Brier Habit?

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.

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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.

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Awful shot # Manx Shearwater – seen on both trips.

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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.

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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!

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I just could not get one light-side of the boat – next time.

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Phalarope melange – the reds are red!

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Sooty Shearwater – just a record shot.

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One Northern Gannet is a legal requirement of any photo blog recording a whale trip.

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I have taken better shots of Great Shearwater elsewhere but these will have to do.


The Joy of Seawatching

If you are raised and live by the sea it is a natural part of your life. You respect it, you enjoy it but you also naturally take it for granted. I come from an inland county where the sea would have to be pretty ambitious to offer any sort of tide wrack. Now the sea is on my doorstep, or at least it will be eventually, as Global Warming bites, I expect to be feeding the worms by then though so no worries. My former marine drought means that sea birds are something that I hold in high regard, mostly because I have never had the opportunity to become immersed in them so to speak.

Close to home is Daniel’s Head and the sea watching there can be good. A little further away is the Baccaro Peninsula, a sliver of land projecting into the Atlantic, not penultimate to offshore islands but right out there in the slack and the chop. My experience of sea watching is largely restricted to UK sites although the sea watching there can be quite spectacular. But you don’t learn the whole picture by just sitting and sea watching. The whole is made up of salient parts, the weather primarily but also fish movements, tides and geography. Season is crucial too, sea birds have their own schedule and they act accordingly, learning to sea watch means learning the whole.

So these days I get to one or other site as often as possible and I sit and I stare, and I hope and I try to make sense of the action in relation to everything else. A few days ago I arrived at Baccaro in balmy weather. The sun shone and the sea had a bit of life but nothing challenging. Not really expecting to ‘have a session’ I scanned and started seeing Wilson’s Storm-Petrels, lots of them. Many were pretty close in sea watching terms and they pitter-pattered away on the surface gleaning things that only a petrel would find attractive. Wilson’s Petrels flutter around like pied Monarchs (butterfly) of the sea, and just like Monarchs they can fly with purpose or they can suddenly pause and inspect with equal purpose.

It was great to be able to watch these highly pelagic birds go about their business from the stability of terra firma and not from the bucking deck of a relatively small boat, pressed into business by fellow pelagic junkies. I had hopes of a passing Leach’s Storm-Petrel too, but they usually need a good blow to persuade them close-in, away from their favourite deep, cold water larders. The downside of the greater distances of land-based observation versus the close-up and personal encounters of pelagic trips is that photos are pretty unlikely. Normally I’d prefer to show a photo from the event but, in the absence of anything other than a dot, here is a composite of Wilson’s Storm-Petrels from a previous rendezvous.


Shearwaters are also a part of the sea watching pact and they too can be frustratingly distant or, at other times, close and showy. Often the birds don’t have to be close to stimulate the sea watching senses. At Baccaro the odd Sooty and Great Shearwater came past, a few more were around the haze line, the point at sea where visibility becomes corrupted by heat, swell and sheer distance. Today (Monday 27th July) I sea watched from Daniel’s Head and the shearwaters were just pouring past. The vast majority were around the haze line, bounding past the green marker buoy almost non-stop. I did a five-minute count of bodies, not species, and came up with 315. I was there about 90 minutes actually watching and saw Sooty and Great Shearwaters at identifiable range, but thousands more beyond detail (5760, extrapolate the count). I’d guess at the split being around 70% Sooty Shearwater and 30% Great, what else may have been amongst them is beyond conjecture.

Moving on to recent stuff and the summer resident Black-billed Cuckoo that has made many a recent day in our yard fun was recently joined by a second individual, both ending up in the same bush at one point. Since then it has gone quiet, it may just be lull or it/they may have wandered off.

Recent photography has been pretty limited but I did grab a shot of a passing Whimbrel.

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On one visit to Baccaro I watched an immature Brown-headed Cowbird land on the (silent) fog horn, consider the options, then launch itself forwards out over the open ocean. On a later visit a Ruby-throated Hummingbird did the same thing but with perhaps a more distant destination in mind. Here is the cowbird having a good think about what to do next.

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Terns are fledging now and noisy family parties are around offshore as their parents teach them the fine art of diving. Here are a couple of shots of a trainee tern, the clues as to what species it is are all there in the photo, enjoy the mystery bird.

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Finally – I added Dragonhunter to my Nova Scotia Odonata list recently. A fearsome creature if you are on the slight side, these glorious insects are well named as they catch and kill large dragonflies and have them for tea. Note the shape of the abdomen how it curves down, a clear indicator as to the species when one whizzes past along the river.

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Sometimes the planets align and you get lucky. Finding a rarity is all about such luck and I know from experience that it ebbs and flows without predictability.

This afternoon I left home in 23°C sunshine intending to catch the falling tide at The Hawk. Fog had different plans though and was visiting once again. Daniel’s Head usually fares a bit better when it is foggy and so it was today. Nothing new was around inland so I did my customary look at the sea, at least out as far as the rolling fog bank. A distant tern with a white forehead flashed past, I went for the scope expecting to see the Arctic Tern in non-adult plumage that we’d seen over on Cape Sable last Saturday, this wasn’t it though, this was a Sandwich Tern.

I know that Sandwich Tern is not common in Nova Scotia, mostly being seen as a storm delivered species. I decided try to document the record so I went to the water’s edge and took as many photos as I could, manual focus, high ISO. The results are not great but diagnostic. It continued fishing as the fog came and went. Another birder was further along the head so I let him now it was there and we saw it together in deteriorating conditions.

Simply calling the bird a Sandwich Tern does not quite end the story. The species is one of those in the mixer for splitting with the Eurasian Thalasseus sandvicensis sandvicensis morphologically and generally geographically distinct from the North American Thalasseus sandvicensis acuflavida. The split will see the Eurasian species retain the name Sandwich Tern, the North American version will be Cabot’s Tern. Most international authorities have already endorsed the split, The American Birding Association and American Ornithologist’s Union will presumably follow suit.

So was today’s bird a rare (in Nova Scotia) Cabot’s Tern or a mega-rare (but not impossible in Nova Scotia) Sandwich Tern. Likelihood and the extent of the head moult point to Cabot’s, I just hope it hangs around for others to get a good look at and hopefully take better photos of. Here are my feeble attempts although, in mitigation, it was very poor light and the bird distant and active.

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Cape virgin no more

Until Saturday I’d never been to Cape Sable, Cape Light as it’s also known, but I’d wanted to since we moved here and so I jumped at the chance when Ronnie suggested a visit. Local knowledge is always the key and Ronnie and Alix know Cape Sable well. Seven thirty Saturday saw myself and Mike MacDonald and our esteemed guides climbing into Leslie Smith’s skiff and we were soon skimming the clear waters off The Hawk heading south.

For those Cape virgins out there, you need wellies, rubber boots, as you depart and arrive ankle deep in water. The island has stony shores but fortunately my Goat legs can cope with anything! The hinterland has its own ruminant management committee (Sheep) but they find Hard Rush a bit of a mouthful and so it is rampant in many areas. We passed through the green expanse heading for ‘The Forest’, with every step a Savannah Sparrow welcomed us with a chip note, I took my ears out, they were driving me crazy!

Take a birding island anywhere and there will be something similar to ‘The Forest’. The grand title promises swathes of leafy trees, the reality is a few hardy but ambitious shrubs that have taken advantage of the lee of a substantial rock, it’s a bird magnet in season. This being a reconnoitre, not too much was expected in terms of rarity but who needs rarities when you are surrounded by Short-billed Dowitchers? Few settled until the tide began to rise but I did get a little nibble at a quiet group, not great light but ok.

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We wandered and did a look at the sea, there was action out there but the really neat birds were well out. I was happy to have Atlantic Puffins fly past, one close enough to get bill colour. A few Razorbill came by too along with the omnipresent Black Guillemots, can’t we please use the Shetland name of Tystie, nicely unique, just like Bonxie is for Great Skua – it’s very Scotian. Way out we had a few shearwater shearing. Sooty and Great were identified despite the range, we had a scope so had that advantage, one was a Cory’s but we couldn’t get everyone on it. Its blobby wing tips, concolorous back and head, extensively white underwing and lack of markings on the sides of the breast left little doubt on the ID. With distant shearwaters it helps to have some familiarity, previous experience, because many times the views will be distant and ID clues only seen briefly. I’ll wait until I get a nearer one before adding it to my Nova Scotia list.

Time skipped by and we had to make our way to the pick-up point. On the way we moved through the roosting shorebirds, gently and without causing undue alarm. At one point we came across one of the Cape’s distinguished summer residents, one of Canada’s only breeding American Oystercatchers. It may have had a nest or even hiding young. We offered no threat but a juvenile Herring Gull wandering the area would have woofed a chick down in the blink of a nictitating membrane. It showed for the lens, I’m not displeased with the results.

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On June 17th Sandra and I were sipping mint julips on the deck, well tea actually, when a Black-billed Cuckoo sparked up singing very close too. Because I take notice of what knowledgeable local birders tell me, I knew that Black-billed Cuckoo is the rarer of the two on Cape Sable Island, it was a goodie. I had a good look for it but it shut up and I presumed it a migrant and that it had moved on. Skip forwards to July 12th and there it was again.

From then until July 18th (at least) the cuckoo sang daily, at various times but I only saw it once, and then only in flight. Blaine and Amber MacDonald came to look and patiently waited at the back of the house for it and it chose to be silent. It had been noisy earlier in the day but, for reasons only known to cuckoos, it forgot its lines. Blaine did manage a fleeting glimpse but life birds demand more so we said our farewells and he pulled off the drive.

Two minutes later he was back, the cuckoo had flown into a bush next to the road and smiled at their camera, poot! It went back to hiding after that continued in the same vein until this past Saturday when Clyde stopped by for a look. I passed on its afternoon habits and he waited. Shortly after, it started up and it was close. I left him looking for it and went back to cutting flooring, I know how to live!

A pause in the sawing let me hear the cuckoo again, close and in the back yard. Clyde was signalled and the bird then set about ‘showing well’ as they say in birding parlance. I managed a ton of shots, all against a dull and inert sky. It “toot-toot-tooted” away while I stealthily crept up get a better position. At one point I was stood ten feet way as it did the business, it completely ignored me.

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The same little spell in the yard added Boreal Chickadee, Hermit Thrush, Northern Parula and Black-and-White Warbler to the yard list, terrific.


My favourite time to be out birding is early morning while Sandra likes a measured start to the day when circumstances allow, so I was confident today that we would both have what we wanted when I headed off to Baccaro Point. I like to sea watch but the sea doesn’t always play along and recently the fog has been in the ascendancy, however, today I awoke to the absence of the fog horn, so off I went to sea watch.

Baccaro is nicely placed and, despite it being low tide the sea was pretty interesting. Most of the Common Eiders look like they’ve been through a blender at this time of year, eclipse does nothing for a duck, or drake. Offshore Northern Gannet were busy and seemed to be hanging around one spot. The same area had a few shearwaters but only single Sooty and Great were close enough to ID.

My reason for the early sea watching stint was to see whether any auks were moving around or perhaps a jaeger. Black Guillemot were scuttle along and a lone Razorbill pitched into the middle of a Common Eider flock for some reason. Scanning further I picked up a close Wilson’s Storm-Petrel, feeding close enough inshore to be able to see the tail shape and foot projection. The calm conditions promised little else so I headed off back home, intending to stop for a scan in Fort Creek Park, I paused to snap this Willet.

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The sands off the park had a few shorebirds including 20 Sanderlings but it was behind me where the action was. Warblers were singing away and this Black-throated Green posed for a millisecond. I was just enjoying hearing the things again when I heard a Great Crested Flycatcher give its typical whistle. Back in Quebec these were summer yard birds but in Nova Scotia I knew that they are pretty scarce. The bird was active, moving along a line of tree in adjacent yards but I managed documentary shots, some better than others. Once home I put the news out, I hope others managed to find it.

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Moving on I went to Sand Hills Beach Provincial Park before the beach folk arrived. I also wanted to check out the Nelson’s Sparrows there, the odd looking one at least. The parking lot had a Northern Parula singing away. I found the sparrows but their songs suggested nothing unusual to me. Back home the Black-billed Cuckoo continues to sing, I’ve still only seen the thing once!


Fine tuning

Very sad to see that Blake Maybank passed away yesterday, a world birding figure who has left a tangible contribution, a legacy to birders everwhere. I never met Blake but we corresponded, mostly in relation to birding trip reports and his site ‘Birding the Americas’ was essential reading for us when planning a trip. His book, ‘Birding sites of Nova Scotia’ is an example of exactly what a site guide book should be. Informative, concise and sprinkled with humour. You cannot replace birders like Blake in our community so you have to appreciate what he gave and be inspired to aspire to his heights, he will be missed.

As part of my ongoing testing of my ear-irons I thought I’d rise, in the absence of larks, with the grackle and test my ability to hear the sizzle and hiss of Nelson’s Sparrows. I am fortunate that they live in the yard, more or less, and so passers-by saw me knee deep in moist grass – bins in one hand, camera in the other. Cutting a short story shorter, I saw four and could hear their distant song and the various chips and sips of closer birds. Nosy little devils that they are, one checked me out briefly, results below.

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Warbler migration has started, only a trickle at the moment but if you sit in the right place early in the day you will possibly see a few birds moving. With us living on Cape Sable Island as we do, perhaps the early movement is amplified by location. Today’s trickle included a female Blackburnian Warbler, in a few weeks the trickle will be a torrent in the right conditions. At present the yard sit is often accompanied by the unambitious song of a Black-billed Cuckoo, today was no different and it even posed on top of a bush for a couple of guests, Blaine and Amber. To be fair they did put the time in waiting and only got tickable views when it flew in front of their car as they left. They got photos, we’ve only seen it in flight!

Following their success I spent a bit more time around the yard, even though we are in the middle of laying a kitchen floor of soccer pitch proportions. No joy with the cuckoo but an Alder Flycatcher snaffled a major snack for my entertainment and an adult Bald Eagle came over for a look.

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Auditory Support

There comes a point in your life where you stop joking about going blonde and accept that your hair is actually greying. You stop worrying that you unfold in stages when you climb out of the car after a lengthy drive and then take three or more steps to get working again and the fact that the bladder, and not the belly, determines when road trip stops are made. All these indicators point to the fact that age is not only sneaking up on you but is actually already wearing your comfy flannelette pyjamas!

For a birder there is no vanity involved in using binoculars to enhanced our species’ limited vision, although perhaps there is a little vanity attached owning the high-end version of the best binoculars around, an expense justified so long as you use them. So what about ears?

After birding recently with people with the ears I used to have, I decided to get mine checked and got the expected report, the top end range is gone. I knew it of course, Black-and-White Warblers hadn’t suddenly become mimes and surely there were more Black-throated Green Warblers around besides the ones I actually saw. With little prospect of the whispering species suddenly finding baritone more to their liking I had to take action, and so I have become digitally enhanced in the hearing department.

I’m on my second day of the trial and find that I can now here the buzzing birds where before there was silence, or more accurately the soothing hiss of tinnitus. Actually I’m being sarcastic there, tinnitus is a pain as many will attest but incurable so you get on with it. Now I’m left wondering when I actually last heard a Black-throated Green Warbler and it may be longer than I thought. Then the bucket of cold water realisation hits you, what have I missed on those several hundred birding trips since my high-end hearing flickered out, frightening.

I like to think that I’m not a vain person, although I draw the line at projecting nasal hairs, and so I’ll put my bionic ears in when in the woods and I’ll once again be able to pin down those high whistlers and I’ll treat the ear-pieces as just another piece of birding kit. No more silent summer woods for me although I may be a bit warmer what with the longer hair at the sides and all.

It’s been a while since I last posted, not for lack of activity though. In the yard we’ve had a Black-billed Cuckoo around and I’m assuming it to be the same bird we had in June that has reappeared and is singing daily. Seeing it is another matter though, I’ve had one flight view, but it is a good Cape Sable Island bird as I’m told that Yellow-billed is the more regular of the two.

Winding back a while and I had a Laughing Gull at The Hawk on July 9th, and here is the definitive record shot to prove it! It was a Nova Scotia tick and so very welcome. Sans hurricane there are never that many of them around.

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Down at The Hawk the shorebirds are a coming for sure. Short-billed Dowitcher numbers are climbing daily, I think and estimated 1500 is my best so far and perhaps on 10% of what we might end up with. The birds tend to fly around a lot while waiting for the water to drop, they stack on the nearby structures ready to feast once they get the chance.

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The other commoner species are dropping in too including a summer-plumaged Sanderling last Monday. Not rare but not many about yet. Both yellowlegs are popping up all over the place, these Lesser Yellowlegs loafed off The Hawk parking lot.

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Last weekend I went out birding with Ronnie and Sharron and we did the Clyde River Loop. At one spot a couple of Grey Jays came in for a look. Lots of Palm Warblers were along the route, fledging day I think.

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Yesterday we twitched a Yellow-crowned Night-Heron. Not really expecting to see it we were passing on the way to Yarmouth and so dropped by and there it was. It was quite distant and in shaded overhang but the record shot shows the salient features, an adult with plumes, very smart.

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While in Yarmouth we took a short walk around Broad Brook Wetland Park. A nice little park with the expected freshwater wetland species plus a male Willow Flycatcher holding territory. Thankfully it was still singing and was duly added to the NS list. It even inadvertently posed for a side-on shot.

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On the way home, wearing the new earpieces we did a little tour of backroads, ending up taking Curry Road from the north end off route 308 to Quinan. I’d tried Curry before from the south and the rugged nature and rain had put me off. This time it was dry and barely made the Hyundai Tucson flinch as we picked out way along the 15+ km of undulations. I wanted to find Blackburnian Warbler but didn’t however, Olive-sided Flycatcher did show making it a three NS tick day.

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Today fog and drizzle pushed me up onto Quinn’s Road by the Clyde River. I cruised at slow speed and heard B&W Warbler no problem. As I neared the turnaround at the end I came across a hunting Barred Owl. I stopped and found the owl just off the road. I grabbed a face-on shot, then it turned to go so I did my very best furry and edible impression, encapsulated in a fetching squeak. It turned, looked for a second or two and then carried on its way. I not unhappy with the photographic results.

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With autumn migration now started, yes winter is coming, I can expect to see a few more species for my NS list. For now the list is 162 for the year, 175 life. Low I know but improving.