Another bright, sunny and freezing morning dawned, when will it all end you ask? Well, if you believe anything the weather people say, tomorrow actually. The forecast reports that we can expect 0°C for the day high, hurrah, is this cold winter finally going to go away now? We can only hope. Until it warms up, it was back on with the padded trousers and big coat and I was out birding with David again, as he continued his total immersion acclimatisation course for a forthcoming trip to Varanger.
This winter you cannot start any day out birding west of Montreal without seeing a Snowy Owl, so we did. The first of the day was sat on a hanger at Les Cedres airport and casting a knowing eye over the toy planes below, smug in the knowledge that anything they could do, it could do better – OK, I made all that up but it might have been thinking that. If I could fly like a Snowy Owl, I would.
We went over to Hungry Bay, where the water is now buried under a snowy wasteland after this run of very cold temperatures we have been enjoying. Undeterred, we checked out the feeders by the road and had a couple of Tufted Titmice attending. As far as I know, this is as reliable a winter spot for Tufted Titmouse in Quebec as any.
We then explored the back lanes towards St-Barbe, (it’s so nice that a small plastic doll is considered worthy of canonisation), and we came up with this handsome beast. We eventually nudged it off the perch so I could get the wing/tail shot for Operation Snowstorm.
The rather square-set face reminded me of one I’d seen earlier in the winter in the St-Clet area but, on checking the spotting pattern on the head, the structure was the only thing similar. This bird gave David his best view of the species, it was very obliging and it was only the cold seeping into battle-scarred joints that forced us back to the heated car.
We toured the area a bit but open water was at a premium, compensation for our efforts was a first-winter Northern Shrike that gave decent scope views, albeit backlit ones. The route then took us to the farmlands around St-Etienne and included yet more owls, mostly hydro pole sitters but one was on an aerial. Horned Larks were a feature of open country wherever we went, a sure sign that T-shirt weather is on the way. We had no luck with finding any blackbirds of any species but we did have a nice semi-blizzard of around 200 Snow Buntings.
A brief shiver at Beauharnois added a Red-breasted Merganser and 10 Lesser Scaup to the list, along with the expected Common Mergansers and Goldeneyes. There were no gulls there again; it has been pretty poor for larids away from the dumps this winter, presumably a symptom of the cold. A scoot along highway 30 took us to Rue Higgins in Chateauguay and the famous feeders. Red-bellied Woodpecker was easy but Carolina Wren refused to come out. There seemed to be an abundance of Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers there and, despite the temp, they had a certain friskiness about their demeanor. You can but admire their optimism!
I don’t get to Sainte-Catherine on the south shore very often, it’s not that I don’t like the place but I’ve never found it very birding friendly. Perhaps next time I visit I’ll pack the chainsaw and make some lookouts that are not obscured, or is it only me who finds large trees in front of water-view benches all rather testing? Perhaps there is a secret society of dendrologists who conspire to make everyone else stare at the front of trees? Ah, I hear you ask, how do you know it is the front of the tree? Simple, no bear poo!
We went along anyway and the bits of Sainte-Catherine that we could see held more Common Goldeneyes feeding and displaying out amongst the ice floes, quite atmospheric. We also saw Wild Turkeys on the island and two very distant Bald Eagles. We looked for the recent Wood Duck but only tripped over Mallards and a couple of Black Ducks where it might have once been.
With a train schedule to meet, we went back to the St-Lazare area and sought out coffee and more owls. The day had been fairly shoddy in terms of Snowy Owl numbers, just nine to that point I think, and so we set about fixing that with a shortened version of my St-Clet owl route. For experienced campaigners like David and I it was all too easy and we ended the day on 19 individuals, doddle.
This was our second full day out birding this week and, in between sites and birds, we reminisced about rare birds in Britain, seen and missed. Whenever I am out birding with a visitor I always have to consider whether subjecting them to such a bird laden day would be too much for them. I’m happy to say that David took it all in his stride, and at no time did I feel the need to resort to my well-rehearsed safety phrase of ‘calm down, calm down’ in order to diffuse a ‘bird overload’ situation.
Joking aside (for those that got it), I had a great two days out birding with David and it was a pleasure to bird with a contemporary. Sharing such fantastic birds as Snowy Owls is always a treat and, when they are so well appreciated, doubly so.
Here are a few more Snowy Owl shots from the day included a rarity, one in a tree.