November 27th – Winter’s Onset

The beach at Castalia Marsh at low tide. -DOL

Grand Manan Island, which sits at the mouth of the Bay of Fundy, is a great place to see birds – one of the major factors that attracted Marg and I to it in the first place. We bought a small cabin there with an extensive boreal forest bush and seek our repose whenever we can afford the time. I finished a 32-day stint on the CCGS Hudson on the 7th of November and we high-tailed it to the cabin for a couple of weeks before heading into the “holiday” season.

You never know what you’re going to see on the island or where you might see it – there’s many good spots – but avian oddities could show up anywhere. A couple of Summers ago I found a Lark Sparrow and a Lark Bunting (2 western species) feeding together not more than 400 meters from the cabin, just along the coast. But the bottom line for birding is that if you don’t go and look you won’t see anything and, as any birder can tell you, this becomes an obsession….

A good place to look on Grand Manan is Castalia Marsh. A couple of Summers ago a Burrowing Owl spent over a month along the protective rocky breakwater there and just this past August there was a Snowy Egret and a Little Blue Heron foraging in the marsh. On the 11th though I went there in search of a particular bird – Snow Bunting. For me, this is a sure sign that Winter is on its way – the harbinger of snow and cold….the stuff that makes you a Canadian.

As you can see from the picture above, Castalia’s shoreline is an excellent spot for Snow Buntings. I was wasn’t disappointed – a flock of ~24 flew up, swirled around like shorebirds (which I equate them with) before resettling and scurrying around in search of food. As you scan the photo from right to left you’ll see why this is such a good spot for them: rocky seabed exposed twice a day – the buntings forage out amongst the rocks looking for zooplankton; then comes lines of brown algae, mounded by recent storms – another good source of food, especially small insects; then a cobble beach where the birds can find grit to help them digest and where they “disappear” when they sit down to rest; and last, a sand dune covered with grasses that, at this time of year, are festooned with seed heads and which provide not only food but cover for the birds and protection from the winds. They were pretty skittish and took off when I got within 150 meters, giving their unique alarm call. But after a couple of circlings they dropped again into the exposed rocks and continued foraging. As I slowly approached they scurried up the beach and into the tall grass and disappeared. I left them to their feeding. The flock remained for 11 days at least. On the 22nd, our last day on the island, I could only find 1 lone bird. The flock was nowhere to be seen, at least not in its usual locale. They may have taken off for the mainland or merely shifted to another area further along the beach. But one thing was clear: Winter must be on its way!

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