Winter is Done (in Southern NS)

Maybe a bold statement but when the gulls are on the move there can be no argument; we are done with winter for another year. The change has been subtle, numbers of gulls dropping, those still around looking very crisp in their new and temporary breeding plumage, of course gulls dress for the prom, why would you think otherwise!

This past couple of days I’ve done more or less the same circuit of Cape Sable Island, mostly on the lookout for a Lesser Black-backed Gull, a puzzling absentee on my CSI year list that I am definitely not doing this year. I got one at West Head on March-10th and saw the same bird at Swimm Point today. I also saw a wierd looking Glaucous Gull at West Head on March-10th, very washed out, I aged it as three years old (3cy) which is probably about right. Today I found two adults at Swimm Point and I’m tempted to speculate that they are the same two we had there last winter. Adult Glaucs are not at all common in southern Nova Scotia, in fact Glaucs in general represent 1/100 or rarer around here, and so three this weekend in spots regularly checked and where we have barely had a Glauc on CSI this winter tells me migration is on.

West Head has been pretty good recently, the storms have dumped a lot of Thick-billed Murres into our waters and one or two are always there, pottering about like miserable old folks. Also there are a few Red-necked Grebes. I’ve noticed that, since the storms, both Red-necked Grebes and Common Loons have been in places where I’ve never seen them before, Bakers’ Flats for example. Now that the seas are calm, well at least for now, they are all heading back to the open ocean, it tells you how rough it has been though when these hardy birds have to seek refuge inside.

For people who have and interest in these things, Bruce Mactavish in Newfoundland writes a good piece on Thayer’s Gull on his blog. I 100% agree with him but, as I’ve said before, I suspect other elements were at play in lumping Thayer’s with Iceland. Read Bruce’s views here:

And now a few photos, gulls last!


Shiver me Timbers!

When the east wind blows, any east wind, it is always colder than when your snot freezes in a calm -30°C. The house is drafty, work to be done on windows later in the year, and the heat pump gets all grumpy and obstreperous at the thought of a draft up the tubes, well who wouldn’t be, you can sympathise. The birds don’t like it either, some needing legs like a Russian Shot Putter to cling to the feeders. Such inclement weather rather knocks the enthusiasm for getting out there and each circuit of CSI becomes more a tour of duty rather than the normal voyage of excited anticipation, or is that only me!

We now have a window of calm, a chance to assess the damage the vengeful storms brought. Beachside trails are smashed up, rocks the size of Buffalo have been playfully tossed around at Daniel’s Head and debris is even more widespread than normal, should have biodegraded in a couple of thousand years though so no worries. Obvious victims of the storm have been Thick-billed Murres and Black Guillemots. The former are being seen regularly around CSI, I even added the one below to my Clam Point ego list I think it’s called. I also saw three earlier the same afternoon at Daniel’s Head, thankfully all looking spry. Earlier ones were not so vital and some went on a short visit of the digestive system of a Great Black-backed Gull. Black Guillemots are always around here but not in such numbers as now or so obviously knackered. I even saw one get predated by a big gull, not something that they normally suffer despite their being in regular proximity to hungry gulls.


For various reasons I went to Pubnico on three consecutive days recently. I took advantage of the visits seeing the Greater White-fronted Geese which obstinately refuse to do the sensible thing and fly into Shelburne County. The fish plant was not active and so the gulls were erratic and mostly ‘wrong side’. I had hoped to catch up with both Thayer’s Gulls that had been around. One is the returning bird but Alix had found another and seeing them is always an education, plus they are sightings to be banked for when they become a full species once again. I did get to wave the camera at common stuff though, results below.


Above, Glaucous Gull at Dennis Pt, Lower West Pubnico, below the same bird with an Iceland Gull.

Common birds may be common but they often present good photo opportunities, practice for the real stuff I suppose. Sandra and I were in Yarmouth topping up Wal-Mart’s profits and stopped by a parking lot to look-see. This 1stW moulting to 2ndS (1st winter (post fledging) to 2nd summer (a year old) made a nice subject, as did a bunch of House Sparrows nearby, we don’t see them too often these days.

The Canvasback finally realised the error of its ways and headed back to the prairies, we enjoyed it while it remained and wish it a safe journey home.


At Swimm Point this Brant posed one afternoon. If you creep up (as best you can in a one ton, red Minivan), they become quite relaxed and pose.

Now we are up to date. I don’t expect too much to occur over the next week or so, the weather will again dictate the pace and probably prevent a ride to Arichat, Cape Breton where a Black Vulture awaits our attention, a fair way to go true but also a chance to push on and bird areas we’ve not been to yet. There might be an Ivory Gull with our name on somewhere!

Big Gull Fun

It is winter and so there have to be some posts about gulls, it is an unwritten law! Following the personal disaster with the gull species whose name we will not speak of but begins with K, I’ve been checking gulls whenever I can in the desperate hope of finding it somewhere within my bailiwick. I’ve not had a deal of success really but you live in hope and just keep on checking. On March-1st, 2018 I casually scanned some distant gulls at Daniel’s Head and picked out a grey backed one that was slightly facing me and at around 200m range. It was a big gull, that is to say that it was not one of the little ones, I’m keeping it simple in case a non-guller has made it this far in error.

The views showed a very white headed gull with a slate grey back and, in size at least, no bigger than the largest Herring Gull in the same loafing group. I went and fetched the scope, having done the decent thing and walked the wharf rather than driving and getting any fisherpersons way. The gull changed my policy and so I drove and scoped, getting some side on views. Dark backed gulls that don’t conform to a regular species are almost always going to be a hybrid, because the dirty little devils are at it with each other with nil regard for the birders who have to figure out the puzzle they produce later!

I called Sandra, Johnny and Mike so that they could see the bird and didn’t rule anything out, even Western Gull however unlikely. My first thoughts are always to get others onto any interesting bird first and, if it is a teaser, worry about getting it right later. Although I have seen a number of Western Gulls it is a species you don’t really learn in the truest sense, learning a species comes with regular familiarity (for me at least) and, although the bird was a beast and the field views checked a few of the western boxes, I felt it was one (another one) to examine on the computer, where I could zoom and edit and then post on Facebook for those interested.

The images are not great, they were taken at range as I said but there is quite a bit of salient detail to be gleaned. A shot of the wings would have been helpful, with gulls it always is, but it steadfastly refused to join just about every other gull present in doing synchronised stretching! I did get a poor image of part of the underwing when it preened, they spend so long preening, and on the PC screen it showed a large mirror on p10 and a smaller one on p9 so there went the western conjecture. In the field the bill looked heavier than in the images too, but nowhere near as heavy as Western (see image later). So a hybrid it was, probably Herring x Great Black-backed, very probably actually.


I did go back later and re-found it? It was in another spot, one with the sun behind me although at a range of 250+m. In these different conditions the mantle was slightly paler, the legs pinker and the bird more akin in size and structure to the many adjacent Great Black-backed Gulls. I assume it to be the same bird but I can’t be 100% for the reasons mentioned. Here are the photos of the main protagonist, followed by the doc-shot of the later bird and then followed by another hybrid from the same location January 2016. Later there is a real Western Gull from California. Quite why they have such a hefty bill is a mystery as they seem to exist solely on fries!

Stormcock – No!

We finally broke and headed off to Miramichi, New Brunswick hoping to see the very long-staying Mistle Thrush, a first for North America, and maybe even catch a little local music although I’m not sure that there are Miramichi bands roaming the streets playing in winter? It is about an eight hour trip from home on some of the finest, pot-holed roads Canada has to offer but we’d never been, now had a car we had confidence in and it would be a Canada tick too, what is not to like?

We got there late afternoon a bit unsure of exactly where to be, but Peter Gadd, the finder and now something of a Mistle Thrush addict, (he’s been to look for it every one of its 80 days stay) put us right. The weather was good, the subdivision iced up roads were so reminiscent of Quebec that we might have felt a twinge of ‘home’ sickness had we not had more sense. The spot to be was nice and open, the trees it used in full view, the light good and the temperature not as bad as it could have been, the only thing lacking was the thrush.

I’ll admit that chasing the Mistle Thrush had not been a priority. Had it been in Nova Scotia then that would be quite different but New Brunswick does not hold the same allure, splendid place that it no doubt is. Factor in too that Mistle Thrush used to breed in our UK yard and probably still do. It is an every day bird in the UK, literally and especially if you know the call and song. You might wonder at the title, the old or colloquial name for Mistle Thrush is Stormcock because they (reputedly) sing at the advent of a rain storm, so they pretty much sing all day long in Lancashire I expect.

Back to the tense story and, having failed on Feb-26th we found a nice little hotel, ate in a local eatery and set the alarm for dawn. A light frost greeted us when we headed out, just as the sun rose. We were quickly back at the scene of the crime, Peter was already there, and soon set about examining every avian thing that moved. I had set a ‘time of death’ as 10:00, my heart was full of optimism (and blood although it was rapidly draining) but my head made plain the realism of the obvious, it had gone. We did have some compensation in the form of a few New Brunswick ticks (like this Pileated Woodpecker) although that was akin to a one legged man winning a posh pair of sneakers!

We called it a bust and headed back to the best province in Canada, disappointed true but if you don’t dip now and then you don’t appreciate the successes and, hopefully, we have peaked in the dipping sense this year and so it should be plain ticking to the year’s end!

After a light repast in Amherst we headed to get the Eurasian Collared Dove for Sandra, it would be 299 in Nova Scotia and it was although it was crappy views but, sticking to theme, it was a bird that nested in our UK yard so one out of two was as good as it was going to be.

The Canvasback remains on full view like a very good duck, very much showing those aloof gulls how to do it I should say as it allows everyone who wants to see it the opportunity. Just before zapping off to New Brunswick I snapped it again, better than the first few attempts although it slept for much of the time I watched it, giving about 15 seconds of head-up time.

I took a few photos of a female Common Eider inside Daniel’s Head wharf recently. It struck me that it might be of the race Borealis, the northern version, which is known to appear here fairly frequently. I looked back in my archive and found one from the same location and time period in 2017. Obviously I need to pay closer attention. From what I have gleaned from the web, my 2017 bird appears to be borealis while the Feb-2018 bird may well be an intergrade between dresseri (ours) and borealis. I don’t intend to go too deeply into this, just present the images here, along with a ‘control’ regular dresseri female. Had this been a Pacific Eider (still a subspecies, be patient) then I would have been more effusive and, for encouragement, there has been one Newfoundland record (a male) plus what may have been a hybrid.

Above, our regular Dresser’s Eider (female, check out the lobes).

Above (2017), borealis? Below (2018), hybrid or borealis?

For a bit more reading on the Pacific Eider in Newfoundland, here are a couple of links that won’t disappoint. Also read all about Europe’s first Pacific Eider, surely we in Nova Scotia have a chance of this one showing up?

Something for the Weekend?

I wonder how many people (men) get asked that question at the Barbers these days. When I was younger it was always asked and, if you thought you might get lucky, you nodded and found a discrete packet handed over when you paid for your haircut. Nowadays the process is different with various pills and probably even an app for it, but back then it was the embarrassment-free way (Chemists stores always hired beautiful young women or growling Matron types) to ensure that, were your ships to come in so to speak, you would have something for that weekend. This has nothing to do with birds although we did get something for this weekend, a lovely male Canvasback found by Alix bobbing alongside Barrington Causeway.

As twitches go it was simplicity itself, and you balance these by how many you have to spend half a day travelling for, some of which, as we know, will be dips. In the end it probably works out even and, here in the south, we do get perhaps more than our fair share of good bird twitches. The Canvasback was in a spot examined regularly as it is where the Thick-billed Murres usually show up. I have checked it many times this year, a stop and a scan generally, not even worth an eBird checklist mostly. The flock of Great Scaups there varies, today there were 32, the most seen there for a while and so it is likely that the Canvasback too was newly arrived. It is a great find by Alix, added to last weekend’s Pied-billed Grebe out at Reynoldscroft, a Shelburne tick for me and something I hope to see on CSI at some point.

Two good birds in February is a real treat as the month can be a bit hostile. Them being on your doorstep is even better, we may pay for such luxuries with a barren March but that is the fun of birding, you just don’t know.


Additional photos below, taken early morning on Feb-25, 2018.

On Friday, Feb-23 it was a lovely if slightly cool day and so Mike and I had a wander up to the Kejimkujik area where forest fires a few years ago have produced burn sites attractive to a variety of species. Our main target was the scarce Black-backed Woodpecker, we saw one well, may have seen two. We also wanted crossbills and the reports from there gave optimism, we were not disappointed although the White-winged Crossbills never settled for photos.


On the morning of Feb-22 we had a couple of Thick-billed Murre around and Dovekies.


Sandra and I had a ride out for the day on Feb-19 and saw the Kamchatka Gull at Meteghan, along with a few others species. We also explored a bit further north along the shore road, very nice and scenic. The Kam Gull was always flighty, we got good looks but the photos were difficult and distant.


Now, after two good birds on consecutive weekends I’m wondering, is it too much to ask that the Kelp Gull returns? You are probably thinking ‘get over it already’, am I right?


Despite it being wet and foggy I had a wander out, selecting the wharf at West Head, Cape Sable Island as the mostly likely place to be able to see anything, if indeed anything was around. The trailer parking lot was a sloppy mess put I ploughed on through to take up station on the edge of the open ocean hoping for a murre or such. It was quiet, a couple of Iceland Gulls were out there at the extent of fog-bound visibility but little else.

To get to my search spot I had to pass a stack of Lobster Pots, not normally where they get dropped but working wharves change with each visit. Turning to go I saw a white and dark bundle of despair up against the pots, a Snowy Owl. It looked like it had taken a turn in a washing machine an its facial expression was one of profound displeasure. It also looked like it might be exhausted so what to do?

Donning my thickest gloves I edged towards it, having previously taken a few shots from the car. It sat motionless for a while as I got closer, then, at around 2m away, it got up and ran before jumping up onto the stony edge of the wharf. Now it looked perkier although hardly in the pink so I eased back to the car and rattled a couple more shots off in the cloying mist. After a few shakes and a grumpy look my way it flew about 50m to the sea wall where it started to preen.

Owls have few friends in the avian world and soon two Ravens came along to do the cronking, as contractually obliged. The owl was pretty sanguine about them, faced them down and made it clear that Raven may well be a diet option were they to push it. With mutual understanding they moved off a bit, still vocal but less confrontational, at this point I left all parties in situ and headed home. Something must have occurred as the owl had gone a short time later, the Ravens too.

It just goes to show you that looks can deceive and, hopefully, the owl was just having a bad hair day.

Pining for the Cecropias

Winter months in the northern part of the northern hemisphere can be a little dreary. The light is mainly grey, the scenery mainly devoid of vibrant leaf and the temperatures all too often frigid. If you’ve never known any better for the season then you are probably acclimated to it, if you’ve spent any time during our winter in the tropics then you, like me, are probably pining for the experience of finding a Cecropia tree full of roaming birds. That is not to say that our winters do not have their own delights, they do, but the greyness can get to you and, to quote a friend, cause you to lose your birding mojo, albeit briefly.

Any caring society would address these serious social issues and, for those tropical residents who crave cool air as respite from the heat and humidity, set up and fund an exchange programme whereby we could all translocate for a few weeks, after all, a change is as good as a rest. Our birds know this, which is why many go away for the winter to tropical climes, or is it the other way around, do they leave the tropics, their home, for a brief summer visit to the temperate zones?

What brought this mild melancholy on is all Jason Dain’s fault. He had the great idea of a Facebook group that shows Nova Scotian (and honorary Nova Scotian’s I hope, is the badge in the mail?) photos of birds taken on their travels. It is a great showcase where you can not only post your own shots but also enjoy those of others, especially where they have seen something you have not, or have an exceptional capture of something you’ve previously enjoyed. For me this is one of the more positive aspects of Facebook, no grouchy remarks or spite, just the pleasure of sharing and enjoying.

So, as I sit watching the grey skies bring the rain that sends farmers into a state of delirium, my thoughts turn to those days past when, for rarely more than a week per year, Sandra and I trod the path of the Leafcutter Ants, carefully, and enjoyed the aural confusion that is a multi-species flock moving at all levels through a Panamanian rain forest. It may happen again for us in the tropics, it may not. Forrest Gump’s Mother got it right, you just never know what you are going to get.


The tropics are full of all sorts of birds, this gaudy and particularly noisy ones like this Keel-billed Toucan is emblematic of our trips (Sandra’s photo).

When you bird every day you take for granted the accumulated knowledge of experience and so, when you see emails or Facebook comments about seeing things such as Turkey Vulture in Nova Scotia, you think, well yes, they are common. They are in the south but, for someone out of the zone they are something noteworthy. This disparity of distribution even within a relatively small space such as NS is interesting, as is the trend for Black Vultures to be found in the northern part always, or at least since we’ve lived in NS. Clearly Black Vulture is genuinely rare in NS, one real record per year maybe, whereas Turkey Vultures are increasing in number and, as they say, coming to your neighbourhood soon!

On Cape Sable Island we see TVs regularly but, 12 together over the house recently was almost worth an email or Facebook comment, almost.

It still amazes me how relaxed everyone is around Nova Scotia when it comes to access to wharves. In the UK, Elfin Safety rules and you can go nowhere industrial without some jobsworth chucking you off on safety grounds. The gift from lawyers, litigation for not taking responsibility for your own actions, is now so entrenched in European culture as to make it nigh on impossible to get permits for sewage plants, quarries, nuclear waste dumps and the like. In NS the reverse appears to be true and we wander respectfully but regardless around our wharves, especially in winter when looking for alcids.

This winter so far has been alcid-lite with even quite lively storms failing to produce much. At one point I was wondering whether we’d get a Thick-billed Murre (Brunnich’s Guillemot) at all, but now we have so all is good with the world. There appears to me to be differences in attitude amongst visiting alcids. Black Guillemots live here, rarely get bothered by the big gulls and possibly have aggressive Scottish accents which may go some way in keeping the grunts at bay. Thick-billeds on the other hand potter around like confused pensioners in a computer store, only for the hard-sell Great Black-backed Gulls to pounce on them, devouring them without mercy.

Above, Black Guillemot – “see you Jimmy”!

The same happens to Common Murres, but Dovekies, being small and sparky, seem to get away with it even though evolution has resulted in them being handily bite-sized. The alcids are our source of winter joy, especially now as we enter the end of February, beginning of March dead-zone. It may be that there will be some birds to enjoy during this dark period, but more likely it is anticipation of what is to come that will restore mojos and, once again we will be able to stroll our Blackfly ridden lanes enjoying the song of the seasonal visitors. Can’t wait!