Bedraggled

Despite it being wet and foggy I had a wander out, selecting the wharf at West Head, Cape Sable Island as the mostly likely place to be able to see anything, if indeed anything was around. The trailer parking lot was a sloppy mess put I ploughed on through to take up station on the edge of the open ocean hoping for a murre or such. It was quiet, a couple of Iceland Gulls were out there at the extent of fog-bound visibility but little else.

To get to my search spot I had to pass a stack of Lobster Pots, not normally where they get dropped but working wharves change with each visit. Turning to go I saw a white and dark bundle of despair up against the pots, a Snowy Owl. It looked like it had taken a turn in a washing machine an its facial expression was one of profound displeasure. It also looked like it might be exhausted so what to do?

Donning my thickest gloves I edged towards it, having previously taken a few shots from the car. It sat motionless for a while as I got closer, then, at around 2m away, it got up and ran before jumping up onto the stony edge of the wharf. Now it looked perkier although hardly in the pink so I eased back to the car and rattled a couple more shots off in the cloying mist. After a few shakes and a grumpy look my way it flew about 50m to the sea wall where it started to preen.

Owls have few friends in the avian world and soon two Ravens came along to do the cronking, as contractually obliged. The owl was pretty sanguine about them, faced them down and made it clear that Raven may well be a diet option were they to push it. With mutual understanding they moved off a bit, still vocal but less confrontational, at this point I left all parties in situ and headed home. Something must have occurred as the owl had gone a short time later, the Ravens too.

It just goes to show you that looks can deceive and, hopefully, the owl was just having a bad hair day.

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Pining for the Cecropias

Winter months in the northern part of the northern hemisphere can be a little dreary. The light is mainly grey, the scenery mainly devoid of vibrant leaf and the temperatures all too often frigid. If you’ve never known any better for the season then you are probably acclimated to it, if you’ve spent any time during our winter in the tropics then you, like me, are probably pining for the experience of finding a Cecropia tree full of roaming birds. That is not to say that our winters do not have their own delights, they do, but the greyness can get to you and, to quote a friend, cause you to lose your birding mojo, albeit briefly.

Any caring society would address these serious social issues and, for those tropical residents who crave cool air as respite from the heat and humidity, set up and fund an exchange programme whereby we could all translocate for a few weeks, after all, a change is as good as a rest. Our birds know this, which is why many go away for the winter to tropical climes, or is it the other way around, do they leave the tropics, their home, for a brief summer visit to the temperate zones?

What brought this mild melancholy on is all Jason Dain’s fault. He had the great idea of a Facebook group that shows Nova Scotian (and honorary Nova Scotian’s I hope, is the badge in the mail?) photos of birds taken on their travels. It is a great showcase where you can not only post your own shots but also enjoy those of others, especially where they have seen something you have not, or have an exceptional capture of something you’ve previously enjoyed. For me this is one of the more positive aspects of Facebook, no grouchy remarks or spite, just the pleasure of sharing and enjoying.

So, as I sit watching the grey skies bring the rain that sends farmers into a state of delirium, my thoughts turn to those days past when, for rarely more than a week per year, Sandra and I trod the path of the Leafcutter Ants, carefully, and enjoyed the aural confusion that is a multi-species flock moving at all levels through a Panamanian rain forest. It may happen again for us in the tropics, it may not. Forrest Gump’s Mother got it right, you just never know what you are going to get.

 

The tropics are full of all sorts of birds, this gaudy and particularly noisy ones like this Keel-billed Toucan is emblematic of our trips (Sandra’s photo).

When you bird every day you take for granted the accumulated knowledge of experience and so, when you see emails or Facebook comments about seeing things such as Turkey Vulture in Nova Scotia, you think, well yes, they are common. They are in the south but, for someone out of the zone they are something noteworthy. This disparity of distribution even within a relatively small space such as NS is interesting, as is the trend for Black Vultures to be found in the northern part always, or at least since we’ve lived in NS. Clearly Black Vulture is genuinely rare in NS, one real record per year maybe, whereas Turkey Vultures are increasing in number and, as they say, coming to your neighbourhood soon!

On Cape Sable Island we see TVs regularly but, 12 together over the house recently was almost worth an email or Facebook comment, almost.

It still amazes me how relaxed everyone is around Nova Scotia when it comes to access to wharves. In the UK, Elfin Safety rules and you can go nowhere industrial without some jobsworth chucking you off on safety grounds. The gift from lawyers, litigation for not taking responsibility for your own actions, is now so entrenched in European culture as to make it nigh on impossible to get permits for sewage plants, quarries, nuclear waste dumps and the like. In NS the reverse appears to be true and we wander respectfully but regardless around our wharves, especially in winter when looking for alcids.

This winter so far has been alcid-lite with even quite lively storms failing to produce much. At one point I was wondering whether we’d get a Thick-billed Murre (Brunnich’s Guillemot) at all, but now we have so all is good with the world. There appears to me to be differences in attitude amongst visiting alcids. Black Guillemots live here, rarely get bothered by the big gulls and possibly have aggressive Scottish accents which may go some way in keeping the grunts at bay. Thick-billeds on the other hand potter around like confused pensioners in a computer store, only for the hard-sell Great Black-backed Gulls to pounce on them, devouring them without mercy.

Above, Black Guillemot – “see you Jimmy”!

The same happens to Common Murres, but Dovekies, being small and sparky, seem to get away with it even though evolution has resulted in them being handily bite-sized. The alcids are our source of winter joy, especially now as we enter the end of February, beginning of March dead-zone. It may be that there will be some birds to enjoy during this dark period, but more likely it is anticipation of what is to come that will restore mojos and, once again we will be able to stroll our Blackfly ridden lanes enjoying the song of the seasonal visitors. Can’t wait!

Six for None

Well I give up with that bloody Kelp Gull! I had another go on Feb-03 along with Mike and Ronnie (who has seen it already) and Alix was around too. In theory a totally unjustified visit, the gull had not been seen since at the site Jan-27, should have reaped dividends, especially as the travel was blighted by a flash freeze warning although the weather people seem to warn about everything now, and anyone who lives in Canada for a winter actually knows that fresh rain, subjected to below zero temperatures, freezes. It did, we went along steadily and successfully did not see the gull nor a King Eider at Point Pleasant Park on the Halifax side of the estuary.

It was interesting to note that, despite the paths all being sheet ice, elderly ladies were still trussed up in spandex and jogging. I don’t really get it, it is icy and you try to run on it. Perhaps Halifax has a good hip surgeon or something, or they could just be a little challenged when it comes to common sense. Besides missing the King Eider I also missed some Purple Sandpipers flushed by a dolt. I was actually facing the trees and making green icicles at the time and so was unable to swing around and raise the bins without some sort of personal disaster taking place, damn that ageing bladder!

As we warmed up in the car in the Point Pleasant Park Parking place, particularly perished, we decided that the gull was history and to head into ‘The Valley’ for the Eurasian Collared-Dove. There has been some discussion as to whether it is wild or a hybrid, the latter query being quite reasonable until either birders who had experience of the species had seen it or more revealing photos seen. Richard confirmed it to be a good one and that was good enough for me. This was my third time at the site but I was encouraged byt the fact that it had been seen the day before (and actually the same morning, but we didn’t know at the time).

The site is a private house but the feeders are very visible from the road. With discretion and courtesy and the sense to stay in the car the dove can be seen, oh and you might want to add patience to that list. So we sat a bit and drove a bit and sat some more and, finally, when we had been there the obligatory hour, it bounded in, dwarfing the Mourning Doves and scoffing the food. Job done we headed home, a tricky drive as the snow was blowing and patchy (no warning!).

It may be that the Kelp Gull is still around Nova Scotia somewhere and it is great that so many got to enjoy it at MacCormack’s Beach. It is odd that, from discovery to last view it spent so little time available but it must have had better options elsewhere and was just never found away from the original site (although it may have been at Hartlen one day, a tough call though at range). If it does show up again I’ll have to weigh the pros and cons of trying to see it, probably while on the road heading north once more! Big thanks to all the Halifax/Dartmouth area birders who made the fruitless twitches bearable and for taking time to look for the gull, even though you’d seen it and when you could have been doing other things. It is appreciated by us Kelpless inhabitants of the Banana Belt.

It is easy to slip into a birding malaise when your area is quiet for long periods. You spend less time looking, usually because the weather doesn’t want you in the way anyway and so conspires against you. That is pretty much how it has been for a while down south. The jolt from our relative torpor came when Carl d’Entremont in Pubnico saw two geese with orange bills in with the Canada Geese out back of his place at the head of the sound. A short while later, a few of us were enjoying two Greater White-fronted Geese in flight and down with the Canadas. Now all they have to do if keep flying east a bit and find the succulent grasses of Cape Sable Island!

 

The year is ticking along nicely (pun intended) but, aside from twitches for Nova Scotia, Yarmouth, Shelburne, Cape Sable Island and Winter ticks or any lifers within striking distance, I’m not chasing. I just passed the 100 mark, slow for me but it is not a sprint. The eBird leader board is cluttered like the runners on the first kilometer of a marathon but it will thin out as the year progresses. I predict around 280 again, although September will be largely missing from my NS birding calendar this year, but I will be back for the October fall-out – fingers crossed.

And now the rest of the photos deemed just about good enough to blog – with captions as appropriate.

Above a brief Common Murre from Barrington Causeway. Below one of the Barrow’s Goldeneyes that linger around Yarmouth Harbour.

The Sandhill Cranes were still around Pitman Road, South Ohio, Feb-04.

Black Scoters from Daniel’s Head, CSI.

Above the Horned Grebe is still hanging around Daniel’s Head wharf. Below a selection of images of Greater Scaup.

Below a selection of Iceland Gull shots including a nice ‘inbetweener’ although in between what I’m not sure these days.

Kelptomaniacs

Wikipedia describes insanity, craziness, or madness as a spectrum of behaviors characterized by certain abnormal mental or behavioral patterns when gulling. Insanity may manifest as violations of societal norms, including a person becoming a danger to themselves or others by constantly chasing gulls. Though not all such gull watching acts are considered insanity; likewise, not all acts showing complete indifference toward Mallards and farm geese can be considered acts of insanity. I feel comforted by this slightly edited version as I have just completed a week with five trips to MacCormack’s Beach, Dartmouth. I did around 3000km and ate off-diet food, braved -17°C wind chill at times in an attempt to see the Kelp Gull as mentioned in the previous post. It was an unsuccessful attempt and Sandra, Mike and Alix were also able to share my woes on various parts of the odyssey.

You will remember, after Sandra and I dipped on Jan-22 that I predicted its return. I also later predicted, as Sandra and I headed into largely unchartered parts of Nova Scotia to look for a Eurasian Collared-Dove on Jan-24, that news of the gull returning would break just as we neared our dove’s location. Well it did but, for a reason I cannot answer, we didn’t floor the accelerator, scattering those who like to pootle along until after we’d checked out the dove site. Bad mistake, missed it by 30 minutes, may well have made it with more cogent thinking. We stayed the rest of the day and it never returned. Sandra, despite her deep love of all things larus, refused to return the next day (Jan-25) but I did with Mike and Alix.

It didn’t show that day either and the weather was on the cool side. To add insult to idiocy, we then went to look for the dove with alarmingly predicable results. After three trips, even my veneer of invincibility was slipping. Somehow, I knew for sure, that the gull would be there again Saturday (Jan-27) morning, and it was. After a brief spell of navel gazing, we were off once again. Sandra, having recovered her enthusiasm as we arrowed towards Dartmouth just as fast as our elderly Grand Caravan could legally perambulate. By the time we’d actually hit the road we knew it had gone, but still went anyway, expecting it to return for an evening loaf, it didn’t.

Now it was very personal, but we still got there for pre-dawn Sunday-28, January 2018 expecting a repeat performance, which is what we got, just the wrong performance! By 10:00 it was raining enough for us to up-sticks and head home gull-less. If it follows protocol it will reappear on Tuesday, but will there be anyone to witness it? Most Halifax/Dartmouth birders now have their prize although they, like me, are wondering just where the bird gets to? This would be a gull to rocket net and attach a tracker to but, after we’ve seen it please.

I am not alone in the disappointment. Quite a few Nova Scotia birders have not seen it yet and it rather let us down when it comes to visitors from out of town, such as the guys from Virginia and Georgia, places that are somewhere in that country to the south of us, where doesn’t matter. They’ll go home with fond memories of New Brunswick and the Mistle Thrush while all they’ll take from us is a certain amount of spinal discomfort from our winter crop of pot holes, they are seasonal right?

There were other birds at MacCormack’s Beach to enjoy but I’m struggling for details at the minute. My bones know that I will end up there again and probably soon, because this is a Kelp Gull we are talking about, a Nova Scotia first, the fourth for Canada and a looker even in the world of beauty that is gulls. Solace can be taken by the good company enjoyed and the encouragement from some of Nova Scotia’s finest birders and there is a vicarious pleasure in knowing that those who did see the Kelp Gull, treasure it like I would, and hopefully will. I don’t think Sandra will be coming back anytime soon though, she wants to sort through the many tins of screws in the workshop and put the contents in fresh pots by size and gauge and then there is just about anything else to be done that does not involve sitting waiting for a gull, these PhD types can get quite uppity at times, that is educasun for you.

Some photos from the scene of the crimes. Male Hooded Merganser, Dovekie, the darkest Lesser Black-backed Gull I’ve ever seen and a Glaucous Gull at a funny angle but it is one, promise.

Not Just a Gull!

Like most birders in our region, I have a list of species that I think might show up. Not regular rarities but megas, firsts, the big one. On that list was a gull from South America and Africa, the Kelp Gull. Sure it looks like a midget Great Black-backed Gull but just imagine how far it has travelled and wonder why it ever decided to keep on going north until it found itself standing malar-by-gular with our regular Herring, Ring-billed, the aforementioned beast the Great Black-backed. Not to mention those weird albinos, Iceland Gulls – like an ugly Snowy Petrel I suppose. Well a Kelp Gull did make it here and was found by Jim Edsall in the best traditions of such stellar discoveries, when he wasn’t really looking for one but just doing what all birders do, bird (even when they are pretending they are not birding).
It may be that the gull was present earlier the same day but the pixels confirming the fact were deleted (for now perhaps), it may also have been around a while or maybe that fateful afternoon when Jim did a casual scan and saw the gull was the very first time it had been seen in Nova Scotia. Naturally the trip was on, only three hours away so but no big deal, but no need to get there for first light, it was probably a pre-roost gathering that contained the beauty and so, hopefully, the same mix of gulls would assemble the following day, late afternoon, and the prize would be ours. Good plan, poorly executed by the gull as it didn’t show. For Nova Scotia, the gathering was substantial and inevitably we attracted the attention of quizzical locals, many of whom walk the area of MacCormack’s Beach daily and almost certainly saw the gull on their previous days jolly.

Where did it go is the ultimate question. Probably not too far would be the reasonable answer. It could have followed a boat out to sea, in which case it could end up anywhere. On the day of discovery it will probably have roosted with the gull mass, wherever they gather daily, maybe a static piece of water, quite probably on the ice on the said piece of water. It won’t have a particular affinity with any of the other gulls present and so would likely just wander off with one of the departing packs and do what gulls do, roam around searching for food. My prediction is that it will appear again somewhere. Off a fish plant, on a ball park loafing area, on a frozen lake, around a sewage farm or, and perhaps the gulls favourite party place, at the dump, I presume they have one in Dartmouth or at least nearby, that is the place to go look at. Obviously this may just be wishful thinking on my part but this is the winter, the gulls aren’t doing too much at present so I bet it is there, somewhere.

My birding has been a bit fitful locally, mostly because of the weather but also because we are in a January slump when even the lively gales didn’t bring us the alcids we all expected. The regular spots have been scoured and, ironically and despite the same area having been regularly checked, the first Dovekie of the year was found by Ervin at Clark’s Harbour wharf on one of his visits.

This seems to be the year of close (for me) sea duck with both Surf and White-winged Scoter hanging around inside the wharf at Daniel’s Head. The Horned Grebe is also still around too. Just offshore the duck melange always has Black Scoters surfing the waves and gobbling items unseen.


A second trip of the year to Meteghan again failed to provide the Kamchatka Gull for continued scrutiny. A bonus for the dip was a couple of Barrow’s Goldeneye, a Digby County tick, not that I keep a Digby list.

A few days earlier we’d chased a couple of Sandhill Cranes in South Ohio, Yarmouth Co. The views were ok but we didn’t stay too long. These early arrivals may be the vanguard of breeders so worth keeping track of.

In the yard the Fox Sparrow finally came close enough for a photo, taken hanging out the bathroom window but not too shoddy.

Our regular Merlin has also been coming, sitting on the weather vane and giving the sparrows and doves the evil eye.

I also lucked in good views of the Daniel’s Head Snowy Owl. It seemed to like the rock pile by the road, ignoring the passing trucks. The rock pile has since gone but the owl lingers around the head if your luck is in.

A Classic Fall-out

Say ‘fall-out’ and birders will go glassy-eyed and remember where they were there when it rained birds. In an average lifetime you don’t get many fall-outs, so when they do happen they must first be savoured to the very last feather, and then dissected until the reasons for the fall-out are somewhat understood. In truth we cannot put all the species encountered in a fall-out into neat compartments and the one experienced here in southern Nova Scotia between October-25-28, 2017 has some baffling components.

The date range may confuse, but I believe that indicator birds, such as Indigo Bunting, actually starting to arrive on the afternoon of October-25; were largely missed during October 26 due to high winds and rain squalls until the evening, their presence becoming evident when the rain cleared. October-27 will be remembered as THE day though, as that was then when weather conditions allowed observers to take to the field and begin the recording process. The fall-out continued through October 28 and into November, but only really in terms of birds that had already arrived elsewhere and that then started moving into birded locations, thus we saw probably the best, most diverse action on October-28.

The scale of the arrival can only be extrapolated from the data, it certainly encompassed all of southern Nova Scotia, stretching north to Halifax although the species mix there differed a little. Comparisons have naturally been made with the last big Nova Scotia fall-out, October 1998, when it also rained birds but that time as a torrent compared to our healthy, refreshing shower. The action in 1998 took place within a very limited geographical location, essentially only extremely southern Nova Scotia. A comprehensive review of that event can be found here:

https://sora.unm.edu/sites/default/files/journals/nab/v054n01/p00004-p00010.pdf

The species mix for the 2017 fall-out intrigues. Some species might have been expected to be more numerous, others were probably a part of a normal late October migration that got sucked in and lumped with the mass. How many birds and species were actually affected by the conditions responsible for the fall-out we will never know but we can analyse the physical evidence (sightings) and speculate. In reviewing the data, eBird has been the essential reference even though it is limited to the data entered (obviously). Ideally, when the fall-out was detected, (Dave Bell called it ‘officially’ on the evening of October-27) birders would have dropped everything, assembled before dawn in the best areas and teams of two allocated sites to check. In practice of course, those available and willing went at it like a Bull at a gate, such is human nature.

The reasons for the fall-out will no doubt be better explained by others elsewhere but, put simply, birds in the US in the process of moving to their winter quarters encountered good migration conditions and so began to move. At some point during their progress, the prevailing southerly airflow pushed them north and out to sea. They hit a weather wall further east (over the ocean) which forced them into a narrower track and back over land, resulting in landfall from northern Maine and coastal New Brunswick to largely the southern half of Nova Scotia.

This piece is based on my personal observations of species plus some conjecture regarding absentees. Short days and the limited number of observers really only gave a snapshot of the event, and I’m sure all cogent birders were wondering just how many birds must have been on Seal Island? For those reading this based in locations where the numbers and variety of species involved is nothing too newsworthy, just remember we are talking about Nova Scotia and all records should be viewed in a Nova Scotia context. The standard Nova Scotia reference, ‘All the Bird of Nova Scotia – status and critical identification’ (McLaren, 2012) will give you all of the context you need. Data mined from eBird and filtered as best I could to avoid duplication.

The Main Players

The write-up starts with the marquee rare species; that is species that they are not normally found in NS except as a vagrant. I appended the rough number of birds recorded during the fall-out period after the species’ name, all eBird sourced, and a short description of their wintering area.

Perhaps the main marker species was White-eyed Vireo – 68, (winters in, well it is complicated but south!). It breeds in the southeastern United States from New Jersey west to northern Missouri and south to Texas and Florida. Populations on the US Gulf coast and further south are resident, but most other North American birds migrate south in winter. The northern subspecies occupies most of the range of this species and is fully migratory and so likely the one we got here. This sub-species is larger and has more brightly coloured plumage than all other subspecies, I don’t recall a dull one! In Nova Scotia, White-eyed Vireo does occur annually but they are far from guaranteed and given their quite secretive nature, we can safely assume that only a small percentage are ever discovered.

Yellow-throated Warbler – 37, (winters mostly along the Gulf Coast, eastern Central America, and the Caribbean). This is one of those species everyone loves to see. In NS they are annual in varying but low numbers. We get two forms, look them up in your field guide. Put simplistically, the forms consist of ones with yellow at the front of the supercilium (Dominica) and ones whose supercilium is white, or at least mostly white (albilora). There are also intergrades and a resident subspecies best ignored. The majority of our fall-out birds appear to be (answers on a postcard!).

The third species of the ‘big four’ was Yellow-throated Vireo – 19, (winters Mexico through Central America). In NS this is a good bird with probably two to five records annually. I’d only had one in Nova Scotia up until the fall-out, now I have four for CSI, something that may not happen again in my lifetime.

Hooded Warbler – 18, (wintering in Central America and the West Indies). This attractive warbler is as common, more or less, as White-eyed Vireo in NS, so the presence of numerous individuals suggests that they both come from the same core breeding range and that they both move to wintering grounds at the same time and to similar wintering areas too. On Daniel’s Head, a male with a bill deformity took up residence in one set of isolated trees, showing beautifully. Had that bird been on say an island off the UK or Ireland, I wonder how much of an impediment the bill deformity would have been to gaining acceptance as a wild bird. Such deformities are said to be prevalent in cage birds although, as cage birds are kept for their looks and deformities detract from those looks, it has never really rung true.

Rarities, but not many of them

A real prize of the fall-out was Golden-winged Warbler – 2, (winters southern Central America, northern South America). It is genuinely hard to find in NS although 2018 had already been good for them. Equally as elusive but perhaps fractionally commoner in NS in general was Blue-winged Warbler – 3, (winters in southern Central America). Occupying the same ecological niche as Golden-winged, Blue-winged seemingly dominates the gene pool to the point of producing frequent and identifiable hybrids with Golden-winged. Blue-winged is also believed to be edging Golden-winged into a contracted range or even, in the long term, species extinction through hybridisation. Blue-winged Warbler is another good bird to see in NS, and, as it expands its range, it may get as regular here as Prairie.

Well Represented

Yellow-billed Cuckoo – 31, (winters in Central America to northern Argentina.) This beauty is a traditionally late migrant to NS, presumably a reverse migrant. Although it put on a good showing in terms of numbers, particularly on Bon Portage and in the Halifax and Kentville areas, not many stayed put which probably means some duplication of records as birds moved location.

Fall-out species recorded in above normal numbers but not ones to get you chasing were Red-eyed Vireo – c75, (winters in South America) and the following warblers, Magnolia Warbler – 12, (winters southern Mexico and Central America); Blackburnian Warbler – 6, (winters in southern Central America and in South America); Black-throated Blue Warbler – 7, (winters in the Caribbean and Central America); Black-throated Green Warbler – 13, (winters in Mexico, Central America and the West Indies); Blackpoll Warbler – 18, (some move to the Greater Antilles, most go to the Northeastern coasts of South America in one flight!); Black-and-White Warbler – 6, (winters in Florida, Central America, and the West Indies down to Peru); Northern Parula – 33, (winters in southern Florida, northern Central America, the West Indies/Lesser Antilles); Common Yellowthroat, 20 and American Redstart – 10, (winters in Central and South America); Tennessee Warbler – 9, (winters in southern Central America and northern South America). Palm Warbler – 10 (winters in the southern US, Mexico through Panama and the Caribbean) was probably not affected by the fall-out conditions as many were western form birds which would normally find their way to NS in autumn and were presumably discovered thanks to saturation field coverage of some popular spots.

Away from the warbler end of the market, perhaps the single most abundant species of the fall-out was Indigo Bunting – 225 +, (winters southern Florida to northern South America), followed by Rose-breasted Grosbeak – 58, (winters in tropical America), Summer Tanager – 29, (winters Mexico through Central America and northern South America) and Scarlet Tanager – 23, (winters northwestern South America, via Central America). Given the presence of many sympatric species, Blue Grosbeak – 6, (winters mainly Central America) was also underrepresented. Swainson’s Thrush -12, (winters Panama to Bolivia but also a few in the Caribbean). They were mostly on Bon Portage and may have just been progeny of late breeders? Another interesting arrival that just made the common list was Ovenbird – 6, (winter in Central America, the Caribbean islands, Florida to northern Venezuela). Perhaps they too had almost completed their autumn migration when the fall-out happened.

An abundant and lingering fall-out bird was Grey Catbird – shish!, (winter range from the southeastern United States, through Mexico into Central America and the Caribbean). Given that they were well into their migration it is not so surprising that we got so many (100s).

Orange-crowned Warbler – 34, (winters southern US through Central America but it moves over a protracted period of time and is even occasionally common in the early winter in NS) is a hard one to call as there had been a good mid-October arrival in the province and they seemed to be in every chickadee flock you looked at. It is quite possible that those found during the fall-out had already arrived with the intervention of weather and were just found as a by-product of the concentrated birding.

Present but under five recorded

Interesting records, because of their normally early departure and/or distant wintering grounds, were Bay-breasted Warbler – 1, (winters in southern Central America and northern South America). Chestnut-sided Warbler – 4, (winters in Central America south to northern Colombia), and Nashville Warbler – 4, (winters Mexico, and the northern bit of Central America). Surprising were records of Chimney Swift – 4, (winters primarily in north and western South America). Wilson’s Warbler – 2, (winters from Mexico south through much of Central America) was barely affected and those found may have just been lingering regular migrants. Pine Warbler – 3, (a percentage of the population winters in the Caribbean and northern Mexico, we get them in winter in NS too), interestingly all three reports came from Bon Portage although more were found in late November onwards, presumably typical wintering birds. Cape May Warbler – 3, (winters in the West Indies).

Also interesting were the relatively few records of Blue-headed Vireo – 10, (depending on the subspecies, winters as far south as Central America) certainly there were a few around but whether these were affected by the fall-out conditions or other factors in difficult to say as most didn’t actually show until into November.

It is hard to formulate a theory on why the following showed up in such small numbers. Not in any particular order but, Wood Thrush – 1, (winters mostly in the tropics) happened to drop in to a birders yard in Lunenburg Co and then was only present briefly, something that a few species have in common. It might be reasonable to have expected more Wood Thrush to appear, but it is likely that they were already long gone by the time the storm hit. Veery – 1, (winters eastern South America)is another early mover and so one on CSI while no doubt a part of the fall-out, stands out along with Grey-cheeked Thrush – 2, (winters in the Amazon basin with a very few in the Caribbean), one well inland.

The two waterthrushes were as you might expect although a few more northern would have been expected. Northern Waterthrush – 1, (winters Central and northern South America and the Caribbean). No Louisiana Waterthrush, (winters in the West Indies and Central America) were reported or expected. They are one of the earliest movers to their winter quarters and records in even September away from their winter range are rare.

Where the heck were they?

A puzzling rarity question is; where were the Kirtland’s Warblers, (winters in the Bahamas) and what about Swainson’s Warbler (winters Greater Antilles to Yucatan) and even both Worm-eating Warbler, (winters Mexico to Central America) and Cerulean Warbler, (winters South America, moves early). Also missing in action! Where were the Yellow Warblers, (winters Central America through northern South America) why didn’t we get a Bicknell’s Thrush, (winters in parts of the Caribbean) where did the late Canada Warblers, (winters southern Central and South America) go? Also no Warbling Vireos, (winters Central America) were found and maybe a long awaited Loggerhead Shrike, (winters souther US and northern Central America) might not have been out of the question. We might have reasonably expected a Prothonotary Warbler, (winters Central America through northern South America) certainly a Mourning Warbler, (winters Central America through northern South America) and perhaps even Kentucky Warbler, (winters Caribbean and Central America)but alas, not this time. As for Connecticut Warbler, (winters northern South America) they fly high and south and would not be expected to be either moving or influenced by the system responsible.

Bobolink, (winters South America) an October bird in Europe where it is a prize rarity, and so some might have been expected to be affected. Bell’s Vireo, (winters Mexico and parts of Central America) has a core breeding range being to the west and south which kept them out of the mix. Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, (winters in the Caribbean and southern US through Central America) might also have been expected with the main fall-out, similarly Eastern Bluebird, (winters in the southern US) but none showed at the time. Records of gnatcatcher in NS later in the late autumn may just have been typical reverse migrants. Brown Thrasher, (winters in the southern US) was another absentee although it may have been present in such small numbers, such as one, as to be overlooked.

Almost finally, Prairie Warbler, (winters in the Caribbean and northeastern Mexico) was unaffected which, as it is a common bird in the Caribbean in the winter is a surprise but perhaps the method of their movement explains their absence. Short flights down the eastern US seaboard and a short hop out to the Caribbean while the border guards are not looking. We might have expected a Yellow-breasted Chat, (winters Mexico through Central America but also occasionally in the US or even Canada) or two but none seem to have arrived, likewise, Grasshopper Sparrow, (winters southern US through Central America and the Caribbean and Orchard Oriole, (winters throughout Central America to northern South America) could be added to the, I’m surprised we didn’t get one list.

The last group to look at are Flycatchers although they were poorly represented with only Eastern Wood-Pewee – 16, (winters in Central America and parts of northern South America) being seen (see pewee problems below for a bit more). Interesting that no Great Crested Flycatchers, (winters Mexico and parts of Central America) got caught up in the movement and that we didn’t bag a Grey Kingbird, (winters Caribbean to northern South America) presumably both species had moved too early to be affected.

To summarise: A fall-out of birds, many being rare to scarce on Nova Scotia, occurred in late October 2017. For a few sweet days we were able to browse warbler flocks that are normally gone from the province a fortnight or so earlier than the end of October. Each flock held a prize, even if it was ‘only’ another White-eyed Vireo. Such fall-outs are the staple of active birders everywhere and we should feel privileged to have experienced this one. The rapid departure of many birds in the days after the fall-out suggests many successfully reoriented, although many will also have perished. If climate change continues apace, bringing the weather combinations required to influence migration so, then such fall-outs may become expected, even routine which may diminish the novelty value of some species, relegating them to scarce migrant status as opposed to vagrant. Until that happens then the events of late October 2017 will live long in the memory of those who experience it.

Pewee Problems

We live in the east and are rarely troubled by the old pewee problem. Ours are eastern, western stay western, mostly. There are a few Nova Scotia records of Western, mostly singing or at least calling birds, so what do you do when the autumn dumps a problem pewee on your lap? Well you just have to give it a go.

The now legendary fall-out of birds of October-26-27+, 2017 gave us lots to look at and think about. It also masked any arrivals not affected by the fall-out but who just gate-crashed the whole party. One potential coat-tail rider was this pewee that Paul Gould found on Daniel’s Head, up past the bit we call ‘The Alders’. Although I’d already seen a pewee, an apparent Eastern found by Mike MacDonald along Kenney Rd, I was keen to see Paul’s as part of my “see everything on CSI from the fall-out’ policy.

There is a paper regarding pewee identification (link below), well worth a read even though you will get fed up of reading the word ‘gestalt’. I think they mean jizz, which means what a bird looks like in respectable English. The folks in the USA have appropriated the word jizz to mean ejaculate (stop giggling, what are you, 12!), or perhaps it is just that pewees and the like do it for them, not sure, funny people! Here is the Wikipedia definition of gestalt, I can see what they mean: Gestalt: a German word for form or shape, may refer to: Holism, the idea that natural systems and their properties should be viewed as wholes, not as collections of parts. And jizz, the clean version from the same source: Jizz or giss is a term originally used by birdwatchers to describe the overall impression or appearance of a bird garnered from such features as shape, posture etc.

https://www.aba.org/birding/v40n5p34.pdf

To summarise, the following may indicate that a silent wood-pewee is a western because:

The bill has an extensively dark lower mandible.

The upper wing bar is paler than the lower, even almost non-existent.

Gestalt – tail angle. 80% hold their tails straight. Easterns were 60% up, 7% down. The tail angle easterns normally adopt tends to make them look empid-like.

Overall colouration: Eastern tends white underneath, western more uniformly duller.

Ratio of primary extension over tail extension: PE = primary tip to tertials. TE = primary tip to tail tip. Eastern ration is equal to or less than 1. Western is approximately 1, so , less than 1 should mean eastern, or not. I find this confusing to say the least.

First off, here is a known Western Wood-Pewee from Arizona, taken in September 2011. It mostly complies with the pewee paper’s conclusion except for the wing bars. I think Western has a miserable look due to the all, or mostly dark bill.

Now on to Paul’s bird. Here is his photo, a small image but it hints at Western. The tail is in line with the back, it looks uniform too. The wing bars are a bit obvious and the bill is not all dark, but then neither are all Western Wood-Pewees bills.

Unfortunately my shots of the western candidate are not all I would have hoped for although this should not affect a conclusion, based on the ID paper.

This is the Daniel’s Head bird in shade and low light. Note the wings doing the 65% eastern thing, assuming you read the ID paper. You can’t see the bill so well here but the lower mandible is 80%+ dark. Note the uniform looking appearance too; the underparts are not so white. The wing bars look bolder on the lesser coverts, they shouldn’t be on a Western supposedly.

Here is the same bird on a different perch and in more illumination. The 65% eastern tail remains.

Now for a look at the first eastern from nearby Kenney Rd, should I ask the wing bar question again?

And before we move on to more photos of the pretender, here is what appears to be a second wood-pewee, again from Kenney Rd and a few days after the first. I say different based on the extent of black on the lower mandible.

 

It may be that posture on this bird makes the wing-bars look a little different.

Going back to 2015 and this bird sat on a wire on The Hawk. Clearly a wood-pewee, presumed Eastern although the shape is ambiguous and it does look a little miserable.

And now a couple of known Eastern Wood-Pewees, see how different they look.

Conclusion: Some of the features shown by the Daniel’s Head bird (and even the Kenney Rd one) are suggestive of Western Wood-Pewee but they don’t have the ‘look’ of a Western. Given the events of the fall-out both (or all three) should be treated as Eastern. Discuss?

Swan Up

The attraction of seeing a Tundra Swan in Nova Scotia and the chance to visit Ikea again had Sandra, me, Mike and Sandra heading off towards Hubbards then Dartmouth on Jan-11, 2018. That sentence contains truths and deceptions, I’ll leave you to decide which is which, the photo of the swan below may help you to decide.

 

Since we have resided in Nova Scotia there have been no twitchable swans, there was a Trumpeter somewhere in Bridgewater but the details were vague and the swan news didn’t get out in time. Thankfully this Tundra Swan chose to be both obvious and public, an easy twitch for a change. The plan was to see the swan, and see another bit of NS we’d never visited, Hubbards and the bay are very nice. Then the girls would do whatever it is they do in Ikea, wandering around looking aimless I think, while the boys did the same thing but with the chance of a Mew Gull on the partially frozen Sullivan’s Pond.

The ice and snow were all but gone so it was an easy roll to the swan and, after a couple of miss-turns we had safely secured our prize. The traffic was remarkably light around Halifax and Dartmouth and so getting to Ikea was simplicity itself. A very short while later we were at Sullivan’s Pond where a Mew Gull, no, I think I’ll call it what it is, a Common Gull dropped in and was tempted towards us via the illegal application of cat kibbles, the gulling chum I almost always carry in winter.

 

On the grassy banks ducks grazed, amongst them some very confiding American Wigeon.

 

We bumped into Richard Stern who told of a Wood Duck on some nearby pond so we scooted off and found it pretty quickly, along with four Northern Pintail that were trying to trip us up as we walked around. We were also entertained by gangs of school kids walking on the ice but time was short and we didn’t have it to spend watching the Darwinian experiment besides, the pond was probably pretty shallow and so it would have just been a soaking rather than a Darwin Award had any gone through.

 

We ended the foray, having collected the purchases and purchasers from Ikea, with a jolly good curry in Bayer’s Lake. The swan was the first NS tick of 2018, as unexpected as it was welcome.