Birding in Nova Scotia is so unpredictable and sometimes so left-field that it pays not to think too deeply about things and to just enjoy the events.
We, that is us highly connected Cape Island birders, had been pontificating on what a great start to 2023 it had been. A long-awaited (for some) Common Gull on Cape Island, the sadly brief Common Ringed Plover at Sunday Point and the presence of both Forster’s Tern and Ruddy Duck in Lower West Pubnico. Ok, maybe the duck doesn’t deserve star-billing, but it did make up part of a duo of county ticks for everyone, so it has its place. With January being January, the above is not to be sniffed at then…
Lynnette Barnes who, until 21st January I’d not met but who apparently knew of me though this blog, has a lovely property in Green Bay, Lunenburg County. For those who have never been there, Green Bay is very birdy. It is one of those location that gets birds, common and especially rare. Lynnette had been seeing a mystery bird coming in with the rest of her flock that were attempting to eat their own bodyweight in seed a day, all at her willing expense.
Mystery birds are a frequent thing, we all see them, just how mysterious they are depends on how well you see them. After a good view, they are normally no more a mystery unless they are totally unexpected and out of context. The bird at Lynnette’s feeder was showing well but not for the camera. Eventually she got shots and posted them to the Nova Scotia Bird Society Facebook page. Merlin, our AI but learning bird ID friend, had made two suggestions: Brown-headed Cowbird which would be expected in Nova Scotia, if not common in winter, and Grey-crowned Rosy-finch, which would not.
I think she said it was four minutes after posting that someone contacted her asking if it was ok to come for a look. I found out when Alix posted a screen-shot on one of our contact channels and it was start the car time. You’ll have guessed by now that it was a Grey-crowned Rosy-finch that had been visiting for at least a week and not a cowbird and that Lynnette was about to be swamped by up to eight people on the first day.
It was an interesting ride over on occasionally ice roads but the ploughs and salters had done a fairly decent job. The site was right next to the spot where a Lark Bunting had lived for a while, so we knew it fairly well. Lynnette had said we were all welcome to look, gave us directions and told us where to park, it was just about the perfect private-property twitch.
As Brits from far away, albeit ones who have been syrup-side of the Atlantic for twenty glorious years, we still feel awkward in people’s yards. It will never go away, it is a respect thing, just like not making a noise in public or politely invading countries. We get over it when a rare bird is on offer but the feeling that we shouldn’t impose doesn’t go away. Lynnette could not have been more welcoming and it was a real contrast to those people who don’t want visitors. Green Towhee comes to mind.
It was cold but not life-threatening and her porch was covered in birds. Pine Siskin, almost a Rocking Horse dropping bird in recent for us Banana Belt birders, numbered at least five. A Common Redpoll had also been around too, even rarer than Rocking Horse droppings, think environmentally aware conservative, but we didn’t see it. We waited and a lady who’d been in the house and had seen the star fifteen minutes before came past and wished us luck.
Then it flew in and wow, a Grey-crowned Rosy-Finch. It landed on the deck rail which had been cunningly covered in greenery and made an excellent feeding spot. It hopped up on a lamp where it picked seed, then it stayed for a few minutes before bounding off back into cover, just as Ronnie and Sharron arrived.
We waited for a repeat performance but Mike had a thing later (which he strenuously denies involved a leather posing pouch-those over-50s dances are quite lively!) and we had to head home. It came back fifteen minutes after we left, thankfully, and those later arrivals all got their looks and shots.
Driving home was less frenetic than going as we’d seen the bird, although we did have one ‘stain-devil’ moment but survived. Now the decision is not whether, but when to go back, it really is that good a bird.
Huge thanks to Lynnette for hosting us and making the trip even better. They have a lovely property and are intending to open it up as a B&B. If you’re outside of Nova Scotia and thinking of a visit, preferring to stay out of town and somewhere very birdy, Lynnette’s place will be for you. Once she’s up and running I’ll post the details on here.
I hope readers don’t mind that I use each blog post to both highlight what I’ve written and to tell you about a new publication. My latest book is ‘The Seven Year Twitch’ and covers our first seven-and-a-bit years birding in Nova Scotia by rarer species. The birding tales are augmented by images of the birds seen along with a few human shots. I followed a similar format in my UK birding books, ‘Twitching Times’ and ‘Going for Broke’. Hopefully those people who can read, which no doubt means you, will find the book interesting. The nature of publishing using Amazon is that print books with lots of images tend to be a bit pricey, so I’d recommend the eBook for Kindle, pretty cheap and easy to read on a tablet or PC, or even a phone if your eyes are that good.
Winter tends to be gull season around here and I’ve been checking the fish plants that hold birds almost daily. On days when the fishers go out the gulls tend to follow, but in bad weather or on Sundays there can be a couple of thousand gulls spread all over Cape Island to look at. Nothing rare has popped up yet but the numbers of Kumlien’s Gulls seem stable and at least one of our adult Glaucous Gulls is now back.
Winter Wilson’s Snipe are a good find, so when Kathleen found four at Broad Brook Park in Yarmouth I went to look. Aside from them being missing from this season’s winter list, always something to motivate on grim winter days, there was the outside possibility that a Common Snipe from Europe might find us. One had been found a few days prior in Newfoundland and so our imagination rather ran away from us a bit here. Broad Brook is one of the few southern places where you will see Wilson’s Snipe, especially late fall. As ever, the birds were a bit distant and the camera struggled to get good images, but it was nice to see them and to speculate. What is life without a bit of speculation?
I mentioned earlier Forster’s Tern. Those who birded Hurricane Dorian saw many, very many in the Halifax area but only a couple in the deep south. When Ellis d’Entremont found a winter Forster’s along Pond Road, Lower West Pubnico Logan and I went for a look. It took a little finding as it just along the shore at the end of Chemin du Rocher. Nearby a Ruddy Duck that Wade had seen but that had been previously reported but lost did the decent thing and gave us a look. Not really rare but both the tern and the duck were Yarmouth County birds for most so worth making the effort for.
This has been an Evening Grosbeak year with nomadic flocks seeking out the pricy Sunflowers seeds but never stopping in one spot for very long. They dropped in on me on 22nd January, all 55 of them and began the bulk seed removal. The light was dire but I tried.
Finally here is a chapter from ‘The Seven-year Twitch’ just so you can what it is all about. The number after the species name is the position occupied on my Nova Scotia list, so the 307th species seen, enjoy.
Virginia Rail NS # 307.
Goose Creek Marsh, Yarmouth Co., 13th June 2017.
Just down the road from Cape Island in Argyle is Goose Creek, a place otherwise known as ‘Tick-Central’, the creepy-crawly type-not the good type. It is a place that has Virginia Rails. I didn’t have one for Nova Scotia and neither did Mike and so a plan was hatched. Access to the area where the rails hang out is basically via the water, so you need a boat. Mike’s father-in-law, Kenneth, had a kayak, one that seated two people and it sounded just the job. Arrangements were made, YouTube videos studiously not watched, and two inexperienced kayakers heaved the thing onto the roof of Red Dwarf, tied it down and set off.
The access to the water is via an unobtrusive track and low, flat spot. I got the van down there and we hauled the thing off. I will continue to refer to the kayak as the ‘thing’ from now on, because it was a thing. It floated, which was a plus, now we had to get in it. I’m sure, dear readers, you can picture the scene as two people try to get into the thing, it doing what things do and trying to escape. We got in, it wobbled a lot but we got in. Getting out would seem to present similar opportunities for the thing to wobble once again but that was for later, now we had to make the thing go.
I have rowed many times, but always in skiffs which tend to behave and not wobble so much. I’d certainly have been happier in a skiff, but I don’t think the van would have enjoyed the skiff experience very much, besides, we didn’t have a skiff.
We pushed off from the bank, which seemed to be a good move, and we drifted out far enough that we could paddle without whacking the bank on one side, we were starting to look like pros. The thing was steered via paddles, bits of string and a pivoting rudder which we’d got in the right way up, so all was good. Now it was time to locomote in the right direction, with Mike in charge of making the definitive turns.
I don’t suppose the lake at Goose Creek is that deep, but you don’t know that when the wobbling thing is inching across the lake. Our plan was to make for the far bank, a paddle of only about sixteen kilometres or so, or perhaps it was only about 800 metres, these things are easy to get wrong when your brain is reminding you why your distant ancestors left the water in the first place.
Unsteadily we crossed the main body of Goose Creek, never seeing a goose. We eased up to the far bank and sat side on. Here we were naughty, we played a grunting Virginia Rail on the iPod. Almost immediately we got grunted back at, and then saw flicking tails, a few more grunts and the odd ‘kiddick’ secured the prize. The birds themselves quickly satisfied their curiosity regarding a foreign bird in their marsh, although how curious about two idiots not doing a very good job of paddling a thing is unrecorded.
For reasons unrational, we decided to paddle the thing right to the other end of Goose Creek. It was a waste of time; we didn’t see or hear any more Virginia Rails. With some effort and an eclectic regard for direction, we eventually turned the thing and headed back to the boat launch where I was right, getting out was every bit as exciting as getting in, but we both did manage it and neither drowned. And that was how I added Virginia Rail to my Nova Scotia list. Unfortunately, there are no photos of the rails nor of the comedy capers we had out there on the creek.