Plover day

Sunday (31-August) a message popped up on Ontbirds (great email app, why can’t we have one like in QC?) reporting a Buff-breasted Sandpiper near Casselman, along with American Golden and Black-bellied Plovers. Buff-breast is a great bird at any time and I needed it for my Ontario list and for my ABA 2014 big year (lower case, it’s not that big) so we went for them.

As we were readying ourselves, news of a Reeve came up, a Reeve is a female Ruff, and it was not too far away from the Buff-breast near Kemptville, it looked like it might be a three year tick day. Inside 40 minutes we arrived, the only birders there until Jacques Bouvier pulled up. Sandra picked up the small, distant group of plovers while I messed about with the scope. Our luck was in and the Buff-breasted Sandpiper was still with the two bigger plovers and showed well, if distant along with a Sanderling.

We went off to the next spot, sod fields at a place called Boundary Road. No sign of the Reeve and it seems that it had been with Pectoral Sandpipers and they’d gone too. Opposite the sod field there was a wet, ploughed field and in it we picked up a Baird’s Sandpiper that slept in a rut, head up its back so all we could see was a scalloped back. Eventually it moved and we clinched it. The same field also contained more American Golden Plovers – eBird seemed surprised about them, along with a few Killdeer. I expect to find some American Golden Plovers locally over the next couple of weeks but, unless my luck is really in, the Buff-breasted Sandpiper is likely to be the only one I see this year.

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When we got home the local warbler flock arrived in the front yard at the same time. It was not very big and they took a while to come close but I added Blackburnian to the yard year list and got close view of Bay-breasted (above) and Pine Warbler.

Pine Warblers are regular where we live, especially in spring when we have several males singing away within a short walk of our house. In the autumn I rarely see them but this one, I think and adult female based on the feather wear, came for a close look at me. Pine Warbler is a lump of a bird, heavy billed and structurally a bruiser.

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This morning, it being the first of the month, I checked out St-Lazare sand pits before the swimmers, anglers, dogs and kids all showed up to make the place look untidy. The main pits were fairly quiet although it was nice to add Black-billed Cuckoo to my site year list. I looked around the small woodlot, seeing only a handful of warblers and bumping into Michel Juteau, who had the same plan. Just after we parted I found the warbler flock moving along the main road, most of it in just a couple of trees. The numbers were lower than Friday last but the diversity not bad. I came away with 52 species for a couple of hours and could perhaps have found a few more but people were arriving.

As I walked back to Red Dwarf, I could see and Eastern Snapping Turtle, the one my friend Alain calls Serpentine, making its sedate way over the road. An oncoming car looked like I might hit it but he stopped, put his four-way flashers on and then picked it up and shunted it to the side of the road. The turtle made every attempt to remove his fingers while this kindness was underway but he’d donned thick gloves to repel it. The deed done we were exchanging words of admiration for the animal when a cop pulled up behind his parked car and gave him a bit of siren! He left and I then tried to persuade the beast to go back into the pits, but it had other plans.

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Now, as a treat, here is a short excerpt from one of my forthcoming birding eBooks, currently titled ‘My Patch’. I include this here not just for your entertainment, but also to prepare you, for the viz-mig season is upon us.

Visible migration, hereafter referred to as Viz-mig is a narcotic and, as with crack cocaine or Smarties it is an evil and addictive master. There are generally no ticks involved during Viz-mig although one in a hundred watches just might give you something to cherish. Viz-mig will suck you in and blow holes in your most dearly held theories regarding bird migration. It will surprise and dismay you and it might even change your life. Viz-mig addicts are beyond reasonable hope. You see them shuffling around their local patches, neck angled back as they scan the skies for signs of passage and screaming at noisy Canada Geese to shut the f*** up because they might have just heard an American Pipit go over, it’s sad really.

Viz-mig is the activity of watching and, more importantly, counting migrating birds as they fly over. You can practice Viz-mig watches anywhere but you will want to do them on your patch because birds that fly over your patch are yours. Because of the nature of Viz-mig they are also unlikely to belong to anyone else once they have gone over, unless you share the migration track with another disciple or another Viz-mig nerd is stood next to you (rare). Viz-mig has a season, roughly for the entire duration of spring and autumn plus harsh weather and cold front movements. Solar flares may also be a factor but we will ignore them for now as nothing has so far been proven.

Preparing for visible migration is something that you do because the voices tell you to, the voices come from the weather forecasters (usually, although a lack of medication may be a factor) and they tell you that the conditions will be favourable for birds to migrate. They might not use that exact phrase, mostly because they are vaguely attractive or comfortable people that you trust to tell you the weather but that you would not accept a rarity record from. I suppose there might be some Meteorologist who are birders but I’ve never met one, they are probably too busy with their head stuck up their cloud-base to think of birds. You will also feel the conditions change and a good patch watcher will pick up on subtle things like a hurricane, snow event or thunderstorm as a likely trigger for bird movements. The true trigger though is migration pure and simple. At some point all of those birds that moved out of your area after breeding will feel the urge to pass back through. Likewise you will feel the urge to watch – bird porn.

Viz-miggers, the newly invented collective noun for people who undertake viz-mig watches, must prepare their partners, employers and anyone who might have any reliance on their presence, for spontaneous viz-mig watches. Partners are usually aware that they have hooked up with a nutter after the passing of the first weather front in their relationship although there are other subtle clues, especially if the pre-nup stipulates the division of property with optics and bird books at the top of the list followed by less important things such as houses, money, cars and kids, almost in that order.

Employers are fairly easy to deal with too, you just don’t show up for work on viz-mig days and it’s always wise to try to limit sick or dead grannies to one a year. There is some wiggle room with religious holidays and it is possible with some far-sighted employers to waive the ‘traditional’ ones in favour of unspecified but just as relevant viz-mig celebration days, although some years will have more than is reasonable. In the event of a ‘bumper’ year you will be able to use the dead/sick granny excuse for your absence many times as it is likely that you employer will change frequently too.

A walk in the woods

After a few too many days of weather related malaise, a shift saw our autumn warbler migration really kick-off. Naturally St-Lazare sand pits was my venue although I spent the majority of my time in the small woodlot by the Football pitches. The warblers were everywhere and I followed them for a couple of hours as they slowly cleaned the trees of bugs.

It was the best warbler passage there that I’ve ever seen at the pits and unusually the birds were in no hurry. The woodlot is small and there are several new trails that appear to have been cut by whoever thinks they can frighten people away with ‘privee’ and ‘gard le chien’ signs. I hope to meet him sometime to find out what he’s up to on public land. Personally I think the trails are a great improvement, especially one that goes to a small pool that will attract drinkers.

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Ignore this!

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Bay-Breasted Warbler – 16 present at least.

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Tennessee Warbler, good numbers too but they rarely rest.

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Black-throated Green Warbler, lots around and the tamest of them all.

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Black-throated Blue Warbler is always a treat, especially the males.

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Black-and-White Warbler – bah humbug.

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Magnolia Warbler.

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Three species of vireo present including this Warbling Vireo. I have yet to find a Blue-headed Vireo there so far this year.

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Ovenbirds were doing their light peck calls everywhere.

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Only one Chestnut-sided Warbler.

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I came across this moulting male Scarlet Tanager, messy.

My vireo/warbler list was Red-eyed Vireo; Philadelphia Vireo; Warbling Vireo; Tennessee Warbler; Nashville Warbler; Chestnut-sided Warbler; Magnolia Warbler; Cape May Warbler; Black-throated Blue Warbler; Blackburnian Warbler; Yellow-rumped Warbler; Black-throated Green Warbler; Bay-breasted Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler; Black-and-White Warbler; American Redstart; Ovenbird; Wilson’s Warbler. I’m still missing a Northern Parula for my pits year list but it should come soon.

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Down on the pits the American Bittern (not a warbler) finally stopped panicking.

I tallied 57 species for the morning, someway short of my day record of 78, but quite respectable given that ducks have yet to really get moving and shorebirds are still poorly represented, despite their being suitable habitat as the water levels drop.

September arrives on Monday and, although it may only be a calendar date, it often sees a kick-on for migration, especially visible migration, a feature that has been lacking with our recent clear skies and static high pressure systems. Unless I can get Sandra to go down the St-Lawrence chasing jaegers and shorebirds, it looks like I’ll end August on 158 species for the month, my second best count since I’ve lived in Canada (yes I keep by month stats).

For new visitors, or those that have been prevaricating, my first birding eBook ‘Going for Broke’ is available at $2.99, follow the link on the side bar (click on the cover). I’m trying very hard to get my second book out before the end of the month. It will be near double the size of the first and deal with my twitching in the UK between 1982 – 2003. It is written in my usual irreverent style and illustrated by Sandra. Obviously there will be a blog post announcing it when done.

Incidentally, the blog post title is taken from Bill Bryson’s excellent book of the same name. If you’ve never read any Bill Bryson, you are missing out on some superb, observational writing and no, it is not about birds.

Last third

Leaves are falling, high flying migrants are calling, we are entering the final third of the year.

A chilling prospect and there is always some trepidation when it comes to second-guessing what the winter will bring. For now we are right in the migration period and every sortie can be productive. At present I’m deliberately staying local, St-Lazare sand pits and Dune lake/Bordelais Bog – I don’t really need to be anywhere else. Once the crops start getting harvested I’ll begin ranging around the farmland, it won’t be long before the pipits and plovers show up.

The show stoppers at the moment are the warblers but you have to hit it right. The daily turnover must be enormous and the little flock I see at 7:30 in my pocket wood is not the same one I find there two hours later. Photographing them can be a challenge though and more often than not I’ll just watch and enjoy, preferring to find everything available rather than push for the photo. This week the only exception to the rule was this Black-throated Green Warbler that gave me a couple of minutes with the lens before slipping away.

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A link to an interesting article by Paul Lehman was posted on one of the local listservs. It’s good to see a well-respected bird guru writing mostly good common sense, of course people should be able to enjoy birds their way, provided the birds are not harmed. One comment I don’t agree with though is regarding Orange-crowned Warbler. No migratory species can be pigeonholed in such a way and to categorically state that Orange-crowned Warblers in eastern North America in the middle of August are almost certainly dull Yellow Warblers is too definitive. Eastern North America is a big place, top to bottom and we barely know it, bird-wise.

In the article Lehman makes good points about learning the status and distribution of species in areas that you are not familiar with before you visit. The problem is that to do that the information needs to be available in a status and distribution book and many locations just don’t have that resource. eBird is starting to fill the gap but is only as good as the checklists submitted. In perhaps ten to fifteen years-time, the S & D of most species will be better understood but we are not there yet. If you want to read the article here is the link.

http://aba.org/birding/2014-MAR-APR/Lehman.pdf

Just to take the status and distribution thing a bit further. Quebec desperately needs such a book and I hope that the current breeding bird survey if followed by just such a publication. At present I rely on information here: http://www.oiseauxqc.org/listeannotee.jsp It’s better than nothing but is seems to be unregulated, carrying rejected as well as accepted records, and it is rather laborious to work through. Take a look if you’ve never seen it, it is fun to look at some of the rare species and hope they do a repeat performance sometime.

Finally, after so much waffle, here are my stats for the year to date:

World: 518; ABA: 441; QC 241, pits 150. We have a trip to a new ABA area for us planned in October and it will be exciting to see what we find, especially as we have a full day pelagic trip in there too.

Flying the flag

My friend Graham was in Quebec yesterday and so we had a day out birding. His nemesis bird is currently Ruffed Grouse, well on this continent at least, and it remains so as we couldn’t find one anywhere.

The day started slowly at Baie Brazeau, but we soon found a few warblers and flycatchers to keep us occupied. We moved on to Ste-Martine, but the recent Marbled Godwit had gone, taking most of its shorebird friends with it. Compensation, in the form of Philadelphia Vireo and, for my ABA list, a Cape May Warbler were appreciated. As was my American Rubyspot dragonfly tick, more about that on the ode blog once I get to it. At Ste-Martine we also found a couple of Bay-breasted Warblers, perhaps the commonest autumn warbler so far for me.

We made our way to St-Timothee via the outfall at Beauharnois where lots of Common Terns have gathered and a few Black Terns remain. The Common Tern plumages ranged from full-summer and partial winter, through to brown-tinged immatures.

St-Timothee was ok but not great – if you have read my previous posts on the lack of management of the place you’ll know why. We did see a few things, including an Orange-crowned Warbler, unexpected at this time of year but it was seen well. My impression this autumn is that warblers are a week or so early in their build up, perhaps it’s a result of the unseasonable temperatures, colder snaps are often the key to movement.

We finished off with a quick look at St-Lazare sand pits, where a few more warblers were evident, especially Chestnut-sided. Our last bird of the day was a roadside Broad-winged Hawk that was either deaf or stupid. given that it kept dropping off the wires to catch grasshoppers while trucks thundered past. I say Broad-winged Hawk but perched, some small immature buteos are really tough at times. To me this one is intermediate between pale and dark, and I did have the benefit of seeing the tail in flight (no reddish hue) and the underwings briefly, but I’d be happy to hear any comments about it. Give me a flying hawk any day!

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On checking the Quebec rare bird site today, the photo du jour is from Pointe-des-Monts, taken on 1-August and showing a Tropical Kingbird. I wonder what the story with that one is. We were at the site on 2-August and saw no (obvious) birders (and no kingbirds!). I also wonder why it took so long to get the news out, it would have a been a good Quebec/Canada bird to see indeed.

Back to yesterday and our day total was 74 with lots of gaps. Not bad for a fine August day with few shorebirds or ducks on offer to boost the total. For Graham, Ruffed Grouse will have to wait.

Finally, if anyone reads this blog from the Quebec City area and who would be willing to take a couple birding for the day on September 20th  can you get in touch and I’ll forward their details. They are on a cruise ship from Boston and have all day until 6pm, thanks.

And why ‘flying the flag’? Graham’s air crew for BA. Possibly the best job in the world for  a birder.

Marbleous

It has been some time since I last visited Ste-Martine to look at shorebirds. I remember when we were told to go there for shorebirds back in 2003, and I expected to find marshland or perhaps a river flash. Instead you have what we call a weir in the UK, and below it an expanse of shallow water over rocks. I’d never seen anything quite like it then and it certainly drew shorebirds from far and wide. It was 24-August and we saw a Ruff, both dowitchers, 100+ Lesser Yellowlegs, 40 Greater Yellowlegs, Baird’s and White-rumped Sandpipers, 12 Pectoral Sandpipers, a Stilt Sandpiper and lesser numbers of Least, Semipalmated, Spotted and Solitary Sandpipers, and both Killdeer and Semipalmated Plover. Not bad!

At the time we viewed from a concrete plinth that was eroding away and expected to collapse at any point. If you were on it at the time then bad luck, if not then you just went up the Quebec list rankings by a few. It still stands and is still fenced off but you can get on it at your own risk. Now there is a snazzy lookout on the opposite bank with a path to the shore below the weir. The lookout is set in a small park with a parking lot and plenty of tree and vegetation to attract birds. Today I visited both spots. The former because I didn’t know about the latter and the latter when I saw it from the former.

The attractant, not that the close views of shorebirds are not enough, was a Marbled Godwit (marbleous see). It was grey and raining when I got there but it soon brightened up to grey and raining les. The godwit was asleep for the first half hour or so then wandered over to perform in front of the large lenses. By the time I got over there it was edging further away but I got a few shows. I think it’s the fourth of fifth I’ve seen in QC, great birds and always worth a look when local.

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The shorebird selection was nothing like that first visit but there was still plenty to look at, including a Stilt Sandpiper, almost the image of yesterday’s one at St-Lazare sand pits. There was no sign of two Long-billed Dowitchers reported there yesterday, pity, I wanted them for the ABA year list. I did get good views of commoner stuff though and a few photo ops in the gloom. Below are a shots of a Lesser Yellowlegs, the Stilt Sand and a Semipalmated Sandpiper showing a classic’ stuck on’ bill. If you’ve not been over for a look at the new set-up at Ste-Martine I recommend it.

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After, I had a quick look at St-Lazare sand pits where a Blackburnian Warbler was the only new thing from yesterday.

Bye the way, for some reason I get a lot of spam on this site and sometimes the filter fails to pick them and I have to review them. I really don’t understand what spammers are trying to do, or why the name of something I fondly know of as a tasty fried treat, has been appropriated by the Internet to represent something bad. Anyway, if you left a message and it looked at all spammy to me, you got binned.

More migration

The day started well with a Philadelphia Vireo in the front garden. We don’t get many, that is perhaps the fourth in eleven years and so very welcome it was too. That makes 64 for the year this year so far, so room for improvement. Inspired by this sign I went to St-Lazare sand pits and did the little wood first, finding, you’ve guessed it, a Philadelphia Vireo, hurrah for a pits year bird.

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In the pits proper there were more shorebirds than yesterday and considerably less rain. The best shorebird was a moulting adult Stilt Sandpiper. It was a bit distant and the flock spooked despite me pretending to be a well-fed reed.

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Three of the four Great Egrets that arrived last week remain, this bird almost landed on the aforementioned Stilt Sandpiper.

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I spent some time trying to photograph flying Tree Swallows badly, I think I succeeded!

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One of the Caspian Terns was around but I won’t bore you with the shots. Instead here is an Immature Ring-billed Gull, not too many young gulls this year so far.

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This shot is of a dodgy Green Heron. I don’t mean that it was involved in anything illegal or anything like that, just a crabby shot.

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There was a few warblers around too: Bay-breasted, Yellow-rumped, Chestnut-sided, Black-throated Green and Blackpoll. I expect more to follow soon.

Now a little grumble: Am I alone in feeling a little peeved that apps like Merlin from Cornell are dumbing down birding so much to the point where any half-wit will be able point their phone or whatever at a bird and will be told what it is? Put it on a plate and they will eat it, but then they only end up fat with facts and starved of experience. If the app goes to the point where it can ID any bird anywhere, and then the user sends the record to eBird and it’s a gross rarity, will eBird review the record or be honour bound to accept it on the basis that their app was responsible for the identification? I see troubled waters ahead.

Finally – not a bird but a Monarch. I fear for these, I’ve barely seen one this year and it’s clear that they are struggling, it’s only five years ago that I used to count lots of them on migration as they went past. If we lose the Monarch then it will be as big a nail in our species’ coffin as we have ever seen. In the scheme of things I think that your average Joe or Jane might be momentarily concerned about the loss of a species, but it’s no more than a passing emotion. Very sad.

More reading can be found at the links.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2014/01/29/the-monarch-butterfly-population-just-hit-a-record-low-heres-why/

http://www.citylab.com/weather/2013/08/tracking-years-dismally-small-monarch-migration/6495/

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Early autumn blast

From 30°C Sunday to 10° today, a big temp shift and the birds know all about it.

Yesterday was a day to get wet and so I did, well in the morning at least. Shorebirds had been building at the pits nicely but I think that there must be some muddy hollows out on the farmland now because only one Greater Yellowlegs remained yesterday, in conditions that I normally find productive at St-Lazare sand pits. I did wheedle out a few Least Sandpipers and a Semi-palmated Sandpiper but it was hard going.

On Monday there were many more shorebirds about, with birds pausing briefly before pushing on. A flock of 20 Lesser Yellowlegs came and went in a tight group. Similarly 13 Least Sandpipers chose not to join the ones already down, preferring to just wheel about for five minutes before going off to look for a proper sewage farm.

Herons numbers are also building with Green Heron numbers up to four, three Great Egrets, plenty of Great Blue Herons and regular sightings of American Bittern and Black-crowned Nigh-Heron. The first Blue-winged Teal of the autumn came in Tuesday and no doubt many more will be popping up in the next few weeks as ducks start their desertion of Quebec.

Despite the rain yesterday I did the walk, I try to do the same route for consistency of observation – it’s a patch data thing – and got thoroughly soaked but managed to add to my building seed carpet. It wasn’t until I was almost at the gate that I found the main chickadee flock. Find the chickadees in autumn and you find the warblers.

With rivulets of cold rain running down my back I was delighted to be able to watch two Bay-breasted Warblers at eye-level plus 8 Yellow-rumped Warblers doing their usual stuff. I’m looking for Cape May Warbler for my year list and they usually prefer to be away from the main woods and in the lower trees of Lotbiniere. I didn’t find any this time but they’ll come I’m sure. I was about to splash back to the car when a larger bird emerged from nowhere, a Scarlet Tanager, neat.

My pits year list is only 143 so far, eBird has 149 so I’ve managed to miss a few but I expect to get them back, they are not especially rare species although a Black-billed Cuckoo (from 12-Aug) is always a good bird there. It’s good that a few more eBirders are visiting the site, hopefully between us we can pull something like a Willet out of the bag this autumn, you never know.

Despite the foul weather, I managed a record shot of one of the Bay-breasted Warblers.

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