As our company celebrates the President’s Way weekend it seemed an opportune time to visit the Lac St-Jean area of Quebec in the hope of seeing Willow Ptarmigan, a very much northern species which sometimes moves south to the very edge of birdable Quebec. Willow Ptarmigan here is Red Grouse in the UK, here it goes completely white in winter, in the UK it does not, even where it snows. If ‘they’ can split two physically identical flycatchers just because they burp differently then two grouse which have seasonal plumage differences and are separated by a big sea must stand a chance!
Lac St-Jean is about seven hours from home, it is a great birding area and, we were to find out, home to some very generous hearted people. We arrived early afternoon Saturday and were actively searching the area around Notre Dame de Lloret at the extreme north end of the lake. The lack of traffic was refreshing after the excitement of birding the St-Clet lanes and we were able to stop easily and enjoy the roadside birds. Another feature of the area was the number of feeders, every other house had well stocked feeders dripping in Pine Grosbeaks, Hoary and Common Redpolls and Gray Jays. I’ll point out here that this is in stark contrast to the horsey types and their big pets in our area. I can’t think of a single stables in our area with feeders, cheap or what?
We drove the rangs slowly, scanned the scrub and saw the tracks left by the coveys but no ‘Perdix Blanche’ Saturday. The French name for the species is Lagopede du Saules, the locals north of Lac St-Jean call them Perdix Blanche. We found that nugget of information while four great young guys pulled our Hyundai out of the snow after the roadway disappeared beneath us. They were very friendly, would not accept a beer for their trouble and accepted our pigeon French very generously. We left them having met crazy English birders, its was a lot of fun, pity Sandra was too heart-in-mouth to take a snap!
We repaired to Dolbeau Mistassini and a cosy auberge and were back just after first light the next day full of optimism. Our second brush with the generous spirit of local folk came when we found a female Spruce Grouse on the road, we crept up in the car and she was fearless but disaster, a local car emerged from a drive 50m away and headed our way. Had this been St-Clet the car would have passed us at 80kph and sounded its horn because we had stopped to look at birds, our motorist merely pulled up short and let us enjoy the bird before it flew off up into the trees. He stopped for a chat, pigeon French from us again, he had seen the Perdix Blanche at the cross-roads, bonne chance, merci.
Eventually we found the birds, they were in an area we had searched six or more times, we were making another slow pass when they got up 150m away. They moved quickly through the trees flying in short bursts, black tail wedges very vivid against the white backdrop. That was it, we search some more, had very good looks at the feeder birds and even chatted to one of the local grouse monitors who told us the snow was too hard and the conditions unfavourable for the birds, we were lucky.
We then moved on to Tadoussac to try again for Purple Sandpiper, well we were passing! It was blowing a bitter gale, no accomodation was available in Tadoussac and so we had a good look at the Barrow’s Goldeneyes, Glaucous and Iceland Gulls and Black Guillemots and left. We overnighted in Malbaie, saw hundreds of Black Guillemots and a fair few more Barrow’s and came home. In Tadoussac is a site called The Dunes, we have stayed there before, they offer rather expensive cabins, its run by a Swiss guy. He would not offer us a cabin because we had not rung ahead and made a reservation and would not be flexible.
Willow Ptarmigan tracks and habitat.
Hoary Redpolls, lots around.
Below a Common Redpoll