Cape-tastic

A visit to The Cape, the sliver of land off the end of Cape Sable Island, Nova Scotia is always worthwhile, even if you only get a pleasant walk out of it. The real hope though is that you will find unusual birds, rarities that get lost in the acres of cover on the main island but have nowhere to hide (much) in the confines of The Cape. It has been a bit neglected of recent, what with lousy gales and the activity associated with the Lighthouse renovations, work that is now coming to an end. Today (4/12/17) the weather was good and there was a ride in the offing, you need a boat to get there. You always set off more in hope than expectation but you also compile a mental ‘could be there’ list, well I do.

With Piping Plovers showing up on Daniel’s Head on 4/10 (one bird, seven on 4/11), then it was time to see whether The Cape pairs were also back – they weren’t. The route around The Cape took us through the marsh and dunes to the light and then along the shingle bank and back to the pick-up point, 5-6 km of walking and bog and sand, stones and kelp but all worth it. We recorded 34 species including some passing Thick-billed Murres and Razorbills, a scope would have got us Common Murre too but it was too far to call 100%. If you want to see the eBird checklist, click on the link, you don’t need an account to view. http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S35899474

It was pretty quiet at first, Savannah Sparrows serenaded us and Brant wandered everywhere. It wasn’t until we hit the light that the sea birds showed best, if distant in some cases. I dare say a full day with a scope would have been well worth recording but time pressed and, while Ervin and I watched the sea, Alix and Mike crunched along the stony bank. 100m later my phone rang, “Yellow-throated Warbler’ said Alix, game on. It was flighty, hiding behind the abandoned Lobster traps and flying along the ridge out of sight. Better views were had further on; this was the best shot I got.

 

Yellow-throated Warbler is rare in spring in NS with, I think, less than a dozen records. Most show up as summer/fall overshoots or reverse migrants. It was Cape Sable Island bird 251 for me, another step toward 300 – you have to have ambition.

We searched the bank for the warbler, finding four Purple Sandpipers and a Fox Sparrow but the warbler had slipped away as they often do. Further on, a tiny brown bullet shot between Lobster traps, a Winter Wren. It proved hard to get a good look at but we ruled out Pacific Wren by using the following criteria, we could see the Atlantic Ocean – good enough for me. The photos were hard to get, flight only.

 

We later enjoyed views of the two American Oystercatchers that are back for the season, plus lots more Brant and bits and pieces, then we were off. I paused on Hawk Point Road on the way home to enjoy a first of the year Tree Swallow before pushing on. Our yard is as good as anywhere to catch passing birds and this Palm Warbler there made it year tick #4 for the day, you have got to love spring. I think we have a few more days more of this productive weather, the early bounce for some species is most welcome and, after a bit of a dismal March, things are looking up, down and deeply into the bushes.

Rogue’s Gallery

Birders come to Cape Sable Island with the expectation of seeing something different. That expectation can sometimes lead to over-exuberance when it comes to identifying the birds, one classic case is the regular winter confusion of the Daniel’s Head farm geese with Snow Goose, To complicate matters, that little cabal of interlopers did harbour a Snow Goose found by Johnny during this past winter, although it only lingered into the very early part of 2017. It is not just the fairly straightforward geese that throw a feathered spanner into the works; more than once I’ve pulled up sharp when a glance of a rusty flank has suggested Northern Shoveler or a grey body hinted at Northern Pintail and all that comes into focus is a duck Jim, but not as we know it. I am talking about the flock of mucky ducks* (not a species, put that pen away) that we have around the south end of CSI and so, for one time only, here for your enjoyment are photos of some of our rogues.

Mucky Ducks are basically (mostly) Mallard derivatives that have, over time, been cross-bred to produce the mad scientist-like designs we see today. There are many ‘pure’ breeds of duck, all derivatives, for an example just Google ‘Indian Runner’ to see what I mean. A bred special bred to stand upright and run, no idea why.

Ducks are quite slack about their romantic preferences, mostly because, like some governments, it is a male-dominated system and the males just take what they want when the mood is upon them, often upon many of them. The females cannot even grin and bear it, what with having rigid bills and so, in the wild, we do get some odd concoctions.  It is not just ducks but geese are just as bad but, at the end of the day, they all taste the same, just like duck or goose!

 

This one is a hybrid Mallard x Northern Pintail, a Mintard. Luckily the parentage is obvious, that is not always the case.

 

Moving on to geese, here is a Snow x Ross’s Goose, Snow body, Ross’s head.

 

This one is a Greater White-fronted Goose x Canada, the clues are there.

 

This seems to have Canada Goose in it but what else? That bill pattern suggests maybe Emperor?

 

This one is tough, the bill suggests maybe Greylag, makes you wonder what sort of parties its parents went too!

 

Not every weird goose is a hybrid, can you figure this one out.

 Not ducks but it was like Panama City over the yard today with a kettle of Turkey Vultures and one Bald Eagle.

Ugly Mugs

Even in the depth of winter, Turkey Vultures can be seen over parts of southern Nova Scotia. For some reason the Yarmouth area* has quite a concentration, perhaps there are just lots of old people around there and the vultures are born optimists, whatever the attraction, it is sometimes possible to see 20+ arcing through the skies on their pronounced dihedral wing attitudes.

*Good place to release a recuperated Black Vulture don’t you think?

Sandra and I were out that way recently and this little bunch were being surprisingly calm around the end of Chebogue Point Road. Usually the vultures are a little wary, they don’t get many invites to parties with a face like that, and will scoot off when you get within reasonable lens range. This lot must have had something very attractive nearby and there for a while too as they’d been quite liberal with their guano, selecting a parked truck for special attention.

On the way home these Hooded Mergansers were hang out below a bridge right next to the road. With a change of driver and a little bit of wild braking, I was able to lean out and grab a couple of photos before they truly realised what was happening an paddled off – survival instinct I suppose.

 

The weather has been a bit inclement and perhaps overly-breezy recently, I think we nudged 100mph on the wind gauge on the afternoon of 3/14. All this weather makes photo opportunities around Cape Sable Island few and far between. The light has also been a bit dour, rather like a Scottish Headmaster we had at school but without the cane. One of my regular little pull-ins has been Swimm Point. On 3/14 I had only my second Lesser Black-backed Gull of the year on CSI. It sat tight for a while before getting up and doing a bit of light jostling for the look of the thing. Also paddling about was a male American Wigeon and a pair of Northern Pintails. Unfortunately the male chose to stay scrunched up but the female had a bit of a stretch, showing her subtle plumage.

 

As we shiver ever nearer to spring, the pace of the year generally might be regarded as slow. True there has been the odd good bird, two rare geese throughout and the Thayer’s Gull which will be a year highlight, no matter what else turns up. My CSI year list, not that I’m doing one as a mission this year, is only 103, I think I had about 12 more at this time last year. I expect we’ll emerge gloriously from the pre-spring slump with something good, hopefully something easy to see and long-staying just to warm the cockles. I had thought about making some predictions but I decided against it, so I’ll just do 15 Nova Scotia ticks I’d appreciate, preferably all in Shelburne and, even better, all to be found on CSI.  Any excuse for the airing of a few a few cheery photos, all mine. 

With a Clark’s Grebe in New York State recently, perhaps not such an outside bet?

I’m told they were once common, now few and far between. A recent Eastern Meadowlark at Daniel’s Head just would not play the game.

A good shout, I’m sure we will get a Wilson’s Phalarope this year, well, almost sure.

I really should have seen one of these in NS by now.

This might just qualify as my NS nemesis bird! a Townsend’s Solitaire.

Time for Ervin to find another, American Avocet.

We ought to get Northern Wheatears more often.

A spring Franklin’s would be nice.

There has been a Spotted Towhee in Quebec (again) this winter, our turn?

Needs a bit of a blow at just the right time, fingers crossed.

I was surprising that we didn’t get one in last autumn’s Dartmouth warbler and vireo fest, a Black-throated Grey Warbler.

The New Brunswick bird was so close, if it happens again we stand in NS with a boom-box laying the song good and loud!

I’ve heard the story and had the bit where the Daniel’s Head bird sat showed to me, time for another Loggerhead Shrike.

Lots of new posts in the Guzzle sheep pen ready and waiting, Fork-tailed Flycatcher.

A fine looking species and something to hope for, Eared Grebe.

Back to Brown

Yes, the song Amy Winehouse (singer, coke-head) wanted to write but couldn’t, she’d never seen a Gyr, well at least when not stoned. I thought I’d revisit the Joggins Gyr Falcon and put a few more of the 300+ shots I took up here, some are even from very slightly different angles. I thought I’d also tell you what Gyrs mean to me and why.

In the UK Gyr Falcon was mythical and only a very few birders had seen one, they had that prize on their list while we mere mortals coveted it like an attractive Ox. Everything changed with the Berry Head, Devon bird of 1986. That one was a white-phase and had a grand audience for every one of the ten days that it graced the Berry Head, a rocky headland that it obviously found an acceptable substitute for some Icelandic rock face. The genuine rarity of the bird was one of the the defining factors in my really wanting to see one, another factor was a story I’d heard first-hand when staying on Scilly in autumn 1984.

I’d been on Scilly for (a scheduled) three weeks and then had the offer of floor space for a fourth and very much unscheduled week, which I gratefully accepted. A couple of the guys stopping in the same house had been birding on the Western Isles the year before (top left of the UK). They had been camping and emerged from the tent one morning to find a white Gyr sat on a nearby fence post. It was what every birder dreamed, no fantasised might happen, and it was a fantasy that didn’t even involve Kate Bush! This background is by way of making the point that Gyr Falcon, like Thick-billed Murre, has a position in my historical birding psyche that is unlikely to ever shift, no matter how many I see of each, they are special.

That is why we went to Joggins recently to see the Gyr Falcon, that and the obvious opportunity to improve my admittedly shoddy Gyr Falcon photo inventory and to see a real one! Had we not stopped for a curry in Bayer’s Lake (see earlier post)and just carried on home, we might not have turned around and hacked over to the borderlands for the bird. I’d already mentally made my cut-off ‘point-of-no-return’ had positive news of the bird come through, admittedly it was Barrington but all the same, I was ready to abandon the cause.

These last two are for the more interested birders showing the underwing and the talons.

 

I don’t have a deal else to show you, the weather continues in the stroppy vein, horizontal snow as I look out but only the dusty stuff, not buxom flakes. I did have some luck with a local Snowy Owl recently. I don’t see them as frequently as I did in Quebec, just the odd one or two at favoured sites. At Baccaro Point two have been around forever but are usually just faces in the distance unless you go after them, which I don’t. When I arrived there yesterday (3/10), the male was sat on the rocks off the parking lot. He even flew from one perch to another before depositing himself on the shingle beach further along, and even then he was kind to a humble snapper. Not great shots by any means but alright.

 

In the yard the first Common Grackle of the year has just appeared. It is nice when there is one but soon it will be an invasion and the feeders will take a battering. They are a portent of what is to come, hopefully we will have a good spring here and I’ll get to see a few of the not so rare species missing off my CSI and Nova Scotia list. The bad weather does have one positive aspect, I’m Back in the groove for entering my older records from my notebooks into eBird. I’ve done five so far, only about  17 more to do yet, each containing 300+ birding trips. It’s funny, but not having all my old records in eBird irritates and has done for some time, OCD? I might get it done once and for all or, as the birds start to arrive, I’ll get distracted again. If only eBird had been around in 1981, or even computers or even electricity!

You will notice that the blog looks a bit different now, I thought a refresh of the theme was in order. I use the free WordPress themes which means you might see ads, sorry about that. If any ads for Malta, Flamingoes or Lionel Ritchie show up please let me know, there are limits.

Moody March

In like a Lion, out like a Lamb, so bad news for Wildebeests at the beginning of the month but mint growers can expect bumpers sales of their excellent sauce before the traditional moist April gets underway. March is a month that can be ‘right mardy’ as they say at home, that means you never know whether it will be naughty or nice, weather-wise. The first few days were on the naughty side with crap birding weather, then we had a brief hiatus before a southerly system brought wet, but mild weather. And it is still only the 8th day of the month!

We had to visit the big shops a couple of days ago and so took the opportunity to search for the two semi-exotic goose guests that have been around Yarmouth all year now, the Pink-footed and the Greater White-fronted Geese. Our initial searching was fruitless but then it is March and a bit early for even GM apples. We eventually tracked them down at the back of the old mill on Water Street. The views were OK, the photo op average.

 

Earlier we’d searched for the two male Barrow’s Goldeneyes in the harbour. No luck, they might have pushed off, but we did get nice looks at a bunch of Surf Scoter, never managed a decent shot of this species.

 

The next day our regular yard Merlin made itself inconspicuous by hiding in plain sight! It didn’t work.

 

Over the course of the winter I’ve adopted a little spot at Swimm Point, Cap Sable Island, Mostly because it is a convenient spot to sit in bad weather and just see what flies in. Now that the gulls are reducing in number and variety interest turns to anything else. There has been a regular bunch of Greater Scaup there, known as bluebills locally, and in with them, two Lesser Scaup. Here is a bit of a panorama shot and a couple of Lesser Scaup images. Not great.

 

The same spot has just started attracting Brant, I still call them Brent Geese, right into the bay. One bird was banded but I could not get any detail, even with photoshop manipulation, not even a number of any sort.

 

At nearby West Head, CSI, this Thick-billed Murre hung off the end of the breakwater on 3/7, it might well be one seen at the end of February although, given the abundance of Great Black-backed Gulls, maybe not. Does anyone know why Black Guillemots openly consort with the murre chomping gulls and come away unscathed when the murres and the Dovekies always seem to end up as an entree? Never seen that happen to a Razorbill though, perhaps because they are so heavily armed.

Blending in

The often busy wharves at West Head, Newellton are a great place to see and photograph a few birds. If you hit it right, a quiet work day but with decent light, you can park up on one of the wharves, blend in with the assorted fishing business paraphernalia and just wait for those photo opportunities to arrive. Recently, five Red-necked Grebes have decided to hang out there but on each visit either the weather was no good, or the wharf busy, so I just bided my time. Yesterday (3/2/17) all was quiet, the sun shone (from the right direction) and so I sat and waited. Sure enough, once the van had become part of the wharf a procession of birds drifted past.

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Only two of the five Red-necked Grebes came close enough to snap, all are in winter plumage and it is unlikely that any will linger long enough to attain their striking summer dress (the odd one does but is normally offshore and out of lens range). The two shots below are from another time, one showing the grebe getting a rusty look about the neck, the other a not great show of two birds in full summer plumage.

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Common Eiders are getting frisky, little bunches bobbed past, the males doing their suggestive “oooing”, the female think, not yet sunshine, as they kept their distance.

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Common Loons are regulars off most wharves, West Head is no exception.

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Black Guillemots were about too, starting to get a bit more black here and there but still someway off their light absorbing summer plumage.

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What few gulls were around were unspectacular, the Kumlien’s Gulls numbers have dropped dramatically, in-part because there is nothing coming from the plants.

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I sat some time hoping that a few of the fantastic male Red-breasted Mergansers would come along but they rarely venture inside in the same way. Similarly the three regular scoters don’t much fancy any of our wharves for loafing, unlike say Meteghan in Digby County. Soon the wharves will be quieter save for a few rough looking gulls and the eiders and our birding attention will turn elsewhere. We are not quite at the winter cabin fever stage yet but it is always just a few inclement days away.

Some you Lose

Anything that brightens a February day has to be a good  thing so, when a text from Mike MacDonald told us that he was watching Eastern Bluebirds at Overton, we were quite enthusiastic as more by luck than judgement, we were watching Horned Larks not too far away at Sunday Point. We skipped over, pausing only to admire a Northern Mockingbird on the way and parked up at the spot. Very shortly after arrival a bluebird flew into a backlit tree, then another. We settled in and waited and watched as five birds milled around, drinking from puddles and feeding in the scrub. Eventually we got them right side for the light and here are a couple of them.

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The Horned Larks were right by the road at Sunday Point, always nice to see, especially as they were a year bird for Sandra.

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Not long after having seen the bluebirds, Alix called – the eBird reviewers didn’t like the Gyr Falcon we’d reported from CSI, based on the day two photos.  I have no problem at all with eBird reviewers rejecting records, even when it means I lose a tick. My personal view is that they are not strict enough at times but that is another discussion. The crux of the matter is that the bird seen on February-20th by four of us was now considered to be a heavily marked Peregrine. That, for me, reconciles the head pattern to some extent although not a couple of other plumage and structural features noted and, because it is the most likely scenario, I’m treating the bird seen by just Ronnie and me on Feb-19th as the same individual as the 20th.

Just to wind back to the 19th. After flying in, that falcon fed on the ground and the face showed no white pattern visible through a good scope, albeit at 1800m. True the light was difficult, but I could see the cheek patch on Canada Geese at a greater range with the same scope. It also showed short wings when viewed with snow behind it, they came to roughly half-way down the tail. The flight shots, poor though they are, showed a two-tone underwing pattern with the flight feathers contrasting with the underwing coverts, a feature of Gyr. Having said that, I still presume it to be the same bird as the 20th.

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Now to the events of February-20th. Had the falcon Ronnie spotted on the shingle bank, again at range, just got up and flown away down the bank and gone forever then we wouldn’t be having this conversation as I am pretty sure, given the size and structure, that all present would be happy it was a/the Gyr. The fact that we got rough flight photos was what screwed it all up but good I say, better to be right in the end.

I know nothing of what a brown and grey Gyr pairing would produce. Grey Gyrs tend to have some moustachial stripe, similar to some Peregrines. On brown forms any stripe is generally lost on the overall hooded effect of the head colouring. But I do know, because the field guides tell me so, that Gyr wings fall short of the tail tip on the closed wing. Here is a photo of the Feb-20th perched bird from behind, you tell me where those wing tips are.

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The other thing I know is that the Gyr underwing is so very different from Peregrine, especially on a brown form, different as to be diagnostic. Alix has a shot of the bird from Feb-20th and the underwing looks very Gyr-like indeed. I think we can accept that the falcon was not a Gyr, even though there appear to be some inconsistencies. I haven’t even mentioned the structure although female Peregrines can be huge and male Gyrs can be Peregrine sized although none of that accounts for the way the bird of Feb-19th (in particular) flew.

I’ll end by saying that the four observers who saw the bird on Feb-20th are no dummies. Three have seen Gyr before, all are familiar with Peregrine. In many areas (think gulls) birding is not an exact science and birds like the putative Gyr are learning tools that hone your skills. It may be that there is more to this bird than we think and I’d certainly like better views and photos. Perhaps there is some Gyr involvement somewhere, the large falcons are easy to crossbreed, or perhaps some Peregrines have not read the field guides and are just behaving badly, plumage-wise. I don’t doubt that there will be a Gyr around southern Nova Scotia at some point in the foreseeable future and that some of us will get to fill that list-gap, I just hope it sits on a pole like the one currently calling to me from Joggins, that will do nicely.