees to give them a fighting chance. I was home by 08:45, un-birdable due to rain and wind, oh well.

The Hurricane came through, sheet rain reduced visibility to 50m and the lights flickered. The trees no longer danced but were having convulsive fits. I can sit inside and see all this, pity the birds, how do they survive. It should have moved off to frighten Halifax by late afternoon. I hope all my friends there are OK, I am sure they will be, none of them are stupid enough to try anything in a Hurricane, I might even get out around here later, if the blown-down trees are moved.

Its 1pm and still the wind howls and the rain hammers in. I’m sat here wondering how the rain god in ‘A Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’ would describe this, heavy blatter? For those who don’t know, Rob McKenna drives a truck and is a rain god but doesn’t know it. He has 232 descriptive terms for rain and eventually gets paid to go places that need rain or not to go places that wish to avoid it.

It is now 5pm, the Hurricane has gone through, the rain has stopped and the sky is bright and the birds are back in the yard feeding enthusiastically.

Now for the dilemma; do I bird Cape Island this evening, well yes but tomorrow?, well I don’t really know, I’ve never birded a Hurricane. Instinct tells me to go where it came ashore, loyalty says bird your patch but will I find storm birds there?

The sun has set and the power is out. Around the island there was widespread damage, mostly fallen trees or utility poles leaning precipitously. Some roofs lost shingles, smaller, flimsy structures were lost altogether. Some debris is from where idiots failed to clean up their yards before the storm, the same type who toss trash from the vehicles no doubt so they won’t bat an eyelid about the mess they contributed to.

Tomorrow will be a big day. The decision is made, bird Cape Island first then, if the logisitics allow, go to the birds, if we get any.

The storm came ashore around Sambro near Halifax, Diane had it pass over her house, it was full of birds.

Environment Canada say we had wind gusts to 145kmph. We had 131mm of rain and the barometer dropped to 958mb. Dorian was near category two but dropped to a one when it came ashore. It was a good one.

To be continued…

Brown Sugar

It has been around six years or so since the last, twitchable white-arse showed up in Nova Scotia. You know it better as a Northern Wheatear but white-arse is the colloquial name for it in the UK, or at least if was many years ago. In anyone’s year prediction, it usually appeared as theoretically possible while steadfastly refusing to materially materialise. Our luck was definitely in when Larry Neily found one at Mosher’s Corner, a field north of Middleton, Annapolis County on the Fundy shore.

Despite it being clear overnight, the Northern Wheatear remained faithful to its field and delighted those who made the trek to see it. Northern Wheatears were often one of my first true migrants of the year in the UK and they also appeared at coastal sites in fall-outs when every fence post might have one, so common. That doesn’t detract from seeing one in Nova Scotia though and the bird was much appreciated by all. It was a little distant, not personally but in metres.

Wind back to the same date as the last post, August 30th and I was on the phone to Revenue Canada, always a fun event, and waiting in the queue for the next person to pick up the baton when I saw a bird fidgeting in the undergrowth. Raising the bins on-handed, I focused on a Northern Waterthrush, new for the year, new for the yard. Unfortunately Sandra was not able to get to the bird before it gave a shrug and cleared off. We spent yard time searching for it, turning up a few birds, but the star never reappeared. Yard bird 172.

The next day we had a ride down Blanche Peninsula. It wasn’t too birdy but we did get a couple of Canada Warblers and, perhaps even better, the Canada Jays which have been missing for two years also popped up but not in front of the lens.

The day after the Northern Wheatear, a stroll around The Cape wasn’t bad. We started with a nervy Bobolink, had a nice Cape May Warbler out in the open and then had a Northern Waterthrush strolling around the beach. The best bird waited until last, a Baird’s Sandpiper was on the beach and actually walked towards us as we headed to the boat.

Continuing the good run of birds, a Brown Pelican appeared on the Nova Scotia Bird Society Facebook page and details were quickly made available. It favoured an area called East Jeddore, a spot I visited a few years ago to twitch, successfully, a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. It is a tricky spot to get to, winding and technically slow roads and not that many spots available to look out into the sound. Luckily the pelican hung around off a wharf and so Sandra and I got good views if not good photos. We had planned for a full day of searching and an overnight, given that we had to be in Annapolis the next day. In the end it was just a drive up and see situation for us, we were just lucky as it wasn’t there next day.

It had been a busy time and I planned to spend Sept-05 on Cape Island hoping to find something there. That plan was dumped when a Little Blue Heron was found by Ervin on Sept-04. Our casual plan to head over, see the heron and do the shopping was given some urgency when Ervin had a Golden-winged Warbler. We went to look, of course, but our luck stuttered a little. We got the heron but the warbler didn’t show.

The pelican was no doubt a gift of damp squib Erin, the tropical storm that passed well out to sea. The next one, Dorian, is a different matter. It arrived as a genuine Hurricane, as I write it is a cat-01 verging 02 it may be heavily laden with birds and not just rain. You don’t like to think how many birds die in these things but that is how it works, you live, you die and how long is mainly a matter of luck.

I think I might have to take this year list thing a bit more seriously. I’m on 254 at the moment, which is not bad considering that it is a funny year. I don’t think my best year, 287 in 2017, is possible but somewhere in the 270s may be par. I don’t bother to travel for year ticks as such but I would expect to bump in to a few of the following current gaps in my year list while poking around Cape Island.

Snow Goose, Eurasian Wigeon, a cuckoo or two, American Golden Plover, Long-billed Dowitcher, Solitary Sandpiper, Mew Gull, Red-shouldered Hawk, Western Kingbird, Northern Shrike, Philadelphia Vireo and perhaps one of the rare three we get, Horned Lark, House and Marsh Wren, maybe gnatcatcher, Grey-cheeked Thrush, White-winged Crossbill, Lapland Longspur, Orange-crowned Warbler, Prairie Warbler, Mourning Warbler, Yellow-breasted Chat, Eastern Towhee, Clay-coloured Sparrow, Lark Sparrow, Dickcissel, Rusty Blackbird and who knows what else?

There is a thing called continuous effort banding where nets are run at the same site as often as possible and over a number of years. Because the banders write down measurements, often involving the use of calipers, this is considered scientific, almost ornithology without the corpses except for those banders that also collect for ‘study’ skins, I have no problem with banding, or at least banding that does not deliberately collect. It answers the questions sure enough although, were it run as a results driven business, it would have gone bust 100 bands in! Obviously the not-too-distant future of banding will revolve around microchips and 100% tracking results, it will come.

I am one of quite a number of birders world-wide who go to the same sites repeatedly (called local patches) and who report the instant data of specific counts, migration movements, breeding success vagrancy and gender splits via eBird. This is ‘only’ Citizen Science so not really real, perhaps due to the lack of calipers and the tendency to let our birds get on with their difficult lives. It is probably not seen as constant effort either but, obviously, it is.

This little tirade was inspired by a Facebook thread where a bander from some shithole state, to paraphrase the orange buffoon, derided twitchers, birders and eBirders for not being scientific and only being interested in looking at birds. The rest of the thread showed birders relating a good, well organised and happy twitch that raised cash for local causes and raised the profile of birders attending. You hope, after a good experience then perhaps next time a good bird shows up there will not be a ‘no visitors’ notice posted for a bird in a publically viewable place.

Of course we all know the value of eBird, well at least the enlightened do. True, we have somewhat altered the bird recording scene through embracing eBird and yes, there are some reviewers who should not be let near anything sharp, let along people’s records (not here), but that is the same in any field where volunteers are employed. There is no such thing as a professional reviewer and some eBirders do forget that reviewers are volunteers. Ebird is way too polite to tell the moaners to take their complaints and place them ‘where the sun don’t shine’, but they can think it of course.

I expect, if we survive, that there will be a post about Hurricane Dorian and its birds to come. Sitting out a Hurricane will be a new experience for us although some winter storms do match the ferocity, they just fall outside the range date for being given a nice name.