It Just Gets Better

Despite the wind changing its direction frequently, giving migration no real continuity or predictability, the birds ignored everything and pushed on in anyway. We dipped a Wood Thrush on April-29th at Pinkney’s Point, but its presence was fuel for optimism. This morning a call from Johnny about a female Purple Martin on The Hawk, CSI had me scooting Hawkwards hoping to see it. On arrival it had flown, they do that, and so a search began. I chanced upon it along Atwood Road sitting on wires, interestingly another three males had joined it. Murphy’s Law saw the guy who lived in the house adjacent just happened to choose that moment to drive out, flushing the lot.

The birds went all directions but the female flew around the immediate area and landed briefly, allowing doc-shots. The others dispersed and were only seen fleetingly elsewhere. Purple Martin is not at all common in Nova Scotia although these were number five to nine for me so far.

In the course of the search, I had a Sharp-shinned Hawk breeze past me and off over the trees. Later I found what was presumably the same bird, getting up close and personal with a recently retired Starling. The two smaller accipiters are both found in our area now, Sharpie being the commonest by far but you have to consider both, and the feeding bird was quite big. I suspected it to be an immature Sharpie female on size, the big eye and the thick, quite blotchy breast streaking are good features. If seeing hawks eating prey upsets you, well, try to get over it, life and death happens.

After the Hawk tour, I opted for checking through to West Head on the way home to see whether the martins had changed their scenery. I always check the little pools there and did so today hoping to come across a Lesser Yellowlegs, we are due. Pool one was a bust but pool two had a very smart Little Blue Heron pottering around snatching tiddlers with aplomb. I managed a few shots before it wandered further away and other birders arrived to share the enjoyment. We didn’t get twitchable one on CSI last year, my last was 2015 at Mike and Sandra’s place, so seeing this bird and especially it being an adult, was most welcome. This was also a self-found in Nova Scotia for me.

On April-29th I dropped into the parking lot at the head of Cripple Creek just for a quick scan. Luck was on my side and this Belted Kingfisher pair actually played the game, well partly. Against the light the photos are not too bad, but when one landed on a wharf piling I gave it a go. Window down and driving slowly I managed to grab shots on the move before it inevitably panicked and fled.

Off the Colour Chart

Some species give you exactly what it says in their name, Indigo Bunting is one of them. This afternoon (4/28) after a fruitless search for type 2 Red Crossbills at Tusket, I wandered down to the tip of Morris Island and came across two male Indigo Buntings. One was a bit wary but the second chose to feed on the road verge, only flushing when a vehicle past then zooming back to feed, obviously pretty hungry.

The light was poor, we’ve had fog for a few days but, thankfully, not the strong onshore winds today. I ramped up the camera to 1000 ISO and am reasonably happy with the shots.

Inspired by the appearance of the Indigo Buntings, Sandra and I did a late cruise of Cape Sable Island, hoping that maybe we’d got something good too. The highlight was picking up my first Barn Swallow of the year for CSI just as we neared home. Resigned to having to wait until tomorrow for the migrant deluge, I sat and checked the feeders from the office window. No Indigo Buntings there either but a bat-like thing flashed through. It came back, a Chimney Swift, a CSI first for us. We rushed out to the front deck, scattering cats, and had foggy views as it charged around. A call to Mike was made and he arrived just in time for its final appearance, a CSI tick for him too. The photos are awful but…

Sounds Good

Over the years I have flirted with recording singing birds. Usually it has been via an ipod, so really only on a casual basis, but I have always fancied doing a bit more although, what to do with them. My quality of recording is limited, and Xeno-Canto the premier bird recordings site, has more than enough clicks and coughs to entertain, so the recordings have been sitting in a computer file doing nothing until eBird allowed the additions of audio media to a checklist.

I think I have peaked on eBird (for now) with photographed species, 993 so far, it would have been more but all my old slides went in the recyc before the add media option became live. So I then added my paltry few recordings, I have more somewhere as I had one of those ‘Remembird’ things and used it for a while! After uploading I had a grand total of seven audio files added to eBird then I thought, what about some species I’d badly videoed (pocket camera stuck to the scope eyepiece jobs), perhaps there was a way to upload the singers. Well this was a can of worms.

It turned out that, between Sandra and I, we had a ton of things chipping, squawking and making very exotic sounds on the audio tracks of our trip video clips, great, but how to isolate them into wav., or mp3., files suitable for upload to eBird? Enter Audacity, a free piece of software that does the trick in a spectacular way. You set Audacity to record from the PC and then play the video. The sound converts into a file you can edit, and edit many times to isolate all the different calls and songs on there, very relevant in a Neotropical context. You can snip out coughs and cars, barking dogs and even idiots who repeatedly ask whether you are taking a video (that would be me!)

The result is that I now have over 50 audio files on eBird, attached to the relevant checklist. I also have about 65 tracks with stuff like ‘unknown call/song, Gamboa, Panama Dec-19-2012’ as the title awaiting our attention. Now, I have no problem ticking call only, because listing is only a game and not even a serious one like say Twister. If you can identify a call or song correctly it counts and I won’t be adding a sniffy ‘all seen only’ comment to my World list in Bubo (Bubo.org, great, simple and free listing site) to the 45 species I’ve only ever heard. It may be that I will get another couple from the unknown call/song files and here is another lesson. You don’t have to ID everything at the time. It is quite acceptable to make notes and recordings, even take bad photos and then work up an identification, it took me years to realise this but it does make sense.

For some time I have been thinking about what this birding year will be about, it was the CSI big year last year (see the tab at the top for a write-up). I have decided to up my recording status by trying to get something on our summer birds, when they get here (come on, get a move on). I may stick with the ipod as a recording tool or perhaps seek out something (cheap) a bit more dedicated. Having crap ears that can no longer hear higher frequencies means a lot of headphone work but it will be fun, I’ll report back at the end of the year how I do.

Some of you will know that I have started a Facebook page for Cape Sable Island wildlife, anyone can join but posted content is restricted to CSI birds/animals/plants/insects/fish etc. I created it so that people can learn about our diverse wildlife and also so that they can post pictures that might not see the light of day anywhere else. Historical photos are most welcome.

And now to the birding. Good some days have been had recently although fog is a regular visitor and the wind has been a right pig at times. In Pubnico the Prothonotary Warbler has been faithful to the Kelp larder, I even got a couple of shots of it actually sitting in a bush.

Ospreys are back, this one was over the house carrying nesting material. We get them quite frequently in summer, I must try filling one of the suet feeders with Herring, see if it works!

Shorebirds are increasing in number with The Hawk the place to be. In with the Black-bellied Plovers recently was this American Golden-Plover; a regular species here in the autumn but less common as a spring bird.

Can you tell which on it is?

There are plenty of Dunlin around too. We should be looking for the down-curved bill and white rump of a Curlew Sandpiper again. We had two, perhaps three last year and, once these birds are in the ‘system’ they often appear at the same site over multiple years.

Finally, just a few stats: My year list is currently 155 in Nova Scotia, 125 on Cape Sable Island and going along nicely. Bring on the tanagers!

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.