Over the Hump

Birders like to slice up the avian cake, picking the best bits to enjoy first. Spring, autumn, winter but not deep winter – that is the soggy bit, and finally summer. Summer is when we do the breeding birds, count the fledglings and keep a watchful eye out for threats (us) to threatened breeders. Summer is the hump, a season of less pulse racing excitement but very important as, without it, there won’t be any more birds although you might be forgiven for thinking that was what many people (not birders) were aiming for. We hear the reports of folks knocking down Cliff Swallow nests because of the mess, have you seen how much mess you make yourself petal! People and industry (builders etc.) go slashing through trees and shrubs while birds are on eggs or feeding young, then the aftermath ends up in bird care places. Not to mention all those farmers, hobbyists and ‘real’ ones, who now cut their hay fields just as the grasslands species’ young are in the nests. Bobolinks are roundly screwed thanks to this and the Government fails to tackle it with cash incentives to promote better cutting policies. If it costs the farmers dollars, even miniscule amounts, then species protection means zip but don’t get me started on this, whoops, too late.

Anyway, we are now over the hump and the shorebirds are heading south. I took a look at The Hawk, Cape Sable Island today (July-5th) and counted, give or take five, 537 Short-billed Dowitchers out there. They can reach 15,000 in numbers in fact the shorebirds in general will be so numerous that counting is just a case of a good guess for some species at times.

A few days ago Rachel Hoogenbos, who lives on Daniel’s Head, saw a small egret off the back of her place. It had visible head plumes and Little Egret needed to be ruled out. She gave us a call and we got flight views which seemed to back up the expected Snowy Egret although she has had Little off there before and has even seen them side-by-side in Florida. Today I got a good look at the egret, well one of them as there may be two. Today’s bird certainly had some visible plumes but not the very elongate sort shown by Little, however, plumes break. In this case the yellow lores (face) and the extent and shape of the chin feathering, plus a few other features, again point to Snowy Egret. The bird also has a gammy leg so we should be able to track it when it moves, assuming it does.

 

This photo shows two Snowy Egrets and two Little Egrets together.

Daniel’s Head has been a regular spot for me recently although we did have visitors from the UK which meant I had to be sensible(ish). On June 25th Alix d’Entremont and Paul Gould found first one, then a second Forster’s Tern on the receding tide. The views were difficult at times and the photo ops even more of a challenge. Forster’s are found north to Massachusetts as part of their regular range, then further north still as irregular vagrants to rare vagrant the further you go. Most on-line images for them tend to focus on the easy non-breeding plumage, whereas this pair where one in full summer plumage and one showing a second-summer type with some had moult and darker than adult primaries. My photos were pants so I won’t even bother putting them here.

Other birds around have included more Nelson’s Sparrows, some very showy around Daniel’s Head. An irregular Black-crowned Night-Heron has been at the same spot, and an elusive Green Heron was on Hirtle’s Pond, The Hawk. Luck was very much required to see it and I only got lucky once when it flew into the fog. High ISO on the photo and all that.

Finally, we don’t get too many Cliff Swallows and in Shelburne Co they are a very scarce breeder, although the nests remain in-tact as far as I know. One was on The Hawk July-5th, resting on wires.

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Red not Grey

Both Red and Red-necked Phalarope are abundant migrants offshore in NS. In the bay of Fundy, clouds of them gather in the late summer through autumn and the whale trips pass bobbing flocks as they head whale-wards, not pausing for the ardent birders aboard to spend time looking. So, when you get either species down and in summer plumage then you take time to enjoy. On May-28th a distant blob inside the seawall on Daniel’s Head was scoped and soon resolved into a Red Phalarope, a bit drab at distant and so thought to be a male.

All three phalaropes dress their males in rags while the females are the ones that glad up for the party. Drab has various levels and perhaps upper-drab would describe a summer plumaged male Red Phalarope. The alert went out locally and the bird was enjoyed, as a blob, before it melted away. The tide was rising and the appearance of one, then two Cliff Swallows rather monopolised our attention, especially as the recent putative Cave Swallow near Halifax had us on high alert for ours. Cliff Swallow on CSI is not very common and these birds were my second and third in two years of pretty intensive birding.

The tide was a good one and the water was creeping up and into the corner by the parking lot. I had started for home when I glimpsed a bird in the partially submerged grassy margins. A bit of slewed parking had me out of the car and stealthily edging toward the bird, a species with a reputation for indifference to humans. At first it noticed me and drifted out a little, spinning for insects and chugging along like a swimming pigeon; then it turned and came to within eight feet. The light was tough, 1000 ISO to get a decent speed. Closer too it was obviously a female, a real beauty.

The Cliff Swallows were hawking insects off the beach, a little mixed flock with Tree and Barn. Later they all perched in a line for a wash and brush up, startling with each passing truck.

Just as an illustration of the beach insect fare available, this Willet was helping itself to a beak full.

Later the same day Johnny called with another Orchard Oriole at Murray’s feeders, his third of the spring. This time it was a full male and a handsome beast. It spent time on the hummer feeder snaffling a bit of sweet water before slipping off again. Most Orchard Orioles on CSI are the immature types, nice, but not quite as spectacular as a full male, thanks for the call Johnny.

This Alder Flycatcher was yacking away along Kenney Road recently.

Some of the birds seen along the Clyde River Road recently. Hermit Thrush, a Magnolia Warbler and a Palm Warbler.

Finally, I think I am right in calling this a Hoary Elfin, found along the Clyde River Road.

Odd Fellow

Not all birds look just like they should do! A few days ago I was out around Cape Sable Island when I found a bunch of swallows feeding in a stiff wind, gathered around an insect accumulating corner of Baker’s Flats. My initial viewpoint had me seeing flashes of birds as they rocketed around the small area, mostly obscured by trees. I think I had a composite view of a brown bird because later, it was clear that there were two brown swallows in the flock, from seeing the one composite view I was edging towards Northern Rough-winged Swallow.

I called Mike first and he came along to look, it would be a good CSI bird. By the time he arrive I had changed position and noted that two birds were indeed involved and that neither were the hoped for rough-wing. One was a brown Tree Swallow, slightly ragged and referred to in the field guide as a drab female. The other was even more curious, it was a brown Barn Swallow. The weather conditions and the speed of the subjects made photography near impossible but I did get one, out of focus image of the Barn Swallow for the record. On the rather grey Saturday May-27th, I came across the Barn Swallow again, this time in slightly better conditions so I took the opportunity to get better doc-shots.

I’ll start with what Barn Swallow is supposed to look like.

Now here is the brown bird. In flight you can see some blue feathering around the inner primaries, at rest it looks quite odd though, a Barn Swallow awaiting the application of blue paint!

Below is one of the Brown Tree Swallows.

In truth, the weather has been a bit spotty. Migration continues, but some species are notably absent, at least from the area I usually bird. Red-eyed Vireo must have just slipped in, I had one around Port Latour, just one, but have yet to add one to my admittedly healthy CSI year list that I’m not doing. Checking with the stats for 2016, when we did a CSI big year, I suspect I’m a good few birds up. By the end of July 2016 I was at 197, the end of May 2017 sees me with 190 and still no Red-eyed Vireo, Semipalmated Plover or even Curlew Sandpiper! I do suspect that CSI year ticks will be hard to come by now but I am willing to be surprised, not that I’m complaining, it has been a good year I feel and it will just keep getting better. We also have a big year for visitors, friends and family and that will add to making 2017 memorable too.

Here are a few photos from around The Hawk (in fog and rain!) on May-27th.

Tomorrow, May-29th, marks the second anniversary of our arrival in Nova Scotia. Two very weary travellers pulled up onto the drive of our house at Clam Point and set about cleaning it, removing four years-worth of muck and bugs, and building an Ikea bed without the instructions. Hauling two traumatised cats out of the van and into their new home was fun and, of course, we started the yard list! We’d been on the road 26 hours, I nearly hit a Deer in Quebec, it was millimeters, and Sandra fell asleep at the wheel near Lunenburg, the rumble strip waking her before her allergy to head-on impact with a semi kicked-in!

Now Nova Scotia is very much home, the cats have settled down and the yard lists blooms. We love it here and wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.

Cape-tastic

A visit to The Cape, the sliver of land off the end of Cape Sable Island, Nova Scotia is always worthwhile, even if you only get a pleasant walk out of it. The real hope though is that you will find unusual birds, rarities that get lost in the acres of cover on the main island but have nowhere to hide (much) in the confines of The Cape. It has been a bit neglected of recent, what with lousy gales and the activity associated with the Lighthouse renovations, work that is now coming to an end. Today (4/12/17) the weather was good and there was a ride in the offing, you need a boat to get there. You always set off more in hope than expectation but you also compile a mental ‘could be there’ list, well I do.

With Piping Plovers showing up on Daniel’s Head on 4/10 (one bird, seven on 4/11), then it was time to see whether The Cape pairs were also back – they weren’t. The route around The Cape took us through the marsh and dunes to the light and then along the shingle bank and back to the pick-up point, 5-6 km of walking and bog and sand, stones and kelp but all worth it. We recorded 34 species including some passing Thick-billed Murres and Razorbills, a scope would have got us Common Murre too but it was too far to call 100%. If you want to see the eBird checklist, click on the link, you don’t need an account to view. http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S35899474

It was pretty quiet at first, Savannah Sparrows serenaded us and Brant wandered everywhere. It wasn’t until we hit the light that the sea birds showed best, if distant in some cases. I dare say a full day with a scope would have been well worth recording but time pressed and, while Ervin and I watched the sea, Alix and Mike crunched along the stony bank. 100m later my phone rang, “Yellow-throated Warbler’ said Alix, game on. It was flighty, hiding behind the abandoned Lobster traps and flying along the ridge out of sight. Better views were had further on; this was the best shot I got.

 

Yellow-throated Warbler is rare in spring in NS with, I think, less than a dozen records. Most show up as summer/fall overshoots or reverse migrants. It was Cape Sable Island bird 251 for me, another step toward 300 – you have to have ambition.

We searched the bank for the warbler, finding four Purple Sandpipers and a Fox Sparrow but the warbler had slipped away as they often do. Further on, a tiny brown bullet shot between Lobster traps, a Winter Wren. It proved hard to get a good look at but we ruled out Pacific Wren by using the following criteria, we could see the Atlantic Ocean – good enough for me. The photos were hard to get, flight only.

 

We later enjoyed views of the two American Oystercatchers that are back for the season, plus lots more Brant and bits and pieces, then we were off. I paused on Hawk Point Road on the way home to enjoy a first of the year Tree Swallow before pushing on. Our yard is as good as anywhere to catch passing birds and this Palm Warbler there made it year tick #4 for the day, you have got to love spring. I think we have a few more days more of this productive weather, the early bounce for some species is most welcome and, after a bit of a dismal March, things are looking up, down and deeply into the bushes.

Rogue’s Gallery

Birders come to Cape Sable Island with the expectation of seeing something different. That expectation can sometimes lead to over-exuberance when it comes to identifying the birds, one classic case is the regular winter confusion of the Daniel’s Head farm geese with Snow Goose, To complicate matters, that little cabal of interlopers did harbour a Snow Goose found by Johnny during this past winter, although it only lingered into the very early part of 2017. It is not just the fairly straightforward geese that throw a feathered spanner into the works; more than once I’ve pulled up sharp when a glance of a rusty flank has suggested Northern Shoveler or a grey body hinted at Northern Pintail and all that comes into focus is a duck Jim, but not as we know it. I am talking about the flock of mucky ducks* (not a species, put that pen away) that we have around the south end of CSI and so, for one time only, here for your enjoyment are photos of some of our rogues.

Mucky Ducks are basically (mostly) Mallard derivatives that have, over time, been cross-bred to produce the mad scientist-like designs we see today. There are many ‘pure’ breeds of duck, all derivatives, for an example just Google ‘Indian Runner’ to see what I mean. A bred special bred to stand upright and run, no idea why.

Ducks are quite slack about their romantic preferences, mostly because, like some governments, it is a male-dominated system and the males just take what they want when the mood is upon them, often upon many of them. The females cannot even grin and bear it, what with having rigid bills and so, in the wild, we do get some odd concoctions.  It is not just ducks but geese are just as bad but, at the end of the day, they all taste the same, just like duck or goose!

 

This one is a hybrid Mallard x Northern Pintail, a Mintard. Luckily the parentage is obvious, that is not always the case.

 

Moving on to geese, here is a Snow x Ross’s Goose, Snow body, Ross’s head.

 

This one is a Greater White-fronted Goose x Canada, the clues are there.

 

This seems to have Canada Goose in it but what else? That bill pattern suggests maybe Emperor?

 

This one is tough, the bill suggests maybe Greylag, makes you wonder what sort of parties its parents went too!

 

Not every weird goose is a hybrid, can you figure this one out.

 Not ducks but it was like Panama City over the yard today with a kettle of Turkey Vultures and one Bald Eagle.

Ugly Mugs

Even in the depth of winter, Turkey Vultures can be seen over parts of southern Nova Scotia. For some reason the Yarmouth area* has quite a concentration, perhaps there are just lots of old people around there and the vultures are born optimists, whatever the attraction, it is sometimes possible to see 20+ arcing through the skies on their pronounced dihedral wing attitudes.

*Good place to release a recuperated Black Vulture don’t you think?

Sandra and I were out that way recently and this little bunch were being surprisingly calm around the end of Chebogue Point Road. Usually the vultures are a little wary, they don’t get many invites to parties with a face like that, and will scoot off when you get within reasonable lens range. This lot must have had something very attractive nearby and there for a while too as they’d been quite liberal with their guano, selecting a parked truck for special attention.

On the way home these Hooded Mergansers were hang out below a bridge right next to the road. With a change of driver and a little bit of wild braking, I was able to lean out and grab a couple of photos before they truly realised what was happening an paddled off – survival instinct I suppose.

 

The weather has been a bit inclement and perhaps overly-breezy recently, I think we nudged 100mph on the wind gauge on the afternoon of 3/14. All this weather makes photo opportunities around Cape Sable Island few and far between. The light has also been a bit dour, rather like a Scottish Headmaster we had at school but without the cane. One of my regular little pull-ins has been Swimm Point. On 3/14 I had only my second Lesser Black-backed Gull of the year on CSI. It sat tight for a while before getting up and doing a bit of light jostling for the look of the thing. Also paddling about was a male American Wigeon and a pair of Northern Pintails. Unfortunately the male chose to stay scrunched up but the female had a bit of a stretch, showing her subtle plumage.

 

As we shiver ever nearer to spring, the pace of the year generally might be regarded as slow. True there has been the odd good bird, two rare geese throughout and the Thayer’s Gull which will be a year highlight, no matter what else turns up. My CSI year list, not that I’m doing one as a mission this year, is only 103, I think I had about 12 more at this time last year. I expect we’ll emerge gloriously from the pre-spring slump with something good, hopefully something easy to see and long-staying just to warm the cockles. I had thought about making some predictions but I decided against it, so I’ll just do 15 Nova Scotia ticks I’d appreciate, preferably all in Shelburne and, even better, all to be found on CSI.  Any excuse for the airing of a few a few cheery photos, all mine. 

With a Clark’s Grebe in New York State recently, perhaps not such an outside bet?

I’m told they were once common, now few and far between. A recent Eastern Meadowlark at Daniel’s Head just would not play the game.

A good shout, I’m sure we will get a Wilson’s Phalarope this year, well, almost sure.

I really should have seen one of these in NS by now.

This might just qualify as my NS nemesis bird! a Townsend’s Solitaire.

Time for Ervin to find another, American Avocet.

We ought to get Northern Wheatears more often.

A spring Franklin’s would be nice.

There has been a Spotted Towhee in Quebec (again) this winter, our turn?

Needs a bit of a blow at just the right time, fingers crossed.

I was surprising that we didn’t get one in last autumn’s Dartmouth warbler and vireo fest, a Black-throated Grey Warbler.

The New Brunswick bird was so close, if it happens again we stand in NS with a boom-box laying the song good and loud!

I’ve heard the story and had the bit where the Daniel’s Head bird sat showed to me, time for another Loggerhead Shrike.

Lots of new posts in the Guzzle sheep pen ready and waiting, Fork-tailed Flycatcher.

A fine looking species and something to hope for, Eared Grebe.

Back to Brown

Yes, the song Amy Winehouse (singer, coke-head) wanted to write but couldn’t, she’d never seen a Gyr, well at least when not stoned. I thought I’d revisit the Joggins Gyr Falcon and put a few more of the 300+ shots I took up here, some are even from very slightly different angles. I thought I’d also tell you what Gyrs mean to me and why.

In the UK Gyr Falcon was mythical and only a very few birders had seen one, they had that prize on their list while we mere mortals coveted it like an attractive Ox. Everything changed with the Berry Head, Devon bird of 1986. That one was a white-phase and had a grand audience for every one of the ten days that it graced the Berry Head, a rocky headland that it obviously found an acceptable substitute for some Icelandic rock face. The genuine rarity of the bird was one of the the defining factors in my really wanting to see one, another factor was a story I’d heard first-hand when staying on Scilly in autumn 1984.

I’d been on Scilly for (a scheduled) three weeks and then had the offer of floor space for a fourth and very much unscheduled week, which I gratefully accepted. A couple of the guys stopping in the same house had been birding on the Western Isles the year before (top left of the UK). They had been camping and emerged from the tent one morning to find a white Gyr sat on a nearby fence post. It was what every birder dreamed, no fantasised might happen, and it was a fantasy that didn’t even involve Kate Bush! This background is by way of making the point that Gyr Falcon, like Thick-billed Murre, has a position in my historical birding psyche that is unlikely to ever shift, no matter how many I see of each, they are special.

That is why we went to Joggins recently to see the Gyr Falcon, that and the obvious opportunity to improve my admittedly shoddy Gyr Falcon photo inventory and to see a real one! Had we not stopped for a curry in Bayer’s Lake (see earlier post)and just carried on home, we might not have turned around and hacked over to the borderlands for the bird. I’d already mentally made my cut-off ‘point-of-no-return’ had positive news of the bird come through, admittedly it was Barrington but all the same, I was ready to abandon the cause.

These last two are for the more interested birders showing the underwing and the talons.

 

I don’t have a deal else to show you, the weather continues in the stroppy vein, horizontal snow as I look out but only the dusty stuff, not buxom flakes. I did have some luck with a local Snowy Owl recently. I don’t see them as frequently as I did in Quebec, just the odd one or two at favoured sites. At Baccaro Point two have been around forever but are usually just faces in the distance unless you go after them, which I don’t. When I arrived there yesterday (3/10), the male was sat on the rocks off the parking lot. He even flew from one perch to another before depositing himself on the shingle beach further along, and even then he was kind to a humble snapper. Not great shots by any means but alright.

 

In the yard the first Common Grackle of the year has just appeared. It is nice when there is one but soon it will be an invasion and the feeders will take a battering. They are a portent of what is to come, hopefully we will have a good spring here and I’ll get to see a few of the not so rare species missing off my CSI and Nova Scotia list. The bad weather does have one positive aspect, I’m Back in the groove for entering my older records from my notebooks into eBird. I’ve done five so far, only about  17 more to do yet, each containing 300+ birding trips. It’s funny, but not having all my old records in eBird irritates and has done for some time, OCD? I might get it done once and for all or, as the birds start to arrive, I’ll get distracted again. If only eBird had been around in 1981, or even computers or even electricity!

You will notice that the blog looks a bit different now, I thought a refresh of the theme was in order. I use the free WordPress themes which means you might see ads, sorry about that. If any ads for Malta, Flamingoes or Lionel Ritchie show up please let me know, there are limits.