Thursday, May 11, 2017

A Swallow-tailed Kite in Nova Scotia

The Encounter

I was driving home from work on Highway 103 on May 11, 2017 at about 4:50 pm, when an unmistakable shape caught my eye as it soared about 150 feet above the passing cars. I was looking up at a SWALLOW-TAILED KITE! I slammed on the breaks and maneuvered my car to the shoulder, the wheels leaving long tracks in the gravel. The car was shifted in park before it has stopped. I flung the door open, grabbed the camera and made my way out. Camera straps always have a habit of catching things, and this time was no exception. Once I got the strap untangled from the handbrake, I was out getting shots. At first the bird was flying directly away from me, but it then circled around and allowed me to get good underside photos. It flew effortlessly, without much flapping, towards the east and soon was out of sight.

Swallow-tailed Kite near Argyle Head, Yarmouth County, May 11, 2017. Photo by Alix d'Entremont.

I ran back to the car, picked up the mobile phone and clumsily called Paul Gould, Ronnie d'Entremont, Ervin Olsen, Mark Dennis, Laurel Amirault and Larry Neily - the birders that are typically nearby. I say clumsily because I was shaking with excitement at this point. It is always a thrill finding a rare bird, but the impact is stronger when the realization of what it is your looking at is this obvious and immediate. 

I posted about the find to the Nova Scotia Bird Society Facebook Page and the Nova Scotia Rare Bird Alert with my phone from the side of the highway. My fingers were still far from steady. I met Paul Gould as I turned the car around and headed north on the highway. We decided that he should go through Argyle Head from the south while I would be using the Argyle Head Road off Highway 103 to enter Argyle Head from the west. I drove through and stopped at a few places with good vantage points and then stopped at an open area near the Argyle River. Laurel Amirault and Larry Neily soon showed up and we discussed where a Swallow-tailed Hawk might choose to go. A read through Sibley and National Geographic revealed that it might be hanging around open woods, wetlands and forest edges. Larry shared that the ones he had heard about in Ontario followed lakeshores. Those types of habitats are quite common in the area, so that didn't narrow our search area.

Mark Dennis, Sandra Dennis and Mike MacDonald drove past a few of us still standing around wondering where to go next - almost like they knew where they were going. Soon enough, Sandra called to say that Mark had re-found the bird from the Crowelltown Road. We all convened at the end of the road and everyone got to see the kite as it circled far to the north. The unique shape of the bird was apparent at this distance and the two-toned black and white was visible when the bird showed us its underside. The views were not great by any means, but at least the group saw it.

While we were admiring this vagrant, Mark reminded me that I had now spotted four rare raptors from a moving car in Nova Scotia: Crested Caracara, Gyrfalcon, Swainson's Hawk and now a Swallow-tailed Kite.

Swallow-tailed Kite near Argyle Head, Yarmouth County, May 11, 2017. Photo by Alix d'Entremont.

Previous Nova Scotia Records
The first record of Swallow-tailed Kite in Nova Scotia was one found barely alive that soon died at the family home of Adelbert Wilson in August 1905 in Lower East Pubnico, Yarmouth County, only about 25 kilometres away from my recent sighting. The first photographically confirmed record was of one in Freeport, Digby County, on 9 June 2007 by Jeff Teed. 

Listed below are the reports of this species in the province sourced from Nova Scotia Birds, the quarterly magazine published by the Nova Scotia Bird Society. There appear to be 10 previous reports with some form of validation, namely a body, written details or a photograph. Those validated reports are highlighted with an asterisk. My most recent find would be the 11th validated record for the province. 

*August 1905
Lower East Pubnico, Yarmouth County
Adelbert Wilson
Dead bird

*22 April 1997
Highway 22, halfway between Sydney and Louisbourg, Cape Breton.
Shelia Fudge

*7 July 1999
Bicentennial Drive, between Kearney Lake Road and business park exits, Halifax County
Tony Lock

*19 September 1999
Canso, Guysborough
Randy F. Lauff

*25 March 2001
Glace Bay, Cape Breton
Cathy Murrant, Susann Myers

20 April 2001
Near Bridgetown, Annapolis
Fred Grieg
No details. Originally reported as a Mississippi Kite, but might have been a Swallow-tailed.

8 August 2001
Cape Sable Island, Shelburne
fide Murray Newell, unsure of observer
No details

*9 June 2007
Freeport, Digby
Jeff Teed
First photographically confirmed report.

10 June 2007
Halifax, Halifax County
Fred Greig
No details

30 June 2007
Petite Riviere, Lunenburg County
Don Sedgwick
No details

*10 April 2009 (NS Birds: 8th provincial record?)
Truro, Colchester
Kimberley Forster

*5 July 2010
Lawrencetown, Annapolis County
Diana and William Ackroyd

2 July 2011
Brooklyn, Queens County
Allan Smith
No details.

5-6 July 2011
Martin's River, Lunenburg County
Donna and Alan Rowlands
No details.

*2 July 2011
Brooklyn, Queens County
Andrew Hebda
Finder said the bird matched the Google images for the species.

Species Range and Vagrancy
Swallow-tailed Kites are native to the southeast U.S. (Florida, South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas), Central America and South America. The entire U.S. population is migratory and birds arrive and depart early. (Myer 1995)

Eggs are present in nests in the United States from mid-March to mid-June dependant on location, incubation lasts about 30 days and the young depart from the nest after about 40 to 50 days (Myer 1995). The earliest breeding birds would still be caring for their young by this time in May, so we can assume that this bird is a non-breeder. 

I suppose if a nonmigratory species like a Crested Caracara can reach Nova Scotia, then a bird that is used to flying long distances of at least up to 6,500 km like a kite can easiyl reach us as a non-breeding wanderer.

Validated reports for Nova Scotia have occurred in spring (3 reports), summer (4 reports) and fall (2 reports). The eBird records on the eastern U.S. are more numerous during spring migration, so the timing of the occurrence of this bird fits the regional and local trends. A few birds are seen along the east coast of North America almost every spring and fall (Crossley 2013).

Spring 2017 has been good to us in southwest Nova Scotia so far. What's next to come?

Crossley, R., J. Liguori, and B. Sullivan. 2013. The Crossley ID Guide: Raptors. Princeton University Press, 41 William Street, Princeton, NJ

Meyer, Kenneth D.. 1995. Swallow-tailed Kite (Elanoides forficatus), The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America:
DOI: 10.2173/bna.138

Monday, February 27, 2017

If It Looks Like a Thayer's Gull


Gulls are often one of the last species group that birders pay attention to. Individual variation, large plumage differences between ages, sexual dimorphism, plumage abnormalities, clinal variation, the effects of bleaching and wear and even as yet unresolved taxonomy issues all combine to create a bit of a mess.

Back in 2014, I vowed to look through the thousands of gulls at Dennis Point Wharf in Lower West Pubnico until I found a first-cycle Lesser Black-backed Gull. I had previously spotted adults of this species, but while birds of the year are seperable from our more regular large, white-headed gulls, the differences are more subtle. These minute differences in feather pattern, bare part colour, size and shape are what gulling is all about. For the last 3 winters I've been spending hours and hours looking at gulls. This group of birds is fairly unique in that most of the time in the field is spent actually looking at birds, not looking for birds.

More Questions than Answers

The American Ornithological Union's 57th supplement lists Thayer's Gull (Larus thayeri) and Iceland Gull (Larus glaucoides) as distinct species, Iceland Gull comprising the Kumlien's Gull (Larus glaucoides kumlieni) and nominate (Larus glaucoides glaucoides) subspecies.

The taxonomic issues surrounding Thayer's Gull and Iceland Gull are still being discussed. I suggest that you read Taxonomic History of Thayer's Gull, a 1999 article in Ontario Birds by Ron Pittaway.  Our innate need for classification of what we see becomes difficult in the case of these taxa. McLaren (2012) suggests that Thayer's Gull might best be treated as the dark extreme of a single species with Kumlien's Gull as the variable result of interbreeding with Iceland Gull. Earlier works such as Webber (1981) and Godfrey (1986) as well as a recent blog post named Thayer's the Iceland Gull - One Species by Amar Ayyash also suggest that the three taxa listed above should be conspecific:

Iceland Gull (Larus glaucoides glaucoides)
Kumlien's Gull (Larus glaucoides kumlieni)
Thayer's Gull (Larus glaucoides thayeri)

In the above classification, L.g. glaucoides becomes the nominate subspecies simply because it was described first by Meyer in 1822. Kumlien's Gull was first described in 1883 followed by Thayer's Gull in 1915.

A recent discussion on the North American Gulls Facebook Page prompted a few heavy hitters in the birding world to give their two cents. Steve Hampton, Bruce Mactavish, Peter Adriaens and Christopher Gibbins appeared to prefer the 2-species solution with Kumlien's Gull as the hybrid between Thayer's and Iceland. Some compared these species with the species pairs of Glaucous-winged Gull & Western Gull or Blue-winged Warbler & Golden-winged Warbler with their respective hybirds the Olympic Gull and Brewster's Warbler. Independent of the opinions shared by the participants, all could agree that more research is needed.

Pittaway's 1999 taxonomic history paper concluded with, "Regardless of how we classify them, they are no more or less identifiable in the field."

The apparent clinal variation from from the dark-eyed, dark-winged, less gentle proportioned Thayer's Gull to the pale-eyed, white-winged, smaller-billed and more gentle looking Iceland Gull definitely does make identification of extralimital birds difficult. I think most would agree that if it looks like a Thayer's Gull, then we can assume that this is likely linked to its provenance and/or its genetic makup. Given the current taxonomic classification of Thayer's Gull as a separate species, if a bird in Nova Scotia is found to tick all of the boxes, I wouldn't hesitate to label it as a Thayer's and add it to your Nova Scotia list as a full species.

The Pubnico Thayer's Gull

Paul Gould and I were test driving my new-to-me Subaru Forester on January 8, 2017 when we spotted a great Thayer's candidate at Dennis Point Wharf in Pubnico, Yarmouth County. We snapped a few photos and made sure to get some views of the open wing.

Here is a photo from our first encouter with the Thayer's Gull at Dennis Point Wharf in Pubnico, Nova Scotia, January 8, 2017. Photo by Alix d'Entremont.

I didn't realize exactly how many boxes this bird ticked until I reviewed the photos at home. Here are a few reasons why this gull fits perfectly for a Thayer's Gull:

-The black on the outer primaries when viewed from above is as dark as the adjacent Herring Gulls;
-P10 has dark subterminal marks;
-The outer web of P9 is completely dark;
-There is an almost complete dark subterminal band on P5;
-The iris was dark (contrast between the pupil and iris was only visible in direct sunlight);
-The orbital ring is a deep pinkish colour;
-The head, neck and breast show a extensive blotchy brown pattern;
-The bill base is greenish-yellow;
-The legs are a pale raspberry.

This image shows well the primary pattern of the Thayer's Gull at Dennis Point Wharf in Pubnico, Nova Scotia, January 14, 2017. P10 has dark subterminal marks between the mirror and apical spot; the outer web of P9 is completely dark; there is an almost complete dark subterminal band on P5. Photo by Alix d'Entremont.

Here we get a look at the pale underside of the outer primaries of the Thayer's Gull at Dennis Point Wharf in Pubnico, Nova Scotia, January 14, 2017. This is quite different from that of a Herring Gull. Photo by Alix d'Entremont.

This image allows for comparison of a Herring Gull with the Thayer's Gull at Dennis Point Wharf in Pubnico, Nova Scotia, January 14, 2017. Note how the black on the outer primaries is of equal darkness on both gulls. The Thayer's shows a dark eye and greenish-yellow based bill in contrast with the pale yellow iris and orangish-yellow based bill of the Herring. Photo by Alix d'Entremont.

Here we see the pale raspberry legs of the Thayer's Gull at Dennis Point Wharf in Pubnico, Nova Scotia, January 14, 2017. Photo by Alix d'Entremont.

This bird is immediately recognizable with the naked eye both in flight and on the water. The combination of features, most notably the dark eye, extensive hood and primary pattern are unique among the thousands of gulls at Dennis Point Wharf. It should be noted that there are many imposters as well. Kumlien's Gulls can show one or two Thayer's-like features like dark eyes, dark wings and an extensive hood, but only this bird has been found to show all of these features.

I observed this bird 4 times during January and then we were in for a great surprise when Mark Dennis spotted this exact individual at West Head on nearby Cape Sable Island, Shelburne County, on February 1, 2017. We confirmed that it was in fact the Pubnico bird because both birds had a small portion of the inner web of P5 on the left wing missing. It was then refound in Pubnico on February 4, again at Cape Sable Island on February 10 and once more in Pubnico on February 25.

The Thayer's Gull at Dennis Point Wharf in Pubnico, Nova Scotia, February 4, 2017. Photo by Alix d'Entremont.

The Thayer's Gull at Dennis Point Wharf in Pubnico, Nova Scotia, February 4, 2017. Photo by Alix d'Entremont.

The Thayer's Gull with two Kumlien's Gulls (adult and first-cycle) at Dennis Point Wharf in Pubnico, Nova Scotia, February 4, 2017. Photo by Alix d'Entremont.


Godfrey, W .E. 1986. The Birds of Canada. Revised Edition. National Museums of Canada, Ottawa.

McLaren, I.A. 2012. All the Birds of Nova Scotia: status & critical identification. Gaspereau Press Ltd, Kentville, N.S., Canada

Pittaway, R. 1999. "Taxonomic History of Thayer's Gull". Ontario Birds 17(1):1-13.

Weber J.W. 1981. The Larusgulls of the Pacific Northwest Interior, with

taxonomic comments on several forms (Part 1). Continental Birdlife 2(1): 110.