Over the Hump

Birders like to slice up the avian cake, picking the best bits to enjoy first. Spring, autumn, winter but not deep winter – that is the soggy bit, and finally summer. Summer is when we do the breeding birds, count the fledglings and keep a watchful eye out for threats (us) to threatened breeders. Summer is the hump, a season of less pulse racing excitement but very important as, without it, there won’t be any more birds although you might be forgiven for thinking that was what many people (not birders) were aiming for. We hear the reports of folks knocking down Cliff Swallow nests because of the mess, have you seen how much mess you make yourself petal! People and industry (builders etc.) go slashing through trees and shrubs while birds are on eggs or feeding young, then the aftermath ends up in bird care places. Not to mention all those farmers, hobbyists and ‘real’ ones, who now cut their hay fields just as the grasslands species’ young are in the nests. Bobolinks are roundly screwed thanks to this and the Government fails to tackle it with cash incentives to promote better cutting policies. If it costs the farmers dollars, even miniscule amounts, then species protection means zip but don’t get me started on this, whoops, too late.

Anyway, we are now over the hump and the shorebirds are heading south. I took a look at The Hawk, Cape Sable Island today (July-5th) and counted, give or take five, 537 Short-billed Dowitchers out there. They can reach 15,000 in numbers in fact the shorebirds in general will be so numerous that counting is just a case of a good guess for some species at times.

A few days ago Rachel Hoogenbos, who lives on Daniel’s Head, saw a small egret off the back of her place. It had visible head plumes and Little Egret needed to be ruled out. She gave us a call and we got flight views which seemed to back up the expected Snowy Egret although she has had Little off there before and has even seen them side-by-side in Florida. Today I got a good look at the egret, well one of them as there may be two. Today’s bird certainly had some visible plumes but not the very elongate sort shown by Little, however, plumes break. In this case the yellow lores (face) and the extent and shape of the chin feathering, plus a few other features, again point to Snowy Egret. The bird also has a gammy leg so we should be able to track it when it moves, assuming it does.

 

This photo shows two Snowy Egrets and two Little Egrets together.

Daniel’s Head has been a regular spot for me recently although we did have visitors from the UK which meant I had to be sensible(ish). On June 25th Alix d’Entremont and Paul Gould found first one, then a second Forster’s Tern on the receding tide. The views were difficult at times and the photo ops even more of a challenge. Forster’s are found north to Massachusetts as part of their regular range, then further north still as irregular vagrants to rare vagrant the further you go. Most on-line images for them tend to focus on the easy non-breeding plumage, whereas this pair where one in full summer plumage and one showing a second-summer type with some had moult and darker than adult primaries. My photos were pants so I won’t even bother putting them here.

Other birds around have included more Nelson’s Sparrows, some very showy around Daniel’s Head. An irregular Black-crowned Night-Heron has been at the same spot, and an elusive Green Heron was on Hirtle’s Pond, The Hawk. Luck was very much required to see it and I only got lucky once when it flew into the fog. High ISO on the photo and all that.

Finally, we don’t get too many Cliff Swallows and in Shelburne Co they are a very scarce breeder, although the nests remain in-tact as far as I know. One was on The Hawk July-5th, resting on wires.

Lark Flies at Daniel’s Head

With due acknowledgement to Flora Thompson, whose book ‘Lark rise to Candleford’, was not species specific, so I sort of mucked about with the title for this blog post.

Some species are surprisingly absent from Nova Scotia and the strong flying Eastern Meadowlark is one of them. In days of yore they were commoner, mostly in winter but also as a restricted breeder and occasional transient. Now we update that status to vagrant because their appearance here, no doubt linked to the wholesale destruction of their habitat, has become so erratic that we are more likely to find heaps of steaming Rocking Horse dung on Daniel’s Head than a lark, well at least until today you were.

A call from Clyde (thanks Clyde), had birders scuttling over to look and the lark, mostly, behaved although it was skittish and flew at regular intervals. It may still be there, but an afternoon search of its favourite haunts failed to find it. There are two species of Meadowlark in North America with a third, Lillian’s, showing promise as warranting its own page in the field guide. We would expect Eastern in NS but Western does also occur in the east and so it is important, when faced with a vagrant meadowlark, to see the bits that matter. As reliable as anything is the white in a tail, a whole tail though and not one that has been chewed by a hawk or partially moulted. Eastern has three and a little bit white outer tail feathers, Western two and a bit, and these are obvious when the bird flies but more especially when it lands. Our bird had 3.5 on the outer retrace scale and so was comfortably Eastern, the malar lacks a bit of ambition on the being white front though.

Meadowlarks are odd looking things, ungainly might just cover it, and they are hard to place taxonomically based on their appearance. There is an air of grackle about them but also some pipit. The only lark bit comes to the fore when they open their beaks and warble and even then it’s not a lark song as in the Old World. In Africa there is a bird, Yellow-throated Longclaw (something we spent hours looking for in Gambia), that is physically pipit but dressed as a meadowlark (Google it).

Anyway, enough waffle, the meadowlark was good and also has the distinction of being Mike’s 300th NS bird, well at least until Thayer’s Gull gets lumped with Rock Pigeon or whatever, and so is to be celebrated in pixels.

 

After the sequence from today, and just to make things clear, here are five Meadowlarks from four differing geographical locations, see if you can figure out what they are, answers next post.

Above – Eastern Meadowlark, QC, May 2012. Big pale malar.

Above, Eastern Meadowlark from the Pacific Slope of Costa Rica, June 2005. The Pacific is eastern right!

Above, Western Meadowlark, California March 2013. Below, Western Meadowlark, Nevada, March 2013.

Below, Eastern Meadowlark, Panama – Cocle area, Pacific side June 2013.

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.

Spring in the Step

There was a definite feeling of spring in the air today. Backing this up was a text from Ronnie about singing Red-winged Blackbirds, always a good sign. He followed that up with a Broad-winged Hawk, a good bird for this time of year and one that has been very scarce in NS this winter. At this point I was thinking about heading that way anyway, if only for a change of scenery. The third text, and I quote “Holy shit, Northern Shrike” swung it and we were soon heading out of the house.

Argyle Head is a really nice river valley that is always birdy. The Red-winged Blackbirds continued to sing from their newly re-inhabited tree tops but the shrike was initially absent. After 15 minutes or so it loped in and the twitchers, all five of us, were rewarded with  back-lit views as it moved from dead tree to dead tree. It did vanish for a while but then came back, bouncing into a tree with much kinder light and we got our photos.

 

Above, a back-lit shot of the shrike. I ramped up the exposure to compensate but failed to drop it when the light was better, hence the hue to the next photo.

Once adjusted, the image improves and, after cropping and pruning, is not too bad.

Emboldened we had a bit of an explore, finding a Snow Goose, clipped and with two similarly attired Canada Geese so don’t go chasing it. We then resolved to visit Meteghan in Digby County. Meteghan has two main attractions; it gets loads of gulls and has a Sip Café. The gulls behaved fairly well but panicked at the wrong moment meaning I only got snatched shots of the Kamchatka Gull that still resides there. Three Glaucous and around 90 Kumlien’s were also enjoyed but small gulls were at a premium. We did eventually find a single Black-headed Gull, almost in full-summer plumage.

 

The superb Kamchatka Gull still hanging out at Meteghan, this shot from the fish plant outfall to the north of the wharf.

That was about it really, we did see four routine Harlequins at Cape Saint Mary’s, never thought I’d call Harlequins routine but they are always there in winter. Yarmouth yielded little but two roadside Wood Ducks at Argyle Head were welcome year-list additions on the way home.

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.

Worst Dips

There is a lot of pleasure to be gained in seeing a new bird. Purists argue that twitching or chasing, call it what you will, is unproductive. This, of course, is not true, it produces experience, a commodity of very high value in any sphere, especially so with birding. Twitching also teaches another valuable lesson, determination. People start birding in these times of instant news and very often see a lot in a short space of time. The dice always seem to roll kindly for them but those who have been at it a while know that a fall will come. It might just be a stumble or it could be a full blown fall, a run of dreadful luck that has you questioning your sanity. At this time in your birding career you are at a crossroads, you can chuck it all in and go back to pottering or take it in the chin and fight back with renewed determination. I met such a crossroads way back in 1984 and I’m still going strong.

To put this in context, I was doing a big year, no cellphones,orpagers just phone booths when you could find one and a diary in a café in Norfolk – and you had to hope a friendly voice answered the phone when you called and asked the age-old question, “anything about?” My year turned out well but there was a major dip for a major bird in Europe, a Belted Kingfisher. For you entertainment here is the story of that dip and, just so you know, I dipped the same bird on the west coast of Ireland in March (I think) of the next year!

The story so far. With almost zero cash and a tendency to destroy my cars, I was nearing the magic 300 species in a year that I was aiming for. I’d been everywhere in the UK accumulating that total and, despite the transport issues, was still managing to get to birds, one way or another. This excerpt is from my first eBook, ‘Going for Broke’.

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West Ireland

Despite the expense of the year so far, both in terms of finance and days off work, a nagging itch had developed in November that required remedial treatment. The cause of the itch can be directly traced to the presence of a Belted Kingfisher in Ireland, a Nearctic species that is very rare in Europe. The bird had been present for some time, frequenting a stone pier in the little County Clare village of Ballyvaughan in West Ireland. The intensity of the itch increased when Bill Simpson (a birding friend and ace twitcher) went for, saw and even painted the bird. I’d always admired his paintings and I very much admired the bird in this one, I had to go.

I took the coach from Nottingham to Birmingham, then changed to another, bound for Holyhead and across to Dublin, That was the easy part. Once in Dublin, I had to cross Ireland and then find transport to the isolated village. I managed to locate a coach that went so far, and then I started to hitch. I was not a seasoned hitchhiker like Bill and I probably should have had a better idea of what I was doing, before trying something as ambitious as a West Ireland trip – we all have to learn, I suppose.

Almost as soon as I left the coach it started to rain, I started to walk. After a mile or so a sign said ‘Ballyvaughan 15 miles’, nearly there I thought, then realised that I might end up walking the equivalent distance of Nottingham to Mansfield in the rain and, fairly soon, the dark too. Undaunted, I took the turn and walked another few miles, flashing my optimistic thumb at any and every passing vehicle. As I followed the course of the coast I realised I would probably not get there before dark now and so I slowed to a stop to consult the map I had, I was lost. It was then that I heard the barking of dogs. To my right, three rather large animals, each capable of competing for the lead in the Hound of the Baskervilles, were bounding down the drive of the posh mansion behind them and the imposing steel gates, whose sole purpose may have been the limiting of their freedom, were open. I started to move away as fast as I could.

Woof Woof

The dogs came out into the road and began to move purposefully towards me. I threw down my only bag of chocolates (chocolate drops to be precise), hoping to deflect them and to buy some time and yards. Luckily it worked and, as I continued to make distance between the pooches and myself, I could see them snuffling around the bag and wagging their tails, maybe they were not so vicious after all! My luck then changed when I stumbled into a small village; there was a shop, where I could replenish my chocolate supply, and a pub where I could quench the thirst now present in my strangely dry throat.

Mine’s a Pint

I made for the pub first and sat by the fire, drying the only clothes I had with me. The landlord served me up my first pint of real Irish Guinness and I dried off in a haze of alcohol and steam. Once I had dried out the map a bit, I walked over to the bar and asked the barmaid to show me where I was. After much consideration and a few reorientations of the admittedly large-scale map, she called the landlord over. To my utter astonishment, neither could actually pinpoint the place on my map that their little piece of creation occupied; they just pointed generally to an area south of Galway Bay. I put this lapse in basic awareness down to the poor condition of the by now bedraggled, map and left it there.

I wandered outside into the rain suitably refreshed via the Guinness. The remarkably well-stocked shop provided me with an adequate chocolate supply and the time in front of the pub fire had given me a less damp coat. I stuck my thumb out and hoped that whoever stopped, if anyone did, would have more idea of where they actually were than the folks in the pub. Almost immediately, a young guy in an aged Mazda pulled over and offered me a lift. Yes, he knew Ballyvaughan, it was perhaps 12 miles away and could take me to within two miles of it, I could then walk or hitch the rest of the way. This was definitely an upturn in fortunes and I gleefully dumped my bag in the back and off we went.

He was clearly very proud of the car, perhaps not enough to maintain it mechanically get an M.O.T (Ministry of Transport certificate of road worthiness) or even insurance, but he did like to show off. This became more apparent when we proceeded to hurtle down country lanes at ridiculous speeds, with his English passenger worrying about getting wet again but this time from the inside. Eventually, and it did seem like a lifetime, he stopped, wished me luck and tore off into the gathering gloom. Ballyvaughan next stop.

No Rooms at the B&B

As I wended my way down the lane to the town I was passing lots of tidy little bungalows and it was clear that Ballyvaughan was on the up. Tourism is an important part of the Irish GDP (about 4% or five billion Euros) and the locals had clearly been busy kitting out their homes for the impending tourist boom. A good sign I thought, there should be no trouble finding a B&B in this thriving seaside town, wrong!

I later found out that enterprising Irish citizens had (allegedly lawyers, allegedly!) found that EU grants were available to renovate their properties for use as B&B businesses. The grants were intended to boost the economy and bring employment to local builders, etc. It mainly seems to have brought employment to the people who made the ‘No Vacancy’ signs, as that was what all the properties I passed displayed. It seems that some unscrupulous individuals got a subsidised renovation on their home without ever intending to take a guest (again, allegedly!).

Arriving with a little light left, I located the pier (built 1837) where the bird regularly perched and waited. Dusk began to fall quickly and so I asked around in the pub that was at the base of the pier whether there was any accommodation to be had, expecting all the time to be having to find some quiet, dry spot where I could use my sleeping bag. Amazingly my luck was in and I ended up in a nice little place, a real B&B, which had one room left. I booked in with the option of a second night that I optimistically didn’t expect to need. I had a shower and a hot meal and sat in the guest TV room writing some notes up, I was warm and comfy, things were looking up.

Just Dusting

I quickly discovered that I was sharing the guest section of the house with a girl from Newcastle. We chatted for a while about a wide range of topics but without being too strong on opinion, as strangers might do, and then said our goodnights and turned in. She was doing a solo walk of the nearby Burren, one of those oddities of geology and rock-solid evidence of continental drift, where the flora is more akin to that found in Portugal that the rest of Ireland. Ballyvaughan was at one end of the Burren and so the natural starting place from which to walk it. She was expecting to be getting off on her long-distance ramble early the next day. I didn’t envy her; she was hauling a pack the size of a hay bale although, looking at her, she may well have trained for the trip by juggling breeze blocks.

Around two of the clock, nature called and so I dressed suitably and went to the bathroom across the hall. As soon as I opened my bedroom door, the owners of the house appeared in the guest area between the rooms and started tidying the place up. I thought it all very odd but I acknowledged them with a nod and a grunt suitable for the hour, and went about my business. It was only during our early breakfast, while chatting to the girl, that I discovered the same thing had happened to her at some similarly ungodly hour.

It seemed that, good Catholics that they were, the house owners were not going to have any sinning by the sophisticated city types under their roof. The thought had never actually crossed my mind. She was a lesbian (she said, but you have no idea how many times I’ve been told that) and I was even less of an oil painting then than I am now. Her only chance would have been if she’d been covered in feathers and sat on the pier making rattling noises like a Belted Kingfisher, my only chance appeared to have been radical surgery and changing my name to Maude!

Absent Friends

Back to the twitch and I spent the day looking at that pier from all angles, scoped the bay and scanned the whole area roughly once every 30 seconds. As village life went about its normal business, locals stopped to chat with me as they passed by, several had seen the bird and took great care and delight in describing the plumage in detail. They would almost to a man (and woman) stand and point to its favourite perch, and subsequent whitewash as delivered by the bird, could I at least add it to my DNA list?

I was not surprised by the friendliness and familiarity of the locals; Ballyvaughan then was a very sleepy little hamlet, home to about 200 people. Nothing much happened there, week on week, and the Belted Kingfisher and subsequent twitch was the biggest news locally since a stolen cow was found in one of the local castles and caused a mighty fuss. That was in 1540 and the locals had still not got over it!

The next and very wet morning, the fine lady who ran Meek’s, the pub at the base of the pier, opened up early and gave me breakfast (my second of the day). She let me watch the pier from the pub until the rain finished and would not let me pay her for the food, which was just as well as my Irish punts (a currency replaced by the Euro later) had dwindled to alarmingly low levels. The currency crisis was just another one of many little technical problems for me to negotiate later.

It was fascinating to sit there in the pub while she did her daily chores. Local people would just pop in and chat and, it seemed, take a morning tipple. Most conversations were along the lines of how an individual was ‘in himself’, after a fracas in the pub the evening before, or who was supposed to be dallying with whom, to the mock shock of the whole town. It was like being an extra on the set of the TV show, Ballykissangel!

Once the weather dried up, I set about being more proactive in my search. I never strayed too far from the pier, especially after the Wales Sociable Plover debacle (an earlier chapter), but I did walk the sea front a bit and do a bit more than waiting. I spent time enjoying Long-tailed Ducks, diving in the surf, and I checked every gull I saw, finding a Ring-billed; how many of those are there present on the under-watched west coast of Ireland?

It gradually dawned on me that the bird had gone and it was time that I followed. I decided not to try to hitch but to take the coach back to Galway. I got on the twice-weekly service to Galway from Ballyvaughan; the cost was 16 Irish punts. I only had eight, so I offered the driver a cheque, one of the pretty ones from NatWest (a bank) with birds on it. He was sceptical initially, and I got the impression that they were something new to him. Anyway, he agreed to accept it and I then managed to pick up the return coach from Galway, after due negotiation over my return ticket that I’d bought in advance. Five days for a twitch, torrential rain, possibly rabid dogs, Guinness and another self-confessed lesbian but no Belted Kingfisher, such is life.

Postscript – I never did see a Belted Kingfisher in the UK although, not long after moving to Canada, one showed up on a canal not 40 minutes from my Nottingham home!

By the way, I have finished adding photos to my illustrated Nova Scotia list, see the pages at the top. The page is not quite finished, pending I think is the expression.

No so Close Encounter

Update – eBird don’t like the Gyr so it’s off. I’d like to know why the wings are short, ending half-way up the tail and why the underwing s so Gyr, also why is it so big, oh well, c’est la vie.

Before today this was my best photo of a Gyr Falcon, two words for me or just Gyr will do. After today it is still my best but today’s shots of a bird, 1800m away, come in a close third!

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The fun started when I was birding from Fish Plant Road parking lot, so called because there is a fish plant on the road and it has a parking lot adjacent, but enough scene setting, this isn’t Hollywood! I watched a largr hawk, which I quickly realised was a Falcon, come at a leisurely pace along the shingle ridge between Ratcliffe, to the left and The Cape, to the right. I started to thing Gyr pretty quickly, mostly because it was one but also because I began to rule out Peregrine however, such things cannot be rushed. The falcon then whacked a bird and kept whacking it until it gave up, I couldn’t see what species but as American Robins are everywhere it seems a fair bet.

Ronnie had just been there moments before so I texted him re a large falcon, can’t rule out Gyr. Then I called Mike but his transport was elsewhere. Meanwhile I’d scoped up the falcon as it ate, it was roughly the size of a small sheep. Ronnie got back and we tried to take some sort of doc-shot but we needed it to fly. After 45 minutes it did and the results are below, I’ll be sending the to National Inquirer shortly. It dallied for a minute or so then went off over The Cape, sending everything skywards, a dumb thing for them to do when Gyr is an aerial predator but there you are. It just shows that, when it is quiet, it pays to keep trying. To that point I was happy with the 94 Brant out on the far shore.

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Addendum: We went back the next day, saw the bird again and got more lousy photos.

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The lousy weather, some call it winter, has seen a huge influx of American Robins, in fact such a group is henceforth known as a sadness of Robins. They are picking away at anything and everything fighting to live. The thaw should save most although I expect a few more will end up as finger, or should that be talon buffet for the Gyr.

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On Daniel’s head the storms have messed up the beach gap, not a formal access but we all use it. The road is strewn with rocks and debris and the parking spot is rougher than a Badgers, well let’s just say ‘back-end’. Oddly sparrows seem to like it here. The recent Lincoln’s has not reappeared but I did see this Ipswich Sparrow.

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On the inside at Daniel’s Head the tides have been high and up to six Common Loons come in to feed, usually on Green Crabs I think. Either way, if you sit in your car they come close.

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The colder weather has everything toughing it out, even the local Starlings. I don’t pay them too much attention normally but they are a belting bird when you take the time to look.

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The Gyr was my #250 for Cape Sable Island, 302 for Nova Scotia. Tomorrow we head to The Cape for the first time this year (surprise). It may be that my next blog post will have some better Gyr photos but most likely not. That is the beauty of birding, you just never know.