We left Wolfville over the 100 species mark. Dave thought it would be a good idea not to count our total anymore, leaving our effort in suspense for the rest of the day. In hindsight this was probably not the best strategy as we could have prioritized certain spots over others had we known our total later in the day. C’est la vie.
With our innards being filled by sandwiches deftly crafted by Avery, we made our first stop of the afternoon at Clairmont PP. Calling this small pine stand wedged between farm fields and small communities a provincial park might be a bit of a stretch, but in previous years it had hosted breeding Pine Warblers, a rare breeder in Nova Scotia. Leaning out of the windows and the open door of the van like drunk hooligans, we slowly drove the loop listening intently for our favorite pine specialist, binoculars clutched in our hands in lieu of beer. While we did not get Pine Warbler, I enjoyed our little loop; there is just something about driving around with half your body leaning out of the vehicle that revives the spirit.
Our next stop was also for just one species, another scarce breeder in Nova Scotia, the Vesper Sparrow. This time it was “veni, vidi, vici”. Easy peasy, and not a second wasted.
It was now time for our scheduled 10-minute pit stop in Bridgetown. This involved gassing up, using the bathroom, grabbing a bite to eat if need be, and scoping the nesting Cliff Swallows under the bridge right behind the gas station. While we were no F1 pit crew, we kept the stop to 10 minutes and arrived at Belleisle Marsh not too long afterwards.
Belleisle is a beautiful network of marshes along the Annapolis Basin and a spot that deserves more than the cursory ten minutes we gave it. With the far carrying calls of the Greater Yellowlegs invading our senses, we were able to locate the nesting Willow Flycatchers. Bobolinks sang from the fields, a song which softens the most hardened of souls, and for the naturalists of old, moved them to prose: “It is as if he touched his harp within a vase of liquid melody, and when he lifted it out, the notes fell like bubbles from the trembling strings (Thoreau).” I can just picture Thoreau waxing poetic in a tweed jacket, pipe and notebook in hand. Sans tweed jackets or pipes notwithstanding, we still enjoyed the “bubbling delirium of ecstatic music that flows from the gifted throat of the bird like sparkling champagne (Bent)” while focused on efforts to locate a lingering American Coot. These brief efforts were unsuccessful, and the snipe and bittern once again remained quiet. Well perhaps not quite. According to eBird, the other three heard a snipe call, but that species remains conspicuously absent from my checklist; I'm a good birder I swear! As we were driving out, a Hooded Merganser flashed across the van. Easily seen by the two in the front seat, one of the back seat passengers missed it. I am actually surprised that this didn’t happen more often during our day, as car flybys are easy to miss.
I should note that at this point we still only had Red-tailed Hawk, Bald Eagle and Turkey Vulture for raptors. The day before we had scored Broad-winged Hawk, Merlin and American Kestrel no problem, but today we were running out of time. An overcast sky wasn’t helping things and coupled with the fact that we had yet to see an Osprey and a Ring-billed Gull a slight feeling of panic took hold inside my gut. Trust me, no one wants to finish a big day minus an Osprey and a Ring-billed Gull. No one!
So it went that after Belleisle came the French Basin Trail, another marsh full of life. A lingering Bufflehead and a singing Wilson’s Warbler whose insistent trill just barely pierced through the cacophony of Yellow Warblers put our minds at ease; we were still adding species at a steady pace despite running behind schedule, and I even briefly forgot about the Osprey and the Ring-billed Gull. As we headed to our next stop, the Ring-billed Gull drifted back into my consciousness and I finally voiced my concerns aloud. We were headed to Digby and I said, “look dudes, we need an effin RBGU, Digby has to have one by the water or something… if we don’t get one soon we could totally miss it for the day.” My companions didn’t seem too concerned, but perhaps after 32+ hours of being awake (minus the 1.5 hour nap at Beaubassin), communication was starting to fall apart. For a bunch of dudes, I actually think our communication skills were half decent!
The town of Digby is an unassuming hamlet renowned worldwide for its delicious scallops, but we were not there to sample those delicious fruits from the sea. On a serious note, Digby has a bunch of tourist trap restaurants so do your homework beforehand if you want to eat there; I’ve learned the bland, mediocre, soul-crushing hard way. However, unlike the food, Digby delivered in a HUGE way on our big day and we rode that high until the bitter end. Here is how it unfolded. The key was a seawatch at the Point Prim lighthouse just outside of town. This was Dave’s idea and kudos to him, because in a fifteen minute seawatch we scoped some Razorbill, a Common Murre and two Red-throated Loons. We then managed all three scoter species in the bay, and the reliable House Finches on Montague Row were, well, reliable. Still no Ring-billed Gull though. Damn gulls. However, as Avery was packing the scopes up I saw Lucas staring dumbfounded into a tree. A quick look into the tree revealed a female Scarlet Tanager. As I try and call Dave and Avery over, it flies off into a yard. Dave managed to see the bird fly away but Avery did not. Despite Lucas’ lapse in communication, he immediately made up for it in one of the deftest displays of communication I have ever seen (I am dead serious!). The tanager had flown into someone’s yard, and as we peered to see if the tanager was still visible, a friendly looking elderly women smiled and walked over. Her property was well stocked with bird feeders and shrubs. “What are you seeing”, she asks. “A Scarlet Tanager,” replies Lucas. “No you didn’t, those are cardinals”, she replies bluntly. I was tongue tied and did not know how to respond, however Lucas worked his magic. He somehow was able to convey all our knowledge about birds, our familiarity with cardinals and tanagers, the finer points of the id of all the birds present in her backyard while pointing them out to her, explain that we were doing a big day, and get her feeling lucky about the fact that her yard had just hosted a Scarlet Tanager. Amazing! Her incredulity dissipated, we made merry, her husband came over for a brief chat, and we were on our way. Back in the van, everything onward is somewhat of a blur. While Digby was unequivocally a success, we were now well behind schedule, and the 33+ hours were taking their toll. The drive to the next spot on our never ending list of stops for the day took us through lots and lots of forest. This was basically one of our last chances to get our missing raptors. I also had to pee REALLY badly, as did a few others for that matter, and so we pulled over on the side of the highway. While enjoying a quiet moment in nature, the unmistakable song of a Veery drifted our way, totally negating 25 minutes of effort in Wolfville. Next big day we’ll plan to get our Veeries along that stretch of road but at that moment, we just had to suck it up and move on.
At Mavillette Beach, we had thoughts of epic rarities, and three additions to our day list: a newly returned Nelson’s Sparrow, a recently spotted Brown Thrasher, and an unseasonal Purple Sandpiper. Too pressed for time, we only managed to hear the Nelson’s Sparrow (Avery couldn’t hear it over the wind) and we saw or heard nothing else of note. This also ate into our eventual time to spend on Cape Sable Island where the bang for the buck is much higher. A foolish move and one that will be dropped should we do another big day. At least between Mavilette and Pubnico we FINALLY managed to see an Osprey. Who knew it would take until 4:18PM of a full day of birding to see our provincial bird. I sure didn’t!
Man this narrative is dragging on, so just imagine the actual day. Plus, the afternoon had turned very dark and sombre, making it feel like the end of the day was just around the corner, and probably suppressing the birdlife somewhat.
Anyway, much like I will summon my energy to keep recounting this tale in the next and final part, the 4 weary birders summoned their strengths with the waning day, still buoyed by the success in Digby, but beginning to be keenly aware that time was running out and that the last hooray was just around the corner.
Stay tuned for Part 3, the last push!