Saturday, July 19, 2014

Hurricane birding, take 3

(see my posts from Hurricane Sandy in Oct 2012 and Tropical Storm Gabrielle in Sept 2013 (Hammond's Flycatcher) for takes 1 and 2)

Ok, I finally have a day off and can write a post! A bit of backstory has to be told first though. Back in late March, freshly arrived back to frigid Canada from the tropical paradise of Panama, I headed down to Long Point to start what has been an interesting season of setting up radio telemetry towers for the MOTUS Wildlife Tracking System. This is basically a network of towers (about 200 total) strung across eastern Canada and the United States to monitor bird and bat migration. See here for more: As of a few days ago I've been involved in setting up over 100 of these! This work has taken me all across southern Ontario, to most of the corners of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, and now to the St. Lawrence region of Quebec. In a few days I will be heading out to Prince Edward Island and Les Iles-de-la-Madeleine on another deployment round. Over the course of this I've had some luck in finding rarities and adding some regional specialties to my life (and Canada) lists! The Northern Wheatear and Western Wood-Pewee featured in my last post were certainly highlights, as were hearing/seeing at least 7 (lifer) Bicknell's Thrushes in QC (and 1 in NS), finding my lifer Ruff in with some Lesser Yellowlegs (in flight, no photos unfortunately) in QC, and spending time studying the regional specialties of the Atlantic Provinces that so rarely make it to Ontario.

Back in late June I said goodbye to my coworker Daniel as he headed back home to SK and headed out on a week-long trip around southern Nova Scotia to check on existing towers, download data, and find new inland sites for towers later this year or next. About this same time a weather system off Florida started making the news, and built up steam to become Hurricane Arthur. With a well-defined eye and Category 2 status it hit the Outer Banks of North Carolina, after which time radar images showed large numbers of birds stuck in the eye, and the track was headed straight for Nova Scotia, toward where I was working. All of this lined up perfectly (for me anyway) and I got July 5 off work to do some storm birding. I stayed at my friend Alix's place in Pubnico the night before and in the early morning I made my way to Cape Sable Island, where 100km/h + southeast winds were ripping through and presumably pushing seabirds into shore. Unfortunately for me, heavy fog limited the visibility to about 200m offshore, too close to really see anything! As the storm passed and the winds shifted (but definitely didn't weaken!) the fog moved out a bit and improved visibility to ~1km, at which point I could see Storm-Petrels heading past, moving south - mostly Leach's but with a couple Wilson's mixed in. I spent pretty much the entire morning staked out at the Hawk (southern tip of the island), seawatching, and was rewarded with Forster's, Caspian, Roseate, Arctic and SANDWICH Terns in amongst the Commons, along with the aforementioned Storm-Petrels, a single Parasitic Jaeger, several Purple Martins and a few Laughing Gulls. By the early afternoon, the show was slowing down so I decided to wander the island a bit to see what else was around. A Royal Tern had been reported up at Daniel's Head, so that was my logical first stop. A few Laughing Gulls were on the beach and a Purple Martin flew over, but no Royal Terns were to be found on the beach, so I moved further up and wandered down a small cliff to get out of the wind when bam! Royal Tern cruising by not 30 feet away from me!!! I sprinted back to the car for the camera but when I returned it was a few hundred metres down the beach and still going... My further wanderings turned up this same individual on another part of the island, at which point I got some photos though! I also found two Harlequin Ducks here later in the day which were a very special bird for a different reason. My original plan was to update the little list on the right of my page after every post on my Central America trip (which I will still do), but since it's been so long that may have to wait a while. I will just go ahead and ruin the surprise to say that Harlequin Duck was my 1000th species for North America (AOU area) in 2014, far surpassing my goal of 779 that I set back in January when I planned my trip!!!! Why 779?? That was my AOU lifelist as of December 31, 2013, so it seemed like a good goal. Now my AOU list is up to 1258!

Anyway, continuing on - late in the day I went to a small beach on the east side of the island and found 3 terns patrolling the beach (flying over the sand, not the water). Since they were very white, my brain thought hmm that's odd behaviour for a Roseate Tern (which I had seen a few of earlier in the day) until I got my bins up and saw that they were GULL-BILLED Terns!!!! My third new-for-Canada tern of the day! After watching them for a while I moved on (at which point I refound the Royal Tern) before leaving the island and checking every harbour and inlet on the way back to Pubnico for the night. In Shag Harbour I had brief looks at what I think was probably a Least Tern, but my views were not good enough to clinch the ID - agh... There were a few others reported in the province with the storm so it very well could have been!

The next day I had work to do, checking as many towers as I could to see if Arthur had taken any out. One of these was at Cape Forchu, which is right beside where two Black Skimmers had been reported the night before. Naturally I started there, and found 5(!) Black Skimmers resting on a gravel bar (right where I thought I might find them after they were not in the original location ~2km away!). I also found a tower that had been knocked down by Arthur, unfortunately. Luckily this was the only one (that I know of), and for the rest of the day I worked my way from Yarmouth up to Halifax, alternating checking on towers with checking inlets and ponds for hurricane waifs before heading back to New Brunswick for the night. I had some success in this as well, finding more Royal Terns and others - see below for totals.

All in all it was a pretty successful storm search, adding 4 new birds to my Canada list and getting some new self-found birds in (along with a bunch of Nova Scotia ticks)!

Storm birds list:

Harlequin Duck - 2
Leach's Storm Petrel - 8
Wilson's Storm Petrel - 3
Red-necked Phalarope - 2
Parasitic Jaeger - 1
Laughing Gull - 211
Gull-billed Tern - 3
Caspian Tern - 1
Roseate Tern - 5 (presumed not from the local breeding population, as they were not near known colonies - also had 9 on July 4 in Pubnico at the colony)
Arctic Tern (some locals) - 91
Forster's Tern - 21
Royal Tern - 7
Sandwich Tern - 1
Black Skimmer - 5
Chimney Swift - 1
Purple Martin - 19