Ding-a-ling

When Dave Currie found a Bell’s Vireo in Dartmouth, alarm bells rang and we just had to go and see it, but, because I got a terrible photo and this blog post will display same on Facebook, I’ll start at the end of the day and work back.

On October 28th Peggy Scanlon was birding the Canso Causeway when she photographed beautifully a Brown Booby. I, like most folk, expected it to be a fly-past but no, it was lingering the next day and so we sort of planned to try for it if we got the Dartmouth vireos. We got the most important one (missed Yellow-throated) and so set off towards new territory for me, Cape Breton.

The weather was fine and bright with fog and heavy rain while misty but clear, yes, mixed. We were just 20km from the causeway when Ken McKenna gave us an update, it is still here and it is not raining. Looking at the splattering water on the windshield we begged to differ but he was right. When we arrived there was a small and appreciative group there admiring the booby’s head, it was tucked into the causeway rocks and that was all we could see.

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After a short wait, during which we were richly entertained by two Sunfish and Two Loggerhead Turtles (one below), the booby flew.

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Leaving the rocks, the booby clearly had an idea that the surrounding Great Black-backed Gulls would take interest and it was not wrong, one gave it a right old chase and lent itself to a good size comparison.

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The attacking gull broke off and went back to sulking on a rock while the star bird circled back and landed on an exposed rock giving better views to everyone.

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In the same bay this young Lesser Black-backed Gull also added the booby to its life list.

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And these Harlequins Dots were equally baffled by the fuss.

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The booby was restless and soon flew out to join a gang of Northern Gannets that were fishing. The water level melee also included a few Atlantic White-sided Dolphins munching the same fare. At this time the booby was quite distant and the light getting worse so we departed. Thanks to Ken and everyone for hanging around for us, thanks to Peggy for the great find.

Now, going back to earlier in the day, we arrived at Lakeside Terrace in Dartmouth, home of the vireo/s, to be greeted by a few other birders noting it was a no show so far for them, but it had been seen avoiding a local cat earlier. The owners of the three cats that had been stalking the goodies knew that there was a rare bird there but still let their cats out, pretty ignorant I’d say so I cursed the lady owner with cellulite for a first offence. One of the other local residents was very friendly and offered access to his property if the bird showed up there, and gave a cheery, not to mention loud toot on his truck’s horn a few times (once while we were watching it!), still, his heart is in the right place.

There was also a Yellow-breasted Chat there and we’d seen it quite well, for a chat. Later the Bell’s showed up just along the road from the main throng, unfortunately my camera had switched to video mode and the split second required to lower it, realise the problem and fix then re-focus was all the difference between these doc shots and something quite different. Chat first, Bell’s Vireo second.

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It was quite a long day but the taste of Cape Breton whetted the appetite for a return visit and it was great to see some of the Halifax/Dartmouth/Lunenburg County based birders again The two Nova Scotia ticks put me on 294, so only six to go. It may seem that Keith, on 299, is in pole position to get to the coveted 300 before me, and he with a two-year head start. He may be, but I live on CSI and Yellow-billed Cuckoo is my NS nemesis bird plus I have a few ‘easy’ ones missing off my list, so who wants to take that bet?

FYI – I added my NS list to the side bar, using the new ABA systematic list sequence.

Well well

After today I don’t think we need worry too much about the well running dry! The rain has been almost constant since about 08:30 and our little spring out back is gurgling away happily. The blasting easterly wind has had little effect on the sea birds so far, Northern Gannets have been filing past – yes I did a one hour sea watch off Daniel’s Head where the tailgate of the Grand Caravan did what it was surely designed for, keeping the sea watcher dry. Loons were going past too but the Cory’s Shearwaters seemed to have headed out and away, perhaps for now or it may all be over for them for the year.

Yesterday (10/27/16) I did a look over the Kenney Road area, it was a bit slow but this Field Sparrow brightened things up, Pity it never felt the need to pose properly.

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Later I headed to The Hawk, still slow and I was chatting to Johnny in that very Canadian way, blocking the road and talking through the car window, when a Northern Shrike hopped up onto a dead tree top, a Nova Scotia tick and a year bird for both of us, a call later and Mike had the bird too, good stuff. Then I got a text re a Cattle Egret, not on CSI but just up the road in Barrington. The light was failing, the deer peepers were out in force and it took longer to get off The Hawk than it did the island, more or less.

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Predictably the egret had gone to bed by the time we arrived and we were resigned to trying on the morrow. Today’s forecast suggested we only had a short, dry window. The egret was not a Nova Scotia tick but it was a year tick and a nice bird to admire. The following day the egret had vacated its previously favoured riverside yard, two days it had plodded around there, and so I went off to look at the sea. Later Ronnie found the bird where I’d looked earlier, in the only open farm fields around off Factory Hill Road. The rain poured and the bird poddled, enough already.

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Then I went back later for another look. I hope the egret sees sense and heads to CSI, but not until Sunday!

A Belter of a Day

THE day kicked off with Johnny calling me about a Yellow-headed Blackbird, a Nova Scotia tick, off I went. The weather was been challenging, with squalls roaring through, interspersed with sunny spells, albeit brief ones. I got there and it was partially obscured by unnecessary branches, it then buggered off when the Common Grackles it had decided to hang with did the same. So I drove around a bit looking for them and bumped into Murray and Cindy. They were watching a Philadelphia Vireo, and so did I for too brief a spell to get the camera on it.

After a lean month, a point that I made two posts ago, Nova Scotia had gone bird bonkers. Days before our good passage day (10/25) a Calliope Hummingbird had been seen at Pubnico by Arthur d’Entremont. He took diagnostic photos and joined a tiny group of people who have seen one in NS, it didn’t reappear, or at least it hasn’t yet. It was, however, the start of a good spell of arrival, hence the Yellow-headed Blackbird.

I’d missed a Bullock’s Oriole at Johnny’s so I spent a bit of time in his yard looking and neatly arranging tempting oranges by his feeders. No luck with the Bullock’s but the Yellow-headed Blackbird came in and duly got photographed.

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After a good morning, some sustenance was required and so it was home for tea and hot muffins. On what we laughingly call a lawn out back of the house, a Rusty Blackbird strutted its stuff. Two CSI year ticks and one NS life bird – a good morning so far.

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Venturing back to The Hawk, I worked through the birds as storms allowed and flushed a Lark Sparrow from the roadside. Of all the sparrows, lark is easiest when they flush, just look at the tail pattern in the book. I turned and parked and waited and it came back despite the heavy rain, and proceeded to take a fair share of the seeds on offer.

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It was one of those days when you are reluctant to call stumps but the light went and so that was it, would the following day be equal to or better than?

In a word, it was nearly the same as except that the rain was less, the wind had abated and the Yellow-headed Blackbird had wandered off. I walked The Hawk in the cool northerly and saw a few things: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S32251395

This is the eBird checklist for the morning. In the afternoon I went back and saw the Lark Sparrow again and found a Nashville and two Orange-crowned Warblers. By this time we on CSI had become aware of Bell’s Vireos in the province, the nearest being on Seal Island but not visible from land even with a good scope. The tease of a Bell’s kept me looking until an evening appointment in Yarmouth to see the film, The Messenger: http://songbirdsos.com/

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They look better when dry!

This film really should be shown in all schools and on prime time TV instead of all that reality shit they insist on producing for the low-brows. Our birds are screwed world-wide and the message, delivered in the manner of Kitchener and his famous pointing finger is, OUR BIRDS NEED YOU.

For the record – Cape Sable Island has now recorded 241 species this year, I’ve managed to see 226 of them and hear another three but they don’t count. We might hit 250 yet, there are still possibilities and it would be nice to think that species # 250 for the year, for the island might be something wow! Ivory or Ross’s Gull (before we send them to extinction) or maybe a nice western warbler – I’ll go for Townsend’s.

 

A Cowbird, but not as we Know it!

Don’t you just hate it when a bird pops up and gives you a headache because it just does not fit the norm? It happened to me (again!) when I came across this cowbird on the Goat Man’s drive at Daniel’s Head, Cape Sable Island. Normally you don’t spend a lot of time enjoying crippling views of cowbirds, mostly because, whether you like it or not, they are trash birds and don’t command your attention the same way something making more effort to be interesting would. I’d better start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.

Every time I pass the Goat Man’s place I scan his drive. He scatters corn for his goats and chickens and the corn attracts birds. So far my luck has been restricted to two Dickcissels (at the same time) and the odd sparrow that wasn’t a Song or Savannah. On this occasion the floor was dominated by Mourning Doves but, right at the back (of course) was this smaller body that hinted at Rusty Blackbird. Once it stuck its head up it clearly wasn’t. Suddenly the Goat Man appeared, probably on some goat-related duty, and the doves and guest flew along the drive towards me.

The light was not terrible but the wind was and so everything was being teased around and kept low. I had another look at the cowbird and thought it looked a bit odd, the body plumage of a male and a female-type head with a pale supercilium. So I heaved to with the camera and blasted a few shots off before the whole lot flew off and away, then thought no more about it and went about my birding business. Later I downloaded the photos to the PC and was surprised to see how different the bird looked, as to how I expect a Brown-headed Cowbird to look.

Just to reiterate, the back, tail and wings of the bird were the iridescent blueyness we all know and love about cowbirds. From the breast/neck up it was brown, as was the throat, which was supposed to be white, or at least whitish. The bill too looked a bit different, longer and more pointed, well maybe. So I Googled some images and found nothing similar. I checked some books and found nothing similar so I started thinking it might be something more glamorous and perhaps shinier.

To put things in context, Brown-headed Cowbird is reasonably common in Nova Scotia and so the odds were stacked against being anything but, still you have to be thorough. I pulled my ‘New World Blackbird – The Icterids’ by Jaramillo and Burke (Helm, 1999) from the shelf, it was reduced in price so who could resist? I read up on both possibilities. Now take a look at the doc shots before I proceed.

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In cowbird circles this would be a looker! Is it a male Brown-headed in moult, if so why the pale supercilium, more obvious head-on? Is the bill big enough for a Brown-headed? What of the wings? To me they look the wrong shape for Shiny, p8 is longer than p9 in Shiny, meaning the outermost wing feather is longer in Brown-headed, but it is not clear from the images, just suggestive of Brown-headed Cowbird.

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This image shows the pale supercilium, present on both sides of the head, so actually there and not an artefact of the light.

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This one has been lightened and sharpened. The originals are at ISO 1000 so grainy. Here there is a suggestion of eye-arcs but the eye is hardly ‘beady’ as in Brown-headed Cowbird. The light doesn’t help when assessing the bill colour but it does look heftier here.

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This equates to my original view, is it slim-chunky or chunky-slim! I think you can just about make out the primary structure here, although the angle suggests p9 curves inward a little.

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This is the most confusing image, purely because the bill looks so small, putting the bird back in the Shiny camp. Meanwhile, back in ‘the book’…

The icterids guide states that female Shiny Cowbird can have an iridescent body, a feature Brown-headed does not have – whoa, read on. Brown-headed Cowbird has a paler lower mandible than Shiny, which always has a black bill. So what was I looking at? I think, still think, that it is a Brown-headed Cowbird. I don’t know why it has a supercilium, or ‘glossy’ body. I don’t know why one view makes it look good for Shiny and another in the same sequence of frames makes it good for Brown-headed.

There are three things to take from this experience. First is that even common birds can look different from the field guides and even the family specific guide, not all plumages are covered or even, surprisingly, well described. Secondly, identification from photographs can be subjective. In the field the bird looked different, I already mentioned the similarity to Rusty Blackbird in shape and some plumage colouration, this perceived similarity can cloud your thinking. Third, only look at adult male cowbirds in summer plumage and you’ll sleep better!

Digital Sea Watching

There are some birding disciplines that just don’t grab people’s imaginations. Sure they can appreciate watching bright, spring warblers or pretty ducks and even, to some extent, majestic flocks of wheeling shorebirds but, say you are going to peer out to sea for a couple of hours in lousy weather and that the views you will get make it hard to rule out a passing fly and they are mystified, good thing otherwise the sea watching spots would be more crowded and that would be no good at all.

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I did my first sea watch some time in 1981, it was at Spurn in East Yorkshire and I quite enjoyed it (Great Skua, Parasitic Jaeger, Manx and Sooty Shearwater and an Osprey plus ducks, geese, loons, grebes, terns, gulls and alcids). Since then I have watched when I can and now, living in an area offering exceptional sea birding, I partake as often as circumstance (the weather) dictates that I should, I’m lucky for sure. Mostly sea watching is as the name describes except that, with experience (gained only by sea watching) you get to need less of the birds to know what they are, you also learn to set your range and only exceed it when the species you are looking at is an easy ID at range.

Changes in equipment have seen a change in practices, especially with the advent of digital photography. The images you can reliably get, of birds way out to sea, not only aids their identification but also lets you click and count, I’ll explain: The point of sea watching, well the two points, no make that three. Among the many points of sea watching are the desire to see, identify and enjoy bird species not encountered too often, and the hope that you might see a rarity. Counting is also a primary function, ageing when counting too, else how do you have any idea how robust a breeding season has been if you don’t report say 60% adult, 40% immature Northern Gannets?

The sea also throws up surprises such as unexpected species on calm, seemingly listless days; passerines belting past and offering an ID challenge, distant shorebirds and even hawks or owls, steadfastly heading for land after crossing their least favourite habitat, the sea. The seabirds themselves also become easier when digital photography is allied to a sea watch. A distant jaeger might be tough to ID while moving, but freeze it and look at it on the PC with a mug of something hot to sip, and suddenly the ID is much less of a challenge, and eBird reports can be liberally decorated too, just to prove the point.

I’ve talked about sea watching technique before. Get comfortable, find the track the birds are taking the most often, watch at a fixed point, take regular breaks and, if you get distracted, scan in a sweep using the direction of the passage (usually the same for everything) to get back to where you were so you don’t miss anything. Pretty simple really as long as you stick to the golden rule mentioned earlier, don’t look further than you can comfortably identify something, small terns will need to be nearer that gannets!

In a group make sure you are all looking at the same place by dividing up the sea into areas so that anyone can reference an area when they have something, otherwise disaster lurks!

Here is a classic example of not communicating properly, as I understand it there was a burial at sea! http://www.wansteadbirder.com/2013/08/red-billed-tropicbird-at-pendeen.html

Now a few example doc ID shots of nothing rare but, just so there is a decent photo for Facebook, I used a pretty Atlantic Puffin off Nova Scotia at the beginning of the post.

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Northern Gannets are helpful on a sea watch, often showing where fish might be, they also show the track many birds will use when passing your sea watching spot.

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In rough conditions you won’t get great views of mid distance birds. Here are a couple of young Black-legged Kittiwakes well offshore. If these had been Sabine’s Gull you’d have no trouble presenting them as confirmation of the ID, although their capture might be subject to more camera shake than normal!

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Loons usually fly above the horizon, so for counting purposes, and ID, you can grab a snap and tally up later.

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Rather than just lump sea ducks as scoter species,  a quick shot gives you the ID you might not have time chasing in the field. No problems with these Black Scoters.

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Perhaps the easiest sea duck to call, even at range, but a good passage photographed and counted later is more accurate.

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A trio of Surf Scoter female/imm types, note the pale belly.

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A string of Common Eider, but what is that lurking in second place? A bit of a tweak in photoshop resolves it as a male Hooded Merganser, and you can count the eider up too.

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A little mystery with no prizes given. Sometimes a photo with no context is tough to call, this one should not trouble you too much.

Just a final thought on digital sea watching, if you photograph say a line of ducks and you miss the little sawbill in the middle that later turns out to be a Smew, do you tick it?

Two excellent guides that are worth splashing the cash for, if you are a committed sea watcher and not some namby-pamby robin-fondler type (no offence) are to be found in the links below. The first gives a nice review, the second is a link to the Natural History Book Shop just so you can look at the cover and a bit of spiel.

http://www.10000birds.com/peterson-reference-guide-to-seawatching-a-review-by-an-aspiring-seawatcher.htm

http://www.nhbs.com/title/99250/flight-identification-of-european-seabirds

Let Down!

I think it is fair to say that October has failed to thrill in birding terms. In part it is down to this ‘funny’ year we are having, post El-Nino, and perhaps that failure to produce is also down to the long, mostly hot days we’ve been having since spring, days that have brought dry wells and brown lawns to southern Nova Scotia and that have encouraged the birds to keep going. Long hot days sap the energy and means that only a very limited part of each day has any true potential, rarity-wise. We all know that birding the morning is the thing, followed very infrequently by the spell ‘after supper’. It would be interesting to see how many true rarities are found after the morning session, not too many I’d wager although excluding 1998 fall-outs, see the link.

https://sora.unm.edu/sites/default/files/journals/nab/v054n01/p00004-p00010.pdf

A local highlight for October, and an afternoon bird in fact, would, had we seen it, have been something that should not be so uncommon in NS, and in fact is probably better classed as elusive and hard to find than actually uncommon, I’m talking Long-eared Owl. One was seen on Cape Sable Island at The Hawk but it was only brief and has, so far, failed to offer a repeat performance. They do tend to sit tight during the day and there is lots of tree cover there to grant their wish of anonymity. They do also hunt in daylight when hungry but the proliferation of tasty Meadow Voles, (they taste like vole) means that rabid hunger is unlikely at present and so we can place the sighting in the ‘right place at the right time’ category.

The owl was found when a local told Johnny of an odd bird at his feeder, it was an Eastern Towhee. Johnny went and identified the towhee and the owl popped up at the same time. The towhee is still there, making occasional visits to the feeder by the house at the end of Hawk Point Road but beware, in the evening the road gets a silly number of deer watchers, who seem to just sit in their cars and just peer at deer eating carrots. A bonus for towhee appreciators and owl seekers on October 20th was a Northern Mockingbird – likely the one that has popped up on CSI from time to time this year. The light was iffy but here are the mocker shots and a doc shot of the towhee.

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At sea, in south to east Nova Scotia, it is still possible to look out to sea and not find Cory’s Shearwaters, this is very odd. The shearwater might be present off the whole of eastern Nova Scotia but there are not enough people looking to confirm that, however, their presence off Canso suggests that they are, in fact, out there. The numbers have probably re-written the records for NS and the whole incursion will take some assessment and writing. In the midst of the many Cory’s have been some Scopoli’s, a species recognised by some authorities but not by the American Ornithologist’s Union (AOU). Scopoli’s breeds mostly in the Mediterranean and is smaller, finer and has a mostly white underwing that extends to the wing tips, Cory’s have a white underwing also but it ends well short of the wing tip making the underwing look blob-ended. What else lurks?

Here is a link to the eBird checklist for October-1st when we saw 1-3 Scopoli’s off The Cape.

http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S31843223

A contender for an imposter in the mix might seem to be Cape Verde Shearwater. Cory’s-like in general appearance but with a dusky bill, Cory’s is yellow tipped dark. Not too much is known about the dispersal pattern from their breeding colonies (guess where!) but they would seem to be part of the whole Cory’s family type and they may lurk as yet undocumented in NS waters, something to read up on I think, see the link. I’m seeing Cory’s whenever I look at the sea, here is a crappy composite of three birds off Baccaro.

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Link to the first records for N. America of Cape Verde Shearwater.

https://sora.unm.edu/sites/default/files/journals/nab/v058n04/p00468-p00473.pdf

Whingeing about how poor October has been might be considered poor form but really the highlights have been few and far between, for example, White-eyed Vireo at Cape Forchu. This year a highlight, last year a regular sub-rarity. Perhaps ‘Alifer’, the birding God, has more in store for us, a slice of the ‘Sibe’ bonanza currently pouring on Europe would be nice, very nice indeed. Time to start brushing up on Phylloscopus warblers and even accentors?

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I keep checking Kenney Road on CSI (or Kenny, depends which way you approach, check out the road signs next time you pass) but nothing eye-popping has appeared yet, still this Orange-crowned Warbler was nice. And now, after having written this and in a spectacular reversal of fortune, October will produce the @big one’!

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Toppled

Well it was nice while it lasted but I’ve finally tumbled from the top of the Nova Scotia eBird listing for 2016, good job I’m not doing a NS year list else I would be downcast, possibly. The expected successor, David Bell, found enough to keep his list growing between Bon Portage and Seal Island this autumn. As regular readers know, my focus has been on a Cape Sable Island big year and heading the charts for so long was simply a bye-product of that. True I picked up year and Nova Scotia life birds here and there, but not by chasing the former.

I do have some boxes on the checklist that might yet be filled, but I doubt I’ll be anywhere near Dave by the end of play. Without any additions to my NS life list, some of the following absentees might be reasonably expected: Greater White-fronted Goose ; Cackling Goose; Eurasian Wigeon; Redhead; Ruddy Duck; Red-shouldered Hawk (if the Pleasant Lake bird comes back); American Coot; Marbled Godwit; Western Sandpiper (both outsiders); Laughing Gull; Northern Saw-whet Owl; Western Kingbird; Philadelphia Vireo (outsider); House Wren; Common Redpoll; Evening Grosbeak. Perhaps realistically only five of the 16 will be seen though. Still, if I get to 270 for the year in NS I’ll be quite satisfied, I’m on 262 and hoping for the odd NS life list addition still, such as Great Skua; Thayer’s Gull; Yellow-billed Cuckoo; Gyrfalcon; Northern Shrike; Eastern Meadowlark; Yellow-headed Blackbird or Hoary Redpoll.

In this odd year for migration, or so I’m told as I have little personal frame of reference, there could still be a late hurrah of rarities although I suspect we are done with the hurricane threat and the avian bounty that they can deliver. On CSI the warbler passage has been very fragmented and, at times, negligible. Expected species have not appeared, I didn’t find a Canada or Tennessee Warbler for the island, nor did we get Philly and White-eyed Vireo, or at least not yet. My big year list currently stands at 222, the dreaded Nelson (look it up!). I’m sure a few more species will be added although I’m past predicting on that one.

A pleasant walk around The Cape today had a few birds and a lot of water, the supermoon affected the tides. It being Sunday there were no duckers and no Lighthouse workers so it was very peaceful. On the last visit sparrows were scarce, today they were more numerous, especially Ipswich Sparrows. The Forest had this smart young White-crowned Sparrow. I think it is the nominate race but the references are a little vague on separating immature birds.

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In the Lighthouse compound, the absence of beeping things and workmen clumping about meant a few more birds and this Ruby-crowned Kinglet, one of two seen on the day, posed nicely.

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On Friday I was out birding with Diane LeBlanc and Sylvia Craig. It was cool out in the open marshes so we hopped along Kenney Road, finding a nice bunch of birds including three late Cape May Warblers, here is a record shot of one.

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We then went off to Baccaro, seeing Cory’s sailing past and using the Lighthouse as a windbreak. At one point we watched a female Northern Harrier arrive off the sea and into the strong headwind. It seemed to take and age for it to come ashore, all three of us had our fingers crossed she’d make it.

In the yard the sparrows are working hard to compete with the avian vacuums, Blue Jays and Mourning Doves. In the evenings up to three Raccoons climb onto the tables to clean up the residue. We don’t mind but, if they try to get into the loft then its curtains for them. Dark-eyed Juncos seem much commoner this year than last and this scabby specimen seems to be a juvenile in partial moult, another breeding season anomaly.

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