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.

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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.

Waiting for the June ‘Big One’

We are waiting for the June ‘big one’ or, more likely, having to make do with admiring the photos of it as the ‘big one’, this time was a Black-bellied Whistling Duck that sailed on by Baccaro and was seen and photographed by Paul Gould never to be seen again, such is life. The duck is a big rarity here in Canada and would, had it had the sense to pitch down somewhere between Baccaro and Port Clyde, have attracted upwards of ten, maybe 15  dedicated NS twitchers to see it, yes that is the scale of disruption to your day to day life you can expect if you host a rarity. It is hoped that the duck did find a nice, weedy pool with trees to sit in and food to sustain it after a long flap, and maybe someone will notice it and put the word out. I hope it is somewhere at this end of NS but really, anywhere we can drive to will do.

My personal opinion on our returning migrants so far is that some species are down in number (relatively). Common Yellowthroats, Black-throated Green Warblers and Nelson’s Sparrow all seem to be a bit lacking. Of course it is purely subjective, but isn’t that what bird recording is all about until the end-data is compiled? Vireos were quite scarce until late on but now seem to be ‘in’, so what happened? Maybe the birds arrived, sang and paired and are now busy raising young, or maybe ill-timed Hurricane Matthew did more damage to eastern bird populations that we appreciate.

Cheerfully moving one, the NS year list creeps ever on, 235 to date, as I cross paths with species that surprising forgot to call in at Cape Sable Island on their way to do the business. One species that rarely seems to call in on CSI is Canada Warbler. Fortunately one is doing Common Yellowthroat impressions along Frotton Road in Yarmouth County, showing at times but rarely sitting still enough for a decent shot. Nearby an irregular species on Frotton, Olive-sided Flycatcher, is after three quick beers or words to that effect. I had a trip there with Ronnie before he went of adventuring west and we saw both species well.

 

A couple of days earlier Sandra and I checked out the Sand Beach area of Yarmouth, seeing a well-hidden American Bittern and then seeing and hearing a Willow Flycatcher, presumably the same bird as last year, finding the spot to its liking and giving it another go as it were. The bittern I got lousy photos of, but that has never stopped me sharing them before. The flycatcher I thought  I’d reprise a photo from last year and couple it with an Alder Flycatcher, one half of the dreaded ‘Trail’s’, nobody likes messy ids. I’ll not say which is which but here are two side-by-side shots of both species, placed like this there are differences obvious to the practiced eye, unquantifiable perhaps, but there nonetheless.

 

Sandra and I did a trip up the Wentworth Lake Road at Jordan Falls. Very birdy even for midday and it provided some nice odes too, see the side bar link for Eastern Canada Odes if you have an interest. Warblers were plentiful but camera shy. The Ruffed Grouse below put on a great show as it dust-bathed in the road and was then joined by five tiny young. I hate to call this group ‘game birds’ because it harks back to a time when we had to shoot them for food, not like now when it is for just for fun, and that is what it is even if you do eat them. You have to marvel at the tiny chicks out there in the wild with all the attendant terrors just waiting to make their life shorter. That enough do make it to adulthood (and thereby providing a viable ‘harvest, DNR words, not mine) is amazing.

 

So summer is here, the temperatures are soaring and the natural world gets down to continuing the cycle as best it can. Despite our interference (can you believe we clear cut land at the expense of our wildlife to sell to the highest bidder, are we really just dollar bitches?) we have to hope that populations recover and that next year we paint a rosier picture. My heart hopes it is so but my gut says dream on.

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.

Spring in the Step

There was a definite feeling of spring in the air today. Backing this up was a text from Ronnie about singing Red-winged Blackbirds, always a good sign. He followed that up with a Broad-winged Hawk, a good bird for this time of year and one that has been very scarce in NS this winter. At this point I was thinking about heading that way anyway, if only for a change of scenery. The third text, and I quote “Holy shit, Northern Shrike” swung it and we were soon heading out of the house.

Argyle Head is a really nice river valley that is always birdy. The Red-winged Blackbirds continued to sing from their newly re-inhabited tree tops but the shrike was initially absent. After 15 minutes or so it loped in and the twitchers, all five of us, were rewarded with  back-lit views as it moved from dead tree to dead tree. It did vanish for a while but then came back, bouncing into a tree with much kinder light and we got our photos.

 

Above, a back-lit shot of the shrike. I ramped up the exposure to compensate but failed to drop it when the light was better, hence the hue to the next photo.

Once adjusted, the image improves and, after cropping and pruning, is not too bad.

Emboldened we had a bit of an explore, finding a Snow Goose, clipped and with two similarly attired Canada Geese so don’t go chasing it. We then resolved to visit Meteghan in Digby County. Meteghan has two main attractions; it gets loads of gulls and has a Sip Café. The gulls behaved fairly well but panicked at the wrong moment meaning I only got snatched shots of the Kamchatka Gull that still resides there. Three Glaucous and around 90 Kumlien’s were also enjoyed but small gulls were at a premium. We did eventually find a single Black-headed Gull, almost in full-summer plumage.

 

The superb Kamchatka Gull still hanging out at Meteghan, this shot from the fish plant outfall to the north of the wharf.

That was about it really, we did see four routine Harlequins at Cape Saint Mary’s, never thought I’d call Harlequins routine but they are always there in winter. Yarmouth yielded little but two roadside Wood Ducks at Argyle Head were welcome year-list additions on the way home.