During a harsh winter over 4 years ago I became a “birder” when I saw in the news there was a mega rare bird, a Eurasian Kestrel, hanging around Hartlen Point. Our Eastern Passage streets were packed with ice and I couldn’t venture too far so I thought it was worth popping down to see what all the excitement was about. The birding community immediately welcomed me in, and life has never been the same.
After viewing many rare birds here in Eastern Passage since that day, I now fully realize how lucky I am to live next to one of the best migratory points in the province, and in fact one of the best in Canada. In good weather and bad, and in all seasons but especially in the fall, Hartlen Point is the envy of many birding enthusiasts across the country.
On the evening of September 7th, Hurricane Dorian made first landfall in Eastern Passage, and many thousands of birds that had been trapped in the eye of the storm hit the Eastern Shore and later Cape Breton after flying for days exhausted and hungry.
Had I been better prepared I would have gone out that evening in the eye of the storm, but I really didn’t realize how spectacular that would be as a birder. Right after the eye passed over our house, a rare bird report came through my email from Diane LeBlanc (VP of the Nova Scotia Bird Society) who had documented the event from the other side of the harbour from her home in Portuguese Cove. Through her birding scope she watched large numbers of Black Skimmers, Swallows, Swifts, Shorebirds, and Terns flying over the ocean during the eye. After reading Diane’s summary I promptly set my alarm to get up early and head for the shore here in Eastern Passage.
Many of the best birders in our province had the same idea and groups of them congregated from sunup to sundown in Eastern Passage along the shore over the following days.
For most of us this this was exciting, wondrous, and tragic all at once. Many of the birds who were swept away by Dorian from the Caribbean through the Carolinas suffered greatly and many surely died at sea. Many died upon landing or perished over the next 24 hours. Many Laughing Gulls were hit by cars as they stood in the roads confused, tired and looking for warmth from the pavement.
As it always happens, the strongest survive, and over the next days and weeks the birds rested, ate, and many made their way back down the coast. As I write this 5 weeks later this Thanksgiving weekend, there are still a group of about 40 Black Skimmers lingering at Rainbow Haven Beach in the fantastic Salt Marsh habitat, but hopefully they will find their way back down South as the temperatures drop. Their numbers have been dropping gradually and at the height of it there were approximately 200 Black Skimmers in the area between Rainbow Haven and the Salt Marsh Trail.
Members of the Nova Scotia Bird Society are always welcome at the Hartlen Point Golf Course if we are respectful and stay out of the golfers’ way, and the local mecca of birding at this time of the year is Jimmy’s Lane. It’s a spot that means very little to non-birders and is just a cart path down in the back bay. Birders were very fortunate as the course was closed for 2 days after the hurricane, so we were able to walk through uninhibited. For about a week, Jimmy’s Lane housed many Warblers that are very rare to Nova Scotia such as Cerulean Warblers, Worm-eating Warblers, and even an incredibly rare Swainson’s Warbler.
The local beaches were graced with many Tern species which are quite rare to Nova Scotia, such as the Forster’s Terns which hung around the Eastern Shore for some time before picking their way down through Yarmouth on their long journey back home to southern waters.
Perhaps none of this sounds very exciting to the average person, but I know many people in our community have enjoyed watching the Black Skimmers and Laughing Gulls at MacCormack’s Beach. Wonderful little tourists to our seaside community.
In the days following the storm I had the opportunity to chat with both birders and non- birders on the boardwalk, and the most interesting thing I heard was actually from a non-birder who said she watched hundreds of birds land on the shore through her window in her home on shore road as the eye of the hurricane passed over us. She didn’t know what most of the birds were, but she was awed all the same.
For me this was a truly amazing experience and I was able to see 11 new to me rare species of birds during the next week. We were very fortunate to have warm weather and not too much damage in our community. We are all better prepared for future major weather events, but us birders will be extra ready!