Sunday, January 14, 2018

2017 and the Nova Scotia Big Year that wasn't

Well another year's gone by and I've managed to neglect this blog for most of it. The usual excuses are to blame... work, school, birding, etc. I managed to get away for bits here and there; BC in early January and BC with a side of west coast USA (WA -> CA) in April/May to visit with Siobhan, but for the most part I was here in the Maritimes, bouncing from place to place and loosely based out of Wolfville, NS. I managed to rack up a pretty decent year list along the way, mainly unintentionally as I was not really twitching and didn't even think about a high year tally until November when I realized I was up there with some easy stuff to go! It seems that every year on January 1 I tell myself I'm not doing a year list, and then late fall rolls around and I realize I have a decent total and some easy stuff left to get. Anyway, here's a bit of a rundown of the year, with species list and how it could have gone had I been doing a Big Year (discussion on species missed for the entire year only - obviously I would have been birding a lot more in the earlier part of the year had I been doing a Big Year!). Numbers after the months indicate number of species seen by the end of the month, followed by the number of those that were self-found. The difference between these will indicate the number twitched, and will change as I find birds I had twitched earlier in the year. Skip to the end if you only want to know the hypothetical total.

January - 34/34 (34 seen, 34 self-found)

I arrived back from my trip to BC on January 6 to blizzard conditions and jumped straight back into school, with TA duties, classes and working on thesis stuff. Between the short days and general lack of enthusiasm for birding on foot in the snow around Wolfville, my first birding outing was a walk down to the Rail Trail (about 5 mins from my house at the time) with Avery Bartels on January 21! The highlights of that venture were an abieticola Red-tailed Hawk and my only Northern Shrike of the year, along with the typical winter fare that I hadn't already seen from my yard.

 Harlequin Duck in Victoria

Mallard x Northern Pintail hybrid in Victoria

Had I been doing a Big Year, I would have been able to pick up Greater White-fronted* and Pink-footed Geese (Yarmouth), Red-shouldered Hawk (Yarmouth) and Red-headed Woodpecker (Bass River), giving me +4 for the year (these were all twitchable birds! *GWFG would still be a NS tick for me too - others which would be NS ticks still will be listed in this with a *). There was also a Trumpeter Swan* in Lunenburg which would have rated some searching for but my chances would have been slim, so I'm not putting it on the 'could have added' list.

February - 59/59

My first trip afield in the province was on Feb 1, when Phil (my supervisor) wanted to go look for a Pacific Loon that Jake (labmate) had found a few days earlier at Black Rock. We didn't have any luck, but I got my Harlequin Ducks and Purple Sandpipers for the year along with some other waterbirds. New birds came in dribs and drabs through the month as I managed to get out a few times locally, adding Short-eared Owl on an adventure with Dom where we got a tiny car stuck in a snowdrift, a Peregrine Falcon over my house, and missing a Snowy Owl with Avery out in Horton Landing.

 Purple Sandpiper - digiscope

Over the month there were a few other twitchable goodies that I didn't see over the course of the year, namely Redhead (Glace Bay), Gyrfalcon* (Joggins) and Townsend's Solitaire (East Lawrencetown). So far I'd be at +7!

March - 77/74

On March 12, I was in luck for my first real birding trip (and twitch) of the year. Jake wanted to go look for the "Kamchatka" Mew Gull that had been hanging out in Meteghan, and as I was also keen, I hitched a ride down with him. The day was pretty horrible, weather-wise, which may have been why we couldn't convince anyone else to come with us. Near gale-force winds and sideways snow along with a rather low number on the windchill made for an uncomfortable time scanning gull flocks, but it was well worth it when the tiny dark-mantled one appeared! With that under our belts we headed for Yarmouth, where we managed to strike out on everything else we looked for. We pulled up to the harbour only to have Ervin tell us the two geese (Pink-footed and Greater White-fronted) had left about 30 seconds earlier. Despite scouring the harbour and all the goose fields we had no luck. A quick trip out to Pleasant Lake in unpleasant conditions unsurprisingly didn't turn up the Red-shouldered Hawk. Heading back to Meteghan we didn't find the Kam Gull again but did have a Black-headed Gull which had been seen earlier by others. Later in the month I had to make a run up to Sackville to pick up the work van, and Avery and I stopped in at Sullivan's Pond on our way back, where we saw the continuing Tufted Duck and "Common" Mew Gull without much effort!

 Kamchatka Gull

 Common Gull

 Tufted Duck

A King Eider* showed up in Halifax, but wasn't twitchable at the time. Some of the birds mentioned above hung on through March, so I'd still be at +7 had I been going all-out!

April - 105/98

Ahhh, spring! With birds arriving back, Luc (my labmate) and I went birding with Phil up at Scots Bay early in the month. Seeing a big flock of ducks in the usual pond, I commented it might be a good time to find a "Common" Green-winged Teal. Sure enough, about 30s later I had a nice male in the scope. Sweet! A number of other early migrants were year birds, and on our way back we twitched a Snow Goose, a NS tick for me. The rest of my adds for the month came on a whirlwind work tour with Toby (coworker) around the South Shore to check on our Motus telemetry receivers and prep them for the spring season. Best birds here were a "Western" Willet at Crescent Beach, Lunenburg, a Great Egret that we found at Cape Forchu, a continuing Barrow's Goldeneye in the Yarmouth Harbour, and a male Indigo Bunting coming to a feeder in Belleisle, Annapolis. Then it was off to BC and the US West Coast for a month!

Common Teal - digiscope

 Snow Goose - digiscope

 Great Egret

Black Phoebe near Victoria, BC - digiscope

Tunnel View at Yosemite NP, CA

Two Prothonotary Warblers showed up (Ketch Harbour and Pubnico), along with a Little Blue Heron (CSI), putting me at +9 had I been in the province and twitching!

May - 205/196

Returning from BC on May 10, I was right back into it with a quick trip over to Miner's Marsh with Lucas where the Little Blue Heron found the day before had cleared out. That would have been a nice Kings Co. tick! On May 13 we checked out a few spots between Wolfville and Kentville, working on timing and nailing down a few breeding species for our Big Day later in the month. May 15 I was off on another tour of the South Shore with Toby, swapping batteries and fixing a few towers we hadn't gotten to on our last time round. This picked me up a lot of returning migrants (especially in a mini-fallout at Daniel's Head, CSI), along with Scarlet Tanager, Northern Rough-winged Swallow, American Oystercatcher and a continuing Cattle Egret. After that I had to drive Toby up to Sackville, NB to start work on the Bicknell's Thrush project. After a detour to Maine for a conference, I did some scouting around Amherst with Dom, picking up Marsh Wren, Black Tern and a few others for the year, but missing out on the Wilson's Phalarope that had been seen the previous two days. Then it was back to Wolfville for a few days of work and scouting, picking up more returning migrants locally and getting to see a Sandhill Crane hanging out in someone's back field. On May 28, Luc and I did our all-out Big Day/Birdathon, starting in Amherst and finishing on Bon Portage Island. See my previous post for more detail, but with 168 species under our belts at the end of the day we smashed our previous record of 146! Highlights that day included Least Bittern, Common Gallinule, Long-eared Owl, Eastern Bluebird, Wood Thrush, Vesper Sparrow, Willow Flycatcher and Black-crowned Night-Heron. That closed out the month for us as we both got the flu and were too sick to explore much on BP in the last days of May!

 Cattle Egret

 Sandhill Crane

The King Eider* found in March became twitchable (I did actually have an hour one day to look, but it wasn't in the usual location that day!), a Wilson's Phalarope was in Amherst, and a (probable??) Cave Swallow* spent a couple days in Tantallon, sitting me at +12 on the hypothetical list. Additionally, Tricolored Heron (CSI), Swallow-tailed Kite* (Argyle) and Cerulean Warbler (Brier Island) were seen, and the first two of those were successfully twitched by people nearby. Would I have been birding the south at that time and able to twitch those if I were doing a Big Year? Probably, as it has the best rarity potential. Chalk up another 2 in brackets (the luck factor) +12 (14).

Additionally, and perhaps most aggravatingly, a BAR-TAILED GODWIT* was seen in Mavillette, and successfully twitched by some of the locals, although it was not widely posted for whatever reason until a day or two later, at which point it had departed. Luc and I were on Bon Portage at the time, and would have roused ourselves from our sickened slumber to chase such a mega-rarity, but c'est la vie I suppose - next time. +12 (15)

June - 226/216

A few days of semi-deliriously wandering the woods on BP looking for Blackpoll Warblers with colour bands while still under the influence of the flu was followed by a rather productive week on Seal Island. We managed to find 150 singing male Blackpoll Warblers out there (some of which were colour-banded in previous years), and added goodies like Green Heron, Summer Tanager, Northern Mockingbird, Acadian Flycatcher, Philadelphia Vireo, Prairie Warbler and Field Sparrow to the year list. We caught a ride back with the locals, necessitating a stop on CSI (Piping Plover) before heading back to Bon Portage for another week, where we promptly found a Blue Grosbeak. I had to bail on the Blackpolls a bit early to go do some Motus work for the Canadian Wildlife Service up in northern New Brunswick, which turned out to be rather lucky timing! On the 17th, as I was in Wolfville catching up on laundry and such, I saw a report of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks out in Musquodoboit Harbour on eBird. Following up the next day on my way to NB, the ducks were still there! A bird I'd been hoping to see in Canada for a while, and a whole flock of them at that. After my work in the north, I had a few days of computer work in Sackville, and did some exploring around Amherst, adding scarce boreal species like Spruce Grouse, Black-backed Woodpecker, Rusty Blackbird and Tennessee Warbler for the year. I got back to Wolfville on June 28, and stepped out of the van to hear a Black-billed Cuckoo calling in my backyard!

 You don't see Purple Sandpipers in the summer very often! - digiscope

 Seal Island sunrise

 Black Guillemot - had me wishing for a better lens

 Green Heron

Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks

In the 'could have been' category, Sable Island hosted a Fork-tailed Flycatcher* and a dead Brown Booby, another Brown Booby was later identified from photos on the Pearl Islands, Duncan's Cove had an untwitchable Burrowing Owl* (reported a week after the fact), and a Crested Caracara* showed up in Chezzetcook but was never refound. CSI also hosted a meadowlark on June 16 (the day I got off BP), which I could have gone to see, and likely would have seen had I done so. At the time it was reported as an Eastern (a species I've seen in NS, and I had things to do!), so I didn't twitch it. In October, the ID was updated to Western* (which I have not seen in NS!)... Anyway, coulda woulda shoulda - +13 (16).

July - 237/226

I had a few days of rest in Wolfville to start the month, during which time I went out looking for the local Northern Goshawk pair with Luc. Our first attempt was a failure, as we really had no idea where the nest was, and the area to search is fairly large. We got in touch with Bernard Forsythe, a local naturalist who's been monitoring the goshawks for over 25 years, and he took us right to the spot, where we watched the nestlings for a minute before the female came in, letting her aggravation be known. We took our leave at that point, not wanting to bother her further! The next few weeks were spent doing the summer Motus tour, first up the eastern shore and around Cape Breton (Bicknell's Thrush, Pine Grosbeak), and back via Pictou where I found a Franklin's Gull at my first stop during my first time birding the county (first county record)! Then it was down around the South Shore again, adding Purple Martin and a continuing Forster's Tern along with some regular summer seabirds, before heading to New Brunswick again. After that adventure I had a week in Wolfville to chill out and get ready for the upcoming field season before spending a few days in Halifax with Siobhan to finish off the month.

 Northern Goshawk nest

 Franklin's Gull (in back)

A Black Vulture* that turned up in Canso was the only new possible bird in July, along with a Little Blue Heron near Yarmouth and a Brown Booby on CSI. None of these were twitchable though, so I'd still be at +13 (16).

August - 260/250

I had a couple days in Wolfville at the start of the month; mostly getting field gear together with a side trip up to Cape Split on a sunny day. Then it was off to Bon Portage Island for 10 days and then Seal Island for most of the rest of the month! It was great to be back, doing my fifth and possibly last season on these islands. We had the best August I can remember in terms of both numbers and diversity of birds out there, and that included a number of good rarities! Dickcissel, Warbling Vireo, Baird's Sandpiper, Yellow-headed Blackbird, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Orchard Oriole, Caspian Tern, Lark Sparrow, Long-billed Dowitcher, Upland, Western, Buff-breasted and Stilt Sandpipers, Sandhill Crane and a Eurasian Collared-Dove to top them all off.

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron

Lark Sparrow

Yellow-headed Blackbird

I was invited on the deep-water pelagic at the start of the month but had to decline as it interfered with the field season schedule, and they turned up an Audubon's Shearwater! A Sandwich Tern turned up on a causeway near Lunenburg and a Curlew Sandpiper evaded good photo documentation at Martinique Beach. An American Avocet* at the end of the month near Yarmouth was very tempting, but a bit far for a detour on our grocery run! On the hypothetical list, I would have been on that pelagic and twitched the Avocet, putting me at +15 (18).

September - 271/262

The month started off with a bang! The day after Luc left to head off to Sable, we had a Common Ringed Plover fly by the station in the morning, calling all the while. I had just spent a bit of time listening to the tape in the previous few days, as they were turning up in Newfoundland in above-average numbers and I wanted to be ready in case one continued south! An hour or so later the wind shut our banding operations down, and we went for a walk around the north end to try to find the plover. A little brown bird sallied off a rock and without even thinking I yelled out "Say's Phoebe!!!". Then I had to actually look at it to make sure, and sure enough once it turned around the orangeish belly was obvious. After watching it disappear into the trees, we carried on around the island, scouring every shorebird flock we found with no luck on the plover. Returning to the cabins, the phoebe was sitting on the banding lab, as if taunting us. Two hours and a few different net placements later (including leaving the doors open on the cabins, one of which it flew into briefly after a bug!), we had it! It turned out to be the yukonensis subspecies, meaning this bird was a long way off-course, and a perfect target for my study on vagrant movements. The next two weeks were productive, adding Clay-colored Sparrow, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Yellow-throated Warbler and Eastern Whip-poor-will, before we headed out to Seal Island. A week of failed hurricane hits meant that we mostly had fog, rain, northeast winds, and few birds. It looked like the only consolation we would get from this was a Long-tailed Jaeger until right as Maria cleared out, a Magnificent Frigatebird decided the church would be a good spot to rest for a bit!!! Another Canada lifer for me and actually an ABA tick as well having missed them elsewhere. While viewing the frigatebird I could see jaegers moving past the east side, and a run down to the lighthouse just before dusk netted a South Polar Skua for the year.

Say's Phoebe

 Aurora Borealis on BP

 Magnificent Frigatebird

A Ruff spent some time in Kentville, and a Le Conte's Sparrow showed up in the Tusket Islands - neither of which would have been twitchable for me, being stuck out on the islands! Another Avocet* showed up on CSI, and we actually did look for it for about 5 minutes on a foggy pre-Seal grocery run with no luck. So still +15 (18).

October - 291/282

I'll admit that after the late September doldrums, and checking my targets for what I could maybe add for the year, I wasn't overly hopeful that I'd pass my previous year's total of 292, unless October proved to be a big one for vagrants (I only had about 10-12 regulars left, sitting at 271). Luckily the month pulled through! It was clear right from the start that the weather patterns had finally shifted, and we started to see some good stuff. Pacific Loon, Great Skua, Blue-winged Warbler, Eastern Towhee, Laughing Gull, Eastern Meadowlark and a Eurasian Wigeon joined the more expected Orange-crowned Warbler and White-crowned Sparrow on the additions. Then a Worm-eating Warbler, a few out-of-season Dovekies, and finally the Yellow-breasted Chat, Red-bellied Woodpecker and House Wren I'd been searching for all season. White-eyed Vireo was added on my last day on Seal. Back on BP, our rarest bird of the season showed up in the form of a Dusky Flycatcher that we identified and later managed to catch, band and tag for my project. Then on October 27, we had a huge fallout of rarities, adding Yellow-throated Vireo, Hooded Warbler and Golden-winged Warbler! It was also great to get better looks and photos of some species seen rather less well earlier in the year. What a way to end the season! Off BP, I had to drop one of our volunteers at the airport, and used the opportunity to go birding with Dom, seeing a Snowy Egret that had been hanging out down in Sambro. Unfortunately we didn't get much other birding in as it was extremely windy and pouring rain, so we headed back to his place to plan out his upcoming trip to Chile as I was just there last year. I ended the month 1 shy of my previous year's total, and with some regulars still to go, I figured I had a decent chance at 300. I should also mention that at this point in the year my camera decided to start falling apart again, so I didn't take many photos through the remainder of 2017.

Worm-eating Warbler, my 300th species for ABO!

The first fallout bird we caught - adult male Hooded Warbler!

Adult male Summer Tanager

Yellow-throated Vireo

One of the fallout highlights was this Golden-winged Warbler

Yellow-throated Warbler - unfortunately my camera chose the fallout day to start dying..

The only thing I never managed to see, and which I haven't already discussed, that showed up in October was the Tropical Kingbird* at Chebogue the same day we had the Dusky Flycatcher. Had it been posted 30 minutes earlier (post was up about 2h after it was found), Luc and I might have bailed off BP to go chase it. This may have made us miss the Dusky Flycatcher (we did recapture it on Oct 27, but maybe it wouldn't have stayed as long if we hadn't caught it the first time? Who knows) though, so I won't be adding any to the hypo-list. +15 (18).

November - 299/289

After a few days of post-field season stuff in Wolfville, I had to head back up to northern New Brunswick for work. Before that though, I had a potluck to attend in Ellershouse, and decided to leave Wolfville early to make a detour to Halifax. Picking up Dom, we quickly found the continuing Western Kingbird at the old dumpsite, and then scooted across the bridge to get Dom his NS lifer Golden-winged Warbler. The next morning I was back in Halifax to pick up Sydney, who'd be helping me out for a few days, and then off to try for the Barnacle Goose up in Shubenacadie. While waiting for it to appear at Shaw's Pond we found a Cackling Goose, but no Barnacle. Having run out of time, we were about to hit the highway when we saw Phil's car and some people with scopes beside another lake, and a ton more geese on it. Hopping out, Jake turned around and told us we'd just missed the Barnacle as it flew out a few seconds earlier. What?!!? Frantically scanning the flocks in flight, I picked out one small bird but it was too far for the bins and disappeared behind some trees. We went back over to Shaw Pond but it wasn't there either and we had no time to look elsewhere. We then had to cruise all the way up to Miscou Island, where we arrived in the late afternoon only to discover the Tropical Kingbird that had been there hadn't been seen all day. A rather painful double-dip! On our way back, Syd and I stopped in at Shubenacadie again (it's only 2 minutes off the highway), once again not finding the Barnacle. At this point it was becoming a bit of a nuisance as it seemed everyone else who tried for it had seen it! I had to go up around the Eastern Shore and Cape Breton, and so I made another stop in en route, this time getting brief flight views! Not the most satisfying twitch (wanted some pics) but what can you do... Along my Motus route, I birded for a few hours in Canso (Grasshopper Sparrow), and spent a bit of extra time on the Skyline Trail (where one of our receivers is), netting Common Redpoll and a surprise American Three-toed Woodpecker. Heading over to New Brunswick, I stopped in the Truro area, picking up a continuing Ruddy Duck but not finding any new interesting geese. A few days in NB added some provincial ticks, and then I birded while checking receivers on my way back to Wolfville, finding my missing Rough-legged Hawk. I actually stopped in Shubie on the 16th on my way back, and then again on the 17th while doing some tower work in the Minas Basin, as Lucas wanted to try for the geese (as there were now two of them!), but dipped both times. 1/5 success rate on those buggers! I had one loop left in my Motus tour, the South Shore - and I thought I was saving the best for last, timing my trip with a couple of big frontal systems passing to maximize rarity potential. Long story short, nothing showed, and I added 0 more year birds by the end of the month.

Cackling Goose, digiscope

Black-backed Woodpecker, digi-binned

Purple Sandpiper, digiscope

A Golden Eagle* turned up in Cumberland County, and I actually went through near the spot a few days later for work, but didn't have any luck. Two Purple Gallinules* also turned up after the big storms, but one was brought in by a cat and the other taken to rehab, so no twitchable adds in November; still +15 (+18). 

December - 301/291

December is the start of winter listing season, not something I participate in but it is fun to try to add to the collective total. With the 1st being a rather wet and windy day, I took a walk on the 2nd to see what I could find. I didn't make it very far before a distant white lump moved a bit and prompted closer inspection. It was just a little too far for the bins, and I texted Jake to see if he was nearby with a scope. Turned out he was able to get the scope on it from his back window, and it was a Snowy Owl! Bird 300 for the year, and that made up for the one we missed way back in February! Better yet, I didn't have to make a desperation twitch to avoid the dreaded 'one short'. A bit of office work was punctuated by a successful (if brief) Eastern Towhee twitch out in Grand Pre, and then a little adventure up to Miramichi to see the North American-first Mistle Thrush (and pick up the winter tires for the van). That was followed by the Brier Island Christmas Bird Count (Grasshopper Sparrow and more Snowy Owls, 62 species total on our route), the Wolfville CBC (42 species) and then the Halifax CBC (78 species including some nice winter birds, more Snowy Owls) which Siobhan arrived just in time for. The rest of the month was spent hanging out with Siobhan and her family in Halifax, with some excursions here and there to local birding spots. One of these excursions was over to Dartmouth to see the White-winged Dove that was coming to a private feeder. My only other sighting of this species in the province (and Canada) was a flyby in 2014 on Seal Island, so I was eager to get a photo. Unfortunately the bird didn't cooperate very well, and we only had backlit views of it up in the trees behind the property. The pics turned out pretty horrible as a result... I then spent my last day of the year with a nice walk at Point Pleasant Park and a quiet night with Siobhan's family!

 Mistle Thrush in Miramichi, NB - digiscope

 Snowy Owl on Brier CBC - digiscope

Christmas with Siobhan

A Little Gull floated past Daniel's Head early in the month, another Purple Gallinule* was brought into rehab and then a duo of Bullock's Oriole* and Black-headed Grosbeak* showed up in Cape Breton, along with another Pink-footed Goose. These last three were all twitchable and would have been more tempting if they'd been a little closer! The oriole and grosbeak also bring the hypothetical total to +17 (+20). Added to my real total of 301, a 2017 Big Year run for me would have ended between 318 and 321, assuming that I didn't manage to find anything else while maniacally birding the province. So, if anyone is seriously considering a run at the record of 309 in the future, know that it's definitely possible to blow it away!

Anyway, just a bit of a rundown of my 2017 and some thoughts on a NS Big Year - Happy New Year everyone and good luck with any 2018 plans!


You'll notice the numbers are only 10 different at the end of the year - here's the birds I never did manage to find on my own, in chronological order, NS lifers indicated with a *:

Mew Gull (Kamchatka* and Common*) - one a real 'twitch' adventure, being a special trip just for it, the other a slight detour on a route I already had to take! Kamchatka Gull was a 'universal' lifer as well, making it that much more worthwhile.

Tufted Duck* - the Sullivan's Pond bird, double-tick with Common Gull on our detour from Motus duties

Snow Goose* - continuing bird, found in a different spot but close enough to the original location as to not count, seen on a day of local birding where we would have stopped anyway to look for rare geese!

Cattle Egret - one of the Chebogue birds, a slight detour from our Motus route as my coworker hadn't seen one in Canada.

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck* - not too far off my route for Motus, and one I wasn't going to pass up!

Forster's Tern - the CSI bird in the summer; I do a check of the Hawk and Daniel's Head whenever I'm in the area for work, so this wasn't out of the way at all!

Snowy Egret* - Sambro - a bit out of the way but a near-guaranteed NS lifer was worth driving in the rain; this bird was also somewhat of a redemption as I'd dipped on 5 or so attempts at this species in previous years, almost all of them with Dom.

Western Kingbird - the Halifax bird, and my first real 'year-twitch'; going out of my way for a bird only because it'd be new for the year! I figured it'd be a nice safety net in case I didn't manage to find one on my November Motus tour, and that turned out to be the right decision.

Barnacle Goose - five attempts at this little bugger and only one hit, although I had to pass within two minutes of the site on numerous occasions, driving back and forth to New Brunswick, so it really wasn't out of the way (and always worth a check for other weird waterfowl!).

White-winged Dove - Siobhan and I spent a nice afternoon seeing the dove in Dartmouth and some Snowy Owls at Hartlen Point!