We’re Back!

For those who don’t know, the hiatus in drivel published on this blog came about because Sandra and I went to Australia for the best part of a month. It was a great trip, lots of birds and lots of memories, it was also a trip we couldn’t have done without Mike and Sandra MacDonald taking care of our cats and keeping an eye on our house (called Dunblevin, used to be a pastors house, work it out!). One of the cats took it well, the other camped under a chair for the duration and has still not fully forgiven us! This trip was a first for both of us although it is quite likely that I have ancestors who had previously made the trip unwillingly. Sandra does have a cousin out there but our schedule precluded a visit, this time.

I had intended to run a diary in the pages of this blog (see the tab above) but circumstance denied it. Now we are back I am going through the 7500 images and 186 sound recordings slowly and doing posts as and when I can, the first one is up and covers our stay at O’Reilly’s Rainforest Retreat in the Lamington National Park.

Trying to get back into the swing of Nova Scotia birding requires the cooperation of the body and Jet lag is telling me I should be sleeping when, in fact, I should be out birding. Today (October-01) I took a punt on the easterly winds bringing in a few sea birds to Baccaro, it didn’t, so I spent time in the wet looking for small birds. I did come across Wilson’s, Yellow-rumped, Nashville  and Blackpoll Warblers plus a Northern Parula and, best of all, a year bird Warbling Vireo. As I said, it was raining and the light pretty poor but I still managed a few shots. It is supposed to be wet tomorrow too but, after that, there will be treasures out there to find.

Here are today’s high ISO shots. No, I don’t know what it means either!

Advertisements

G’Day!

I’ve not abandoned you, I just have had trouble getting an Internet that stays in. I am currently sat in the middle of the lawn, surrounded by rainforest and with one bar showing, so. It is all going well, 203 species seen at the last count, I should be able to write something more informative in a day or so.

A Wet Toe of Migration

This time of year the camera is kept busy as photo opportunities materialize and good birds show up. So far, in the tropical southern mainland of Nova Scotia, at least there has been nothing stellar around but we have had a small selection of migrants to enjoy. Offshore it is different story and the bird magnet that is Seal Island recently produced a first for Nova Scotia, a Hooded Oriole. Had not Alix, Kathleen and Bertin taken advantage of slick seas and made the crossing in Alix’s Zodiac, it would never have been discovered, kudos to them for both getting to Seal at all and then finding a real Mega for Nova Scotia. Naturally I tried to get us birders a ride out there the next day but my Facebook appeal fell on deaf ears – my bad really for not having already made the right contacts to get us there on such occasions.

Their eBird checklist is here: https://ebird.org/canada/view/checklist/S48090916

After prolonged south-westerlies and their gift of fog, the wind was predicted to swing to a more productive direction and so Mike, Ronnie and I went off to Brier for the day full of hope and expectation. For such a hotspot you mentally conjure up a list of exciting strays that just might show up and, almost inevitably, they didn’t this time either. We still had a decent day with 54 species seen, here is our checklist: https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S48047406 Speaking to the banders, apart from hoards of irrupting Red-breasted Nuthatches, a sure sign of cone crop failure in the north, the migration was light to negligible, in that context our checklist did not seem too bad. A whale trip may well have been productive for sea birds and, rather typically, an Atlantic Right Whale showed up off the headland we’d been birding the next day.  Here are a few shots.

 

Closer to home the birding has been slow to comatose, and, while we accept that t can’t all be fallouts and vagrants, the action did smack of everything not pausing with us while on migration and heading right through. It is also possible that the breeding season was later after a rubbish June and so the push simply had yet to happen, even though there were triggers in the weather patterns. What is certain, as evidenced by the Hooded Oriole, is that an even bring birds from the south-west of the USA had happened.

Our natural inclination when it is slow is to go to The Cape. It may not have the isolation and cover of Seal Island but is is accessible fairly easily and has the capacity to surprise. In late August our thoughts also turn to that super-elegant birds, not a shorebird, prairie bird is better, the Buff-breasted Sandpiper. The Cape is about as near a certain bet as anywhere, you just have to pick your way around the bare patches where the sheep have feasted until you spot the stop-go of a usually confiding buffy. Then you stand and wait as they go about their business. Nine times out of ten they will walk towards you so no need to chase them. Mike and I did the first run and, although it should have been better it wasn’t and no buffy. Still we did see some stuff, notably this adult American Golden Plover which put on a show for us. Here are the pics.

Thursday 30-August didn’t look too promising at the start and, as it was just two days since we’d done the last Cape Trip I wasn’t really intending to go back over, besides Mike wasn’t available and Ronnie was elsewhere. I was just about to give up having seen nothing but the odd Yellow Warbler when my last stop produced this local scarcity – a Mourning Warbler. Emboldened by such riotous success I tried one of my little spots that is a sit and wait site where I turned up another Cape Sable Island scarcity, Tennessee Warbler. Next I had another go for a Northern Waterthrush at Johnny and Sandra’s place and saw it within seconds, decision time.

Fortunately Warren was able to take me out; he normally likes more notice than ten minutes but had a window so off we went into the fog, navigating by hand-held device to find The Cape. It did not seem very promising, nothing was flushing as I walked the trails, The Forest held a bunch of Nelson’s Sparrows but not a single warbler and the fog horn was singing its monotone note every 58 seconds, you count between blasts and cover your ears. I was at the very last bit of buffy habitat before reaching the light when moving bird caught my eye, it was a Least Sandpiper but, next to it was my first Buff-breasted Sandpiper of the year, hurrah.

So just a wet toe of migration so far and not the full body emersion birders always dream about. The fallout of 2017 will take some beating but stranger things have and will happen.

A Bit of a Catch-up

Time flies when you are out daily, but then seems to drag when it comes to waiting for the warbler migration to get going. I thought cooler northerlies on Monday 20-Aug, 2018 would be the trigger but it was not so. All we really have at present is a trickle feed and there may be two factors that are governing this. First could be the lousy weather to the south where thunderstorms and rain belts are causing some issues, the birds are sensibly choosing not to head into it, just yet. The other factor may be a slightly later breeding period following our long and unsettled spring where we had June frosts. Whatever it is, the true daily re-supplying of our staging points is not really happening – I predict a deluge in the first week of September, followed by two or three hurricanes and a couple of lively tropical storms.

So, trying to make sense of those images I’ve taken recently I’ve added the chronologically, it is easier that way, and I’ve added a bit of blurb where needed. I really want to get the images pending file empty for new stuff, you did see the Australia tab at the top, right?

I’ve also been going through the moths and adding names. It will take a while to get everything in, click on either the macro or micro tab to see the labelled images. If you disagree with my ID, please say so.

Above, a bunch of shorebirds at Chebogue Point – White-rumped Sand, Semipalmated Sandpiper and Plover and a Least.

The empid above was also at Chebogue on a different date. Silent, but the wing formula points to Alder.

Above, Sandra wanted to see whales so we went on the Petite Passage trip. Unfortunately the whales were close so we didn’t cross the birdy ledges. Below a rubbish shot of a Cape Sable Island Pectoral Sandpiper, an adult with some summer plumage about it.

Above, a young Little Blue Heron found by visiting birders (from Texas) Fred and Kay Zagst around the CSI Guzzle. I stopped to look and found the American Bittern below in the same area, oddly rarer on CSI than the Little Blue, my score is LBH 4, Am Bittern 3!

Ronnie and I went to The Cape, it was foggy! Later a couple of American Oystercatchers at Daniel’s Head were close but one was asleep so boring to look at. No young this year, will we get any back next year, we are always on tenterhooks.

Above, Broad-winged Hawks are on the move. This one was over home on 23-Aug, 018. I pasted a few different images together, it is not a flock.

I’m now up to date although I’m off to Brier tomorrow so maybe, just maybe the migration will be evident. A worm-eater and a couple of Kentucky Warblers will do!

The Calm before the Calmer

And so it came to pass that, after a run of 39 out of 42 foggy days locally, the weather produced its usual fare for the Pubnico Pelagic, perfect weather! We wanted northerlies, we got them, we wanted clear seas, got those too. We also wanted White-faced Storm-Petrel, and, well, two out of three isn’t bad. So just after 5am on 11-August 2018 we eased off the jetty at Dennis Point, fish oil drip bottle still there on the quay, and headed out once more into the briny. The Pubnico Pelagic is eagerly anticipated because it brings us terrestrially bound birders into contact with oceanic wanderers one again. No long grass to skulk in, no leafy canopy in which to hide, you either see a species or you don’t and you try to ignore very distant blobs that always tend to look on the rare side.

Twenty four pairs of optically enhanced eyes would be scanning hard for the next 10 hours or so, breaking only to dine, drink or divest themselves of the results of the dining and drinking and we were all filled with the hope, if not expectation, that this year the big one would pay us a visit. The chum was ready, the conditions were nigh on perfect, now all we had to do was work the ocean and dig out the birds. This might sound very easy, you can see a long way (approximately 6 km for someone on a Lobster Boat deck and of average male height) and the birds tend to be bigger than say a Song Sparrow (mostly), but for the rarities it really it is like looking for a poppy seed in a parking lot (of average size and empty save the seed). The chum helps greatly in drawing in the commoner sea birds and the commotion caused by the chum attendees is what draws the attention of other birds passing either within olfactory or visible range.

The first part of the trip was sedate as we passed through rather barren inshore waters, paused at Round Island and Flat Island to add a few trip birds then we pushed out towards German Bank, roughly south-west of Pubnico a few hours past Round Island. The birding then picked up, especially when we caught up with a Scallop Dragger although the birds were barely feeding and were probably stuffed with bycatch. Further on we hit a couple of patches of birds, mostly Great Shearwaters, oddly the commonest Storm Petrel throughout was Leach’s. Phalaropes littered the ocean in various places, mostly Red, I saw only about 10 Red-necked. We also had the pleasure of a couple of Manx Shearwaters, a relaxed Sooty Shearwater on the way in and the odd Barn Swallow escort.

Perhaps one highlight was an Ocean Sunfish which Captain Chris got carefully alongside and so we all had our best views of this weird but compelling denizen of the (mostly) tropics. A second highlight, well for me at least, was a Canada Warbler that came and went for a while, almost alighting on the boat but not quite having the nerve. When you add a few Northern Fulmars and a selection of alcids to the trip list we didn’t do too bad at all but the elusive White-faced Storm-Petrel never showed up, nor did Red-billed Tropicbird, Black-browed Albatross, Yellow-nosed Albatross, Audubon’s nor Baroli Shearwater, Sabine’s Gull, Long-tailed Jaeger nor Band-rumped Petrel but they might have and that is precisely why we do it again and again.

Many thanks are due to Ronnie d’Entremont for organising the trip and to our patient Skipper Stephen d’Entremont, for happily filling his boat with nutcase birders once a year. Those reading this who did not go, should understand that room aboard is scarce and the birder limit soon reached, a number limited for both safety and comfort. This trip is a private arrangement, not something that is publically available and not something you can just put your name down for. Those wanting the chance to observe sea birds in Nova Scotia should take the opportunity to do whale watching trips in Fundy in season and you can even set up your own pelagic charter with them if you wish, you’d have no problems filling the boat, just post the details on the Nova Scotia Bird Society Facebook page and it will draw birders every bit as effectively as chopped Herring draws shearwaters!

Here are a few shots from the day.

 

Northern Fulmar, always great to see.

 

Great Shearwater.

 

We had the pleasure of a couple of Manx Shearwaters.

 

Leach’s Storm-Petrel, always bigger than you think.

 

The fin of the Sun Fish.

 

My crappy Canada Warbler shot.

 

Sooty Shearwater not flying off like its ass is on fire for a change.

 

Red Phalaropes.

 

Atlantic Puffin.

For those interested, I added a page (tab at the top) documenting the creation of our garden pond, a great addition to the yard and part of a cunning plan to attract a Black Rail to the yard! A tab for Australia has also appeared – mysterious.

The long and the Short of it

I recently saw some mud, quite a feat around Cape Sable Island as we have (so far) had 37/39 days of fog since July 1st. We do get summer fog, especially around The Hawk and, true, Daniel’s Head has at times been visible during this prolonged period of pea-soupers, but mostly the thick grey stuff has swirled around the island preventing heavy birding and I have frequently had to resort to my West Head standby site just to get an eBird checklist in. At least at West Head you can see the two small pools there and there is the hope of a few birds, usually common but a previous Little Blue Heron, Stilt Sandpiper and Common Gallinule always fuel optimism for the unusual and it must get Sora and Virginia Rail from time to time so always worth a stop anyway.

August 1st, just like any first of a month, means I am out birding longer and seeing what there is out there, trying to cover as much of CSI as I feel like doing. The fog this time dictated otherwise (mostly) and so I made for West Head. My usual routine is to drive to the trailer parking lot, pull in sharply off the road into the rutted lot, narrowly missing being rear ended by the truck that tailgated me all the way through Newellton (never the same truck, they work me in shifts!). The southern-most pool is looked at first, it has its own drowned forest of sorts (well, drowned shrubbery) and it can take some careful looking to be sure not to have missed a lurker. I then scoot over the lot and view the northernmost pool, it is cleaner (relatively) and offers a different mud option.

The first bird I saw through the foggy shroud this August 1st was a long-billed peep. ‘Peep’ is the generic term for a small shorebird and in the north-east (that would be here) it is applied to Least and Semipalmated Sandpipers – the other small shorebirds are easy to ID so peep just does not apply. This ‘peep’ looked Semipalmated (no crake-like, arthritic feeding action nor yellow legs making it a Least) but it was seriously be-schnozzled, it had a whopper, we are talking beaksville NS. When you are a birder you notice these things, and so I crept out of the van and, having first rattled off some high ISO doc-shots, got the scope on it. I had Western Sandpiper on my mind, well you would wouldn’t you, and so I went for the field marks, rusty scapulars (shoulder), rust in the cheeks and crown and hoped the bill had the tell-tale but not always obvious kink in the last fifth of its length, it didn’t have any or all of the above.

Semipalmated Sandpiper is super common here right now and the abundance will increase as more arrive. We may well have a billion out there but I mentioned the fog earlier and so the eight I saw were all I had to work with. Some female Semipalmated Sandpipers have long bills, they don’t normally look as obviously glued-on as a Westerns but are still party-sized. This bird had the longest of any Semipalmated I’ve ever seen but everything else about it was regular Semipalmated issue. After a short period of observation the bird flew to the back of the pool, perhaps an assumption by me as I could hardly see the back, it being 70m deeper into the murk.

Once home I threw the image onto the computer and found I had one decent doc-shot, so I sent, it via Facebook, to a few people to keep them in the loop and stuck it on our Facebook Cape Sable Island wildlife group page (why not join, we’ll take anybody!) for others to enjoy. Later, in a moment, Western was uttered from elsewhere. Seeking further input via Facebook, especially from those birders out there tripping over Westerns on their local beach right now, I got a comment from Oregon confidently stating that my bird was a Western, they look like that at the moment and that it would just be skipped past as they search for their own elusive ‘peep’, for them a Semipalmated. Result, no not really, the ID features we all rely upon regarding the two species had just been summarily re-written, so how were we supposed to sort them out now? While advice from other quarters is always welcome and the source is usually well-informed and bravely given (so few experienced birders stick their necks out, even an inch) it should always be balanced with what you know to be true and I still thought this a Semi-P but changed the eBird checklist anyway, ostensibly to see what ‘they’ thought.

A few days later the ping-pong ball of identification shifted and the bird was stated to be a very long billed Semipalmated for not having the very plumage features I’ve already mentioned. ‘Out West’ some people were surprised at just how long those lady Semi-Ps like to wear their bills sometimes and so their whole rarity-search master plan had to be re-edited to include them. The whole exercise was very interesting and almost made me forget about the damn fog, almost. We do get Western Sandpiper here in NS, I’ve even seen and badly photographed one at Daniel’s Head a few years ago. How many real ones we get is open to conjecture as the West Head bird discussion will confirm. It is very likely that past claims unsupported by the right plumage features and, preferably these days, a reference photo, may not have sufficiently ruled out these long-billed Semipalmated vixens and, to me at least, this begs another question, why the long bill?

Long-billed female Semipalmated Sandpipers are pretty much a northeast coast thing and not that common. They don’t seem to be found inland, which in itself is interesting, also why do we assume that they are all female? Given their niche availability is it vaguely possible that they are something else entirely, something between Semipalmated and Western that we don’t fully understand? I doubt any specific work has ever been done with them and it is possibly only through improved scrutiny, as offered by digital photography, that more appreciation of their existence has developed. I’m not saying they are a different species, but I’m not saying they are not either because I don’t know but there are precedents. Cox’s Sandpiper is the progeny of two species (look it up) but was, for a brief period, afforded its place in the full-species sun (I think). Iceland Gull is probably on its way to being multiple species, that it will never get there is our fault as we have severely moved the goalposts – planet life-bearing longevity-wise! Caspian Gull was unknown until the 1980s when it was found, or at least realised to be in existence, by birders. There is stuff out there still to know and those who think we know it all might need to sit down and think about it.

IF someone does do the work on these birds may I suggest, as someone who has stuck their neck out a good two inches with this blog post, Calidris deBergerac?

As usual I have decorated the post with images but they are all peeps and so, if you still call them peeps then we’re done here.

Above, two Semipalmated Sandpipers as sighters.

Above, the West Head bird and below a real Western Sandpiper from roughly the same time period (and conditions!) from British Columbia

The rest of the photos show long billed Semipalmated Sandpipers from a time when we had visibility on CSI. The last bird is especially interesting for the bill kink but can I see palmations there? Note also the rustiness on of some of these long billed semi-Ps.

Addendum

This adult Semipalmated was at West Head on 08Aug, 2018. I don’t recall seeing one with such pronounced tramlines before. Just posted for interest.

When a Plan Comes Together

For 29 out of 30 days in July so far we have had fog on Cape Sable Island. Not just a mist just making everything look ethereal but real ‘B’ movie stuff you could see bugger all in. To be fair, the tropic of Clam Point was usually swift to clear somewhat on some days so that is some times. Down at The Hawk it didn’t, it just hung there or drifted around giving the merest glimpses of the shorebird bonanza known to be present. On Daniel’s Head there were clear spells, well not quite clear but with enough visibility to allow some birding. It was with this metrological backdrop that Ronnie Mike and I decided to venture out for a whale trip off Brier.

This time of the year, apart from the whales obscuring the view, there are sea birds aplenty, especially phalaropes as they get into the swing of their Fundy phenomenon. This is still a well-kept secret despite appearing in the Nova Scotia Bird Society bulletins for many years. It is truly one of the great North America avian spectacles but it is so remote from civilization or even the USA as to be little appreciated. In a nutshell, thousands of Red and Red-necked Phalaropes stage in the Bay of Fundy and the whale trip boats are good vehicles with which to see them, oh and there are some whales.

The weather, despite its recent performance, suggested that it might behave but the first blow to our plan was potentially terminal, neither of the Brier whale tour boats had space or were not running. Last year Sandra and I used the trip out of Petite Passage, a tad more expensive but without the requirement to island hop. They did have room and they do have a nice boat and so that was where we went. The weather was true to its word, fine, no fog, calm winds – all we could have asked for was an overcast sky and control of the boat but you just have to make do sometimes. The boat was not packed, it takes 45, we had half that number and so, there was no need to accidently use the point of your elbow catch the back of the heads of people who burrow in front of you at the rail every time a whale farts.

Once out of the passage we hit birds, Common Murres, Razorbills then Great Shearwaters by the raft and a few Sooty and Cory’s too. Ronnie then yelled “skua” as one drifted past allowing only confirmatory doc-shots. After having three whales doing their sitting in the water looking big thing, eclipsed by a Ruby-throated Hummingbird flying around the boat, we started to head south, seeing more shearwaters, a few Northern Gannets and Atlantic Puffins along with the first phalaropes of the trip, all Reds. After a short while then I picked up another, more distant skua and was about to yell when Ronnie did. His bird beat mine as it was sat on the sea off the starboard side of the boat by about 400m – click.

More whales were there but they were sleeping and intended to stay that was so the skipper took us further south onto Moore’s Ledge, or it could be shelf. It was dripping in Wilson’s Storm-Petrels, hundreds all doing their line-dancing to some sort of Krill-country tune. More shearwaters sheared and, later, their Manx cousins came along too, it was great. Phalaropes began to be encountered in numbers, all bar one were again Reds – and we had close views if not good photo opportunities from the bouncing, but not too much, boat. We reached the turnaround point well-pleased with our avian haul and even saw a few more bits on the way in.

Besides the birds we saw 10-15 Humpbacks, a Minke, Harbour Porpoise, Atlantic White-sided Dolphins and a beam of Sunfish. Obviously the skuas are the best birds but the petrels take some beating by the sheer weight of their numbers while the many floppy-winged Cory’s Shearwaters belied their eBird rarity status by not being rare at all.

Cory’s above, Great Shearwaters below.

Sooty Shearwater above, Atlantic Puffin below.

Wilson’s Storm-Petrel above, Red Phalaropes below.

Two South Polar Skuas. The bottom shot is an amalgam of three shots of the same bird – not a flock!

 

So, August already, well in a day or so, and so begins the autumn birding season. The return and dispersal of summer warblers has begun, just a trickle but the signs are there. In a week to ten days passerine migration will become blatantly obvious and it will be interesting to see how many young birds we get, especially after the conditions of the preceding months – the peak of the breeding season – which are best classified as being largely shitty. Frosts in June, fewer bugs anywhere (and still trees get sprayed in industrial quantities, really, we barely deserve this planet!) and general inclemency have not helped all but the most belligerent birds to raise young although Barn Swallows do seem to have bucked the trend. I hope we have a good August, I need to pack a lot in as September this year will be different but more on that later. It would be nice to get a few more list additions but long ago I accepted that this is a ‘funny year’ and so won’t fret if I don’t.

Perhaps it is time for some numbers so, off you go if you have no interest in this bit but. On Cape Sable Island my year list is a modest 182. There are fillable gaps and so I expect to break the 200 threshold again, but not by very many. The Nova Scotia yea list I am not doing is currently 235, again with glaring gaps. I’ll certainly go past 250 by the end of the year, probably 260 but anything higher is likely to be hampered by September, but it will (hopefully) be worth it.

And finally to moths. When I started looking by the light of the porch I knew that I would get sucked in and that there would be no escape, and so it has been. Mothing is something just about anyone can do and what seems to be a harmless interest, just photographing and then identifying your ‘catch’, soon turns into something of a nocturnal obsession. The little flutterers just keep coming and, even when the weather is pants, you get the odd new one to keep you going. I think I had six species on our yard list when I started, say hello to 171 and counting as of 29-Jul, 2018. I’m even looking out my old UK records so I can have a world list too! Obviously I can stop anytime I like, I don’t have to brave the mossies and angry spiders (I de-web the area daily) but, you know, what if I miss one, say a bright little micro that will take me two days to identify – its ok, I’m fine, it’ll be dark soon, nice warm night, could be good help!