Off Brier Island, September 24th 2016.
Pelagic birds, you either love them or you hate them. For 41 birders willing to head out to sea in a small boat and on a distinctly choppy sea at 7:30am, it was definitely love in the air and an anticipation of what MIGHT be seen as to what is guaranteed. Pelagics are a lottery, you very rarely win but you very rarely lose too. No matter how many times you’ve seen it, the romance associated with Great Shearwaters fighting over fish guts gets you every time.
As it was a weekend and so no sick notes to employers were involved, I’m happy to publish the list of participants. If you are a former dictator of a bankrupt third-world country living in hiding in Nova Scotia and don’t want your name here, please let me know: Alan Covert, Alix d’Entremont, B Haley, Bernice Moores, Brian Hempstead (from Seattle), Carmel Smith, Chris Pepper, Dominic Cormier, Dorothy Poole, Diane LeBlanc, Eric Mills, Ervin Olsen, Gisele d’Entremont, Homer Noble, Jake Walker, James Hirtle, Jane White, Jason Dain, Joan Comeau, John Loch, Judy O’Brien, Kate Steele, Keith Lowe, Kevin Lantz, Kyle Shay, Larry Neily, Liz Voellinger, Lori Buhlman, Mark Dennis, Maureen Chapman, Mike MacDonald, Pat McKay, Paul Gould, Peggy Scanlon, Phil Taylor, Rick Whitman, Ronnie d’Entremont, Sharron d’Entremont, Simon d’Entremont, Sylvia Fullerton, Sandra Dennis.
The day before was foul late on with a rainstorm hitting Brier for a couple of hours just as the sea was getting interesting. The weather didn’t prevent those already there and intending to spend the night in the Briar Island Lodge getting out birding, although small migrant birds were thin on the ground. A Baird’s Sandpiper lingered and attracted people to Pond Cove, where two groups of two Caspian Terns passed through although they were missed by the majority. On the front of the rain, a jaeger pursued a Black-legged Kittiwake offshore while upwards of an estimated 5000 Great Shearwaters sheared. The signs were good for the next day as long as the weather had been accurately predicted, it was.
Saturday was cool, bright and full of feathered promise as people congregated on the wharf to board the whale watching boat run by Mariner, ‘The Chad and Sisters Two’. Chum was hauled down to the deck and we all filed aboard, ready for the off. Following the safety briefing by owner Penny, we ran through the basics of seeing seabirds, basically SHOUT OUT LOUD! We used a standard orientation of bow (pointy bit) being 12:00 and everything else follows. As this was a tester to see how such a trip would work, the boat maximum was set at 43 + crew, (but only 41 showed up), this kept the price reasonable and should have allowed everyone to be able to get to see the birds. More about how the next one next year will work later but yes, there will be another one, or maybe two.
We headed out and soon realised that this was going to be a bouncy one. Sea sickness was a possibility, and actually getting a decent look at the more distant birds while going up and down and side to side, would be a challenge. For some this was a first encounter with sea birds, for others, the old hands, they picked their stations and readied and steadied for the birds. The waters before we reached the shelf were quite choppy, after that it got even more lively.
For the first 40 minutes it was quiet and we had to be satisfied with the odd Northern Gannet and a few Atlantic Puffins before the first shearwater shout got people onto a few Greats passing. We also passed little rafts (known as a lilo) of phalaropes as we headed for the main area where we hoped to hit the feeding birds. Whale sign in the distance told us that Humpbacks were around but they were not what we were looking for, until that is a couple decided to breach clear a few times, if distantly, then we thought we’d head towards them to see whether the birds were hanging out that way. By now were seeing the odd loafing groups of Great Shearwaters and had started chumming, that is chucking bits of recently deceased fish, thanks Ellis, into the sea to attract a crowd, it worked.
We had already seen a Pomarine Jaeger, not particularly well but it was a start, when the yell of SKUA went up and an all too brief South Polar flashed left to right across the bow, then turned and went back before vanishing, as did all the shearwaters. Not everyone saw the bird which was actually best viewed without bins. The photos show a ‘standard’ South Polar so no worries with that one. As the flock had moved then so did we. We chased around a while looking for the main group but they became elusive, moving rapidly and greater distances that we could reasonably cover.
At one point we thought to head for a fishing boat but it was scalloping and not likely to pull the birds in like a dragger would. We kept at it, chumming, stopping for a while and drifting while hoping the accumulation of gulls and Great Shearwaters would prove a visual attraction for passing birds. Two Lesser Black-backed Gulls showed up, a few Black-legged Kittiwakes and a bizarre Artic Tern that was chasing a Sharp-shinned Hawk. Three more Pomarine Jaegers dropped by, as did the only Sooty Shearwater of the trip.
We decided to head in and bird as we went. The prediction was that at least one species of passerine would find us, one did and flew restlessly around us, mostly with the sun behind it. Digital photography once again came to the fore to reveal our interloper to be a Purple Finch. Not too long after, as we neared the calmer water, Jake called a skua sat on the ocean. The Captain skillfully got us all a bit nearer and we saw a rusty headed bird at range, then it flew. We followed it and it sat long enough to get good views before giving better flight photo opportunities. We lost it and the debate began. Here is a couple of edited photos, lightened a bit, cropped and sharpened. Verdict, South Polar Skua or at least a high percentage of one as they have been known to hybridise with Brown and Chilean Skua.
We headed in a little late, the 12:30 whale watchers were stacking on the wharf. Once ashore, those who had felt a little queasy soon regained their equilibrium. We all dispersed, some to continue birding Brier, others to trek home. The late skua made the trip all worthwhile although the earlier skua had already been inked in. It would have been nice had it not been so choppy, but you take what you get when at sea, also we perhaps should have stuck with the whales as they are eating the same stuff the birds are after, more or less. It was perhaps surprising that no storm-petrels were seen, although they would have needed to be close, also Cory’s and Manx Shearwaters would have been welcome, as would Parasitic Jaeger, Pomarine does seem to be the default jaeger off Nova Scotia.
I have ideas about next year which I will float when I have more details. That Nova Scotia birders are keen to get out and see seabirds is without doubt. One day the planets will align and we all hope to be on the pelagic that is the ‘big one’, until then we will keep looking and hoping.
Thanks are due to Penny, owner of Mariner whale and sea bird cruises and her crew. They knew what we wanted did their best to make it happen. Thanks again to Ellis for helping with the chum and Ronnie and Alix for acting as guides on the day. Thanks to Sandra for letting me fill her freezer with chum and not complaining when she went arm-deep in it when she fell. Last but not least, thanks to everyone for showing up, being enthusiastic, and making, as Eric has christened it, the first ‘annual Atlantic Canada Birding Brier Island Pelagic’ a success.
I only took skua shots on the day, in part to ensure I didn’t revisit my breakfast so, if you want to contribute any images here, please send them and I’ll include a selection. Here are Sandra’s shots of the day.
Here is a nice bunch of images from Jason Dain, thanks Jason.