It’s pronounced Brier as in fire and not Brier as in ear, it’s also to quote Lance “one of the two best places in Nova Scotia for birding”. Well, Sandra and I already live in one of them (Cape Sable Island) so it was high time we saw the other. Plans were made, places at Brier Island Lodge booked and we were on our way and who knows, perhaps this will be the first of many trips there.
Fog has been a regular friend recently and as we drove over it decided to come with us right up to the point that we landed on the island. The trip from Cape Sable Island is a little over three hours and includes two short ferry rides and a Hotdog (optional). The Digby Neck, the scenic route that points south off the south-western side of Nova Scotia could hardly be enjoyed and the mood was one of optimistic gloom that we would just be shuffling around the island, pre-migration, in dense fog instead of taking the booked whale trip and seeing those phalarope clouds we’d read about.
As we crossed on the last ferry from Long Island to Brier, the fog lifted revealing a tight flock of 120 Red-necked Phalaropes weed picking in the channel, this was what we were talking about. We drove to the east end of the island, parked up and watched the high Fundy tide flush through the channel taking the phalaropes with it and being skimmed by four Great Shearwaters.
We birded the island until we could book into the lodge, comfortable but I recommend just booking a room and not taking the package, more on that later. We saw that another operator, Mariner Cruises, were heading out that afternoon so we booked on for a belts and braces trip, it might be foggy again the next day so we were at least guaranteed some pelagic birding, the extra whales would be a bonus.
More phalaropes soon became abundant as we exited the channel, most were Red-necked at this point, that doesn’t mean that they plucked banjos and ate Possum bellies, it’s a plumage thing. The expected trip birds, Northern Gannets and Great Shearwaters were constantly around us, Sooty Shearwaters were less regular, appearing in clumps of two or three birds.
The boat concentrated on a group of Humpback Whales who did their stuff as they reliably do. These trips naturally focus on the whales and birders glean what they can from the back of excited heads, not helped by the constant manoeuvering of boat and people, it can be frustrating at times but you just go with the flow. Humpbacks duly done we headed off into the more open ocean in search of Fin Whales. A tight group of five were busy feeding out there so we sat alongside and I took many awful shots of Wilson’s Storm-Petrels, the shearwaters and a Common Murre. The phalarope flocks had now become nicely mixed but still sat far enough away to elude the lens.
While the majority of the boat gushed over the antics of the whales, I sat back and concentrated on the birds. A few Atlantic Puffins came along, a single Razorbill, a Manx Shearwater and then a Pomarine Jaeger came over and joined the lousy photo stack. Once people start to flake out from over-excitement you know we are done and so we chugged back home passing more and more birds as dusk sneaked in. The Mariner Cruiser craft was ideal for watching from, mostly open and roomy and well recommended as suitable for birding from. The jaeger, Red Phalarope and murre were all Nova Scotia ticks, 200 beckons.
We had a comfortable night at the lodge, once the screaming idiot next door had shut up, our fish & chip supper was well enjoyed and set us up for the next day. Neither of us suffer form seasickness but if we did, then the Haddock and fry slick would surely pull those petrels closer.
The next morning was foggy but it lacked the dedication of a Cape Sable Island pea-souper and was gone well before we set off for pelagic birding part two. We sailed with the lodge’s partner ‘Welcome aboard’ as part of our package and their craft, although adequate for whale watching is less than ideal for birding. I’d recommend just staying and eating at the lodge but taking a trip with Mariner or Brier Island Whale and Seabird trips, their boat looked fine.
We did the opposite route from the previous day and started with Fin Whales. There were many more phalaropes about but fewer shearwaters until later. Atlantic Puffins were much commoner though, some lingering on the ‘wrong’ side of the boat, that would be the side that was backlit.
During our meanderings an alcid approached, Razorbill I thought but once level it was clearly a murre and, looking bulky, not at all like any of the tens of thousands of Common Murres that I’d seen over the years. I reckoned Thick-billed was a possibility and the photo I grabbed, by no means a portrait, suggests such possibilities. ID from dodgy photos is hardly an exact science but I’d rather put the question out there and learn rather than simply delete the shots and wait until winter when I am sure to find plenty of Thick-billed Murres where they should be.
On the way in an immature Bald Eagle followed us, hig up having presumable crossed from Maine. The glassy seas had been fine for the whale enthusiasts but the trip had not been as birdy as the one the previous evening. Pity they don’t do at least one dedicated pelagic out of Brier, I’m sure that there would be takers.
Here are a mish-mash of photos. I couldn’t seem to get the settings right despite much camera fiddling (legal in Canada but be careful in Kansas!). Some are record shots, a couple are ok, comments are always welcome.
First off the awful shot of the Pomarine Jaeger. No, there was only one but with photoshop you can save space and show upper and under sides.
Awful shot # Manx Shearwater – seen on both trips.
The putative Thick-billed Murre – I’ve asked for comments elsewhere but please feel free to chip in.
I’ve had a couple of comments so far. Here is a skillfully crafted version of the original image with my own shots of both Common Murre (bottom) and Thick-billed Murre handily placed to compare bill structure. Comment has been made re the colour, it was in overhead sun and is obviously in heavy moult – do Thick-billed Murre feathers wear to black or do they bleach to brown?
Update 12-Aug-2015. The bird that sparked an interesting and informative debate is a Common Murre from an oblique angle. The dusky armpit is the dead giveaway, the bill should be stubbier but the angle distorts it greatly. Thanks to everyone who commented especially to Alix who so comprehensively nailed it.
I didn’t see this Northern Fulmar from the first trip until I edited the photos. We had two on the second trip. There is talk about splitting Northern Fulmar into Atlantic and Pacific – good Idea as I’ve seen both!
I just could not get one light-side of the boat – next time.
Phalarope melange – the reds are red!
Sooty Shearwater – just a record shot.
One Northern Gannet is a legal requirement of any photo blog recording a whale trip.
I have taken better shots of Great Shearwater elsewhere but these will have to do.