Oh We Sail the Ocean Blue

And our saucy ship was a beauty, well boat actually, the Lady Melissa, a Herring Seiner out of Yarmouth, NS. Ronnie and I were guests although Ronnie had Ellis and Arthur on-board, brothers two, and he knew all the crew and their sisters and their cousins and their aunts. Before I carry on, you do realise I’m quoting bits of Gilbert & Sullivan, light, comedic operetta here, HMS Pinafore to be exact. I’ll stop now and get on with the blog if that is alright with you and promise not to do it never again. What never? Hardly ever.

So what is seining? Watch and learn: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P5uBLAe30tw

Our primary interest on this trip was the pelagic birds and we had a window of opportunity of around five hours to watch from the prow as we steamed west at 11 knots. Summer off much of Nova Scotia has an abundance of seabirds, from nesting alcids (Atlantic Puffin, Razorbill and Black Guillemot) to Northern Gannets, Black-legged Kittiwakes and, in burrows all over some offshore islands, Leach’s Storm-petrels. The alcids etc., are relatively easy to see but the petrels bomb off out to sea to feed all day, returning to their nests after dark to avoid predation, to see them you have to get all pelagic. In summer the Southern Hemisphere nesting Wilson’s Storm-petrels arrive and usually outnumber their larger cousins. Wilson’s is also much more regularly seen from shore and I’d seen my year-tick bird earlier the same day (7\24) off Daniel’s Head, CSI.

For the only time on any pelagic birding I’ve done, Leach’s outnumbered the Wilson’s, something of a treat and the opportunity to be more familiar with the less-regularly observed Leach’s. The photos are not great but just about worth showing.

First up is Wilson’s Storm-petrel, small and compact and most of the time the feet project well beyond the tail.

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Both species in the photo above.

Next is Leach’s Storm-petrel, larger, longer winger and with a split white rump which does not extend around the side of the rump.

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Quite a few Northern Fulmars around.

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We saw one Cory’s Shearwater amongst many Great Shearwaters.

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A few Sooty Shearwaters came past.

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The only jaeger was this Pomarine.

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And we saw this.

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Déjá Vu

On July-22nd 2016, Robert Keereweer (a name of Dutch origin, I looked it up) came across a sandpiper at The Hawk, Cape Sable Island that puzzled him. A photo posted on Facebook soon solved the mystery, it was a Curlew Sandpiper in mostly summer plumage. This raised the obvious question, was it one of the two that were in the same area from May-7th to 9th 2016? Well, I remember them well and they were always quite a long way away and shrouded in fog so probably not one of those! Seriously though, who knows, there are probably half a dozen in the ‘system’ for North America, it is a coincidence true, but we will never know so let’s call it a new one.

Three in a year is quite exceptional and kudos to Robert for taking the walk to its only occasionally scrutinised spot. The main area from the parking lot is checked regularly and a Curlew Sandpiper is hardly likely to be overlooked by someone doing a good scope of the area at the right point in the tide.

I tried to see it yesterday but the fog, sorry THE FOG, got the better of us although it had already showed earlier. Today the weather was much improved so, despite a shower, I joined Joan Comeau who had already parked her bottom in the sand and was later Joined by Ronnie d’Entremont and later still by Laurel Amirault beach-side for some close range views. The birds were a bit skittish, that may be due to a sodding great Helicopter ferrying supplies to the Lighthouse repair team, isolated as they are from civilization by a few hundred metres of tidal inlet. Still, it got people out to look although the fascination in such things tends to elude me, give me attractively arranged feathers any day.

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The blog posts have been a bit prolific recently, sorry about that but it is a busy period and if I don’t keep up I’ll be loading 200 photos before I know it and missing the chance to make inappropriate comments about things.

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There was also lots of these.

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And small numbers of these.

I had to laugh this morning when my email contained the Nova Scotia rare birds daily thing from eBird. Generally I’ll know what has been seen, but a report of a Harris’s Sparrow naturally caught my eye, well it would! The report had two photos and a write up of the rarity. The photos were of a House Sparrow, not Harris’s so I’m in two minds here; either the observer really thought House Sparrows were Harris’s Sparrows, in which case back to the field guide for you my lad, or he is just messing about. Thankfully one of the elder statesmen of Nova Scotia birding gently corrected the ID on the Nova Scotia rare bird alert (NS-RBA). Good thing really, as I’d have just said “it’s a House Sparrow you very silly person” because in such circumstances I feel no need to hide the brutal truths!

Sometimes…

After three unsuccessful searches for an adult Yellow-crowned Night-heron at West Green Harbour in eastern Shelburne recently, I suspected that the taint of a nemesis bird was upon me, even though I’ve seen them in Nova Scotia and on Cape Sable Island before. I thought the stigma of dipping, a kind of extension of the crushing failure of Mike to see one in NS was rubbing off on me and, like the recipient of a Dementor’s kiss, I would never be in YCNH heaven again, but no. Mike (unbeknown to me) was 300km away in Dartmouth when I found an immature on The Guzzle on CSI so all is well. I did call him, and when he told me where he was it all made perfect sense.

If the Yellow-crowned Night-heron plays true to form, it will hang around the area and Mike will get it before moving on to nemesis #2, American Bittern, I do hope so. As it was, my find was down to pure luck once again. Setting off from sunny Clam Point, set in the north-east part of CSI, the ‘Riviera’ end, all was sunny and fine and the wisps of early morning fog were long gone. I looked at Daniel’s Head, fog on the sea prevented a sea watch but there were birds around, although much the regular stuff.

Heading to the The Hawk, the fog closed in just after the turn down Hawk Point Road and stayed thick and impenetrable as I drove to the Fish Plant Road parking lot. I had hoped to search for a Curlew Sandpiper found the day before, but not in that, a veritable Victorian pea-souper. Cutting my losses, I headed back to Daniel’s Head and spent more time checking the swallows and martins, seeing just tree and barn. The fog appeared to have lifted a bit, and, like a Cricket* spectator huddled under a wet bin liner while desperately searching for a sliver of blue in resolutely leaden skies, I optimistically headed back to The Hawk.

It was just as bad as before, although The Guzzle had cleared a bit so at least I could look there. The tide was rising and, in the channel to one side of the Sheep Field, (the original, the new one is still under construction), was a rock and on that rock was this:

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When faced with an immature night-heron type, there are only two choices and you might think Black-crowned Night-heron, a reputed breeder on CSI, might be the obvious choice but we are in the heron zone, a time and place where ‘southern’ herons wander to. This immature Yellow-crowned Night-heron might be the vanguard of a sustained arrival which may include a Tricolored, or it may not. As an enormously helpful identification pointer I’ve added a few extra images of both night-herons from elsewhere.

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Inset is a Black-crowned Night-heron of a similar age.

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Both photos here (above and below) are of Black-crowned Night-herons, see how brown they look and the bill shape and colouration.

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Below is a head-shot of a Yellow-crowned Night-heron, taken in Mexico. It shows the bill shape very nicely.

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I thought my day of excitement may have peaked but later, after an unsuccessful search for the Curlew Sandpiper, I came across even more hirundines feeding around Daniel’s Head and, finally, got my CSI tick Bank Swallow.

July might not be quite in the rear-view mirror yet but it is waning and will soon give way to one of the most underrated birding months, August. Yes there will be more fog and yes there will be quiet days, but we will see the start of the protracted warbler migration and the diversity of shorebirds will continue to climb. Before we know it November’s icy breath will be upon our necks but not before we’ve filled our boots with great birds and great birding.

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This banded male Northern Harrier is possibly been around the area for four years. It was a bit distant hence the record shots.

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*Cricket is a popular game played elsewhere. The longer form (five days) incorporates lunch and tea breaks where Cucumbers are sacrificed. In some ways it is similar to Baseball but is sans steroids and the majority of players have a neck.

Ruff Twitch

I’ll freely admit that I am as guilty as most birders in that I don’t always look at a bird, critically look that is. This is not because some birds are not interesting, although perhaps female/immature Cowbirds take some loving. It is because of familiarity and abundance. Faced with one or two Semipalmated Sandpipers, perhaps the first of the season, you look at them. Faced with 250, you look through them for something different, so, when twitching a Ruff on a sewage pond at Amherst Waste Water Treatment Facility, which is the Scrabble version of sewage farm, I didn’t look beyond the obvious, it was a Ruff.

In Europe, Ruff are common enough that you can be comfortably blasé about them without needing to go deeper than you are seeing obvious males (called a Ruff, leggy, small-headed, bicoloured bill) and females (called Reeves, should be compact looking, immature birds can look a bit like a bulky, horizontal Buff-breasted Sandpiper, they have mostly dark bills). Then there are the in-between birds, Ruff particularly (and Reeve) must be amongst the most variable of shorebirds in breeding plumage and in moult, so some you just skip on past. This preamble is a long way to say that the Amherst Ruff, despite most of the plumage, had the look of a Ruff, rather than a Reeve at times.

The best size comparison available in my photos was with Short-billed Dowitcher. The dowitcher should be around 27cm (25-29), a Reeve around 22cm (20-25) and a Ruff around 29cm (26-32), give or take on all three. As you can see below, the Ruff is not smaller than the dowitcher.

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The Ruff fed constantly while I was there and the light was rather flat under overcast skies and generally unhelpful in clarifying bare part detail. The effect of the previously enjoyed sewage water on the feeding bird’s head was to keep it looking long-necked and small headed (as in Ruff) and this exaggerated the bill length, probably.

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In rare, still, moments the bird adopted a Reeve posture.

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In flight it looked more Ruff than Reeve like (to me, but only seen briefly), and yet the plumage says Reeve, except that there are some odd feathers on the mid-flank (bird’s right side) that, when researched, look a bit out of place on a Reeve.

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Despite having seen many Ruffs, albeit some time ago, I can’t recall seeing one quite like this bird but then, as freely admitted, I wouldn’t have spent that much time looking at them anyway and, when I did see them, I would have spent more time on the males in their spectacular summer plumage, rather than the boring females.

See how interesting it is to just concentrate on one bird? I’m glad we went back for a better look and to take more photos. Now, anything different in this mass of Semipalmated Sandpipers?

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Common Terns

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Take a look at the scene below, apart from a jetty full of species that are a bit mouth-watering were they present in Nova Scotia (name them all?) what do you see? They are all sat on a jetty. This view is generally replicated wherever humans have created perches for birds via jetties, although it has been suggested that they can also be handy for accessing boats too but that is not the point, the point is why don’t the birds use the old jetties at Daniel’s Head in the same way?

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Four or five, well, alright sometimes six to ten times a week I have trundled along the Daniel’s Head road past the freshly discarded Tim’s coffee cups and checked the jetty posts in anticipation of a few birds finding themselves in need of a rest. Apart from the odd loafing gull (not a misspelt Laughing Gull) and noisy Willets it just hasn’t happened until very recently, when Common Terns suddenly decided jetty posts were just what they always wanted.

There have been up to 58 (I know, this counting thing is a syndrome of some sort) birds using the posts and, in the morning if fog is absent, the views are spectacular from the road. I have a bit of an affinity with Common Terns. I had them nesting on platforms when I was a Countryside Ranger in the UK and many a time I have rescued adventurous young from the lake or helped with the banding, getting a tern-poo shampoo as a reward. It must have worked, I have a head of hair like an unkempt bush (comment © on Sandra Dennis).

The terns have some fledged young, not many though, and are at the back-end of their breeding season although no doubt a few are still carrying food to local nests. The Common Terns might later be joined by Arctic and Roseate Terns (please keep using the posts, pretty please) and will mass before flying off to Africa and South America, job done for another year. Before that they have one more chore to fulfil, and that is to give the jaegers something to chase (close) offshore for a few weeks to keep them fit.

Here are a few photos, all adults but, the one with the advanced moult on the head has some brown wash to the wing coverts, it may be a second year bird (2cy = second calendar year), an age class that normally stays on the wintering grounds until mature enough to breed the following year and that doesn’t normally acquire adult plumage.

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Not much of a black tip on the one above but the bill is hefty and you can see its knees and the tail falls short of the closed wing.

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For those following the Cape Sable Island big year, the cumulative list hit 200 with Pectoral Sandpiper, the only shorebird gaps left to fill are, in order of probable appearance; Red and Red-necked Phalarope; Baird’s Sandpiper, American Golden-Plover, Buff-breasted Sandpiper. Then we are into rarity mode with Wilson’s Phalarope the most likely of the lesser rarities, followed by real rarity but reasonably regular Ruff and then it is anyone’s guess. I still think a cumulative 250 is possible and that personal scores will all be very close at the end.

For now we are thirsting for crossbills (Mike already has White-winged), they are moving throughout southern Nova Scotia, one of each will do!

Those who have been keeping an eye on The Cape will have noticed the scaffolding erected for the repairs and painting of the Lighthouse. Around the base is a compound of kit that will keep the birds away, perhaps we can persuade them to have a daily-stocked seed feeder nearby to compensate? Nearby the Buff-breasted Sandpiper field is a bit chewed up but still suitable, although we might need to tackle the invading Scottish Thistle. Overall the impact of the works is limited and the people on-site are aware of the importance of the place for birds. There is a new footbridge over a wet creek, more of a boardwalk really that, thankfully, should not impact the shorebird high tide roost. I’m hoping to get out weekly now through November, yesterday 7/20 there were no rarities but good birding all the same, here are few shots of Nelson’s Sparrows from the trip.

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The annual Cape Day when you can go and visit and trample the flora is set for August-13th. Last year they had 400+ people, let’s hope nobody suggests that schedule a Cape Day during breeding season, fortunately they (Friends of Cape Light) are way too considerate of the breeding birds to do that.

There are also a few dragonflies on the move locally, I write about them here, ignore the Blog address name: https://quebecodes.wordpress.com/

In the yard the blondie grackle has been making free with Sunflower seeds. It has been around Clam Point for a few days now, alternating between our yard and the MacDonalds’.

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The Hollywood Effect

You know when you are watching an old Hollywood love and romance type of film, where the actors are chosen for their looks rather than being able to lace their shoes unaided and it goes all misty? , well that view is what we have had on CSI for rather too long recently. Summer fog is a bind and any wind that strays too far to the south will bring it. It is frustrating to know that out on the falling tide off The Hawk, shorebirds are going about their business uncounted (so they are not real) and worse, are year ticks!

There has been some respite – odd hours snatched when the fog went wandering offshore before remembering itself and rushing back, quite literally some days. Usually you can retreat inland but the birds there are not as visible as they were earlier in the spring. Some are still to be found but, by and large, most inland birds have important stuff to do and not much time to do it in.

A recent trip along an unnamed road at Jordan Falls, mostly odeing, got us nice views of these Olive-sided Flycatchers, a pair in territory and making inroads into the Cicada population. The road actually goes to Wentworth Lake so here’s a radical suggestion, why don’t we call it ‘Wentworth Lake Road’, well I already done so in eBird, I just mention it here for future reference.

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Back in the depths of late winter a pasty Common Grackle wandered Pleasant Lake and environs near Yarmouth and was ably on reported here, an excellent read: http://alixdentremont.blogspot.ca/2016_02_01_archive.html

I saw a very similar bird on the Goat Man’s drive* and got these two snaps at range, it may well be the same bird.

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*The Goat Man has a house on the road to Daniel’s Head. He looks quite normal in that he lacks cloven hoofs (I think) and a straggly beard and is only referred to as the ‘Goat Man’ because he has a couple of pet goats and they are rather a feature. He also puts corn down so a stop to peer down his drive, irrespective of traffic, is almost always made, it will bear fruit one day. If you are ever tempted to walk his drive, don’t. He prefers people not to and can be a bit gruff. It might be possible to don a Goat-skin rug and sneak down for a better look but it is done at your own risk. I’m not sure of the gender of the goats but if one is a Billy, well, brace yourself I think.

With all these young birds around there is the opportunity for the less experienced birders to get confused, especially where sparrows are concerned. Two of the naughtiest lookalikes are Song and Swamp but here is the thing, they look like junior version of their parents in structure so go with that first, then worry about malar stripes and stuff. Here are a few illustrative photos. Song, Swamp, Song, Swamp.

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Unfortunately the Lower West Pubnico Sandwich Tern buggered off before the folks from up t’north could get it this weekend past. I suspect it is wandering the coast, it was July-20th when it was off Daniel’s Head last year (the species although quite possibly the same individual) so there may still be the chance that it will settle somewhere for a second chance. There are tons of terns around Daniel’s Head at the moment and they are all being scrutinsed, watch this space as they say.

Sanderlings are back with us. A week ago eBird was asking ‘are you sure? when one popped up on CSI, now there are 29 and it is very relaxed about that, the magical date is past and they are now common. Over time it will be possible to set the eBird filters throughout Nova Scotia to a much tighter geographical level, that should flash up those odd records that you see there and think, nope, don’t think so! We are obviously some way off having eBird data sets of almost absolute accuracy, so using the filters as a sort of progressive weeding device is the obvious way to go.

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The CSI big year is still idling, we should have crossbills somewhere but so far only Mike has managed a small bunch of White-winged. Red Crossbills are still moving and will most likely be fly-overs for us, or they might like the fact that my peanut feeders are constantly stocked for them, I hope so. It would be nice to be feeding something else bar Blue Jays, Starlings, Common Grackles and Mourning Doves (which in turn keep the Sharpies happy).

If anyone on CSI reads this and knows of a skipper who would like to exercise the boat on odd evenings now through to September, and who is willing to take birders offshore to see pelagic species for gas plus, please drop me a line. We are only talking a couple of km offshore for a few hours and probably only a handful of birders, thanks.

A crappy shot of a Raven below. This bird came over my head at Daniel’s Head and landed next to a Seal on the beach that had seen better days and a pulse. Just behind it, three tiny Piping Plover chicks, like cotton buds on legs, we wandering about and I’m yelling “run” or something similar. The Raven looked up, quite probably happy with just the Seal meal (perhaps a local specialty fast-food dish – hey McDonald’s I thought of it first!) and had no intention of Piping Plover chick dippers. The parents of the plovers were having none of it though and one whacked the back of the Raven just to get the message home.

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One Good Tern…

When Ronnie d’Entremont emailed me a photo of a Sandwich Tern on 7/13/16, or shall we get ahead of the game and call them Cabot’s? it was a no brainer to head over to Lower West Pubnico with Mike MacDonald to take a look. The area was a seething mass of gulls and terns and the challenge of picking it out was a good one. When we arrived it was still there but a very, very long way away.

As we watched, the watching group swelled and as well as myself and Mike, Ervin joined us, then Ronnie and finally Ellis. The bird, being just a distant white but imposing dot was a problem, views were needed of a higher quality. Ellis generously fetched his boat and our eager crew headed out into the Minch in search of our treasure. Sandwich Tern is rare in Nova Scotia, only added to the provincial list in 1991 and, were it not for something of a blow one time, a blow named Wilma that visited in October 2005 and that resulted in a major sandwich spread (30+ birds), it would be classed as even rarer. As it is it appears to be the second this year and was my second after I found one on CSI on July 20th last year.

The tide was rising and the birds were very active, their interest was gorging on the many small fish around, shoals that came to the surface and went back under again and duly attracted much tern attention. Between launch and arrival, the Sandwich Tern had moved, possibly over the channel, and our search proved fruitless.

Later our bird was located some way away on a buoy. Patience was the order of the day and it finally deigned to join the feeding flock and came close enough to fully enjoy. To compound the experience I went back 7/14 for further helpings.

Because of our location, any Cabot’s/Sandwich Tern needs closer inspection. Some authorities split them, they are said to be identifiable in the field and there is already at least one putative Sandwich, not Cabot’s for consideration, see the link. For what it is worth, I suggest that our bird is a Cabot’s in bill shape and structure, mixed in head pattern and extent of molt and Cabot’s in wing pattern.

http://www.nabirding.com/2011/09/25/sandwich-or-cabots/

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The tern-fest was a great experience and it was very enjoyable to watch them going about their business, especially the Roseate Terns. Here are a selection of photos of them, note the colour bands on a couple, these are from The Brothers, located on the other side of the Pubnico Peninsula, and applied to the terns courtesy of Ted d’Eon.

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