Thursday, August 25, 2016

A Nova Scotia Big Day – Part 1

Trying to explain the premise of a birding big day to a sensible person gets you nowhere in a hurry. Hopefully anyone reading this is of the non-sensible type and thus we can get through this in one piece.

Myself (Dominic Cormier), Avery Bartels, David Bell and Lucas Berrigan had planned a Nova Scotia Birding Big Day for the end of May. We would be attempting to see as many bird species as possible in a midnight to midnight 24 hr period in the province of Nova Scotia; the goal, to surpass the record of 145 species set by Clarence Stevens Jr. et al. in June 1999. A big day can be a punishing test of physical and mental endurance, as you bird non-stop for 24hrs, often with little sleep. Big days are usually prefaced with a 12-hour-birding scouting mission the previous day to add insult to injury. Our proposed route invited incredulity; an ambitious path that would take us from Amherst down to Upper Tantallon, then on to middle of nowhere N.S, the Valley, Digby, Pubnico, and Cape Sable Island before our final resting place for the evening, Bon Portage Island. For those not familiar with Nova Scotia geography, it is mildly demented, trust me.

Crazy or not, the wheels were set in motion on Friday May 27th when Avery, Lucas and I left Bon Portage Island where we were doing field work and made our way to Wolfville. The following morning, Dave came and picked us up bright and early for a full day of pre-big day scouting. Birding hard throughout the day, we made it to the Beaubassin research station in Sckville NB that evening, did some last minute planning, showered, and attempted some shut eye before the beginning of our big day.

OK enough preamble.

My alarm sounded at 11:30pm May 28th, 2016. I had slept perhaps an hour and a half, but did not feel too fatigued. In relative silence, the four of us gathered our things, snagged the food from the fridge, loaded into the van and headed off to Amherst Point Bird Sanctuary where we would try for some night-time flight calls, marsh birds, and owls. 11:55pm, we are on the highway mere minutes from our destination. Trooper’s “Raise A Little Hell” comes on the radio and our spirits rise. That’s right, “Raise A Little Hell”, sometimes the stars just align perfectly, we were going to be raising some birding hell! 11:57pm, wait……. yup… shit!!!… flashing blue lights behind us. The PoPo! I guess the stars weren’t all that well aligned.  “Are you serious, 115 km/hr is not speeding” exclaims Dave the driver. Well, it is if you’re in a construction zone, albeit an unoccupied one at midnight. With ticket in hand, we managed to arrive at our destination only 5 minutes behind schedule.

 *** The ticket was one minute before midnight, thus we engaged in no illegal activity on the actual
big day in question. I have photographic proof if any one has their doubts. ***

What about birds? Ok here goes. Dave had had shorebirds present the night before, but none were to be heard in the wee hours of the morning.  With zero species at our first stop, it was at this point that Lucas realized he had forgot a key element of a birding big day, his binoculars! Could we have scripted a more tragic debut? We would have to backtrack to Beaubassin, but not before a last listen for the perennially cute Northern Saw-whet Owl and the timberdoodlin’ American Woodcock, along with any other possible bird carving tracks in the night sky at the end of May. As we hop out and I am closing the door, my tripod, which was poorly positioned in the vehicle, prevents the door from shutting. As I attempt to re-arrange a few things in the front seat, Dave and Lucas hear our first bird of the day, a night flying Grey-cheeked Thrush giving its distinct flight note. Of course, I missed it. All it took was 30 seconds of fiddling in the van and that was one species down that we wouldn’t all get on our shared list. Unbeknownst to the four of us, this would become a trend throughout the day, where not all in our birding party would get a particular species. A distant and expected Canada Goose became our second species, but no luck on anything else. With time already moving doggedly and predictably forward, we made our necessary detour to collect the forgotten binoculars and moved on.

For the next hour or so we stalked the Amherst Sewage Ponds, and Eddy and Amherst Marshes. Lurking like foul creatures in the sewage ponds, we spotlighted dabblers and shorebirds, seeing such goodies as Semipalmated Plover (rare for time of year), Least Sandpiper, Northern Pintail, and a pair of vocal Killdeer (our only ones of the day). Arriving at Amherst Marsh, the air was oddly hushed. American Bitterns and Wilson’s Snipe, which are normally very vocal were silent. We even had to coax the Sora and Virginia Rails to call. A brief squeak, barely a whisper, from a roosting Black Tern was missed by the two older-timers (me and Avery – 28 years old) but heard by the two younger more sharp-eared birders (Dave and Lucas – 24 years old). After lingering as long as possible, we rolled into Eddy Marsh where once again the bitterns and snipe were still. A walk through the night-drenched marsh vegetation left us wet, but we heard the nesting Marsh Wrens, and enjoyed an encounter with a family of River Otter beneath the moonlight sky. This big marsh at night was oddly serene and provided some nice peace in what would otherwise be a rather hectic day.

With the Marsh Wrens bagged, we stopped at Dave’s Short-Eared Owl spot. In order to stay alert, I had drunk a fair bit of water, and in what would be a frequent occurrence during the day, I had to step away to relieve myself. This was of course the moment when the Short-eared Owl chose to call. We now had a dilemma. We were missing bittern and snipe and I hadn’t heard the short eared. Our schedule had us leaving at that moment. We decided to push on. In retrospect we should have tarried and cut out our next night stop, Barr Settlement. We planned this stop because it was on-route and because last year it had hosted an Eastern Whip-poor-will, a species that would be a Nova Scotia lifer for all of us. While the ride was uneventful, so to were the woods at Barr Settlement. We had to leave empty-handed, always conscious of the time. We wanted to make Tantallon with the beginning of dawn. I did pound back a full bag of beef jerky to keep things interesting.

On the drive, the three of us invariably started to doze off while Dave diligently kept us going. I do remember saying something like, turn here… take Hammond’s Plains Rd. We were roused as we approached our destination, Hiking Trail Rd., no worse for the wear. This area is a network of well kept logging roads that run through Bowater Mersey lands and are well used by recreators (is that even a word?) from the city. It was here we would get the bulk of our forest birds for the day. With light in the sky, we started adding species. Swainson’ and Hermit Thrush, White-throated Sparrow, American Robin, Common Yellowthroat, Alder Flycatcher. Still in semi-obscurity, a woodcock scatters, followed closely by another whirring passed our heads. Dave’s sharp ears pick up a Common Nighthawk and we all turn to spot it flying into the approaching daylight. Light now starts to chase away the night, and the woods become alive with song. Like pupils diligently replying to roll call, the common species start flying on to our day list: Mourning Dove, Winter Wren, Magnolia Warbler, Song Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco.  An Olive-sided Flycatcher gives its far carrying whistles, while the ethereal songs of thrushes fill the space around us. In the mix, a Lincoln’s Sparrow sings. As the last moments of dawn give way to the first rays of sunlight above the horizon, two Barred Owls make their presence known. The race is now one!

For the next hour, we snake our way up the logging road periodically stopping along the way. A brief bog excursion produces Gray Jay, Ruby-crowned Kinglet and Yellow-bellied Flycatcher. Boreal specialists Bay-breasted and Cape May Warbler are heard, but the latter’s song too high pitched and distant for Avery’s hearing. A drumming Pileated Woodpecker assures that we will not miss this easily missed species, and our familiar friends the American Redstart, Purple Finch, Black-throated Green Warbler and Yellow-rumped Warbler fill the airwaves.
With the morning drawing on, we hightail it back to the highway, our list plump with most of Nova Scotia’s coniferous forest birds. Of course blank spaces remain on our checklist in front of the names of Spruce Grouse and Black-backed Woodpecker, and no grosbeaks or crossbills had caused our heads to turn skyward in response to their ubiquitous flight calls. We also missed one of my personal favorites, the surprisingly scarce Northern Waterthrush, and no raptors were spied that did not support a red tail.

Nonetheless, we were feeling good. A hodge-podge of snacks and drinks are passed around as we keep a close eye on the tree tops and skies whizzing by. Common Raven. Check. American Black Duck. Check. Blue Jay. Check.

We arrive at East River near Chester only ever so slightly behind schedule. The time is 7:48 AM. In what was a rather lamentable ten-minutes, we bolted down a cycling path to scan the river for Common Merganser with no luck. Alas, that was our only known spot for that species and we would not see another one during the day. Continuing onward, we took the little travelled highway 14 which goes across the province from Chester to Windsor. Here it was that we hoped to round out our boreal style birds for the day. As we pulled off onto a rarely used overgrown dirt path, a Nashville Warbler sung on queue, and arriving at a beaver pond, it is not long before a pair of Rusty Blackbirds makes their presence known. Focussed as we were, we could not find the pair of Hooded Mergansers that had graced the pond the day before, but a flock of chattering White-winged Crossbills flew overhead just in the nick of time!

It was now time for the valley, where sprawling agricultural fields, deciduous woods, and marshland would add a whole new suite of species to our already promising day. Unwittingly, the valley would also precipitate an increasing time differential between our planned route and our actual one. More on that latter.

At our first stop in Falmouth, we added our only Chesnut-sided Warbler, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and Eastern Pheobe for the day, but the minutes were dragging on and a small navigation error on my part put us another 4 minutes behind. To make matters worse, Avery went below the bridge to see if he could spy the Eastern Pheobe (it called 2 minutes later) just as three Evening Grosbeaks flew overhead, adding another partial species to our day list. Continuing, we cruised the UNESCO world heritage site of Grand PrĂ©. I don’t think the pioneering Acadians had “making good gull habitat” in mind when they created fertile fields by diking the surrounding marshland, but pastoral intentions aside, Grand Pre is great for gulls. Out in the fields, those pesky larids were congregated, and a very late Glaucous Gull along with a couple of juv. Lesser Black-backed Gulls had us in high spirits. We viewed those two species as “bonus” birds for the day in accordance with our highly detailed and specific scouting report. A scan of Evangeline Beach proved well timed as a Semipalmated Sandpiper (very rare in spring) flew by and we scoped what we thought would be our only scoters of the day. The birds were distant but appeared to be Surf. We left at 10:09 AM. Fifteen minutes behind but so far so good.

As an objective observer, I have to say that the next hour was somewhat of a mess, our big day novice badges shining bright. We had failed to pin down a Merlin nest in our hometown of Wolfville, and made a shot in the dark stop at the reservoir for non existent Veery. Had we known there were Veery to be had down in Yarmouth county, we could have cut out a painful and time consuming run down the Kentville Ravine to get them. At least we had a good chuckle watching Lucas sprint through the woods atop a steep slope while the rest of us cruised along a well travelled path! Novice badges in hand, we stopped for Great-crested Flycatcher and dipped (not surprising given no one had seen or heard the pair outside of dawn and dusk). At least the staked out Baltimore Oriole and Canada Warbler at Miner’s Marsh were quick and easy, and we avoided any unpleasant traffic (I swear Wolfville takes the prize for “most traffic ever” for a small town in Canada). We even managed to avoid talking to anyone; no time could be wasted talking to mere plebs, non-initiates into the madness that is big day birding.

With many sites of brief duration, this leg of our day had a real whirlwind feel to it. It was also in this whirlwind that Avery and I missed, for the second time, a Rose-breasted Grosbeak. One had called that morning along Hiking Trail Rd. which we did not hear, and one called again in Port Williams that was drowned out by other bird song.

The next leg of our journey was a straight path down the valley, and having cracked the 100 species mark and munching on sandwiches, I will end Part 1 here. Stay tuned for Part 2.