Post Pelagic

What do you do when a load of birders have assembled for a pelagic, spent the night after in a local hotel and are gagging for some birding? Take them to Cape Forchu near Yarmouth of course. So, at around 8am on Sunday 30th August and despite the gas shortage the driftwood from the previous day’s excesses could be found walking the dusty road of the Cape, homing in on every little chip, tick and whistle. Some of the distinguished crowd were soon tucking in to some good scarce birds, others had to wait a while to catch up but virtually all of the birds were seen by everyone, eventually.

Cape Forchu wasn’t really rocking to the naked eye but the birds were in there, well-hidden for now but we have ways persuading them out but first a shot of some of the birders, back-on of course while they scour the bushes.

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And the Warbling Vireo.

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One little spot along the road has always been productive and so some of us started there and did quite well with the first Eastern Warbling Vireo of three, perhaps four. As more people gathered more birds began to show themselves, a Prairie Warbler being another goodie. The flock eventually dissipated and so did the birds and we spread out to search a wider area. Sandra and I returned to the scene of the earlier vireo along with Larry Neily and we hit birds once again, seeing Nashville, Black-throated Blue and the commoner species. As we were watching, a couple of Baltimore Orioles flew in, no doubt the ones found by Ervin Olsen the previous day then a third bird, yellow of livery. joined the other orioles. It was good to get an unexpected Orchard Oriole, especially as it was my third Nova Scotia tick of the morning. Here are a couple of awful shots of it.

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The other birders had journeys to make and so we all went on our way. Sandra and I nipped along to Chebogue Point and found a Vesper Sparrow, NS tick #4.

It was great to meet everyone for the first time and a great call by Ronnie to get everyone looking at Cape Forchu, a good morning for all.

Chum and they will come

Out in the open ocean and usually far from land, another world of birds awaits the eager explorer. Governed by tides, food and sometimes storms, pelagic birds are prized simply because we don’t see them very often and so, when we do, their aura captivates. Saturday 29th August 2015 was the day for the eagerly awaited Pubnico Pelagic and, although none of the potential mega rarities found us in the patchy fog, everybody enjoyed what we saw, well how can you not enjoy it when you can almost smell the breath of the Great Shearwaters!

Muster time was 5am, yes it is early but you want to be out sampling the best of the morning as post midday most trips tend to fizzle a bit, perhaps not least because the watchers themselves are running out of adrenaline by then. Sailing from Dennis Wharf the first hurdle to scale was the descent by metal ladder to our trusty vessel. I am so bad at heights these days that I once missed half a dozen birds in Ecuador because the canopy walk did for my legs. The fear came on as I got older, like excessive nasal hair and girth. There was no way I was missing out here though so I clenched and thought of Leach’s Storm-Petrels, it worked and I was soon on deck with the others, some of whom had a fair few more miles on the clock than me!

Fog came and went as we headed out, pausing at the islands offshore to see a few birds before hitting the open ocean heading for German Bank. As we picked up the pace a hummingbird overtook us heading south. It would be nice to think that it is sipping on some exotic flower now or at least hit cover before bumping into Erika, our hoped for hurricane that has petered out over Florida but might yet rally.

As fog closed in so the first Great Shearwaters came past, giving us a look over to see whether we were worth hanging about around. A Northern Fulmar did a similar thing before a Cory’s Shearwater came out of the fog and across the bow, the first tick for some, better views would happen later. As we all willed the fog to recede a hefty, dark bird passed the stern and a grabbed shot by one of the more alert aboard showed it to be a skua sp. My trip hopes were for Great, a North America tick, the majority probably fancied South Polar after Great Skua had been seen on the previous year’s trip.

The shots on the back of the camera appear inconclusive but electronic detective work with Photoshop might yet put a name to the beast, but can we tick it? There is the moral dilemma that might yet present itself. I saw the bird but not through bins, others at the back were closer but probably also failed to register a glass assisted view. Personally I’ll wait until I get a good view but I’d never sit in judgement of those desperate to tick it!

Soon the Great Shearwaters were around the boat constantly and their presence tempted a Pomarine Jaeger to join. The jaeger flew right around us, very close at times and repeatedly tried to steal the chum morsels that the Great Shearwaters had snatched. For those of you who do not know what chum is, fish parts and fish oil are involved and it is chucked out behind the boat to attract the sea birds. The nature of the boat meant that we were able to get very close to the birds, often no bins were required they were that close.

In the week before the trip there had been some very exceptional seabirding off Massachusetts, not to mention three Audubon’s Shearwaters off Bon Portage, an island just east of our location. This information meant that we had collectively hardwired our brains to hope for just a small slice of the rarity action, so, when a black shearwater was seen on the sea a tentative ‘Audubon’s’ shout went up but no, the curly white behind the eye was, amongst other features, diagnostic of Manx Shearwater, not to be sniffed at but not an Audubon’s.

We progressed around German Bank, roughly three hours from port, and had more Cory’s come in, what may have been a second Pomarine Jaeger and a few Wilson’s Storm-Petrels danced on the gathering slick. When the Leach’s did show up the bird dashed around like it’s ass was on fire, showing the not so subtle flight, size and plumage differences from Wilson’s. Cameras clicked throughout and many an SD card filled as we took advantage of the views and proximity of the birds. Only the Red Phalaropes remained outside most lens’ range, hard targets in the swell at times.

The constant chumming kept a cluster of birds in the wake, gulping down their morel before flying back to the boat for the next one. The Great Shearwaters arrived like novice skiers, legs moving all directions while the eyes stayed on the ball. The Northern Fulmars were less graceful, hitting the ocean and ducking under to grab their share. I took along a cat food, Rice Crispy and Olive Oil mix which went into the drink in one go. The petrels danced on it but the other birds gave it a wide berth so, if you buy locally caught fresh fish and find Rice Crispies inside, you can keep them.

When the Great Shearwaters start to lose interest in the fish heads it’s time to head home so we did. The sun came out as we cruised back and some dozed, some birded and some started sifting through their digital memories. Apart from the rarities failing the hit their cues everything went very well and kudos to Ronnie for organising everything, it was a great pelagic trip. The thing with pelagics is that you never know what you will come across and even if you don’t hit the big ones there is always the hope that next time…

Below are a selection of images from the trip, some good, some bad and some a bit indifferent.

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Great Shearwaters.

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The rarer Cory’s Shearwater. Normally they prefer warmer water but as we’ve messed up the ecosystem the upside is that they are easier to see in Nova Scotia – result!

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Northern Fulmar, rumour is that Pacific and Atlantic are different species, certainly the very dark birds of the Pacific might be.

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Pomarine Jaeger – fantastic views.

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Leach’s Storm-Petrel, I know, awful shots but I was at the back when it came close.

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Wilson’s Storm-Petrel, nice.

Plover puzzle

When you come across a lone individual of the species pair like American Golden Plover and Pacific Golden Plover you sometimes have to get as much information as you can and think about it later, especially when the bird calls like one species but would appear to be the other! This happened today with a moulting golden plover on Brier Island that Ronnie d’Entremont, Mike MacDonald and myself found, fortunately we got it pixelised and so the answers were in the detail.

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The bird, an adult, was with a Black-bellied Plover and a Short-billed Dowitcher and was in alert mode most of the time due to a Peregrine in the area. The juxtoposition with other shorebirds was helpful in initially establishing, at range, that the bird was a goldie but which one we could not be sure of, naturally American Golden Plover was assumed as the bird was in Nova Scotia in August and not in China! Sketchy memories of what was required from a Pacific Golden Plover and relatively field limited reference via apps only served to confuse the situation, particularly as one app stated that Pacific has feet extending beyond the tail in flight and this bird seemed to show that feature, albeit with the image well-zoomed and on the small screen of a DSLR camera.

Here is Ronnie’s shot of the bird, in flight with the Black-bellied Plover. You can see that the feet do project slightly. Thanks Ronnie for the use of the shot here.

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Once home, various references were consulted, some helpful, some not. Crucial to the identification is the amount of primary projection beyond the tertials, 2-3 in Pacific 4-5 in American, and how far those primaries project beyond the tail. On the deck this bird shows 4, primaries but, the spacing of the primaries is also important. Quite close between p (primary) 9 & 10 is supposed to indicate Pacific, the spacing on our bird is close. Here is a crop showing the spacing on one wing.

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The assessment of the primary extension beyond the tail can be assisted by the use of the bill length as a defining tool. If the projection is under half the length of the bill then it is a Pacific. A primary projection greater than half the bill length makes it an American, here are some photos, you have a go!

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There is also the question of how advanced the tertial moult is, how many tertials remain to reveal the primaries. This is not so easy to establish on such a cryptically plumaged species such as any golden plover.

Leg length can be helpful as Pacific look leggy but so can American when taken in isolation. Our bird does look leggy in some poses.

Here is a photo I played with. The light was cold and so the bird appeared quite cold. A Pacific Golden Plover would appear more golden than an American Golden Plover normally. In this shot I upped the hue just to see what came out.

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In conclusion, this bird was very educational for me, refreshed previously learnt information and provided some entertainment on the way. Despite one or two anomalous details, and ignoring the call which the app said fitted Pacific, I’m sure that this bird is an American Golden Plover. Comments are always welcome.

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Fogged

There are many benefits to be had as a birder living on Cape Sable Island, consistent visibility in summer does not seem to be one of them though. People tell me that the ongoing fog bank, said to be the size of Jupiter and that sits offshore like a brooding mother-in-law visiting daily to dampen our spirits, is this year worse than normal. Blame El Nino for messing us about, it’ll never know. I should clarify here that my mother-in-law is relatively well behaved on the brooding front.

In the pockets of daylight that have punctuated the fog, there have been birds. On Cape Sable Island there have been quite a few shorebirds around and when I had the opportunity I tried to photograph a few. Below are my efforts, an adventure cut short by the fog seeing what I was doing and coming back in for a looksee.

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Sanderling in winter plumage and almost still, a rare thing indeed.

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Semipalmated Sandpipers, the area is a-skitter with them when you can see.

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Semipalmated Plover, a smart bird and one that does pause and pose.

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One aspect of the fog is that you have to ramp up the ISO on the camera to get a picture. While I have little idea what ISO means, I do know that I have to increase it when the light dims, as fog is wont to do with it, and then the thing fires quicker. The lack of light invading the photo makes it somewhat truer, as shown by this Alder Flycatcher perched on our washing line.

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Local exploring led us to venture along the Blanch Peninsula. Birding was patchy and no real migrants were found, local breeders were about though including this non-chestnut sided, Chestnut-sided Warbler.

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After leaving Blanche we were hurtling through Clyde River at 80kmph (of course) and came across around 20 Common Nighthawks that were nighthawking. Fading light and the fidgets moving around a lot meant I only got one poor shot, that’s my excuse for it anyway.

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Double-crested Cormorant wondering what I am doing pointing my lens at it.

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The Sheep Fields by The Guzzle on CSI have been good for shorebirds when wet and, if they maintain their integrity, I predict will attract any passing Sharp-tailed Sandpiper to give them a go. A reasonable prediction or just outrageous optimism? During one of my recent checks there this Yellow Warbler was happily clearing the fence of spiders. Now if I could just train one to clear up the abundant Earwig population currently trying to find their way into the house.

 I put a few more pages up recently including one with a map of Cape Sable Island, just so that those people who are unfamiliar with where we are can catch up. Just click on the tab to view.

On CSI we are still awaiting the warbler migration while elsewhere, even as close as Bear Point, birds are flocking and moving with abandon. In Yarmouth County Cape Forchu continues to produce and local birders are positively willing a Cerulean Warbler or Golden-winged to get its bearings skewed and added to the already impressive site list, we shall see.

Fortunate on Forchu

Recently I’ve been on a winning streak, new species for my fledgling Nova Scotia list have actually been there when I looked for them but I won’t get complacent, I know that the luck will run out at some point, been there and bought the T-shirt many times so I’ll enjoy it while I can.

Today Ronnie d’Entremont found a Yellow-throated Warbler at Cape Forchu, Yarmouth Co. I had to wait a delivery but it came just before I got a text, told you I was on a streak. Sandra and I had to go to Yarmouth anyway, more stuff for the DIY. I’d better explain that DIY thing, it’s an Englishism and means do-it-yourself, a reno here.

As we neared Cape Forchu, and if you don’t know the site there is a first-class guide here http://alixdentremont.blogspot.ca/2014/10/cape-forchu-vagrant-hotspot.html

The fog thickened and we were optimism that the bird would be there. We drove the road a couple of times seeing zero birds, so we started at the beginning and utilised angry chickadee to get the birds chipping. The first two stops pulled a few birds in but not the hoped for Yellow-throated Warbler. By the fourth stop we were seeing more birds but still not the boy, or girl. Larry Neily supplemented the cacophony with more angry birds and eventually the bird loped in.

I grabbed a few shots, not National Geographic quality but ok and enjoyed a superb bird as it moved around the area. Big thanks to Ronnie for the heads up and Larry for the extra aural incentive.

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Down on Cape Sable Island the opportunities to bird have been dictated by the fog. The land is warm, the sea is cold, the fog has been a visitor more often than not. A few times the sheep fields after the Guzzle have been bedecked with shorebirds and amongst them our first White-rumped Sandpipers of the autumn and a couple of Pectorals one day. If you sit quiet in your car the birds become confiding although the road is busy so pull well over.

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Two White-rumped Sandpipers.

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Short-billed Dowitcher hiding it’s embarrassingly short bill.

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White-rump again.

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Two Pectoral Sandpipers.

On the bar at the top of the page you’ll see some tabs. I added two new ones. I’ll be keeping a running yard list so if you are interested, take a look. The other tab is an announcement really. Each year I set myself birding goals, things I’d like to see or do. I want to know Cape Sable Island as well as I can and so part of that learning curve will see me doing a big year there next year. I’ve just done a rough note for now, tongue-in-cheek, and I’ll do updates as and when I have stuff to add.

On the bar at the side are a number of book covers. So far I have ten eBooks out there and by clicking on one you can read a percentage of each or you can download the freebies or even pay dollars for the others. I have more books planned, certainly, but for now I am taking time to learn new stuff and we are hard at fixing up the house. If you have a pc you can read eBooks, information about eReaders is also on the tab at the top.

Below are a few more recent photos.

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Immature Nelson’s Sparrow.

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American Redstart on Cape Island in the Forest.

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Savannah Sparrow, also in the forest.

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Red-breasted Nuthatch at Cape Forchu.

 

Stunning

Quite why an adult male Rufous Hummingbird would head due east on migration instead of south is not fully understood. Certainly the bird’s internal compass is skewed, or perhaps it just heard what a delightful place Nova Scotia is and decided to visit, we will never know. Either way, the bird below near Kemptville is certainly pleasing a lot of birders in southern Nova Scotia, Sandra and myself amongst them.

The ID of a rufous male is straightforward, problems come when it’s a green-backed one and then the tail comes into play, the outer tail feathers to be exact.

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The light today was poor with fog and shading but a high ISO gave a reasonable shutter speed. The bird was fidgety and aggressive, as they always are. It dominated the many Ruby-throated Hummingbird sharing the feeders.

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Many thanks to Frank and Janet d’Entremont for access to their lovely yard and to Ronnie d’Entremont and Sharron Marlor for confirming the ID, arranging access and putting the news out.

After our hummer success we headed off to have another look around Cape Forchu near Yarmouth. We quickly found a good sized warbler flock and in it were the two prizes we’d searched for a couple of days previously, Prairie Warbler and Cape May Warbler. Both avoided the camera, not that it mattered, the fog was quite thick. The Prairie Warbler was my 200th Nova Scotia life bird and migration has only just begun. You’ve got to love autumn!

Yard Safari

It is approaching ten weeks since we moved to Nova Scotia and the yard list now stands at 72 species. As migration is slipping smoothly into gear, additions are daily and by the time you read this I may have added a few more. Birders often neglect the pleasure attached to just sitting and watching, instead moving from site to site hoping for greater reward but perhaps not really seeing the true picture at all.

I have been seeing migration through the yard since around the third week of July as non or failed breeders pack the fat and flee, meanwhile those species that did raise a brood are dragging them along as they leave their nesting sites and forage. The adults know that they will need the fat as fuel on a long flight and their offspring are learning that lesson first-hand. A lot won’t make it past the many obstacles we throw in their way but some will and the aeons old process will continue.

Another bonus of yard birding, especially a yard with feeders, is that you can predict some species’ actions and intercept them with a lens. As I learn more and more about the yard and the nooks and crannies that the birds like I’m making good use of our yard furniture, locating seats at prime spots and just waiting the chance. Hummers have been very cooperative both as subject for photography and just to enjoy their boundless aggression towards anything else with feathers.

Below are a few of the shots.

 

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These hummers certainly put on a show.

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Purple Finch.

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It took a few weeks but now we have a regular pair of Downy Woodpeckers.

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Dark-eyed Junco numbers are building up.

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Common Yellowthroat.

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Never thought I’d have Boreal Chickadee as a yard bird.