Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Pubnico Pelagic 2015

The annual Pubnico Pelagic is the birding highlight of the year for me. A visit offshore offers wonderful opportunities for close up views of species that are typically kilometres away when observed from the mainland. A trip report of the previous year's pelagic can be found at Pubnico Pelagic 2014.

Northern Fulmar at German Bank, Nova Scotia on August 29, 2015. I consider fulmars to be one of the best looking seabirds. Photo by Alix d'Entremont.

Ronnie d'Entremont once again organized the trip this year. The vessel was the Captain Derek, a commercial lobster fishing boat, with Rodney d'Entremont at the helm. All 25 birders are listed below.

Ronnie d'Entremont
Ted d'Eon
Raymond d'Entremont
Paul Gould
Eric Ruff
Barbara Ruff
Eric Mills
Ian McLaren
David Currie
Bruce Stevens
Richard Stern
Rick Whitman
Jake Walker
Judy O'Brien
Gisele d'Entremont
Alan Covert
Ken McKenna
Mike King
Kevin Lantz
Larry Neily
Mark Dennis
Mike MacDonald
Jane Alexander
Keith Lowe
Alix d'Entremont

The route for this year's pelagic trip. The water depth at German Bank was from 50 to 70 metres.

I had been checking the sea surface temperature maps prior to departure. On August 21 the nearshore waters were up to 20°C, but this warm water abruptly left a few days before the trip along with the high hopes of spotting more southern warm water species (Audubon's Shearwater, White-faced Storm-Petrel, Black-capped Petrel...).

SST on August 21 from Rutgers Coastal Ocean Observation Laboratory

SST on August 29 from Rutgers Coastal Ocean Observation Laboratory

We left Dennis Point Wharf in Lower West Pubnico shortly after 5 am on August 29, 2015. Out of Pubnico Harbour, we took a hard right and headed west towards the Mud Islands. We passed near to Round Island where we were able to see Black Guillemots and Atlantic Puffins in the water and Black-bellied Plovers and Whimbrel on the island.

Kevin Lantz (upper right) armed with the chum chucker as the rest of the group scans for birds of interest at German Bank, Nova Scotia on August 29, 2015. Photo by Alix d'Entremont.

As we headed past the Mud Islands, out of Lobster Bay, we were surrounded by fog. This is when Mark Dennis spotted the first Great Shearwater. At 8:23 am we peered through the fog at a dark figure on a direct path with strong wing beats. David Currie and Kevin Lantz were the only two that were lucky enough to snap a few shots of this bird. Most were thinking skua, but no one called it out at the time. A quick view of the photos after this brief encounter made it obvious that we just had a skua. The bulky body, short tail and thick, hooked bill were clear. The thick fog and low light made it so that the characteristic white flash on the skua's wings were invisible. The photos are simply silhouettes and confident identification is likely not possible. There are primary molt timing differences between South Polar Skua and Great Skua, but the age of the bird must be known for this information to be useful. The Sibley Guide to Birds 1st ed. (2000) provides details on these molt timings.

Skua species at German Bank, Nova Scotia on August 29, 2015. Photo by Kevin Lantz.
Skua species at German Bank, Nova Scotia on August 29, 2015. Photo by Kevin Lantz.
Skua species at German Bank, Nova Scotia on August 29, 2015. This photo shows the white bases to the primaries that were invisible to the birders observing with binoculars. Photo by David Currie.

After the skua encounter we ran into a Cory's Shearwater which provided life list ticks to a few aboard. We examined photos of all Cory's seen and none showed the required amount of white on the underside of P8-P10 to be Nova Scotia's first Scopoli's Shearwater. Scopoli's Shearwater (Calonectris diomedea diomedea) is currently considered by the American Ornithologists Union at subspecies of Cory's Shearwater and is much rarer in the w. Atlantic Ocean than is Cory's Shearwater (Calonectris diomedea borealis). A bird photographed on July 4, 2015 off of Grand Manan, New Brunswick has been confirmed by Steve N.G. Howell as being a Scopoli's Shearwater. A later issue of NS Birds will contain an article that will provide more details on this taxonomic issue as well as discuss identification.

Cory's Shearwater at German Bank, Nova Scotia on August 29, 2015Photo by Alix d'Entremont.

Cory's Shearwaters molt their primaries outward towards P10 from the inner feathers (Howell, 2012). Wing molt is evident in photos of the Cory's above. Below are expanded views of the wing. Monteiro and Furness (1996) explain that breeding Cory's Shearwaters (C. d. borealis) spend from late-Feb to late-Oct at the breeding sites. This would mean that any Cory's seen in Nova Scotia at this time of the year is a non-breeding individual. Howell (2012) states that non-breeding birds start molting their primaries mid-Jul to mid-Oct and likely finish Dec-Feb after having left North American waters.

Cory's Shearwater at German Bank, Nova Scotia on August 29, 2015. This photo clearly shows a molt limit in the primaries and primary coverts. The new feathers are much more grey than the old ones that are more solid brown. Photo by Alix d'Entremont.

An underside view of the wing of the same Cory's Shearwater. This perspective gives a better appreciation of the amount of wear on the tips of the outer primaries. Photo by Alix d'Entremont.

The most amazing encounter of the day for most was of the Pomarine Jaeger that appeared shortly after 9 am and kept circling the boat offering amazing views. The all-dark unbarred underwing coverts of this jaeger indicate that it is an adult. Prebasic molt in Pomarine begins soon after leaving the arctic (Haven Wiley and Lee, 2000). Primary molt is visible in that it has dropped P1 and P2. The sharply demarcated facial pattern and yellow nape have been replaced by a more mottled and less contrasting appearance.

Pomarine Jaeger at German Bank, Nova Scotia on August 29, 2015. Photo by Alix d'Entremont.

Pomarine Jaeger at German Bank, Nova Scotia on August 29, 2015Photo by Alix d'Entremont.

Pomarine Jaeger at German Bank, Nova Scotia on August 29, 2015Photo by Alix d'Entremont.

This Pomarine Jaeger has straight and short central tail feathers compared to the relatively longer central rectrices that are twisted 90° of a Pomarine that I photographed in 2012 (see below). Pomarines in alternate plumage show longer (7-11 cm past the rest of the tail) and twisted central rectrices while birds in basic plumage have ones that are shorter (1-6 cm past the rest of the tail) and straight (Haven Whiley and Lee, 2000). It can then be assumed that the 2012 bird had not molted its central rectrices while the 2015 bird has already replaced them.

Pomarine Jaeger at Southeast Bank, Nova Scotia on August 25, 2012. Photo by Alix d'Entremont.

The first of two Manx Shearwater were seen at 9:22 am. This my first view of a Manx on the water. I paid attention to the short bouts of flapping and quicker wing beats compared to the larger Great Shearwater as it took flight. Observed on the water, the bird showed the white undertail and wings projecting past the tail (unlike Audubon's).

Manx Searwater at German Bank, Nova Scotia on August 29, 2015. This photo shows the wing projecting past the tail and the white undertail coverts. Photo by Alix d'Entremont.

We got nice views of hundreds of Great Shearwaters and had up to 6 Northern Fulmars that were visible at the same time. The southern hemisphere breeding Wilson's outnumbered Leach's Storm-Petrel, as is expected.

Great Shearwater at German Bank, Nova Scotia on August 29, 2015. Photo by Alix d'Entremont.

The upperparts of Northern Fulmars always look like they are in a state of disrepair. This one shows wing covert molt and is growing the outer two primaries. Photo taken at German Bank, Nova Scotia on August 29, 2015Photo by Alix d'Entremont. 

Leach's and Wilson's Storm-Petrels at German Bank, Nova Scotia on August 29, 2015. Photos by Alix d'Entremont.

I had to capitalize on the chance of getting my photo taken with Dr. Ian McLaren, a man that I admire greatly. He continues to inspire and contributes immensely to birding in Nova Scotia. If you don't already own a copy of his tremendous publication named All the Birds of Nova Scotia, I suggest that you do yourself a favour and add it to your birding book shelf.

Dr. Ian McLaren and myself during the Pubnico Pelagic on August 29, 2015. Photo by Mike King.

The following day (August 30) we all headed to Yarmouth County's warbler hotspot to see if we could find any interesting migrants or vagrants. We were not disappointed. Three (and maybe four) Warbling Vireos, a Prairie Warbler, a Cape May Warbler, two Baltimore Orioles and an Orchard Oriole were great finds on the Thomas and Gerry Roads at Cape Forchu.

Standing left to right: Jake Walker, David Curie, Alan Covert, Mike King, Bruce Stevens, Ian McLaren, Ellis d'Entremont, Richard Stern, Ken McKenna, Rick Whitman, Judy O'Brien, Sharron Marlor, Ronnie d'Entremont and Keith Lowe. I am kneeling on the ground. Not all participants of the pelagic are present in this photo. A few that did not take part had joined our group at Cape Forchu. Photo by Gisele d'Entremont.

Jake Walker had the difficult task of record keeper for the trip. He was the right man for the job. eBird checklists (ordered chronologically, 24 hour clock) are found below.

0600-0730 Pubnico Harbour to the Mud Islands
0730-0900 Mud Islands to German Bank
0900-1300 German Bank
1300-1400 German Bank to Mud Islands
1400-1500 Mud Islands to 2 miles offshore
1500-1600 2 miles offshore to Pubnico Harbour

Next is a list of all species seen with counts.
American Black Duck  1
Common Eider     11
Common Loon   1
Northern Fulmar 12
Cory's Shearwater 8
Great Shearwater 227
Manx Shearwater 3
Sooty Shearwater 2
shearwater sp. 4
Wilson's Storm-Petrel 13
Leach's Storm-Petrel 3
Northern Gannet 60
Double-crested Cormorant 80
cormorant sp. 80
Great Blue Heron 1
Bald Eagle 1
Black-bellied Plover 4
Greater Yellowlegs 9
Willet 1
Whimbrel 1
Sanderling 5
Red-necked Phalarope 32
Red Phalarope 46
Phalarope sp. 180
skua sp. 1
Pomarine Jaeger 2
Black Guillemot 9
Atlantic Puffin 20
Herring Gull 300
Great Black-backed Gull 150
Common Tern 2
Sterna sp. 17
Ruby-throated Hummingbird 3
Common Raven 2


Howell, S.N.G. 2012. Petrels, Albatrosses & Storm-Petrels of North America. Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford.

Monteiro, L.R. and R.W. Furness. 1996. Molt of Cory's Shearwater during the breeding season. Condor 98:216-221.

Haven Wiley, R. and David S. Lee. 2000. Pomarine Jaeger (Stercorarius pomarinus), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online: http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/483


  1. Keep doing this, Alix! One day, I'll have the "space" to join

  2. Alix thanks for this, great photos and analysis, very entertaining and informative. Thanks!

  3. Wonderful experience that yielded some great birds. Nice work, Alix.