Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Birds of Post-Tropical Hurricane Arthur

I haven't been birding very long so I had only experienced one storm induced bird fallout before Arthur hit NS in 2014. In late April of 2012 there was an influx of southern breeders to Nova Scotia. High winds were experienced overnight on the 23rd and into the morning on the 24th. The maximum wind gust was measured at 85 km/h at Yarmouth. The sustained overnight winds were between 37 and 57 km/h and almost consistently at around 160 degrees (~SSE). The large southerly component to these winds would have assisted spring migrants heading north and facilitated an overshoot further north of their intended destinations. The weather systems had created a south-westerly flow of wind up the east coast of the US bringing the birds towards NS. Some analysis can be found in a message by Ian McLaren on the NS-RBA.

The highlights of this fallout for me were a Baltimore Oriole, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, a Blue Grosbeak, Indigo Buntings, a Yellow-throated Warbler, a ROCK WREN and a Summer Tanager.

Summer Tanager
Yellow-throated Warbler

Blue Grosbeak

The July 2014 event was much different from the April 2012 fallout. In early July there is very little migration so no migrating songbirds were brought to NS. Hurricane Arthur reached Category 2 status and hit North Carolina with 160 km/h winds. It then passed just off of Cape Cod and was downgraded to a post-tropical storm before hitting NS. The force of Arthur's winds was enough to scoop up many coastal breeding birds in North Carolina and carry them towards NS. The different circumstances of this weather event provided an entirely different list of species for the awaiting birders in NS. A similar storm hit NS in 1968 and is described in Vol. 11, Spring 1969 of the NSBS Newsletter. In September of 2010, Hurricane Earl brought a similar list of rare birds to NS (see Sept. 2010 NS-RBA posts) as did Hurricane Wilma in 2005 (NS-RBA posts). Post-Tropical Storm Arthur of 2014 and its birds will also be analyzed in a future edition of Nova Scotia Birds, the quarterly publication by the Nova Scotia Bird Society.

Hurricane Arthur's track - Wikipedia

On Saturday morning (July 5, 2014) a few groups of birders headed out to the coasts of SW NS in the hopes of seeing some interesting birds brought in by the storm. Post-Tropical Storm Arthur was forecast to hit NS that morning and we wanted to be ready for it. On Friday night a radar image was being circulated around showing a large number of birds stuck in the eye of the storm.

Radar image showing birds in the eye

Bertin d'Eon and I headed to Ingomar, Ronnie d'Entremont and Sharron Marlor were at Baccaro Point and David Bell was at Cape Sable Island (CSI) along with the local CSI birders. The first report of a storm bird was a Laughing Gull at Baccaro by Ronnie and Sharron. Soon after that the reports were coming in fast. Bertin and I had found a few Storm-Petrels in Ingomar but the many reports from CSI by David Bell were too much so we headed to the island. David had been texting me sightings of both Storm-Petrels, Purple Martins, Laughing Gulls, Forster's Terns and jaegars.

Our first stop on CSI was Cripple Creek Wharf. Within minutes we had spotted a few Laughing Gulls and 2 Forster's Terns. Both of these species were lifers for me. I slowly crawled to a group of Laughing Gulls on the sandy beach to get some photos. To my amazement, a few of them were walking directly towards me and were within 3 feet of me. They must be accustomed to people and were probably not as wary as usual due to their fatigue after fighting the storm.

Immature Forster's Tern - Cripple Creek Wharf, CSI - July 5, 2014.

Adult Forster's Tern - Cripple Creek Wharf, CSI - July 5, 2014.

Many exciting birds were found on July 5th but the weather didn't allow for any great photography. Late in the day on Saturday reports started coming in about Black Skimmers at Mavilette and in Yarmouth. Ronnie and I woke up early on Sunday and drove to Yarmouth where we found 5 Black-Skimmer and later to Mavilette where there were 14 Black Skimmers, 2 Gull-billed Terns and 4 Laughing Gulls.

Black Skimmer - Overton - July 6, 2014

Black Skimmer - Mavilette - July 6, 2014

Black Skimmer - Mavilette - July 6, 2014

On Sunday night I headed back to CSI and got some photos of the vagrant terns that had first been seen the day before.

Gull-billed Tern - The Hawk Beach - July 6, 2014

Gull-billed Tern - The Hawk Beach - July 6, 2014

Royal Tern - The Hawk Beach - July 6, 2014

By Sunday night there was a large grouping of Laughing Gulls that had amassed in West Pubnico on a resident's lawn. The property owner was feeding them pork chops that night and they were very pleased to get such great service.

Adult Laughing Gull - West Pubnico - July 6, 2014

In the end, Arthur added another 4 birds to my life list. The new additions were Laughing Gull, Forster's Tern, Royal Tern and Black Skimmer. Many other rarities were reported throughout the province. Below is a list of interesting birds that appeared in NS in the days following the storm.
  1. Laughing Gull
  2. Black Skimmer
  3. Parasitic Jaeger
  4. Long-tailed Jaeger
  5. Purple Martin
  6. Leach's Storm-Petrel
  7. Wilson's Storm-Petrel
  8. Royal Tern
  9. Sandwich Tern
  10. Least Tern
  11. Gull-billed Tern
  12. Forster's Tern
  13. Black Tern
  14. Caspian Tern
  15. Harlequin Duck
  16. Glossy Ibis
  17. Red-necked Phalarope
  18. Black-necked Stilt (reported July 13 at West Head, Shelburne County - may not be attributable to the storm. See comments by Eric Mills on the NS-RBA)
David Bell spent a lot of time seawatching and birding Cape Sable Island on that weekend. Here are his eBird checklists.

July 5, 2014 - Cape Sable Island eBird Checklist
July 6, 2014 - Cape Sable Island eBird Checklist

A similar event also occurred in 2010 with Hurricane Earl. See below for eBird checkists from Shelburne County from Olivier Barden.

Sept. 5, 2010 - Cape Sable Island eBird Checklist
Sept. 5, 2010 - Baccaro eBird Checklist

In late October of 2005 Hurricane Wilma brought, Laughing Gulls, rare terns, swifts, Black Skimmers and even 3 Magnificent Frigatebirds (reported by Raymond d'Entremont) in Pubnico. Information can be found on the NS-RBA for October of 2005.

The terns were noted throughout most of the atlantic coast of NS from Halifax to Yarmouth but the Black Skimmers were only reported at Mavilette, Yarmouth, Seal Island, Surette's Island, Pinkney's Point and Cape Sable Island. These locations match up quite well to where the storm's eye made landfall. From this we should be able to conclude that the Black Skimmers were in the eye of the storm.

It has now been 2 months since Hurricane Arthur and most birds have either returned to the south or have died. I've heard of a few dead Laughing Gulls and Black Skimmers around SW NS. The most numerous of the rarities were the Laughing Gulls. I had monitored one grouping of these gulls in the days after the storm and took note of the numbers. See the chart below for the count of individuals near the war memorial in West Pubnico in the days after the storm.

The Laughing Gulls from the area were grouping together for a few days until they peaked at 100 individuals on July 8, 2014. The number shrank quickly and by July 12, 2014 there were no Laughing Gulls left at that location. The last gull that I observed was on September 7, 2014 in Yarmouth Harbour. In the days just after the storm there was a very small percentage of immature Laughing Gulls (maybe 5%), this percentage grew as time passed and the most mature birds returned to the south. A group of 18 birds that I had found on August 3 in Yarmouth were made up of 15 immatures and 3 adults (83%). By that date the mature birds were beginning their moult into basic plumage.

I will eagerly be awaiting the next hurricane and its vagrant birds. All of my photos of the storm birds can be found at my Flickr page.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Pubnico Pelagic 2014

There are many species of bird that are rarely seen from land. The best way to see these seabirds up close is by going on a pelagic bird cruise. My first trip was on August 25, 2012 where we traveled 50 km south of Pubnico to the Southeast Bank on a lobster boat called the Mercedes Elizabeth. Once we reached a point where there was enough bird life around we started chumming. Chumming is the practice of luring birds to a ship by throwing fish parts and liquids into the water. You can view the Nova Scotia Rare Bird Alert posting here. I had also created a YouTube Video for the trip.

I've been anticipating this year's pelagic for quite some time. Ronnie d'Entremont organized the trip and recruited Rodney d'Entremont to command the Captain Derek, a 55 foot long lobster boat belonging to my cousin Roddy d'Eon.

The following is a list of the participants:

Ronnie d'Entremont
Sharron Marlor
Alix d'Entremont
Paul Gould
Raymond d'Entremont
Ted d'Eon
Gisele d'Entremont
Judy O'Brien
Bruce Stevens
Richard Stern
Kevin Lantz
David Currie
Eric Mills
Graham Williams
Jane Alexander
Larry Neily
Fulton Lavender
Keith Lowe
Richard Stern
Lou-Anne Bidal
Ken McKenna

Most of the group met up at Dave Currie's trailer at Dennis Point Wharf the night before the trip. It is always great to chat with people that I usually only interact with online through the Nova Scotia Rare Bird Alert (NS-RBA) or Nova Scotia Bird Society Facebook page. Below is a photo of me holding Bruce Steven's 500 mm prime lens on a Canon Body and a homemade boot complete with both autofocus and shutter triggers (photo by Ronnie d'Entremont).

Me with Bruce's camera setup - photo by Ronnie d'Entremont

My father (Arthur d'Entremont) and uncle (Ellis d'Entremont) both fish herring on the Lady Melissa. They had been fishing around German Bank lately and had reported hundreds of Great Shearwater in the area. The warm southern waters were too far from shore for a day trip so it was decided to head for German Bank.

The Captain Derek left the northern most wharf at Dennis Point in Pubnico at 5:30 am on Saturday, August 16. The skies were mostly clear, there was no fog and the winds were light. On our way offshore we navigated past Round Island and observed a large number of Black Guillemots surrounding the island. We also spotted a few Great Cormorants flying by. Soon enough we were near German Bank and had observed few dozen Great Shearwater. At 8:06 am, a small and quick-flapping shearwater approached the boat from the north. I focused my binoculars onto the bird just as someone yelled out "Manx Shearwater!". This bird was a lifer for me and many others on the boat. The Manx Shearwater nests mainly on cliffs around Ireland and Great Britain and breeding has been confirmed sparsely on the Atlantic coast of North America. Below is a photo of my lifer caught by Ronnie d'Entremont.

Manx Shearwater - Photo by Ronnie d'Entremont

Northern Gannet at German Bank - August 16, 2014 - Photo by Alix d'Entremont.

We started throwing out herring pieces and by 8:45 am we had a small group of Great Shearwaters following our boat. These shearwaters were soon joined by a nice adult Northern Gannet. At this point the variably cloudy skies were fully cloudy making for very softly lit photos. Below is a photo of Dave Currie tossing herring overboard when the clouds had moved on.

David Currie throwing herring - Photo by Ronnie d'Entremont

Groups of Atlantic Puffins passed the boat along with flocks of Least Sandpipers, we observed a moth and a few pods of Harbour Porpoises. The next interesting sighting was a juvenile Black-legged Kittiwake.

Juvenile Black-legged Kittiwake at German Bank - August 16, 2014 - Photo by Alix d'Entremont.

A few Sooty Shearwaters were flying around but never approached the boat as often as did the Great Shearwaters. We got to see the diving abilities of the Sooty Shearwater. It would land among the Great Shearwaters and then disappear under the water for some time and appear again in a different location. The best shot that I was able to get of a Sooty was the one below of an individual taking flight.

Sooty Shearwater at German Bank - August 16, 2014 - Photo by Alix d'Entremont.

The Great Shearwaters allowed much better photography and were at some point a mere 10 feet from us. Their scaly upperpart plumage is very nice at close range.

Great Shearwater at German Bank - August 16, 2014 - Photo by Alix d'Entremont.

Great Shearwater at German Bank - August 16, 2014 - Photo by Alix d'Entremont.

We were very pleased to find both Red and Red-necked Phalaropes and both regular Storm-Petrels. Nearby Bon Portage Island (a.k.a. Outer Island) hosts a colony of up to 50,000 pairs of Leach's Storm-Petrel. The Wilson's Storm-Petrel is a southern bird that spends its winters (our summer) in the Northern Hemisphere.

Wilson's Storm-Petrel at German Bank - August 16, 2014 - Photo by Alix d'Entremont.

The highlight of any pelagic trip out of eastern North America is the sighting of a Skua. The most likely Skuas offshore in Nova Scotia are the Great Skua and the South Polar Skua. Binoculars and cameras were quickly brought up to the eyes when Fulton Lavender called out "Skua!". This bruiser of a bird gave us spectacular views and almost passed right over our heads. This bird was identified as the European nesting Great Skua.

Great Skua at German Bank - August 16, 2014 - Photo by Alix d'Entremont.

My favourite experience of the entire trip was when a Northern Fulmar was very close to the stern of the boat allowing me to get some close up photos. I hung off the stern to get as low as I could so that I was closer to the water for a better point of view. During the 2012 trip I was in the ship's wheelhouse when a fulmar landed near to the boat so I was very happy that I hadn't missed this opportunity.

Northern Fulmar at German Bank - August 16, 2014 - Photo by Alix d'Entremont.

Paul Gould and me looking at my photos - Photo by Ronnie d'Entremont

Another Great Skua was sighted a bit later but didn't allow us to approach for any good observations. I did manage to get a few shots of this second sighting. Photos of both Skuas were analyzed by Eric Mills and it was concluded that they were different individuals based on differing stages of molt between the two birds. Flight feather and covert wear is different between the two birds. The skua shown below (2nd bird) has much fresher primaries than the previous individual.

2nd Great Skua on German Bank - August 16, 2014 - Photo by Alix d'Entremont.

We got distant views of 3 Humpback Whales breaching on the horizon as well as Harbour Porpoises, a Minke Whale and a Grey Seal.

Minke Whale on German Bank - August 16, 2014 - Photo by Alix d'Entremont.

Grey Seal on German Bank - August 16, 2014 - Photo by Alix d'Entremont.

One of the most popular online venues to submit bird sightings is eBird. Graham Williams has submitted a report for this trip on eBird and has shared it with the other eBird users. The entire trip was split into 10 legs and GPS coordinates was acquired for each leg. Each sighting was assigned to one of the 10 legs and 10 seperate checklists were submitted. Below is a list provided to me by Graham Williams of all individuals observed during the trip.

Canada Goose: 15
Common Eider: 20
Common Loon: 4
Northern Fulmar: 1
Great Shearwater: 1033
Sooty Shearwater: 12
Manx Shearwater: 2
Cory’s Shearwater: 2 (Possible, ID unconfirmed)
Wilson’s Storm-Petrel: 15
Leach’s Storm-Petrel: 3
Northern Gannet: 69
Double-crested Cormorant: 90
Great Cormorant: 2
Black-bellied Plover: 3
Semi-palmated Plover: 1
Spotted Sandpiper: 2
Least Sandpiper: 12
Semi-palmated Sandpiper: 9
Peep sp.: 10
Red-necked Phalarope: 10
Red Phalarope: 58
Phalarope sp.: 115 (i.e. Red/Red-necked Phalarope but too far to ID with certainty)
Great Skua: 2
Jaeger sp.: 1 (Probably Parasitic)
Black Guillemot: 99
Atlantic Puffin: 37
Black-legged Kittiwake: 4
Herring Gull: 574 (most at or near wharf)
Great Black-backed Gull: 804 (most at or near wharf)
Gull sp.: 25
Common Tern: 9
Common/Arctic Tern: 1
Common Raven: 2

Links to ebird checklists of each trip leg are found here (from Graham Williams):

Below is a map showing our route along with the GPS points collected by Graham Williams. I've annotated where some of the more interesting species were seen.

Route for the trip on August 16, 2014.