Stormcock – No!

We finally broke and headed off to Miramichi, New Brunswick hoping to see the very long-staying Mistle Thrush, a first for North America, and maybe even catch a little local music although I’m not sure that there are Miramichi bands roaming the streets playing in winter? It is about an eight hour trip from home on some of the finest, pot-holed roads Canada has to offer but we’d never been, now had a car we had confidence in and it would be a Canada tick too, what is not to like?

We got there late afternoon a bit unsure of exactly where to be, but Peter Gadd, the finder and now something of a Mistle Thrush addict, (he’s been to look for it every one of its 80 days stay) put us right. The weather was good, the subdivision iced up roads were so reminiscent of Quebec that we might have felt a twinge of ‘home’ sickness had we not had more sense. The spot to be was nice and open, the trees it used in full view, the light good and the temperature not as bad as it could have been, the only thing lacking was the thrush.

I’ll admit that chasing the Mistle Thrush had not been a priority. Had it been in Nova Scotia then that would be quite different but New Brunswick does not hold the same allure, splendid place that it no doubt is. Factor in too that Mistle Thrush used to breed in our UK yard and probably still do. It is an every day bird in the UK, literally and especially if you know the call and song. You might wonder at the title, the old or colloquial name for Mistle Thrush is Stormcock because they (reputedly) sing at the advent of a rain storm, so they pretty much sing all day long in Lancashire I expect.

Back to the tense story and, having failed on Feb-26th we found a nice little hotel, ate in a local eatery and set the alarm for dawn. A light frost greeted us when we headed out, just as the sun rose. We were quickly back at the scene of the crime, Peter was already there, and soon set about examining every avian thing that moved. I had set a ‘time of death’ as 10:00, my heart was full of optimism (and blood although it was rapidly draining) but my head made plain the realism of the obvious, it had gone. We did have some compensation in the form of a few New Brunswick ticks (like this Pileated Woodpecker) although that was akin to a one legged man winning a posh pair of sneakers!

We called it a bust and headed back to the best province in Canada, disappointed true but if you don’t dip now and then you don’t appreciate the successes and, hopefully, we have peaked in the dipping sense this year and so it should be plain ticking to the year’s end!

After a light repast in Amherst we headed to get the Eurasian Collared Dove for Sandra, it would be 299 in Nova Scotia and it was although it was crappy views but, sticking to theme, it was a bird that nested in our UK yard so one out of two was as good as it was going to be.

The Canvasback remains on full view like a very good duck, very much showing those aloof gulls how to do it I should say as it allows everyone who wants to see it the opportunity. Just before zapping off to New Brunswick I snapped it again, better than the first few attempts although it slept for much of the time I watched it, giving about 15 seconds of head-up time.

I took a few photos of a female Common Eider inside Daniel’s Head wharf recently. It struck me that it might be of the race Borealis, the northern version, which is known to appear here fairly frequently. I looked back in my archive and found one from the same location and time period in 2017. Obviously I need to pay closer attention. From what I have gleaned from the web, my 2017 bird appears to be borealis while the Feb-2018 bird may well be an intergrade between dresseri (ours) and borealis. I don’t intend to go too deeply into this, just present the images here, along with a ‘control’ regular dresseri female. Had this been a Pacific Eider (still a subspecies, be patient) then I would have been more effusive and, for encouragement, there has been one Newfoundland record (a male) plus what may have been a hybrid.

Above, our regular Dresser’s Eider (female, check out the lobes).

Above (2017), borealis? Below (2018), hybrid or borealis?

For a bit more reading on the Pacific Eider in Newfoundland, here are a couple of links that won’t disappoint. Also read all about Europe’s first Pacific Eider, surely we in Nova Scotia have a chance of this one showing up?

http://brucemactavish1.blogspot.ca/2015/02/carrot-billed-eider-v-nigrum-or.html

http://brucemactavish1.blogspot.ca/2014/02/the-ice-is-coming.html

http://birdingfrontiers.com/2014/02/19/pacific-eider-in-norway-a-new-western-palearctic-bird/

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Something for the Weekend?

I wonder how many people (men) get asked that question at the Barbers these days. When I was younger it was always asked and, if you thought you might get lucky, you nodded and found a discrete packet handed over when you paid for your haircut. Nowadays the process is different with various pills and probably even an app for it, but back then it was the embarrassment-free way (Chemists stores always hired beautiful young women or growling Matron types) to ensure that, were your ships to come in so to speak, you would have something for that weekend. This has nothing to do with birds although we did get something for this weekend, a lovely male Canvasback found by Alix bobbing alongside Barrington Causeway.

As twitches go it was simplicity itself, and you balance these by how many you have to spend half a day travelling for, some of which, as we know, will be dips. In the end it probably works out even and, here in the south, we do get perhaps more than our fair share of good bird twitches. The Canvasback was in a spot examined regularly as it is where the Thick-billed Murres usually show up. I have checked it many times this year, a stop and a scan generally, not even worth an eBird checklist mostly. The flock of Great Scaups there varies, today there were 32, the most seen there for a while and so it is likely that the Canvasback too was newly arrived. It is a great find by Alix, added to last weekend’s Pied-billed Grebe out at Reynoldscroft, a Shelburne tick for me and something I hope to see on CSI at some point.

Two good birds in February is a real treat as the month can be a bit hostile. Them being on your doorstep is even better, we may pay for such luxuries with a barren March but that is the fun of birding, you just don’t know.

 

Additional photos below, taken early morning on Feb-25, 2018.

On Friday, Feb-23 it was a lovely if slightly cool day and so Mike and I had a wander up to the Kejimkujik area where forest fires a few years ago have produced burn sites attractive to a variety of species. Our main target was the scarce Black-backed Woodpecker, we saw one well, may have seen two. We also wanted crossbills and the reports from there gave optimism, we were not disappointed although the White-winged Crossbills never settled for photos.

 

On the morning of Feb-22 we had a couple of Thick-billed Murre around and Dovekies.

 

Sandra and I had a ride out for the day on Feb-19 and saw the Kamchatka Gull at Meteghan, along with a few others species. We also explored a bit further north along the shore road, very nice and scenic. The Kam Gull was always flighty, we got good looks but the photos were difficult and distant.

 

Now, after two good birds on consecutive weekends I’m wondering, is it too much to ask that the Kelp Gull returns? You are probably thinking ‘get over it already’, am I right?

Bedraggled

Despite it being wet and foggy I had a wander out, selecting the wharf at West Head, Cape Sable Island as the mostly likely place to be able to see anything, if indeed anything was around. The trailer parking lot was a sloppy mess put I ploughed on through to take up station on the edge of the open ocean hoping for a murre or such. It was quiet, a couple of Iceland Gulls were out there at the extent of fog-bound visibility but little else.

To get to my search spot I had to pass a stack of Lobster Pots, not normally where they get dropped but working wharves change with each visit. Turning to go I saw a white and dark bundle of despair up against the pots, a Snowy Owl. It looked like it had taken a turn in a washing machine an its facial expression was one of profound displeasure. It also looked like it might be exhausted so what to do?

Donning my thickest gloves I edged towards it, having previously taken a few shots from the car. It sat motionless for a while as I got closer, then, at around 2m away, it got up and ran before jumping up onto the stony edge of the wharf. Now it looked perkier although hardly in the pink so I eased back to the car and rattled a couple more shots off in the cloying mist. After a few shakes and a grumpy look my way it flew about 50m to the sea wall where it started to preen.

Owls have few friends in the avian world and soon two Ravens came along to do the cronking, as contractually obliged. The owl was pretty sanguine about them, faced them down and made it clear that Raven may well be a diet option were they to push it. With mutual understanding they moved off a bit, still vocal but less confrontational, at this point I left all parties in situ and headed home. Something must have occurred as the owl had gone a short time later, the Ravens too.

It just goes to show you that looks can deceive and, hopefully, the owl was just having a bad hair day.

Pining for the Cecropias

Winter months in the northern part of the northern hemisphere can be a little dreary. The light is mainly grey, the scenery mainly devoid of vibrant leaf and the temperatures all too often frigid. If you’ve never known any better for the season then you are probably acclimated to it, if you’ve spent any time during our winter in the tropics then you, like me, are probably pining for the experience of finding a Cecropia tree full of roaming birds. That is not to say that our winters do not have their own delights, they do, but the greyness can get to you and, to quote a friend, cause you to lose your birding mojo, albeit briefly.

Any caring society would address these serious social issues and, for those tropical residents who crave cool air as respite from the heat and humidity, set up and fund an exchange programme whereby we could all translocate for a few weeks, after all, a change is as good as a rest. Our birds know this, which is why many go away for the winter to tropical climes, or is it the other way around, do they leave the tropics, their home, for a brief summer visit to the temperate zones?

What brought this mild melancholy on is all Jason Dain’s fault. He had the great idea of a Facebook group that shows Nova Scotian (and honorary Nova Scotian’s I hope, is the badge in the mail?) photos of birds taken on their travels. It is a great showcase where you can not only post your own shots but also enjoy those of others, especially where they have seen something you have not, or have an exceptional capture of something you’ve previously enjoyed. For me this is one of the more positive aspects of Facebook, no grouchy remarks or spite, just the pleasure of sharing and enjoying.

So, as I sit watching the grey skies bring the rain that sends farmers into a state of delirium, my thoughts turn to those days past when, for rarely more than a week per year, Sandra and I trod the path of the Leafcutter Ants, carefully, and enjoyed the aural confusion that is a multi-species flock moving at all levels through a Panamanian rain forest. It may happen again for us in the tropics, it may not. Forrest Gump’s Mother got it right, you just never know what you are going to get.

 

The tropics are full of all sorts of birds, this gaudy and particularly noisy ones like this Keel-billed Toucan is emblematic of our trips (Sandra’s photo).

When you bird every day you take for granted the accumulated knowledge of experience and so, when you see emails or Facebook comments about seeing things such as Turkey Vulture in Nova Scotia, you think, well yes, they are common. They are in the south but, for someone out of the zone they are something noteworthy. This disparity of distribution even within a relatively small space such as NS is interesting, as is the trend for Black Vultures to be found in the northern part always, or at least since we’ve lived in NS. Clearly Black Vulture is genuinely rare in NS, one real record per year maybe, whereas Turkey Vultures are increasing in number and, as they say, coming to your neighbourhood soon!

On Cape Sable Island we see TVs regularly but, 12 together over the house recently was almost worth an email or Facebook comment, almost.

It still amazes me how relaxed everyone is around Nova Scotia when it comes to access to wharves. In the UK, Elfin Safety rules and you can go nowhere industrial without some jobsworth chucking you off on safety grounds. The gift from lawyers, litigation for not taking responsibility for your own actions, is now so entrenched in European culture as to make it nigh on impossible to get permits for sewage plants, quarries, nuclear waste dumps and the like. In NS the reverse appears to be true and we wander respectfully but regardless around our wharves, especially in winter when looking for alcids.

This winter so far has been alcid-lite with even quite lively storms failing to produce much. At one point I was wondering whether we’d get a Thick-billed Murre (Brunnich’s Guillemot) at all, but now we have so all is good with the world. There appears to me to be differences in attitude amongst visiting alcids. Black Guillemots live here, rarely get bothered by the big gulls and possibly have aggressive Scottish accents which may go some way in keeping the grunts at bay. Thick-billeds on the other hand potter around like confused pensioners in a computer store, only for the hard-sell Great Black-backed Gulls to pounce on them, devouring them without mercy.

Above, Black Guillemot – “see you Jimmy”!

The same happens to Common Murres, but Dovekies, being small and sparky, seem to get away with it even though evolution has resulted in them being handily bite-sized. The alcids are our source of winter joy, especially now as we enter the end of February, beginning of March dead-zone. It may be that there will be some birds to enjoy during this dark period, but more likely it is anticipation of what is to come that will restore mojos and, once again we will be able to stroll our Blackfly ridden lanes enjoying the song of the seasonal visitors. Can’t wait!

Six for None

Well I give up with that bloody Kelp Gull! I had another go on Feb-03 along with Mike and Ronnie (who has seen it already) and Alix was around too. In theory a totally unjustified visit, the gull had not been seen since at the site Jan-27, should have reaped dividends, especially as the travel was blighted by a flash freeze warning although the weather people seem to warn about everything now, and anyone who lives in Canada for a winter actually knows that fresh rain, subjected to below zero temperatures, freezes. It did, we went along steadily and successfully did not see the gull nor a King Eider at Point Pleasant Park on the Halifax side of the estuary.

It was interesting to note that, despite the paths all being sheet ice, elderly ladies were still trussed up in spandex and jogging. I don’t really get it, it is icy and you try to run on it. Perhaps Halifax has a good hip surgeon or something, or they could just be a little challenged when it comes to common sense. Besides missing the King Eider I also missed some Purple Sandpipers flushed by a dolt. I was actually facing the trees and making green icicles at the time and so was unable to swing around and raise the bins without some sort of personal disaster taking place, damn that ageing bladder!

As we warmed up in the car in the Point Pleasant Park Parking place, particularly perished, we decided that the gull was history and to head into ‘The Valley’ for the Eurasian Collared-Dove. There has been some discussion as to whether it is wild or a hybrid, the latter query being quite reasonable until either birders who had experience of the species had seen it or more revealing photos seen. Richard confirmed it to be a good one and that was good enough for me. This was my third time at the site but I was encouraged byt the fact that it had been seen the day before (and actually the same morning, but we didn’t know at the time).

The site is a private house but the feeders are very visible from the road. With discretion and courtesy and the sense to stay in the car the dove can be seen, oh and you might want to add patience to that list. So we sat a bit and drove a bit and sat some more and, finally, when we had been there the obligatory hour, it bounded in, dwarfing the Mourning Doves and scoffing the food. Job done we headed home, a tricky drive as the snow was blowing and patchy (no warning!).

It may be that the Kelp Gull is still around Nova Scotia somewhere and it is great that so many got to enjoy it at MacCormack’s Beach. It is odd that, from discovery to last view it spent so little time available but it must have had better options elsewhere and was just never found away from the original site (although it may have been at Hartlen one day, a tough call though at range). If it does show up again I’ll have to weigh the pros and cons of trying to see it, probably while on the road heading north once more! Big thanks to all the Halifax/Dartmouth area birders who made the fruitless twitches bearable and for taking time to look for the gull, even though you’d seen it and when you could have been doing other things. It is appreciated by us Kelpless inhabitants of the Banana Belt.

It is easy to slip into a birding malaise when your area is quiet for long periods. You spend less time looking, usually because the weather doesn’t want you in the way anyway and so conspires against you. That is pretty much how it has been for a while down south. The jolt from our relative torpor came when Carl d’Entremont in Pubnico saw two geese with orange bills in with the Canada Geese out back of his place at the head of the sound. A short while later, a few of us were enjoying two Greater White-fronted Geese in flight and down with the Canadas. Now all they have to do if keep flying east a bit and find the succulent grasses of Cape Sable Island!

 

The year is ticking along nicely (pun intended) but, aside from twitches for Nova Scotia, Yarmouth, Shelburne, Cape Sable Island and Winter ticks or any lifers within striking distance, I’m not chasing. I just passed the 100 mark, slow for me but it is not a sprint. The eBird leader board is cluttered like the runners on the first kilometer of a marathon but it will thin out as the year progresses. I predict around 280 again, although September will be largely missing from my NS birding calendar this year, but I will be back for the October fall-out – fingers crossed.

And now the rest of the photos deemed just about good enough to blog – with captions as appropriate.

Above a brief Common Murre from Barrington Causeway. Below one of the Barrow’s Goldeneyes that linger around Yarmouth Harbour.

The Sandhill Cranes were still around Pitman Road, South Ohio, Feb-04.

Black Scoters from Daniel’s Head, CSI.

Above the Horned Grebe is still hanging around Daniel’s Head wharf. Below a selection of images of Greater Scaup.

Below a selection of Iceland Gull shots including a nice ‘inbetweener’ although in between what I’m not sure these days.

Kelptomaniacs

Wikipedia describes insanity, craziness, or madness as a spectrum of behaviors characterized by certain abnormal mental or behavioral patterns when gulling. Insanity may manifest as violations of societal norms, including a person becoming a danger to themselves or others by constantly chasing gulls. Though not all such gull watching acts are considered insanity; likewise, not all acts showing complete indifference toward Mallards and farm geese can be considered acts of insanity. I feel comforted by this slightly edited version as I have just completed a week with five trips to MacCormack’s Beach, Dartmouth. I did around 3000km and ate off-diet food, braved -17°C wind chill at times in an attempt to see the Kelp Gull as mentioned in the previous post. It was an unsuccessful attempt and Sandra, Mike and Alix were also able to share my woes on various parts of the odyssey.

You will remember, after Sandra and I dipped on Jan-22 that I predicted its return. I also later predicted, as Sandra and I headed into largely unchartered parts of Nova Scotia to look for a Eurasian Collared-Dove on Jan-24, that news of the gull returning would break just as we neared our dove’s location. Well it did but, for a reason I cannot answer, we didn’t floor the accelerator, scattering those who like to pootle along until after we’d checked out the dove site. Bad mistake, missed it by 30 minutes, may well have made it with more cogent thinking. We stayed the rest of the day and it never returned. Sandra, despite her deep love of all things larus, refused to return the next day (Jan-25) but I did with Mike and Alix.

It didn’t show that day either and the weather was on the cool side. To add insult to idiocy, we then went to look for the dove with alarmingly predicable results. After three trips, even my veneer of invincibility was slipping. Somehow, I knew for sure, that the gull would be there again Saturday (Jan-27) morning, and it was. After a brief spell of navel gazing, we were off once again. Sandra, having recovered her enthusiasm as we arrowed towards Dartmouth just as fast as our elderly Grand Caravan could legally perambulate. By the time we’d actually hit the road we knew it had gone, but still went anyway, expecting it to return for an evening loaf, it didn’t.

Now it was very personal, but we still got there for pre-dawn Sunday-28, January 2018 expecting a repeat performance, which is what we got, just the wrong performance! By 10:00 it was raining enough for us to up-sticks and head home gull-less. If it follows protocol it will reappear on Tuesday, but will there be anyone to witness it? Most Halifax/Dartmouth birders now have their prize although they, like me, are wondering just where the bird gets to? This would be a gull to rocket net and attach a tracker to but, after we’ve seen it please.

I am not alone in the disappointment. Quite a few Nova Scotia birders have not seen it yet and it rather let us down when it comes to visitors from out of town, such as the guys from Virginia and Georgia, places that are somewhere in that country to the south of us, where doesn’t matter. They’ll go home with fond memories of New Brunswick and the Mistle Thrush while all they’ll take from us is a certain amount of spinal discomfort from our winter crop of pot holes, they are seasonal right?

There were other birds at MacCormack’s Beach to enjoy but I’m struggling for details at the minute. My bones know that I will end up there again and probably soon, because this is a Kelp Gull we are talking about, a Nova Scotia first, the fourth for Canada and a looker even in the world of beauty that is gulls. Solace can be taken by the good company enjoyed and the encouragement from some of Nova Scotia’s finest birders and there is a vicarious pleasure in knowing that those who did see the Kelp Gull, treasure it like I would, and hopefully will. I don’t think Sandra will be coming back anytime soon though, she wants to sort through the many tins of screws in the workshop and put the contents in fresh pots by size and gauge and then there is just about anything else to be done that does not involve sitting waiting for a gull, these PhD types can get quite uppity at times, that is educasun for you.

Some photos from the scene of the crimes. Male Hooded Merganser, Dovekie, the darkest Lesser Black-backed Gull I’ve ever seen and a Glaucous Gull at a funny angle but it is one, promise.

Not Just a Gull!

Like most birders in our region, I have a list of species that I think might show up. Not regular rarities but megas, firsts, the big one. On that list was a gull from South America and Africa, the Kelp Gull. Sure it looks like a midget Great Black-backed Gull but just imagine how far it has travelled and wonder why it ever decided to keep on going north until it found itself standing malar-by-gular with our regular Herring, Ring-billed, the aforementioned beast the Great Black-backed. Not to mention those weird albinos, Iceland Gulls – like an ugly Snowy Petrel I suppose. Well a Kelp Gull did make it here and was found by Jim Edsall in the best traditions of such stellar discoveries, when he wasn’t really looking for one but just doing what all birders do, bird (even when they are pretending they are not birding).
It may be that the gull was present earlier the same day but the pixels confirming the fact were deleted (for now perhaps), it may also have been around a while or maybe that fateful afternoon when Jim did a casual scan and saw the gull was the very first time it had been seen in Nova Scotia. Naturally the trip was on, only three hours away so but no big deal, but no need to get there for first light, it was probably a pre-roost gathering that contained the beauty and so, hopefully, the same mix of gulls would assemble the following day, late afternoon, and the prize would be ours. Good plan, poorly executed by the gull as it didn’t show. For Nova Scotia, the gathering was substantial and inevitably we attracted the attention of quizzical locals, many of whom walk the area of MacCormack’s Beach daily and almost certainly saw the gull on their previous days jolly.

Where did it go is the ultimate question. Probably not too far would be the reasonable answer. It could have followed a boat out to sea, in which case it could end up anywhere. On the day of discovery it will probably have roosted with the gull mass, wherever they gather daily, maybe a static piece of water, quite probably on the ice on the said piece of water. It won’t have a particular affinity with any of the other gulls present and so would likely just wander off with one of the departing packs and do what gulls do, roam around searching for food. My prediction is that it will appear again somewhere. Off a fish plant, on a ball park loafing area, on a frozen lake, around a sewage farm or, and perhaps the gulls favourite party place, at the dump, I presume they have one in Dartmouth or at least nearby, that is the place to go look at. Obviously this may just be wishful thinking on my part but this is the winter, the gulls aren’t doing too much at present so I bet it is there, somewhere.

My birding has been a bit fitful locally, mostly because of the weather but also because we are in a January slump when even the lively gales didn’t bring us the alcids we all expected. The regular spots have been scoured and, ironically and despite the same area having been regularly checked, the first Dovekie of the year was found by Ervin at Clark’s Harbour wharf on one of his visits.

This seems to be the year of close (for me) sea duck with both Surf and White-winged Scoter hanging around inside the wharf at Daniel’s Head. The Horned Grebe is also still around too. Just offshore the duck melange always has Black Scoters surfing the waves and gobbling items unseen.


A second trip of the year to Meteghan again failed to provide the Kamchatka Gull for continued scrutiny. A bonus for the dip was a couple of Barrow’s Goldeneye, a Digby County tick, not that I keep a Digby list.

A few days earlier we’d chased a couple of Sandhill Cranes in South Ohio, Yarmouth Co. The views were ok but we didn’t stay too long. These early arrivals may be the vanguard of breeders so worth keeping track of.

In the yard the Fox Sparrow finally came close enough for a photo, taken hanging out the bathroom window but not too shoddy.

Our regular Merlin has also been coming, sitting on the weather vane and giving the sparrows and doves the evil eye.

I also lucked in good views of the Daniel’s Head Snowy Owl. It seemed to like the rock pile by the road, ignoring the passing trucks. The rock pile has since gone but the owl lingers around the head if your luck is in.