Every year around now the eBird listings take on a familiar shape with the top fifteen to twenty active Nova Scotia birders all not quite jostling for position, but at least interested to see who is where. The business end of the year is probably done, migration, fall-outs and hurricane birds, but there are still gaps to fill, whether by purposefully seeking out something you have yet to see or by allowing birding nature to take its course, safe in the knowledge that an Orange-crowned Warbler, White-winged Crossbill or a Clay-coloured Sparrow will appear in your bins view at some time.
It is also the time of year where pangs of regret at missing something that you really should have seen but didn’t come to the fore, the what-ifs. Not counting the rarities, if you miss those they are not what-ifs, just dips, I have missed seven regular species, some of which may be redeemable. I chewed over going for a year list, chasing off places to catch up with up to ten that I might be able to find but decided not to, it is too late in the year and better for the planet and the pocket.
The top three, or those at the top of the eBird tree for now, are myself, Diane LeBlanc and Jason Dain. Between us, to date (Oct-20), we have submitted 1759 complete eBird checklists. How many incidental checklists we have between us is not publically available but, the point I’m making is that there is a lot of valuable eBird data there and you can view it two ways: the year list is a by-product of the birding or the data is a by-product of the year list. Either way data wins. Now some of you may be wondering why only three people are mentioned here when clearly, if you look at the list, another name is present. I think I’ll just say I’m only including verifiable totals and leave it at that. If you have been around the birding scene a while you can fill in the blanks here.
I think the best ever year list in Nova Scotia, a verifiable one, is 312. In eBird the best year is from 2017 when Dave Bell hit 301 species. While Dave had the advantage of being on the best off-islands, Seal and Bon Portage, he also had the disadvantage of being on Seal and Bon Portage, he was bound to miss stuff but then so are we all and therefore perhaps a 300 year should be seen as the Nova Scotia benchmark.
Statistically it is interesting to know that, until 2013, the cumulative Nova Scotia year list was always below 300 species, since 2013 it has always been above 300. The average between 2014-2018 is around 330 species, the best to date being 336 in 2017, the year of the October fall-out. In 2019 the total so far is 343, clearly making it the year to do a year list and the year to reach the benchmark. If only we’d have known this in January!
So what has precipitated this huge jump in the number of species recorded? Primarily it is eBird becoming the default bird reporting tool and, if you don’t use it I’d say you really should, when you are long turned to dust your records will always have value. Another factor has to be the banding on Seal and Bon Portage, particularly when good birders are aware of the possibilities and at the nets daily. Another major factor is increased effort. The more people out birding and contributing to eBird, the more checklists submitted and therefore more species are reported.
When you look at this information, easily found in eBird, you start to realise the value of data. For this simplest of exercises the data has shown how engaging birders leads to greater and therefore more accurate reporting. At some point we must turn our attention to the historical to make sure the eBird facts are a fair reflection of Nova Scotia birds and here we have a snag. There is no easily accessible historical database of Nova Scotia records as far as I know so perhaps we need to create one. It will be a painstaking task to go through all of the NSBS bulletins though, especially when you have to actively weed-out the unsubstantiated. In the long-term it will be worth it though, especially if we want to update the Nova Scotia avifauna.
There are also other influences that have changed the face of bird recording in Nova Scotia over the past decade. The first is birder competency and this is not to say that there have not always been competent birders in NS, of course there have, but there are now more and they are more experienced, especially through direct experience of rarities here and travel overseas. Optics have improved too, this does make a difference, if your optics are poor, then your views are poor and no matter how good you are you can only see what you can reliably see. The final and perhaps most controversial influence is the use of ‘the call’.
Playback annoys some people a lot. Before playback, counting passage migrants relied on lucky views, pishing, which has its limitations, and also chance opportunity. Using playback, and I specifically mean the owl and chickadee melody, increases the accuracy and opportunity to count migrant passerines by a factor of wow. With judicious use, it is possible to cover large areas of coast quickly and efficiently and gives you the optimum chance of drawing in the majority of the birds present. You can cruise the lanes with the windows down listening for chips and chickadees, stop, play and move on with a checklist of data and no harm done. If you think getting the birds to pause feeding to investigate the clamour harms them, or is an intrusion, then you are not being a realist. Everything we do as humans disturbs them and most of those things are to their detriment. Recording using playback is an entirely legitimate tool and just as scientific as banding, no really, it is.
I had a decent sea watch off Baccaro on Oct-17. The wind from the east howled all night with heavy rains spells blattering the windows. In the morning it was still going strong but due to change late morning so it was a fairly small window of opportunity, I gave it a go.
On arrival at Baccaro it was a relief that nobody was exercising their right to break the law and shoot ducks from the parking lot! I pointed the car into the wind and watched through a crack in the window. For the first hour it was just wet, then a Leach’s Storm-Petrel appeared off the parking lot and the fun had begun. By around 10:40 the sea had become shiny, the wind turned south-west and lighter and the birds had visibly moved out well offshore. I watched a bit longer and only had the odd distant Black-legged Kittiwake and one of the Cory’s Shearwaters that refused to push off. I had hoped there might be a loon passage but no, in an instant the conditions had switched from birdy to birdless so I called it a day. Later I headed to Daniel’s Head to see whether anything was afoot but there was barely a sea bird including Northern Gannets, they had all pushed out of visible range.
This is my eBird checklist for those interested: https://ebird.org/canada/checklist/S60688710
Incidentally, for those who note these things, I haven’t seen a Sooty Shearwater in southern Nova Scotia since Aug-26, 219 and I do look a fair bit. This accords well with my general experience of them down here, they are a spring/summer bird and become pretty scarce in fall.
Here are some poor shots form the sea watch.
Not every good bird is a tick. On Oct-15 I turned onto Hawk Point Road in fog and noticed a couple of small birds flying around trees on Smith Lane. I drove around and parked, seeing Red-eyed Vireos, Yellow-rumps and a few sparrows; then I got a really rusty looking junco. I was quite sure it was Oregon Junco from, as its name suggests, out west. I managed to squeak it near enough for a few shots before it followed the roaming flock. Not great shots below but it was a pretty good birds to see.
The rest of the pics are a mish-mash. It has gone quiet but another easterly wind storm approaches so I may have the chance of more sea birds tomorrow (Oct-23). I don’t expect too much but Razorbills should start up soon and it is not to early for the first Dovekie, we shall sea (sic).