Nova Scotia in November

Remnants of Life

I’ve never been to Nova Scotia in the fall before, but as my fiancé Doran was planning on driving down to attend the Hal-Con Sci Fi convention in Halifax from November 4-6 I decided to join him. We left on Wednesday, November 2nd and spent the night in Edmunston as usual; I didn’t see anything really interesting until the next day while we were somewhere between Moncton and the Nova Scotia border. We were driving past a watery, marshy area next to the road when I spotted a couple of shorebirds, including what looked like a yellowlegs in flight, and a red fox slinking along the ground! Between the Nova Scotia border and Truro we saw a dark hawk with a white tail and white wing-tips hovering above the grassy shoulder of the highway. My best guess is dark morph Rough-legged Hawk, though it’s difficult to really process any field marks when driving at 115km/h. Doran noticed the Ring-necked Pheasant on the side of the road; that was the only other good bird we saw on the drive to the city.

My goal was to do some local birding while Doran attended Hal-Con – he has his own booth promoting his company, Whitefire Comics, and normally attends ComicCon in Ottawa every year but wanted to do something different this year. On Friday morning after helping set up his booth I went for a walk around the downtown area. First I checked out the waterfront area, which has its own eBird hotspot, though only 47 species have been recorded there. I thought I might see some loons, mergansers, or Common Eiders and was disappointed – the only birds I saw on the water were gulls. However, I did get Ring-billed Gull for my Nova Scotia list, so at least the visit was productive. The only other birds present were Herring Gull, Rock Pigeon, and European Starlings.

Rock Pigeons

European Starling

From there I walked over to the Halifax Public Gardens, a large 16-acre green area in the middle of the peninsula that was once a bramble-infested swamp. It was created in 1874 by the amalgamation of two older gardens (the Nova Scotia Horticultural Society Garden laid out in 1837, and an adjacent public park that opened in 1867), and since then has become one of the best-known examples of Victorian Gardens in North America with its wrought iron gates, fountains, statuary, bandstand, and curved gravel paths that wind around trees, lawns and flower beds. There is also a large pond and a small stream that meanders beneath various wooden bridges. Considered to be “a work of art rather than a work of nature” by one of its creators, I thought it might nevertheless be a good spot to see some birds as the eBird hotspot lists 50 species. It is not a heavily birded spot, but any green space in the middle of a city can be a good spot to find birds stopping over in migration.

Halifax Public Gardens

As soon as I arrived I heard a couple of chickadees in the trees and was encouraged by the sound. I found a couple of mallards in the stream and a single American Black Duck in the pond. There was also an adult Herring Gull swimming in the pond and a juvenile resting on the shore next to a much-smaller Ring-billed Gull. I walked around the pond and heard a familiar call note issuing from the cattails; two Song Sparrows flew out and into the reeds across the pond.

At one point an adult Herring Gull landed on a toy boat in the middle of the pond; the sight was too funny not to photograph.

Herring Gull

I spent some time photographing the juvenile Herring Gull as it’s not often I am able to get close to this species in Ottawa.

Herring Gull

The only other birds of interest I saw were a pair of Ring-billed Gulls standing together. They were playing a familiar game of “pick-up-the-leaf-and-hold-it”; I’d once seen a pair of Ring-bills doing the same thing at Andrew Haydon Park in Ottawa. I am not sure what the goal of the game is, since all they do is pick up a leaf and then put it down again.

Ring-billed Gull

As expected, there weren’t many natural areas or tangles that looked promising for migrants. I thought I might find a woodpecker or nuthatch but was disappointed. Still, I did get some lovely photos of the park.

Halifax Public Gardens

Halifax Public Gardens

The next day I had a cab take me to Point Pleasant Park at the south end of the peninsula. This spot looked much more promising as 174 species have been recorded there in eBird. According to its website, it is a historic 75-hectare wooded park crisscrossed with 39 km of winding trails where visitors can experience preserved ruins of early fortifications and coastal ecosystems. Halifax rents the site from the British Government for 1 shilling (about 10 cents) a year, with a 999-year lease. I was dropped off at 9:20 and was a little taken aback by the number of cars in the parking lot already. Then I saw the sign noting that the park is an off-leash dog area and my heart sank a little. Still, if the best birding spot on the peninsula could happily coexist with a dog park, I reasoned, it couldn’t be too bad. A Grasshopper Sparrow had been seen there recently, and a few seabirds had been seen off the shore, so I hoped there would be something interesting around.

Point Pleasant Park

Point Pleasant Park

As soon as I entered the park I knew I would love it. The trail proceeded through the woods, with lots of shrubs and tangles that reminded me of Mud Lake. Almost right away I found a pair of Brown Creepers in the woods, a new bird for my Nova Scotia list. One landed on a tree trunk in front of me, but hitched its way up the tree too fast for me to photograph. I also saw a couple of yellowish warblers in a tree high above me; without being able to see the head or wings there was no way I could identify them. I watched a group of five crows follow a woman and her small dog through the woods, though I am not sure what they were doing, exactly. They kept landing on the tree branches above her, then flew after her when she walked by.

I found a nice large swampy pond that held about 10 mallards, 15 black ducks, and one hybrid. It looked like a great spot for a Hooded Merganser or Wood Duck but I saw neither.

Chickadees, Golden-crowned Kinglets, and Blue Jays were present in decent numbers throughout the wooded area, and I found a group of Dark-eyed Juncos, a Hairy Woodpecker, and a Red-breasted Nuthatch near the Tower Hill. There was a neat round stone tower there, called the Prince of Wales Tower, which was built in the 1790s by the British military in response to the imminent threat of a French invasion.

From there the trails wandered through a relatively open area, and I followed a side trail where a robin hopping on the ground was the only bird of interest. This was at the top of the cliff, so I found a trail that led down to the water. I encountered a couple of friendly Blue Jays and crows along the way; when I gave some peanuts to the Blue Jays, the crows came in too. They were just as opportunistic as the chickadees in Ottawa looking for handouts, though they didn’t land on my hand!

When I reached the trail that runs the length of the shore I saw signage advising that dogs are not allowed on the trail here after 10:00 am; and although it was after that, I still noted a few dogs both on and off leash. The trail was called Sailors Memorial Way, and I encountered a couple of memorials close to the water. The Halifax Memorial, also called the Sailor’s Memorial, was huge: it commemorates members of the Royal Canadian Navy, the Canadian Merchant Navy and Canadian Army who were lost at sea. Although a memorial was first erected here in 1969, it has been replaced twice since then, and the current memorial consists of a Cross of Sacrifice inscribed with the names of 3257 Canadian men and women who died at sea during the two World Wars.

Halifax Memorial (click to enlarge)

Although there were mostly only gulls and crows along the shore, I did see one small yellowish warbler in some shrubs close to the ground. It disappeared before I got a good look at it. I also had the opportunity to watch a Herring Gull dining on a clam. Twice I watched it drop the clam from high up in the air onto the rocks below before it proceeded to eat the innards.

Herring Gull with clam

These gulls are found in Ottawa in good numbers during the fall and winter, especially at landfills, but are much more abundant in the Atlantic provinces. It was nice to see them in their regular habitat next to the ocean.

Herring Gull on the rocks

A little further along I found a Great Black-backed Gull on the water. It was fairly close to shore, so I stopped to take a few photos.

Herring Gull and Great Black-backed Gull

While I was photographing the Great Black-backed Gull on the water, a Herring Gull flew in and landed right beside it and started making a crying noise while swimming in circles. I have no idea what it was saying and I think the black-backed gull was perplexed, too, for it started vocalizing back! One of my friends suggested that the Herring Gull had observed a potentially good food source and was warning the black-backed gull that it had dibs. If this was the case, it seemed the Great Black-backed Gull was voicing its protest. This kind of interaction is definitely not something I see every day back home in Ottawa, so I shot some video.

I headed out shortly after that, walking back through the park to catch the bus near the parking lot. There was a beautiful old house right near the park interest that caught my fancy:

Gatekeeper’s Lodge

The next day, Sunday, was my last day in Nova Scotia so I returned to the park for some early morning birding. The sun had vanished, and gray skies and a light misty rain had taken its place. I came prepared with an umbrella, and this time I was dropped off at the parking lot on the eastern side. I followed the shoreline trail for a while, and spotted a strange bird sitting on the water much further out than the American Black Ducks paddling close to shore. It was gray with a sharp-looking black bill and a large white wing patch. I checked my iPhone apps and identified it as a Black Guillemot in non-breeding plumage, a species that had been seen off the point recently. Although this wasn’t a life bird, I had never seen one in non-breeding plumage before and was surprised by how different it appeared from the inky black adults I had seen at the Bird Islands IBA last year.

Rather than continuing all the way around the shore, I found a side trail that entered the woods and spent some time looking around the northern half of the park. While I saw mostly the same birds that I had observed yesterday, I added a couple of Song Sparrows to list when I heard a few singing despite the gloomy day and a Green-winged Teal in the swampy pond. I also saw a loon and another Black Guillemot offshore on the western side of the park; the loon was not in breeding plumage, and I wasn’t able to tell whether it was a Common Loon or a Red-throated Loon due to the distance and terrible light. I followed the shoreline for a while, and when I got to the southern end I spotted something swimming in the water that wasn’t a bird. It was a small cetacean, either a dolphin or a porpoise, and it didn’t remain above water long enough to get a good look at it. It was also moving fast, traveling south, and disappeared only a few minutes after I first spotted it in the Northwest Arm. I checked with the Nova Scotia Bird Society on Facebook, and someone there advised that the Harbour Porpoise is the expected small cetacean in the harbour, although dolphins do occur.

I also saw a seal in the water off the tip of the park, but again, didn’t get a good look at it. I am told that Harbour Seals haul out on the rocks off the tip of Point Pleasant Park, but Grey Seals may also occur in the harbour and are increasing. In fact, there is a large Grey Seal that is seen regularly off of Point Pleasant Park, believed to be a female.

I walked down to the water to get a closer look, but both animals had vanished. The clams and shells left along the rocky shore caught my attention; they were so colourful that I gathered a few of them up so I could photograph them.

On my way back to the parking lot I found another Black Guillemot swimming far out in the water. I also found a surprise bird bouncing around in a couple of conifers near the large anchor on the eastern shore. The yellow colour drew my attention; I was surprised to identify it as a Palm Warbler! These birds are long gone from Ottawa, but several have ended up in Nova Scotia – as have other birds, like the Grasshopper Sparrow, a Baltimore Oriole, and a Yellow-billed Cuckoo – after having migrated east instead of south. Unfortunately this happens often enough that Nova Scotia is known as a haven for unusual species in the fall and winter; while it’s awful for the birds that don’t figure out which way they’re supposed to go, it means that the late fall and winter can still be excellent for birding.

The Palm Warbler was the most unexpected bird of my trip, while the Black Guillemots were the most exciting. I only added four new species to my Nova Scotia list (Brown Creeper, a White-breasted Nuthatch heard but not seen, the Green-winged Teal, and the Ring-billed Gulls) but I ended up with 25 species for my new Halifax county list.

I quite enjoyed visiting Point Pleasant Park; it was worth visiting two days in a row, even if I didn’t see or photograph much. I’m glad I had the chance to go, even if it was a short visit, and hope to return sometime in the future.

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