Sure Birds

If there is one thing we know it is that Short-billed Dowitchers will appear around Cape Sable Island and especially The Hawk in numbers from mid-July onwards. This year they are a bit early and you wonder if they, like so many other birds, have had a poor breeding season. The thing is, they can probably stand a few but species like Roseate Tern, whose dramatic breeding collapse along with the other two tern species, can’t afford the luxury of sitting out a year. For more on the subject of the tern disaster read Alix’s blog here: http://alixdentremont.blogspot.ca/

One upshot of this lack of breeding, and therefore feeding urgency has been the presence of Roseate Terns off Daniel’s Head and The Hawk. Whereas previously just one or two have been the norm, and then not daily, currently up to ten are fishing offshore and occasionally coming closer. Fortunately they, unlike the Forster’s Terns that have been around since the end of June, are easy to pick thanks to their cat-toy flight action and whiter plumage. The Forster’s have hardly been obliging but I have seen them occasionally but never near enough to photograph. The Roseate Tern photos below were taken from Daniel’s Head beach while the terns attended the feeding Double-crested Cormorants.

Incidentally, while watching the tern feeding frenzy I snapped this group of terns. Two Common, one Roseate (blurred) and another. Not really sure of the bird bottom right although it is a lousy photo. Structurally it is bigger than the Common Terns, whiter too and, had the bill been orange I have considered Forster’s, I might still have to. Another bird was further away so the shots are even worse, answers on a postcard for this one.

Going back to The Hawk, on the morning of July-9th Mark McCollough (not someone anyone knows around here) saw and photographed a Brown Booby on rocks off the beach. Details are limited but at least he reported it through eBird and we are all looking forwards to seeing the photo. The last one on CSI, a good few years back, spent perhaps a day flollopping, it’s a booby thing, around one of the camps on The Cape before shuffling off this mortal coil, Sharron and Ronnie found it dead near the light. Thinking this new bird might do the same we charged around The Cape the next day, seeing nothing of note so perhaps it has shipped out or, it may just be sitting on a rock near you!

The dowitchers I mentioned earlier have now topped 1800 today (July-13th), a rapid rise from around 700 under a week ago. In their midst today were 350 or so Semipalmated Sandpipers, 140 Semipalmated Plovers and few other species besides. Best of all were a couple of Hudsonian Godwits that fed on the edge of the mud at range, then they flew over the parking lot allowing for a few doc-shots to b grabbed. I had a Bonaparte’s Gull this morning too so it was well worth the early start and patient sift through the shore birds.

Finally, it has been good to see a few visiting birders around CSI recently although the weather has been quite cruel at times. Fog has visited far more times that we’d like although sometimes it has resulted in good birding. Mostly though it has been a real pain, even appearing when the wind had northerly elements to it, definitely not part of the script. Hopefully we will get more good days than bad, especially as autumn tends to be better than spring, weather-wise.

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.

Travelling Brief

Black-bellied Whistling Duck is something of an enigma as a vagrant. There are multiple records well north of their core breeding range, often involving flocks as well as individuals. As a duck, it carries the stigma of being someone’s pet whenever it appears as a vagrant and, to be fair, a good percentage of rare wildfowl do come from supposedly captive sources. I say supposedly because the keepers should mark their birds, preferably with coloured bands, just so that we know what to ignore and what to legally admire. That many don’t, says a lot about slack legislation regarding keeping bird and the trade in birds in general. When a potential vagrant shows up it also results in a judgement call being made; wild or fence-jumper; tick or not.

On June 9th, Paul Gould saw and photographed a Black-bellied Whistling Duck arriving off the sea at Baccaro, Shelburne Co, NS. In these circumstances you have to give the bird the benefit of the doubt and I think you can only append ‘unknown origin’ to a duck (or any species) that displays signs of having been in captivity. True, something like a Muscovy in Canada should be sniffed at, but a species with a documented history of vagrancy should be considered good unless there is real evidence to the contrary. A few days after the Baccaro bird, a Facebook request for a birder requiring a lift to look for a mystery bird at Musquodoboit Harbour, Halifax, made a few sit up and wonder what required such an approach? A few texts later and it transpired that a non-birder had seen (what were possibly) 18 Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, and they were searched for but not found and so that was probably that.

Roll forwards to June-18th and the ducks were in fact present and had settled into a routine of attending a free food supply, in itself not a crime against listing them, just opportunism. David Bell was the first birder to see them, checked for obvious signs of one previous, if careless, ownership and the word went out. The species has a history in NS, some were dodgy, others good and these new and apparently wild birds represented perhaps the third provincial record of wild birds, pending the usual revelations and rumours, as always happens with vagrant ducks. The chance of seeing them seemed high and so a car departing Shelburne County was assembled and the road hit.

It was good to get away from fog-bound Shelburne, Queens, Lunenberg, Halifax, oh wait, bugger, fog everywhere. The trip was quick, light of traffic and a lengthy discussion regarding the purchase of $30. drawers (briefs) by Ervin kept us entertained. Naturally the other male occupants of the car, myself and Mike, were astonished that such a garment could command such a hefty price, especially when Frenchy’s offer recently enjoyed items, sometimes still warm, at discount prices. We presumed that there may have been something special, like a musical feature with Ervin’s prized drawers, maybe they played songs from the shows or classics like Swing Low Sweet Chariot’ or even ‘Great Balls of Fire’, thankfully we will never know. Sandra, our other would-be ducker, kept a diplomatic silence on the issue.

We got to the spot, nothing. The ducks had winged it after having had their breakfast and so we repaired to a local café for our own. There then followed six or so hours of shunting and shuffling, a trip along the nearby Mines Road for boreal species and then back to the spot, resigned to a long wait until they came back to roost, or not as the case may be. No ducks greeted us on arrival, so, after a while, we decided to go off and search a wider field. We were recently car borne when Diane and Sylvia arrived and, as we chatted window to window, I saw the ducks in the wing mirror, coming in for a late lunch. Much reversing and maneuvering later and we had views as the ten circled around but were reluctant to land. Close by some chaps were building a house and noisily hammering away, maybe that put them off, or it could have been the old guy on his lawn tractor cutting their field, a sure sign that the birds are wild as North American Birds offline states that wild Black-bellied Whistling Ducks will not land in front of any brand of ride-on mower, I think.

Most of us enjoyed distant views of them sitting on a house roof (130m away) while Ervin somehow got himself made an honorary builder and climbed up the scaffold to take his shots at eye-level. It turned out that the builder owned the house that the ducks were currently decorating in more ways than one and was very interested in all the excitement. We waited a while longer and passed on the news but the ducks were settled. Eventually and with the job done, we headed home, ducks in the bag so to speak.

Later, others arrived and the old fellow had removed all obstacles to ducks and the birds came close for photos. By this time the bright lights of Halifax were way behind us as we headed back south to the land that time forgot. The ducks are added to the list in medium to heavy pencil, pending, always pending. They all appear to be of the northern race, as expected of a vagrant and they have all their bits intact and no adornments. Unless someone produced a receipt, I think they will stay wild, meanwhile, on a roof near you, we are missing eight more!

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.

Waiting for the June ‘Big One’

We are waiting for the June ‘big one’ or, more likely, having to make do with admiring the photos of it as the ‘big one’, this time was a Black-bellied Whistling Duck that sailed on by Baccaro and was seen and photographed by Paul Gould never to be seen again, such is life. The duck is a big rarity here in Canada and would, had it had the sense to pitch down somewhere between Baccaro and Port Clyde, have attracted upwards of ten, maybe 15  dedicated NS twitchers to see it, yes that is the scale of disruption to your day to day life you can expect if you host a rarity. It is hoped that the duck did find a nice, weedy pool with trees to sit in and food to sustain it after a long flap, and maybe someone will notice it and put the word out. I hope it is somewhere at this end of NS but really, anywhere we can drive to will do.

My personal opinion on our returning migrants so far is that some species are down in number (relatively). Common Yellowthroats, Black-throated Green Warblers and Nelson’s Sparrow all seem to be a bit lacking. Of course it is purely subjective, but isn’t that what bird recording is all about until the end-data is compiled? Vireos were quite scarce until late on but now seem to be ‘in’, so what happened? Maybe the birds arrived, sang and paired and are now busy raising young, or maybe ill-timed Hurricane Matthew did more damage to eastern bird populations that we appreciate.

Cheerfully moving one, the NS year list creeps ever on, 235 to date, as I cross paths with species that surprising forgot to call in at Cape Sable Island on their way to do the business. One species that rarely seems to call in on CSI is Canada Warbler. Fortunately one is doing Common Yellowthroat impressions along Frotton Road in Yarmouth County, showing at times but rarely sitting still enough for a decent shot. Nearby an irregular species on Frotton, Olive-sided Flycatcher, is after three quick beers or words to that effect. I had a trip there with Ronnie before he went of adventuring west and we saw both species well.

 

A couple of days earlier Sandra and I checked out the Sand Beach area of Yarmouth, seeing a well-hidden American Bittern and then seeing and hearing a Willow Flycatcher, presumably the same bird as last year, finding the spot to its liking and giving it another go as it were. The bittern I got lousy photos of, but that has never stopped me sharing them before. The flycatcher I thought  I’d reprise a photo from last year and couple it with an Alder Flycatcher, one half of the dreaded ‘Trail’s’, nobody likes messy ids. I’ll not say which is which but here are two side-by-side shots of both species, placed like this there are differences obvious to the practiced eye, unquantifiable perhaps, but there nonetheless.

 

Sandra and I did a trip up the Wentworth Lake Road at Jordan Falls. Very birdy even for midday and it provided some nice odes too, see the side bar link for Eastern Canada Odes if you have an interest. Warblers were plentiful but camera shy. The Ruffed Grouse below put on a great show as it dust-bathed in the road and was then joined by five tiny young. I hate to call this group ‘game birds’ because it harks back to a time when we had to shoot them for food, not like now when it is for just for fun, and that is what it is even if you do eat them. You have to marvel at the tiny chicks out there in the wild with all the attendant terrors just waiting to make their life shorter. That enough do make it to adulthood (and thereby providing a viable ‘harvest, DNR words, not mine) is amazing.

 

So summer is here, the temperatures are soaring and the natural world gets down to continuing the cycle as best it can. Despite our interference (can you believe we clear cut land at the expense of our wildlife to sell to the highest bidder, are we really just dollar bitches?) we have to hope that populations recover and that next year we paint a rosier picture. My heart hopes it is so but my gut says dream on.

Special Terns

There are lots of people out there who have never seen a Roseate Tern. Others have to make special and often lengthy journeys to see them, we have them just up the road some times and there is a colony off nearby Pubnico but I never take them for granted. Thanks to the tireless efforts of Ted d’Eon and his team of volunteers, the North Brothers colony, which includes a lot of Common and a few Arctic Terns too, has been flourishing, so far. This year might see a downturn as numbers are reported to be lower than recent years or, the birds are just late arriving or, they have done what terns, and Roseate Terns in particular are famous for, they have moved.

On June-4th I went out with Ted, Ronnie and Aldric to do a count and band observation session. You land, the terns fly around screaming. You sit, the terns fly around screaming until they forget all about you, think attention span of a Trump supporter, then they just fly about screaming anyway – it passes the time. Gradually the sort of chaotic order that is a tern colony ensues and you get the opportunity to point a lens as a means of both collecting band numbers and taking the opportunity to get the sort of Roseate Tern photos you’ve always wanted.

Many of the Roseate Terns have colour bands, red with white lettering. Some have the metal bands, one on each leg, and you have to try to get the light just right to get the details, providing the angle is right and the tern facing the right way, easy. Then there is at least one Roseate Tern with a ring originating in Brazil. Details of these birds and all the ups and downs of the past years can be found at: http://teddeon.com/ternrep.html

Roseate Terns are a threatened species, and expanding club with species joining all of the time and not by choice. The threats to the terns are manifold, but some can be dealt with care and sensitivity; a good example being the trapping and killing of Roseate Terns off Ghana, in Africa. Once the issue was discovered, the trappers, who were mostly young boys doing it for fun and sometimes food, were rewarded for trapping and releasing and recording the bands the terns carried. Climate change, predation by Rats, Mink and Humans and death due to detritus in the oceans all gang up to make life as impossible as it can be, yet still they survive.

The morning was as good as it could be and the light appealing. The wonder of digital cameras caught a lot of images, nearly 2000 in my case, and slowly the images revealed how many birds had returned and who they were mated to. A lot of images follow, mostly of Roseate Terns but also of Arctic and Common Terns, the latter species a real pest in chasing settled birds all of the time.

And now a few Common Terns

Finally Arctic Tern.

Raising the Bar

Finding a rare bird is part matter of chance, bigger part making the effort. When Joan Comeau discovered a godwit strutting around Mavillette Marsh, only two answers would have seemed logical, Hudsonian or Marbled. A summer Hudsonian is very distinctive and her bird looked much more like Sibley’s Marbled Godwit, a fair identification. Joan’s photo, posted on the Nova Scotia Bird Society Facebook page soon gather justifiable likes.

Ronnie d’Entremont called me while I was in the garage having the car inspected and away from an Internet connection. He told me about the godwit and flagged that the bird looked odd for a Marbled and so I went home, got Sandra to abandon her house painting, and we set off. The skies were getting greyer as the predicted rain started to patter down. As soon as we arrived at Mavillette we located the godwit, disputing the ownership of a piece of mud with Willets and generally losing. I wanted to see the bird fly and the angry Willet soon granted me my wish. Rapid fire shots showed a barred tail and a V up the back and, armed with the still image on the back of the camera and with the field guide open at godwits, it was clear that the bird was a Bar-tailed.

Although I have seen very many Barwits in the UK, out of context birds do require some serious cross-checking of the features and so that is what we did. Satisfied that no other godwits could show the features we were seeing at any age, we broadcast the news and birders started to arrive. The godwit was settled, except when the Willets were intent on kicking its ass, and great views were had in steadily worsening conditions.

In Nova Scotia, there were less than ten provincial records to 2012 making the godwit a real prize for the gathered birders present. Hopefully the bird will stay, allowing others to enjoy it and we all owe Joan a debt of thanks for getting out there in the field and finding the bird. Given her level of enthusiasm for birding, there will no doubt be many more finds from Joan to come.

Here is a composite of the Willet doing its best ‘get off my sand bar!’