The Bi-Coastal Challenge: East Coast edition
guest author: Blake Maybank
Earlier this year Dick Cannings and I had agreed to organise the Guest Teams for the 2011 Bird Studies Canada’s Baillie Birdathon, its annual fund-raiser. The original premise was a straight-forward Big Day competition between Canada’s two longitudinal coasts, east and west. But there was nothing straight-forward about this proposal, as British Columbia birders would always be able to tally a higher species total (location, location, location), and I could not determine how we could create any workable handicapping system.
Instead we proposed a Bi-Coastal Birdathon (soon known to Dick and I as the Bi-Polar Birdathon), wherein we would combine the results from the two birdathons and, eliminating duplicate species, attempt to reach a total of 250 species.
Dick and I sent preliminary planning lists back and forth, tentatively assigning provincial responsibilities regarding finding certain species. And we assembled teams of willing participants. Nova Scotians are nothing if not polite, and we agreed that British Columbia should go first. And so, on May 18 Dick and his eager and skilled team set a new British Columbia Big Day record, finding 202 species in one day. This was good news for them, and also for us in Nova Scotia, as it meant that the BC birders had “ticked” many of the “shared” species, leaving the Bluenose Birding team with the task of finding just 48 new species to bring the combined total to 250.
Our team consisted of three, myself, Dave Currie, and Mike King. Dave is an experienced local birder (he coordinates Christmas Bird Counts for the province), recently retired, and eager for any chance to go afield. Mike is a younger birder, with more energy and better ears than Dave and I put together, and is an enthusiastic photographer. Together we undertook preliminary planning, but we were hampered by one over-whelming factor – the Maritime provinces were experiencing one of the cloudiest, foggiest, wettest springs in many years, and bird migration, especially in Nova Scotia, was delayed. And species that were arriving were doing so in small numbers.
While May is the month in BC in which the biggest Big Day totals can be achieved, in Nova Scotia it is June, so we decided to wait as long as possible in the month to allow as many birds as possible to return. And we were waiting for a sunny day, or at least a day in which the wind was not blowing from the south, thereby cloaking the south-facing Atlantic coastlines in thick fog. Forecasters would periodically throw up the promise of a sunshine “in several days”, but such promises would invariably be found wanting, as the sun did not materialise. Indeed, in Halifax, there were just 14 hours of sunshine in the first 30 days of May.
We had to run our Birdathon in May (Baillie Rules), so we set Sunday, May 29 as our day, as traffic would be light, all team members were available, and the forecast called for sunny breaks. But as Sunday approached the forecast changed (surprise!), and instead the day was offering the constant flow of foggy southerly winds.
Fog would not necessarily impede our forest birding that much, as most of the productive areas were inland, but we needed a number of coastal species if we were to have any chance to reach 250, and most of those coastal species were in Shelburne and Yarmouth Counties, which are “fog central” when spring winds blow from the south.
As a back-up plan we made arrangements to head to Cape Breton, where Donelda, of Donelda’s Puffin Tours, agreed to take us out quickly to the Bird Islands off Englishtown, where fog is less of a problem, and where several key species nest; Great Cormorant, Black-legged Kittiwake, Atlantic Puffin, Black Guillemot, and Razorbill. And there would be Common Eiders, Northern Gannets, and Arctic Terns as well. But it would be a five hour drive from Halifax, against a three hour drive to the south shore.
As we were trying to decide our itinerary we kept gazing at the longer-range forecast for Tuesday, May 31, the last possible day we could run our Birdathon. Every forecaster we could locate was promising a one-day shift to a northerly air flow, accompanied by sunny skies, and relatively light winds. If this forecast held up then Tuesday would be our day. But there were two problems – Mike would not be available on Tuesday, and if the forecast was wrong we’d be back in the pea soup.
With regrets to Mike, Dave and I decided to pin our hopes on Tuesday, and we managed to find a replacement when Jim Edsall agreed to assist. Jim is a renowned award-winning bird carver, a long-time birder, and a butterfly and dragonfly expert as well. He’d recently moved back to his home province of Nova Scotia from neighbouring New Brunswick, and this was a great way to get him back into the game.
Our planning continued. We created our Target List of species, which we divided into three categories. The “Core” list consisted of 26 species sufficiently common along our route that special planning was not required – we’d hear or see these species in passing, while searching for the more fussy species. The “Planning” list comprised the less-common or rare species for which specific stops were planned, based on our knowledge of their breeding areas, or advance tips from other birders (I had sent out a request to the province’s birders for sites for many of these species). There were 28 species on the Planning list. Finally, the “Lucky” list was a grouping of 18 rare (but annual) species for which no specific sites were known. Serendipity was required.
This was a possible total of 72 species, and as we only needed 48, we were cautiously optimistic. But it all hinged on the weather.
As Tuesday approached the forecast remained steady, much to our surprise and delight. The game was afoot.
We rendezvoused at Jim’s Dartmouth residence at 0230. We did not require a midnight start, as the BC team had tallied all the owls and rails we might find in Nova Scotia, leaving us only three night-specialist species – American Woodcock, American Bittern, and Common Nighthawk. All three were possible along the same stretch of road, the Old Guysborough Road, running from behind Stanfield International Airport to the Musquodoboit Valley. Dave had done some scouting here a week earlier, and at our first stop, just off the airport perimeter, we heard the woodcock, despite the noise of idling planes. The second (quieter) stop produced both the bittern and the nighthawk, as well as a Northern Saw-whet Owl, which was not on our target list, but was welcomed regardless.
It was not yet 0400 and we had accomplished our night mission, so we continued to the Musquodoboit River valley and linked up with Route 357, which parallels the river to its mouth in the village of Musquodoboit Harbour. We drove to the village and parked at the trail head for the Musquodoboit Rail-Trail, and walked the first 200 metres to the bridge over the river. As dawn approached the bird song began, and while many species had already been tagged by the West Coasters (robins, Song Sparrows, etc, etc), we did hear many of our Target Birds; Alder Flycatcher, Blue Jay, Swainson’s Thrush, Magnolia Warbler, American Redstart, Swamp Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, and Common Grackle.
But it was time to drive back up the valley, stopping at as many different habitat types as we could, coniferous forests, mixed-wood forests, bogs, streams, and meadows. By 0630 we were nearing the village of Meagher’s Grant, having added, from our Core List, Blue-headed Vireo, Red-eyed Vireo, Winter Wren, Cedar Waxwing, Northern Parula, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, Blackburnian Warbler, and Black-and-white Warbler. As well we were fortunate to find three of the “Planning” List warblers, Palm, Bay-breasted, and Canada. As we drove slowly through Meagher’s Grant we kept a look out for hummingbird feeders, and this strategy paid off as we watched an aerial fight between two Ruby-throated Hummingbirds.
We reached Elderbank, the junction of 357 and the Old Guysborough Road, at 0700, ahead of schedule. We saw American Black Ducks on the Elderbank Marsh, and did a preliminary tally – we had 26 Target Species, over half way already. But a long day loomed ahead.
We drove back on the Old Guysborough Road towards the airport and turned into Dollar Lake Provincial Park, only to find the gates closed. May 31 and the park was still not open? Remarkable, though many parks in this financially-strapped province are open for only a ten-week season. While we gazed in frustration at the closed gate an Ovenbird (#27) sang nearby, hinting at the birds of the mature deciduous forest that lurked in the main part of the park, too distant to reach on foot. A back-up plan was needed, and we talked options as we drove to the airport. Then, a break, as a pair of Broad-winged Hawks showed themselves, our first species from our Lucky List (#28).
First though, we had a stake-out species to check. Jacques Perron had alerted us to an Eastern Phoebe nest in Elderbank, a diversion that would add only 10 or so minutes to our route. With accurate GPS coordinates we found the site easily, and before the car had stopped we saw an adult phoebe fly through an open door into a small storage shed. (#29).
We now headed south, taking the Bicentennial Highway around Halifax Harbour. Dave suggested that we might consider a short detour between two exits, to explore a stand of good deciduous forest beside Rocky Lake, in Powder Mill Park. As we were ahead of schedule we agreed to this, and 30 minutes (an d a brisk 2 km walk) later, we had added Black-throated Blue Warbler and Eastern Wood-Pewee (#30 and #31). We now had encountered all the expected forest species for this portion of our trip, save for Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and Olive-sided Flycatcher. It was hard to explain the silence from the former, as it is a common and noisy species, but the absence of the flycatcher was likely due the late spring.
We drove a short cut to Hwy 103, which leads to Nova Scotia’s south shore, and arrived at Tantallon at 0900, almost two hours ahead of schedule. Our success at Powder Mill Park meant we could skip the Lewis Lake area, but we felt we had time for a quick run into the forestry lands owned by Abitibi-Price/Bowater, to try for the sapsucker and the flycatcher. We did this, but this time our luck failed us, and we left the area 45 minutes later no further ahead.
To the south, then. We had a planned stop en route in Milton, outside of Liverpool, where Dorothy Poole had told us of three good candidates for our list, Northern Cardinal, Baltimore Oriole, and Great Crested Flycatcher, all three scarce provincial breeders, and on our Planning List. But first Dave had another idea. He knew of a house in Mahone Bay in whose back yard a pair of cardinals had taken up residence, so we slipped off the highway once again and made a pass through the town, one of the prettiest in the province. When we arrived at Ken’s house there was loud yard work in progress, so the cardinals were keeping a low profile. On spec we checked out an adjacent wooded street with an adjoining undeveloped lot, hoping the cardinals were lurking there. No such luck, but instead were rewarded with the calls of Great Crested Flycatcher (#32).
Next to Milton, where we were greeted by Dorothy with the news that the oriole and flycatcher had been calling up to 10 minutes earlier, but now all was silence. We did not now need the flycatcher of course, but we spent more than 30 minutes in a vain effort to locate the oriole. As consolation a cardinal called a few times (#33) so our stop was not in vain. And a Herring Gull (#34) flew along the Mersey River; the species was entirely expected, of course, but it was odd we hadn’t seen one yet during the day.
Southward again. Our initial plan had been to go to the Pubnicos, where all three species of tern (Common, Arctic, and Roseate) nest on The Brothers islands, and in the absence of fog we could see them all from the mainland. And Blackpoll Warblers nest on Pubnico Point, assuming they were back yet. Given the state of the tide, however, we decided to first go to Cape Sable Island (linked by a causeway to North America) to make a serious assault on our coastal species. As we crossed the causeway we could see many Great Black-backed Gulls (#35), but we didn’t stop, and drove straight to Daniel’s Head, one of the hot spots on the island, an area of salt marsh, mud flat, and sand dunes. We had been well primed regarding the disposition of the island’s birds by local birder Johnny Nickerson, and upon arrival at Daniel’s Head we quickly added Black-crowned Night-Heron (#36), Willet (#37), and Common Eider (#38). There was no sign, however, of the breeding pair of American Oystercatchers, one of the key species for the island – this is the only regular breeding site for the species in Canada.
We planned to return to Daniel’s Head for another try for the Oystercatcher, and there was the small matter of the Piping Plovers nesting on Daniel’s Head Beach. But first to The Hawk, the southern tip of the island, and not, oddly enough, named for any bird. We first checked “The Hole” an alder-covered migrant trap, where a pair of Brown Thrashers had been “tending” as we’d been informed by Johnny. But not while we were there. While trying to locate this locally rare breeding species I heard a song I confidently identified as a Blackpoll Warbler, but Jim tracked it down to prove it was an excited migrant Black-and-white Warbler. While I was commiserating Dave chanced upon a lovely migrant Tennessee Warbler (#39), a real bonus, and a budworm specialist species that is in very short supply, as the budworms are in a low cycle in the east.
Next it was over to the Lobster Pound, where we could look upon the mudflats between Cape Sable Island and Cape Sable, the latter a 5-km long sand and rock bar that borders the southeast shore of Cape Sable Island. Shorebirds appeared as the 8-9 metre tide receded, and while most of the revealed species had been found in BC (Dunlin, Red Knot, Black-bellied Plover), the Ruddy Turnstone and two Greater Yellowlegs were new (#40, #41). But we weren’t finished with The Hawk. We ventured the short distance to the end of The Hawk road, and were surprised and pleased to find a second pair of Brown Thrashers (#42), making up for the quiet birds at “The Hole”.
Access to Cape Sable is by private boat, and while we didn’t plan on visiting the Cape, we did wish to go to Green Island, which lies in the open ocean just beyond. Atlantic Puffins had been noted a year earlier prospecting on Green Island, and in 2011 they had returned and had commenced nesting. The boatman to get us there was Leslie Smith, retired from the Coast Guard, and someone who knew every rock and ledge and current and cove. As we headed over to his home in Clark’s Harbour we stopped first at Johnny’s in a vain attempt to see the Fox Sparrow which daily (and repeatedly) visits his feeder.
Leslie greeted us with his inexhaustible cheerfulness, and such good humour is a must, as most passengers are a bit nervous getting into his 15 foot boat with 8 hp motor. The boat is fine for the quick trips to the Cape, but although Leslie happily putters about everywhere in his small boat, less experienced mainlanders are understandably nervous when he ventures into the open ocean. The winds were modest, not even to the “Small Craft Warning” level, but the waves were angled to us and, as Johnny promised, we washed our faces. It was a quiet trio of birders as Leslie carefully navigated his small craft (especially small compared to the many large lobster boats that were retrieving their gear on this last day of the lobster season), but we made progress, and as we approached Green Island our spirits were raised by the appearance of new species: Arctic Tern (#43); Great Cormorant (#44); Roseate Tern (#45); Black Guillemot (#46); Northern Gannet (#47); a completely unexpected Razorbill (#48); and, of course, Atlantic Puffin (#49). It was especially gratifying to reach the 250 goal with the Razorbill and surpass it with such a sexy bird as Atlantic Puffin—we were in a splendid mood as we returned to Cape Sable Island.
Leslie landed us safely, as expected, and after our thanks we revisited Johnny’s feeder (still no Fox Sparrow), and then returned to Daniel’s Head. This time the pair of oystercatchers were showing (#50), so we then quickly walked the beach to find a Piping Plover foraging well outside its marked protected area (#51).
It was time to begin the drive home – and was that a hint of sunburn on our faces? Who would credit it? We decided to forego a long side trip for a Whip-poor-will in Yarmouth County, but did return to Dorothy’s house in Milton, and this time the Baltimore Oriole was singing up a storm (#52), perhaps in celebration of our reaching 250. As a final bonus during the drive back to Halifax a pair of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks flew in front of the vehicle – #53, and the last species for the day.
Our total species list was only 105 species, but this was to be expected. We’d skipped a lot of habitats and had not spent a full 24 hours in the venture. It wouldn’t have been unreasonable to find an additional 30 species if we’d pursued a “proper” Big Day, but we’d never have achieved a total such as they managed in BC. Regardless, we were content. We’d found 25 of 26 Core Species (where were the sapsuckers?), 23 of 28 Planning Species (three of which hadn’t returned yet), and five bonus species. The Bi-Polar Bi-Coastal Birdathon reaches 255! All courtesy of the one good day of weather in the entire month of May, and the enthusiasm and good spirits of Dave and Jim.
My thanks to them, to Bird Studies Canada, and to Dick Cannings and his team.