Bitter Sweet

We’ve been patiently waiting for a Thick-billed Murre to show up on CSI for the year list and they have steadfastly remained at sea until today. Johnny saw one from Barrington causeway this morning and summoned the troops. For Mike it was a life birds, two in two days as it happened. For me it was another chance to engage with what had been a mythical bird until my life bird in Kingston, Ontario a few years ago.

In the UK, it’s a Brunnich’s Guillemot and, until a fairly recent one that lingered off the south coast of all places, it had been something of a pot of gold at the end of the twitching rainbow. To me they have a certain melancholy air to them, their bill held slightly low as they shuffle around. The causeway bird chugged along up and down, diving at intervals and being all thick-billed. I rattled off a few shots, trying to catch the right angles, shooting at water level would have been favourite but possibly also fatal.

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Perhaps not a great phrase to use in view of the fact that the Thick-billed Murre seems to have got it into its head to try to fly across the road, unsuccessfully. I recovered the corpse and it was in fine condition, apart from having expired that is.

I then went off to Baccaro to search the Common Eider raft for anything remotely regal, I’m talking King Eider, we must get them, we just have to keep looking. I spent time watching a Purple Sandpiper doing a skip and a jump every time a wave crashed over its chosen rock. Slightly distant for a photo of any quality but entertaining.

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More or less the next stop was Seal Point Wharf at Port La Tour where a mass of gulls were scavenging. As I pulled up, a few gulls on the roof of an outbuilding were nicely juxtaposed, especially adult Glaucous and Iceland Gulls.

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Over the outflow, the melee included a couple of Glaucous Gulls and 40 odd Iceland Gulls, my favourite sort of mix. Here are a trio of shots of the same immature Glauc.

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One of the adult Glaucous Gulls had some sort of stomach injury, quite severe in appearance but it seemed to be coping and grabbing its fair share of offal.

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I could put many more shots of gulls up but I’ll spare you the tedium and end with an Iceland Gull of the race kumlieni, most are here, this one is at the darker end of the range in terms of primary colour.

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Next Milestone

With January 2016 coming to a close it is time to count up and see how things are going in the CSI Big Year. I had thought that somewhere around 75 species would be at the upper end of optimism well, I have 102 species and that augers well for my Big Year being truly big. Oddly enough there are a few absent species but that will likely change as February arrives and the depths of true winter bite.

Number 100 was Gadwall, I’d hoped it would be the elusive Northern Mockingbird but, true to form it lived up to its name and made number 101 on the list! After a lot of hours searching, well birding hoping to see it, I found it within three minutes on what would have been the final ‘serious’ search. Now folks on The Hawk can feel free that the shambolic figure wandering Atwood Road has found fulfillment, for now.

We get Snowy Owls regularly in CSI but not daily, recently they have been preferring the habitat at Baccaro rather than the clutter of Daniel’s Head. A couple of days ago a new one arrived and took up station on the high ridge by the trailer park. I could have stalked closer, got the frame-filler, but something about the whole panorama said something more was required so here is a distant shot that more captures the essence.

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Opportunistic photo ops sometimes come along and as I made yet another perusal of Daniel’s Head this Merlin sat fast on the utility wire. The light was perfect and the subject encapsulated the perfect micro-predator.

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Rare birds are a luxury, they do come along occasionally, sometimes you experience a glut, sometimes a dearth, they are always welcome. Today (Jan-27th) I’d been out searching diligently but not seeing that much. The rain had decided it was a good idea to fall, better than snow I suppose, so I headed home along my usual route. It is an inevitability of driving that there will always be a truck behind you, they may be technically inanimate unless under gear but those behind you inevitably exude an air of impatience. Mostly the conscientious driver will allow the annoyance to pass at the first opportunity, if only to make a space for the next one, birders seeing something interesting think differently.

As I sped past the little gully that feeds into Baker’s Flats a dark object caught my eye, bird or Muskrat? Interest piqued I did a turn and went back. The rain fell but the range was short and the bird obviously interesting, it was a Tufted Duck. I had stopped in the road to look and the truck to my rear was not so happy having to steer around me. Seems the onerous task of turning a power-assisted steering wheel caused great personal trauma, still, I expect he’ll get over it.

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The Tufted Duck is common where I come from, Mallard common, so I was sure of the ID, but I sent Alix a camera shot just for comment. My cell phone was put to the task and CSI birders summoned. The duck sat tight and we, and others, enjoyed good views and photo opportunities of a good rarity. It might look drab but it has travelled a fair way to cheer us up.

Ervin came over to see the duck and had taken advantage of being in birding Shangri-La and called in at the previously well-inspected Daniel’s Head. He’d found a nice bunch of Horned Larks with a Lapland Longspur as a guest so Sandra and I popped in and enjoyed the visitors.

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Although it is only a list, the motivation to see birds on CSI has resulted in detailed records of the birds present, as entered into eBird. By the end of the year, the collective recording on CSI will give a thorough picture of twelve-months birding in the Banana Belt and should enhance the areas reputation as a premier bird and birding location.

The next milestone will be 200, I don’t expect to get there soon, maybe by the end of the autumn, only time will tell.

Are we getting lazy?

I have notebooks that go back to 1981 and in them, well the older ones, are sets of field notes. In some I have four or five pages devoted to the intricate detail as witnessed at the event, usually of a new bird. I’d scan one to show you but I have the handwriting of a Doctor! Oh, go on then, here is a page from 1985. I bet Facebook puts this image up and not a bird shot!

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In recent times this ‘habit’ of writing notes just seems to have slipped away. I do have short notes regarding behaviour or a feature seen but not expected but I have to go back a few years to see anything in detail and longer still to find field sketches.

I was schooled in the art of field birding literally, Ornithology was a lesson option in high school and I did two years learning from old-school field birders. I went through a phase of thinking I could draw and paint, I was wrong but I still like the results because they evoke the emotion of the time, but I didn’t continue with it other than to doodle really. One of the things that I think have stymied my note taking in the past ten years is the digital camera, it really has removed the need for writing down plumage details, and even field counts. Nowadays if I see a distant rock with a load of cormorant necks on it, I take a snap, zoom in on the PC and have my count, same with duck or shorebird flocks and it’s more accurate too. It isn’t a bad thing, the digital camera, it has, or should have, replaced the gun when it comes to documentation, even of species new to science, and it has enabled us to secure much more detail on individuals seen and across the identification spectrum.

A case in point is my recent and ongoing quest for a Thayer’s Gull in Nova Scotia. With digital I don’t have to see the nuances of p5 strapping or true eye colour. I can click away as much as I like and then all I have to do is upload the shots and work through them at leisure. You can certainly process a lot of birds this way but you do miss out on a number of things, size comparison for one and jizz, that indefinable different shape you see better in the field than on pixels.

I think that there is still room for all birders to take notes, especially people who are new to the craft. Taking notes involves you in the process of identification and, if you are of a good eye, advances your identification skills through such involvement. You don’t have to be an artist either, just make sure you don’t draw more than two wings and one head on any one bird sketched but, don’t worry if you do, you can always stick it on Facebook and get 200 likes.

You may be wondering how the CSI Big Year is going? Well, there is my species list on the side bar after the book covers. I’ll add a number and date at the end of January and continue to do so throughout the year. It just gives you an idea of how good the birding is here and what I still have yet to see. On the page tabs at the top there is a CSI cumulative list that shows how many species have been recorded on CSI by everybody. If you saw something that is not on there please let me know.

We did our first trip out to The Cape recently, Mike, Ervin and myself. Landing at Stephen’s Point, we were heading one way when a bird flew back the way we came so we went after it. On the tide wrack a Snow Bunting and two American Pipits fed, case solved and so we continued that way. It was a bit of a slog although we did kick up a Savannah Sparrow and not of the expected Ipswich form (aka Sable Island Sparrow, see previous posts). The next highlight arrived when we came across a raft of Harlequins just offshore. Elsewhere around the island a few more were added to the Harlequin total giving 18 birds.

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We had hoped to find a Thick-billed Murre sheltering in the bay near the Lighthouse but the storms have not brought us any yet, we’ll have to be patient. The time on the island passed quickly and it wasn’t until we were headed back to Stephen’s Point for the pick up when the birding improved. Four Horned Larks and an American Kestrel were year ticks but we still hadn’t found the Short-eared Owls that Mike and I had watched from the Fish Plant Road parking lot the evening before.

Ervin had wandered off to do a bit of beachcombing so Mike and I went the opposite way back to the pick-up point, via the sheep pen and the way we were headed when we’d landed three hours earlier. Not 50m from the shore we flushed two Short-eared Owls that promptly flew away towards the Lighthouse. I didn’t get much of a lens on them but this is better than nothing.

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On the main island the birding has been good but, at times frustrating. A little group of active Common Goldeneye off The Hawk Beach required a yomp along the stony bank to get a good look. The yomp was prompted by my suspicion that one was a Barrow’s. We got closer by around 300m and yes, it was a Barrow’s, a CSI tick. They were a part of a purple patch where I got four CSI year ticks in consecutive days including Fox Sparrows at Murray and Cindy’s feeders, found by Mike and a Chipping Sparrow at our feeders.

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Since then it has slackened off a bit, but three fly-over Common Mergansers at Daniel’s Head for me took care of a tricky one, a bonus, as much of my time recently has been spent looking for an elusive Northern Mockingbird on Atwood Road, The Hawk. Johnny saw it a while ago, then Mike saw it again very recently flying over the road. I think I’ve logged seven hours looking so far, interspersed with trips to Fish Plant Road counting 40+ Iceland Gulls and two Glaucous at low water. I’ll get it yet if it survives the current snow storm, the yard had 1.5m drifts which is odd as all the snow falling is going horizontally!

Going back a bit here are a few shots, some from the yard and a few from elsewhere.

This Bald Eagle kept annoying the gulls by snatching their fishy lunches.

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Our yard has a steady flock of White-throated Sparrows. Most look pretty normal but this one is decidedly spotty. I’ve seen late summer immatures that have been fairly spotty but this one looks like it might need a lotion – a hybrid isn’t ruled out at this stage.

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While looking for murres around the various CSI wharves I came across a Common Loon fishing close to so I sat in the car and waited, getting a few shots.

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These are of Common Loons too, three different birds showing how they don’t always look quite like they should. The middle bird was quite distinctive (and not that size).

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A more recent visit to Lower West Pubnico had few gulls on show, no fish bits, but this adult Lesser Black-backed Gull was nice to see.

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Finally an American Goldfinch from the yard, one of 150! And an orange-morph Purple Finch, one of at least 18. They cost a fortune in Black Sunflower seeds.

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2015 – part two

I’ve been picking away at this for weeks now and not getting any closer to having something to post, so, I decided that I would just post just a few of my personal highlights from birding in Nova Scotia in 2015, simple!

My best birding thing, amongst many birding things, was the life-long ambition to get up close and personal with Buff-breasted Sandpipers. OK, not that big on some folks’ lists of highlights but we all want different things. In my case a trip to The Cape brought the ambition to fruition and I took hundreds of shots. I did contemplate laying on the ground for the eye-level shots but, to be honest, getting back up again would have been glacial so I settled for a slight crouch.

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Now, in no particular order, are the other highlights. Each is personal to me and might not necessarily ring anyone else’s bell.

I love gulls, but you won’t find any here this time (wonder how many got past ‘gulls’ there before clicking the X)! I think that seeing birds in their most spectacular plumage is very satisfying and there was one species that I’d only seen in non-nuptial plumage, I’ve seen lots but not the full, widescreen version (hi-def now I suppose).

Our yard is pretty good for hummingbirds and I keep a few feeders going for them, even hanging one well into November. There is method in this madness as I well remember twitching an Anna’s Hummingbird in Quebec when snow was deep on the ground and the hummer feeder was being kept unfrozen by a small candle placed beneath it. While Anna’s is a long shot in Nova Scotia, Rufous has better odds and so I planned to keep a little something sweet in the yard for them. I hadn’t bargained on pure serendipity taking over.

Ronnie d’Entremont had a call from Frank and Janet d’Entremont about a funny hummer up at their cabin near East Kemptville which they thought might be a rufous. Ronnie and Sharron popped up and confirmed the ID, a male in summer plumage too. Frank and Janet graciously allowed birder access to their yard, and the twitch was on and so Sandra and I were soon found perched on deck chairs waiting in anticipation. It came in quietly and performed beautifully. The rather dark conditions made photography difficult but I managed a few to commemorate the occasion. Sadly it didn’t stick around too long despite appearing settled and it would have been nice had it stayed for Ronnie to work his photo magic in good light.

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Over the years I have come to realise that there is not really such a thing as a bad day for birding. Some may be less than ideal but they can often surprise you. Picture a foggy July day, well we do get those but generally only between January 1st – December 31st when the winds is from the south. Despite the prospects being less than rosy I headed out to Daniel’s Head to see what I could nearly see. From one of the regular lookouts I could see a small number of terns fishing offshore, one looked wrong but kept disappearing into the rolling fog bank that sat 400m out there like an angry granny. Undaunted, I pushed the ISO up on the camera (sounds like I know what I’m doing eh!) and manually focussed on the almost invisible blob. I eventually got decent views to confirm my suspicion that it was a Sandwich Tern, I didn’t get decent shots but they were enough to document the event. Taking away the records produced by a Hurricane Earl, it was a pretty good self-found to start with, pity hardly anyone else saw it before it slipped off into the fog never to return.

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One lunch time at home in Clam Point, I heard a Black-billed Cuckoo spark up nearby but it was only for a short while and it never showed. A few weeks later it (or another) did the same thing, this time I got a confirmatory view. Our yard is open to birders at any time and quite a few came to see the bird and generally it showed well. On one date, Alix d’Entremont and Keith Lowe came over and we suddenly found that we had two in the same small tree! At least one of the birds stayed around for a few weeks and you could almost set your watch by when it would start up coo-coo-cooing, we only saw two together again on a single later date.

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As part of my local orientation I would go to places featured in the late Blake Maybank’s ‘Birding Nova Scotia’, an excellent site guide. Baccaro was high on my list of places to visit regularly and so I’d go and have a look around when I could, pausing where there was parking. One regular spot was Fort Creek Park, next to the road and looking in a bay that often had shorebirds and with a few land birds around too. One morning I’d called in there when I heard a very familiar bird calling, a Great Crested Flycatcher. In Quebec this was a yard bird and we always enjoyed it when they brought their brood along to eat all of our Raspberries. I got some record shots of it before it moved along the road a little way, calling as it went. I put the news out but it was elusive with only a couple of visiting birders hearing it. I looked several times on later dates but never found it again.

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We get tons of shorebirds on CSI and it is tempting to think that they will all go for The Hawk by choice or perhaps Daniel’s Head as a secondary option. A stark example that this is not the case occurred when Sandra and I stopped to look around Stumpy Cove, just south of the town of Clark’s Harbour, and came up with a Marbled Godwit. It was a bit distant and I didn’t really see a perfect shot of it during its short stay. Mine was taken in poor light but it is in the company of a Hudsonian Godwit for comparison. It stayed a few days and everybody eventually managed to connect with it, which was pleasing.

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Yellow-breasted Chat has always been a difficult bird for me in Canada, I never got one in Quebec, never really came very close either, so it was a surprise to realise that they are pretty regular on migration in Nova Scotia, especially in the south. I got one that Ronnie found at Cape Forchu but it was a heard only, so I really wanted a decent look at one. Ronnie found another at Bear Point but that one too refused to play the game, then one morning I got a call from Ervin Olsen whom I was meeting up with later to go to The Cape. He’d been birding Daniel’s Head beforehand and had found one amongst the old Lobster traps.

The chat is a notorious skulker and I expected to have trouble seeing it but no, up onto the traps it popped, slightly against the light but not terrible.

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Hawk passage is something I always looked forwards to in Quebec when, for a couple of weeks in September I might just get the right conditions for a flight. It happened a couple of times but the kettles, flocks of hawks, were never very large and moved through pretty quickly.

Ronnie and I went to Brier Island in September hoping for kettles and rarities. It was very breezy and clear, great for hawks but no so good for rarities. It didn’t matter as we came upon the following kettle made up mainly of Broad-winged Hawks with a few Red-tails and Bald Eagles in there, spectacular.

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I’ve written before about my travails in finding Purple Sandpipers in Quebec. They are around Tadoussac in winter but, unless you know their favourite nooks, hard to find. I even email the local birder who always reported them but got no reply, probably because I used Google translate which can be creative. Now we live where Purple Sandpipers come for the winter and I see them regularly. This one was at Cape Forchu, where a little group proved very photogenic.

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A lot of years ago I stood on the lake bank of the country park where I worked and found a distant Dovekie out on the lake. It’s called Little Auk over there and is a real county prize. It didn’t stay long and only my boss, also a birder, saw it. Since then I’ve always had a soft spot for them and wanted to photograph one reasonably well.

I had the chance when a gang came down from Halifax but didn’t make a great job of it. In mitigation it was on a bouncy sea. When Alix d’Entremont came across one off the wharf at Daniel’s Head I took the opportunity, another ‘want to get a decent photo of’ tick in the bag.

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Birds aside, the number one real highlight for the latter half of the year has been moving to Nova Scotia and being accepted by the birding community. It could have been a difficult thing but Ronnie, Sharron, Alix, Mike, Sandra, Paul, Johnny, Sandra, Ervin, Rachel, Larry, Laurel, Murray, Cindy, Cal, and Clyde, et al (means everybody else and there are lots more) have been just great.

There are not that many birders in Southern Nova Scotia and we are looking at a large area. Over the years I hope to find and especially share lots of good birds. I have a had some luck so far, fingers crossed for many more.

Gulls #3

So I’ve almost completed my trawl through the 1200+ photos I took at Lower West Pubnico recently. To give you an idea of the gull mayhem on one of the visits, here are a fraction of those in the vista!

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I’ve been looking for Thayer’s candidates as you know and now I have one. This gull (left one) has the following pro Thayer’s Gull features.

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The bill has a green base, limited markings and rather shallow gonydal angle.

The eye is dark looking.

The body has a rusty brown shawl extending almost hood-like..

The wing pattern is venetian blind like. The primary outer webs seem dark for a kumlien’s.

The underwing is white-looking.

The legs seem to have more colour than the adjacent adult Iceland Gull of the form kumlieni.

Things against it.

No dark strap on the tip of P5 (approx 25% of the Thayer’s population lack this mark).

The mantle colour is open to debate in terms of shade.

Location!

Unless someone can come up with why this isn’t a Thayer’s Gull, I intend to add it to my eBird checklist for January-11th 2016. At some point we have to say that this is a Thayer’s Gull rather than waiting for perfection.

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Now that we have got that one out of the way, here is a gull that was also present and, to be honest, I’m not sure what it is. It would seem to be of the white-winged type, so realistically Glaucous or Iceland. Glauc never has primaries shaded like this although the progeny of Glaucous x Herring might. The primary projection (beyond the tail) is rather short, too short for Iceland Gull. The bill is rather hefty, it seems too deep for an Iceland Gull and too short for a Glaucous Gull. In size it was similar or slightly larger than Iceland and it has a bukier look too. If you are reading this then you obviously have enough interest in gulls to keep going so, comments please.

Gulls #2

This post is one you can skip if you have no interest in gulls. It is largely devoted to an odd looking gull that I saw at Lower West Pubnico on a couple of dates. It was a large bird, larger and more bulky than any of the other Iceland Gulls (kumlieni) that were around. It also has an odd expression, not at all ‘dove-like’ as expected in Iceland Gulls. When I did my eBird report I included the photo under Glaucous Gull, in part to see what others might make of it (I know I’m being watched!). The ID came back as Iceland and it is Iceland, but not as we know it Jim.

The bird would appear to be in a second-cycle plumage based on the bi-coloured bill. For a thorough explanation of ageing terminology, read the following more than once, possibly daily for a month to understand it all:

http://www.ofo.ca/site/page/view/articles.plumages

Here are a sequence of photos of the odd looker, flying, standing and swimming, see what you think.

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Here’s a sequence of photos of presumed kumlieni from the same location and of similar age plus one from Quebec a few years ago that may (or may not) be a bit older.

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There is strong morphological (plumage) evidence that the odd bird is a nominate Iceland Gull, if you’ve followed this so far, here is an explanation regarding the two forms:

Iceland Gull currently comprises of two forms, Larus glaucoides glaucoides which breeds in Greenland (so why is it called Iceland Gull?) and winters in W. Europe and is the nominate race (denoting a race or subspecies that is given the same epithet as the species to which it belongs, for example, Larus glaucoides glaucoides). It has wing tips that are white and unmarked and that is the baseline by which they should be identified. The other form of Iceland Gull is Larus glaucoides kumlieni, it’s found in North American (here) and it has wing tips variously marked from having pale grey vestigial smudges to full-blown grey patterns. Put simply, if it has dark patterned wing tips it’s a Kumlien’s, if not it is an Iceland, end of, well almost.

Apparently, gulls with pure white tips as per glaucoides have been seen in kumlieni breeding colonies. To me that just means that they are possibly misplaced glaucoides and not necessarily extreme versions of kumlieni, if not, then why bother having the two races at all, just call everything glaucoides. It may also be that observing apparently pure white winged glaucoides in kumlieni colonies is not so straightforward, given that their cliff nests are hard to get to. Fortunately, one of the benefits of the digital photography age is that we can now freeze and then critically examine images at leisure. A good example of this is shown here with this adult Iceland Gull with an adult Kumlien’s following to compare.

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At first-glance the featured adult appears to be a nominate glaucoides but the darker areas on P10 and P9 give the game away, it’s a kumlieni, even if the darker shading doesn’t extend to the white primary tips.

Plenty to chew on there for you laridophiles. Comments always welcome.

Quick Ton

Less than half-way through January and my Nova Scotia year list is at 101 already. To give that perspective, my previous best January total in Canada was 61. Today (Thurs Jan-14th) was a pretty good day, starting as it did with my second CSI tick (as opposed to year tick, keep up!) in two days. Yesterday I added Ruffed Grouse, today it was Rough-legged Hawk. I missed a Northern Mockingbird but sometimes you have to take the ruff/rough with the smooth.

Didn’t get a shot of the hawk but this Northern Harrier was a nice fly-by.

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The weather yesterday, howling north-westerlies, had obviously mixed up a few birds and a Northern Fulmar had found itself deposited opposite the fish-flue at Dennis Point. Ronnie found it and the twitch was on. When Mike and I got there the bird was absent, but a short while later it paddled in and proceeded to win its share of the bounty against much larger opponents.

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Also around were a couple of Glaucous Gulls, one sat on the water and smiled.

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For those interested my running CSI list it is on the side bar. On the CSI Big Year tab at the top is the CSI cumulative list.