Raising the Bar

Finding a rare bird is part matter of chance, bigger part making the effort. When Joan Comeau discovered a godwit strutting around Mavillette Marsh, only two answers would have seemed logical, Hudsonian or Marbled. A summer Hudsonian is very distinctive and her bird looked much more like Sibley’s Marbled Godwit, a fair identification. Joan’s photo, posted on the Nova Scotia Bird Society Facebook page soon gather justifiable likes.

Ronnie d’Entremont called me while I was in the garage having the car inspected and away from an Internet connection. He told me about the godwit and flagged that the bird looked odd for a Marbled and so I went home, got Sandra to abandon her house painting, and we set off. The skies were getting greyer as the predicted rain started to patter down. As soon as we arrived at Mavillette we located the godwit, disputing the ownership of a piece of mud with Willets and generally losing. I wanted to see the bird fly and the angry Willet soon granted me my wish. Rapid fire shots showed a barred tail and a V up the back and, armed with the still image on the back of the camera and with the field guide open at godwits, it was clear that the bird was a Bar-tailed.

Although I have seen very many Barwits in the UK, out of context birds do require some serious cross-checking of the features and so that is what we did. Satisfied that no other godwits could show the features we were seeing at any age, we broadcast the news and birders started to arrive. The godwit was settled, except when the Willets were intent on kicking its ass, and great views were had in steadily worsening conditions.

In Nova Scotia, there were less than ten provincial records to 2012 making the godwit a real prize for the gathered birders present. Hopefully the bird will stay, allowing others to enjoy it and we all owe Joan a debt of thanks for getting out there in the field and finding the bird. Given her level of enthusiasm for birding, there will no doubt be many more finds from Joan to come.

Here is a composite of the Willet doing its best ‘get off my sand bar!’


Red not Grey

Both Red and Red-necked Phalarope are abundant migrants offshore in NS. In the bay of Fundy, clouds of them gather in the late summer through autumn and the whale trips pass bobbing flocks as they head whale-wards, not pausing for the ardent birders aboard to spend time looking. So, when you get either species down and in summer plumage then you take time to enjoy. On May-28th a distant blob inside the seawall on Daniel’s Head was scoped and soon resolved into a Red Phalarope, a bit drab at distant and so thought to be a male.

All three phalaropes dress their males in rags while the females are the ones that glad up for the party. Drab has various levels and perhaps upper-drab would describe a summer plumaged male Red Phalarope. The alert went out locally and the bird was enjoyed, as a blob, before it melted away. The tide was rising and the appearance of one, then two Cliff Swallows rather monopolised our attention, especially as the recent putative Cave Swallow near Halifax had us on high alert for ours. Cliff Swallow on CSI is not very common and these birds were my second and third in two years of pretty intensive birding.

The tide was a good one and the water was creeping up and into the corner by the parking lot. I had started for home when I glimpsed a bird in the partially submerged grassy margins. A bit of slewed parking had me out of the car and stealthily edging toward the bird, a species with a reputation for indifference to humans. At first it noticed me and drifted out a little, spinning for insects and chugging along like a swimming pigeon; then it turned and came to within eight feet. The light was tough, 1000 ISO to get a decent speed. Closer too it was obviously a female, a real beauty.

The Cliff Swallows were hawking insects off the beach, a little mixed flock with Tree and Barn. Later they all perched in a line for a wash and brush up, startling with each passing truck.

Just as an illustration of the beach insect fare available, this Willet was helping itself to a beak full.

Later the same day Johnny called with another Orchard Oriole at Murray’s feeders, his third of the spring. This time it was a full male and a handsome beast. It spent time on the hummer feeder snaffling a bit of sweet water before slipping off again. Most Orchard Orioles on CSI are the immature types, nice, but not quite as spectacular as a full male, thanks for the call Johnny.

This Alder Flycatcher was yacking away along Kenney Road recently.

Some of the birds seen along the Clyde River Road recently. Hermit Thrush, a Magnolia Warbler and a Palm Warbler.

Finally, I think I am right in calling this a Hoary Elfin, found along the Clyde River Road.

Odd Fellow

Not all birds look just like they should do! A few days ago I was out around Cape Sable Island when I found a bunch of swallows feeding in a stiff wind, gathered around an insect accumulating corner of Baker’s Flats. My initial viewpoint had me seeing flashes of birds as they rocketed around the small area, mostly obscured by trees. I think I had a composite view of a brown bird because later, it was clear that there were two brown swallows in the flock, from seeing the one composite view I was edging towards Northern Rough-winged Swallow.

I called Mike first and he came along to look, it would be a good CSI bird. By the time he arrive I had changed position and noted that two birds were indeed involved and that neither were the hoped for rough-wing. One was a brown Tree Swallow, slightly ragged and referred to in the field guide as a drab female. The other was even more curious, it was a brown Barn Swallow. The weather conditions and the speed of the subjects made photography near impossible but I did get one, out of focus image of the Barn Swallow for the record. On the rather grey Saturday May-27th, I came across the Barn Swallow again, this time in slightly better conditions so I took the opportunity to get better doc-shots.

I’ll start with what Barn Swallow is supposed to look like.

Now here is the brown bird. In flight you can see some blue feathering around the inner primaries, at rest it looks quite odd though, a Barn Swallow awaiting the application of blue paint!

Below is one of the Brown Tree Swallows.

In truth, the weather has been a bit spotty. Migration continues, but some species are notably absent, at least from the area I usually bird. Red-eyed Vireo must have just slipped in, I had one around Port Latour, just one, but have yet to add one to my admittedly healthy CSI year list that I’m not doing. Checking with the stats for 2016, when we did a CSI big year, I suspect I’m a good few birds up. By the end of July 2016 I was at 197, the end of May 2017 sees me with 190 and still no Red-eyed Vireo, Semipalmated Plover or even Curlew Sandpiper! I do suspect that CSI year ticks will be hard to come by now but I am willing to be surprised, not that I’m complaining, it has been a good year I feel and it will just keep getting better. We also have a big year for visitors, friends and family and that will add to making 2017 memorable too.

Here are a few photos from around The Hawk (in fog and rain!) on May-27th.

Tomorrow, May-29th, marks the second anniversary of our arrival in Nova Scotia. Two very weary travellers pulled up onto the drive of our house at Clam Point and set about cleaning it, removing four years-worth of muck and bugs, and building an Ikea bed without the instructions. Hauling two traumatised cats out of the van and into their new home was fun and, of course, we started the yard list! We’d been on the road 26 hours, I nearly hit a Deer in Quebec, it was millimeters, and Sandra fell asleep at the wheel near Lunenburg, the rumble strip waking her before her allergy to head-on impact with a semi kicked-in!

Now Nova Scotia is very much home, the cats have settled down and the yard lists blooms. We love it here and wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.

Between Two Stools

This has been a good May for birding. There have been birds to see most days, Nova Scotia ticks, Cape Sable Island ticks and lots of learning curves to follow. We may even look back in the coming years and thing of May 2017 as a classic and we still have another six days of it left!

The trouble is, you can’t be in two places at once, so you are bound to miss out. The Cape has been good and awful, but the good outweighs the awful because, even when it is awful for birds, it has a serenity and during what turns out to be at least a healthy walk, there is zero chance of being hit by a truck! One thing The Cape can offer is photo ops, like this busy Red-breasted Nuthatch on a gnarled piece of driftwood. If I was a photographer I’d have done a better job and here is where I fall between two stools, I’m a birder who takes photos and not a photographer of birds.

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This differential came home to me when The Hawk hosted my CSI tick Scarlet Tanager and Red-bellied Woodpecker, both in Aldridge’s (spelling?) yard at the end of Hawk Point Rd. In my excitement I neglected the camera settings and the results were somewhat mixed. I didn’t get anything decent on the woodpecker and got one lucky shot of the tanager, a poor hit rate out of 350 frames. Had I been a photographer first, then the settings on the camera would have been uppermost in my mind, as it was my limited RAM was taken up with actually seeing the birds, I suffer no self-delusion here, but many do.


If you have surrendered your privacy to Facebook, and be aware that your input is monitored so they can target, sorry, carefully select, products that might interest you as defined by your (on-line) preferences, then you will have seen very many photos where the person pressing the camera button announces themselves as ‘insert name’ photography, and my thought is always, well yes it is if you took the picture. There are many who can claim the photographer mantle due to the quality of their work, especially now that digital photography and the associated technology has greatly eased the load. But there are many more who just pump out shit pictures and who couldn’t photograph their own ass with a mirror. And the even stranger thing, yes stranger that the rampant self-delusion of the button presser, is that they get a ton of ‘likes’, so what does this tell us about the ‘likers’? I think I’ll shut up now!

Having made my excuses for the quality of the shots, some birds then!

The Cape, for those who don’t know, is the island off the south end of Cape Sable Island. We trip out in a little boat, weaving between the sand bars and then walk the island on a sort of pre-defined route. Check the marsh, check the scrub, Lockies Cabin, The Forest, The Light and shingle Ridge then back to pick-up via the many lost Lobster Traps along the north-east shore. We want to make this route more interesting with planting but more of that another time. The route may vary but the excitement does not. Sometimes you see a good bird as soon as you land, sometimes the best bird is seen almost as you are climbing into the boat to leave. They can be anywhere and so you just have to look. 

On May-18th the bird of the day was this Purple Martin and it wasn’t even on The Cape! We passed it as we made out war to the pick-up point for an 07:30 departure! 

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Despite that I went back on the next day, same weather, or so it seemed, but this time some birds. A Yellow-bellied Flycatcher and a superb, male Bay-breasted Warbler.

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And when we got off more birds around The Hawk. The top bird is a male Blackburnian Warbler. The bottom dodgy pair of photos are of an Olive-sided Flycatcher and yes, it is as exciting as it sounds, especially when it is very rare on CSI.

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The next Cape visit was slower (May 22nd) but I did get these Laughing Gulls – I’ve only seen one on CSI (and in NS) previously.

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A few shots from elsewhere. The third bird is a Swainson’s Thrush, only my second on CSI, both this year.

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And in between we went to Cow Bay, Dartmouth for a King Eider. It threw it down all day, we eventually found it at Rainbow Haven, I didn’t take a photo and that tells you all you need to know!

 May 24th saw us wandering around the Yarmouth area and we saw a few more birds.

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And when we got home This House Wren was singing just along Stoney Island Road.

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Prospects: The last week of May and the first two of June will continue to produce birds. The breeding species will fill the empty holes as more arrive and there will be some rarities. Whether we see one, two, all or none of them is an open question. I will, of course, wave my camera lens at anything we see. I won’t be labelling any photos ‘Mark Dennis Photography’ though I may try a macro self-portrait.

As an aside, there is now a Cape Sable Island Wildlife group on Facebook. Anyone can join so feel free also, if you like bird art, check out Sandra’s stuff. Link on the side bar.


Well That was Fun

You don’t normally associate chilly north-westerlies with avian fun but when you get them in mid-May, think again. This morning May-16th, I had a look along Kenney Road, CSI, the highlight being a single Chestnut-sided Warbler; a year bird but not really unexpected. Then I went to Daniel’s Head and had a look at the sea. A few Gannets went past and a lingering Long-tailed Duck seemed to be it, then I noticed a couple of dots on the horizon going hell-for-leather towards the shore, incoming migrants.

I moved my location so that I could look at the slowly greening vegetation next to a bunch of stacked Lobster Traps on the small spit inside the head. Two seconds later a male Blackpoll Warbler popped up, another year bird, then a female Black-throated Blue, then a Nashville, what was going on? Johnny showed up and I imparted the info and he went off and found Magnolia and Black-and-White by the fish plant fence. I went to look and found a Chimney Swift, things were really happening.

Johnny, drawing on his years of CSI experience, then went to check the alders off the corner parking lot. He called to say he had birds, quite a few, so I shot over there catching some of the goodies but still missing the prize, a Hooded Warbler. The alders had birds alright; a bunch of Northern Parula and Black-and-White Warblers were the most obvious. Lurking were two Northern Waterthrush and TWO Ovenbirds. Nearby a Veery skulked, there may have been two! A couple of Black-throated Green Warblers soon moved off but a Common Yellowthroat lingered. Two more Black-throated Blues turned up, males this time, the Magnolia and another Blackpoll. You can see how busy it was. I took a couple of photos, here are the best.

Returning later in the day, after 4:30pm is often best on days like this, we saw Bobolink, two more Northern Waterthrush further along, another seven Blackpolls and some other bits and pieces. What else lurked around the south end of CSI is unknown, I didn’t even get near The Hawk and it was certainly a day when we needed more bodies in the field. The weather is looking most promising for the next few days especially Thursday, here’s hoping for a few more migrants.

On May-15th Sandra and I went to Yarmouth, it was grey and raining and a good breeze blew, not really great birding weather and therefore no great loss to use the day for shopping. Of course we took in the Cattle Egrets of Chebogue on the way, temporarily more accessible after Ronnie found them away from the farm in a yard, literally. Then a call from Ervin had us scuttling over to Chegoggin for a Yellow-billed Cuckoo, a fitting species #200 for the year in NS. I know that, post the May rush, it will quieten down again and high summer will see me chasing dragonflies more. For now though I think I’ll enjoy the ease of birding and just have fun.

Bon Portage Virgin no more

When Alix asked whether I fancied trip to Bon Portage in his Zodiac, yes was the obvious answer. One of the top birding off-shore islands in Nova Scotia, a visit to Bon Portage was just something that had not happened so far. In-part it is because getting there is not such a done-deal as going to The Cape, there is some transport but the Acadia University staff obviously get priority, and so a visit may be longer than expected if their schedule differs from yours. The other reason is that I’ve been busy! Landing on Bon Portage requires the sort of agility that I last saw in myself around 14 years ago and had to rapidly re-find or spend the duration looking longingly at the woods from the Zodiac anchor point. I did manage to climb the weathered wharf, as evidenced by the lack of my obituary in any local newspaper.

The island is not an easy place to bird. It took us a while to start seeing birds, hearing them was not an issue although the limited species range, in the absence of any sort of true migration arrival, was not too challenging. We walked the net runs and did the cobble-stroll to the light before retracing our steps and spending more time around the island bird hotspot, the cabins. This plan worked well and the highlight was a male Blue-grey Gnatcatcher that flitted around us for a while and sang quietly.

Our Bon Portage checklist is here: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36806741

For info on visiting Bon Portage, go to: http://www.acadiau.ca/~dshutler/PIsland.html

And now a few images.

The sea was semi-benign and so, after leaving Bon Portage, we opted for a quick look at Green Island, off The Cape, Cape Sable Island, a mere 6.84km away from the Bon Portage wharf. The island hosts a tern colony and has Atlantic Puffins too and so is worth seeing. We had a mass of Common Terns there, a small number of Arctic Terns and the prize, eight Roseate Terns, the first in Nova Scotia this year. The Atlantic Puffins were there as hoped for although only one came close. The eBird checklist is here: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36806720

Closer to home, Ervin found a Tricoloured Heron which proceeded to shuttle around The Guzzle, on The Hawk, CSI on May-12th. I managed a couple of shots in flight and enjoyed scope views down, thanks for the call Ervin. It may still be around but, if so, it has become elusive. On May-13th there was a Black-billed Cuckoo around the church on The Hawk, found by Keith Lowe. Mike had views and I managed to hear it, eventually. That bird put me on 160 for the island for the year and was #199 in Nova Scotia. With the next two weeks being the big ones for May, although realistically nothing will compare to the Swallow-tailed Kite, then 200 in NS is assured, my bet for #200 is Common Yellowthroat.

The eBird Global Big Day came and went on May-13th. Because I went to Bon Portage I was only able to bird CSI from around 2pm, recording just 60 species, a good 18 down on last year’s score. I think I’m going to have another bash at the 78 sometime in May, on a day when the signs are good and the light is kinder.

My interests often stray beyond birds, so here are a couple of moths and a butterfly I photographed recently, plus a couple of bird shots from Frotton Road, Yarmouth Co.

Above, a Brown Elfin butterfly, below a Spring Azure and below that a Juvenal Duskywing.

Two moths. Above The White Speck, found in a restaurant in Yarmouth and, below, a new species for me, Day Emerald, a moth that was flying during the day on The Hawk, CSI. It is a tiny insect, thanks to Jim Edsall for the ID.

Here it is!

Swallow-tailed Kite is not a species I expected to see in Nova Scotia, it’s just way too rare here and the chances of connecting one of the very infrequent fly-bys are astronomical, there is more chance of successfully chasing an ace. To see one here you need the kite to find us, obviously, then it needs to be seen, again a given but, it needs to be seen by one of the more sentient people, someone who might actually notice what is around them and who can differentiate between the regular and unusual. Then you need the bird to stick around and they don’t have any sort of record of doing that here. The clear shortcut is for the kite to fly over a birder and then to decide, for reasons only a Swallow-tailed Kite could explain, to soar around a bit and be easily visible from a high point, simple.

This all happened May-11th 2017 when Alix d’Entremont had a Swallow-tailed Kite fly over him while driving highway 103 home. He called me and his enunciation of the word “Swallow-tailed Kite” was as much to make himself believe what he was seeing as to inform, I detected a little shock in his voice. Southern Nova Scotia is a big place, a Swallow-tailed Kite is a relatively small raptor but, if you don’t buy a ticket you sure as sure don’t win a raffle. So we went for it.

Cape Sable Island to Argyle is 52.9km and will take 42 minutes to get there legally, which, of course, is what we did (officer). After a phone conversation with Ronnie d’Entremont, who was equally law-abiding as he passed Liverpool on his way home from Halifax, had us aiming for Crowelltown Road, an elevated area which would give some sort of panorama of the general area. Not really expecting to see anything myself, Sandra and Mike MacDonald exited the van and scanned, and there it was!!!

Even at range the swallow-like tail and the pied underwings was clear. It swooped around a bit and did typical kite-like things, well it would, and lingered aloft long enough for hastily called birders, all of whom we had passed on the road to Crowelltown, to get up the pitted road and take in the view. It was a long way away and the camera did a sterling job in getting anything at that range so, apologies for the quality of the shots, a composite. Check out Alix’s blog (link on the side bar) if you want to really see what it looked like.

We lingered after the kite had drifted from view and we scanned the skies hopeful that it would reappear, especially as Ronnie and Sharron were getting close, it never did though, such is birding. ‘Big thanks’ to Alix for the call doesn’t cover it but I’ll say it anyway. Big thanks to the kite for finding the Argyle area interesting enough to hang about a bit.

Here are the best of the rest recent shots, relegated to the ‘and finally’ slot by the superb kite.

What a view – a Great Horned Owl near Yarmouth.

Male Northern Harrier, Chebogue.

Yellow-rumped Warblers everywhere right now, Fox Sparrows are usually just passing on CSI but this one sings too.

Below, one of two Cattle Egrets found by Ervin at Chebogue Point recently. Thanks to the farmer for letting us walk up to see them.

Above, an immature male Orchard Oriole at feeders near Argyle or possibly in it. After, a mal and female Rose-breasted Grosbeak in the same spot and a female Indigo Bunting there too.

Below, just a Common Raven.