Monday, 24 September 2012

Fog, Rain, Birds and Whales

September 20th
So here we go again, I thought, as we began our descent into Halifax. This is our third Fur and Feathers trip to Canada’s Atlantic Provinces this year and it’s good to be back! But it’s not quite the trip we had expected….
Many of our readers will know that this is hurricane season in the Caribbean. Hurricanes and tropical storms often track their way northwards up the U.S. east coast and occasionally they make landfall on Canada’s eastern provinces. In the aftermath of these storms one frequently encounters a “fall out” of unusual birds that have been swept north by the bad weather. For this reason we have been calling this September trip to Nova Scotia our “East Coast Storm Chasing Trip”. The trouble is, one can’t predict when these storms will strike. In the end, the only time we could juggle this week into our itinerary was late September so here we are! As it turns out, there’s not a storm in sight – not one coming up from the south anyway! As a result, the focus of our trip has switched to whales and sea birds. As we begin our time here, our species tally stands at 488 so we have 12 more to go to meet our goal of 500. With 2 or 3 whales and 3 or 4 new bird species, we could make a pretty good dent in this number.  There will be just three of us this time: Brian, Phil and myself. Mike has been away spotting exotic birds in South America recently and was unable to join us. He will be with us again on our next trip!
We touched down in Halifax right on time, courtesy of WestJet on this occasion. After picking up our rental car we set off for Wolfville and the Annapolis Valley, one of Nova Scotia’s very special places. A Yellow-crowned Night Heron has been seen in Wolfville Harbour recently and we reckoned we could arrive here with an hour or two of daylight left and if fortune smiled upon us, get our trip off to a quick start. No such luck! Our consolation prize however was a Marbled Godwit which is not really that exciting for us because it’s quite common out west. However, it’s pretty rare here in Nova Scotia and has caused a bit of a stir amongst local birders. We were very pleased to add it to our Nova Scotia list.
Marbled Godwit
We were pretty tired and very hungry by the time we found sustenance in Paddy’s Pub on Wolfville’s Main Street. A pint of locally brewed Chimney Swift Stout helped restore our good spirits.
September 21st
If you check out a map of Atlantic Canada you will see that New Brunswick and Nova Scotia are separated by the Bay of Fundy, a rather unique place in Canada, known for its extremely high tides. This same map will show a remarkable land feature called Digby Neck, a long spit of land which runs straight southwest from Digby, parallel to Nova Scotia’s “mainland”. At the tip of Digby Neck lies Brier Island, well out in the Bay of Fundy. It’s a great migrant trap at this time of year and it’s a popular place for seabird and whale watching trips. Our plan was to bird our way south to Brier Island today and join up with a good birding friend, James Hirtle, who is leading a Nova Scotia Bird Society Field Trip down there this weekend.
We began the day by checking once more for the Yellow-crowned Night Heron in Wolfville Harbour. Again no luck!

Brian and Phil at Wolfville Harbour

We decided to forego any further birding activity in the Annapolis Valley and drive directly down to Brier Island. The weather forecast looked pretty grim for the weekend and we were beginning to worry that our pelagic trip scheduled for the next day might be cancelled. We thought it might be wise to get to Brier Island early and try to get on today’s excursion. This proved to be a good decision! By 12:30 we were all aboard the Chad and Sisters II, heading out into the reasonably calm waters of the Bay of Fundy. During the next three hours or so, we didn’t see any sunshine but nor did we get any rain – and we saw lots of seabirds! Almost immediately we saw Northern Gannets and Great Shearwaters, the latter in their hundreds.

Great Shearwater

There were also many cormorants and gulls and some puffins too. The first new species for the year however was Red Phalarope (species #489). We saw about 60 of them by trip’s end. Next, and perhaps even more exciting, was an adult Pomarine Jaeger (species #490).

Red Phalarope

Pomarine Jaeger
 Much to the disgust of Mariner Cruises, and their owner, Penny, we didn’t come across a single whale on this trip. This was all the more surprising given that 2012 has apparently been there best year ever for whales, especially Humpback Whales but also other species. (A few days earlier an ORCA was seen in these waters – a very rare occurrence here.) Mariner Cruises very generously hands out free passes for a future trip when this happens so Brian, Phil and I not only added two new bird species to our tally but we were set up to do the same trip again the next day for free!  

After returning to port, we drove out to Pond Cove, a good sea watching location. It’s a very scenic spot.
Pond Cove Area
Phil got us onto a handful of shorebirds amongst all the rocks and kelp on the beach including Black-bellied Plovers (2), Semipalmated Plovers (2) and a single Least Sandpiper.
We returned to Brier Island Lodge where we met up with James Hirtle. James assisted our Fur and Feathers team on our two previous trips here in January and June. It was good to see him again and meet his partner Pat this time too. James explained his plans for the following day’s activities, after which we packed it in for the day.
September 22nd

Our seabird and whale watching trip today was set once again for 12:30 pm so we devoted the morning to onshore birding with James as our guide. Aside from James and Pat, the only attendees on this Nova Scotia Bird Society Field Trip were our Fur and Feathers threesome and a couple from North Bay Ontario! I guess the rainy forecast dissuaded others form coming out. Or perhaps they knew that despite this weekend being the very peak of passerine migration on Brier Island usually, it certainly wasn’t so today! We saw relatively few species as we explored the island, though we did encounter one warbler flock that included Magnolia Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, Palm Warbler, Blue-headed Vireo and Boreal Chickadee. We also saw about 12 Sharp-shinned Hawks including both males and females. We were all struck by the significant difference in size between the males (smaller) and the females (larger).
Despite the rainy weather, the seas remained relatively calm and we were able to board the Chad and Sisters II as planned for another afternoon of pelagic birding. Overall, the numbers of seabirds seemed to be lower than the previous day but we picked up several different species including Black-legged Kittiwakes (right in the harbour), Great Cormorants and Wilson’s Storm-petrels. None of these were new for the year but they’re all good birds to see for us land-locked Albertans!

Great Cormorant

We were beginning to worry that we might go two days in a row without a whale sighting when suddenly someone yelled out “Whale on the starboard side!” It was quite close and was very large. It showed no dorsal fin and the experts quickly declared it to be either a Northern Right Whale or a Fin Whale. The Fin Whale is a very large whale which actually does have a dorsal fin but it's set so far back toward its tail it may not always be visible. Either whale would be a new one for us but we needed to know which it was! After a long wait it resurfaced and gave us rather fleeting views before disappearing once more. It repeated this several times until finally it surfaced a bit closer to the boat and showed itself to be the Northern Right Whale (species #491) – the world’s most endangered species of whale and an absolute treasure of a sighting for everyone on board. Even better, there turned out to be two of them!

Northern right Whale

....and how lucky was this!

A boat load of camera shutters clicked away furiously for about ten minutes and then we turned for home. We were in for one more treat however. We came across about 20 Atlantic White-sided Dolphins which put on a great display all around us. This was not a new species for us because we saw some unidentified dolphins on our ferry ride from Cape Breton to Newfoundland back in July. This was the real thing however – dolphins behaving the way dolphins are supposed to behave and Brian got a fantastic shot of one of them.

Atlantic White-sided Dolphin

 Once back ashore, we wrapped up the day’s birding with a drive out to West Light, another very scenic part of the coastline here.

West Light
Things were still pretty quiet but we did see some American Kestrels and a Red-tailed Hawk. We also met friends of James here - Eric and Anne Mills. Eric is an experienced local birder and has actually written a comprehensive book on the birds of Brier Island. They were able to join us all for dinner back at the Brier Island Hotel Restaurant where we enjoyed trading stories about our various birding experiences.

September 23rd
Once again we were up at dawn and off to Northern Light to check for any overnight arrival of migrating passerines. Alas we struck out again! The weather continued to be damp and foggy and perhaps this was the problem.  James couldn’t recall a year with so few birds on the island. Birders never really strike out completely mind you, though we often whine a lot! The truth is, there is always a bird or two of interest to be found and this was true today as well. We came across an Orange-crowned Warbler (only found in very small numbers in Nova Scotia) and then later on, a Northern Mockingbird found initially by Eric and Anne Mills. We also came across about 50 shorebirds, mostly Semipalmated Plovers but with a few Semipalmated Sandpipers amongst them. No new species this morning however!
We said goodbye to Brier Island shortly after midday and drove north back to Digby. Here we took the ferry over to Saint John, New Brunswick. We came across quite a few seabirds on the crossing, mostly Great Shearwaters, but also Northern Gannets, Puffins and a single Sooty Shearwater.

Ferry to Saint John

The crossing was smooth enough but we were in thick fog much of the time. Perhaps the weather will be kinder to us during our travels over the next few days – but that will be a story for Phil to tell in our next posting.

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