Sunday, 18 December 2016

27 Aug- 3 Sep

27 August
A bit of a sad day, as Anne and Doug were leaving! I'd learnt loads from the both of them, and it was nice to not be the only heavyish drinker in camp (By which I mean maybe two beers a night on average, concerned family!). It was, at any rate, a pleasantly lazy day, as we waited around til mid-afternoon for the helicopter to arrive.
The two news arrivals were Allie and Greg. Allie's doing her PhD up here over the course of three years, and leading most of the crews, while Greg was a volunteer from Toronto for the final two weeks of the season. Both were lovely additions to the crew.
Not that much happened during the day, apart from a little briefing for Greg. As we'd had to stay around and wait for the chopper, no surveys were done today. However, the real highlight came later that evening, as when eating dinner, I spotted an Owl glide by the window! Leaping up and running outside, we identified it as a Long-eared Owl, which proceeded to give several laps of the cabins before disappearing into the night. The Great Horned Owl called again too.

28 August
First day surveying with Greg, and we headed down to Pisquatchee. There was definitely a more autumnal feel to proceedings today.
Birding Highlights: Black Scoter- 3000, Goldeneye-245, American Bittern-1, Osprey-2, Peregrine-1, Spotted Sandpiper-1, Red Knot-117, Baird's Sandpiper-1, Bonaparte's Gull-447, Parasitic Jaeger-1, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher-1, Winter Wren-1, American Pipit-13, American Redstart-1, Magnolia Warbler-1, Le Conte's Sparrow-1, Nelson's Sparrow-6, Clay-coloured Sparrow-1, Lincoln's Sparrow-15.
The survey started off fairly well; a calling Spotted Sandpiper was notable for Longridge (one of the scarcest shorebirds we saw up here), and a Baird's Sandpiper flew over Pisquatchee calling. A loose flock of American (Buff-bellied) Pipits were our first of the season. However, torrential rain started to hit as soon as we had made it to Pisquatchee. Greg and I dashed for cover in the woods, but were already soaked by this point, and not getting any drier. After 45 minutes or so of being hunkered down, the rain eventually cleared, and we carried on surveying from where we'd left off. While scanning the bay from Pisquatchee, I picked up a fairly distant Parasitic Jaeger heading south.
Later on in the day, I saw my first Peregrine of the season (chasing a Bald Eagle!), and a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher along the treebird trail, also a first of the season. A good number of Sparrows and Warblers were around today, including a family party of 5 Nelson's Sparrow at the base of Longridge Creek, 15 Lincoln's Sparrow at Pisquatchee, 25 Swamp Sparrow scattered about and seven species of Warbler (Common Yellowthroat, American Redstart, Magnolia, Yellow, Blackpoll, Palm and Myrtle).
Nelson's Sparrow juvenile

29 Aug
As late summer turns into autumn, the passerine and wildfowl migration built up again today, but shorebird numbers were dwindling!
Birding Highlights; Snow Goose-239, American Black Duck-150, Shoveler-2, Black Scoter-3770, Hooded Merganser-2, Red Knot-33, White-rumped Sandpiper-1500, Baird's Sandpiper-6, Pectoral Sandpiper-455, Long-eared Owl-1, Hairy Woodpecker-1, Alder Flycatcher-1, Blue-headed Vireo-3, Philadelphia Vireo-1, Red-eyed Vireo-2, Ruby-crowned Kinglet-17, Swainon's Thrush-3, American Pipit-18, Black-and-white Warbler-7, Orange-crowned Warbler-1, Magnolia Warbler-1, Yellow Warbler-1, Wilson's Warbler-1, Le Conte's Sparrow-1, White-winged Crossbill-3, Common Redpoll-3
morning view from the Cabin,looking east

Survey today took us up Longridge Point. Shorebird numbers were, in general, far lower than they had been, to be expected as migration begins to tail off. However, right at the tip of Longridge was a great surprise, with 4 juvenile Baird's Sandpiper feeding on a patch of seaweed alongside a Turnstone. With two further birds on the wrack, we managed a very impressive six Baird's today, my highest count by some distance. Otherwise, the highlight was probably an excellent count of 3700 Black Scoter in one loose group off the tip of Longridge. They were nearly all males, as James Bay is a staging area for tens of thousands of these birds on their post-breeding moult. If Birdlife International's population estimates are to believed, our count is getting quite close 1% of the whole global population of Black Scoter (their, rather loose, estimate is a population of 350,000 to 560,000 mature individuals, though in August the total number is likely higher, with a lot of birds of the year). In perspective, 1% of the global population of people is about 70 million, so I'd seen about as high a proportion of the world's Black Scoter as I would if I rounded up every person in Britain!
Other wildfowl were clearly increasing, with large numbers in particular of Snow Goose and American Black Duck. 
If you really squint, you can see a male Black Scoter

There were, once again, good number of passerines moving through the spruce, with an Orange-crowned Warbler  the standout bird. This, alongside a Hairy Woodpecker, were both trip ticks, and the Woodpecker was fantastic, due to one of those field camp jokes that wouldn't be even remotely funny if I tried to explain it (but I've read your mind, and it's nowhere near as perverted as what you're thinking.). A Wilson's Warbler was also a none-too-common sighting.
Perhaps my highlight of the day came very late. Having cooked dinner, and not burned anything, killed anyone or concussed myself with a frying pan, I went on a little dusk walk. This could be a productive time to detect some new birds for each days log, calling American Robin and Swainson's Thrush, flyover Wilson's Snipe and even, today, two Hooded Merganser. The real highlight, though, came from picking up the Long-eared Owl in flight again. I ran back inside to alert everyone, and when I went outside, it was nowhere to be found. However, just sometimes, you have a moment in birding where you feel more like a Jedi, than a bumbling middle-class boy from a small town in East Sussex. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a branch move in a way wholly inconsistent with the breeze. It bounced up and down, as if something fairly large had just landed on it. Curious, I borrowed Dan's torch to check the tree out. Curiosity rewarded, I found the Owl, sitting exactly where I'd spotted that movement, right out in the open! It stayed for five minutes, allowing all of us brilliant views of one of the most cryptic and hard to detect of all Owls. I've seen Long-eared Owl this well a few times before, but it's always been at a well-known roost. The thrill of obtaining such a wonderful encounter purely through fortuitousness, and a little bit of sharp observing, made this moment infinitely more rewarding.
The lowlight of the day came when we discovered a crate full of swamped food in  a boarded up room in the cabin (we only noticed there was a leak when it started coming into the room, and there had been a lip of about two inches between both rooms!). Worse still, this food had been kept there by the Cree family we were renting the cabins from!  Most of it would have to be burnt, and the mix of water and rotten food was absolutely putrid.  I think it was something of a bonding experience for the six of us though, nothing quite brings you together like having to pitch in on a disgusting job! For today we managed to get rid of all the putrid (quite literally vomit inducing unless you held your nose) water, work out what food could be salvaged, and get an inventory of what would need to be replaced. The burning of the rest could wait for a drier day...

30 Aug
A nice survey of West Bay, and a lazy afternoon.
Birding Highlights: Green-winged Teal-60, Black Scoter-1500, Osprey-1, Solitary Sandpiper-1, Hudsonian Godwit-80, Stilt Sandpiper-3, Dunlin-100, White-rumped Sandpiper-3000, Pectoral Sandpiper-450, Short-billed Dowitcher-12, Red-necked Phalarope-3, Long-eared Owl-1, Mourning Dove-2, Peregrine-1, Philadelphia Vireo-1, American Pipit-22, Nashville Warbler-1, American Redstart-1 male, Yellow Warbler-2, Nelson's Sparrow-1, Pine Siskin-1, Red-breasted Nuthatch-1.
Every day for the last five, I'd managed at least one trip tick. Today drew a blank, but two Mourning Dove first thing were my first in James Bay, so counted for something!
The morning survey of West Bay was generally quiet, but there was a real hub of activity around Limosa Creek. Of our excellent White-rumped Sandpiper count, at least 2500 of them were here, while the 8 Short-billed Dowitcher here, plus four elsewhere, contributed to my highest day count of this scarce species. Three each of Stilt Sandpiper and Red-necked Phalarope were pretty much expected here, but both species look exquisite in their fresh juvenile plumage, and were a delight to see every time.
Short-billed Dowitcher

The Long-eared Owl hunted over the cabins again during the evening, giving more great flight views. This is probably my favourite Owl, there's something very ethereal about them, from their silent and ghostlike flight, their ability to vanish when in plain sight, and their tendency to be active right at twilight. In Britain, they're even harder to detect than in Canada (where they're considerably commoner), and so I've always thought of it as a near-mythical creature!

31 Aug
The weather was good enough in the morning for a garbage burn. In the afternoon, it was totally squalid, but a mixture of this nasty front, and strong northerly winds produced an impressive migration of Canada Geese and shorebirds, with two unexpected rarities thrown in! ]
Birding Highlights: Canada Goose-3660, CACKLING GOOSE-1, Pintail-77, Black-bellied Plover-137, American Golden Plover-17, Hudsonian Godwit-386, BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKE-1, American Pipit-1, Cedar Waxwing-3, Black-and-white Warbler-1, Le Conte's Sparrow-3.
So, the morning started off with a horrid job. Horrid, but surprisingly good fun. I love a good fire, and I love a good challenge, and there's few better ways of combining the two than attempting to burn several kilos of wet, putrid food, containers and all! It was definitely not a woodsmoke smell. And the smoke coming out of the burn-barrel resembled the plumes from a factory more than any wood fire I've seen. I prefer not to think about what exactly we might have inhaled doing that job (me especially, as I was generally closer to the fire trying to keep it going), but all that fresh air was doing me no good. As a fairly urban boy, I doubtless needed a few pollutants to cleanse my blood of all that filthy oxygen.
If you've never smeared lard onto wet cardboard to try and make it burn, you don't quite understand our lives.

Another item cast into the fiery chasm from whence it came by Kathryn

Greg and I, I promise, went out that afternoon with full intentions of doing a proper survey. However, the weather was atrocious, rain was pelting down to the extent that even a right-in-the-rain notebook was quickly beyond legible use. The wind froze each and every extremity and rendered them as blunt and useless as a wooden club. A wooden club that you're attempting to perform open heart surgery with. And with the level of detail needed to fully complete a survey, and optics that fogged up afresh every five minutes, it was pretty impossible to do our job properly! However, we decided that, on this atrocious day, we could just go birding, as an awful lot of birds were taking this as their cue to migrate south. The majority of these were Canada Geese, with a new flock of several hundred appearing from the north before we'd even finished counting the previous one! In about two hours, we'd reached 3660, and if we were out birding all day I'm sure over 10,000 would have been detected. With that many geese on the move, it wasn't all that surprising to see a rare one, and sure enough a little midget of a CACKLING GOSE moved through in one of the flocks. One awesome flock of 325 Hudsonian Godwit flew over (we saw 386 in total), and several double digit flocks of Black-bellied Plover gave us a pretty healthy count of them too. 17 American Golden Plover was our best count of this scarcity to date.
Of course, I've neglected to even tell you about the genuine rarity we saw today! It happened right at the start, when we still had ambitions to survey. I was scanning a flock of Bonapartes Gulls, roosting on the saltmarsh, when I saw something obviously very different. The bill was yellow, and it was moderately larger, I first noticed. Okay, so a Ring-billed. But wait, this bill was long, thin and definitely without a dark ring on it! The forehead was sloping, the iris was dark, the mantle considerably darker grey than Bonaparte's Gull, and the wingtips had almost no white. I got the call wrong at first, telling Greg "I think I have an adult Mew Gull!". I didn't realise at the time, that Mew Gull is very rare here, and if you were paying attention, you'll probably notice a few things in that description that definitely don't fit one. Greg, thankfully, was there to correct me, and point out that it was a Black-legged Kittiwake! A bit of an embarassing call (they breed on my doorstep, I should recognise one!), but I was thinking of what might be more probable. In retrospect, a 40mph north-easterly is far more likely to bring Kittiwake into James bay. I didn't see it again through the scope, but as it flew off I noted the long, pointed wings, giving it a tern-like flight. While juvenile Kittiwakes are somewhat expected in the right conditions, and at the right time of year, I've been told that seeing an adult is pretty exceptional!
I've forgotten to tell you til now, that food was running REALLY low. We were in rationing mode quite severely. Talk in camp, over this evening, was gradually gearing towards a somewhat ridiculous prospect, that we may have to walk the 25km or so to Pisquamish, the next camp south, to pick up more supplies! But it won't get that bad, I thought...

1 September
The northerlies were really starting to hurt us in terms of shorebirds! A few interesting seabirds made the day worthwhile though
Birding Highlights; Snow Goose-299, Canada Goose 736, American Black Duck-174, Black Scoter-492, Osprey-3, American Golden Plover-4, Baird’s Sandpiper-2, Stilt Sandpiper-2, Dunlin-144, Pectoral Sandpiper-400, Dunlin-155, Caspian Tern-3, Arctic Tern-1, jaeger sp-1, Horned Lark-1, American Pipit-20
Gilligans Island, from halfway along Longridge


Greg and I checked West Bay pre-survey in the morning. For the first time ever, it was truly dead! No Dowitchers, Stilt Sandpipers, not even a Red-necked Phalarope! And in bitter, northerly winds, it wasn’t the most fun day to search birdless mudflats. A juvenile American Golden Plover was as interesting as it got. We then walked up Longridge, and started the survey at about mid-day, sea-watching from the tip. It was pretty good, several hundred Black Scoter and American Black Duck offshore, when I suddenly got a cracking look at a Jaeger giving us a pretty close flyby! In full adult plumage, it looked absolutely stunning; jet black upperparts were the main plumage detail I noticed, but my instinct with any Jaeger is to look at its shape and flight style first. Field marks can, in my opinion, deceive a lot more than shape. Greg birds in a different way (and also, probably, has a sharper eye for detail), which explains in part how, on this excellent view, we came to very different conclusions! Alongside very dark upperparts, I saw a barrel-chested bird, with the centre of gravity situated underneath the wings, long but broad wings, and a loose, buoyant, almost bouncing but very powerful flight style. Despite having a fairly squared off tail (they can be lacking their “spoons” at this time of year) I was all set to call it a Pomarine Jaeger. Greg had studied the field marks more carefully, and concluded it looked more like a Parasitic! To me the jizz seemed all wrong, Parasitic ought to be sleeker, with thinner wings and a bit front-heavy appearance with a more direct flight like a Falcon. As well as being paler grey on the upperparts. But I had to conclude, I hadn’t even had the chance to study the features Greg was basing his identification on, the Jaeger had veered over the water, chasing a Ring-billed Gull, and was now sitting on the sea too far away to be picked up in the choppy waves. In the situation, the only fair thing we could do was put the bird down as “Jaeger sp”! Fortunately, I saw a bona fide Pomarine later in the year at Long Point.
While the day might have been a bit tarnished by that disappointment, we thankfully saved some grace barely 10 minutes later, when a gorgeous adult Arctic Tern flew right overhead. Close enough to see the all red bill and thin, charcoal-like trailing edge to the primaries, alongside differences in size and shape from a Common Tern. I’ve seen plenty at home, but this was my first in Canada!
Back on Tringa Creek and the pools behind, there were about 400 Pectoral Sandpiper, 7 Short-billed Dowitcher and 2 Stilt Sandpiper, while our first Horned Lark of the season flew over as we worked our way back to The Wrack. That was about it for excitement today; shorebirds were otherwise at a premium!
Horned Lark juvenile
2 September
By Longridge standards, it was freezing overnight, getting down to about 5 centigrade! A few good birds around the Cabin, and an overall quiet afternoon census. Remarkably, I saw no Snow Geese all day, and a single Pintail was my only dabbling duck!
Highlights: Black scoter-89, Bufflehead-1, Sharp-shinned Hawk-1, Black-bellied Plover-54, American Golden Plover-1, Red Knot-523, Buff-breasted Sandpiper-1, Red-necked Phalarope-4, Great Horned Owl-1, Long-eared Owl-1, Belted Kingfisher-1, Hermit Thrush-1, American Pipit-60, Blue-headed Vireo-2, Le Conte’s Sparrow-1, Purple Finch-1, Pine Siskin-1.
Snow Geese head south

I had a few highlights early morning. A Belted Kingfisher around the cabins was the first we’d seen here all trip, and quite notable this far north. We were pretty shocked to hear it’s diagnostic call echo around camp a few times, and eventually pinned it down! An American Golden Plover also flew over, the only one of the day.
Survey was generally very quiet, as we walked Pisquatchee mid afternoon. Some shorebird numbers, like 44 White-rumped Sandpiper, 12 Least Sandpiper and 40 Pectoral Sandpiper, were just depressing! But it was livened up by over 500 Red Knot roosting on Pisquatchee, alongside fairly good numbers of Black-bellied Plover. Walking back, Greg and I had superb views of a juvenile Buff-breasted Sandpiper, easily my best of the trip as it fed in the wrackline, oblivious to our presence. In a subtle way, I think they’re possibly the prettiest of all shorebirds! We admired it for a good 15 minutes, in a gorgeous later afternoon glow, before carring on with an otherwise extremely quiet survey. The only other highlight came from seawatching off Pisquatchee, when 4 juvenile Red-necked Phalarope briefly pitched down close offshore before, bizarrely, heading north.


3 Sep
A really good morning for tree-birding, with the spruces literally dripping with Warblers! A really crap afternoon for shorebirds, with Longridge literally nothing but shingle!
Highlights: Blue-winged Teal-1, Black Scoter-392, Sandhill Crane-20, American Golden PLover-2, Solitary Sandpiper-1, Sanderling 69 (the commonest shorebird today!), Alder Flycatcher-1, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher-1, Least Flycatcher-1, Blue-headed Vireo-2, Red-eyed Vireo-2, Ruby-crowned Kinglet-32, Swainsons Thrush-3, American Robin-5, American Pipit-7, Cedar Waxwing-21, Black-and-white Warbler-1, Tennessee Warbler-1, Common Yellowthroat-11, American Redstart-1, Magnolia Warbler-5, Blackpoll Warbler-1, Western Palm Warbler-81, Myrtle Warbler-22, Le Conte’s Sparrow-3, Clay-coloured Sparrow-1, White-crowned Sparrow-1, Red-winged Blackbird-1, Purple Finch-1, White-winged Crossbill-1, Common Redpoll-4


Gray Jay along Treebird Trail


With survey starting late, I took full advantage by birding the spruce-line in the morning. It was a fantastic day for it, with Western Palm Warblers having arrived en masse! Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Common Yellowthroat and Myrtle Warbler were also moving in very good numbers, while plenty of other species were mixed in; seeing three species of Empidonax Flycatcher this late was excellent, and a White-crowned Sparrow was our first of the season. It was a lovely morning to just be out birding.
Contrast that with the afternoon! Longridge was dead, I think we really had reached the shorebird nadir by now. On 69 individuals, Sanderling staked the unlikely claim as most numerous shorebird of the day, with only Pectoral Sandpiper and Greater Yellowlegs running it anywhere near close. I failed to see a single Least Sandpiper all day! And apart from two American Golden Plover and a Solitary Sandpiper, there were none of the scarcer shorebirds whatsoever. Plenty of wolf tracks to keep me entertained though, and the dead Beluga as per usual.
Wolf track in the mud, write-in-the-rain notebook for size comparison



And I realise I left you all hanging with our food situation. We were, by now running desperately low. I had resorted to hand-picking the raisins out of what was left of the trailmix, for something to wash the porridge down with! Amie didn’t even have breakfast one day, and we were all getting worried! Some of our texts with food requests hadn’t sent, and they had happened to be fairly important staples! So, it was decided, on communicating with Pisquamish, that we had a plan. Volunteers from each camp would walk out to about halfway between us (12km or so). Pisquamish would carry as much food as they could (they had mountains going spare) from their camp, and we’d take it back to ours. But that’s a story for the next edition! It’ll be up soon.



Saturday, 19 November 2016

20-26 Aug; Willet be any good?

So when I'd left off, I'd been a week in James Bay. It had mostly been gorgeously sunny, the shorebirds were mostly in good numbers, and I felt I was getting a handle on them. In short, an excellent introduction. I was part of a fantastic camp, surveying with an incredibly experienced partner (Doug) who could answer pretty much any question I had. While there are obvious extremes in remote living here, such as walking 20+K a day in wellies (rubber boots for my North American friends), bathing naked in a freshwater creek, getting up whenever the tide dictates you ought to start surveying and relieving yourself al fresco in an outhouse, life itself felt very relaxed. Everyone in the camp was easygoing, and in Doug we had a great raconteur to keep us all entertained! Everything was great already, but the second week provided some astounding wildlife highlights to boot!

20 Aug
A wild, wet and windy day with a dramatic high tide!
Birding Highlights: American Wigeon-3, Blue-winged Teal-3, Osprey-3, Northern Harrier-5, Semipalmated Plover-220, Solitary Sandpiper-4, Greater Yellowlegs-139, Least Sandpiper-286, White-rumped Sandpiper-1133, Buff-breasted Sandpiper-2, Baird's Sandpiper x1 (adult), Short-billed Dowitcher-11, Red-necked Phalarope-2, Philadelphia Vireo-1, Le Conte's Sparrow-1, Lincoln's Sparrow-1, Common Redpoll-1.
It was too wet and windy a day for any banding, so all six of us surveyed, in three pairs. While the others took Pisquatchee and Longridge, Dan and I did Bear Point. Feeling ambitious, we walked out about 12 kilometres (further than I've even labelled on the Map in the previous post!), to a rocky ridge Doug referred to as "desperation point". Righty ho then.
The tide was incredibly low on our walk out, at least four kilometres from the start of the saltmarsh. We walked all the way out to the edge, doing a low-tide survey as we went, and finding a group of 500 White-rumped Sandpipers and a few adult Sanderling, feeding right out at the waters edge. We got there at just about low tide, and saw it switch. Today was one of the most extreme tides we had, so when it switched, you knew it! We were forced into walking diagonally to desperation point by the tide, coming in at a rate of probably a metre every two seconds. Just try to picture that!
Once we'd reached "Desperation Point" it was three hours before high tide, and the open mudflats had already been totally covered by the tide. In other words, with three hours left to go, the tide was already higher than it had been at high tide, just seven days beforehand!
I checked a creek mouth the other side of desperation point for half an hour, seeing a few shorebirds incuding, most notably, an adult Baird's Sandpiper (there really should be no adults here after the last week of July, so this was pretty exceptional and a new plumage!). I'd thought that would be my highlight of the day, but barely 10 minutes passed before it was eclipsed! I saw Dan beckoning me back over to the boulders, from which he'd been scanning the Bay. I took a lesiurely stroll back, until I saw him getting much more animated, and shouting something beginning with "B". Still mystified, but intrigued now, I quickened my pace and was shortly within earshot. It was then that Dan said something like "Hurry up, I've got a Beluga!!". I sprinted the last few steps like my life depended on it!
Upon getting to the brow of the ridge, I saw a gleaming white body, thrashing about unbelievably close inshore. I'd expected to be watching a distant back, breaking the waves miles offshore through a scopeview, not this!! Now, this is a (mostly) family friendly blog, so I'm afraid I can't repeat most of the dialogue from the next half an hour. Needless to say, there were lots of ducks, a few brother-duckers, some smits, smitting bells, floody noras and various other entirely safe and appropriate words banded about, in the heavily edited version of events I'm now presenting. The BELUGA showed unbelievably well, totally oblivious to us. It worked its way along the submerged boulders, seemingly wanting nothing more than a good old scratch, to relieve itself of parasites, itches and various other burdens. It twisted and turned, flapping flippers as if waving, turning belly up, splashing the surface with effortless flicks of its tail, in water barely two foot deep, mostly 30-50 feet offshore. Through a scope on minimum zoom (roughly 20x magnification), it was quite literally impossible to fit it's full, two and a half metre long body into the frame! This was all going on for about half an hour, with an animal I've dreamed about seeing almost all of my life. I feel confident in saying this was the most exciting moment of my travels so far, probably the most exciting moment on any of my travels, and if I should beat it I'll have had more luck than most people get in a lifetime!
since I had no camera, here's the sketch from my diary that evening!

Eventually, our cetaceous friend bid us farewell, drifting off into the Bay, and we had to begin our survey. Birdwise, the highlights were two Buff-breasted Sandpipers, my first here and only second and third ever. I was quite pleased to pick the first one up, and call it correctly, in flight! The high, ever-increasing tide meant we were having to hop over constantly deepening channels through the saltmarsh, and it wasn't too long before my wellies were inundated. The walk back was a brutal, 12 kilometre slog, carrying heavy gear on uneven, sodden ground, constantly having to track around gullies either too deep or too wide to cross, with strong, north-easterly winds and frequently driving rain. I'd have done it five times over for views like that of such a mythical, enchanting beast though! While I appreciate pretty much all the wonders of nature (apart from Chickadees in Mist nets, which can do one), very few things have ever moved me quite as profoundly as my first ever Beluga. I was gliding over that flooded saltmarsh, at least for the first couple of kilometres. Then I was back to swearing like a sailor.
Dan and I arrived in just before sundown, to exchange stories with the other brave surveyors. We'd missed a Ringed Seal and a Parasitic Jaeger; both lovely, but a trifle compared to what we'd seen! Doug kindly shared his Whiskey, and I learnt the unspeakable delights of a Hot Scotchlate (Hot Chocolate with a half decent Single Malt) in a warm cabin, while listening to rain lash against the windows. Life could scarcely get better.

21 Aug
 Still pretty wild and windy, extreme tides and a quiet day all round.
Birding Highlights: Lesser Scaup x3, Osprey x1, American Golden Plover x1, Red Knot x70, Alder Flycatcher x3.
After a very intense day yesterday, and with surveys not necessary until late morning, I had a risky lie-in! Woke up hideously late (about 11!) to find some still warm pancakes under a plate, left by my unutterably lovely camp-mates. We saw very little of note today. While I neglected to fill in my diary for the day, I think godawful weather may have prevented us from doing a survey. A seawatch revealed a decent number of wildfowl and Red Knot moving north, with one American Golden Plover adult flying directly overhead. A quiet day, but useful recovery in between two exceptionally good ones (see below!)

22 Aug
A day with more highs and lows than the average soap opera love triangle. A Mind-boggling rarity, a lightning storm  and mosquitoes straight from the depths of hell all conspired into a most memorable day, in one way or another!
Birding Highlights- Shoveler-13, White-winged Scoter-1, Black Scoter-700, Bufflehead-2, Red-necked Grebe-1, American Bittern-1, Osprey-2, Sharp-shinned Hawk-1, Yellow Rail-1, American Golden Plover-3, Semipalmated Plover-300, Red Knot-1182, White-rumped Sandpiper-2000, Pectoral Sandpiper-500, Semipalmated Sandpiper-600, Baird's Sandpiper-1, Stilt Sandpiper-3, Short-billed Dowitcher-2, Red-necked Phalarope-1, (23 shorebird species in total!), Bonaparte's Gull-770, Common Nighthawk-1, Olive-sided Flycatcher-1, Philadelphia Vireo-2, Winter Wren-1, Cape May Warbler-2, Bay-breasted Warbler-3, Le Conte's Sparrow-1, Clay-coloured Sparrow-1, Common Redpoll-3, WILLET-1!!! 
It started gorgeously hot and very humid. With another afternoon survey being called for by the tide, Doug and I had a relaxed morning, birding around the cabin, where a few good passerines were moving through; a few Bay-breasted Warblers were my first of the season. Tringa Creek had witnessed a massive arrival of Pectoral Sandpiper, with over 500 present.
juvenile Pectoral Sandpiper on pools by Tringa Creek

I took a walk over West Bay to Limosa Creek while the others banded and Anne sampled inverts; seeing 3 Stilt Sandpiper, a Bufflehead and a few Short-billed Dowitcher and Red-necked Phalarope for my troubles. At about 11:30, I got a radio call from Doug, who'd found a Red-necked Grebe on the south shore of Longridge Point! While a species I've seen a fair few of on two continents, I've not seen many in high-breeding plumage this well, and it's a pretty uncommon bird in James Bay to boot. Buoyed by a good bird, Doug and I headed back to camp, to prepare for survey. We wouldn't be starting until about 3pm, and I at least had already walked about 10km already by this point. I was starting to think I'd be pretty knackered by the end of the survey. I didn't know the half of it.
Two problems presented themselves almost immediately. Firstly, my only pair of boots hadn't dried out at all since their flooding on the 20th, and by squelching about in them all day, I was starting to get seriously soggy feet. By the time I took my boots off, halfway through the survey, I noticed with some alarm that osmotic processes were having a less than desired effect on my feet. Namely, they were roughly the texture and appearance of a particularly wrinkled raisin, and there seemed a pretty acute risk of getting trenchfoot out here! I alleviated the problem somewhat by walking without socks, which at least reduced the dampness my feet were enduring inside the boots. The second problem was mosquitoes. Their numbers were only slightly above average, but both Doug and I concurred (in language that really shouldn't be reproduced here, but which I wish I could repeat due to our stunningly creative phrase coinage), that these were the most aggressive, tenacious little sons of something or other we'd yet come across. If I said I heard words that shocked me, that would be a lie. But I certainly heard words mixed together in ways that both surprised, impressed and delighted me. If there's one bright side to these utterly devilish insects, it's just how much entertainment can be had from listening to a foul-mouthed, 57 year old Canadian's reaction to them!
So, survey wasn't great so far, and problem number 3 was starting to rear its ugly head on the horizon. When I happened to turn around, there were some frankly apocalyptic clouds, looming menacingly about 10km to the north-west. The wind was a gentle, but not as gentle as I'd like, north-westerly. The swearing went up a notch, if that were even possible.
There are three main problems with being stuck in a lightning storm when surveying. The most obvious is that there is almost no cover, what with it being a mudflat, and the treeline being a good kilometre away. The second is that, on such a flat landscape, the top of your head is probably the fastest route for lightning to achieve its burning (quite literally) desire to reach the ground. The third is that, as a very metal free landscape, the lightning is likely to find its way towards anything that would be a good conductor of electricity. Carbon-fibre tripods are, I'm told, tremendous in this regard. Which is excellent news.
There was a fourth problem with the current predicament, owing entirely to my own throwing caution to the wind. After a week or so of taking enough clothes out with me for any weather conditions you could care to mention, I'd grown tired of carrying them all around in my daypack, or tied to my waist, while I boiled in the searing sun on exposed mudflats. Like the doze I am, I'd come out equipped for an electrical storm, a very sharp drop in temperature and torrential rain with nowt more than a thin wool jumper. Go figure! On the bright side, Doug was even more amused by my stoic jumper-wearing (and my calling it such a word, it'd be a sweater this side of the pond), in the face of near-certain doom, than I was by his rich and appalling vocabulary.
We did the best we could in surviving the storm. Our tripods were laid down a safe distance away from us, and we found the most sheltered location we could, in the lee of a washed up tree on the beach. By digging myself into the shingle a bit, roughly half my body was protected from the lashing, near horizontal rain, while the other half got a thorough soaking. For about half an hour we lay there, contemplating how exactly life had placed us in this unusual situation. On the bright side, the number of mosquitoes buzzing around each of us had decreased to only 50 or so, which was practically paradise.
some sons of something or other on yours truly. Note this photo was taken on a much more modest day, multiply the number of Mozzies by about 20 for days like the 22nd!

Soon enough, the storm passed. We were soaked, and almost as soon as the rain was finished, the Mosquitoes upped the ante even more. Writing this, having just showered in an actual bathroom, in a comfortable bed, with central heating and dry clothes and all those other luxuries, its hard for me to recollect just how uncomfortable and pissed off I felt in this exact moment. Despair was about to turn to triumph though...
Doug heard an odd, two-tone call. He said "that sounds a bit like a Marbled Godwit", and then three birds gave us a fly-by. The first was a Black-bellied Plover, the second a Knot, and the third something else altogether, and incredibly striking. Grey back, bold black and white wing pattern, dangling legs, thick bill, and very chunky looking. Doug shouted out first; "Holy crap, it's a Willet!". He then immediately swore some more, as some mosquitoes found their way between his eye and his binoculars. I managed to enjoy a decent view of this bird, a lifer and incredibly rare this far north, as it flew away from us and landed at the base of Pisquatchee Point.
Willet and Red-necked Grebe; inartistic impressions.

There were almost too many emotions to comprehend. On the one hand, the elation of finding something ludicrously unlikely (postscript; probably only the second or third ever for the Hudson bay area). On the other hand, we were soaking wet, chilled to the bone, exhausted and being eaten alive, and I at least was halfway to getting Trenchfoot. Despite having seen where the bird landed, and despite searching for it for over an hour (during which time we saw about 1100 Red Knot, the highest count I ever managed here), we never relocated it. But it was one of the most exciting moments of the whole trip, and one of my favourite sightings from my whole time in Canada.
It was nearly dark by the time we gave up on the search, defeated, exhausted but still elated. Given Doug has lived and breathed James Bay for almost 40 years, I tended to take his lead on whether a bird was a big deal or not, and he was absolutely buzzing for this one. I knew we'd found something special! The mosquitoes ate us alive, and once we were barely even that anymore, they ate us again. The walk home took about an hour, flushing up an American Bittern as we went. We didn't so much stroll into cabin triumphant as collapse into a foetal position, meekly sip beer and devour a meal cooked by the rest of the crew, and eventually, once we were somewhat dry, a bit less tired and a bit less eaten, started to reflect on what an extraordinary day it had been. I find, writing this blog about three months after everything happened, that I can hardly find enough to write about for some days. I can barely stop writing about this one! But, in the name of brevity, I suppose I should continue on to the next couple of days, which were all pretty special in their own way too.

23 Aug
Doug and I were both still recovering from the ordeals of yesterday, but fortunately the tide times were continuing to spare us early surveys. The highlights of the day were a Wolf, and my first views of Aurora borealis
Birding Highlights: Blue-winged Teal-9, Ring-necked Duck-1, Hudsonian Godwit-325, Stilt Sandpiper-5, Least Sandpiper-264, Pectoral Sandpiper-924, Short-billed Dowitcher-3, Wilson's Phalarope-3, Red-necked Phalarope-4, Baird's Sandpiper-1, Le Conte's Sparrow-1.
Another late start today, as Doug and I walked to Bear Point. We intended to start surveying here, then work our way back. The weather, as usual, had some tricks up its sleeve, as about an hour before the start of the survey, thick fog started billowing in off the bay, reducing visibility to about 40 feet! Pre-survey, we did have excellent views of a few Red-necked Phalarope and Stilt Sandpiper roosting at the base of Bear Point, and 3 Wilson's Phalarope, one in Tringa Creek that gave great views, and two flyovers.
juvenile Red-necked Phalarope with juvenile Semipalmated Sandpiper

Another unbelievable high tide, combined with fog that never really cleared made surveying very difficult. However, two gorgeous sightings resulted from the mist. The first was a Wolf that loomed into vision about 100 feet away, as the fog briefly parted. It allowed stunning scope views for a minute or so, before trotting off into the gloom. The second came when I heard the alarm call of a Least Sandpiper to my right. Glancing in that direction, I saw a young Northern Harrier, not even 50 yards away, that very briefly made itself visible as it quartered the marsh. It was hunting for roosting waders, almost caught one, and then, as quickly as it had appeared, it too was swallowed up by the mist. Both very eerie, atmospheric moments.
The tide can be stunningly fast here, so see below for a video. I promise you, it's the tide moving water that quickly, not a stream!
video


24 Aug
The weather was continuing to be wildly unpredictable. Today we had 40mph NE winds, rain that was frequently very strong, and a very high tide. We came as close as I ever got to being cut off by the tide, which was not fun! However, we were treated to the most stunning views of a Wolf yet, and some brilliant birding. It was a wild day to be out.
Birding highlights: Snow Goose-115, Blue-winged Teal-9, Shoveler-2, Bufflehead-1, Hooded Merganser-1, Pied-billed Grebe-1, Osprey-2, American Golden Plover-5, Solitary Sandpiper-1, Hudsonian Whimbrel-24, Red Knot-7, Baird's Sandpiper-3, White-rumped Sandpiper-3440, Buff-breasted Sandpiper-1, Short-billed Dowitcher-1, Caspian Tern-1, Merlin-5, Le Conte's Sparrow-3, Nelson's Sparrow-2, Clay-coloured Sparrow-3, Song Sparrow-2.
Survey wasn't due to start til 3pm today. I took advantage of this to do a bit of birding beforehand, although the weather tempered my enthusiasm a bit! A Pied-billed Grebe, found by Dan (I think!), on the Pond near the cabin, was an unusual record for the area. It was joined by a Hooded Merganser, which together with records from the previous few days (Ring-necked Duck, and small groups of Shoveler and Blue-winged Teal) represented a great run of scarce wildfowl for that little pond! While several species, such Snow and Canada GoosePintail, Mallard, Black Duck, Common and Red-breasted Mergansers, Black Scoter and Goldeneye were abundant and easy to see at Longridge, it was often hard work to get other wildfowl species.

(Top) the pond along the treebird trail
(Bottom) four eclipse Shoveler on the pond

The other highlight of the morning was an adult Baird's Sandpiper on the wrack. We also saw two juveniles of this species on survey, plus 3439 (approximately) adult and one (exactly) juvenile White-rumped Sandpiper. It was, by all accounts, pretty exceptional to get any adult Bairds (which are almost all gone by late July), or juvenile White-rumps (which are very uncommon until late September), so to get both age classes of both species, on the same day, is a very hard trick!
My other birding activity during the morning was to really study the Sparrows in the marsh. Specifically, I was trying to see how to tell the difference between Le Contes and Nelson's in flight, a skill that might be useful down at Long Point. * Other than that, this crappy day was an excellent excuse for us all to hunker down in the cabin, enjoying a leisurely breakfast of pancakes, work our way through the coffee and do a bit of baking! It was going to be an uncomfortable survey, so I figured I may as well have a comfortable start to the day.
Doug and I left the house at 13:30, aiming to get out to the tip of Longridge by 15:00, two and a half hours before high tide. There are several low points on the spit, which can create impassable crossings on a high tide. When we reached the outermost one at 14:30, about a kilometre and a half from the tip, we realised it was already near enough impossible to get across. We probably could have done it, but given the tide still had another three hours to go, we'd either risk drowning to get back, or be stuck at the very end, with no shelter, til long past sunrise. Displaying uncanny pragmatism, we opted for a partial survey. The tip of Longridge could be done another day!
Longridge breached

We walked out as far as we could on our side of the impasse, intending to start our survey. That was when I noticed, about 100 metres away, a figure that had been hunkered down in the shingle and was now sprinting along the top of the ridge. I immediately realised we'd surprised a Wolf! Being stuck between us and the Bay, the only option it had was to loop the shallower north side of Longridge, allowing us our best, most prolonged views of Wolf yet. It was on view for 4-5 minutes before, feeling s safe distance away, it started trotting carefree over the mudflats, still visible in the scope. In a remarkable moment of prescience, I'd even taken my camera on survey today. I'd been gutted to miss a stunning photo opportunity of the Beluga, but this made up for it.


Wolfie!

The survey back was, despite squalid conditions, excellent. Huge flocks of White-rumped Sandpiper, pushed off the flats by the monstrous tide, were flying up Longridge to find somewhere safe to roost. The 3440 we counted today was among my highest count of this species. A Buff-breasted Sandpiper also gave fantastic views towards the base of Longridge. By this point, I'd already flooded my boots twice on two of the deep gullies, so my feet were wet and freezing! My walk back to shelter and warmth, once we'd finished the survey, was hurried.
It was a wonderful day though. Indeed, though I certainly put myself through some exhausting days at James Bay, these tend to be the one I look back on with the most fondness. It's a strange mixture of my love of anything wild and exciting, the fantastic wildlife that seemed to coincide with such days, and maybe just a hint of the feeling it was all quite character building. I also think, having worked night shifts in care homes for the months prior to my departure, living around a rather irregular sleep cycle, that it was wonderful to be so tired each night that you could hardly fail to sleep soundly!

*postscript- I saw one Ammodramus Sparrow at Long Point, I saw it in flight only, and unsurprisingly I didn't identify it. Clearly, I need more practise!

25 Aug
The tide times had shifted enough that we could finally go back to an early survey of Pisquatchee. Quite how in the mood I was for an early survey on this morning, I don't remember, but I'm sure I took a bit of coaxing to be roused! A quieter day than previous ones, but still excellent.
Birding highlights: Snow Goose-180, White-winged Scoter-1, Pied-billed Grebe-1, Osprey-1, American Golden Plover-3, Red Knot-21, Pectoral Sandpiper-630, Wilson's Phalarope-1, Red-necked Phalarope-4, Caspian Tern-1, PARASITIC JAEGER-1, Black-and-White Warbler-1, Le Conte's Sparrow-1, Nelson's Sparrow-5, Clay-coloured Sparrow-1, Dark-eyed Junco-1, White-winged Crossbill-2, Common Redpoll-4.
The day's obvious highlight came early in the morning as Pisquatchee. Doug and I found an adult male Parasitic Jaeger (Arctic Skua if you're in Europe), that gave chase to a number of birds; Bonaparte's Gulls, Common Terns, it even pursued a Pectoral Sandpiper to a height of about 300 metres! Using a "squeaking" technique (pursing your lips together to make a noise that supposedly sounds like struggling prey), Doug lured it in to give us a flyby, so cloe you could almost touch it. It then carried on tracking the shoreline south, heading down towards the southern Atlantic to while away the long winter months.
Not much else notable was around today, but there was an obvious increase in Pectoral Sandpipers. I got some valuable ageing lessons from Doug on these birds. Unlike most other waders, Pecs are not all that easy to age by plumage, but with an appreciation of feather wear, become far more simple. The upperpart and wing feathers of juvenile are very fresh, bright and rounded, having grown in only a month or so ago in August. The adults, by contrast, have been wearing the same feathers since at least March, so they tend to look dull, frayed and as pointed as knaves.
nice, fresh juvenile Pectoral Sandpiper

Once survey was over, I suddenly had the prospect of a whole afternoon to myself (basic chores associated with communal living aside). My attempts at finding good birds in West Bay failed pretty quickly (as much due to tiredness as anything). It was a stunning evening though, the bad weather of the past few days had cleared through, and James Bay looked simply glorious.

26 Aug
A poignant day, as it was my last full day with Doug and Anne, both leaving on the crew change tomorrow. Gorgeous light for photography on Doug and I's survey of West Bay, which was also notable for loads (relatively speaking) of Stilt Sandpiper.
Birding Highlights; Bufflehead-4, Pied-billed Grebe-1, American Golden Plover-4, Hudsonian Godwit-120, Stilt Sandpiper-9, Dunlin-85, White-rumped Sandpiper-4224, Pectoral Sandpiper-1040, Semipalmated Sandpiper-814, Buff-breasted Sandpiper-1, Short-billed Dowitcher-5, Wilson's Phalarope-2, Red-necked Phalarope-2, Great Horned Owl-1, Least Flycatcher-4, Winter Wren-1, Magnolia Warbler-1, Le Conte's Sparrow-1, Clay-coloured Sparrow-1.


two juvenile Stilt Sandpipers with juvenile Semipalmated Sandpipers

The clear, calm night allowed an obvious arrival of shorebirds. Alongside a great Stilt Sandpiper count (this is a pretty scarce species in James Bay, I don't think either of our other field camps recorded a single one all season!), we got our highest counts to date of White-rump, Pectoral and Semipalmated Sandpiper, and Dunlin were starting to arrive in good numbers. I also saw one of only three Buff-breasted Sandpipers that allowed good, prolonged views on the deck, during the whole season.  Not much else was seen during the day, and we enjoyed a fun evening. It's probably fair to say that my beer supply at the start of the season, intended to last the whole month, was not rationed out fairly over both two week periods, and this night (among many others), was no doubt to blame! But as my final night with two great new friends, I figured it as good a time as any to dry the supply.
Late that evening, the mournful calls of a Great Horned Owl echoed across the marsh; the first time I'd ever heard one.
Doug Mcrae, proprietor-in-chief of the James Bay mudflats


So that's the end of this edition! The next two weeks were probably less eventful than the first two, but nontheless wonderful. I'll continue regaling you all with stories shortly...