Any review of 2016 is inevitably going to be colored by influences outside the normal birding sphere, because 2016 was one of those extraordinary years that the aware amongst us (and that will be you if you are reading this) will remember. This review is something of a departure from my usual favorite birds of the year type of thing. I’m also planning a bit more of a write-up about our Cape Sable Island big year, that will come later.
On a personal level it was a bad year tempered with good. Sandra was diagnosed with the dreaded cancer and so we spent more time visiting Halifax than we ever expected to. Life influences died, David Bowie who shaped my musical tastes somewhat, as did Leonard Cohen. Victoria Wood shuffled off, a comedienne whose style of humor paved the way for many others to follow. Actors live and die, most only matter to their loved ones or obsessive psychopaths. One whose work I admired was Alan Rickman, sad but such is life.
Perhaps the second most epoch-making event was the election of Trump to what is always vaunted as the most powerful office in the world. His opponent wasn’t that much better so we got the worst of a very bad deal, at least she has some dignity. It may not be our country but we are all affected and, by electing a bigot and misogynist – and they are his good points, it showed us all how low the underbelly of the USA truly is. Any American woman or person of color or white immigrant that voted for him, hang your sorry heads in shame.
After writing that, I now have a few U’s spare, the rest will be in English, English.
If you are a regular reader, you will know that my birding focus has been a Cape Sable Island big year, I suppose I should say Cape Island because that is the way it is said around here. It was to be my personal motivation, a goal, a bar to set and a way of learning quickly all about our still relatively new home, that changed when two others took op the challenge. What made it a great year was that three of us, myself, Johnny Nickerson and Mike MacDonald pushed on to new levels, assisting in recording a cumulative year list for Cape Island of 249, or maybe 250. We all broke the 200 barrier and, on a personal level, I have to say I’m very happy with my total and look forwards to adding my the CSI life list over the years. Those are the bare-bones, more meat on that story in a later post.
It is true the listing is just numbers but, numbers have to be accumulated and their accumulation offer experience as a by-product. The secret is to learn more than you forget, not many people manage that one and when I stop adding and start subtracting I’ll slip quietly into the background. In the meantime, in 2017, expect more glaring mistakes and more flashes of latent talent from me, WYSIWYG. Now, without further ado, I’ll get to the selected highlights My stand-outs might be different from other viewpoints, just because I rate a gull higher than a warbler is a matter of personal opinion.
My top bird of the year was the Kamchatka Gull and it is not even a real tick (yet!). As a bird it was a lesson in mid-sized gull taxonomy and answered many questions for me regarding some versions of Larus canus I’ve seen. It was found as a Mew Gull by Clarence Stevens Jnr, but its true identity didn’t come out until Joan Comeau posted a suite of Facebook photos giving context, after that it just had to be seen. Experience tells me that this is a good species, but within the strictures of the species concepts we use it may take a while for the science to prove it.
Even when you have seen a species very many times, context is all and so when I pitched up at The Hawk one dazzling May afternoon my thoughts were more on seeing migrants than vagrants. The light was fierce and, at that time of the year, somewhat against the viewing position. I saw a shorebird that didn’t fit, at least here, but I knew what it was. Digital cameras have changed everything, just as audio playback has, and so I grabbed images of the general shorebird group, knowing that a view on a screen would confirm my suspicions. The image was grainy and a bit off focus, clearly I had a Curlew Sandpiper but wait. The frame I viewed had a slice of another bird encroaching so I scrolled further images and, make that two Curlew Sandpipers. In the meantime Alix had hit the road and was watching both, we had the conversation, yes I now knew that there were two, wild.
They were never very lens friendly but I’d have been happy with what I got until Robert and Sandi Keereweer pulled another out of the hat in more or less the same place in July. That bird was friendlier and everyone who wanted it enjoyed great views and shots and the question asked most was, is one of the spring birds? We can never know that one.
We had a year of drought in southern Nova Scotia, it was obvious it was coming because it didn’t rain. That didn’t stop the weak minded pouring water on their lawns or washing their cars or doing any of the other things that don’t need water quite like the Human body. Even after we knew that wells were drying people still watered plants because their well had more water than their neighbours, how dumb is that? The upside of the drought was the low water levels in local barrachois pools. The one at The Hawk beach developed attractive margins and the odd Spotted Sandpiper explored them. Nearby two Yellow-crowned Night-Herons found the problem of fish procurement greatly eased by their have a reduced acreage to swim in, as did one of the Cape Island stars of the year, a Least Bittern.
Anything that is a Cape Island tick for Johnny has to be a highlight because he is the master. I just happened to be the one who saw it first and the finding was one of the pieces of birding serendipity that happens, for some. I had decided to walk The Hawk roads hoping to find migrant warblers and so I parked at The Hawk beach and set off. A yellowy looking thing on a distant bank attracted my attention but bins did not quite cut it, although I did actually think it was a Least Bittern. I walked back to the car, scoped the thing and the rest is history as they say.
A by-product of visiting Halifax while Sandra got sorted was the opportunity to explore a few of the local birding spots. On one occasion I was able to look for a Blue-grey Gnatcatcher found by Diane LeBlanc. Sandra was with me when we saw it so that was even better. It may not be mega rare but they are characterful birds and I’d missed Clyde’s on Cape Island, so we enjoyed it greatly.
Another nearby bird was a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher at West Jeddore. The home owner was so typically Nova Scotian in welcoming us onto the property to search for the bird. Elsewhere on this planet, and not too far away people are not so welcoming.
I have a particular penchant for pelagic birding, something I share with a few others. The very successful, if invitation only, Pubnico pelagics are a highlight because we are out there with the same birds that are often just dots from Daniel’s Head, although I am getting better at identifying what are still dots for some, a good scope helps. So I thought why not get out off Brier Island in September because a pelagic that doesn’t spend time providing endless tail-flukes for people with little more interest that arranging a few pixels on the phone would surely offer some good pelagic birding. So I floated the idea, so to speak, and the uptake was very encouraging. Some preparation was involved and I’ll know to take the frozen chum out of the freezer earlier, rather than have to thaw it overnight in the bathroom of an unnamed lodge on Brier Island.
On a blustery day 43 birders had around four hours at sea, chucking bits of smelly fish out to attract the sea birds and, as is almost always the case, the best was saved last when we came across this South Polar Skua sitting on the water.
It was not a regulation bird in that it was a bit warm and the nape and back/covert flecking made an instant diagnosis difficult, as did the apparent bulk, it was a biggie. The skuas still confound but research showed our bird to be South Polar, our second for the day but the only one that showed properly. Special thanks should be given to all who spotted on the day, we dealt with the logistics of getting everyone on the birds fairly well although a PA would be an advantage.
For those taking note, I am proposing to run the trip again pending boat availability. It will go the weekend after Labour Day and will run on both Saturday and Sunday. The compliment will be limited to 30 each day, so the cost will be a trifle more, and we will spend less time bouncing around aimlessly and more time on the ridge where the birds gather, the birds will be encouraged to come to us more, I need sharks livers. Make a note in your diary if interested, let me know too.
The early part of the year delivered our hoped for alcids to Cape Island. High on my wants list was Thick-billed Murre and, exactly as Johnny had predicted, they came in force. The first was off the causeway from Barrington. I’m sure the people passing in their trucks wondered what we were looking at, some even slowed to 98 kmph to take a peek!
While on the wharfs Dovekies appeared and were duly enjoyed.
Not all highlights were rarities. For years I have tried to get a shot that did Northern Harrier justice, I think I finally did.
Going back to the Pubnico pelagic, it was a good one with just about everything expected showing up and the weather holding fine The only absentee had been Manx Shearwater, there are not that many of them out there at the best of times. After we had turned and started the run back to port, and the tamest Manxie ever followed us home a while. It was bird of the trip and a very welcome addition for the day.
We bump into Short-eared Owl in our area once in a while, but more often than not they are flying away. One afternoon I watched one hunting The Hawk and decided to go for it. I wedged myself against a rock and waited and, eventually, got the shots I was after.
May is the month we hope to see the unusual and this year contained a few surprises. Ronnie called on morning with a catharus thrush on Chebogue, he called it 100%, a Grey-cheeked Thrush. Mike and I galloped over and were rewarded by close view of this surprisingly scarce thrush.
Long-distance twitching sometimes has to be done. Halifax, for us, is long-distance although route familiarity doesn’t make it seem quite so bad now. The tireless birding of Dave Currie had the rare bird alert flashing, first with Bell’s Vireo, then with a MacGillivray’s Warbler plus there were other birds around. The Bell’s Vireo twitch turned out to be a bit more lenghty that planned when Peggy Scanlon found a Brown Booby off Canso causeway and it stuck. We, being nearly halfway there, dropped all plans post-vireo and hared it to Canso where the bird showed itself very well to a small but appreciative crowd.
Sandra and myself headed to town with a shopping list that included Grasshopper Sparrow and Yellow-billed Cuckoo and the Bell’s Vireo again, Sandra needed them all for NS, I needed the first two. Diane had relocated the sparrow the day before so we started there with some success, then news of the MacGillivray’s Warbler broke and we couldn’t believe our luck. We tried and missed before taking a break with the nearby Yellow-billed Cuckoo. Back at the warbler site, it had been seen again, even photographed but for me the best I did was flight views just too fast to tick. Sandra had refused to descend the storm drain but we had found the Bell’s Vireo again so she went home three up, me two.
I went back a few days later with Mike and Ervin and we did get the warbler, and the cuckoo again then lucked in on a Yellow-throated Vireo that had gone missing but the sparrow had gone and that was that. It was a crazy spell but exciting and we certainly got to know the spots around Dartmouth.
There are some fairly common species on the mainland that just don’t get to Nova Scotia very often. Mostly this is because the species are fairly sedentary but also because they really don’t look built for speed. One such is Carolina Wren although it is in the nature of the beats that it is expanding its range, maybe even our way. This one was on Cape Forchu, found by the redoubtable Ervin and it showed remarkably well at times.
While Sandra and I were in Halifax for one of the chemo trips, new came to us that Ellis had found three Red-necked Phalaropes along Pond Road, Lower West Pubnico. As a species in Nova Scotia Red-necked Phalaropes are common to abundant in the Bay of Fundy, seasonally, and not at all uncommon offshore elsewhere. Occasionally birds will come to inland pools so, at the insistence of a sick woman, we went for the on the way home. Even noxious chemicals are not going to put the girl off and we had great views. Alix was actually in the water and these most confiding of shorebirds just swam around him. Some people on one of the Facebook groups reckoned he might be stressing them, which sort of told you how much they know about phalaropes. I can understand the sentiment but, phalaropes are almost always confiding in you are patient and not in the least bit stressed, good field craft Alix.
My last highlight was a common shorebird that barely raises the pulse, in Europe. This one was on the border with New Brunswick at some pools right by the highway. It fed constantly and the light was a challenge but it was nice to add Ruff to my Nova Scotia list, especially after dipping one at the scenic Windsor Sewage Works.
There were many other highlights of course, there could have been more had some of the rarities behaved better.
And look at what you might have seen!
We all expect to miss birds. If every twitch guaranteed success then there would be no tension and it would be just a matter of making the effort to go rather than going in hope rather than expectation. The year was a bad girl in many respects, teasing with distant birds that I should have gone for while offering snatches of rarities that would not resurface.
Townsend’s Warbler is probably the biggest miss. Were it not for a Sharp-shinned Hawk that may well have eaten it, we might have all seen it that afternoon at Butch Hoggs’ feeders. It was not to be and Ervin is the only one with the prize.
Alix has his dad Arthur well-schooled so, when a late hummingbird appeared in the yard Arthur took the photos and the hummer experts called it a Calliope, stunning. It never came back of course.
When Richard Donaldson was out for his constitutional, he was photographing and briefly snapped what looked like a Grey Catbird. It was only a few days later, when reviewing the photos, that he realised it was no catbird. It turned out to be a Townsend’s Solitaire which was then duly searched for but had gone. On the plus side, the record is documented and added to the archive and it give optimism that another will turn up one day.
A bird identified as a Lapland Longspur was photographed at West Head, Lockeport in the autumn and posted on a blog but a diligent birder (not me!) soon noticed that it was a Smith’s Longspur. It would have been a big bird to see, my only lifer for the year, but it was not to be but it did show that there could be anything out there, especially on the woefully under-watched south shore.
For any birding year to be memorable it needs birds but also birders, and I am very grateful that Nova Scotia has such lovely people birding. I could name you all and tell you how great you are but you, modestly, already know. Our time on this planet is limited and, despite all the non-bird related traumas 2016 delivered, it will go down as a great birding year, big thanks to all who contributed and see you all at the next big one.
And now the stats:
I birded on 359 days in 2016, a personal record for me and it takes my life birding days, that is days when I went out specifically to bird up to 8922.
I saw 281 species, I never left the province, the first time that I have ever just birded a single province or county. My Nova Scotia list climbed to 299. I had no lifers, the last was California Quail in October 2014.
I continued to eBird diligently, submitting 1211 checklists. I also started to add as many of my photos to eBird as I had. I am up to 947 species photograph, I may have a few more tucked away yet.
Our home in Clam Point is very birdy and I submitted 129 checklists just for the yard (within my own definition of the yard!). We had 129 species for the year and the yard list rose to 142 species, many of which have photos and can be seen on this blog under the Clam Point yard tab.
I’ll deal with Cape Sable Island elsewhere, except to say that my CSI list is now 248, I’d hope to get near to 300 inside the next two years.
Finally, for those interested in reading about the activities of Nova Scotia birders, then you might like to browse the following blogs, listed in no order whatsoever.
Go and see what others have seen and even send in your lists: