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.

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.

Just go for it!

We all have those little voices in our ears that tell us to do things. Most of the time the things are just sensible, normal things, sometimes they can be a bit wappy. So what do we do about those messages form those anthropomorphised crickets called Jiminy? Take, for example, the continued presence of a Gyr Falcon at a place called Joggins, Nova Scotia and the constant nag that we should go and see it. We can call Joggins 500km away from home, more or less and the falcon has wings so might not sit on top of its regular pole all day waiting for you and there is the issue, what if we went all that way and dipped?

Google Maps offers two routes from Clam Point to Joggins. One is the traditional way, whereby you drive all the way, pausing only to refuel or unload and where you pass dollars to a smiling barrier attendant on the toll road. The other, and here is where the Internet is insidious, has you taking a ferry from Digby to Saint John, New Brunswick and coming at it from a more obtuse angle. Do you suppose that somewhere, by chance, money has changed hands to promote a service? I digress.

As if the Gyr Falcon wasn’t enough of a draw, a Townsend’s Solitaire had been found (well done Chris) in the area of Porter’s Lake, another Nova Scotia tick and another ear-whine. Still I prevaricated, then, when it was made clear to me that Sandra needed a new paintbrush and it could only be obtained from an art supplies store, the like of which we know not in southern Nova Scotia, well that was the proverbial straw, we had to go and get a paintbrush. The plan was simple, get the most important part of the trip done, that being the purchase of a $5 paint brush, then push on for the solitaire. If the news on the Gyr was positive, we’d go on from the solitaire, if not then, at least we’d have the paintbrush and maybe the solitaire. Thinking ahead we took an overnight bag.

The brush purchase was less stressful than expected and completed in short-order, now for the tricky bits. The solitaire had been on view for most of the previous day but the weather had cooled somewhat and fog was prevalent. The solitaire location was easy to find but the habitat a mosaic of yards with the best patches of berries behind the houses. Some of the home owners were fine for birders to search their yards so we did. At this point the news on the Gyr was that it had not shown the day before, despite four birder groups touring and looking for it. The one factor we hadn’t heard about was that there had been dense fog around Joggins all that day.

The solitaire didn’t show, and there were several folks looking, so we repaired to Sullivan’s Pond in Dartmouth photographing a female Tufted Duck and answering question about the funny bird with the white beak, an American Coot (see below). Both were year ticks for the year list I’m not doing and some small compensation for not seeing a solitaire and not risking the Joggins trip on the grounds that it may have gone. It was time to take stock, so we thought for a second or two and went for a curry. The curry House was at Bayer’s Lake on the way home and is possibly the nearest one to home. We had just dabbed up the remaining butter chicken sauce when a text announced that the Gyr was back.  A few minutes later we had paid the bill and were heading toward Amherst and an overnight stay.

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Hawks are generally slow risers, well perhaps Rough-legged are the exception but mostly hawks want the rest of the birds up and about and available before taking to the air, also known as waiting for breakfast, It was -5°c when we left Amherst and everywhere was either frozen or had that frostiness that tells you it is nippy out. We got to Joggins and the pole was devoid of falcons, to confirm he absence, crows and starlings were gambolling freely so clearly the falcon was not there. We drove along to Lower Cove, along Lower Cove Road as it happens, and passed a birder sat by the other pole, she waved. Out on the low tide the gulls were fractious, a good sign, so we did a U-turn and headed back to the other birder, it was Liz. She was stood on the cliff edge looking out through her bins as we pulled up and the Gyr flew past within feet of her and under her line of view. Much activity then took place as we explained that she’d just had her hair parted by it and that we’d lost it as it flew past. A five second view was not going to cut it!. We decided to head back to the other pole by the sewage works and set off, Sandra and I to the fore. Then I noticed it sat on a cliff-edge stump 400m along the road, I stopped but Liz just sailed past us.

Not wishing to alarm the bird we snuck a glance and grabbed some record shots, meanwhile Liz had sensed something was up and had stopped 150m up the road. Frantic waving was all the explanation needed and she quickly joined us viewing the bird. With some judicious manoeuvering we both managed to get some shots as the relaxed bird contemplated killing something. That something was probably somewhere else though and it launched off heading towards the sewage works. It took a few moments for composure to be recovered, then we headed back after it. These are our first shots:

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For once it all went perfectly and we parked on the rough track to the sewage works and peeped out taking photos, happy to have got something. After a short while we drove a little closer and changed the angle, getting better views and shots as the bird sat there casting a shadow over the nearby houses. These are the second batch of shots:

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Liz and I decided to try to get a better angle, using a tree belt as cover. If the Gyr showed signs of irritation we would slowly retreat and back out carefully. We go to tree one and it was utterly disinterested in us. The gap to tree two was bigger but still no indication that we even existed in the falcon’s world. By tree four we were relaxed, had great light and views and the Gyr just did a bit of light sitting and glaring off into the distance. We repositioned again, not even noticing that extremities were of a blue-hue and just stood in full-view sharing a moment. The Gyr stretched, pooped, yawned and, eventually, decided it really was time to snack. That was the last we saw of it although we were slightly delayed in getting back to Lower Cove by a local lady who told us all about it and how her friend had stood directly beneath the pole and other stuff I tuned out. Here are the better shots, just cropped sorry the flight shots are dodgy but we birders find them instructive:

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Back in Lower Cove the Gyr had obviously been around as the gulls were in a state of apoplexy, but we didn’t see it again although the icy wind might have influenced the degree of enthusiasm by which we searched. The Gyr was not a life-bird for either of us but the photo opportunity was and it was duly enjoyed, that may sound understated but wow, what can you say to do it justice?

Now you might think that this is the end of the narrative but no, as we had resolved, if time allowed, to visit a long-staying Red-headed Woodpecker, not too far off the route home. Well we did have time and we did see the woodpecker and it is nearly red headed too, which was nice.

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Nova Scotia highway driving while effective, can also verge on the dull so we thought we’d go back taking a different route part of the way which meant leaving the highway before Halifax and heading across country on less direct roads. We were 7km short of Rawden when news that the solitaire was showing came through, news which required a re-pick across nice looking habitats back to Porter’s Lake. Had we stuck to the highway we’d have been perfectly placed for the detour, as it was it took an hour to get back on track. Making a lengthening story shorter, we dipped again. Liz had recovered her composure after the Gyr and gone solitairing and scored, such dedication deserves its reward. We joined Diane in the search but our roll and come to an end. I think we’ll just have to wait until one finds CSI now, although I have been cleared to join a car going that way from our area next weekend if anyone fancies it!   

If you get the chance and the Gyr stays, go and see it, with luck you won’t be disappointed, or you could try for the one hanging out on Cape Breton, it is still there so obviously not the Joggins bird: http://www.capebretonbirds.ca/rarebird.html

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.