Double-Strike

Birding is a funny thing. You get all sorts of odd juxtapositions of events, coincidences if you like, and rare birds seem to be especially prone to this. Many is the time that I have twitched a bird, only to find that the same species turns up nearer, easier to see, a better experience all-round. An example of this the first, accepted, Short-billed Dowitcher for the UK. Sandra and I traveled a long way into eastern Scotland for it, an overnight on the way up. After a few weeks it showed up just a couple of hours away from home, same bird, same little plumage quirks, yes I went to see it! Such is life.

Today I went to Pubnico to see a Prothonotary Warbler, not too long after driving to Halifax just over a week ago to see one. The Sandy Cove Road bird was great, confiding to a point and showy. Todays went to another level. The bird was closer by choice (its) and appeared brighter because the light was better and the experience was more intimate, even though it was shared other birders. Naturally I gave it some welly with the camera and the results were pretty pleasing.

 

Winding back a couple of days and I popped over to Johnny and Sandra’s house to see their latest avian guest, a Field Sparrow. Their place in the Lower Clark’s Harbour is well-placed for attracting the birds and during my short sit I got views and shots of the Field Sparrow and a couple of friendly Fox Sparrows. In the background, the long-staying Brown Thrasher “chupped” away deep in the brushy cover.

 

The now annual eBird big day takes place on May 13th. Last year I did 78 species on Cape Sable Island, a nicely tight geographical area and one that lends itself to such an event. I don’t think anyone can beat CSI in such a day bird race although Brier might give us a run, a Seal Island list for the same date would be interesting too, otherwise, as far as Nova Scotia is concerned, CSI rules OK. There, is that enough poking the Wasps nest to inspire birders in NS to get out and do a big day on the big day?

Seriously though, big days when recorded in eBird, that is with details and not just and x are important snapshots of the birds present on that given day. Obvious I know, and no doubt active birders will be out birding anyway but it is the concentrated effort that makes the thing worthwhile. For me it is another block of comparative data for CSI and, over time, you can look and see patterns, just as you can if you have eBird data going back a few years, you can almost know what will be there, have a pretty good ide of what might be there and, with the right conditions, have an inkling that there is potential to produce the unexpected, because let us all be honest here, the unexpected is the dessert we all look forwards too.

I will be participating, obviously, and it will be the only date in the year where I use the Cape Sable Island hotspot in eBird. It would be nice if a few more sites put in a big day list.

Eau de Sewagé

Seriously, who wouldn’t want to drive three hours to a sewage plant to look at a gull? Well, as a treat I took Sandra, along with Mike, to just such a place after Jake Walker had found a Franklin’s Gull in summer plumage at the Wolfville facility. It had been seen plucking the previously enjoyed minutia off the rippling surface of the water, liquid that had been passed by many as being previously fit for consumption. We went along in hope of seeing the gull and there and, although it would often wander off a bit, it had been regularly returning to enjoy the subtle piquancy of all those off-yellow Sweetcorn kernels, energetically careening around the lively surface of sewage bed two.

Such trips are always fun, as you see so much of life away from the sophistication of the Banana Belt, such as the guy with the truck towing a yard trailer, a thing (the trailer)carefully engineered to withstand the stress of being pulled by a ride-on mower at breakneck speeds of up to 10kmph. The truck driver, a fine example of a spirit unburdened by thoughts of Elfin Safety, pulled the thing at speeds of up to 100kmph, fully loaded with a cast-iron stove and chimney.  You can only think it is a matter of time before he licks a live wire and the whole, interesting trip down an evolutionary dead-end reaches its inevitable conclusion. As it was, I overtook him as fast as I could, not wishing to bear witness to a most obvious impending event, the departure of toy trailer from truck, much to the disappointment of those following.

We got to the sewage plant only to find our boy had scooted out onto the expanse of mud, seaward side. Gulls dotted the distant view and it was not long before we had the dusky dot lined up in the scope. The tide was rising and it was only a matter of time before it came back, but how much time? You can only say that it looks like it is getting restless so often before you give up and set off back. We were moments from that unhappy time when it did come back and did its thing. The light was a tad against us, so mantle colour was hard to get true but it did perform well and was very much enjoyed. Franklin’s may be a common species in parts of North America but in the north-east is rightly prized.

 

As predicted, the good birding brought about by the arrival of spring and complimentary south-westerly airflow continued to provide. The residence of Johnny and Sandra Nickerson in Lower Clark’s Harbour once again attracted a good bird, this Eastern Towhee on April 14th, thanks for the call Johnny.

 

The same day Sandra and I had a short tour of CSI and came up with a late Horned Lark in the yard off Fish Plant Road, only the second I’ve seen this year on CSI.

 

I think we can expect year birds to come thick and fast from now until the end of May. No doubt some will be rarities, hopefully most won’t be three hour away but, if they are, you can be sure that there will be something en-route to entertain, such as the large roadside sign outside a charity store in New Minas requesting, in all innocence, that you drop your clothes there. Given that the trailer usage innovator was not too far away, I would not bet against a well-meaning bare ass making CBC Nova Scotia news as clothes were indeed, dropped and traffic interuped.

Cape-tastic

A visit to The Cape, the sliver of land off the end of Cape Sable Island, Nova Scotia is always worthwhile, even if you only get a pleasant walk out of it. The real hope though is that you will find unusual birds, rarities that get lost in the acres of cover on the main island but have nowhere to hide (much) in the confines of The Cape. It has been a bit neglected of recent, what with lousy gales and the activity associated with the Lighthouse renovations, work that is now coming to an end. Today (4/12/17) the weather was good and there was a ride in the offing, you need a boat to get there. You always set off more in hope than expectation but you also compile a mental ‘could be there’ list, well I do.

With Piping Plovers showing up on Daniel’s Head on 4/10 (one bird, seven on 4/11), then it was time to see whether The Cape pairs were also back – they weren’t. The route around The Cape took us through the marsh and dunes to the light and then along the shingle bank and back to the pick-up point, 5-6 km of walking and bog and sand, stones and kelp but all worth it. We recorded 34 species including some passing Thick-billed Murres and Razorbills, a scope would have got us Common Murre too but it was too far to call 100%. If you want to see the eBird checklist, click on the link, you don’t need an account to view. http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S35899474

It was pretty quiet at first, Savannah Sparrows serenaded us and Brant wandered everywhere. It wasn’t until we hit the light that the sea birds showed best, if distant in some cases. I dare say a full day with a scope would have been well worth recording but time pressed and, while Ervin and I watched the sea, Alix and Mike crunched along the stony bank. 100m later my phone rang, “Yellow-throated Warbler’ said Alix, game on. It was flighty, hiding behind the abandoned Lobster traps and flying along the ridge out of sight. Better views were had further on; this was the best shot I got.

 

Yellow-throated Warbler is rare in spring in NS with, I think, less than a dozen records. Most show up as summer/fall overshoots or reverse migrants. It was Cape Sable Island bird 251 for me, another step toward 300 – you have to have ambition.

We searched the bank for the warbler, finding four Purple Sandpipers and a Fox Sparrow but the warbler had slipped away as they often do. Further on, a tiny brown bullet shot between Lobster traps, a Winter Wren. It proved hard to get a good look at but we ruled out Pacific Wren by using the following criteria, we could see the Atlantic Ocean – good enough for me. The photos were hard to get, flight only.

 

We later enjoyed views of the two American Oystercatchers that are back for the season, plus lots more Brant and bits and pieces, then we were off. I paused on Hawk Point Road on the way home to enjoy a first of the year Tree Swallow before pushing on. Our yard is as good as anywhere to catch passing birds and this Palm Warbler there made it year tick #4 for the day, you have got to love spring. I think we have a few more days more of this productive weather, the early bounce for some species is most welcome and, after a bit of a dismal March, things are looking up, down and deeply into the bushes.

Good as Gold

In the absence of our insect friends in the woods, where is a lost Prothonotary Warbler going to find a square meal? Why in the Kelp of course. The shuffle into spring has begun and the switch from severely blocking northerly winds to more temperate southerly hints has brought the much awaited season change: A Great Egret in Yarmouth; an Osprey in Pubnico; a scattering of Indigo Buntings and, best of all (so far), a spanking Prothonotary Warbler in the kelp at the end of Sandy Cove Road, Ketch Harbour.

In the normal course of things such a gem would be temptation enough to go for, and the thought of lining the pockets of the gas companies – a fuel hike of $14. Per litre over the past couple of weeks should do that – brings a warm glow to the wallet that such fleecing inspires. Fact is, Sandra and I had an appointment in big town (Halifax) and so going up a day early worked very well. Add to that the gracious supper invite from Diane, joining Chris and Fulton and finally meeting Sean, the dogs and parrots and it was a fun adventure.

The object of our desires was easily visible from the beach path as it hopped and plucked around a kelp dump. Seeing wood warblers sans wood is always special, and this little gem put on a great show. It fed well, was able to stand its ground against Song and Ipswich Sparrows and looks like it will be fit and ready to re-orient after stocking up on nosh.

So, NS tick #302 and not one I ever expected to be this easy to see. Big thanks to Andrew Simpson for finding it. Here are the shots. We kept well back and the Kelp haze meant that many shots turned into a few semi-reasonable ones.

Leopards and Spots

You know the birding is slow when I do a post like this but hey, it’s my blog after all. Hopefully spring migration will start here (Nova Scotia) and I can fill the blog with nice photos.

Palm Warbler – coming to a woodlot near you – soon.

A Leopard can’t change its spots, an idiom of biblical origin meaning that you cannot change your character, very true, but you can change how you bird, I have.

In the old days, not quite when Dodos walked the earth but long ago, I birded, well bird watched and I wrote what I had seen and where. The when was just the date, the where a little more precise but the what was everything I saw, with counts. I also wrote notes when I saw something I’d not seen before; not necessarily a new species but something common doing something different. I transcribed my rough notes on scraps of waste paper onto foolscap pages and then placed them in folders, stored in date sequence with the odd feather pasted in. Then I got my first bound pocket notebook, it was about June 1981.

The folders had my stuff from about 1966 through 1972-74 when doing ‘Ornithology’ for a Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE – the only grade 1 I got) and then all my casual bird watching until I met another birder and found twitching (1981). For several years after my birding became abbreviated, simply because my now treasured notebooks were not loose-leaf, when they were full I needed another, so I stopped counting, stopped recording all of the species, just made sure my notes covered the rarities, even did the odd painting.

After a few very active years my knowledge had increased exponentially to my experience. People who tell you chasing is a waste of time seem to miss the fact that, the more you see the more you learn. With greater knowledge and a wind-change to take up more restricted birding, mostly just in my county of Nottinghamshire, my notebooks took on a different air. I wrote down more, with counts, but only what was irregular or unusual for my local patch or sites I knew well. Over a short period of time I acquired a good knowledge of the county’s birds and so my minimalist style was applied further. I still twitched and when I did I still kept day lists and even did some counting, but nothing very deep as my focus was now Nottinghamshire.

In 2003 I (we) jumped the Atlantic and landed in Quebec. A whole new avifauna to learn, notebooks to fill, all with much greater detail while learning and then a steady slip back to abbreviation because I then knew what was worth noting, except that I didn’t know that one day I would NEED to put all of my notebooks into eBird.

I capitalise need because the same forces that drive me to bird, constantly (ask Sandra), drive me to want to clear up loose ends. My folders with all my stuff from the first scribbled entry about a House Martin Nest through to trips to the coast with school, then the birds seen around where I lived are all now compost, cleared out when my mum ‘got a mini-skip’ and I wasn’t there to save them. Some of the later notes I’d transcribed into a notebook, the rest are just memories, unreliable for dates and times but crystal clear on species seen. Lost they may be but I do have my notebooks and they have been sitting looking at me wanting their extra time in sun for years.

I came to eBird in 2009 and I am now a disciple, a person who follows the discipline. My early attempts at eBird entry were patchy, borne of the propensity of the male species for not reading the instructions. I put in my life list, my UK list (mostly) and my ABA list and then just added my day-to-everyday stuff. Had I listened to Richard I would have been using eBird earlier and I would not now be looking at my Quebec notebooks thinking there is still a lot to do. I have entered all of the rest of my stuff. I think probably I left out 10%, data of little use to anyone except me as a memory. It has taken my eBird checklists past 11,300, the three notebooks left to enter should see that breach the 12,000 mark if I put everything in. It is now a labour of love to enter everything but I have to finish it, and I will. Thankfully I can now use the ‘historical’ entry rather than sift through photos to pluck unrecorded visit times.

Pre-eBird I used to use one notebook for each year, each entry containing tight, verging on illegible scribble following a note on the day, location and often the weather if relevant. Now I use three or more (thicker) notebooks a year with counts, with times and full details.

For a while, in my allotted birding life, my spots did change, they became indistinct – diffused. Now they are back, thanks to eBird, back to better details for each birding trip – lighter on notes, thanks to digital cameras (another discussion, another time), but back. The more recent birders will not have the dilemma of whether to enter their notebooks into eBird. They will use the mobile app and their birding life will be there, retained electronically. I will continue with paper and pen until my last trip list, fully spotted. The part of me that has to enter all of my notebooks wishes eBird was around from the start, containing data lost – just like all my old detailed Notts patch files that went when a hard drive fried, but at least it is here now.

Taking this opportunity to show how awful my attempts at painting and field illustration were I present the following. The first piece relates to Hoary Redpolls, I could have included the pieces for each species, they are featured in Twitching Times, I think I used the Mallard thing before, apologies to any nationalities I may have insulted.

Arctic Redpoll Acanthis hornemanni

Norfolk Holkham Meals 18th-February to 10th-March 1985, Up to seven present.

True the bill may be a bit wee and those wings might not work properly but…

24th-February 1985: Arctic Redpoll was one of those species that I had to work at in 1985 and, to some extent, suffer for. At the time their full suite of plumage characteristics were not fully documented and the classic ‘snowball’ was just about the only version many birders felt confident in ticking. They seemed to be more regular in the northern isles, which made sense since they were northern birds, but I think that we didn’t fully understand the dynamics of redpoll movements as, in later years, Arctic Redpoll has become more frequently identified south of Hadrian’s Wall.

For my first assault on the species I went on a short adventure north. One had been seen with Common Redpolls in Birch woods around White Adder Reservoir in the Borders region of Scotland. The information was sketchy but that didn’t dim my enthusiasm so, with myself driving, and John Hopper, Steve Henson and possibly Steve Keller (but don’t quote me) also on-board, we set off in my mum’s tiny Mini to look for it!!!

If you have ever sat in Mini, you will know how Sardines feel as they put that easy peel lid on to the can, assuming their Sardine souls are into existentialism, that is. White Adder Reservoir is about five hours away from Nottingham; by Mini it seems a lot further. To cut a long story, and journey for that matter, short, we didn’t see it. My notebook says: Dipper 2, Brambling. My back will never be the same, nor will at least one of the Mini occupants’ trousers, after a bit of sideways skidding on snowy lanes and a damaged wing-mirror incident.

You bird, you dip and so, undaunted the following week we went to Spurn in Humberside looking for the same species. Not in the Mini, I should add, those privileges had been withdrawn as I had failed to mention in advance the nature of the trip to my Mother and we both agreed that I should not borrow her car ever again, fair enough.

After the sort of day only January at Spurn can produce and no Arctic Redpoll, we returned to Notts with enough light available to drop into Lound, hoping for a white-winged gull. Scanning a large slurry pit, a tank c50 feet high that used to hold the waste ash from the nearby power stations, we, or rather Bill Simpson, picked out a male Falcated Duck. It was a species not on the British list but suspected of being able to get to the UK unaided – possibly arriving with the many Mallards originating from Central Russia which are known to winter in the UK.

When I used to do my Colwick Park wildlife talks, I always included a shot of a Mallard and pointed out that some came from Europe and Russia to winter. I then teased the question ‘how do you know where they are from?’ out of them. Here is your easy guide.

British Mallards wait for their bit of bread politely.

French Mallards push to the front but will then only eat baguettes.

German Mallards leave a pile of feathers on the bank to save the place in the queue.

Dutch Mallards just don’t care, man!

Greek Mallards borrow to get the bread.

Swiss Mallards don’t want to get involved; besides, they already have lots of bread.

Italian Mallards prefer pizza crusts.

Spanish Mallards are usually asleep when the bread arrives.

Danish Mallards preferred their bread either side of bacon.

Russian Mallards formed long queues for every beak full.

The Falcated Duck was very handsome, its beauty and potential wildness not at all diminished by the adjacent wildfowl collection with high fences. Our bird was full winged and left the site after a few days, possibly beating it back to somewhere east of the Baltic after having heard from other visiting Mallards that it was now unfrozen, who knows.

It wasn’t until February 1985 that I was finally able to add Arctic Redpoll to my life list, courtesy of one of the elusive birds in Holkham Meals/Wells Wood, Norfolk. There, a large and flighty redpoll flock roamed the woods as numerous birders pursued them. I saw one, eventually, and I think that most of us chasing redpolls that day realised that there were several Arctic Redpolls in that flock but only one was that elusive ‘snowball’.

Holkham Meals and Wells Woods are prime Norfolk birding sites that get rarities and fall outs, it’s High Island, Texas without the mossies, although never quite so spectacular. In 1985, Parrot Crossbills, remnants from an irruption in 1983, stayed to breed in the pines and sip from the puddles of the car park. We saw three the same day that we saw the Arctic Redpoll; read this and weep, modern twitchers, three real Parrot Crossbills, easy.

My first ever Bonaparte’s Gull so inspired this.

A field sketch of a not-so-Oriental-Cuckoo, a twitch that turned out to a to be just a sunny afternoon seeing Common Cuckoos.

A Mediterranean Gull with poo.

Field sketch of the head of a Little Curlew (was whimbrel).

A Desert Wheatear in Cornwall, not terrible.

An Alpine Swift, terrible.

A Sociable Lapwing, can’t do feet, or bodies.

My last field illustration – Lesser Sandplover.

Soccer playing Spotted Nutcracker.

A Lesser Grey Shrike (basically a Loggerhead) that had swallowed a Banana.

Field sketch of one of my biggest ‘finds’ at the time, Black Kite at Spurn.

A Black-eared Wheatear at Portland, note the fine feather detail!

Game of Firsts

You can tell that we are in something of a weather dictated birding slump when a blog post like this appears!

I know that I am unusual, no, we birders are all unusual in that when not out looking at birds we are thinking about them, reading about them, researching them. It is probably a syndrome of some sort but abnormal people, that would be all the others who are not birders, suffer equally with their own little quirks and so there is no need to worry. In very much the same way that Pythons, when gathered, will perform the Parrot Sketch then birders, when gathered – even only electronically, will take part in the Game of Firsts.

The rules are quite simple, make an educated guess as to what the next new species to be added to the Provincial bird list will be. You do need to know what the province bird list currently is, if you don’t you can look it up. You also perhaps need to know of the dark list, the one not mentioned in polite birding society as it has species on it that were never ratified by ‘them’. We in Nova Scotia have such a list, I am only learning about it via word of mouth, each statement carefully weighed for veracity, for example, we don’t have an official Common Redshank, a Eurasian shorebird, but they have been seen in Nova Scotia, possibly more than once.

That aside, we can only deal with the approved facts and so Common Redshank might be considered a very reasonable prediction, especially as our trailblazing (in all things avian) neighbour, Newfoundland and Labrador, has had them recently. So there it is, a public challenge, what will be the next new species added to the Nova Scotia list? To qualify it cannot be one pending, obviously, but must be found, enjoyed, documented, vetted and accepted, oh and preferably photographed.

This really is a bit of fun and nobody will laugh at your prediction unless it is already extinct, which, thinking long-term, might form the basis of the next prediction. What species on the Nova Scotia list not already having shuffled off this mortal coil will follow to join the choir celestial? You can guess any/all insectivorous warblers that will lose their food source through spraying trees to produce the paper for wrappings for goods that have built in obsolescence, if you like.

Send me you choice, I’ll add it to the blog and we will see what happens over the next twenty years.

My five predictions, you can have more than one go, are based on the SWAG system (scientific wild-assed guess) first is Elegant Tern. In the scheme of things there are regular east coast records and if they can reach Europe…

Out on a limb a bit but I fancy a Sandplover. We have the habitat and they are vagrants in western Europe. I think there are a few east coast records so why not. My choice is dictated by a photo from my own library so Greater Sandplover it is.

 

With recent east coast records, White Wagtail must be possible. It would need to be nominate though, a British race would be a ship-assisted bird although I personally have no problem with that.

 

And yes, Common Redshank, why not?

 

I don’t think Anna’s Hummingbird has shown up yet, certainly not up to McLaren (2012). Seems an obvious choice, given that Quebec has had a couple in recent years.

 

I can’t resist an extra, Mediterranean Gull – long overdue this side of the Atlantic.

 

Further detailed reading on potential firsts can be found at David Bell’s blog: http://ssmbirding.blogspot.ca/

Here are your predictions.

Ronnie d’Entremont: Smew. Best photo I have.

Alix d’Entremont went for Cassin’s Vireo, I don’t have a photo of one, and Yellow-legged Gull