The Thousand Mile Chase

a guest bloggerBird Sightings, Birding, Chase, RaritiesLeave a Comment

This post comes from Matt Sabatine, who recently had the chance to bird from Pennsylvania to Nova Scotia, where some great birds have been reported recently.

The reliable duo of rarities in Nova Scotia was just too good to resist. A EURASIAN KESTREL has been hanging out in the area of Hartlen Point outside Halifax, Nova Scotia since December, and a FIELDFARE has been munching on apples in the same exact tree in East Apple River, in the northern part of the province, since January 31. Tom Johnson and I discussed a trip where we could net these rarities and also do some birding and exploring elsewhere in Nova Scotia and New England. On the night of February 16, Tom picked me up and we set forth on our journey, retrieving Connecticut birder Nick Bonomo on the way, and drove through the night. We somehow managed to evade the masses of precipitation invading the New England and New Brunswick area en route, and arrived in East Apple River at around 2:00 pm, after a valiant and admirable effort on Tom’s behalf to successfully navigate the very rural (and very unplowed) road to the residence where the Fieldfare was staying. Our arrival at the Spicer residence was almost anti-climactic— the bird was almost too easy. Kathleen Spicer, the homeowner, first noted the European vagrant thrush during an intense snowstorm on January 31, and the bird has been seen feeding daily, almost continuously, since then in the same apple tree. Kathleen has a rather impressive property, with open areas interspersed with plenty of deciduous and boreal forest habitat as well. As if the FIELDFARE wasn’t enough, Kathleen has also documented other rarities on her property, including Fork-tailed Flycatcher and White-winged Dove, which coupled with the local specialties like breeding Spruce Grouse and Gray Jay in her backyard make quite an admirable property for birds. We arrived and set our sights on the Fieldfare immediately. The afternoon light was perfect, and Tom positioned his car around in her driveway to sit right next to the apple tree so that we could use it as a blind and get nice photos without disturbing it. The Fieldfare was an interesting watch, behaviorally speaking—it has become awfully territorial in defending its beloved apple tree, and, on numerous occasions, chased out Black-capped Chickadees and other birds innocently moving through the area. Kathleen also told us of the Fieldfare having chased out Pine Grosbeaks in the preceding days, and a sizable group of Bohemian Waxwings just minutes before our arrival.

There were other cool birds to keep us company at Kathleen’s as well, including a large group of COMMON REDPOLLS (with a probable Hoary mixed in) and SNOW BUNTINGS, which were often perching high up in the trees around her house.

After having our fill with the FIELDFARE, we decided to work our way south and get a hotel room for the night to put ourselves in good position to search for the EURASIAN KESTREL close to Halifax the next day. We arrived at Shore Rd., next to the Hartlen Point Forces Golf Course around 9 am on Wednesday, February 18, and Tom spotted the EURASIAN KESTREL sitting in a small conifer next to the road almost immediately. Over the course of the next five and a half hours, we alternated between trying fruitlessly to get quality photos of the kestrel and birding elsewhere along Shore Rd. There was plenty else to keep us company in the area, including Black Guillemots, many Iceland Gulls, a pair of Barrow’s Goldeneye and a trio of Rough-legged Hawks. Tom also picked out a female Common Eider of the borealis subspecies,  a very rare and infrequently documented subspecies for the eastern U.S. Identification of this subspecies can be difficult, but they can be separated from the expected dresseri (Atlantic) subspecies by noting their pale gray body color contrasting with some cinnamon tones in the back, and the paler, thinner bill, especially so at the base of the bill.  Tom’s photos of the borealis Common Eider can be seen on the eBird checklist.

In spite of the fact that we had already notched our two targets of the trip, and saw some really cool birds in the meantime, we were seriously unsatisfied with the photos we were getting of the Kestrel. It caught two small rodents during our stay (likely voles), and we got incredible scope views of this European visitor. Even still, it managed to evade us enough to disallow any nice photos, which was pretty impressive on the bird’s part. It was hanging out in a relatively small patch of dune grass habitat in between Shore Rd. and the ocean. During its bouts of hovering, we would try and position the vehicle along the road so that we could “intercept” the bird on its way to the golf course on the other side of the road. Every time, the bird would fly either far ahead of us or way behind us and we would repeat the process again and again. We finally gave up in our quest to give the bird a proper photo crushing, and moved on to some other spots in the Halifax area in the mid-afternoon. We arrived at Sullivan’s Pond, a small inland body of water north of Halifax, in search of some recently reported birds there. This small pond was playing host to another cluster of European visitors, with recent reports of EURASIAN WIGEON, BLACK-HEADED GULL, and the European subspecies of MEW GULL (also known as Common Gull). We arrived at this little park to find that the gulls were resigned to a small patch of open water remaining on the pond. What was probably unideal for them was perfect for us—we were able to get right next to the birds on the shore of the pond. We soon noted an adult BLACK-HEADED GULL and adult MEW (COMMON) GULL mixed in with the common Ring-billed and Herring Gulls, which we coaxed in even closer with bread that we had in the car. We soon had the BLACK-HEADED and MEW GULLS eating bread we were tossing to them, sometimes approaching to within as close as about 10 feet from us! Needless to say, we got copious photos of these special visitors.

Soon after the Mew Gull departed the pond, another, slightly different plumaged bird arrived, which unfortunately wasn’t as confiding as the first, as it never bothered to come in to the tasty treats we had presented before it. We only managed digiscoped photos of the second bird, but it presented a great opportunity to note the subtle differences between this unique form of Mew Gull and the Ring-billed Gulls it was hanging out with. We were able to identify the Mew Gulls by noting, in comparison to Ring-billed Gull their: short, thin bill, with weak brownish (not thick black) ring around it, with a clear color difference in the bill both from the base of the bill to the ring and also from the ring to the tip; the blueish gray legs (as opposed to yellow/green); completely black eye; slightly darker mantle color as compared to Ring-billed; and different primary pattern, evident both at rest and in flight. Common Gulls have a history of showing up in the northeastern U.S. and mid-Atlantic, and being aware of these subtle, yet clear differences from Ring-billed Gulls will improve chances of turning them up where they don’t belong.

After a very satisfying meeting with the gulls at Sullvan’s Pond, we checked a few coastal areas that had recent reports of Tufted Duck, to no avail. We had decided to call it a day as we approached our hotel, until we realized that the hotel we were staying at for the evening was right along the bay at the edge of Halifax. We decided to take a quick scan of the bay before dusk and we were very glad we did. We noted two distinct groups of gulls coming in to roost for the evening, one a group of mostly Herring Gulls numbering around 400 individuals, and another group, which consisted entirely of Iceland and Black-headed Gulls! I counted 177 Iceland Gulls and 14 Black-headed Gulls in the one group, with no Herring Gulls in that flock, an observation I found nearly as interesting as seeing 177 Iceland Gulls and 14 Black-headed Gulls together in the same scope view itself. It was a gratifying end to the second day in Nova Scotia.

After realizing later that night that we’d missed the Eurasian Wigeon not for lack of trying, but because there was a different area of open water near Sullivan’s Pond we weren’t aware of, we decided that a return to Sullivan’s Pond would be our first stop on Thursday, February 19. We easily located both the body of water, which was a small canal that feeds into the frozen Lake Banook. In the small swimming pool-sized body of open water, we noted three EURASIAN WIGEON among American Wigeon, Gadwall, a Green-winged Teal and many Mallards. Like the gulls in nearby Sullivan’s Pond, we were able to approach very close to these birds, tossing them bread they were happy to scarf up, while our cameras clicked away. By that point in the morning, a driving snow storm was setting in, which made photographing difficult but also interesting.

After getting our fill of the Wigeon, we decided that we absolutely needed to give ourselves another shot at getting satisfactory photos of the Eurasian Kestrel. We worked our way along Shore Rd. until we got to its favorite haunts, and, like our experience on Wednesday, it was initially quite frustrating. It seemed like déjà vu at first— seeing the bird hovering and hunting at a distance under cloudy skies, trying to get closer, and getting shafted by the bird, which by this point had to be getting some sort of humor out of the ordeal. While we were watching a group of ICELAND GULLS and BLACK-HEADED GULLS loafing in the surf right next to the “kestrel field”, a portly Nova Scotian man wearing really dark yellow glasses approached us in his car to inform us that the kestrel was kiting next to the road. We drove the 1/10th of a mile down the road to see the bird still kiting next to the road, and while our approach remained the same, the result was vastly different—we parked the car parallel to where the Kestrel was kiting, got out, and it flew directly over our heads, allowing for some crippling views and beyond satisfying photos.

After hours of being spitefully uncooperative, we were treated to looks good enough to snap the following photo. Eurasian Kestrel, Hartlen Point, Nova Scotia. Photo by Matt Sabatine.

After hours of being spitefully uncooperative, we were treated to looks good enough to snap the following photo. Eurasian Kestrel, Hartlen Point, Nova Scotia. Photo by Matt Sabatine.

 

After the experience, we had a good laugh, equal parts because of the irony of the encounter with the Kestrel and because of the man who informed us about it. After taking pics of a confiding light phase Rough-legged Hawk, we continued on our way, satisfied with our birding experience in Nova Scotia, easily getting the two rarities and also a taste of some of their other, slightly more regular European visitors.

Rough-legged Hawk, Hartlen Point, Nova Scotia. Photo by Matt Sabatine.

Rough-legged Hawk, Hartlen Point, Nova Scotia. Photo by Matt Sabatine.

The remainder of Thursday was a driving day, as we’d hoped to get into Maine to set ourselves up for some “boreal” type land birding on Friday morning, hoping for birds like Boreal Chickadee, Gray Jay, Pine Grosbeak and Black-backed Woodpecker, among others. While driving down Rt. 1 in Maine right next to the Canada border early Friday, February 20, Tom and I were treated to an immature NORTHERN GOSHAWK that flew across the road right in front of us. Nick, sitting in the backseat, missed the bird, which proved to be a fortuitous moment for me, seeing as how Nick insisted I sit shotgun for the morning drive. We soon arrived at our destination at Burn Rd. to find that it was totally unplowed, a proposition that Tom’s vehicle would not be accepting of. We briefly birded around the intersection of Rt. 1 and Burn Rd. and with frequent logging trucks passing by combined with the increasing wind, it was rather unproductive, save for a small group of 7 PINE GROSBEAKS that we got brief but good looks at. It seemed as though they were planning on dropping down to the road to feed, until the passage of one too many 18-wheelers must have been the deciding factor, as they continued on their way to the east. A few other roadside stops in the area were largely unproductive, due in part to the wind conditions and the odd, uneven distribution of passerines in the boreal forests here. We did, however, run into one group of birds that contained a female-type HOARY REDPOLL among a small group of COMMON REDPOLLS that perched directly above us before continuing on our way. Realizing that our hopes for the other “boreal specialties” would likely be a bust, we decided to continue on to try and track down some BOHEMIAN WAXWINGS that had been recently reported in small towns in northern Maine where crabapples were plentiful. Our first attempt at the waxwings was a great success, as we had a group of 15 BOHEMIAN WAXWINGS feeding in a lone crabapple tree next to the Lee Academy in Lee, Maine. While watching and taking photos of them, I laughed aloud to myself when I realized that one of the waxwings was eating snow, and doing a messy job of it.

When you need water to survive and live where it’s cold and can’t find any, eat snow. Bohemian Waxwings, Lee, Maine. Photo by Matt Sabatine.

When you need water to survive and live where it’s cold and can’t find any, eat snow. Bohemian Waxwings, Lee, Maine. Photo by Matt Sabatine.

Our next attempt for “BoWax” was also a success, as we intercepted a group of 25 of them outside Chester, Maine before they swirled up and away toward the coast. We were quite excited for our next stop at the University of Maine campus in Orono, Maine to try and track down some more waxwings, as we were all aware of college campuses’ proclivity in planting ornamental crabapple trees for aesthetic pleasure. As we drove around campus, we immediately took note of several crabapple trees loaded with fruit, and figured it was only a matter of time until we ran into some waxwings. Before the waxwings, though, we spied a group of 19 PINE GROSBEAKS munching on the crabapple seeds next to one of the college buildings. Consistent with my limited experience with this species, they were incredibly confiding, allowing us to approach within almost touching distance, not caring less about students walking to and from class directly beneath the trees they were feeding in.

While watching the grosbeaks, a swirling mass of BOHEMIAN WAXWINGS dropped into the crabapples briefly before heading to another part of campus. After getting our fill of the grosbeaks getting their fill, we tracked down the BoWax flock in a different crabapple tree next to a different building on campus. We estimated 200 BOHEMIAN WAXWINGS were present here, alternating between dropping down to feed on the ground around a crabapple tree and perching in tall conifers nearby. They were also quite confiding, allowing us to approach close enough to get nice photos. It was a sight to behold, if not for the mass of Bohemain Waxwings feeding almost at our feet then for the sight of three strange looking men with optics and large cameras, sprawled out belly-down on the frozen ground directly outside of the nursing building and among the throngs of students walking around campus. One woman in particular, presumably a nursing student adorned in scrubs, exited the building and gave a startled shriek when she saw Nick and I lying on the ground with our cameras clicking just feet away. Embarrassed, she laughed anxiously and hastily walked to her car, followed not long after by the departure of the waxwings, and then, us.

Our next stop was in Wells, Maine, where a GYRFALCON was found earlier in the morning by local birder Pam Hunt. We arrived in the late afternoon around 4 pm, to a very cold and windy Wells Harbor. The local waterfowl and gulls were too much at ease to have any Gyrfalcons in the vicinity, and we dipped on the bird as we’d pretty much expected to. A falconer flying two Peregrine Falcons around the harbor provided a brief bit of entertainment, and as daylight waned we chalked up our loss and retreated to warmth and some nice Maine seafood.

We stayed in Rye, New Hampshire for the night, planning to bird the Gloucester and Cape Ann area in Massachusetts on Saturday. We arrived at the Jodrey State Fish Pier in Gloucester before 7 am Saturday, February 21, and consistent with the theme of the trip, it was windy and painfully cold. We counted an impressive 57 ICELAND GULLS loafing among the common gull species around the fish pier, and not long after we met up with local Massachusetts birders Jeremiah Trimble and Ryan Schain to hit some other local hotspots.

Common Eider in the frigid early morning. Jodrey State Fish Pier, Gloucester, Massachusetts. Photo by Matt Sabatine.

Common Eider in the frigid early morning. Jodrey State Fish Pier, Gloucester, Massachusetts. Photo by Matt Sabatine.

Our next stop was at the Fisherman’s Monument just outside of Gloucester, where I spotted the male COMMON GOLDENEYE x HOODED MERGANSER hybrid that had been seen on and off recently. It was a truly bizarre, beautiful looking duck.

Hooded Merganser x Common Goldeneye hybrid, Fisherman’s Monument, Gloucester, Massachusetts. Photo by Matt Sabatine.

Hooded Merganser x Common Goldeneye hybrid, Fisherman’s Monument, Gloucester, Massachusetts. Photo by Matt Sabatine.

After enjoying this rare hybrid, we headed back to the fish pier, hoping for some gull turnover and a better count of Iceland Gulls. We returned to count 45 ICELAND GULLS, down from our count earlier in the morning, but this time also turned up two GLAUCOUS GULLS and a presumed NELSON’S GULL (Glaucous x Herring Gull hybrid). One of the Glaucous Gulls was lurking around the side of the fishing pier next to a dumpster and not near any of the other gulls, appearing as though it were up to no good, or just committed a crime.

presumed Nelson’s Gull (Glaucous x Herring Gull hybrid), Jodrey State Fish Pier, Gloucester, Massachusetts. Photo by Matt Sabatine.

presumed Nelson’s Gull (Glaucous x Herring Gull hybrid), Jodrey State Fish Pier, Gloucester, Massachusetts. Photo by Matt Sabatine.

We next hit the outer cape hoping for some alcids and other birds. Various stops failed to produce anything in the way of alcids except for a few BLACK GUILLEMOTS and a distant flock of large alcids that were likely RAZORBILLS. We did enjoy some other nice birds though, including HARLEQUIN DUCKS, RED-NECKED GREBES, and all three Scoter species.

Common Eider and Black Scoter flock. Photo by Matt Sabatine.

Common Eider and Black Scoter flock. Photo by Matt Sabatine.

 

We enjoyed an authentic eastern Massachusetts-area lunch at a bar nearby. Authentic maybe not so much because of the food, but because I got a solid ribbing for pledging allegiance to my dear Philadelphia Eagles by donning a beanie bearing the team logo. We hastily escaped the area trying to beat out a winter storm invading the region, and made it back to Nick’s in Connecticut for the night, bringing an official end to our trip. It was a fantastic journey filled with great birds, great times, and great memories to look back on.