This is a long one, sorry for any errors.
At the risk of getting it wrong, this year feels spent and so here is my personal review of the year. It was a good one for Sandra and I with no reason to visit Halifax except for birding (and artist materials – not to mention Ikea, seriously, don’t mention it!). We also managed to fit in a family trip to British Columbia with Sandra’s folks and so my Canada list had a big boost. I’ll do the year stats in a future post as and when I have them, I don’t want to jinx my attempt at a 365 birding day year too soon.
During the early part of 2017 I suffered from Bell’s Palsy briefly. It makes your face drop, and it took a while for me to realise anything was amiss as face, or at least jaw-dropping, was something that happened to me frequently when reading eBird reports from some people. I recovered.
I usually start to assemble my thoughts on the birding year sometime around late October. I sift the photos and make copies for my review folder and then set about thinking about what sort of year it has been. It is fair to say that it has been far from disappointing, with a good selection of rarities, plentiful patch ticks (Cape Sable Island) and some bird spectacles that are live-in-the-memory experiences, yes I still have those even as I approach my dotage. Much of this review is taken up with what you might call pure rarities; that is rare by Nova Scotia standards. Other parts highlight the pleasures of patch or yard birds, some much anticipated, others; unexpected.
Bird of the year was much talked about by those fortunate enough to make it to the Tropical Kingbird twitch at Chebogue. The event of the year was easy, it was the Pubnico pelagic, unfortunately restricted by space aboard. That aside the bird of the year for me, and not the rarest by far, was the Joggins Gyr Falcon. I’d always wanted to photograph one reasonably well and this bird just posed. If I ever find a white one sitting on a post it may well eclipse the experience and I don’t care if you are sick of seeing the photo!
In terms of genuine rarities twitched, the best is a straight contest between Swallow-tailed Kite and Tropical Kingbird. The kingbird, as a first for NS, is rarer, but the kite and the circumstances around actually seeing it deserve consideration, so a draw is my decision, my blog, my rules.
For sheer enchantment the two Prothonotary Warblers that I saw are easy winners. The Sandy Point bird was confiding but the Pubnico bird so much more approachable without fear of retribution so to speak. Those of us who went to see it had what you might describe as intimate moments with it and purely of the non-biblical persuasion! Here are both, the Pubnico bird photos is at the top.
Highlights for a review of a year come in all shapes and sizes and few would argue that the fall-out of late October actually pips any rarity experience. For those who spend hours in the field, hoping to find say a single White-eyed Vireo, then the multiples of that species and others that came with the fall-out will live long in the memory, well at least until the next one. By now the event may have been written up, analysed and filed and has become part of Nova Scotia birding folklore. It may not quite have matched the overall numbers of 1998 but no more shall ‘younger’ birders be told they should have been there in 98!
Reverse migration, exploration for colonisation in a warming world or just caught up in weather systems, the reason for the recent (in recording and therefore human terms) autumn northwards dispersal of Cave Swallows is still not very well understood. That it happens is borne out by glancing at eBird, Oct-Dec for any of the past 20 years. The pins show the progress and in NS we have a few of our own. Cave Swallow is a prize and so when Ervin (again!) found two at Chebogue (where else?) then it was a case of burn rubber to hope to connect. We missed them by minutes the first day and only got them when Mike and Sandra, lingering downwind of the cow silage and then having a loving moment interrupted by the arrival of the bird, called us back after we had left. After that the remaining bird struggled on but probably died later that same day.
Context is everything and I prize Cape Sable Island birds highly. The bigger picture is Nova Scotia of course but after that CSI is where I want to see the birds, because that is where I live, my patch (not a plug for my tremendous eBook of the same name!). Johnny is the top lister there and knows just about everything, bird-wise, about CSI. I am very happy to keep adding to my CSI list and to keep learning the birds and the when and where. Such knowledge takes years to accumulate, I’ve had 2.5 and counting.
This male Scarlet Tanager was at Brighton, Digby Co and courtesy of Joan and Al Comeau. If perched next to a sparklingly clean window and so Alix and I just rattled off shots. It was a good spring for them.
The Tropical Kingbird was a short-lived event, it might have been an event unique to one person had Ervin not had the presence of mind to send an image to Alix. The confusion maker was the recent presence of Western Kingbirds in southern NS, but Ervin always double-checks. I had just got back from my CSI circuit when Alix rang. I saw the back-of-the-camera image he’d sent and said, “that’s a big bill, I’m on my way”. The route from CSI to Chebogue is easy, just follow my rut in the road! I will admit to being brisk, or even having driven with some urgency, anyway I got there and saw immediately that it was a Tropical and not the very similar Couch’s. The books like to say how difficult they are without a call, I say go and see a few of each, then give them a go visually. Even though the wind blew with gusto the Tropical Kingbird calls could still be heard and even recorded by Alix. This was the first for Nova Scotia, the only other claim, at Wolfville in July 1976, was a Kingbird sp., as it didn’t call.
When you are young, in birding terms, inexperienced if you like, you hope to find a rarity. When you do it is a sort of rite of passage. Your standing is raised, and, rightly or wrongly you move up a notch. Some would say this is elitist, yes it is. The beauty if this elite group is that anyone can join, you just have to find a rarity. As a junior, maybe not the best term as juniors can have many years on their biological clock, you wonder how some people manage to find all the rarities they do, and I’m not talking those fantasists that blight birding, I’m talking get the getting the call, turn up and there it is nine times out of ten. You have to consider two factors, luck and skill. The skill is the knowledge to recognise something unusual and pursue it, or even being aware enough to place yourself where a rare bird might occur (like outside, there are some great desktop birders these days and I’m not picking on those who can’t get out, only those that can!). The luck is being wherever the unusual might be frequently. You could say that spotting a rarity from a moving car is lucky, maybe, but do it four times with four good birds and luck takes a back seat and it becomes much more. If you have not guessed we are talking rare hawk magnet, Alix. His past track record from the car had Gyr, Northern Caracara and Swainson’s Hawk seen and photographed, he topped it in 2017 with a Swallow-tailed Kite.
The kite tail (sic) is a thrilling one. Alix called and just said Swallow-tailed Kite rather breathlessly. Had I an existing heart condition it could of done for me but I’m made of sterner stuff. Details traded, I set off with Sandra and grabbed Mike on the way. The area the kite had been seen had few raised vantage points but, just a week earlier, Ronnie had shown me a high point which gave a good panorama, and so as we hurtled along the 103 I planned to go straight there in defiance of the ‘never leave the site of a rarity’ rule, you can do that when you know for sure that the rarity has left. We made good time and were soon climbing the rough road at Argyle Head (Crowelltown Road to be accurate although to call it a town might not be). We got out of the car, I scanned and said “there it is” and there it was! We called the birders we’d passed on the way and they all sped over to where we were and saw it, distantly but very obviously the bird. The only sour note was that Ronnie and Sharon were too far away to get there in time so one of us will just have to find another, or better still, he can.
The kite did its swooping and gliding stuff before we lost sight. It had been short-lived but we’d got it and all thanks to Alix and both his awareness in a snap identification and skill at coming to an abrupt stop on the highway and his luck. In any other year the kite would be bird of the year, for some it still will be.
Ronnie has set up and run the Pubnico pelagic for several years now. It is an invitation event, the number of participants dictated by the size of the vessel available, safety and comfort for those aboard, and so crew sizes have been modest. Taking the premise one step further, any trip departing the evening before and steaming through the night is going to be even more restricted, and so it was for the Pubnico pelagic 2017. I was fortunate enough to be invited and, with everyone else, spent much time speculating on the possibilities, watching video footage of the potentials and brushing up on the stuff I already thought I knew. As trips go it might be a one-off, it also might just be a bust.
A number of factors have to fall into place to make such a trip productive. We were guaranteed to see the regular pelagic stuff, you can see it off Brier on a whale watching boat, but we were aiming for the warm water species, the salty grails of Audubon’s Shearwater, Band-rumped and White-faced Storm Petrels. Long-tailed Jaeger, Sabine’s Gull and any passing tropicbird, plus any skuas would be warmly welcomed. Anything else, Albatross, pterodroma, even Cape Verde Shearwater were potentially there as teasers but not very likely. The thing is, with this sort of trip in relatively uncharted birding waters, you never know.
It was a long trip, at times uncomfortable but ultimately a success. When we arrived back in port I think most were happy with the species we knew we’d had, especially the Long-tailed Jaegers. Lurking in the millions of pixels taken by the many cameras present were images of a brief black and white shearwater that had been called Manx but that had been diagnostically photographed without real-time review. The images, when posted on Facebook, show a clear Audubon’s Shearwater, albeit one with somewhat atypical undertail coverts. Richard Stern posted the image, Alix and Keith also had shots, we had our beast.
Here is the checklist on eBird, don’t worry, eBird doesn’t bite! Just follow the link to see the shearwater images.
Although, at the time, we didn’t ID the bird instantly and the stop the boat, heave chum and get the Audubon’s in everyone’s viewfinder, we were happy and we got stunning views of many other things, padders but superb all the same. Now the question is, can we do it all again? Ideally we need a gin palace that will do 30+ knots with enough bunks for all and some sort of foot massage but, if we can persuade a couple of Captains to go out again, I’m pretty sure we’d do it all again in exactly the same conditions.
One final thought from the trip involved the experience we had early in the morning. We had been comfortable post-dawn then suddenly it became tropical. The temperature and humidity shot up and Flying Fish began to appear, it was memorable to be there and have it happen the way it did.
The all dark skua is pending, it should be a South Polar but it doesn’t look quite right, especially where the bill is concerned. Images have gone to experts and, when I have something to write, I’ll do it good or bad so to speak.
However you slice it, an oriental gull is special. Just because it is currently a sub-species should in no way detract from how rare the Kamchatcka Gull (above) was and hopefully still is. Stop Press, it is back at Meteghan now and will hopefully stay into the New Year.
Our yard is very important to me. It is a great selection of mixed habitat with a distant view of the sea, Barrington Bay to be more accurate. With the addition of the deck and door at the rear of the house, it was much more accessible ‘out back’ meaning I breakfasted most spring and autumn mornings there and reaped the rewards. As time progresses yard birds will be harder to come by and, even though it is around 164 species now – and in just 2.5 years, there are still some gaps to fill. There were a number of stand-out birds but the two best were Cape Sable Islands second every Olive-sided Flycatcher and a brief Northern Shrike. The flycatcher shots are pants but I’ve included one of a Olive-sided elsewhere anyway, the shrike shots were not great but adequate. The other great thing about getting these yard birds is being able to share and Mike has had quite a few calls this year and scored most times.
Taking CSI as a whole, it has been good and the fall-out an unexpected but greatly desired bonus. We didn’t get a mega rare this year but we did get more variety that 2016 meaning my previous best for the island was blasted away. At one point it looked like 250 in a year was possible but some birds were missed, not many, but enough to fall short. Here are some of the CSI ticks plus other stuff.
When Joan Comeau posted on Facebook a photo of a lone, spring Godwit at the normally empty Mavillette reserve alarm bells rang and we high-tailed it over there. She’d naturally thought it a Marbled but mine and Ronnie’s thoughts were confirmed when it turned out to be a Bar-tailed Godwit. Sadly it was a one-day bird, denying others the chance to add this Eurasian species to their NS list. It spent its time at Mavillette being bullied by territorial Willets, maybe that is why it went although spring birds are notorious for their short stays.
Franklin’s Gulls are rare in NS, mind you Laughing are not so common recently either. When Jake found one at Wolfville sewage ponds it was worth the drive. Initially it was way out on the mud but it soon same in and hawked insects. I was a bit disappointed in the shots, photographer error rather than equipment.
Black-bellied Whistling Duck is an odd vagrant in many ways. Why would they fly several hundred kilometres north when fly-blown ponds are in abundance in their core range. The first passed very close to home when Paul had one go past him at Baccaro, I spent hour looking on all the little ponds for that one. Little did I know that Musquodoboit Harbour would hold a bunch and that we’ get to see them. Where they were actually from is anyone’s guess, tick and be damned with ducks is my policy.
I always associate Sandhill Cranes with acres of rolling pasture and a big sky, it seems their natural habitat, so I was rather surprised to get a call from Johnny telling me of one at the end of Hawk Point Rd. When we got there it was probing around a small cut area, barely big enough to swing a crane around. It stuck for a few days and even chose to feed in a local front yard, habitat myth dispelled.
On the way home from the Gyr we took time to visit a long-staying Red-headed Woodpecker near Portapique on the Glooscap Trail. I was a cracking male almost in full red headed glory and well worth the detour.
Nova Scotia rare geese are usually miles away from us in the south, the Barnacle Goose we chased at the back end of the year certainly was, however, back in January we had both Pink-footed and Greater White-fronted Geese in Yarmouth Harbour and in surrounding fields. The presence of such rarities gives me hope of a repeat performance from a Bean or Greylag, both of which have been found in the same area in recent years, both of which are considerably rarer though.
Although we see hundreds, sometimes thousands of Red Phalaropes gather in Fundy in late summer we rarely seem to get either down on our local pools. In late May this lone female Red Phalarope turned up on Daniel’s Head. It was hugging the far bank at first but the tide as rising, a high one, and I had hopes that it might get a bit nearer, it did! It was only on the marsh a few hours but well worth anyone’s time in seeking it out. You don’t get the chance at many full-summer plumage phalaropes.
I, like everyone, look forward to when a rarity shows up that is sort of expected. There are some species that you know will come if you are patient, hopefully when they do show up they will be within any self-imposed travel range. One species I’d been waiting for was American Avocet and so when one turned up in Cape Breton it tugged but ultimately failed to get us on the road, then one appeared on Facebook at nearby Pinkney’s Point although we had to dig to find out where for some reason, people can be weird! The Pinkney’s Point bird was well behaved and everyone who wanted to see it did so. The natural question was whether it was the Cape Breton bird but there were enough plumage differences to be able to say not, then one showed up on CSI.
The rule is that, you can bird a place a 100 times, then someone will show up there for their ‘passing through’ look and find something. It I a rule that cannot be changed, the same rule that meant a birder from Maine can find a perched Brown Booby on The Hawk Beach at the same time that you are 2.5 km away at Daniel’s Head (as the booby flies that is). Equally strange is that the fog that we so frequently enjoy means you can see next to nothing where you are but they have a clear bubble in which to take a doc-shot with a phone. Had the guy been a real birder he’d have made the effort to tell someone but…
Back to the American Avocet and Clyde, Tony and Angie converged at the bird at the same time. A short drive later and the bird was being seen by junior CSI listers, that would be me and Mike. Later I get a few shots and, looking especially at the head pattern, suspect that our bird was the Cape Breton one relocating. As often happens, it became a regular sight either in Stumpy Cove or on The Guzzle, now for a Black-necked Stilt!
Thayer’s Gull – enough said!
During the year I was lucky enough to go out to North Brother with Ted d’Eon. Sadly the Roseate Terns there had crashed, although we didn’t know it at the time of the visit, and I got to photograph adults – mostly as a method for reading bands. Later in the season it was found that many of the terns had relocated to various offshore islands so there is hope.
Staying with terns, Alix and Paul came across two Forster’s Terns on Daniel’s Head and they stuck around for while although never down close. It was good to see them with Common and Roseate Terns when their bulk was obvious. In this shot there are three species of terns – enjoy.
Marsh Wren is uncommon to rare in Nova Scotia. It is annual and sometimes the individuals are of the western race. Late in 2017 one, then another found Broad Brook Park in Yarmouth favourable. We were lucky enough to get good views ad photo ops of one showing plumage characteristics of the eastern and expected race.
Some species just set out to confuse deliberately! We get the odd Eastern Meadowlark in NS, there have also been records of Western, but Eastern should be the one and so, when a meadowlark was found on Daniel’s Head the plumage and audible clues pointed east, however, other features were more western and, with some research, it was clear that the bird was more Western than Eastern and that plumage ambiguity didn’t really give the hybrid view much traction. It was a short stayer and, after re-submission, accepted by eBird.
I have managed to miss four Blue-grey Gnatcatchers on CSI, all in the same place on Fish Plant Road. One miss was unfortunate as it moved off quickly, three together was just careless, especially was Mike and I had birded their chosen bushes before heading off to The Cape. Even a hurried Cape departure and return to the scene of the crime was not enough to secure the prize, so I had to manage with this bird on Bon Portage in spring, a Shelburne tick at least.
Very well done if you got to the end! It was a very good year to bird in NS but then every year is. In the south we seem to get to see a lot of good birds. This is only possible due to the camaraderie amongst local birders and their willingness to both get out there and find and also to share and share quickly. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to contribute the odd bird and I give heartfelt thanks to all those who participated in such an excellent year with their bird finding and generosity. Thank you for taking the time to read this and my blog in general, I hope I entertain.
Below, one of two lifers seen in 2017, a spectacular Northwestern Crow from BC.