Skimmer twitch

The lively storm that swept past the east coast last week has been busy depositing goodies in Atlantic Canada and even as far as Québec. On 17-July a Black Skimmer, the first in the province since 1938, was found on the beach at Riviere-Ouelle about 4.5 hours east of Montreal, or perhaps in the lower St-Lawrence is a better guide! The news broke yesterday but we waited to see whether it had been seen until firing up Red Dwarf. Thanks to a prompt message from Yves Gauthier on OrnithoQC, we were soon on the busy road going east.

It wasn’t the only reason for going that way, Nelson’s Sparrow was an option at nearby La Pocatiere too, plus any of the St-Lawrence species that might be around, auks, loons, sea ducks etc all missing from my year ABA list. But first the priority was to see the skimmer.

We located the bird sat on a quieter bit of the beach area, then we saw the birders, well two, twitching happens differently here and the keenest had already been and gone. It was asleep for much of the time we watched it and range and heat haze proved to be our enemies. After long enough the bird took off and flew away but we presumed that it would come back for the birders still yet to arrive.

On the way to the skimmer spot we’d passed a muddy island in the mouth of the Ouelle River with a few birds resting on it. The tide was dropping as we left so we stopped and gave it as scan, hoping for a shorebird perhaps. There on the mud was the skimmer. I thought that we’d passed some birders arriving as we left so we skipped back and found them, telling were the bird was now, it was our duty as birders, do as you would be done by and all that.

We headed out to try to get a view of the open St-Lawrence but the receding tide had pushed everything beyond even decent scope range so we gave it up as futile. La Pocatiere was on the way home, unless we decided to jump on the ferry, go over to St-Siméon and then bird north to Les Escoumins, we didn’t! No bags, PC or toothbrush and, in the sweaty conditions, the smalls were no doubt ripening too.

At La Pocatiere loads of dark brown butterflies were feeding on the flowing plants, they were Common Wood Browns being common but actually well away from the woods. Our first sweep of the riverside grasses was a failure but, while Sandra took advantage of the facilities and a rest, I managed to find a Nelson’s Sparrow east of the parking lot.

Coming back the traffic was light and we had no problems right up until we got to Vaudreuil where they had shut the road because they are pulling down the old bridge over highway 40. All the way in there were no signs, nothing at all, right up until the cone lorry blocked the road. Fortunately we were going a slightly different way from most and only had a short delay. Those backed up past Hudson going east, and the long lines behind us heading for the Ile aux Tortes probably had a harder time of it. Once again Transport Québec shows what utterly brainless turds they are.

Back to the birding and it was a twitch and a good one. My ABA year list went up to 426 so now I at least have something to submit to Lister’s Corner in that category (it needs to be 400+). I also added a very rare QC and Canadian bird to my list and we got to meet some delightful people. The storm wrecked birds will no doubt continue to be found, there are two Laughing Gulls on the North Shore at the moment, so perhaps we will take advantage of the forthcoming long weekend, dust off the tent and head that way once again.

The photo is lousy I know.

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Recent birding has been slow. It is July after all and even the odes are not making too much of an effort. I did make a recent post on the odes page so feel free to go over and browse, link on the side bar.

There do seem to be an awful lot of Cedar Waxwings about at the moment. They must have had a good breeding season because adults and young are now to be found in any bush with edible fruit. I snapped the one below, possibly a female, she seemed to have a brood patch when seen from a different angle. Other than that there is little to report.

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With the slow time upon us, I thought that I’d give you a preview of the next eBook, Twitching Times. In it are some 80+ tales from the various twitches I did for rare birds around the UK between 1981-2003. As the preview account has a North American angle to it, I thought that it would be suitable. Just a word on the format used. The top line with the species name is my sighting date. The BBRC reference is the British Birds Rarity Report for the specific year with the full dates that the species was present. The figures in parentheses are the number of UK records since 1958 and the number recorded in the year of the sighting. There is some twitch speak in there but if you have read ‘Going for Broke’, a snip from  then you will already be fluent.


American Bittern Botaurus lentiginosus – Marton Mere, 4-February-1991.

BBRC – Lancashire, Marton Mere, 24-January to 12-May, (9/1).

New relationships are fraught with potential disasters. One such hurdle is meeting the parents of the new partner for the first time. Depending on your point of view, this can be easy or hard. For me, my introduction to my now wife Sandra’s parents was a testing and stressful experience, I’d dipped an American Bittern earlier the same day!

The date was set for the inaugural trip to the Lancashire hamlet of Preston, well I was a Nottingham lad and the cotton town seemed small in comparison. Once the date was set for our departure, a week hence, a call that evening to Birdline resulted in the immortal words (from me) F**k me, there’s an American Bittern at Marton Mere. Would it wait for me a week or should we go for it now? I decided to ‘play it cool’.

I wasn’t too familiar with the site the bittern had adopted, but knew that it was Blackpool way which is very near to Preston. When the day to travel up came, logic, well mine, suggested that it would be unwise not to go for the bittern first as Sandra’s parents were non-migratory and also unlikely to be flushed. Sandra’s perspective was a little different, as her folks knew very little about me, other than the fact that we were now sharing facilities. She was a little tense, I topped that with a better word score – trepidation.

The drive from Nottingham to Blackpool is an easy one, crossing the scenic Pennines and being mostly highway all the way and we soon found ourselves lined up with the rest of the ‘wannasees’ at the site, handily located behind Blackpool Zoo. No incongruity there, they didn’t have any American Bitterns in their bird house or garden and so the one said to be strutting its stuff at the mere had excellent credentials.

American Bittern was and still is a true rarity in the UK and those of us who had arrived at the craggy rock face of twitching after a long-staying bird in South Wales in 1981 had long departed were all naturally enthusiastic to catch up, even if some uncharitable characters in the upper echelons of birding considered it a ‘Tart’s Tick’.

After a short time for me, but a longer time in future spouse years (apparently), we had to leave Marton Mere empty handed. We’d seen several Eurasian Bitterns while there, or more likely seen one of them several times, but no American Bittern appeared so no tick. The miss was not quite devastating but close too, and breaking the gold rule of not leaving the site until it is too dark to see the bird, when it invariably shows, was hard to ignore. I suppose Sandra could have called her parents over to Marton Mere for a picnic for the first meeting, but it was never suggested. I blame myself for not thinking on my feet.

When we eventually got to Preston, Sandra’s parents were fine and we got on like a house on fire. We have even been on several vacations together since that eventful day, even birdless ones like an Italy trip to see abundant Roman rubble and some town near a volcano with very dusty streets (it looked like ash), so there was nothing to fret over after all. Duty done and an introduction to Slalom Lager later I was ready for another go at the bird. A phone call confirmed that it had showed well just after we left and plans for an early breakfast were made.

The next day we were back on site early and this time, after a mercifully short wait, the bird showed well. It wasn’t bright and gaudy, it didn’t swoop and soar, it just crept along the bankside, hid behind often abundant vegetation and jabbed at the odd fish it didn`t recognise but fancied trying anyway.

The important thing was that it was an American Bittern and we saw it. I can’t really remember what number tick it was but I hit 400 later the same year so probably in the high 390s. Having just written that last part, I now feel compelled to number the order in which lifers were added to my UK list. All neatly done on an Excel spreadsheet and cross-referenced by site and date. And they call Train spotters nerds!

Buggy Boreal

Alain Bessette and I had the best part of the day at Parc Tremblant yesterday, the weather was fine, the park quiet for humans and the bugs were out in force. Despite lathering on the Deet I have hard evidence of their ingenuity when it comes to sneaking past the lotions and snatching a belly full of quality blood. That aside the birding was pretty good although it was more of a target visit (for me at least) than a general one.

There are a few trails I stick too at Tremblant, mainly because I have always had a degree of success there but also because time tends to be of the essence. The best part of the day is dawn to around 11am generally. After that the birds get harder to see and tiredness kicks in after an early start. We got there reasonably early and were on a trail as the nearby camp awoke. I have long believed that Canadian children are instructed from an early age on how to be as loud as possible in quiet, wildlife areas and the camp’s occupants did nothing to dispel that notion. Fortunately we were out of earshot fairly soon and able to start our involuntary feeding of the insects.

Seeing birds in Boreal sites can be hard but every now and then the tracks open up a bit and sunny spots become hives of activity. So it was on our first track and we found a nice group of summer plumaged warblers containing Black-and-White, Yellow-rumped, Magnolia, Bay-breasted, Nashville and a very showy Canada Warbler. This year my St-Lazare breeding Canada Warblers failed to reappear and so this was a year bird. Swainson’s Thrushes were everywhere; a distant Olive-sided Flycatcher was vocal while Yellow-bellied Flycatchers were happier to show.

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On the walk back we came across Boreal Chickadees, easy to miss at times but three kept us occupied and allowed the bugs to save a bit of energy as we were no longer moving targets. I’ve yet to get a decent photo of a Boreal Chickadee, on day I will.

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The first track turned out to be the highlight and, try as we might, we couldn’t turn up any Grey Jays, we even drove the endless track to Rat Falls just in case the infrequent birds there were around, they were not. At the same time last year I had them following me around but that is how it is with Grey Jay, unpredictable. Our travels did add Chestnut-sided and Black-throated Blue Warbler to the modest day list of 44 species but no hawks.

It being ode season, I spent a bit of time looking but there was not the abundance I had expected.  I’ll post the results over on the ode blog when I have a moment. There were also a few butterflies around. Lots of White Admirals and a nice Bog Fritillary which was new for me.

Good news if you are waiting for my first eBook to appear on KOBO, it’s there, finally:

Short tour

As the calendar clunks over into July the birding slows. Singers stop their singing and most breeders are just wrapping up their season. Some species will have second broods but, having already been paired up, will not sing long and hard for a partner. There are still plenty of birds about but you have to dig a bit for them and be aware that their behaviour changes. On Thursday 10th July, Claude King and I did a short tour of some sites within 80km of St-Lazare, it proved to be an enjoyable day.

A lifer is always welcome and, living in Canada any southern species that occasionally strays north is worth making the effort for. We have had the pleasure of a male Dickcissel for company in Québec this year, Claude had never seen one and so that was where we started. He’d shuffled a little further down his favoured wires a bit (the Dickcissel, not Claude) but was still belting out his optimistic lament. Chatting to Alain Bessette yesterday we speculated that the move was done to put distance between him and his poo, the wires he started singing on are speckled white these days and even some of the forceful summer showers are finding it hard to wash off the evidence. The same area also has an abundance of Indigo Buntings and one posed nicely for the Claude’s lens.

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A short distance away we tried for Sedge Wren, a singing bird obliged but refused to pop up for a show. In previous years I’ve only seen and heard them around Dundee but wondered at the time why they were not more widespread. Elsewhere rank damp grassland is occupied and we have some very suitable patches of that spread right across southern QC.

We moved on to the Pitch Pine reserve, or at least as much as we mere mortals are allowed to visit, where we had great view of Eastern Towhees, Hermit Thrushes and vocal White-throated Sparrows.

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Heading north we had a brief food stop at Ste-Martine and ended up spending some time trying to photograph up to 20 Chimney Swifts. These flying bullets were feeding over the river and adjacent trees and all showed extensive molt of their secondary flight feathers, as you can see from the shots below.

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I’le St-Bernard was our next stop and we had a nice bunch of woodland species around the reserve. At the hummer feeder a Ruby-throated came for a snack regularly and a Bald Eagle cruised over.

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We finished off at St-Timothee where the repaired cycle track is now a glaring white concrete strip and the reeds are just that bit higher than an Elephant. A brief Least Bittern and several energetic Black Terns, including some fledged young, were the highlights. Our foray ended with 83 species on the board, not bad for a supposedly ‘dead’ month.

Monterey Aquarium

We did a touristy trip to Monterey Aquarium while in California. To be honest I expected it to be bigger, but there were some interesting displays somewhere behind the hundreds of kids present. We’d have been better on a weekday, but our schedule wouldn’t allow it, besides, it’s good for kids to be introduced to wildlife at an early age, even if 99.9% of them never take it further. The jelly fish species were particularly spectacular.

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One part of the aquarium that was quiet and that was the birds bit. Perhaps it was because a limping Sanderling doesn’t have the same caché as a Hammerhead Shark. The birds are supposed to be beyond release, having come to the aquarium with injuries. They are a bit of a mixture and I didn’t see any injured Western Gulls or Turkey Vultures in there, perhaps they are not cuddly enough.

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Most interesting for birders in QC was the Red Phalarope. They are common on passage off CA, but for us in the east we don’t get many to marvel at.

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A Red-necked Phalarope shared the same pool.

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As did a Sanderling, part way between summer and winter plumage.

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And a Dunlin.

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And a Ruddy Turnstone.

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And a Snowy Plover – it was quite crowded.

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Not to mention a Semipalmated Sandpiper.

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What with the Black Oystercatcher too.

Captive birds they may be but still worth looking at.

Reedbed skulker

More often than not you will hear a pig-like grunt or strange ticking from a dense bed of aquatic vegetation and you know it is a Virginia Rail. You also know that your chances of seeing it are slim. One time in a dozen you might get a fleeting glimpse of something rat-like scurrying through the vegetation, never a clear view, a head, leg or tail and then gone. One time in fifty you might get the whole bird, partially obscured but a good view. One time in a hundred it will be perfect.

Getting a good view is easy then, now try it with a camera!

Today, at Baie Brazeau I had the day in a thousand when a noisy Virginia Rail, obviously having a shouting match with a near neighbour, kept strutting out in the open right in front of where I was stood, stock still, camera in hand. I took full advantage and below are the results. I’m not offering variety with this post, just lots of images of Virginia Rail.

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Thunderbirds are gone

The heat continued as we headed south to Anthem, about 45 minutes north of Phoenix and our flight home. We sought out things to do and places to eat in Anthem, but as the town only broke ground in 1999 and most of the paint was still wet. I had it in mind to revisit Thunderbird Park, there would be a few birds but most notably Costa’s Hummingbirds in the viewing area for the bit of the water they left for the birds. Water in the desert is naturally going to pull in the wildlife, at Thunderbird Park you can still see a small portion, the rest is behind upmarket housing and on the golf course, and so out of bounds.

Verdins were everywhere but hard to snap. This one was squawking at us constantly but then it was escorting its recently fledged brood. The Costa’s were there, flitting around quite a bit but always favouring one nicely flowering bush. Black-throated were in there too and I tried for a few photos when they briefly settled.

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We were done, our wild west trip was run and we were going to have a travel day to endure next, so we headed back to the hotel to prepare for dinner. Eating options were few, we reluctantly rejected the biker bar with nightly midget wrestling, we were all out of travelling leathers. We settled on a sports bar where we had our final eat-out of the trip, it was fine. The next day were going home.

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Costa’s Hummingbird – cute.

And now the diatribe! We flew Air Canada and not stack-em-high airlines, paying scheduled prices plus a fee for seat selection and baggage. Air Canada have always been out first choice carrier, fly the flag and all that but, since booking and paying for the flights, they rebranded to something called Rouge. The plane seating had obviously been re-designed too and we were crammed in. I am just short of six feet tall and I had about one inch of knee space. Naturally the first thing the passenger in front of me did was to recline her seat and sleep more or less through the flight, not her fault, she was obviously no aircraft engineer.

The flight to Toronto was over four hours in duration but there were no screens or entertainment, UNLESS, you had a device that you had previously downloaded the Air Canada app to, then you could screen a movie, and also provided you’d remembered to fully charge your device, there were no power sockets. We found out that we could rent one of the ten iPads they carry, complete with app, for a further fee. We declined.

The flight crew were great, and you sensed that they were embarrassed by the cattle class offering from the new Rouge. This feeling was probably compounded when they had to don their new uniform trilby hats, making them all look like bookies. When did Air Canada become a cheap holiday charter where you get what you pay for?

At Dorval, or Pierre Trudeau if you like, we got to the baggage carousel at 9.20pm to find a sign advising us that it would take 15 minutes to get the luggage. At 10pm on the dot the baggage handlers left through the door next to the carousel, it was shift change and they were leaving our stuff for the next batch, I’d bet that this happens every day. By now the waiting time had been wound down to five minutes but we were all getting restless. At 10.10 the beeper went and bags started to arrive. I think that the management of Dorval should take a serious look at their commitment to customer service and ensure that the passengers and not their baggage handlers wishes come first, remember all those ‘airport improvement fees’ tacked onto your flight tickets?

The next day I went to the Air Canada web site and made a written complaint, both about the cattle class flight from Phoenix (the Toronto leg was fine) and asking them to use their influence at Dorval to make the point about the baggage delays. It’s been over a week now and their response will affect our choice of flight provider even to the point of our taking a more expensive ticket rather than risk another crappy flight. A week is long enough for them to deal with complaints, below is their reply…