Sunday, 18 December 2016

27 Aug- 3 Sep

27 August
A bit of a sad day, as Anne and Doug were leaving! I'd learnt loads from the both of them, and it was nice to not be the only heavyish drinker in camp (By which I mean maybe two beers a night on average, concerned family!). It was, at any rate, a pleasantly lazy day, as we waited around til mid-afternoon for the helicopter to arrive.
The two news arrivals were Allie and Greg. Allie's doing her PhD up here over the course of three years, and leading most of the crews, while Greg was a volunteer from Toronto for the final two weeks of the season. Both were lovely additions to the crew.
Not that much happened during the day, apart from a little briefing for Greg. As we'd had to stay around and wait for the chopper, no surveys were done today. However, the real highlight came later that evening, as when eating dinner, I spotted an Owl glide by the window! Leaping up and running outside, we identified it as a Long-eared Owl, which proceeded to give several laps of the cabins before disappearing into the night. The Great Horned Owl called again too.

28 August
First day surveying with Greg, and we headed down to Pisquatchee. There was definitely a more autumnal feel to proceedings today.
Birding Highlights: Black Scoter- 3000, Goldeneye-245, American Bittern-1, Osprey-2, Peregrine-1, Spotted Sandpiper-1, Red Knot-117, Baird's Sandpiper-1, Bonaparte's Gull-447, Parasitic Jaeger-1, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher-1, Winter Wren-1, American Pipit-13, American Redstart-1, Magnolia Warbler-1, Le Conte's Sparrow-1, Nelson's Sparrow-6, Clay-coloured Sparrow-1, Lincoln's Sparrow-15.
The survey started off fairly well; a calling Spotted Sandpiper was notable for Longridge (one of the scarcest shorebirds we saw up here), and a Baird's Sandpiper flew over Pisquatchee calling. A loose flock of American (Buff-bellied) Pipits were our first of the season. However, torrential rain started to hit as soon as we had made it to Pisquatchee. Greg and I dashed for cover in the woods, but were already soaked by this point, and not getting any drier. After 45 minutes or so of being hunkered down, the rain eventually cleared, and we carried on surveying from where we'd left off. While scanning the bay from Pisquatchee, I picked up a fairly distant Parasitic Jaeger heading south.
Later on in the day, I saw my first Peregrine of the season (chasing a Bald Eagle!), and a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher along the treebird trail, also a first of the season. A good number of Sparrows and Warblers were around today, including a family party of 5 Nelson's Sparrow at the base of Longridge Creek, 15 Lincoln's Sparrow at Pisquatchee, 25 Swamp Sparrow scattered about and seven species of Warbler (Common Yellowthroat, American Redstart, Magnolia, Yellow, Blackpoll, Palm and Myrtle).
Nelson's Sparrow juvenile

29 Aug
As late summer turns into autumn, the passerine and wildfowl migration built up again today, but shorebird numbers were dwindling!
Birding Highlights; Snow Goose-239, American Black Duck-150, Shoveler-2, Black Scoter-3770, Hooded Merganser-2, Red Knot-33, White-rumped Sandpiper-1500, Baird's Sandpiper-6, Pectoral Sandpiper-455, Long-eared Owl-1, Hairy Woodpecker-1, Alder Flycatcher-1, Blue-headed Vireo-3, Philadelphia Vireo-1, Red-eyed Vireo-2, Ruby-crowned Kinglet-17, Swainon's Thrush-3, American Pipit-18, Black-and-white Warbler-7, Orange-crowned Warbler-1, Magnolia Warbler-1, Yellow Warbler-1, Wilson's Warbler-1, Le Conte's Sparrow-1, White-winged Crossbill-3, Common Redpoll-3
morning view from the Cabin,looking east

Survey today took us up Longridge Point. Shorebird numbers were, in general, far lower than they had been, to be expected as migration begins to tail off. However, right at the tip of Longridge was a great surprise, with 4 juvenile Baird's Sandpiper feeding on a patch of seaweed alongside a Turnstone. With two further birds on the wrack, we managed a very impressive six Baird's today, my highest count by some distance. Otherwise, the highlight was probably an excellent count of 3700 Black Scoter in one loose group off the tip of Longridge. They were nearly all males, as James Bay is a staging area for tens of thousands of these birds on their post-breeding moult. If Birdlife International's population estimates are to believed, our count is getting quite close 1% of the whole global population of Black Scoter (their, rather loose, estimate is a population of 350,000 to 560,000 mature individuals, though in August the total number is likely higher, with a lot of birds of the year). In perspective, 1% of the global population of people is about 70 million, so I'd seen about as high a proportion of the world's Black Scoter as I would if I rounded up every person in Britain!
Other wildfowl were clearly increasing, with large numbers in particular of Snow Goose and American Black Duck. 
If you really squint, you can see a male Black Scoter

There were, once again, good number of passerines moving through the spruce, with an Orange-crowned Warbler  the standout bird. This, alongside a Hairy Woodpecker, were both trip ticks, and the Woodpecker was fantastic, due to one of those field camp jokes that wouldn't be even remotely funny if I tried to explain it (but I've read your mind, and it's nowhere near as perverted as what you're thinking.). A Wilson's Warbler was also a none-too-common sighting.
Perhaps my highlight of the day came very late. Having cooked dinner, and not burned anything, killed anyone or concussed myself with a frying pan, I went on a little dusk walk. This could be a productive time to detect some new birds for each days log, calling American Robin and Swainson's Thrush, flyover Wilson's Snipe and even, today, two Hooded Merganser. The real highlight, though, came from picking up the Long-eared Owl in flight again. I ran back inside to alert everyone, and when I went outside, it was nowhere to be found. However, just sometimes, you have a moment in birding where you feel more like a Jedi, than a bumbling middle-class boy from a small town in East Sussex. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a branch move in a way wholly inconsistent with the breeze. It bounced up and down, as if something fairly large had just landed on it. Curious, I borrowed Dan's torch to check the tree out. Curiosity rewarded, I found the Owl, sitting exactly where I'd spotted that movement, right out in the open! It stayed for five minutes, allowing all of us brilliant views of one of the most cryptic and hard to detect of all Owls. I've seen Long-eared Owl this well a few times before, but it's always been at a well-known roost. The thrill of obtaining such a wonderful encounter purely through fortuitousness, and a little bit of sharp observing, made this moment infinitely more rewarding.
The lowlight of the day came when we discovered a crate full of swamped food in  a boarded up room in the cabin (we only noticed there was a leak when it started coming into the room, and there had been a lip of about two inches between both rooms!). Worse still, this food had been kept there by the Cree family we were renting the cabins from!  Most of it would have to be burnt, and the mix of water and rotten food was absolutely putrid.  I think it was something of a bonding experience for the six of us though, nothing quite brings you together like having to pitch in on a disgusting job! For today we managed to get rid of all the putrid (quite literally vomit inducing unless you held your nose) water, work out what food could be salvaged, and get an inventory of what would need to be replaced. The burning of the rest could wait for a drier day...

30 Aug
A nice survey of West Bay, and a lazy afternoon.
Birding Highlights: Green-winged Teal-60, Black Scoter-1500, Osprey-1, Solitary Sandpiper-1, Hudsonian Godwit-80, Stilt Sandpiper-3, Dunlin-100, White-rumped Sandpiper-3000, Pectoral Sandpiper-450, Short-billed Dowitcher-12, Red-necked Phalarope-3, Long-eared Owl-1, Mourning Dove-2, Peregrine-1, Philadelphia Vireo-1, American Pipit-22, Nashville Warbler-1, American Redstart-1 male, Yellow Warbler-2, Nelson's Sparrow-1, Pine Siskin-1, Red-breasted Nuthatch-1.
Every day for the last five, I'd managed at least one trip tick. Today drew a blank, but two Mourning Dove first thing were my first in James Bay, so counted for something!
The morning survey of West Bay was generally quiet, but there was a real hub of activity around Limosa Creek. Of our excellent White-rumped Sandpiper count, at least 2500 of them were here, while the 8 Short-billed Dowitcher here, plus four elsewhere, contributed to my highest day count of this scarce species. Three each of Stilt Sandpiper and Red-necked Phalarope were pretty much expected here, but both species look exquisite in their fresh juvenile plumage, and were a delight to see every time.
Short-billed Dowitcher

The Long-eared Owl hunted over the cabins again during the evening, giving more great flight views. This is probably my favourite Owl, there's something very ethereal about them, from their silent and ghostlike flight, their ability to vanish when in plain sight, and their tendency to be active right at twilight. In Britain, they're even harder to detect than in Canada (where they're considerably commoner), and so I've always thought of it as a near-mythical creature!

31 Aug
The weather was good enough in the morning for a garbage burn. In the afternoon, it was totally squalid, but a mixture of this nasty front, and strong northerly winds produced an impressive migration of Canada Geese and shorebirds, with two unexpected rarities thrown in! ]
Birding Highlights: Canada Goose-3660, CACKLING GOOSE-1, Pintail-77, Black-bellied Plover-137, American Golden Plover-17, Hudsonian Godwit-386, BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKE-1, American Pipit-1, Cedar Waxwing-3, Black-and-white Warbler-1, Le Conte's Sparrow-3.
So, the morning started off with a horrid job. Horrid, but surprisingly good fun. I love a good fire, and I love a good challenge, and there's few better ways of combining the two than attempting to burn several kilos of wet, putrid food, containers and all! It was definitely not a woodsmoke smell. And the smoke coming out of the burn-barrel resembled the plumes from a factory more than any wood fire I've seen. I prefer not to think about what exactly we might have inhaled doing that job (me especially, as I was generally closer to the fire trying to keep it going), but all that fresh air was doing me no good. As a fairly urban boy, I doubtless needed a few pollutants to cleanse my blood of all that filthy oxygen.
If you've never smeared lard onto wet cardboard to try and make it burn, you don't quite understand our lives.

Another item cast into the fiery chasm from whence it came by Kathryn

Greg and I, I promise, went out that afternoon with full intentions of doing a proper survey. However, the weather was atrocious, rain was pelting down to the extent that even a right-in-the-rain notebook was quickly beyond legible use. The wind froze each and every extremity and rendered them as blunt and useless as a wooden club. A wooden club that you're attempting to perform open heart surgery with. And with the level of detail needed to fully complete a survey, and optics that fogged up afresh every five minutes, it was pretty impossible to do our job properly! However, we decided that, on this atrocious day, we could just go birding, as an awful lot of birds were taking this as their cue to migrate south. The majority of these were Canada Geese, with a new flock of several hundred appearing from the north before we'd even finished counting the previous one! In about two hours, we'd reached 3660, and if we were out birding all day I'm sure over 10,000 would have been detected. With that many geese on the move, it wasn't all that surprising to see a rare one, and sure enough a little midget of a CACKLING GOSE moved through in one of the flocks. One awesome flock of 325 Hudsonian Godwit flew over (we saw 386 in total), and several double digit flocks of Black-bellied Plover gave us a pretty healthy count of them too. 17 American Golden Plover was our best count of this scarcity to date.
Of course, I've neglected to even tell you about the genuine rarity we saw today! It happened right at the start, when we still had ambitions to survey. I was scanning a flock of Bonapartes Gulls, roosting on the saltmarsh, when I saw something obviously very different. The bill was yellow, and it was moderately larger, I first noticed. Okay, so a Ring-billed. But wait, this bill was long, thin and definitely without a dark ring on it! The forehead was sloping, the iris was dark, the mantle considerably darker grey than Bonaparte's Gull, and the wingtips had almost no white. I got the call wrong at first, telling Greg "I think I have an adult Mew Gull!". I didn't realise at the time, that Mew Gull is very rare here, and if you were paying attention, you'll probably notice a few things in that description that definitely don't fit one. Greg, thankfully, was there to correct me, and point out that it was a Black-legged Kittiwake! A bit of an embarassing call (they breed on my doorstep, I should recognise one!), but I was thinking of what might be more probable. In retrospect, a 40mph north-easterly is far more likely to bring Kittiwake into James bay. I didn't see it again through the scope, but as it flew off I noted the long, pointed wings, giving it a tern-like flight. While juvenile Kittiwakes are somewhat expected in the right conditions, and at the right time of year, I've been told that seeing an adult is pretty exceptional!
I've forgotten to tell you til now, that food was running REALLY low. We were in rationing mode quite severely. Talk in camp, over this evening, was gradually gearing towards a somewhat ridiculous prospect, that we may have to walk the 25km or so to Pisquamish, the next camp south, to pick up more supplies! But it won't get that bad, I thought...

1 September
The northerlies were really starting to hurt us in terms of shorebirds! A few interesting seabirds made the day worthwhile though
Birding Highlights; Snow Goose-299, Canada Goose 736, American Black Duck-174, Black Scoter-492, Osprey-3, American Golden Plover-4, Baird’s Sandpiper-2, Stilt Sandpiper-2, Dunlin-144, Pectoral Sandpiper-400, Dunlin-155, Caspian Tern-3, Arctic Tern-1, jaeger sp-1, Horned Lark-1, American Pipit-20
Gilligans Island, from halfway along Longridge

Greg and I checked West Bay pre-survey in the morning. For the first time ever, it was truly dead! No Dowitchers, Stilt Sandpipers, not even a Red-necked Phalarope! And in bitter, northerly winds, it wasn’t the most fun day to search birdless mudflats. A juvenile American Golden Plover was as interesting as it got. We then walked up Longridge, and started the survey at about mid-day, sea-watching from the tip. It was pretty good, several hundred Black Scoter and American Black Duck offshore, when I suddenly got a cracking look at a Jaeger giving us a pretty close flyby! In full adult plumage, it looked absolutely stunning; jet black upperparts were the main plumage detail I noticed, but my instinct with any Jaeger is to look at its shape and flight style first. Field marks can, in my opinion, deceive a lot more than shape. Greg birds in a different way (and also, probably, has a sharper eye for detail), which explains in part how, on this excellent view, we came to very different conclusions! Alongside very dark upperparts, I saw a barrel-chested bird, with the centre of gravity situated underneath the wings, long but broad wings, and a loose, buoyant, almost bouncing but very powerful flight style. Despite having a fairly squared off tail (they can be lacking their “spoons” at this time of year) I was all set to call it a Pomarine Jaeger. Greg had studied the field marks more carefully, and concluded it looked more like a Parasitic! To me the jizz seemed all wrong, Parasitic ought to be sleeker, with thinner wings and a bit front-heavy appearance with a more direct flight like a Falcon. As well as being paler grey on the upperparts. But I had to conclude, I hadn’t even had the chance to study the features Greg was basing his identification on, the Jaeger had veered over the water, chasing a Ring-billed Gull, and was now sitting on the sea too far away to be picked up in the choppy waves. In the situation, the only fair thing we could do was put the bird down as “Jaeger sp”! Fortunately, I saw a bona fide Pomarine later in the year at Long Point.
While the day might have been a bit tarnished by that disappointment, we thankfully saved some grace barely 10 minutes later, when a gorgeous adult Arctic Tern flew right overhead. Close enough to see the all red bill and thin, charcoal-like trailing edge to the primaries, alongside differences in size and shape from a Common Tern. I’ve seen plenty at home, but this was my first in Canada!
Back on Tringa Creek and the pools behind, there were about 400 Pectoral Sandpiper, 7 Short-billed Dowitcher and 2 Stilt Sandpiper, while our first Horned Lark of the season flew over as we worked our way back to The Wrack. That was about it for excitement today; shorebirds were otherwise at a premium!
Horned Lark juvenile
2 September
By Longridge standards, it was freezing overnight, getting down to about 5 centigrade! A few good birds around the Cabin, and an overall quiet afternoon census. Remarkably, I saw no Snow Geese all day, and a single Pintail was my only dabbling duck!
Highlights: Black scoter-89, Bufflehead-1, Sharp-shinned Hawk-1, Black-bellied Plover-54, American Golden Plover-1, Red Knot-523, Buff-breasted Sandpiper-1, Red-necked Phalarope-4, Great Horned Owl-1, Long-eared Owl-1, Belted Kingfisher-1, Hermit Thrush-1, American Pipit-60, Blue-headed Vireo-2, Le Conte’s Sparrow-1, Purple Finch-1, Pine Siskin-1.
Snow Geese head south

I had a few highlights early morning. A Belted Kingfisher around the cabins was the first we’d seen here all trip, and quite notable this far north. We were pretty shocked to hear it’s diagnostic call echo around camp a few times, and eventually pinned it down! An American Golden Plover also flew over, the only one of the day.
Survey was generally very quiet, as we walked Pisquatchee mid afternoon. Some shorebird numbers, like 44 White-rumped Sandpiper, 12 Least Sandpiper and 40 Pectoral Sandpiper, were just depressing! But it was livened up by over 500 Red Knot roosting on Pisquatchee, alongside fairly good numbers of Black-bellied Plover. Walking back, Greg and I had superb views of a juvenile Buff-breasted Sandpiper, easily my best of the trip as it fed in the wrackline, oblivious to our presence. In a subtle way, I think they’re possibly the prettiest of all shorebirds! We admired it for a good 15 minutes, in a gorgeous later afternoon glow, before carring on with an otherwise extremely quiet survey. The only other highlight came from seawatching off Pisquatchee, when 4 juvenile Red-necked Phalarope briefly pitched down close offshore before, bizarrely, heading north.

3 Sep
A really good morning for tree-birding, with the spruces literally dripping with Warblers! A really crap afternoon for shorebirds, with Longridge literally nothing but shingle!
Highlights: Blue-winged Teal-1, Black Scoter-392, Sandhill Crane-20, American Golden PLover-2, Solitary Sandpiper-1, Sanderling 69 (the commonest shorebird today!), Alder Flycatcher-1, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher-1, Least Flycatcher-1, Blue-headed Vireo-2, Red-eyed Vireo-2, Ruby-crowned Kinglet-32, Swainsons Thrush-3, American Robin-5, American Pipit-7, Cedar Waxwing-21, Black-and-white Warbler-1, Tennessee Warbler-1, Common Yellowthroat-11, American Redstart-1, Magnolia Warbler-5, Blackpoll Warbler-1, Western Palm Warbler-81, Myrtle Warbler-22, Le Conte’s Sparrow-3, Clay-coloured Sparrow-1, White-crowned Sparrow-1, Red-winged Blackbird-1, Purple Finch-1, White-winged Crossbill-1, Common Redpoll-4

Gray Jay along Treebird Trail

With survey starting late, I took full advantage by birding the spruce-line in the morning. It was a fantastic day for it, with Western Palm Warblers having arrived en masse! Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Common Yellowthroat and Myrtle Warbler were also moving in very good numbers, while plenty of other species were mixed in; seeing three species of Empidonax Flycatcher this late was excellent, and a White-crowned Sparrow was our first of the season. It was a lovely morning to just be out birding.
Contrast that with the afternoon! Longridge was dead, I think we really had reached the shorebird nadir by now. On 69 individuals, Sanderling staked the unlikely claim as most numerous shorebird of the day, with only Pectoral Sandpiper and Greater Yellowlegs running it anywhere near close. I failed to see a single Least Sandpiper all day! And apart from two American Golden Plover and a Solitary Sandpiper, there were none of the scarcer shorebirds whatsoever. Plenty of wolf tracks to keep me entertained though, and the dead Beluga as per usual.
Wolf track in the mud, write-in-the-rain notebook for size comparison

And I realise I left you all hanging with our food situation. We were, by now running desperately low. I had resorted to hand-picking the raisins out of what was left of the trailmix, for something to wash the porridge down with! Amie didn’t even have breakfast one day, and we were all getting worried! Some of our texts with food requests hadn’t sent, and they had happened to be fairly important staples! So, it was decided, on communicating with Pisquamish, that we had a plan. Volunteers from each camp would walk out to about halfway between us (12km or so). Pisquamish would carry as much food as they could (they had mountains going spare) from their camp, and we’d take it back to ours. But that’s a story for the next edition! It’ll be up soon.


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