A Big Year on Cape Sable

This is a very long post but it does have plenty of eye-candy birds so, if you have 20 minutes or so I hope you enjoy it. I intend to place it as a page too, under the CSI tab that way, if you have something more pressing to do don’t worry, it will still be easy to find if you want to come back to it. Apologies for any typos, it hapneps.

To do a big year, a real big year, requires mainly one thing, stamina! When I decided to do a big year on Cape Sable Island (CSI), it was to be purely me for my own education and as a motivation to go out birding, even when I really didn’t feel like it or the weather suggested I’d be better off stopping in, or even doing the domestic stuff that I’d kept putting off but now really needing doing. I knew that I had to mention it to the resident birders, just to flag up my intention so that I got support when it came to rare and scarce birds. That Johnny and Mike were game to join in was very pleasing and the gusto with which we have all embraced the challenge has resulted in a real eye-opening, and accomplished exactly what I wanted from the year, a snapshot of 12 months birding on CSI.

Learning a new birding area takes time, there are shortcuts via literature but CSI information is rather thinly spread and takes some researching, as I am finding while prepping to write a ‘Birds of Cape Sable’. The other shortcut is to tap into local knowledge and, in that respect, there is no richer vein than Johnny Nickerson. His knowledge of when, where and what on Cape Sable is unparalleled and he shared his knowledge unstintingly.

Although I have a digital birding presence in eBird (as does Mike) and via the list web site, Bubo, I also have my own data set all in Excel, so my planning spreadsheets were all prepared in advance with the species I deemed to be ‘givens’ in one column, tough to find in another, and outside chance in another. I kept a record of what I missed and also the CSI cumulative comprised of all records from visiting birders. I also had columns for each month and self-found, the latter a category I feel is underused by birders. If you don’t know Excel then you won’t have the faintest idea what I’m talking about but think, nerd. I also used this blog to post what I thought would be found, the pages are still there if you wish to browse, so how did I do?

The givens I got right, we missed just two, Swainson’s Thrush and Tennessee Warbler. Of the tricky buggers we found 69 out of 116 which was a pretty good return. Of the megas, let’s just say we didn’t get very many.

Just to recap on the ‘rules’. No heard birds, you have got to see it. Birds on the givens list require no phone call, anything on the other two required a call, a real rarity requires whatever it takes to get the message through with death or a coma the only acceptable excuses for not trying. OK, perhaps it was not that serious but for 365 days we birded hard and often and all three came away happy.

Breaking it down each month is a bit cumbersome and I’ll post the photos at the end anyway so I’ll talk stats in a wider sense. Cape Sable Island recorded 248 (post review) species in 2016, a nice, not very round number. Some were, inevitably, single observer records – but not very many. Some were very rare but, again, not very many and there were gaps that should have been filled, gaps that illustrate that there is no such thing as a ‘normal’ year in birding. Only six of the species out of 248 were not seen by any of the three participants, they were: Little Blue Heron, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Blue-grey Gnatcatcher, Scarlet Tanager, Painted Bunting and Eastern Meadowlark, we are not at all bitter! Three species were heard only, not counted by us for the CSI big year but counted on the cumulative total because they were identified, they were Black-billed Cuckoo, Ovenbird and Pine Grosbeak.

All three of us passed the 200 mark. There were some crucial influences that meant Mike missed birds, Johnny too for other reasons. Absence from CSI during a critical May migration period for Mike meant that several species that Johnny and I enjoyed were out of reach for Mike. They should show up in 2017 again and Mike will get them for his CSI list, or maybe not.

Taking it month by month, and here I can only talk about my year, here are the stats in terms of species added to the list by month: January – 104; February – 3; March – 4; April – 21; May – 46; June – 4; July – 12, August – 12; September – 13; October – 8; November – 2; December – 3. Naturally January was the biggest month and we were boosted by some good birds, not least the lingering of the two Mountain Bluebirds found by Alix at the back-end of 2015.

Perhaps the best indicator of the intensity of the year is found in eBird. For those not in the know, this free recording (not listing, that is just a by-product) software allows you to submit a checklist of birds seen. My CSI submissions numbered 854 but that is only part of the story as I didn’t always put a checklist in if I went out again the same day and saw nothing I hadn’t already submitted, I suspect 900+ birding trips out around CSI should cover it.

I like to find my own birds and, if pushed, I’d say that a healthy ‘self-found’ list shows effort and commitment, not to mention the experience gained in accumulating such a list. Of the 232 species I saw on CSI in 2016, I found 224 of them, not always the ‘tick’ but subsequently.

These accounts usually have a highlights type of thing, but I’ll leave that to the lengthy set of photos with comments at the end, the real highlight was the camaraderie that came about with three of us set at the same purpose. True there was the odd hiccup, but I think the year as a whole was a highlight, despite any outside factors that exerted influence. I, personally, learned a lot and will continue to do so. I’m inspired by the birding on CSI to write not quite an avifauna but certainly a ‘birds of’ CSI which I hope to complete by the end of 2017. For now I go back to January 1st 2016 when the Three Musketeers gathered for the first of many birds – this time it was distant Purple Sandpipers off Drinking Brook Park, the rest is now history.

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I can’t get to the pretties without a comment regarding the species that went AWOL in 2016, they were: Laughing Gull; Eastern Wood-Pewee; White-eyed Vireo; House Wren; Swainson’s Thrush; Tennessee Warbler; Canada Warbler and House Finch. These species had occurred, sometimes as multiple records, in 2015 and so it was reasonable to expect one or all to show up on CSI in 2016 but they did not. Add to this list a few ‘regular’ rarities, species that have, over the years, been found frequently around CSI: Eurasian Wigeon; Cattle Egret; Western Sandpiper; Caspian Tern; Chimney Swift; Red-bellied Woodpecker; Olive-sided Flycatcher; Great Crested Flycatcher; Western Kingbird; Northern Rough-winged Swallow; Eastern Bluebird; Veery; Hooded Warbler; Summer Tanager and Red Crossbill and you can see that a cumulative of over 260 might have been possible, had a just a few of the species listed bothered to show up. That they didn’t is equally interesting.

Before I litter the post with photos it is fair to say that the bar has been set, as far as CSI big years are concerned and, no doubt and all things being equal, I’ll have another go at it sometime. Meanwhile I’ll still bird CSI with the intention of seeing everything that shows up, I hope to find a few more good birds and I know I have a very long way to go to get anywhere near Johnny’s 351 species CSI life-list, but I can try!

The photos are an eclectic selection with a bit of chat on most to give context but not in any sequence. All will have been seen before, posted, as they were, during the big year. As always, comments are welcome and thank you for bothering to read this blog. It may come across as a little egotistical that I write this stuff but, if I don’t write, then my head just gets full of words.

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I’ll start with a lousy photo, but an important one because this is a Grey Jay on CSI. I had resolved to try to cover Clam Point more, that meant walking the ocean-side trail from the wharf. I parked and saw a distant bird fly into the top of the tree nearest the ocean, it was a Grey Jay. I fired off shots as it flew to another tree and then away, never to be seen again. I had hoped for Grey Jay, but not really expected one and certainly not on May 25th.

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Later on the same visit I found this Common Gallinule that stuck around a while. Because of our geography it was necessary to check that Common Moorhen from Eurasia was not involved, it wasn’t.

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Staying with May 25th, I finally got a half-decent photo of one of the Glossy Ibis that had been around CSI, most had been distant record shots.

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Boreal Chickadee is a declining species and it may well vanish from CSI and even Nova Scotia. We seem unable to arrest these trends in populations and don’t have the historical knowledge to know whether such slumps have happened before. For now though, we can find a Boreal Chickadee on CSI if we want one.

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Three months are vitally important in a big year, May, September and October. True, there are migrants in months either side but miss these three months and your big year becomes a big nine months. One hectic period in May, right when Mike had left the island, brought a deluge of good birds, some of which just never put in a repeat appearance when fall migration began. One star was this Warbling Vireo in Johnny’s yard on May 19th. They may be common elsewhere but on CSI they are only seen once or twice a year at best.

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The cold of January didn’t deter us from covering the island and quickly building our year list. A real bonus was the remaining Mountain Bluebirds around The Hawk. This shot was taken January 7th, their last day on CSI.

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Although getting to The Cape was not possible for Johnny, Mike and I did get there regularly, and usually in the excellent company of Ronnie, Alix or Ervin. On October 13th Ronnie, Mike and I had slogged around the island with fairly scant reward. We split up on Steven’s Point, the spot where Leslie would pick us up, I went looking for Ipswich Sparrows. I flushed a small bird from the long grass and it flew a short way, it looked long tailed and brown and I knew it was not one of our regular sparrows, too small. It flushed again and dropped into the middle of the point, at which time I called up Ronnie and told him I thought I had a Marsh Wren. We walked it, it flew and Ronnie got this amazing shot to confirm the identification. My feeling is that it may be Western Marsh Wren, I hope there is enough in the photo to confirm this and many thanks to Ronnie for the use of the photo here.

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Not all birds are easy to see, some because their habitat is complicated and they know how to exploit the invisibility it offers, others because they range over a large area, some because you need a bit of luck. When Johnny had a Northern Mockingbird fly past him on The Hawk is sparked a spell of prolonged searching. Mike managed to catch sight of it one day but I had to work and walk until I finally got it, and even then it was distant. I need not have worried because I saw Mockingbird twice more during the year, both times long enough and near enough to photograph.

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Shorebirds, historically, only come through Nova Scotia in small batches in spring, in 2016 this changed and there were masses around. The Curlew Sandpiper day, May 7th, was memorable for lots of reasons, one was the presence of a couple of Stilt Sandpipers in full breeding plumage, found late in the day at Daniel’s Head. Like many tundra nesters, they were tame and allowed great looks and photo ops, even though the light was leaving quickly. Most Stilt Sands are autumn birds, not drab exactly but lacking the subtleties of full-summer.

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Not every bird is rare, some are scarce and some are just so blue you cannot ignore them. Our house is at Clam Point on CSI and it gets lots of birds, the yard list is 142 and counting. In May we had a good run including this belter of an Indigo Bunting, present for a few days around May 10th. It was just so blue.

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Yellow-crowned Night Heron is surprisingly regular in Nova Scotia and on CSI. The first was seen by Johnny but vanished before Mike and I could see it. We both searched repeatedly for the bird but it had scooted, as the year wore on a few more showed up, all immature birds so where did they breed? I kept seeing them but, for one reason or another, Mike didn’t, it was almost therapy time but one eventually did let him in on the secret, then he saw them regularly, as did we all. This one was at Daniel’s Head on the evening of August 19th, we probably had three around at that time.

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Most people know that I worked on a Country Park in Nottingham (England) for 15 years, and every day I was there I saw Tufted Ducks. On January 27th I came across a brown duck in the small channel that feeds Baker’s Flats, it was there because the rest of the flats were iced up. That bit of road has the problem of being busy, it is forever haunted by hurtling trucks and so I only snatched a glimpse from the car before pulling into the no parking spot next door. Out of context you do a double-take, I knew it was an immature female Tufted Duck but I was in Nova Scotia, so I set about reconstructing the bird in my mind and double-checking with the field guide. Mike was first there and I left him so I could fetch Johnny, his cell was not receiving and so I had to track him down. As I pulled out on the main drag he was coming out of Southside Centreville or whatever the preposterously long name of the road is, we stopped, I yelled, the rest of the traffic slowed and he was on the bird in minutes. It stayed to March, off and on and was subsequently enjoyed by many.

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As a dedicated watcher of the sea I picked up quite a few birds during vigils at our sea watching spot on Daniel’s Head. I had spring Atlantic Puffins but, once they set to with the breeding they become more pelagic in their habits, heading straight out to sea to feed. There is a small colony on Green Island off The Cape so, June 1st, we coaxed Leslie into a side-trip one day and Ervin, Mike and myself enjoyed close-up views as we bounced around in Leslies tiny skiff, the man himself laughing maniacally!

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Johnny’s Yard is a bird magnet, thanks to Sandra Nickerson who keeps the feeders stocked and because it sits right where tired migrants arrive. Most things gravitate to his year if they find themselves in Lower Clark’s Harbour and so it was with this Orchard Oriole on May 12th. It came to Oranges as it re-fueled, along with the commoner Baltimore Orioles. It was one of those spring birds that never reappeared in fall, all part of magic May on CSI.

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Cliff Swallows are rather thinly spread in Shelburne County. They do a little better in Yarmouth and, like all hirundines, I had hoped that August/September would see a few gather around CSI before pushing off. It didn’t really happen although I did get Bank Swallow that way. That we did get Cliff is remarkable in that it was feeding way out to sea on August 16th. I was scoping the sea bird passage as usual when I noticed a few swallow types out there. That in itself is unusual although it is sometimes surprising what goes past at sea. One of the swallow flashed pale around the rump and so I stayed with it, it came a little closer and I relied on the quality of my lens to prise out n identification, it was a Cliff. Mike arrived and got it but we couldn’t track down Johnny, the phots were awful but diagnostic and we saw it well enough in the scope to rule out Cave.

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Regular trips to The Cape are a given, it gets birds and is a soul-enriching experience just being there. Mostly the group was myself, Make, Ervin, Ronnie or Alix, although we did enjoy the company of guests from time to time. Ervin and I were out there May 14th when we came across this Eastern Towhee, a species I’d spent considerable hours waiting to add to my NS list at a feeder in Lower West Pubnico in January. It was in The Forest so easy to see if not photograph, I always had the sun in my face. Later, and with Mike still away, One showed up in the yard briefly, again in the magic May period, I’m sure Mike won’t have to wait too long to add it to his CSI list.

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Owls, or at least the nocturnal ones, are a tricky find on CSI, so I was very pleased to come across this roosting Barred Owl along the variously spelled Kenney Road on November 2nd. Johnny couldn’t get there but Mike did and the owl stayed just long enough for a view before changing trees and aspect, rendering it invisible to all but a corvid.

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When the clock ticked over into January 1st 2016, big year thoughts included seeing Mikes pet Lark Sparrow before it left or the weather got it, we did. You never know whether a relatively regular scarce bird like Lark Sparrow will show up gain. We need not have been concerned as another was on The Hawk around October 26th, feeding right by the road.

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I must pay a short homage to the Curlew Sandpipers that graced CSI in 2016. The first came May 7th, were typically seen at range and rather let a few people down by clearing off quickly. The second was in roughly the same area but showed so well. There may never be another one on CSI, or they might be ‘in the system’ now and show up every year. It was a great lifer for most people and those who take photographs enjoyed an exceptional opportunity with the July bird, here is that bird, July 24th. I did a bit more of a write up on my end of year report.

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A familiar voice on the phone on October 2th said “hello Mark, there is a Yellow-headed Blackbird around the feeder at the end of The Hawk”. It was Johnny and was one of many calls the three of us shared in 2016. I called Mike and he got there before me. When I arrived it was hiding in the dense Willow, the view was good enough but… Later I called in at Johnny’s, he was out but a mob of Common Grackles were setting about his feeders and the Yellow-headed Blackbird was right in there with them, better views of a bird that stayed one more day before heading off to who knows where?

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As it was to be my first NS spring, I was eager to see how it all worked. Our geological location suggested that birds arriving in spring would be moving again very quickly, often just after daybreak. I don’t doubt that lots of good birds were missed because of this but a few did hang around long enough, sometimes a matter of hours, others a couple of days, to be seen, enjoyed and added to the growing CSI big year list. This Bay-breasted Warbler was a prime example. It appeared in the yard of house #38, New Road on The Hawk on May 20th and stayed just long enough for Johnny to get there, Mike was away at the time. Bay-breasted is one of the harder warblers to get on CSI although, if the spruce bud infestation continues it will have a few years of plenty.

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On May 23rd this male Bobolink took up residence in Rachel’s yard where it sang for a short while, another slightly tricky species, we get them but you need to be where they are when they show up as they don’t seem to stick long.

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Back home on the same day this Rose-breasted Grosbeak did stick, in fact it sang its heart out for a few days until it realised its mistake.

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The Curlew Sandpiper ‘event’, the first one that is, attracted quite a few admirers and the by-product was the discovery of a few scarce species like this Blue Grosbeak found by Tony and Angie Millard on May 10th. I am very glad it stayed around as it turned out to be the only one for the year that was getable.

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We don’t really get a lot of the larger hawks (harriers excepted) moving through, probably because they can see it is a no-win situation once they reach The Cape, so most fly down for a look, then fly back north. For this reason you cannot guarantee Red-tailed or Broad-winged, you just have to hope to connect. It helps if the latter takes up a territory and I’m quite convinced that a pair were around Clam Point prospecting in May. This one was one of a pair over the house on May 12th, I saw the same birds again on a few subsequent dates.

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On the evening of May 15th I said to Sandra, “let’s go and find a Purple Martin”, so we did, two in fact. They seem to love The Hawk and the area around the elevated church. Being Purple Martins they cannot resist sitting on wires and so, when one did, I just slewed the car over the road and grabbed a few shots out of the window. The ever patient Hawk residents are mostly used to this so barely paused to glance and just went around me.

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Out on The Cape I should think there is a Short-eared Owl or two October through April before they head off to breed. 2016 was blessed with regular sightings and this possible pair displayed over The Hawk on April 9th.

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In late May I spent a fair bir of time around Daniel’s Head hoping for an Upland Sandpiper, but didn’t get one. I thought the chance had gne until June 8th when one flew over the trailer parking lot and just kept going. I had wandered away from the car but more importantly the camera and so had to sprint (bad image I know) to the car to grab a handful of shots in awful light. The shots are diagnostic and I know the species well having had several secret sites for them in Quebec. I really thought we’d re-find it somewhere with short grass but it was not to be, one of a very few single observer records for the year.

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Some species are just jaw-dropping and I think Evening Grosbeak, well the males, falls into that category. Oddly enough, we had a couple at our newly installed feeder in June 2015, just a few weeks after we’d moved to NS. I had to wait until around December 5th before my year-birds showed and then a couple of days more before I finally got a shot of a male that I liked. I still haven’t got THE Evening Grosbeak shot I’d like, back-lit and low down but I’ll keep trying.

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Although Red-eyed Vireo is an easy find, photos of any quality generally require and unobstructed view, such as that afforded by the bare trees of The Forest on The Cape.

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Finding a scarce bird is always pleasing and we are lucky on CSI in that there will always be the possibility of finding something and on a fairly regular basis. Although I’d ticked my CSI Field Sparrow in Johnny’s yard earlier in the year there was some satisfaction in finding thise one in the long grass and scrub are at the end of Kenney Road on October 27th.

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Although relatively common on the ‘mainland’, in Nova Scotia Black-crowned Night-Heron is rather local, mostly to southern Nova Scotia. I suppose we take them for granted a bit, this one posed nicely on Daniel’s Head on several dates, holding a feeding territory on a small tidal pool that just happened to be roadside.

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I’ll stick with herons and recall the Green Heron that stood stock still while snatching tiddlers from a pond I didn’t know existed until Johnny found the heron and pointed me in the right direct. This was in the golden May period which began just as Mike and Sandra (his Sandra, we have one each) started to cross New Brunswick on his mid-May trip.

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Reading the book, Mourning Warbler is a regular breeder roughly north of Halifax, in the south it is a hoped for migrant, always uncommon. Having found one in 2015 I was naturally optimistic for the big year, an optimism justified by my seeing at least four in 2016. This bird was one of two on The Cape which was working the abandoned Lobster traps, September 10th.

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Most often birds are found when least expected, and so it was with this Snowy Egret that posed by d’Eons fishing supplies, June 13th as I made my way to Daniel’s Head. Not the CSI tick but a much better photo op.

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The same spot had this American Bittern on October 6th. Again, I was on my way to the head when I saw it crouched. It gave Mike a bit of a run around, hiding as he walked past it but we all scored, the only one of the year on CSI.

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We birders frequently pull up and chat opposite each other, from the car and in the middle of the road, it is some sort of tradition. On October 27th Johnny and I are passing on the latest new when this Northern Shrike lands in the top of one of the stunted trees on The Hawk. It is a year tick for all but Johnny can’t see it and I’m watching it and hoping it won’t clear off before he, and then later Mike gets it. It doesn’t, we do, another good one for the year.

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July is often seen as a dead month but think one, it is the month when lots of overshoots arrive and we get the benefit of post-breeding dispersal. One overshoot was this Tricolored Heron on July 31st. I found it sat in a tree top by the Deep Water Pond (now no vehicle access) purely by accident. It stuck around a few days and everyone who needed it got it, and I’d expected to get Little Blue over Tricolored but it just goes to show, you never can tell.

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American Golden-Plover turns up annually on CSI, almost always in the fall and almost always on The Cape. We saw quite a few again this year including this rather leggy-looking bird on October 13th. With Pacific Golden-Plover turning up in NS and on Newfoundland recently, we will certainly be taking a close look at our golden plovers, especially any from July onwards.

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Long-billed Dowitcher is uncommon on NS, although not around CSI where they appear to be present in spring and fall but are lost amongst the short-billed throng. This one lingered on The Guzzle for a few days around October 7th and gave exceptional photographic opportunities.

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And finally, one of the star birds of the year although there is at least one other candidate but it didn’t stick, the Least Bittern. It was a real performer for all who wanted to see it, rarely going missing for any length of time and, with patience, allowing fabulous views of what is essentially a reedbed skulker. It was a CSI tick for Johnny it was that special. We may never get another although, given our location, you cannot rule out anything.

Just a final thought. Cape Sable Island is a big place and very hard to cover, so we generally concentrate on areas known for their productivity. The birds often occur there but they also get everywhere else too and it was no surprise to hear of a Painted Bunting at a Clark’s Harbour feeder that we missed, amongst other things. There is also the human element and the island has swathes of private property in the form of yards, fields and woodlots. We miss tons and always will, you only have to look at the well-covered and relatively near Seal and Bon Portage islands, an integral part of the southern Nova Scotia rarity catchment area, to understand that this is an exceptional good birding area.

So that was it, our big year done and, throughout we were ably assisted by bird finders extraordinaire Ronnie and Alix d’Entremont, Paul Gould, Clyde Stoddard and Murray and Cindy Newell. I was often told that I was lucky seeing all those birds, perhaps, but you do make your own luck and you only see or find birds by actively looking for them. I hope nobody’s nose got put out of joint during the big year, it can happen. I will always remember it as a great birding year, something I needed more than I expected I would. Now it is January 11th 2017, am I doing another big year?, no but, 79 species so far on CSI and counting!

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I could have added a fair few more photos but enough! Above a Clay-colored Sparrow on The Cape, below a Brown Thrasher at thrasher central for CSI, Johnny’s yard – and this one is still there.

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