We usually try to get out to The Cape, the ever changing island off The Hawk on Cape Sable Island as soon as possible into the New Year. This winter the elements have conspired against us and the very few moderate days we’ve had have not coincided with availability. Today we put things right with Ronnie and I paying a courtesy visit, not really expecting too much and quite happy with the species and abundance found there.
High tide dictated that our route would run from Shell Beach, around the regular spots that hold a few birds and then back from Stephen’s Point. As it transpired the tide remained high enough to rule out crossing the eroding channel to Stephen’s Point, forcing us to cut back across the saltings. This was a pretty interesting experience in itself, the winter storms have changed the nature of the saltmarsh and, if it avoids more weather-driven reconstruction, it should be pretty good for shorebirds in season, a season that looks some way distant from the cool days of March.
For those unfamiliar with The Cape, I’ve added the map, or you can always look at the tab on the blog header for more details.
As we passed one of the offshore islets between The Hawk and our landing spot, a Snowy Owl stuck his head up. We were confident that our being on the water wouldn’t cause the bird to fly off back to its regular spot on the nearby shingle ridge so we let ourselves drift past. We took a few shots then it did that thing they do when you know they are going to move and it flapped slowly and hopped up to sit on top of one of the rocks. This bird was a poser so we snapped a few more images before Warren eased us away quietly. He was still on his island when we came off The Cape a few hours later.
The bay where we landed had a good bunch of Brant, we ended up tallying around 400, low for the time of year but a big improvement over recent weeks so we might get to four figures yet this spring.
The landing point on Shell Beach is where we have to go at high tide. Just three years ago the beach was broad with a thick swathe of Marram Grass to the right, like a well-thatched toupee stretching away for .5km before the bank becomes a ridge of big shingle. This has all now gone and the sandy, stony topping will only last a few good southerly storms before breaking through. Once that happens, the rise and fall of the tide will reshape The Cape, just like it has been doing for millennia.
We did or regular circuit although I didn’t check The Forest, wrong time of the year, preferring to stick to the south shore looking for sea duck. Small bird action was limited to a junco and a couple of Song Sparrows although we’d add a regular Savannah Sparrow later.
When you get to the light we visualised the proposed light victim refuge, a small fenced area 3m away from the light and offering some cover for those migrants that are light affected during migration. It might take a couple of years to get it fully functional but it will be worth it when finished and it will enhance the scruffy area around the light.
At this point on a Cape visit you have two choices. Walk the ridge along the shore, not easy as the rocks move without warning and it is hard to look for birds and walk confidently at the same time. The other option is to double back and skirt the pool. The beach section is usually where the sandpipers hang out. This time we didn’t see them until another Snowy Owl flushed them. We thought the owl would avoid us so were surprised when it flew past quite close, heading towards the light. The Purple Sandpipers did another little aerial dance at this but then vanished and we couldn’t relocate them.
Usually, by this point, the best birding is had by following the beach ridge all the way around the bay. It was here that five Harlequins bobbed around a rock, well offshore but easy to ID as they always are.
By this time on a visit expectation of finding something else is low; there are few obvious migrant traps in the area, something we might be able to address at some future point. There are a couple of areas that would stand having a Willow Holt (fenced), that would offer cover and good birding. Ideally I see a birding trail with a map on The Cape which would help visitors to navigate the birding spots of the island and keep the same people away from sensitive area like the tern colony and Piping Plover nest sites, all in good time.
We ended the walk with 27 species, pretty good for March and the pre-migration period. I think I have visited The Cape 69 times since June 2015 and only on a couple of occasions has the birding been bad but, even then, you still get to take a good walk around a great place.
I only managed a few photos of the Snowy Owls, here they are.