Thursday, 2 January 2014

Winter birding at its finest

Today I had plans to bird the Eastern Passage area of the Halifax Regional Municipality as Laura was busy for about half the day performing some surgeries at a local vet clinic. The forecast was for -18 degree weather, with a windchill of -29. Yep, winter had definitely arrived.

After dropping her off, I drove south to begin my half day of birding. Just as I was passing the Tim Horton's past Shearwater, I noticed a group of gulls sitting in the water just offshore in a sheltered area so I pulled off the road. I was hoping to re-find the Common Gull that had been found a few days prior by Graham Williams, a visiting Florida birder. All the gulls I could find were common gull species, but there was no Common Gull. Several interesting ducks were hanging out with the large Mallard and American Black Duck flock including a female Northern Pintail and several scaup (both species). As I took a closer look at the scaup, I was shocked to see this...

Tufted Duck (right) - Eastern Passage, Nova Scotia

Yes, that is a male Tufted Duck! I ran back to the car to fetch my camera, took a series of photos, and enjoyed studying the bird. I had never seen a Tufted Duck before in North America so this was a fun find.

Tufted Duck is a Eurasian species of diving duck, breeding from Iceland across to Russia. A small group of them attempt to overwinter in St. John's, Newfoundland, and they are nearly annual in Nova Scotia. Most records in eastern North American involve birds associated with Greater or Lesser Scaup, usually from November until May.

Tufted Duck (left) - Eastern Passage, Nova Scotia

As its name suggests, males have long shaggy tufts at the back of their head which is visible in the above photo.

Tufted Duck (left) - Eastern Passage, Nova Scotia

I continued on, stopping next at MacCormack's Beach south of Shearwater. Right away the wintering White-crowned Sparrow made its presence known as it sat in the bushes with a few Song and American Tree Sparrows. This American Crow welcomed me to its beach.

American Crow - MacCormack's Beach, Nova Scotia

I scanned the gull flock and immediately picked out a 1st cycle Lesser Black-backed Gull. Nearby were a few Black-headed Gulls, another European species that winters in small numbers on the eastern seaboard. While Ontario gets several Black-headed Gulls annually, I have never seen one up close. I really enjoy studying them when I'm out here on the east coast.

gulls - McCormack's Beach, Nova Scotia

A flock of 20 or so Snow Buntings were feeding in the open areas beside the boardwalk. I picked out a single Lapland Longspur in with the group.

Lapland Longspur - McCormack's Beach, Nova Scotia

My next stop was the area around Hartlen Point. Here, I ran into local birders Andy Horn and Duncan Rand who had also decided to brave the -29 degree weather. While we were chatting, we noticed a Snowy Owl sitting on Devil's Island, though it was too far for photos. Nice to meet you guys!

Iceland Gulls are common along Hartlen Point, and I counted over 40 along the west side. Only occasional Herring or Ring-billed Gulls was flying by though, a far cry from the gull flocks further up the harbour!

Kumlien's Iceland Gull - Eastern Passage, Nova Scotia

I noticed several Rough-legged Hawks and a Northern Harrier while I was here as well. Once I was done at Hartlen Point I continued back north, stopping at a few pull-offs to scan the water. At one stop I was surprised to see the Common Gull go past with a few Ring-billed Gulls! I managed a few record shots, though they are very distant. A very cold looking male Eurasian Wigeon was loafing with a dabbling duck flock, as was a Northern Pintail.

Eurasian Wigeon - Eastern Passage, Nova Scotia

In the Cow Bay area I found a Common Grackle sitting in a tree next to someone's bird feeders, a good bird for the winter. Check out this fantastic photo.

Common Grackle - Cow Bay, Nova Scotia

I also stopped at the church east of Cow Bay as it offers a phenomenal view of the ocean and I have occasionally seen Northern Gannets here in past winters. There were no gannets this time, unfortunately. I got on this distant goldeneye which looked like a female Barrow's to me, though it was tough to view it well since I was limited to binoculars. Barrow's Goldeneyes are rare but regular in Nova Scotia, though still vastly outnumbered by Common Goldeneyes.

Barrow's? Goldeneye - Cow Bay, Nova Scotia

My last stop was the Conrad's Beach area which occasionally gets Ipswich Sparrows in the winter. Ipswich Sparrows breed on Sable Island and winter in dunes along the eastern seaboard. They are a large, pale subspecies of Savannah Sparrow which I had never seen before and I was eager to study some. Unfortunately, an hour and a half of searching yielding only mainland Savannah Sparrows, as well as a few Horned Larks, Snow Buntings, and Lapland Longspurs. Still, it was a great walk in a beautiful area. Just as I was about to leave, a female Cooper's Hawk flew by at close range, being followed and harassed by American Crows. This was another new Nova Scotia bird for me, so I was happy to have such great looks.

Savannah Sparrow - Conrad's Beach, Nova Scotia

I finished the day with just under 50 species. It was a great outing to kick off 2014.

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