January 20th, 2008, and memories of Christmas past

Ruthven was a chilly place yesterday, but I only have the opportunity to visit once in a while, so I went anyway. I wasn’t rewarded with any unexpected sightings, but it was an enjoyable morning. The feeders were active with Redpolls, Chickadees, Goldfinches, Juncos, Nuthatches, and Woodpeckers. The river, blanketed by a moving layer of slush, was the habitat of choice only for a few Common Mergansers, Red-tailed Hawks, and, of course, Canada Geese. The Carolinian Woodland Trail added a few Brown Creepers to my list. If it were not for the relative calm of the forest, I probably would have missed the creepers, as their high pitched calls wouldn’t have made it through the three layers of clothing that covered my ears throughout the rest of the census.

Rick showed up at the end of my census, and we put out some ground traps, but only managed to catch one frazzled Junco, which was released unbanded.

Census totals:
15 Common Redpoll
10 American Goldfinch
12 Black-capped Chickadee
5 Downy Woodpecker
5 White-breasted Nuthatch
2 Blue Jay
21 Dark-eyed Junco
1 Red-bellied Woodpecker
73 Canada Goose
2 Red-tailed Hawk
4 Common Merganser
1 Ring-billed Gull
2 Brown Creeper

Rick also counted a couple Hairy Woodpeckers, and an adult Bald Eagle.

Christmas in Cape Breton

Home, for me, is Cape Breton Island, NS. While I was home for Christmas this year, I was able to participate in a couple of Christmas Bird Counts and go birding a few times while hiking and camping with friends. Cape Breton is an interesting place for winter birding. Berry-producing scrub is abundant in some parts of the Island, and these patches often harbor birds that usually spend the winter much further south than Cape Breton (often warblers appear on Cape Breton’s CBC lists). Also, the ocean provides the opportunity to see birds such as Eiders, Guillemots, Dovekie, and usually a few unexpected shorebirds such as this year’s Western Willet (go here and scroll down). These birds, mixed with the more-expected Gray Jay, Boreal Chickadees, and other ‘northern’ species, make Cape Breton an interesting birding spot.

One interesting ‘birding’ experience this year involved Dovekie. The Dovekie is a small Auk that typically spends its winters on the open ocean, with a range extending from the low arctic to the waters off New England. Dovekie feed on small crustaceans (often while diving), and are thought to be one of the world’s most common birds, with the total population ranging from 30 to 100 million (yes, that is quite the range, but I imagine they are hard to count). Interestingly, sustained easterly winds can make foraging conditions unsuitable for Dovekie, and they can get weakened and pushed landward (they are quite small). There are records of huge numbers of Dovekie ‘raining down’ on New York city in the winter of 1932-1933, and over 1000 were observed in Sydney harbour (in Cape Breton) in October 1930.

My experience with Dovekie didn’t involve dramatic numbers, but was interesting. There were relatively high numbers of Dovekie around Cape Breton in December, which had its fair share of storms. I counted 13 in my section of Sydney harbour on the CBC, which is not close to 1000, but is high for that area. After visiting friends in Louisbourg on a windy January day, I took a drive along the water, headed towards the Louisbourg lighthouse. On my way out to the lighthouse I just about ran over a Dovekie (he did manage to fly away), and saw a bunch more in the water. At the lighthouse there were a bunch of Dovekie around, but they were difficult to count in the waves. On my way back along the water, I encountered another Dovekie on the road. I stopped, and my brother hopped out of the car and ran after it. It made a feeble attempt at escape, but it wasn’t long before we had it. The Dovekie, among auks, is agile on the ground, but it’s no roadrunner. Also, I think this one was probably weakened and couldn’t make a good attempt at flying away. It was interesting to get a good look at this round little bird with no neck. It’s feathers were small, and the layer of feathers around its body very thick. It’s feet are positioned at the back of it’s body, which is great for swimming. I didn’t have my camera with me, but did have a cell phone, so I took a picture with that (see below). We put it back in the water after a minute or so, and it swam away. It was a fun day, and Cape Breton is certainly a fun place to spend Christmas!


-Jeff MacLeod

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