Troublesome Loon

Following up on a Pacific Loon present off Black Rock Point, Kings Co, NS on January 30th 2017, Sandra and I went to search, along with a number of other observers,  and we saw a number of loons, the majority were Common, four were Red-throated, none were Pacific and it has not been seen since the initial discovery (despite what was sent to one of the NS listservs) . As we were leaving, re-checking spots as we headed to the road home, we stopped just north of the light at Black Rock to scan, Rick Whitman was right behind us, and a rather round-headed, dusky looking loon popped up offshore.

A lone loon is not always easy to assess, size-wise, but this was not dissimilar to the 14 or so Common Loons in the area that we’d already seen. The bill was a bit on the fine side, some COLO bills are, and the neck appeared all dark including around the front, forming a clean, white chin area. The head was variously rounded, when we first saw it, then more obviously peaked at the front after a dive, which is when this set of images were taken. It didn’t really give the impression of being a Pacific Loon in the field and we confidently identified it as common.

At home, a review of the images showed the dusky neck to be somewhat anomalous for COLO, although it didn’t alter the ID or suggest an alternative. A web trawl showed nothing very similar, except for two images of Pacific Loon (as labeled). After posting to Atlantic Canada Birding on Facebook, comments were made and the general feeling is that it is a COLO but in a plumage state that none of us seem very familiar with, a rarity in that context.

These are as good I got of the oddly plumage Common Loon.

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Common Loon can look variable at times, as this group of loons show. Photo by Sandra.

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Not Just Gulls

Well, actually it mostly is at the moment. January has proved to be ok but not wow, which is fine, we can do wow later when it is warm enough to enjoy it. The weather has not been terrible, except for the recent south-westerly storm with ripping winds and 24-hour rain. The birds got bashed, especially things like Dovekies, but that is the way of things. We have yet to see the arrival of Thick-billed Murres around the Cape Sable wharves, it might yet happen, February is often the month for this sort of thing, hopefully around the time that the Ivory and Ross’s Gulls will show up.

A birthday treat – it really is getting monotonous these annual events – was to go and look at gulls at Meteghan and Sandra came too, she is ok with gulls in small bursts and The Sip Café always tempts her out. Really I just headed that way to see if the gull was there for weekenders coming down to southern Nova Scotia for the rare and scarce birds we get. That would be, besides rare gulls, the two geese, Red-shouldered Hawk and the like. We got there and it was there on the beach is about all I can say. The Kamchatka Gull is the windiest of the lot, flying first and furthest, and that after Sandra had knitted me my own Kamchatka Gull suit. I guess a near six-foot version would be off-putting for any gull. I’ll show the latest photos of it at the end (oh good you say), here is a nice photo of a male Common Eider from CSI, Saturday (1/28) just to placate Facebook.

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We seem to have a surfeit of Glaucous Gulls around CSI at present, there are usually only one or two but today’s foray (again, 1/28) around Swimm Point and West Head, Newellton produced seven, five 1stW and two adults. Here is a selection of shots of the birds with appropriate comments.

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Iceland Gulls too are building up again, we probably have over a 100 around CSI with the largest concentration at the aforementioned sites. The variation with the Kumlien’s group, our Iceland Gull is called Kumlien’s, is vast. Dark winged birds are a very small proportion while seemingly ‘pure’ Iceland (but probably not) only number a couple. In between, the primary shading and pattern seems different on each bird, interesting if you like gulls, hinting at paint drying if you don’t.

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 Here are the Kamchatka Gull shots I promised you, not great but diagnostic.

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Finally, I have been to Dennis Point a few times recently and I could show you around a hundred photos of different Kumlien’s Gulls, but I won’t. I will show you this though.

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The bird at the rear of the three, the others are both Kumlien’s, has a lot going for it in terms of Thayer’s Gull. I got two shots of it before the raft shuffled and I lost it, interesting. In my opinion, a claim of Thayer’s Gull without a photo showing the wing pattern or at least sketches and notes detailing the pattern on p5 & 6 in eastern North America should not be accepted. Tough it would be and it would mean all old records being rejected but I think it would put Thayer’s where it should be, rare and difficult to identify, just my opinion, argue if you wish.

Oh alright then, here is a slew of Herring Gulls too.

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 I’m still working on my taxonomy post, just fine-tuning now, I know you are waiting with baited breath – I should try a Tic-Tac!

Tootling About

After the excitement of the Kamchatka dash, the last couple of days were a bit quieter. On 1/22 I went along to Dennis Point, Lower West Pubnico in the afternoon in hope of seeing the Thayer’s Gull again, it’s not been around since 1/15 but the tides have not been quite right and it may be that low water, late afternoon after the draggers have brought their catch in would be the most productive time. Maybe Thursday of this week. That is not to say that the trip was dull, there are always lots of gulls to get lost in and these big galoots keep them on their toes.

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Right off the wharf (#4) there was a constant flotilla of Kumlien’s Gulls almost all 1st basic. There were also a few odd ones including this 1st basic which has elements of Thayer about it but it wasn’t big enough, that face though…

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A dainty Glaucous came along for a while. Both Glaucous and Kumlien’s on one shot.

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Below, the Glaucous with a Great Black-backed Gull.

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As did two Nelson’s Gulls. This gull is not a species but a hybrid, presumed to be Glaucous x Herring. I say presumed because we don’t really know but act on the assumption that only that combination would produce this in our area. The Glaucous bit is quite evident.

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A couple of Common Eider came in. One was neat but the molting male was pretty badly dressed.

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Today was quieter still. West Head, CSI had lots of gulls including this adult, winter Black-headed Gull.

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A bruiser of a Glaucous, 2nd basic, was on the sea wall, and adult was roosting nearby but camera shy.

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Earlier we’d had a chilly spin around Daniel’s Head. Not much happening but you never know where that Trumpeter Swan got to. This distant loon was interesting. Just a Common Loon but slightly odd looking, lots of white above the eye and the head shape is not so angular as that shown by most of the others around.

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As we arrived home our yard Fox Sparrow was close enough for a photo. Low light made a decent shot difficult but at least I got something.

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January is zipping along briskly, they always seem to the older you get. February might not be too productive, it can be a bit of a spiteful month sometimes, let’s hope not.

Next post is the new taxonomy, if gulls captivate you you’re going to love that. I just need to choose a single photo for FB that makes it look more interesting than it is!

Below just a couple of Herring Gulls that look nice.

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The Beast is Back

OK, so beauty is in the eye of the beholder but, the Kamchatka Gull is back at Meteghan and thanks to Ronnie d’Entremont, all those who didn’t get to see it last time really should relish a second bite of this particular Oriental Cherry. It is such a distinctive bird, easy to pick out if its there and you get to see lots of other gulls too, what is not to enjoy?

Sandra and I had been to Yarmouth shopping, it happens sometimes, and we had thought the trip successful, especially as we managed to see the Pleasant Lake Red-shouldered Hawk on the way back. We had just left it when Ronnie called with the hot news, IT was back. We hared up the highway and got there just as it flew around and headed off from the fish plant to the south, back to the beach. Ronnie left, we pursued and easily found it on the main beach. I was getting ready to photograph it when the gull mass, and it was some mass, lurched skywards. Gulls went all directions so we went back to the southernmost fish plant and worked north.

It took a short while but we found it sat on the sea at the fish plant at the end of John Thibodeau Road, north of the wharves. As you all know, when one gulls flushes, they all do so I had to employ a handy rock to act as a shield while I crept up on them. It sort of worked, yes it was a big rock, and I managed a few diagnostic shots before they all drifted too far out. Here are those from today, high ISO so a bit grainy and it was distant mostly.

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Here are some shots from 2016 of what must be the same bird, unless lightning strikes twice.

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Wild Goose Amble

We’ve not been to Yarmouth since the car broke down on January 2nd, we don’t blame Yarmouth for the break down; we just haven’t had the time or inclination to head that way. A Pink-footed Goose changed that perspective, found by Rebecca Goreham on January-15th as it stood alongside the Greater White-fronted Goose on a ball field, it certainly fired local imaginations. The news actually broke as myself, Alix, Ronnie and Ervin were watching the Pubnico Thayer’s Gull. Ronnie and Ervin shot off for it, with positive results, and we (Sandra and I) ambled over the next day, finding it with Canada Geese off Milton Dam in Yarmouth Harbour.

Calls were made and people got onto it including ‘Goose’ MacDonald, the birder who no longer misses the geese. I don’t know whether that epithet will stick but it’s out there now! We then spent a further long time and a lot of kilometres trying to re-find it as the tide rose. We looked everywhere, three times and even went up Hardscratch Road to some fields that had previously attracted geese, no luck, sorry Johnny, Sandra, Alix, Paul, Laurel, Jason and Robert – we tried, we really did.

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While in the area we had a look for Ervin’s White-crowned Sparrow – no not a new species you’ve never heard of, just a lone White-crowned Sparrow that was living on Churn Road, Overton for the winter and one needed for the winter list. This was the third attempt since it had been discovered and this time we were lucky. Some nice American Tree Sparrows were there too, a poorly named species really as they are a tundra edge breeder with scattered scrub – Tundra Sparrow anyone?

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Not far from the sparrows this splendid Northern Harrier hunted. Usually these birds know you are there and drift away before you get the shots you’d hoped for, this time it did the opposite and the results were pleasing.

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We finally gave up on the goose and headed home via Lower West Pubnico. Ronnie had found this Dovekie there so we enjoyed that, along with the Kumlien’s Gulls and a Nelson’s Gull – the product of a Glaucous and a Herring Gull tryst. The Thayer’s failed to show for Sandra, a Nova Scotia lifer had it appeared.

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I ended the day with two winter ticks and four for the year making 102 so far. I’m sure birds will be added before the spring, I managed 117 last January so there is still a ways to go this month even. My next task is to find the right wardrobe so I can bird Narnia too, kidding!

 

Nova Scotia 300 Club

I have a proposal. An adult Thayer’s Gull is only a Thayer’s Gull if it has the following: An all dark eye, the correct primary pattern p10 to p5, no break on the p6 strap, the primaries must appear near black and not gray. It needs a darker mantle than Kumlien’s, a pale, two-tone bill, and a rusty shawl in winter along with pink legs. Everything else is Kumlien’s, even if it upsets the Californians – agreed, we ignore anything ‘Thayer’s like’ until maturity, good.

The reasons for lumping Thayer’s is, in part, because of so many in-betweeners, but I would ask, do birds with the full suite of requirements, as stated in the first paragraph, interbreed with those that do not, if not then sorted, the problem is that nobody really knows because it is not something that grabs much attention. Virtually all the Thayer’s types we get here Nova Scotia are in-betweeners, but we have had a couple of pure looking Thayer’s including the one found by Alix and Paul on January 8th, 2017. By keeping it this simple, we are doing the gulling and listing world a favour and the Californians benefit too if they think about it, they all tick Iceland Gull easily and spend less time messing about with possibles.

The thing is, the tick doesn’t matter, the species does. Thayer’s isn’t a form of Herring nor Iceland it is just at that tricky, teen time in its evolution where it wants to be different, and it will be eventually. I have long thought that birders following the current system are severely restrained by it, it doesn’t apply to everything, it is like pushing your feet into shoes two sizes too small, uncomfortable. Gulls especially need a little latitude, even eBird can’t deal with them, Juvenal, Immature and Adult nowhere near covers it when entering a bird’s age.

As birders we have two pieces of equipment that help us considerably when it comes to identifying birds, eyes and ears. You might argue brain too but not all are born equal, else how do you explain 52,000,000 Americans and 51% of the British? So we use the equipment we have to sort out the tricky things, conversation, avoiding obstacles and, of course, word puzzles. When we apply these senses to birds, we split them up by how they look and or sound. We, again as birders and not Ornithologists, have nothing else at our disposal, we can’t record the DNA in the field and nor do we need to, the birds themselves are quite aware of their relationships and what constitutes a good mate. Sometimes though, like those awful people on daytime TV, they get it wrong and mate with something else.

All this brings me to the news that I finally got to 300 species seen in Nova Scotia and that the 300th species was the Thayer’s Gull at Dennis Point (great name!), Lower West Pubnico on January 15th 2017. I know that, at some point, the species will lose its status and I will lose it off my unofficial list, the one in eBird. It will stay on my official list, the one I keep for myself as it should. Thanks to Alix and Paul for finding the bird in the first place and Alix for re-finding it on the day. It has all the qualities a Thayer’s Gull should have, there is nothing in-between about it at all. I recommend anyone who can, getting over to see it although it can be inconsistent in its appearances, like all vagrant gulls.

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Just to save you from another gull post. The Herring Gull below was at Pubnico the same evening as the Thayer’s. It is very different from the other Herring Gulls. The wing pattern differs too, I place it here for you to enjoy, not to suggest that it is anything else although my mind, such as it is, is cast back to days in the 1980s when we would watch UK gull roosts and, infrequently, see gulls that looked so different from the Herring Gulls alongside. They became Caspian Gulls, is it too left-field to wonder whether the evolution of Caspian Gull in Europe, from European Herring Gulls, might also have happened in North America from American Herring Gulls? Just a thought.

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The left bird is the odd one, the right a regular Herring Gull.

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Digital Sea Watch #2

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The photo is just for Facebook, please ignore.

For the past two days (January 11th-12th) is has been howling. I tried to look for the Pubnico Thayer’s Gull, but waves breaking over the car put me off! So I went to Baccaro hoping for a year Dovekie. Rain kept squalling in and with it the birds. At times they were just offshore but the light was awful and the car shaking like it was full of teens on a date only with less rhythm.

I set myself up to catch the birds as they got pushed into the bay at Baccaro, then exited south. For those who do not know what or where Baccaro is, see the map – courtesy of Google Earth. The yellow line equates to the rough track taken by the birds, the more onshore rain, the closer they came. As you can see, Baccaro is the most accessible place to sea watch, you can park slightly elevated and make sure the worst of the elements hit the other side of the car. The only thing to remember is, in the event of fog, there is no warning when the automated fog horn starts, it is louder than a hungry cat. One day I will camp on The Cape and sea watch from there, you are nearer the riff and the headland there should be even better than Baccaro.

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The images are rubbish but, the idea of this post is to show the value of taking even awful photos when sea watching. Unless you have some experience, everything is either Razorbill or Dovekie when it comes to the flocks. Atlantic Puffin is a bit different because of the cross shape, but generally you won’t be troubled by them too much in winter.

My stats for day one at Baccaro (Jan-11th) were, in one hour, ten minutes of watching: Dovekie 20; **Common Murre 5; Thick-billed Murre 3; *Razorbill 298; **Atlantic Puffin 2; *unidentified large alcids 96 (most Razorbills); *Black-legged Kittiwake 133.

*Means eBird queried the count, for Razorbill it was +/- 10. **Mean I had to add the species to eBird. Such things are not anything to get upset about as the eBird data is forever in flux and, if we don’t get storms, we don’t get these high counts.

Here are the images, all from the Baccaro count. After the data from today (Jan-12th) from a count at Daniel’s Head plus some gull eye-candy because you are worth it.

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Above, all Razorbills.

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Above and below, a Common Murre is tucked in there.

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Above and below, a Thick-billed Murre is in there too.

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Above, a Dovekie skittering past, below, not surprisingly a few don’t make it.

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The wind had shifted slightly so the Daniel’s Head sea watch was a bit clumsier and photos were not really an option as the birds were slightly further away mostly and the viewing window small due to the need to use the tailgate as an umbrella. I counted for one hour, 20 minutes: Dovekie 6; Common Murre 2 (at least); Thick-billed Murre 7; Razorbill 131; Atlantic Puffin 1; unidentified large alcids 39; Black-legged Kittiwake 58.

On both sea watches there was little else moving. I chose to watch on the falling tide by accident but it turned out fortuitous. As the watching and counting is quite intense, short spells are best. The weather switches to westerly winds tomorrow but I expect one or two Thick-billed Murres and Dovekies will be found sheltering around the wharfs over the next few days.

Sorry to keep bombarding you with posts but it has been quite busy.

After the Daniel’s Head watch I slipped along to Swimms Point to look at gulls, these two adult Glaucous Gulls were there and showing very nicely.

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