Stat attack

Since I started blogging in around 1066, I have always done two things at the end of the year. Written a personal review of the highlights (pending) and put my stats out there for public consumption – should anyone wish to consume that is.

I don’t claim that these stats represent anything more than enthusiasm for birding and energy to do so. I’ll also admit to a strong thirst for learning, here’s hoping that some of the things I threw at my brain during the year stuck.

Year list: Because it was a split year in terms of residency in two different provinces, I’m posting the only year list that now matters, the one for Nova Scotia. Despite missing spring and the true winter I did reasonably well in accumulating 259 species in Nova Scotia for the year. The fact that my NS life list, currently at 263, is just four more shows that the majority of my experience of birding in Nova Scotia came in 2015!

I have had some difficulty in deciding where to bird as a local patch. In Quebec, the nicely delineated sand pit at St-Lazare was nearly perfect for such things, on Cape Sable Island (CSI) the situation is a little different. Logically the whole of CSI is the patch, but for aesthetic reasons it doesn’t work that way and so, for the first time since 2001, I am local patchless. For now it is CSI and I managed 206 species there, next years I hope to do better.

I have not seen a lifer since October 2014, when Vaux’s Swift was added in downtown Portland. I should have gone for the Chestnut-collared Longspur in NS earlier this year but was still finding my feet and I prevaricated too long and missed the opportunity. Splits and lumps always lead to changes if you’ve birded a few places. and so my Life list went up a touch to 2702. I may never hit 8000 now, even three thousand seems to be out of the question.

While I didn’t manage to add to my North America list, 601 species, I did have some success in adding to my rather shoddy Canada list. Sixteen new species was rather pleasing and, with Nova Scotia the preeminent Maritime birding province, I can be optimistic that I’ll continue to add to that total, currently standing at 358.

With a bit more planning I might have been able to take my year list, species accumulated in Nova Scotia, Quebec and Ontario, up past 300 hundred. As it is I fell 12 short and there were a few glaring misses in there too! Because 2015 proved to be complicated in many ways, 288 is my lowest year score for 20 years however, I am not complaining.

One stat I keep is bird days, these are days when I went out actively seeking birds. My count starts around the year 1981, years previous to list were lost in a mother threw stuff away disaster. To the end of 2015, having logged 317 bird days during the year (210 in NS) I am now at 8563. While that number signifies the days spent birding, it does not reflect the locations visited, for example, in 2015 my eBird checklist submissions numbered 1048 and my total eBird (complete) checklists logged so far, I have notebooks and files full of stuff still to enter, is at 6127.

And so begins 2016 with all its non-bird related distractions called a real life. If you visit here often you know that I will be doing a CSI Big Year but I will also be going for NS ticks when I can and I will be going for lifers too, can’t be doing with another blank year.

Finally, to sign off 2015 I’d just like to thank my birding friends, new and old for making the whole thing so much more enjoyable, you may not have feathers but I like you all the same! The biggest thanks have to go to my patient wife Sandra, who now (after 25 years) knows that we go for it at the drop of a hat and she never, ever complains.

Have a great 2016 everyone. Below the obligatory photo – big twitch on CSI in May predicted.

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Going for it

As the dregs of December 2015 slip away, a young or old man’s fancy turns to year lists, 2015 has been a good year, next year will be better. Dawn January 1st 2016 will see me out there starting my own personal big year, no make that a Big Year. I will be trying to see as many species on Cape Sable Island (and including The Cape) during 2016 as I can and while that may mean I have to go birding every single day, I’m willing to suffer.

For those who want to join me in this epic quest there are a few rules that I will be applying.

1, All birds must be seen – no ‘heard only’, that is just how it is.

2, All birds must be seen from or on or over Cape Sable Island (including The Cape). You can stand on any shore and see any bird within identifiable range so, if a pelican of any colour flies over Sherose Island and you can see it from CSI, it’s yours.

3, No sightings that have suppressed can be counted. Suppression is a nasty habit that some birders have but, luckily, we have none of it here.

To add to the fun we shall also be seeing how many species can be seen in one year on CSI collectively. I’ll keep a running total and anyone visiting CSI can check the list and tell me if they saw something we didn’t – yes it happens!

I’ll also be doing the Cornell global big day in May, more on that later

The core list of birds (givens) do not require a phone call, they will be seen in the normal course of birding. Species on the tough list need a phone call, the mega list birds need every effort by everyone to get everyone onto them, even if you have to walk over hot coals to do it. The ‘given’, ‘tough’ and ‘mega’ lists will be on a tab at the top of the blog page for ready reference. I will highlight species as they get added to lists, if someone misses one I’ll append their initials so people know they need it.

4, Anyone can join the fun or leave the race at any time, your choice.

While this started as a personal Big Year, and in many ways so it will remain, the opportunity to participate in the sparring has been embraced by Johnny Nickerson and Mike MacDonald so far and so I will try to do monthly updates on overall progress. Johnny has to be the front runner, he knows CSI full stop, Mike and I are new but keen and will enjoy the learning curve.

Finally, I want us all to still be on speaking terms in January 2017, whoever sees the most species, agreed?

Now click on the tabs for the three categories of bird, make any comments you have here or by email at therealmarkdennis@gmail.com and let the fun begin January-1st 2016.

And now, because I know you like photos, here are some of my special wants for CSI (photos from elsewhere, not NS), I’ll not caption them, think of it as a mystery bird quiz if you like.

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For those of you who have been scratching your heads regarding the photos of species posted that I’d rather like to see in Nova Scotia, they are: Black-tailed Gull; Eared Grebe; Boreal Owl; Crested Caracara; California Gull; Green Heron; Grasshopper Sparrow; Common Greenshank; Black-necked Stilt; Couch’s Kingbird; Black Skimmer; Black-tailed Godwit; Fish Crow; Brown Booby; Yellow-billed Cuckoo; Pacfic-Slope Flycatcher and Magnificent Frigatebird. How did you do?

A Walk in the Woods

Despite having seen hundreds, no thousands of Ruffs spread over nine countries, the presence of one at the easy to view sewage plant in Windsor, NS made it tempting to try to add it to my Nova Scotia list. I’d aborted the same trip the day before with Mike MacDonald on the grounds of it not being worth dying on the road for in decidedly inclement weather. Now the sun would shine and Ronnie d’Entremont fancied it, Mike was unavailable though, so off Ronnie and I went.

It is a bit of a trek to Windsor from CSI via Yarmouth but there were other temptations to sweeten the deal. Not so far away from Windsor was Uniacke House and the Barrens Trail, home of a recent sighting of a Black-backed Woodpecker and White-winged Crossbill, both still unticked provincially speaking.

A Pileated Woodpecker and several each of Bald Eagle and Red-tailed Hawk made the journey more enjoyable than it might have been, while a Red Fox did its best to eclipse the birds, we don’t see so many around here and we don’t even have prats* on horses with dogs chasing them (illegally) around the countryside keeping their numbers up. In fairness most UK hunts now don’t chase foxes but  scent trails, those that still break the law deserve all the derision available. *(A prat is someone who longs for an idiot upgrade).

We got to the scenic lagoons, well fenced lest someone should get their feet wet and smelly, but it was clear from the glum demeanor of the birders already present that we were not in luck although a fly-past Sharpie was nice.

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Plan ‘B’ was to drive over to Uniacke House and walk the healthy woodland trail hoping to hear, then see the Black-backed Woodpecker – that is the normal schedule of events with these things. The White-winged Crossbills would pop up at some time and we could call back for the Ruff when it had returned. One of the glumbies was Chris Peters, he knew the Unaicke site and came with us, the other glumbies were Tony and Angie Millard, Robert Keereweer and a brief visit from someone whom I was reliably informed is called Hans, he never stopped to say hello so I can’t confirm the ID.

In setting out early that morning I had carefully transferred my birding stuff from one car to the other less used vehicle. In the excitement I had neglected to include my rubber boots and so my sole footwear was a pair of ageing trainers, no change there then. It is remarkable that the site parking lot was open on a holiday day, we were grateful that it was and judging by the cars in the parking lot, so were quite a few other visitors. A short walk got us into the right trail and it soon became clear that webbed feed would be more useful than standard issue. Once cold water has been over your ankles a couple of times it becomes pointless to show other than token regard for avoiding more moisture.

We walked to a point where a sign surprised us by announcing our arrival at the half-way point, surely we were further along? We’d been looking for an S-shaped tree and had joyfully lingered at two with zero results, now it was time to stick or twist. We could go on and hope for a third suitably shaped tree or head back defeated. We pressed on and Ronnie, who I have long suspected has the ears of a Jackal, heard a potential call at exactly the point where yet another S-shaped tree made its circuitous way to the light. Implementing a modicum of playback the bird replied and then flew over us, perching atop a bare tree that was nicely backlit by the bright sun.

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Distant photos were taken before the bird realised we’d duped it and went off back to making some innocent boring beetle bug’s life a misery. As we watched the woodpecker, the nervy “jeeting” of five White-winged Crossbills announced their brief presence, job done.

We splashed back to the car and hit the road for the sewage works again, now resplendent in the afternoon glow. An Iceland Gull, present earlier, was still posing and the same suspects found recently enjoyed sweetcorn (amongst other treats) in the bubbling pools but they were not joined by the wandering Ruff. Time marched on and so did we, four Snow Geese in Yarmouth beckoned if we could beat the moon rise.

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We got to Yarmouth with the light just fine and the Snow Geese were still on the golf course keeping the grass short. No Ruff but three Nova Scotia ticks plus a winter tick Pileated Woodpecker made for a good day, the only thing that could possibly mar it would be the reappearance of the Ruff at Windsor instead of at The Hawk, CSI.

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My absence from the Banana Belt meant that I had to get out and seek a Great Egret at Daniel’s Head, a winter tick (season December to the end of February) the next morning. It was pretty easy to find, if nervously flying around with a Great Blue Heron in hot pursuit. Just as I finished typing this, Facebook announces that the Ruff is back, I think I’ll wait and see what the impending snow does to its enthusiasm, personally, if it was me I’d head due south!

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Count week birds

One of the more logical things about the Christmas Bird Count (CBC) is the counting of birds not seen on the specified day during the count week, three days before and three days post the big day. It gives scope for getting some sort of data in the event of inclement weather and lets count circle results be more reflective of what is actually around over more than a single day snapshot. With this in mind I’ve been scouring our circle for missed species but only managed a Peregrine so far, tomorrow is the last chance and the forecast winds suggest that the sea would be rewarding were it to receive some prolonged attention.

Today I happened to venture into the Yarmouth CBC circle, a shopping trip but such frivolities are always improved by some side birding. A phone chat with Ervin Olsen had us sauntering along to Cape Forchu where, possibly, Purple Sandpipers might prove to be within lens range. He’d also photographed a Thick-billed Murre in roughly the same area, making the temptation of connecting with a new winter tick even more appealing. When we got there the wind had bucked up its ideas and was encouraging the sea to chop a bit. The surf being up was just the ticket for this young Harlequin, they must have excellent inner ears to cope with such heave.

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A little further around the headland, right off the civilised cinder track, ten Purple Sandpipers did their surf dances, skipping between spray and finding food on what appeared to barren rocks the sandpipers came close enough to enjoy and, despite the wind buffeting me around no matter where I tried to shelter, the results are my best ever yet.

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CBC Week

The Christmas Bird Count happens on CSI on Saturday 19th, Murray and Johnny have the thing sorted and we’ll be heading out to see what we can find. While those cheesy free press write-ups tend to focus on some brainless ‘new’ way to work either flapping, flocking or, for the more upmarket rags, migrating, into the piece we’ll be ignoring that drivel and looking for count week birds, then gearing up for the count day slog. It looks like it will be cool and dry at the start but we might hit the odd shower later.

Our count area, the MacDonalds and the Dennis’, is roughly the northern half of the island, quite a challenge but we have the talent to cope! Prior to the count we’ve managed to hold our main prize, the Lark Sparrow, for count week at least. Lower down the pecking order (see, even I’m doing it now!) comes a Swamp Sparrow – still here, then fingers crossed for no hunters in the channel on the day and hope for favourable winds and tides.

One productive area within the count circle has been Port La Tour and the Baccaro Peninsula. Sand Hills Provincial Park at Port La Tour has a fine roving flock of small birds (as of Dec-17th) including three Pine Warblers and a Blue-headed Vireo, all seen within the count week period (Dec 15th-22nd). Nearby a Rough-legged Hawk at Villagedale – Dec-17th (new for my NS list) – might be seen again, if not then we have it for the week at least.

 

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Just a ‘doc shot’ I know but a CBC good bird.

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Boreal Chickadees, so easy to miss, were showing well at West Smithville.

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Baccaro is a little harder to work but last week’s Prairie Warblers, plural, are probably still there along with a Hermit Thrush and Eastern Towhee that showed to one birder but have now gone missing, they just need to be found. Right at the tip of Baccaro the sea watching opportunities are as good as any in Nova Scotia. Yesterday I watched a grumpy Pomarine Jaeger bully a Black-legged Kittiwake into donating its lunch while the other 69 kittiwakes watched, grateful to be left alone!

On CSI, our Mountain Bluebird duo remain into the count period, surely the first time ever, and should be there for the big day if it gets checked at the right time. With tons of gulls around, especially Bonaparte’s, CSI counters will have their hands full and the final totals will make very interesting reading. I’m told that in the event of any rarities being found, word goes out and we all get a crack at it, them, whatever. I’ll settle for one of these, and no, I’m not going to tell you what it is!

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My next post is likely to be a full account of what we find while enjoying participating in Nova Scotia’s 116th CBC, wish us luck.

Well the day was pretty cold with snow squalls and a gusty wind full of malevolent intent but we managed 48 species and Ronnie d’Entremont dropped by to add two more, not bad considering.

December, really!

Some days start well and then fade into obscurity; that feeling of peaking early is something we all know, you just get used to it. Other days just keep on getting better and if it is disappointing to check the watch and find dusk has sneaked up unnoticed then it was a good day, just like this one.

The yard has been a constant source of birding entertainment. On December 12th, three Iceland Gulls came over together, yard tick 118. The White-throated Sparrow mob, flock is far too polite a word for them, has now reached thirty, meaning the Song Sparrows get pushed around and the Swamp Sparrow tries to sneak around unnoticed. For those interested, I keep the yard list updated and illustrate it when I can, just check the tab at the top of the page.

After birding the yard I wandered out to check nearby Drinking Brook Park. This tiny parking lot gives a great view of the bay, pity we don’t have more like this dotted around at strategic birding locations. I scanned the bay diligently, counting the many Horned and Red-necked Grebes plus healthy portions of all three scoters, Common Eiders and Long-tailed Ducks. I have recently been searching for a Common Merganser seen by Mike MacDonald, winter list and all that, but there was no sign. In the middle of the view from the parking lot is a rock, a big rock that sticks out and one I’ve tended to ignore unless something large is sat on it. On this day it passed quickly through my field of view, which then skidded to a halt, cartoon style, before tracking back and finding the rock somewhat covered in carbuncles.

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The carbuncles were shorebirds and, even at range and without seeing details, I knew that they would be Purple Sandpipers. A switch to the scope confirmed it, 16 clinging on in the lea of a nor-easter or at last a brisk north east wind with pretensions. A quick call and Mike was soon there to add them to his Nova Scotia list and then, later, to his yard list. With such a good start there was only one thing to do, get to Daniel’s Head pronto.

Daniel’s Head was quiet, apart from the whitest of the Snowy Owls and three Bonaparte’s Gulls, then I got a call from Johnny telling me of an Eastern Towhee and Prairie Warbler at Baccaro, now we were talking Nova Scotia lifer and quality winter warbler tick, time to go.

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Sandra joined me and we wandered off to Baccaro Point then back to check the road. As it happened I had not got the right spot but it didn’t matter as we found a Prairie Warbler anyway! We did some more searching without ever actually getting to the right spot, a place where the birds had been seen.

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Emboldened by our success we went for (yet) another drive down Blanche in the hope that one of the fabled Grey Jays would finally grace our list, it didn’t, but we did see some nice birds. Best of all were a trio of Boreal Chickadees that showed well in shade. A close second was a couple of unseasonable Ruby-crowned Kinglets. A few other species were added to the mix to make the visit most enjoyable before we called it a day. With the winter list having crept up to 112 and much of the birding done without coats it was, as I said, a good day.

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Continuing the theme of good days, Angela Granchelli contacted me and asked whether I’d show her and a few friends around CSI the coming Tuesday, of course I said yes. The weather stuck its oar in though and the event was brought forwards to Monday, today then. While I was scooting around The Hawk prior to their arrival I had the pleasure of watching a Cooper’s Hawk chase a Mourning Dove, I suspect that the pleasure was all mine as the dove didn’t seem too pleased and the Cooper’s hadn’t caught it. We met up and immediately went over to the lair of the Mountain Bluebird, the title of the book Tolkien probably wishes he’d written. Our group consisted of me, obviously, Angela, Paul, Mimmi and Diane. Our luck was in and the bluebirds came out to play straight away. Just for completeness I include a picture of one of them taken previously.

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Now we needed to see a Snowy Owl and where better to go than Daniel’s Head? Wrong, the owls had skipped town and so we made do with this obliging Black Guillemot off the quay.

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Moving down to the beach (eventually) we scanned far out seeing lots of Red-necked Grebes before scanning right in and finding a Dovekie. Hugging the beach, the Dovekie made its way around the headland as we sprinted, well alright, ambled briskly, in front to maximise the photo ops. For some reason I had managed to mangle my settings so the Dovekie is not that sharp but still the best I have, so far.

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On a roll we went to The Hawk following the sage advice of Johnny and searched from the church for distant Snowy Owls but there were none. Just for the record, the bluebirds had done their usual disappearing trick too. Dianne got views of a Lark Sparrow but it went for cover and didn’t come back out, it was time to move.

Checks at West Head, after a welcome comfort break in Clarke’s Harbour’s municipal building (don’t worry, they do have a special room for it) revealed little, so we drove to Stoney Island Beach to look again for a Razorbill that had been so happy to show the day before. The beach was busy with a conference of gulls all mulling over the possibilities of rotting kelp. In there was a big biscuit coloured gull, Glaucous. This made up for an adult that had fled on our arrival offering only brief views. Iceland Gull was also as where a flock of 30 birds that all appeared to be Lapland Longspurs, well at least the three that I saw well enough were, made the visit even more fruitful. The gull gallery also included not one but 17 Bonaparte’s Gulls, very good numbers for CSI.

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Our final few stops added a few species but Mike’s Lark Sparrow only chose to show up ten minutes after the Halifax bound truck had departed. By my reckoning we had 46 species although I include two in the total that I saw before we all got together. It was a pleasure to meet everyone and I hope that the CSI trip was worthwhile, I enjoyed it.

Here are the Glaucous Girls and Boy – L-R: Diane,  Angela, Paul and Mimmi.

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Progress Report

When Sandra and I moved to Nova Scotia at the end of May I wasn’t really sure of what to expect in terms of birds. Sure I knew that the birding here could be good, but looking at eBird and trying to figure things out led me to set a hopeful year list target of 250, basically the same as I expected to see when living in Quebec. I say optimistic because we didn’t get the spring birds, obviously, and everything else would be something of an unknown quantity. As we come to the end of the year I’m on 254 and can probably expect one or two more before those firecrackers announce a New Year by scaring all the wildlife senseless.

Mission accomplished, I now turn what else I might find before the 2016 CSI Big Year gets underway? To help, I thought I’d employ two sources, my experience and eBird’s predictor tool. Experience tells me that the following are likely to fall soon, and I’ll illustrate the species for those who enjoy the photos, even though these are not from Nova Scotia (but were taken by me). Those species listed after the obvious six, well a boy can dream.

1, Rough-legged Hawk: Bit surprised not to have found one yet but they seem pretty thin on the ground at the moment. Harder weather will see a southerly movement and one will come my way – site prediction, Daniel’s Head, CSI.

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2, Snow Goose: The vast numbers that are currently held up by mild weather in New Brunswick and Quebec will be dispersed and move mostly south, a few should come our way and, as they stick out like sore thumbs it should be fairly easy to find – site prediction, Yarmouth Harbour.

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3, Bohemian Waxwing: We still have plenty of berries left for the Bohemian Waxwings when they arrive. The weather may have to cool a bit but European birds are now on the move and ours are likely also moving, site prediction, Clam Point, CSI.

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4, Common Redpoll: Record numbers were counted moving south this autumn but not in southern Nova Scotia where they are currently rare. Some will come through soon, again when their desire to move is triggered by inclement weather, site prediction, Clam Point, CSI.

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5, Northern Shrike: Likely to follow the redpolls south which would explain why it is absent from the Nova Scotia winter list (at Dec 11th). When it does arrive it will not be numerous and might mean travel. Site prediction, Clyde River area.

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6, Pine Grosbeak: I already missed some not too far away, despite being big for a finch tey can be so discrete when feeding low in berry bushes, you can walk right past them – site prediction, Cape Forchu, Yarmouth Co.

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And now the outside possibilities based on purely wishful thinking!

7, Ivory Gull: This may be the year when Ivory Gulls disperse southwards at least as far as CSI! Any dead seal will be worth keeping an eye one as will Tim’s parking lots – site prediction, Pubnico (somewhere).

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8, Slaty-backed Gull: This is the year when an adult will winter, trust me – site prediction, Sullivan’s Pond, Dartmouth.

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9, Eurasian Jackdaw: It has been a long time since the last one so we are due, besides, I need it for North America! Site prediction, a trash dump somewhere with lots of crows.

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10, Common Chaffinch: Well why not? Another N. America tick for me and one of the commonest birds in Western Europe. Site prediction, coming to a feeder near you!

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So there we are a modest ten more birds for 2015 requested. For your own interest here are the top ten eBird predictions for me in Nova Scotia: 1, Common Redpoll; 2, Rough-legged Hawk; 3, Pine Grosbeak; 4, Bohemian Waxwing; 5, Northern Shrike; 6, Red Crossbill; 7, Eurasian Kestrel; 8, Snow Goose; 9, Dusky Flycatcher; 10, Eastern Towhee.

Spot the one species that I have absolutely no chance of EVER seeing in Nova Scotia!

I also suspect the following have a good chance of popping up over the winter, eBird position in brackets: Marsh Wren (13th); Hoary Redpoll (15th); Mew Gull (16th); Forster’s Tern (33rd); King Eider (43rd); Tufted Duck (44th); Gyr Falcon (49th) and American Woodcock (57th.

Finally, for your interest, my predictions and their eBird position not already mentioned were: Ivory Gull, 60th; Slaty-backed Gull, 52nd; Eurasian Jackdaw, 25th; and Common Chaffinch, 51st. Who will be right, I’ll let you know.