Fog Off!

Since September 6th, we’ve had 10 days of fog starts down here on Cape Sable Island. When you draw back the curtains and see fog yet again it can be a little draining, for a birder, as one of the prerequisites for birding (bird watching) is watching. True you can ‘tick’ birds by listening to them but that is not the point, so fog off fog I say and stay fogged off for a while! Not that the visual impediment has stopped birds being found and even seen here, in fact the birding has been rather good around about CSI.

When we last spoke we’d had some nice birds drop by, well a few more have joined in since and so I thought I’d just update you. We in Nova Scotia are still waiting to see what hurricane Jose will do. It has been fannying around off Carolina for a while now with no real purpose. It might dissipate, it might join forces with Maria, the next in a line of hurricanes not quite reaching us, or is may hop across the Atlantic and deposit birds into Cornish bushes for the edification of tick-hungry UK twitchers. The likelihood here is that we will just get wet, however, if Maria and Jose decide to go for the Fujiwhara Effect, (and no that is not the shits brought on by sushi), then both storms will circle each other and head north-east. The Weather Underground blog sees this as a good thing as it takes both hurricanes  away from land because, as we in Canada know, nothing worth talking about is to be found north of Maine (unless it has oil!).

On the morning foggy Sept-17th, Sandra and I headed to Pinkney’s Point where Alix had found a Mourning Warbler. They are scarce around CSI although I still hope to find one here. His was with a warbler flock and so there was hope in seeing it. Luckily it came out with the rest of the birds, not quite posing but at least showing well enough for both of us to get good looks. Year bird 269 and well within my self-imposed year tick range plus, Sandra had not seen one in Nova Scotia before so a double-whammy as it were.

Returning to CSI, Sandra expressed a desire to see a Warbling Vireo that I’d found the evening before (and post last post) so we headed into the grey towards The Hawk. The vireo was absent but the Blue Grosbeak and one of the Scarlet Tanagers remained. A circuit of The Hawk revealed little else and so we set off home. As we left The Guzzle, a bird on a wire up a driveway rang a bell and no, it wasn’t a Budgie! A quick back-up and there was a Western Kingbird, CSI tick #265. A few doc-shots were grabbed and then folk called. The kingbird stayed all afternoon but the light deteriorated and the shots are all at the mediocre range.

 

The first Warbling Vireo, The Hawk bird – most people got to see it.

The Blue Grosbeak in better light.

Above, a Prairie Warbler – below one of the Scarlet Tanagers in better light.

The finding shots of the Western Kingbird.

The next day (Sept-18th) dawned foggy but, only patchy and so I set off to try to find a few more island birds. You won’t be surprised to know that I keep records per month and each month I try to beat my personal best. I started at West Head, Newellton and had some nice birds but nothing new.

 

West Head birds. Red-eyed Vireo above, Northern Parula below.

Above, Blackpoll Warbler from New Road, The Hawk, below, a Yellow Warbler from the same spot.

Then I toured the sites, seeing more nice birds and adding Blackpoll Warbler to month’s score. It was mid-afternoon when I got home and tallied up the day, 76 species and only two short of my best day on CSI (78 in May-2016) so what choice did I have but to go out again. I hadn’t seen the kingbird and now it was personal. I thought, with luck, I might get near 80 and so I started at Bull’s Head Wharf and fortune smiled, a Warbling Vireo came out in the gathering gloom. Next in sequence was Stoney Island Road where a Nashville Warbler peeped at me. Now for The Hawk.

 

The Bull’s Head Wharf Warbling Vireo. This one was a ‘second look’ bird but the whitish throat and lack of yellow on the chest points the way.

Below, a Camera-shy Nashville Warbler.

As is often the case, The Hawk was shrouded in fog and the Western Kingbird was still AWOL. I sat a while looking for a tanager but with no luck, I was just one species short of bettering my best day. Up near the legendary house #38 on New Road, a lumpy flycatcher sat on a dead twig, Olive-sided! Late in the month for it to be here but very welcome. I pulled over just as Clyde came along and he added it to his CSI list. I put the song on and the flycatcher landed on the wire in front of us for photos. As far as I know there have only been three records of Olive-sided Flycatcher on CSI ever, all this year.

The Olive-sided Flycatcher (rubbish name) from The Hawk.

More doc-shots of the Western Kingbird on the big day.

 

I headed back down Hawk Point Road, my intention being to find one of the Canada Geese that think West Head is the bee’s knees. Just by Smith Road, a flycatcher was sat on a wire, yay, Western Kingbird and a nice, round 80 species in the day bag. At Stumpy Cove, sensitively named and possibly twinned with Cripple Creek, I found the American Avocet roosting with big and little legs on the weed, not a day tick but nice anyway. Then a Great Cormorant came over to give me an even nicer  figure of 81 for the day. That should have been it but later, a calling Great Horned Owl in the yard later rather iced the day list cake.

Dreaming avocet dreams.

So there we are , an inadvertent big day. I feel the total is modest and I think I could do 100+ in the right conditions. For now I’ll settle on 82 and who knows, if those hurricanes do their stuff in our direction and we still have a house after, I might give it a more serious go.

For the bird nerds and in the new AOU taxonomic sequence, here is the list with numbers in brackets for relevant birds in a CSI context: American Wigeon (2), American Black Duck, Mallard, Green-winged Teal (49), Common Eider Surf Scoter Hooded Merganser (3), Rock Pigeon, Mourning Dove, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, American Avocet (1), American Oystercatcher (2), Black-bellied Plover, American Golden-Plover, Semipalmated Plover, Killdeer, Whimbrel, Hudsonian Godwit (4), Ruddy Turnstone, Red Knot, Stilt Sandpiper (1), Sanderling, Dunlin, Least Sandpiper, White-rumped Sandpiper, Pectoral Sandpiper (25), Semipalmated Sandpiper, Short-billed Dowitcher, Wilson’s Snipe (2), Solitary Sandpiper (1), Greater Yellowlegs, Lesser Yellowlegs, Black Guillemot, Ring-billed Gull, Herring Gull, Great Black-backed Gull, Common Tern, Common Loon, Great Shearwater (1), Northern Gannet, Double-crested Cormorant, Great Cormorant, Great Blue Heron, Great Horned Owl, Belted Kingfisher, Northern Flicker, American Kestrel, Merlin, Peregrine Falcon, Olive-sided Flycatcher (1), Western Kingbird (1), Warbling Vireo (1), Red-eyed Vireo, Blue Jay, American Crow, Common Raven, Black-capped Chickadee, Red-breasted Nuthatch, American Robin, Gray Catbird, European Starling, Cedar Waxwing, American Goldfinch, Black-and-white Warbler, Nashville Warbler (1), Common Yellowthroat, American Redstart, Cape May Warbler, Northern Parula, Yellow Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler, Myrtle Warbler, Wilson’s Warbler, Savannah Sparrow, Nelson’s Sparrow, Song Sparrow, Swamp Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, Blue Grosbeak (1), Common Grackle, Brown-headed Cowbird (14), Baltimore Oriole.

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Cape Day for Birders

Usually The Cape only gets visited by the odd birder, well three or four odd birders to be accurate, I’m one of them and I’ll not deny that birders are odd. We have a tried and tested system of checking certain areas for migrants before arriving at The Forest, then heading towards the Light and back to pick up at Stephen’s Point. Obviously it can be busier some days, quieter others, either way it is an enjoyable walk with each step filled with anticipation, it is that sort of place.

Today, August 21, the island fair swarmed with birders, Robert and Sandi Keereweer; Andy de Champlain; Joan Comeau, Diane LeBlanc; Sylvia Craig, Mike MacDonald, Ronnie d’Entremont and me. We comprised three search parties, covering different bits and then recovering again. It was quite successful in that Ronnie found the first of the season Buff-breasted Sandpiper and we had a plethora of White-rumped Sandpipers and a single Pectoral. One of the main reasons for going over, well the other main reason besides the birds, was to take a look at the new fence around The Forest, and what a fine fence it is too. Hopefully it will remain for years unmolested and protecting the new planting planned.

As you can see from the checklist link below, we didn’t do too bad, the shorebird numbers are probably an under-estimate except where the figure one is involved, possibly two also.

http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S38749206

Here are a few photos from the day, I didn’t take many this time.

The star of the day, the threatened Buff-breasted Sandpiper. Threatened as a status means that there is bugger all we can do about the impending extinction of the species because we are (mostly) such a crappy species at sharing the planet.

White-rumped Sandpiper showing the bits that made it famous.

The new fence. Please don’t go inside as there will be new planting that may be trampled, birds that you will flush and stepping on a land-mine is inclined to bruise!

And in The Forest lurked this Alder Flycatcher. The plan for the old fence is to place it nearby, plant inside and give those birds that do flush from The Forest somewhere else to go rather than just flying away, a cunning plan.

 

My first Pectoral Sandpiper of the year.

Short-billed Dowitcher numbers are low this year. The lower photo shows the tail pattern nicely.

Here is a map of The Cape (below) as drawn by Sandra and in the free Birding Cape Sable Island guide, see the side bar for details. This guide will only be available until I publish my Birds of Cape Sable Island, when it will be incorporated and the word free will no longer apply, so get it while you can.

Just to head back to the Pubnico Pelagic a moment, we saw two skuas on the day, one was a clear pale form South Polar Skua in heavy moult. The second we identified, after good second looks, as another South Polar Skua but, it does not sit right and there is a school of thought that feels that it is a Brown Skua, only the second for Nova Scotia. I intend to post a suite of photos and comments here soon, so do drop back and see what is being said, if you are interested.

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.