Frozen Bananas

We live in the so-called Banana Belt of Nova Scotia, a mocking term describing the mostly moderate climate that we usually enjoy, plus the fact that we can have a light tea of locally picked Bananas at any time, straight from the back yard but that is beside the point! The Atlantic is supposed to keep the temperature temperate and the price we pay for that luxury is usually more fog than anyone else gets, the Bananas here regard it as tropical humidity so it all works. This winter however we have had it bloody cold leading to the Bananas dropping off the trees but, on the upside, almost instant Banana smoothies.

The wookie weather has therefore impacted on my birding activities and it was only today, January-10th, that I made my second foray away from the Valhalla that is Cape Sable Island. I had options and decided on a roll up to Meteghan, the intention being to sit shivering in the teeth of a gale and photographing the same gulls I’d photographed last year, bliss. As it happened it was not too cool, the light was good but the gulls naughty, especially the Kamchatka which seems to be having time away from its regular beach. Generally gull numbers were much lower than in recent years although I did manage to find Black-headed, Bonaparte’s, Ring-billed, Herring (American), Lesser Black-backed, Glaucous, Iceland (Kumlien’s) and the ubiquitous Great Black-backed.

Before descending on Meteghan, I called in at Cape St Mary, Mavillette where a bunch of Harlequins didn’t disappoint. Inside the wharf, three Long-tailed Ducks went about their business while I pretended to be a plank on a jetty, I always knew that plank training at high school would come in handy. I managed a few shots but missed out on recording their vocals as I’d left the recorded in the car.

 

People always seem surprised that birds do the same thing, year in year out. Site fidelity is well-known in gulls and, if I remember this right, there used to be a Glaucous Gull at Cley-Next-the-Sea in Norfolk, England that returned annually for many years and was christened ‘George’. When it finally pegged it, another Glauc (in 1stW plumage) showed up and took its place, it was, of course, called ‘Boy George’ and took over from old faithful in supplying visiting birders with their lifer/year tick. When I was a Country Park Warden I greeted several serial-returning gulls each year, a Yellow-legged that summered on the same river buoy and both winter Black-headed and Lesser Black-backed Gulls that had been banded somewhere in Finland, or at least out that way, and that came back at the same time every year. The point I’m making is that birds do what we do. if they find somewhere they like they keep returning.

All that yawp is to report that this year, Alix was first to see the returning Red-shouldered Hawk of Pleasant Lake fame. This is the fourth season it has returned after being found originally by Ronnie. To see it all it takes is a little luck, a bit of patience and verging on a criminal disregard of other road users. I managed a look today (Jan-10) right by the road although I suspect the queue of traffic that formed behind me when stopped had already seen it for the year as they barely slowed to look, some people eh!

So it was quite a nice day out, I stuck to the diet too and added a few to my 2018 year list that I am definitely not doing. Pity about the Kamchatka Gull, I hope it returns, it is a winter highlight in southern Nova Scotia along with the Thayer’s at Pubnico and not falling and breaking a hip.

To wind back a tad, I have been getting out locally but the weather has been tough on the birds, there will have been losses. The camera has been all but dormant although I did get to grab a few frames of this Horned Grebe at Daniel’s Head.

 

Another local treat was a couple of American Woodcock that probed the snow in a yard at the end of Hawk Point Road, big thanks to Johnny for the call. Not by-feather shots, it was high ISO making them grainy but happy to log my first photos of the species in NS, yes of course I keep a list!

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Weather Bomb!

The wind is a howling and the trees doing their swaying thing again as we sit here, snug, but wondering what the ongoing ‘weather-bomb’ is going to bring. Already we have seen the highest water from a tide that we’ve experienced here, exacerbated no doubt by the ice-dams and storm surge, it didn’t quite get across the road though – this time. It is funny the way the media reports the impending, or more accurately now ongoing storm. Very US biased with just four lines devoted to Canada and that was the BBC. I suppose it is too much to hope that the storm is selective in the US and the 49% of decent people will be spared any damage, the other 51%, well, who cares?

Here in Canada we get on with it. Deck furniture has been moved and resources stock-piled for three days of independent survival, just as we are advised to do. It will mean catastrophic disconnection from the Internet, but we are children of the late 50s/early 60s so I expect we’ll cope. The poor birds are again having it tough. Following a prolonged and at times brutal period of below freezing temperatures, now they have to try to feed in these conditions; and then roost when 135km winds are expected to come along and try to blow them out of the trees. Those that make it through the night will no doubt be grateful for the slightly better weather to come.

We did get along to Yarmouth on January-2nd, finding a few of the hoped for birds including Barrow’s Goldeneye – doc shot below, and Eastern Bluebird. The weather was a bit iffy though and driving untreated roads a challenge. Even the highway was a mess, but we did see one plough out but no sign of any gritting though, perhaps they don’t use rock salt here. Our route home took in a quick look for the Thayer’s Gull at Pubnico (I know, a heresy, I used the T word and now the ABA will take out a contract on me). No Thayer’s but a few nice Iceland Gulls in various stages of denial.

Earlier we had lunch on one of the Yarmouth wharves and a male Surf Scoter came close enough to be immortalised. It has been a scotery (made up word) spell recently with a nice, male White-winged posing at Daniel’s Head posing for photos.

 

This last and rather crappy photo shows a Ring-billed Gull at Dennis Point Wharf with a well-defined hood and a hint of red in the bill. Nothing else is odd about it but I’ve never seen such a uniform hood on one before, the red might be an artifact of bad light. At some point I’ll wander back and try for better shots. Note the white eyelids too, a hint of Laughing Gull perhaps?

On the last day of 2017 hostilities, Mike found a passive Great Horned Owl by the side of the busy road that goes to the Oak Park connector. It sat for a couple of hours as appreciative birders slowed for a look. I even managed a five second window without a truck up my ass (come on boys, you’re slipping!) to grab a couple of snaps. In a coincidental twist, a Great Horned Owl was calling from the yard at around 11pm, no repeats in the New Year yet but there is hope.

 

In my stat post I didn’t give you all of the figures. On Cape Sable Island I managed 247 species in 2017, bettering my CSI big year score of 235 in 2016 by 12, something to go at again in 2018. My bird days, bolstered by a 365 birding day year, went up to 9287, while my eBird checklists rose to 12488. The bird days figure is lacking a few from the early years but, to reach that figure starting now, you would have to go out birding every day for 26.25 years, off you go!

Finally, thanks to all who have enjoyed this blog, who read it regularly and some who no doubt shake their heads and ask ‘did he really write that’! I do this for fun, I’m glad I occasionally entertain, and/or irritate and I’m grateful to those of you who take time to comment, good or bad. I hope the blog content in 2018 remains up to scratch, tell me if it isn’t – Mark.

Up and shivering!

We sit surrounded by the white shit that is snow and January-1st, 2018 was almost exactly like the preceding five days, but was nicely placed in a new year and so demanded to be birded. Jan-1st is eagerly anticipated by many birders and eBird probably did a roaring trade in checklists, although I’m writing this too early to give you the day one score for the province. Sandra and I had decided to get out come what may, but sensibly birded the yard for the first few hours as that was where all the birds were, just about.

Our feeders costs are roughly as much as some small, third-world countries gross domestic product (GDP – in case you ever wondered). I suspect that, were we not to feed at all, then every five years or so we could do a budget trip to the tropics on the saving but where is the fun in not having a yard bouncing with happy, feeding birds? One of the birds bouncing was a left-over Grey Catbird that has found our sparse selection of red berries a great comfort in difficult times.

It didn’t take long for our bossy Red Fox Sparrow (split by the International Ornithological Congress) to be doing his soft-toe shuffle while ankle deep in seed. Next down the sparrow pecking order were the Dark-eyed Juncos, White-throated Sparrows and, lastly, the local Song Sparrows who put up with this seasonal alien invasion with patience. Viewing the sea was tricky, it might be -9°C but the heat haze is worse than we might get on a summer day, and so only the obvious stuff like Long-tailed Duck, Red-breasted Merganser and a high flying (not tripping) Great Cormorant were contributed to the list from that source.

After accumulating 24 species, a total that would have been a month’s worse when we lived in Quebec, we moved out into the field and nearby Drinking Brook Park. This small parking lot park with great views added Common Loon, Bufflehead and Surf and White-winged Scoter but not much else, perhaps the gunners who had been there earlier had flushed the birds out of the bay. We then drove Stoney Island Road down through to Stoney Island Beach making stops and adding as we went. A feisty, adult Bald Eagle, a sneaky American Tree Sparrow and a bunch of Great Cormorants hid two Double-cresteds that missed the Florida departure! eBird asked ‘are you sure?’, well yes.

We moved on, hitting Daniel’s Head which is not a personal assault as it might sound but an Important Bird Area. Now you would think identifying somewhere as an ‘important bird area’ would be followed by some sort protection, but they hunt there. Normally it is low-level with decent hunters taking a few ducks and not leaving a mess. At other times those that shoot from public areas and leave their spent cartridges everywhere visit. Imagine if the local authority had the balls to charge them with littering as a minimum, not to mention shooting within 182m of a road, but no balls exist either now or historically, the civilised world so concerned about the amount of plastic in the environment hasn’t quite permeated through to them.

Daniel’s Head made a small contribution to the list but the jungle telegraph, well text actually, had told us of Gadwall nearby and so we set off to see. As we left, a guy hunting Canada Geese (legally) got a couple, flushing every duck on the marsh, and giving us three Common Mergansers for the list too.

Swimm Point, a small bay with a fish plant waste pipe which can be excellent when they are working, held five Gadwall, good for here, and a lone Brant – here they are the Pale-bellied Atlantic Brant – which fed quietly close to the bank.

The cold was seeping into our bones though and so we made our excuses and left, pausing only at West Head to check for gulls (scarce) and add Red-necked Grebe to the tally. Sandra then called it a day and I went back out after lunch, there were still many gaps although small birds were unlikely to fill them.

I went back to Daniel’s Head in a roundabout way, where all was quiet until a Rough-legged Hawk came over. I followed it down the road to the head, hoping for another photo op when it put up seven Horned Larks, nice one. I then scooted off to The Hawk via Clark’s Harbour. The Hawk was colder than anywhere else I’d been but the off island, The Cape, had owls in winter so I scanned. I got one Snowy Owl and a couple of Snow Buntings came over, but it was too cold to stand around and you feel for the animals that have to survive such long periods of below-zero temperatures. Just as I left the Fish Plant Road parking lot, a hunter went out to the end of a public jetty, sat and waited.

As I drove the road back, another Snowy Owl coasted over and I eventually found it actively hunting below the church on The Hawk. I watched a while and hoped it would not fly towards the jetty. I’d like to think the hunter there had more scruples than to shoot it but, earlier in the season when a tourist asked a hunter what they hunted, and the answer was “if it flies it dies” then there you have it, some of them are just not my species. Fortunately the good hunters greatly outnumber the bad, so the odds are in some of the birds’ favour. Time, education and a public realisation of just how precipitous the situation regarding our wildlife has become should improve those odds, well you would hope.

I ended the day with 52 species, not a bad start at all and I barely saw small birds away from the yard. We have another couple of days of these conditions but we are up and running and there are positive temperatures being forecast soon. Below is the list for interest.

Brant, Canada Goose, Gadwall, American Black Duck, Mallard, Greater Scaup, Common Eider, Surf Scoter, White-winged Scoter, Black Scoter, Long-tailed Duck, Bufflehead, Common Goldeneye, Hooded Merganser, Common Merganser, Red-breasted Merganser, Ring-necked Pheasant, Red-necked Grebe, Rock Pigeon, Mourning Dove, Black Guillemot, Ring-billed Gull, Herring Gull, Iceland Gull, Great Black-backed Gull, Common Loon, Double-crested Cormorant, Great Cormorant, Turkey Vulture, Bald Eagle, Northern Harrier, Rough-legged Hawk, Snowy Owl, Downy Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Blue Jay, American Crow, Common Raven, Horned Lark, Black-capped Chickadee, American Robin, Grey Catbird, European Starling, American Goldfinch, Snow Bunting, American Tree Sparrow, Savannah (Ipswich) Sparrow, Red Fox Sparrow, Song Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, Northern Cardinal.

This is the Daniel’s Head Rough-legged Hawk, the only species I photographed on the day.

This New Year…

Again, not an NS bird, just a header, a Common Potoo on its nest in coastal Brazil.

Every year birders up and down the land make New Year resolutions to see more birds, do a big year, find more, improve, although that last one should be something that happens all of the time, every day in every way you learn a little bit more – then you die. I have a number of suggestions.

If you are an active birder, that is you pick up your bins and go looking for/at birds but are not contributing your records anywhere, sign up with eBird and make a start. Unless you are already involved in long-term programmes beneficial to birds your best opportunity for contributing is to put your records where they can be used. All records are important, yes the cardinals that suddenly appeared in your yard, yes those Turkey Vultures that you now see regularly. Don’t assume that someone else is reporting them. The more we know about our bird populations, the more effective we can be in protecting them – electing political leaders who also feel it is important to protect over profit also helps.

Buy a field guide, a paper one and a good one. Sibley or National Geographic, the rest are makeweights, sorry but they are. Yes you can find information on-line but a field guide will serve you better and, by supporting the writing and production of field guides, you are guaranteeing the future production of better and more succinct versions. Once you have your guide read it, write in it, use coloured markers to flag local or provincial species, make it yours.

Join your local bird group. It never costs much and is run entirely on the goodwill of volunteers and you will benefit by receiving newsletters, having field trip options and being part of a group with a shared passion.

Travel and take your bins with you. Travel broadens the mind and stimulates the senses. If you can go exotic, do it, and if you can, hire local guides, spread the cash, support birding elsewhere is good for conservation and you see some great birds.

Be a mentor if you can. Lots of people have an interest in birds that goes no further than lurking on Facebook groups. Some will turn out to be good birders with encouragement and guidance. If you are one of these people who would like guidance then ask other birders if you can join them in the field. The best way to get a grounding in birds is to be with someone who knows what they are doing. There is no need to feel intimidated, just aspire. If anyone wants to bird CSI with me and I’m available, just let me know and we can fix something up.

Get out, don’t make excuses, just go birding. Be seen by non-birders in the field and, when their curiosity gets the better of them, talk birds to them, you’ll be surprised how interested people can be, and what they know.

I could go on but I’m probably preaching to the choir. So what are my New Year resolutions apart from be sure to wake up every day!

I want to add to my Yarmouth and Shelburne lists. That will me getting to places I don’t visit too often, looking harder for present but elusive species and just generally making more effort and this after doing a 365 year where I went birding every day in 2017, it just keeps getting better.

I want to do more odes and leps in 2018. I made mental notes of sites to look at throughout the year and intend to spend time in them in season. The Blackfly forecast is for a horrendous year so I’d better dig my face net out!

I need to focus more on my writing, my “birds of Cape Sable Island’ is not moving as fast as I’d like and I want to finish my novel. I have other bird related writing projects in mind and, so long as I can control the urge to be out there all of the time, I might get started with them too.

I need to travel. I hate flying and hate the hours spent waiting to be called for a flight but it is the price you pay and, hopefully, we’ll be able to do a bit.

I need to see more of Nova Scotia. We will.

 

I think that will keep me busy enough, obviously the big hope is that me and mine remain healthy, if not wealthy or wise. Have a great New Year everyone, make 2018 the year that works for you.

The Numbers Game

The images of species used to illustrate this blog post are not from Nova Scotia (but they are mine), calm down!

This really is a review of 2017 part two but with fewer sexy photos of birds of the year and a more raw numbers, although you can get an ointment for it. Like every other birder I keep a track of what I have seen. I know that eBird does too and that the tally their figures represent are the ‘official’ position as it were, but I also keep lists on Bubo which differ slightly from eBird and I keep my own treasure trove of Excel spreadsheets for EVERTHING. You might ask why, if so then I’d go back to your knitting as this post is probably not for you!

For real lists, that is the list I am happy with and not one that someone else is, I use the International Ornithological Congress’ (IOC) list of birds. For a long time I had columns by country on my working year list and, well I’d better explain.

The year list, and I have to assume some familiarity with Excel here, has pride of place as the first tab. It contains my NS year list, year, year list, CSI year list, Yard year list and my list by month, yes by month. It also has any list additions by category and leps and odes for the year.

Tab two is my CSI list, again by month but including a predictions column and an additions column although that will go as there becomes less to add (hopefully). Tab three is my NS list with location and dates plus columns for each year we have lived here. Tab four is the yard list (now 165) with dates. Because we don’t travel much anymore that is the crux of the working year list. The rest is made up of lists from counties in NS, ABA (the states and provinces), winter, CBC birds and finally Goldfish I’ve won at fairs.  Actually I slipped that last one in just to check you were paying attention.

I mentioned in an earlier post that I’d finally sorted out my world list by subspecies. I really wish I’d been able to do this from the start but since all this fancy computer stuff wasn’t around then, I couldn’t. I would recommend that anyone interested in keeping track, and you can do it and have stuff to add even if you never leave Nova Scotia, get the IOC list now and sets it up via filters for the current NS list, then their list with subs. It is free, although quite large, from: http://www.worldbirdnames.org/ioc-lists/master-list-2/ you want the master list for Excel using the XLS list for older versions and XLSX if you have been exposed to the most recent Microsoft gouge. It takes time to set up but, once done, it is very easy to maintain and the updates (check the schedule in the web site) are easy to add too. Incidentally, my world list of species including subs is 3587, quite respectable.

Now on with more stats. I should mention at this point that our own Larry Neily is the compiler of Canadian Listers’ Corner – an annual publication showing a vast array of lists. There is a threshold for all lists and so, if you only have robin, crow, jay and sparrow (unspecific) so far then you have work to do. You can see the publications by year here: http://www.neilyworld.com/neilyworld/listerscorner/listers-corner.htm  inside are all the details you need to participate.

It was a good year, but then every year you are not actually dead or stupid (51%, you know who you are) is. My most cherished list is always my patch list, and as my patch is Cape Sable Island, I’ll start there. I started with 242 at close of play, 2016. I’ll end with 272, midnight Dec-31, 2017 unless I can dredge a Boreal Owl or similar from the snowy wastes at the back of the house first. I didn’t miss much with perhaps Blue-grey Gnatcatcher being the main one, still, at least I have a clear idea of what my CSI Nemesis Bird is now. I count Brown Booby and Eastern Meadowlark as misses, even though neither were actually available as such although the booby might have been had I followed my regular birding pattern.

My next list is Nova Scotia. It is one of three not national lists I keep although my Nottinghamshire and Quebec lists are not likely to benefit from any ink any time soon although, if I get the chance we might visit Les Iles de la Madeleine to try to add a few (Willet, Roseate Tern and stuff from the ferry). I started at 299 in NS and finished with 320. The keen eyed amongst you will not that both my CSI and NS lists have one more species than eBird does, I’ll tell you why. I saw skuas from both localities (obviously), a South Polar from CSI, actually I think I’ve seen skua sp., three times from CSI but then I do spend time looking. I was happy with one in September but did not have enough to make it an eBird bird, where it resides as skua sp. I also had a Great Skua from Baccaro. I don’t think the pair are at all easy, both vary in size and, to some extent, colouration so, no confirming photo, no go. Again it is in eBird as skua sp., for the same reasons, for my personal list I am happy that it was a Bonxie (Great skua to you but Bonxie is better).

I hope to continue to see new birds in Nova Scotia and regret not going for the 2015, Cape Breton Chestnut-collared Longspur which would have been a lifer. At the time I was finding my feet, now I know where they are. There are a few species I might hope for in NS. Bullock’s Oriole and Black-headed Grosbeak were both seen in Cape Breton this year, the latter with two suppressed checklists, bad karma! Sooner or later there will be a Canvasback and I really should get my ass into gear for a Wilson’s Phalarope (annual at nearishby Matthew’s Lake it seems). We are due one of the big rare gulls (Slaty-backed, Black-tailed, California, Ivory and Ross’s) and a Pacific Loon will surely sit down somewhere for a while. A hurricane could bring terns and we are well-placed for the odd warbler and we might even get a wintering Long-eared Owl so I have reason to be optimistic for 2018. If I manage five new NS birds in 2018 I’ll be happy.

In the ABA area I managed a couple of ticks, about right in recent years, nudging me up to 606. In Canada, and bear in mind I have not actively chased Canada ticks at all, my list went from 367 to 407 thanks to a trip to BC. Now I have a taste for it we really must visit the Prairie Provinces and the eastern Rockies, I’m looking forwards to it already.

In with the plethora of other lists my winter list rose from 193 to 206 (in Canada). In Yarmouth County my list went from 233 to 253 and that is something I am going to work on in 2018, I have a few gaps I need to make some effort to fill. In Shelburne it went from 268 to 281 so 300 there is not too distant a target. In terms of year lists, 2017 was my best in Nova Scotia with 288 species and I wasn’t even going for one (no Yellow-breasted Chat, Vesper Sparrow, Black Tern, Ruff, Spruce Grouse, Ruddy Duck, Redhead, Cackling Goose, White-winged Dove, Yellow-headed Blackbird, it was incidental; as was my Canada year list of 332, and so setting myself something to beat in the future.

I’ve taken photos for many years now although I would not describe myself as a photographer. In eBird I have 1049 species photographed and I’ve also been digging out songs and calls recorded over the years with 121 uploaded and more to come once I figure out what some of them are!

I think that covers it so I’ll end with some images (and including the post, lead image) of what I’d really like to see in Nova Scotia in 2018. Think of them as optimistic predictions, including the one non-species.

Comments are always welcome.

Western Tanager

Snowy Plover

Ross’s Gull

Northern Wheatear

Long-eared Owl

Eurasian Jackdaw

Ivory Gull

Northern Lapwing

Brown Pelican

Wilson’s Plover

Canvasback

Boat-tailed Grackle

Greylag Goose

Crested Caracara

American Purple Gallinule

Plumbeous Vireo (didn’t have a Cassin’s shot!)

American White Ibis

Loggerhead Shrike

Grey Kingbird

‘Brewster’s’ Warbler

Harris’s Sparrow

Green-tailed Towhee

Fork-tailed Flycatcher

Eurasian Collared-Dove

Golden-crowned Sparrow

Eurasian Chaffinch

Golden Eagle

Townsend’s Solitaire

Black-throated Grey Warbler

Black-tailed Gull

Anna’s Hummingbird

2017 Then

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.

http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S38491985

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.

CBC Weekend 2017

Saturday December-16th dawned white and getting whiter. Snow fell, wind blew and the temperatures looked up to see zero rather than down. Embracing Sod’s Law, the change to distinctly unpleasant weather conditions heralded the first of the weekends Christmas Bird Counts (CBC).

Part one of a busy weekend was the Cape Sable Island CBC, I think in its 116th year. For those who do not know, the birds are counted on a specified day with a count week spreading out before and behind the ‘big’ day. Our route is basically the top end of CSI and when I say ours I mean Mike MacDonald and I out in the field and both Sandra’s sat warm and possibly sipping mulled wine, nibbling treats and counting the feeders.

The first couple of hours were pure farce as horizontal snow came from all directions at once and the roads became a slippery mess surprisingly populated by many trucks heading to Tim’s in defiance of logic. It made it hard to count, mostly because counting involves seeing, which we couldn’t do. Eventually the weather improved, not got warmer, just skipped from blinding snow to blinding sun, there are no half measures with Canadian weather.

It would be fair to say that enthusiasm for dying in a ditch was low but we worked at it and ended up with a not unrespectable 53 species. Naturally there were frustrations as species we’d expected sensibly kept out of the way. Fortunately, most of them had been bagged for count week and could be added to our 53 species improving things lots. Off the top of my head I’m struggling to give a highlight, the best we could say for the day was that we did it!

Overnight the temperatures were again low but the snow stayed away and so we headed over to take part in the Yarmouth CBC. We were part of route A and just cut the route in two, we had the northern section. One of the beauties of doing a new CBC is that you get to see an area in a different way. We’d birded much of our route before but never with the requirement to see as much of the avian life present in precise numbers.

Our little sojourn had the added entertainment of the car going ape. It ran ok but the locking mechanism kept kicking in as if it was having a fit. Each stop to call in chickadees was enlivened by the staccato clunking of the locks, it didn’t put them off though as we logged 102 individuals. The better, but still expletive cold weather, meant somewhat easier birding but our overall species count only numbered 41. Within that almost meaning of life number was a prize White-crowned Sparrow, a good winter bird hereabouts. We also enjoyed lots of American Pipits, Turkey Vultures were everywhere and it was good to see a bunch of House Finches, a species we always rely on Yarmouth for.

At the end of the count we assembled at Eric and Barb’s place in Yarmouth (many thanks), chatted and munched and, after a bird log call type of thing, found we’d collectively encountered 92 species on the day with more count week birds to add. The CSI total is not yet known but, despite the bad weather of the day, is optimistically expected to be OK. At some future date the Nova Scotia Bird Society will have the results province-wide and, once again, we’ll have a snapshot of the bird life in our province.

Thanks to all CBC organisers for another good year, please do something about the weather next year though please.

This American Tree Sparrow fed by bouncing up and down on the Alder seed stem, shaking out seeds onto the snow which it consumed. Interesting behaviour.