Archive for June, 2009

Cape Breton Birds

Just as the lilacs were peaking at the end of May I set off with my friend Bob for a getaway to the highlands of Cape Breton Island. As the mileposts of the Maine Turnpike climbed toward 300 nearing the border, we were moving back in time as the leaves got smaller and more colorful, changing from solid greens to the softer pastels of trees just bursting their buds. Traveling along the rivers and forests of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia and along the Cabot Trail and through the National Park we moved back in time almost a month. After arriving and settling in, I was reconnoitering and saying hello once more to favorite spots on the property, one of which is a steep trail leading down the cliff to the top of a waterfall spilling down to the rocky beach below. Halfway down I caught a glimpse of a raven nest with a couple of youngsters perhaps a week away from fledging.


Every year a family of either merlins, ravens, or crows takes up residence around the brook ravine bordering my property, and here at the edge of the world parents teach their youngsters how to forage and hunt, or just play in the southwest breezes that buffet the cliffs. Competition for these prime spots along the shore is intense and this year was no different. A Merlin was about, and often cruised my neighbor’s feeders for little songbirds. Here she is about to pounce on a little flock of skittish goldfinches.


and here’s her prospective prey. She missed this time and disappeared over the road to try again elsewhere or later.


It’s perhaps my favorite time of year to be visiting, that second dose of hardwood buds bursting, fishing boats plying the lobster bottom just under the cliffs, and invariably some migrant bird showing up in the neighborhood you’d never expect to see. This year was no different when an Indigo Bunting came through for a brief visit.


It was more than a decade ago my neighbor May called my attention to an astonishing bird scratching among the gravel in her driveway. It was a male Painted Bunting in a fruity splendor of lime, scarlet, and purple plumage. As far as I know this is the only recorded sighting of a male Painted Bunting in all of Canada, and it took some doing to get one of the naturalists from the National Park HQ an hour away to come verify it.


In this neck of the woods Bald Eagles are an almost daily sight. Sometimes hanging out on a clifftop snag, or more often cruising the cliff edges looking for something cast up on the rocky beaches below, or soaring far aloft. This one is a regluar at the harbour in Pleasant Bay, standing guard over the jetties like a sentinel in the fog, waiting to see what comes downriver out of the forests.


Evenings I’d often sit by the campfire watching Northern Gannets make their ferocious plunge-dives offshore. Something about the evening would bring them closer inshore and I’d take stabs at photographing in the slowly fading light. Perhaps it’s the dying breezes at the end of the day, or the schools of fish they followed were more drawn to the shallower waters at that time. If you’ve ever been close to a gannet you know just how huge these birds are, standing 3 and a half feet tall with a wingspan of 6 and a half feet they are simply ginormous birds. They dive at high speed from 50 to 125 feet above the surface plunging up to 75 feet below after fish like herring, cod, or even squid. Their skulls are particularly dense to withstand the regular high speed impacts and they also have a system of air sacs which helps them rise quickly to the surface after a dive.


One morning a female Ruby-throated Hummingbird flew right into the kitchen, freaked out, and couldn’t unlock her focus from the bright windows which promised but couldn’t deliver her freedom. She paid no attention to the big monster that was trying to shoo her back toward one of the open doors. Eventually she wore her wings out and I was able to gently pick her up in my cupped hands and leave her perched on a spruce bough outside. After a moment she realized life was still good and reclaimed the open air. But while she’d been exhausting herself at the window I did manage to take a snap.


On the last week of my 3 week visit there was something of a Raven racket lasting all afternoon up above the road at the foot of the slopes, right in the neighborhood where I was accustomed to hearing the Merlin keen in the evening, presumably calling for her mate. Busy with chores, I presumed the Ravens were mobbing her and didn’t investigate further. Cheryl arrived that evening and I took her down the cliff path to see the raven nest. We were devastated to discover the nest had been raided and destroyed, black pinfeathers strewn about, the front half of it gone entirely, and it dawned on me that the Merlin (or perhaps some other predator), had found the chicks undefended and had at. Recovered somewhat and apparently undaunted,¬†after a few days the ravens had repaired the nest and appeared to have every intention of starting over. Here you can see the rebuilt nest, not without a few reminders of the recent tragedy.


In my last few days before heading home to the States fishermen friends told me of a brown crow that had been spotted around the ball field flanking harbour. Described as “crow-like” but a tan or light brown color, I never did find it and wonder still if they weren’t just pulling my leg.

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