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.

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?

Frozen Bananas

We live in the so-called Banana Belt of Nova Scotia, a mocking term describing the mostly moderate climate that we usually enjoy, plus the fact that we can have a light tea of locally picked Bananas at any time, straight from the back yard but that is beside the point! The Atlantic is supposed to keep the temperature temperate and the price we pay for that luxury is usually more fog than anyone else gets, the Bananas here regard it as tropical humidity so it all works. This winter however we have had it bloody cold leading to the Bananas dropping off the trees but, on the upside, almost instant Banana smoothies.

The wookie weather has therefore impacted on my birding activities and it was only today, January-10th, that I made my second foray away from the Valhalla that is Cape Sable Island. I had options and decided on a roll up to Meteghan, the intention being to sit shivering in the teeth of a gale and photographing the same gulls I’d photographed last year, bliss. As it happened it was not too cool, the light was good but the gulls naughty, especially the Kamchatka which seems to be having time away from its regular beach. Generally gull numbers were much lower than in recent years although I did manage to find Black-headed, Bonaparte’s, Ring-billed, Herring (American), Lesser Black-backed, Glaucous, Iceland (Kumlien’s) and the ubiquitous Great Black-backed.

Before descending on Meteghan, I called in at Cape St Mary, Mavillette where a bunch of Harlequins didn’t disappoint. Inside the wharf, three Long-tailed Ducks went about their business while I pretended to be a plank on a jetty, I always knew that plank training at high school would come in handy. I managed a few shots but missed out on recording their vocals as I’d left the recorded in the car.

 

People always seem surprised that birds do the same thing, year in year out. Site fidelity is well-known in gulls and, if I remember this right, there used to be a Glaucous Gull at Cley-Next-the-Sea in Norfolk, England that returned annually for many years and was christened ‘George’. When it finally pegged it, another Glauc (in 1stW plumage) showed up and took its place, it was, of course, called ‘Boy George’ and took over from old faithful in supplying visiting birders with their lifer/year tick. When I was a Country Park Warden I greeted several serial-returning gulls each year, a Yellow-legged that summered on the same river buoy and both winter Black-headed and Lesser Black-backed Gulls that had been banded somewhere in Finland, or at least out that way, and that came back at the same time every year. The point I’m making is that birds do what we do. if they find somewhere they like they keep returning.

All that yawp is to report that this year, Alix was first to see the returning Red-shouldered Hawk of Pleasant Lake fame. This is the fourth season it has returned after being found originally by Ronnie. To see it all it takes is a little luck, a bit of patience and verging on a criminal disregard of other road users. I managed a look today (Jan-10) right by the road although I suspect the queue of traffic that formed behind me when stopped had already seen it for the year as they barely slowed to look, some people eh!

So it was quite a nice day out, I stuck to the diet too and added a few to my 2018 year list that I am definitely not doing. Pity about the Kamchatka Gull, I hope it returns, it is a winter highlight in southern Nova Scotia along with the Thayer’s at Pubnico and not falling and breaking a hip.

To wind back a tad, I have been getting out locally but the weather has been tough on the birds, there will have been losses. The camera has been all but dormant although I did get to grab a few frames of this Horned Grebe at Daniel’s Head.

 

Another local treat was a couple of American Woodcock that probed the snow in a yard at the end of Hawk Point Road, big thanks to Johnny for the call. Not by-feather shots, it was high ISO making them grainy but happy to log my first photos of the species in NS, yes of course I keep a list!

Weather Bomb!

The wind is a howling and the trees doing their swaying thing again as we sit here, snug, but wondering what the ongoing ‘weather-bomb’ is going to bring. Already we have seen the highest water from a tide that we’ve experienced here, exacerbated no doubt by the ice-dams and storm surge, it didn’t quite get across the road though – this time. It is funny the way the media reports the impending, or more accurately now ongoing storm. Very US biased with just four lines devoted to Canada and that was the BBC. I suppose it is too much to hope that the storm is selective in the US and the 49% of decent people will be spared any damage, the other 51%, well, who cares?

Here in Canada we get on with it. Deck furniture has been moved and resources stock-piled for three days of independent survival, just as we are advised to do. It will mean catastrophic disconnection from the Internet, but we are children of the late 50s/early 60s so I expect we’ll cope. The poor birds are again having it tough. Following a prolonged and at times brutal period of below freezing temperatures, now they have to try to feed in these conditions; and then roost when 135km winds are expected to come along and try to blow them out of the trees. Those that make it through the night will no doubt be grateful for the slightly better weather to come.

We did get along to Yarmouth on January-2nd, finding a few of the hoped for birds including Barrow’s Goldeneye – doc shot below, and Eastern Bluebird. The weather was a bit iffy though and driving untreated roads a challenge. Even the highway was a mess, but we did see one plough out but no sign of any gritting though, perhaps they don’t use rock salt here. Our route home took in a quick look for the Thayer’s Gull at Pubnico (I know, a heresy, I used the T word and now the ABA will take out a contract on me). No Thayer’s but a few nice Iceland Gulls in various stages of denial.

Earlier we had lunch on one of the Yarmouth wharves and a male Surf Scoter came close enough to be immortalised. It has been a scotery (made up word) spell recently with a nice, male White-winged posing at Daniel’s Head posing for photos.

 

This last and rather crappy photo shows a Ring-billed Gull at Dennis Point Wharf with a well-defined hood and a hint of red in the bill. Nothing else is odd about it but I’ve never seen such a uniform hood on one before, the red might be an artifact of bad light. At some point I’ll wander back and try for better shots. Note the white eyelids too, a hint of Laughing Gull perhaps?

On the last day of 2017 hostilities, Mike found a passive Great Horned Owl by the side of the busy road that goes to the Oak Park connector. It sat for a couple of hours as appreciative birders slowed for a look. I even managed a five second window without a truck up my ass (come on boys, you’re slipping!) to grab a couple of snaps. In a coincidental twist, a Great Horned Owl was calling from the yard at around 11pm, no repeats in the New Year yet but there is hope.

 

In my stat post I didn’t give you all of the figures. On Cape Sable Island I managed 247 species in 2017, bettering my CSI big year score of 235 in 2016 by 12, something to go at again in 2018. My bird days, bolstered by a 365 birding day year, went up to 9287, while my eBird checklists rose to 12488. The bird days figure is lacking a few from the early years but, to reach that figure starting now, you would have to go out birding every day for 26.25 years, off you go!

Finally, thanks to all who have enjoyed this blog, who read it regularly and some who no doubt shake their heads and ask ‘did he really write that’! I do this for fun, I’m glad I occasionally entertain, and/or irritate and I’m grateful to those of you who take time to comment, good or bad. I hope the blog content in 2018 remains up to scratch, tell me if it isn’t – Mark.

Up and shivering!

We sit surrounded by the white shit that is snow and January-1st, 2018 was almost exactly like the preceding five days, but was nicely placed in a new year and so demanded to be birded. Jan-1st is eagerly anticipated by many birders and eBird probably did a roaring trade in checklists, although I’m writing this too early to give you the day one score for the province. Sandra and I had decided to get out come what may, but sensibly birded the yard for the first few hours as that was where all the birds were, just about.

Our feeders costs are roughly as much as some small, third-world countries gross domestic product (GDP – in case you ever wondered). I suspect that, were we not to feed at all, then every five years or so we could do a budget trip to the tropics on the saving but where is the fun in not having a yard bouncing with happy, feeding birds? One of the birds bouncing was a left-over Grey Catbird that has found our sparse selection of red berries a great comfort in difficult times.

It didn’t take long for our bossy Red Fox Sparrow (split by the International Ornithological Congress) to be doing his soft-toe shuffle while ankle deep in seed. Next down the sparrow pecking order were the Dark-eyed Juncos, White-throated Sparrows and, lastly, the local Song Sparrows who put up with this seasonal alien invasion with patience. Viewing the sea was tricky, it might be -9°C but the heat haze is worse than we might get on a summer day, and so only the obvious stuff like Long-tailed Duck, Red-breasted Merganser and a high flying (not tripping) Great Cormorant were contributed to the list from that source.

After accumulating 24 species, a total that would have been a month’s worse when we lived in Quebec, we moved out into the field and nearby Drinking Brook Park. This small parking lot park with great views added Common Loon, Bufflehead and Surf and White-winged Scoter but not much else, perhaps the gunners who had been there earlier had flushed the birds out of the bay. We then drove Stoney Island Road down through to Stoney Island Beach making stops and adding as we went. A feisty, adult Bald Eagle, a sneaky American Tree Sparrow and a bunch of Great Cormorants hid two Double-cresteds that missed the Florida departure! eBird asked ‘are you sure?’, well yes.

We moved on, hitting Daniel’s Head which is not a personal assault as it might sound but an Important Bird Area. Now you would think identifying somewhere as an ‘important bird area’ would be followed by some sort protection, but they hunt there. Normally it is low-level with decent hunters taking a few ducks and not leaving a mess. At other times those that shoot from public areas and leave their spent cartridges everywhere visit. Imagine if the local authority had the balls to charge them with littering as a minimum, not to mention shooting within 182m of a road, but no balls exist either now or historically, the civilised world so concerned about the amount of plastic in the environment hasn’t quite permeated through to them.

Daniel’s Head made a small contribution to the list but the jungle telegraph, well text actually, had told us of Gadwall nearby and so we set off to see. As we left, a guy hunting Canada Geese (legally) got a couple, flushing every duck on the marsh, and giving us three Common Mergansers for the list too.

Swimm Point, a small bay with a fish plant waste pipe which can be excellent when they are working, held five Gadwall, good for here, and a lone Brant – here they are the Pale-bellied Atlantic Brant – which fed quietly close to the bank.

The cold was seeping into our bones though and so we made our excuses and left, pausing only at West Head to check for gulls (scarce) and add Red-necked Grebe to the tally. Sandra then called it a day and I went back out after lunch, there were still many gaps although small birds were unlikely to fill them.

I went back to Daniel’s Head in a roundabout way, where all was quiet until a Rough-legged Hawk came over. I followed it down the road to the head, hoping for another photo op when it put up seven Horned Larks, nice one. I then scooted off to The Hawk via Clark’s Harbour. The Hawk was colder than anywhere else I’d been but the off island, The Cape, had owls in winter so I scanned. I got one Snowy Owl and a couple of Snow Buntings came over, but it was too cold to stand around and you feel for the animals that have to survive such long periods of below-zero temperatures. Just as I left the Fish Plant Road parking lot, a hunter went out to the end of a public jetty, sat and waited.

As I drove the road back, another Snowy Owl coasted over and I eventually found it actively hunting below the church on The Hawk. I watched a while and hoped it would not fly towards the jetty. I’d like to think the hunter there had more scruples than to shoot it but, earlier in the season when a tourist asked a hunter what they hunted, and the answer was “if it flies it dies” then there you have it, some of them are just not my species. Fortunately the good hunters greatly outnumber the bad, so the odds are in some of the birds’ favour. Time, education and a public realisation of just how precipitous the situation regarding our wildlife has become should improve those odds, well you would hope.

I ended the day with 52 species, not a bad start at all and I barely saw small birds away from the yard. We have another couple of days of these conditions but we are up and running and there are positive temperatures being forecast soon. Below is the list for interest.

Brant, Canada Goose, Gadwall, American Black Duck, Mallard, Greater Scaup, Common Eider, Surf Scoter, White-winged Scoter, Black Scoter, Long-tailed Duck, Bufflehead, Common Goldeneye, Hooded Merganser, Common Merganser, Red-breasted Merganser, Ring-necked Pheasant, Red-necked Grebe, Rock Pigeon, Mourning Dove, Black Guillemot, Ring-billed Gull, Herring Gull, Iceland Gull, Great Black-backed Gull, Common Loon, Double-crested Cormorant, Great Cormorant, Turkey Vulture, Bald Eagle, Northern Harrier, Rough-legged Hawk, Snowy Owl, Downy Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Blue Jay, American Crow, Common Raven, Horned Lark, Black-capped Chickadee, American Robin, Grey Catbird, European Starling, American Goldfinch, Snow Bunting, American Tree Sparrow, Savannah (Ipswich) Sparrow, Red Fox Sparrow, Song Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, Northern Cardinal.

This is the Daniel’s Head Rough-legged Hawk, the only species I photographed on the day.