Let it Blow

The forecast was for a high tide and big seas and that is what we got. The blow came from the south-east and with torrential rain storms factored in, it would likely set about slinging some of those normally far offshore birds a little closer. These conditions could mean only one thing for me, sea watching.

Sea watching is not that popular here, birders tend to spend their free time birding the bushes more than the ocean. Sea watching has to be learned and it can only be done through endurance. Sure you can plonk your bottom down and stare at the sea and you may well see a few birds but, if you are not suffering then it is likely that the birds you are seeing are not hard to see at any time. Sea watching generally requires special parameters involving the location, weather, tides and season. When they align it can be very good. That is not to say that sometimes unlikely conditions won’t throw up surprises, when the fish run they do.

For those who have never sea watched and would like a little insight then read-on. If you know your way around a lens cloth, where the lea of any rock would be in any given wind and can identify blobs at distance purely on their flight method, then go make some coffee/tea and come back for the lousy photos later.

Ideally you should sea watch in comfort. From a vehicle can be good, in a purpose built blind even better but show me one in Canada, I doubt you can. Once you’ve picked your spot, bee aware of where the bird track is. This is the line that most of the passing sea birds take as they pass your point. The line is generally consistent but can vary in width depending on wind direction and strength. The easiest way to define the track is to look at the most obvious, common bird, usually Northern Gannet.

Equipment is important and a scope can be invaluable but, if the conditions mean the visibility is well within the range of 10x binoculars stick with them but keep the scope set up in the car, if you feel you can comfortably use it on a distant bird. Quite often the birds will be hard to track from a rocking vehicle, it can be much better and more revealing to keep to the bins, you’ll get more of the essentials that way. If the visibility is reasonable then by all means go with the scope as a first choice.

Keep a camera handy if you can. With the availability of digital photography, especially through a 300 times plus lens, it is possible to get record shots of some birds that you might not get the key details of through either bins or a scope. Digital photography really has changed sea watching and birding in general, also there is the possibility that a rarity will fly past and you’ll have the back-up of some sort to go with the visual.

Don’t over reach, some birds are too far to ID – many will become identifiable with experience, but not all. Count them, age them if you can and put them on eBird, it’s important. Don’t expect to see everything that is out there, you won’t, also be sure to take little breaks. Concentrating for long periods is not easy, hence the popularity of reality shows and the like, and so by having a little break from time to time you will keep sharper longer.

Now on with the post: So I got to Baccaro Point at 10:00 and the place was rocking with Northern Gannets, their wings were just about brushing the shore they were that close. I set up with the wind blasting at the passenger side of the car and the rain coming in the open window not quite hitting my shoulder. Ideally I’d have liked to have been next to the Lighthouse but there was no snooze button on the fog horn and my ears wouldn’t cope (I know the fog horn is essential, I’m just jesting). Set and settled I started to scan and within seconds a Dovekie skittered through the troughs just offshore, a Nova Scotia tick and a great view in the circumstances, this was going to be good.

Over the next two hours and fifteen minutes, interspersed with notebook writing and coffee, (I’d already consumed the chocolate mints on the way), I duly logged everything passing, opting to estimate Northern Gannets but making a mental note that probably less than 5% were immature birds. I also took the photos in the rain and gloom from a rocking car and while suffering from greying hair. I’m including the best of the shots here so you can practice the identification of shapes more than plumage!

This list is not systematic but placed so that Facebook gets one of the better shots to show.

Black-legged Kittiwake – 202.

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Razorbill – 67

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Northern Fulmar – 1

Pomarine Jaeger – 2

Parasitic Jaeger – 1

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Unidentified jaeger – 8 (two individuals here, probably Parasitic.

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Dovekie – 62

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Long-tailed Duck – 3

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Northern Gannet – 400

Common Loon – 3

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Red-throated Loon – 2

Unidentified loon – 1

Unidentified alcid – 20

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White-winged Scoter – 1

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Surf Scoter – 1

 Black Scoter – 5

Sanderling – 1

Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls – yup.

Great and Double-crested Cormorant – yup.

Cory’s Shearwater – 1

Great Shearwater – 2

Unidentified shearwater – 2

Black Guillemot – 5

Common Eider – 300

OK, so the photos really are rubbish but you can ID the species (mostly) and such things really can help. Better stuff (visually) from the next post.

 

Hits and misses

The nature of the birding beast is that you hit sometimes and you miss sometimes. If negative equity, list-wise, has you locking the doors and playing a Handel dirge then perhaps a little trepanning and some sugar will get you back on the horse, if not you can always train to be an Ornithologist and go euthanizing the last Moustached Kingfisher on Earth to cheer yourself up, briefly. If you are reading this then more likely you are the sort that gets back on the horse no matter what, and good for you.

Such a preamble, barbs and all, is meant to soften the revelation that I spent twelve hours over six days looking for a House Wren for my Nova Scotia list. I had some additional motivation though, my friend Ervin kept seeing them everywhere and not just seeing but photographing them too. After spending another hour looking the other day, after one had been seen on CSI by another birder, I was on the point of declaring it my official Nemesis bird, replacing Ibisbill, something I’ve never actually looked for but thought I might enjoy tempting fate with.

The wind howled and the Alder scrub waved like a bunch of Mexicans at a Basketball game, I search and I pished and pished again but all to no avail. No wren graced the scene, I was all but done. I decided to drive back around The Hawk in an attempt to miss it in a wider area. I passed some stacked Lobster traps and there, its tail arcing over its back like a symbolic V-sign, was the wren. Just a look, no photo but for now it’s back to Ibisbill for my Nemesis bird or are there more serious rules for such things.

To be fair, the hits outweigh the misses and birding in Nova Scotia has greatly exceeded my expectations. Every day has something of interest and something to learn, some days by a factor of many. An illustration of this is my CSI list. I’m working through a spreadsheet ready for my CSI big year, more details above, click the tab. I reckon that 165-170 would be par for the year based on the species that turn up here consistently. I arrived at the end of May and I’m on 183, I might have to move that bar up a little, especially as the winter birds are coming and I’m waiting to greet them.

I usually write something here along the lines of ‘if you have the attention span of a Mayfly then you won’t have made it this far’ but, logically, such intellects will already have expired and been washed downstream so, for everyone else, here are some pictures.

We don’t get too many Bonaparte’s Gulls hereabout so it is pleasing to see the odd one during my Daniel’s Head sea watching sessions. This one was hanging out on the tide wrack snaffling insects.

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Sandra and I like to explore our county and so went off east and had a look around West Head and other spots. We didn’t stack the migrants high but this superb Northern Parula performed at eye-level long enough to make the day.

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My sea watching sessions are limited to an hour or so at the moment. Those hours can be action packed with Northern Gannets filing past, shearwaters breaking the skyline and the occasional treat such as jaegers and Red-throated Loons. One surprise was 65 Razorbills going past in dribs and drabs one day. Some lingered and fed in the surf, just too far for a decent shot, so here is a lousy one.

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We are in the kestrel zone locally at the moment. One or two are almost guaranteed on the wires, even when the wind howls and the poor devils have to employ a wrestlers grip on the wire.

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eBird filters flag warbler species by date as they depart for more sensible temperatures. Being last stop before the Tequila we get a few late ones, like this Black-throated Green.

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It has been a good autumn for Prairie Warblers, I think I’ve now seen four on CSI alone and that after having run around like my ass was on fire for the first one what seems like months ago. This should be my last one of the year but you never know.

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Wood Ducks are superb looking things but they never look real in photos. This one stood stock-still over a thick green algal bloom and may have been a mirage.

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In April Sandra and I did our house hunting here, interspersed with birding. We saw an Indigo Bunting at some feeders and little did I know that I’d have to wait until late October before I saw another.

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I’m messing about digiscoping again, looking at this record shot of a Hudsonian Godwit (eBird, “are you sure?”) you might wonder why.

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House Finch is rare in Nova Scotia unless you are in Yarmouth where they have a real foothold.

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Today (October 25th) Ronnie and Sharron found a Western Kingbird. Not a Nova Scotia tick, not even a year tick but it was in Shelburne County, the other was not and so this bird was a desired acquisition. It teased a bit but we got it and we found a Great Egret on the way over there too.

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And finally, the first Snowy Owl arrived on CSI today. The owl is quite possibly my favourite bird species, closely followed by another 10,500 or so. It wasn’t that rare but it was significant.

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Sparrow pride

In 1868 somebody called C. J. Maynard was walking Ipswich Beach in Massachusetts when he did what such people did in the those days and shot a sparrow. He thought it a Baird’s Sparrow, which just shows how much they knew about such things in those days. Later, in 1872, he decided it was a new species for science and named it after the location the poor thing came to its end, thank goodness it wasn’t shot on Dead Horse Ranch (yes it exists!) else we would have had a more entertaining name all round.

Wind forwards a good few years and, after enduring the blender of scientific examination, its DNA gave the game away. It was not a good species but had some genetic link with Savannah Sparrow. It’s full-member badge was pulled and it became just another Savannah Sparrow – super common, not under threat as a species so do what you like with it. And there, in a nutshell, is the problem with classifying anything that has multiple forms into subspecies. The fact that the morphologically distinctive sparrow is just about endemic as a breeder to Sable Island, Nova Scotia makes no difference. Sure it gets some vague red flag about being vulnerable but we know what that means, nothing in real terms, just figurative hand wringing until it slips into the extinct void that we push so much of our precious wildlife into.

So where is this going? Well if I was premier of Nova Scotia, besides making shotgun shells $10 a pop to make the place quieter, I would shout from the rooftops about our endemic sparrow and I would lobby whoever I needed to to get it re-split and I would call it Sable Island Sparrow as some already do. Taxonomy is an impure science, DNA changed everything but is not really a great field mark. Nevertheless, taxonomists are constantly rethinking the species taxonomic order and you have more chance of pulling six lottery numbers than you do predicting the next six species that any updated checklist will start with.

This is a good thing though, as we need to keep moving with the times and making our checklist as evolutionarily accurate as possible, even if it upsets some folks. We also need to consider the larger picture for the benefit of all birds; drop subspecies, promote everything that is morphologically identifiable to the same level and instigate unbreakable protection where it is needed. I don’t think that Sable Island Sparrow is in any real danger at present but a decent June storm could change that, call it an act of nature. If the worst did come to the worst then at least our sparrow could be listed under a full name before having ‘E’ appended to it.

Now, for you delectation, here is a selection of Savannah and Sable Island Sparrow images from far-flung savannahs, all identified without the need to resort to DNA sequencing.

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Sable Island Sparrow

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Savannah Sparrow from Nova Scotia (Chebogue)

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Sable Island Sparrow

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Savannah Sparrow from Quebec

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Sable Island Sparrow

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Savannah Sparrow from California

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Sable Island Sparrows

Double-take

Every so often up pops something and you do a double-take. Today Sandra and I had just such an experience with a Prairie Warbler at The Hawk, CSI. The bird was cooperative and posed from many angles for photographs – a good thing as I often need many goes at it to get anything decent. The standard reference for warblers these days is the excellent ‘The Warbler Guide’ by Stephenson & Whittle. It really is the must have even for those of us who are fairly conversant with supposedly confusing fall warblers.

Prairie Warbler is one of the yellowy ones with streaks and a distinctive face, except that the one today rather bucked the trend. It had some streaks but only faint ones and the face pattern lacked the expected clarity of a Prairie, but the oddest thing was a clean white throat instead of the regular whitish chin. To illustrate how different it was here is a male in full summer just because I have a shot of one (from Cuba, a bit south of Shelburne Co):

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Here is a typical fall bird from Nova Scotia

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And again.

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And another shot better showing the extent of the white on the chin.

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Here is today’s bird, an interesting example of variation.

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This is why birding is never boring, just when you think you have it nailed you learn something else.

A short post true but, sometimes, brevity is all that is required.

 

Peckish

I was about to wander out this morning when Johnny Nickerson called with hot news about a Red-headed Woodpecker not five kilometres from home, even taking into account an undulating flight. The location was Atwood Brook, another new eBird location for me, and the kind householders invited birders in for a look.

Behind the house and in one of the many Apple Trees sat the immature bird making the best of not being somewhere south, as it had probably expected to be when it started out on migration. The light was poor but record shots were taken before it seemed to exit the site via the back entrance. Thanks were proffered and that was that but, later, another visitor found a Snowy Egret in the adjacent marsh, more than enough of an excuse to head back for another look.

On my return, this time with Sandra for company instead of Mike MacDonald, there were other birders there and they had been enjoying views and photo opportunities but perhaps not scintillating ones. Then the skies emptied their load of water on us and we fled, peckered up but egret-less.

The rain stopped, we went back and finally I got a few nice shots, my best of the species. The egret seemed to have wandered off but luckily we have a thousand or so local ditches I can check tomorrow. It seems that we are having a great time for rare birds in southern Nova Scotia and, of course, the run will end at some point but probably not for long. We are in a privileged position down in the Banana Belt when it comes to the unusual birds as literally anything can and will show up. The only improvement I could suggest would be to seize Cape Forchu for Shelburne, and Seal Island while we are at it, or am I just being greedy?

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Choose wisely

I’m not really a political person but the time it fast approaching where my X on a card will be required as Canada goes to the polls. As a naturalist I only really have two choices, green would be nice but, realistically, the only requirement is the removal of the blue government, if it is orange or red that get in it makes no difference. The blue government is not the naturalist’s friend and I find it hard to believe that anyone who cares for the welfare of our birds and animals would vote blue. If you do you care more about money than life, a very sad position to be in.

We now live in a community that relies on the sea. Under the blue Government, big oil can drill and not worry. Any blow out is allowed 13 days grace before they are required to apply dispersant, allegedly, not clean up, just spread about a bit. It may seem well offshore but the summer brought the warm water close to us, it would do so with lost crude and dispersant too and if it did, well there goes your Lobsters for ten years or more and with it your trucks, ATVs, boats, houses, everything. All around CSI are blue placards in yards. If blue is returned again and you get what you voted for, you deserve it.  Having said that, I don’t know whether orange or red would deal with the issue, or whether they would immediately reverse blue policies that have so damaged Canada. The cynic in me says I doubt it, I hope we have the chance to find out either way.

And finally. Voting is one of the most important things you can do, whatever your voting preference, don’t shirk your responsibilities, go and vote. And now the birds…

House Wren has me beat. I tried Cape Forchu yesterday morning (Thursday 15th, October) as Ervin had seen the little imp yet again, and photographed it too of course. He’d also had a tanager that has been identified as a Scarlet but it bothers me, it looks wrong to my eye but I’ll leave that for now. We (Sandra and I) went and we saw neither wren nor tanager, such is life. We did see this late Magnolia Warbler – all warblers have their own schedule and eBird has their summer tenure all neatly wrapped up via date filters. Migrant hot spots such as Forchu might be expected to still produce these and other stragglers for perhaps a few weeks yet, depends what is on the next wave.

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Back on CSI in the afternoon, I decided to give our wren/s another last try. I sat, waited and up popped this Ruby-crowned Kinglet – nice.

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I waited some more, then there was movement from within, a small, dark bird to the naked eye, wren? No, just a White-eyed Vireo! I’m not sure that this is the same bird I saw in the same area a few days ago. The face pattern and bill wear and shape look different, two would not be impossible here.

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We are now back in northerly dominated weather patterns but, as soon as anything with south-west in it arrives, then so should more birds. We are edging towards the extreme vagrant period and any predictions made would be pure conjecture. Having said that I fancy a rare flycatcher and any one (or more) from Thick-billed, Cassin’s, Tropical or Couch’s Kingbird; Fork-tailed or Scissor-tailed Flycatcher or even, gasp, Pied Flycatcher (live the dream) would be most welcome. Anywhere in Yarmouth or, preferably, Shelburne Counties would do, on CSI would be even better.

I welcome comments regarding anything I write and you can use the contact information on the tab at the top of the page or leave a message. I’m also willing to help visiting birders, whether with information or in the field although I’m still learning the area but should have it nailed with twenty years or so. I am working on a CSI birding guide that will be a free eBook, if you want to collaborate, speak to me.

Even when it’s quiet

I was out early again today, patiently checking The Hawk, we the bit that is visible from Atwood and New Road. There is so much habitat that it could hide an Elephant but sometimes you get a feel for things. This morning it was clear that the birds had moved on. A late Black-throated Green Warbler was welcome but not the hoped for House Wren, it may just have been hiding behind that Elephant.

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This afternoon I went back, full of optimism, we why wouldn’t you be, that there would be a treat. It was still quiet except for a showy but distant Baltimore Oriole. I settled in to just see what might drop in, fingers crossed.

First up was a Yellow-rumped Warbler, just the one but a start.

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Predictably a Black-capped Chickadee came by to see what the Yellow-rumped was up to and, since I rarely put their pictures up here, here it is.

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Next was a female Black-throated Blue Warbler. This was pretty unexpected and very welcome, a CSI tick and a species to make eBird cough.

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After an age, another bird dropped by this time a Magnolia Warbler, another eBird botherer and a month tick, yes I keep a monthly list why, because it pleases me.

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That about wrapped it up but tomorrow it is another day and one I might spend looking for a tanager at Cape Forchu that I think is a Summer, either way a tanager in Nova Scotia is good.

American Wood Warblers are highly prized by birders in the UK, naturally. I have chased many with varying results but you always remember your first. For me it was an American Redstart – common here but super rare in the UK. Below is my account of the trip for those who enjoy reading about such things, hope you enjoy it and, as usual, there is a bit of a story behind it. It comes from my eBook ‘Twitching Times’, illustration by Sandra.

American Redstart

Lincolnshire, Gibraltar Point, 1stW, 7th-November to 5th-December 1982, (2/2).

14th-November  1982: I wasn’t really very sure what an American Redstart looked like, it was not in the AA book of British Birds, even the back bit where the rarities were, as far as I remember. I did know that it was very rare and from America. I sort of presumed that it would have a red tail like ours, I hadn’t bargained for the creative naming of Nearctic species by the settlers, names that reminded them of home while the summer mosquitoes feasted on them and they got surprised by Black Bears, briefly. I don’t think I even had a North American field guide at that point, and I certainly never expected to go there, live there eventually and to get American Redstarts along with their mosquito snacks in the yard (mustn’t call it a garden).

I was up early and collected Sandy Aitkin from his digs in Attenborough, Nottingham. Once I’d roused him from his Shipstones-inspired slumber, he was ready to go and eager to see our target. We set out for Gibraltar Point in my blue Ford Escort van, a van that didn’t go very fast at all and one that made the trip similar, in terms of actual time spent rattling along, to a trip to Dorset in a real car. The van cost pennies from a colleague, literally, and it was our best option for the trip as Sandy’s Triumph was a thirsty beast, expensive for just the two of us.

Gibraltar Point is at the back end of Skegness, that easy-on-the-eye Lincolnshire seaside town with its low key amusements. These amusements largely consist of annoying the donkeys that have to spend their life trudging along the beach, with kids dribbling ice creams all over them. The area that the redstart had chosen to frequent was a small wood by the main entrance, a wood that was normally out-of-bounds to the common birder but a special dispensation had been granted in order to allow twitchers (like me) to see the bird without the need for trespassing. It was at a time when anti-twitcher feeling was quite high, and so the gesture was a welcome change from the policy of some observatories.

There were not many twitchers around, the bird had been there seven days already and the hard-core bunch had already been. We arrived in pouring rain but, it being mid-November on the east coast of England, it was quite mild! We found our way into the wood and followed the path to the place where the bird had been seen most frequently. It was there alright, dancing through the soggy branches of a Sycamore, the tree that allows its leaves to rot on the branches and therefore the one that keeps its insects the longest too, much to the delight of insectivorous birds. Despite being a foreigner, the American Redstart had just followed the lead of the goldcrest flock, and was able to keep itself healthy and fed for the duration of its stay.

We spent a fair time on the bird, new for both of us (no, really), and I was pretty happy that I’d seen my first American wood warbler, I’d definitely buy a book with some in, now. Eventually Sandy had had enough of being wet, so he sloped off back to the van (which wasn’t locked, it had no locks)! I stayed in the woods a while, and wandered a bit more widely. Word was that there was also a Firecrest in there, too, and here I must confess, I added American Redstart to my life and UK list before Firecrest. I did find one, but I was pretty wet by then, and perhaps didn’t spend as long with it as I should. My alternative route back to the van took me through a section of small evergreens, a wetter route, true, but quicker.

As I brushed through the foliage, I couldn’t actually get wetter at this point, I suddenly found myself staring at two large and very orange eyes. They were inset into a facial disc that was topped off by two tufty ears, similar to those found on my first girlfriend (well, a bit). It was a Long-eared Owl. If you thought adding Firecrest to your life-list before American Redstart was bad, then you will be suitably appalled to know that the Long-eared Owl became lifer number three.

It was quite a trudge home, once we’d pushed the van to start it, another little quirk, but the remaining wiper kept the screen fairly opaque and we got home before the need for headlights, handy really. I must admit to flooring the accelerator most of the way back. It didn’t make any real difference to the speed, but I felt I was trying a bit harder; it was the van’s one and only twitch and I was sad to let it go, but quickly got over it.

American Redstart turned out to be something of a blocker for a few years, and many who joined the twitching ranks in the 80s upsurge were made to wait until they were able to claw back the tick. It is a real mega and will remain so, as all North American wood warblers must. On top of that, it is a really delightful bird and one I’m always happy to recall on those autumn evenings when I’m sat on the stoop, surrounded by them.