Thursday 21 January 2021

A Rare Gull Twitch, Short-eared Owls, and Sea-watching at Peggy's Cove

Part 1: A Rare Gull Twitch

Our quarantine ended on January 10, and I was itching to get out birding. A buzz had been permeating the Nova Scotia birding scene, something that only a very rare bird could induce. An unique gull patronizing a parking lot in New Glasgow exhibited all the features of an adult Taimyr Gull. This taxon of gull is currently treated as a subspecies of Lesser Black-backed Gull by most taxonomic authorities, but it is an extremely unusual bird to show up in North America. Any bird whose core breeding range includes the Taimyr Peninsula of Northern Russia should not be appearing in Nova Scotia! 

I should mention that large, white-headed gulls are a mess taxonomically. It is difficult to place individuals into nice neat boxes called "species" when there is introgression due to hybridization and clinal variation across many taxa. Additionally, many of these gulls breed in far northern latitudes where it is difficult to conduct research. Apparently, some birders collected fecal samples from the New Glasgow gull which may aid in determining its genetic makeup. I will not get into the nitty gritty details of how to identify a Taimyr Gull, but there are many excellent photos of it on eBird. Here is a checklist by Angela MacDonald, the finder of the bird, from January 4, 2021:

The gull was observed in the same Sobey's parking lot from January 4 through January 10. I showed up on January 11 and enjoyed the thrill of not seeing a Taimyr Gull in a parking lot! Even though I dipped on the rare gull, there were many other things to point my camera and binoculars at. 

Kumlien's Iceland Gull - New Glasgow, Pictou County, Nova Scotia

Kumlien's Iceland Gulls were present in low numbers; pictured above is a typical looking first-cycle bird. Ring-billed Gulls (below) rivalled Herring Gulls in abundance and I made sure to study them carefully in case a Mew Gull was lurking amongst their ranks. 

Ring-billed Gull - New Glasgow, Pictou County, Nova Scotia

Indeed, the long-staying Mew Gull was still present. I noticed it awaiting handouts from another birder in another quadrant of the parking lot. Luckily, it hung around long enough for a few photos, then it vanished, and I never saw it again during the rest of the afternoon.

Common Gull - New Glasgow, Pictou County, Nova Scotia

The Mew Gull appears to be from the subspecies canus which breeds throughout much of northern Europe. Indeed, it is called the Common Gull on their side of the Atlantic. Nova Scotia birders identify several Common Gulls each year.

Some of the present birders tried baiting the gulls, to great success. Dry cat food (kibble) was popular, but it did not hold a candle to McDonald's french fries! The salty, trans-fat goodness was too much for the gulls to resist and they came from far and wide. An adult Lesser Black-backed Gull was among their ranks. Unfortunately, it was a typical one that we see in North America, and not the hoped for Taimyr Gull. 

Lesser Black-backed Gull - New Glasgow, Pictou County, Nova Scotia

It is rare (for me at least) to see a Lesser Black-backed Gull at such close range, and so I took the opportunity to improve my collection of flight shots of this species. 

Lesser Black-backed Gull - New Glasgow, Pictou County, Nova Scotia

Lesser Black-backed and Herring Gulls - New Glasgow, Pictou County, Nova Scotia

Lesser Black-backed Gull - New Glasgow, Pictou County, Nova Scotia

I considered driving around New Glasgow and checking other areas for gulls but decided against it. Other local birders had been scouring the town and coastline but so far the Taimyr Gull had only been observed at the parking lot. The last thing I wanted was for the gull to appear while I was somewhere else, and then vanish before I could return.

Eventually I had to admit defeat since the day was getting on. To break up the drive back to Mt. Uniacke, I stopped off near the town of Enfield. A Barnacle Goose had been regularly seen in this area with a large flock of Canada Geese. Like the Common Gull featured earlier in this post, the Barnacle Goose is another European species that rarely (but consistently) appears in northeastern North America. 

Luckily the Barnacle Goose was easy to locate, though it was quite distant in the field and my digiscoped photos are barely diagnostic. It was nice to run into Rick and Kim Brown again after seeing them earlier at the Taimyr Gull stakeout. Kim and Rick used to live in Windsor, Ontario but now reside in southern Nova Scotia and were taking the day to search for the Taimyr Gull, Barnacle Goose, and more. 

Barnacle Goose - Enfield area, Hants County, Nova Scotia


Part 2: Short-eared Owls in Grand Pré

After seeing the Barnacle Goose, Kim and Rick had stopped off in Grand Pré during the late afternoon in search of the wintering Short-eared Owls. A message from Kim later that day with precise directions and talk of a half dozen owls was all the motivation I needed! The following day, Laura and Margaret joined me for a short trip down the 101 highway to Grand Pré to take in the Short-eared Owl show. 

Short-eared Owl - Grand Pré, Kings County, Nova Scotia

And what a viewing it was! The dreary overcast sky enticed the owls to begin hunting earlier in the afternoon, giving us lots of time to enjoy them before sunset. We estimated that there were at least nine individuals present, but that is a low estimate given how large of an area they were patrolling.  

Short-eared Owl - Grand Pré, Kings County, Nova Scotia

Bringing my scope to Nova Scotia was paying off handsomely, with incredible views of perched and hunting Short-eared Owls. They were never quite close enough for perfect photos, unfortunately, but the views could not be beat. In the photo below, the owl is using its disc-shaped face to pinpoint the sound of its prey. It waits until the last possible second, then swings its talons downward in the blink of an eye. 

Short-eared Owl - Grand Pré, Kings County, Nova Scotia

We witnessed aerial battles between individual owls, and between Short-eared Owls and Northern Harriers (a species which has similar hunting strategies). At one point we heard one of the Short-eared Owls "barking". 

I heard a fly-over Lapland Longspur, and we found a few flocks of Horned Larks and Savannah Sparrows. Ring-necked Pheasants called from a brushy hedgerow by a farm and Bald Eagles soared overhead as they traveled to their roosting locations for the night. It was a pretty magical afternoon.

Short-eared Owl - Grand Pré, Kings County, Nova Scotia


Part 3: Sea-watching at Peggy's Cove and Barrow's Goldeneyes in Bedford

Earlier in the week I had arranged with Margaret to borrow her vehicle for a full day of birding along the coast. Though the weather forecast for January 14 was not great with possible rain or sleet, at least the winds would be light. I planned out a route the day before. That night, I slept well with dreams of rare birds filling my subconscious. 

My first stop shortly after dawn was a residential street in the town of Chester. My main target was a long-staying Yellow-throated Warbler, and I locked onto it within half an hour of my arrival. Unfortunately I have no photos, since I left my camera in the car to avoid standing out too much while patrolling a neighbourhood on foot. I heard a few Red Crossbills fly over, spotted some distant Evening Grosbeaks in the top of a tree, and added a number of year birds before I hit the road. 

For years, one of my nemesis birds had been the Dovekie. This tiny seabird is a member of the family Alcidae (the same as puffins), and they nest in vast colonies in Greenland, Svalbard, and several other high Arctic locations. The Dovekie may be one of the most numerous seabirds in the world but they are highly desirable here in North America, where they only appear in wintertime and mainly in the northeast. Despite having visited Nova Scotia in the winter on a dozen other occasions, my only Dovekie sighting was a distant individual flying past Hartlen Point near Dartmouth several years ago. I was determined to find one today.

After leaving Chester I stopped periodically, wherever there was a good vantage point along the coastline. Year birds appeared, but my main quarry remained unaccounted for. At least I enjoyed some excellent views of bird species that we rarely see in Ontario: Black Guillemot, Great Cormorant, and Common Eider among them.

Great Cormorants - Indian Harbour, Halifax R.M., Nova Scotia

Just west of Peggy's Cove, the distinctive calls of White-winged Crossbills filled the air. Close to twenty females comprised the flock. It had been a while since I had last seen this distinctive finch; luckily, they were quite accommodating, letting me fill my memory card from a moderate distance. I "pished" up several Yellow-rumped Warblers here as well. 

White-winged Crossbills - Indian Harbour, Halifax R.M., Nova Scotia

Eventually I stopped in at the scenic locale of Peggy's Cove. This beautiful little fishing village is situated along a picturesque stretch of the windswept Nova Scotian coastline, and it is a very popular tourist attraction. Due to the effects of the global pandemic, as well as the time of year, I had the entire place to myself! 

Peggy's Cove scenery, Halifax R.M., Nova Scotia (photo taken 2020-01-01)

Peggy's Cove is situated near a headland and the sea-watching can be very good if the conditions are correct. The onshore breeze had intensified - excellent! I grabbed my scope and settled in near the lighthouse. 

Almost immediately, I noticed a Black-legged Kittiwake flying past offshore, and then another. It was apparent that a small migration was occurring and I had my fingers crossed for a Dovekie. And then it happened - a tiny, football shaped seabird whizzed past at very close range. Dovekie!!

I was a little slow to the draw with my camera. However, not more than two minutes passed before I saw the next Dovekie. This time I was ready.

Dovekie - Peggy's Cove, Halifax R.M., Nova Scotia

Dovekie - Peggy's Cove, Halifax R.M., Nova Scotia

I repositioned myself to a better vantage point, in hopes that I could obtain a better angle on the Dovekies. Several more whipped by and it was clear that they were cutting the corner around the headland very close to shore. With a little bit of practice, I managed some slightly closer photos. 

Dovekie - Peggy's Cove, Halifax R.M., Nova Scotia

Dovekie - Peggy's Cove, Halifax R.M., Nova Scotia

Needless to say, I was pretty excited. I would have settled for one or two distant fly-bys, but instead was privy to this show. A Razorbill also passed through (though at a greater distance), and I watched more kittiwakes. Some flew close enough for photos. 

Black-legged Kittiwake - Peggy's Cove, Halifax R.M., Nova Scotia

The above kittiwake is an immature bird, as told by the striking black, white, and gray wing pattern and dark neck band. Most of the kittiwakes we see along the Great Lakes are immatures so I was more interested in photographing some of the adults, as pictured below. 

Black-legged Kittiwake - Peggy's Cove, Halifax R.M., Nova Scotia

Again, they were just a little too far for fantastic photos. I was regretting my decision to leave my tele-converter back in Ontario. 

Black-legged Kittiwake - Peggy's Cove, Halifax R.M., Nova Scotia

Peggy's Cove can be a reliable area to find Harlequin Ducks and Purple Sandpipers during the winter. I counted over 55 Harlequin Ducks in three large flocks, and could not resist snapping a few photos of these dapper birds. 

Harlequin Ducks - Peggy's Cove, Halifax R.M., Nova Scotia

One flock of Purple Sandpipers was working the kelp beds among the slippery rocks close to the water's edge. Eventually, the flock lifted off in unison and whipped past me at exactly the same time as a Dovekie. I managed to photograph the whole group together. This shows how tiny Dovekies really are, since Purple Sandpipers are not exactly large for a shorebird. 

Dovekie and Purple Sandpipers - Peggy's Cove, Halifax R.M., Nova Scotia

I left Peggy's Cove and checked a few more coastal areas throughout the afternoon. Chebucto Head is a fantastic sea-watching location just south of Halifax that has turned up many good birds over the years. There have been days with thousands of Dovekies observed from here. These events typically occur when the tiny seabirds are pushed inland by strong storm systems (nor' easters). 

The winds had really died down by the time I reached Chebucto and hardly a bird was in sight. I eventually spotted a few distant Dovekies, as well as a Thick-billed Murre. Two Northern Gannets were flying by at a great distance as well. One of the Dovekies sat on the water for a time, providing me with my first scope views of a resting individual.

My last stop of the day was the Bedford Basin. This is a somewhat regular location for overwintering Barrow's Goldeneyes and I was hoping to find one or two of them. While scanning, I noticed a tight flock of goldeneyes with males displaying to the females. Each member of the flock looked like a Barrow's, but they were so far down the coast that it was difficult to be certain. I drove over to the Bedford Yacht Club, and there they were. 

Barrow's Goldeneyes - Bedford, Halifax R.M., Nova Scotia

Indeed, each bird was a Barrow's! This was a treat for me; rarely do I see Barrow's Goldeneyes at the best of times, let alone fourteen of them at close range. It was neat to see the variation in the females, especially. 

Barrow's Goldeneyes - Bedford, Halifax R.M., Nova Scotia

Unlike the familiar Common Goldeneye, the Barrow's Goldeneye is uncommon in eastern North America. Small numbers breed in Labrador and Quebec. This population winters in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, around Nova Scotia and the Bay of Fundy, and down the eastern seaboard to Long Island, or thereabouts. We see a handful in Ontario each year, usually singles or a pairs among Common Goldeneye flocks. But they are a rarity not to be expected.  

Barrow's Goldeneyes - Bedford, Halifax R.M., Nova Scotia

Eventually, the entire flock flew out of the harbour and landed a bit further offshore, so I called it a day. When Laura and Margaret later heard about the experience and saw my photos, they wanted to check out the Barrow's as well. So two days later we returned and the group of fourteen was still present in the harbour. 

Barrow's Goldeneyes - Bedford, Halifax R.M., Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia offers fantastic birding opportunities throughout the year, and I cannot wait to return!

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