Hello Winter

After a good few days of below zero temperatures, winter stopped messing about and delivered -12°C last night freezing up local waters. My beloved St-Lazare sand pits are nearing the ‘not worth stopping’ period although of course I will. The Canada Geese there are finally doing something useful in keeping at least a bit of open water available. Recently the expected decline of wildfowl has gathered pace although today two Gadwall had popped up from somewhere and the idiot Northern Pintail that has been around since August still thinks it is a Mallard. Speaking of Mallards I counted 374 there last Monday, that is a lot of orange sauce required. Recent pits sightings have included a Golden Eagle that took twenty minutes to clear the field of view, always a treat, and daily Pine Grosbeaks doing what they seem to do best, flying away. One morning one of the Pine Grosbeaks attracted the attention of the regular Northern Grey Shrike and a chase ensued. The grosbeak got away by being faster and more agile than the shrike with was something of a surprise.  Soon my attention will switch to Snowy Owls if they show up this year, so expect a blog littered with good, bad and indifferent photos.

Last week I managed to sprag my back and so I’ve not been walking an awful lot, because of that I have made more visits to a patch of Crab Apples near St-Clet than is logical. Today it paid off when the first Pine Grosbeak to find them had it’s photo taken. Nearby a couple of Common Ravens were so engrossed in their frozen dinner that one let me take a snap before the usual and justified caution around humans came back. Below the photos, just look at the bill on the Raven, brutal!

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Pits 175 for the year

At St-Lazare sand pits some species are rarer than Rocking Horse droppings despite them being common in season in the fields below the St-Lazare Ridge. A prime example of this is Lapland Longspur, something I’ve only seen once or twice there but which I can find easily around St-Clet December to March. In this excellent record breaking year for birds at the pits I managed to find one yesterday, taking the year list up to 175 and no Osprey! My daily visits are not overly troubled by change at the moment, the weather is mostly cool but not really starting to freeze in any serious way so the wildfowl are pretty static. The smaller birds are mostly gone but Common Redpolls are around in small flocks and I am seeing Pine Grosbeaks on each visit although only one group had the good grace to sit in a tree top. For those following the pits year I have updated the year list under the St-Lazare pits page tab at the top.

One thing that has not happened locally is the arrival, or at least discovery of any Cave Swallows. They have been all over southern Ontario and there has been a flock around an island in the St-Lawrence out past Quebec City. I had hoped that one would pop up in Monteregie but not so far, still hope though. We in Quebec seem to have a lean time with rarities of late but we still have time for a few nice southern birds to appear.

Below a couple of photos, one of an American Tree Sparrow and one better documenting the hybrid Snow x Canada Goose.

Leveche

After about ten days of cool to below zero temperatures, yesterday we had a Leveche blow through the area with the temp topping 17°C, a new record high for the date. For those who don’t know the Leveche is the warm desert air that blows through Southern Europe from time to time and has even been known to deposit Saharan sand on my car when I lived in Nottingham. You may wonder how you can tell desert sand from sand blown from the east coast resort of Skegness, let’s just say that it would smell quite different.

I decided to give Hungry Bay near Valleyfield a look seeing as it was flush with berries last time I was there and I wanted to find some Pine Grosbeaks that sat still. The calm weather meant that the bay and Beauharnois Canal were easy to work and birds that would have been dancing blobs on my last visit were now within identifiable range. The main bay had the same Surf Scoter I’ve seen on my last two visits, an immature. The Red-necked Grebe group had reduced to three but a Horned Grebe was a welcome month tick, yes I’m that sad. I counted 10 Common Loons along 1.5km of canal but nothing more exotic in that line. Part way up the canal I came across a couple of White-winged Scoters feeding about 80m out so I sat and waited while they made their way over. The light was good and the birds were good enough to show themselves nicely. Another 400m on and a group of Black Scoters were bobbing about so I tried the same tactic. They didn’t come quite so close but you can see enough detail on the two visible bills to note that they are immature males.

Needless to say, no grosbeaks were around but it had been a pleasant visit. A steady stream of Snow Geese overhead while I was there were all converging on my next port of call, Pont du Gonzague lake. This lake is a great place to see the geese locally and it would be really good if whoever owns it puts some viewing areas in. Failing that they could cut down some of the trees so that the lake can be viewed bclearly from the cycle track, unlikely to happen though. I know of one watch point at a provincial park which has a cluster of trees between it and the birds. I have no idea who manages these sites but they have zero idea of what is required for viewing the wildlife.

At the lake the carpet of noisy whiteness that greeted me set the standard for the task in hand, find a Ross’s Goose. None had been reported, mainly because people here don’t systematically check for them but also becasue you don’t see a spotting scope here as often as you would in Europe. Contrary to Ebird’s database, Ross’s Geese are not that rare in Quebec although I appreciate that the the database is only as good as the data so far submitted. It took me about 20 minutes to find the first but I was also checking the 2000 strong Ring-necked Duck/Lesser Scaup/Greater Scaup flock for anything with a crest. I also found and read five neck collars on the geese. I can now log on to the website and see that the geese were ringed in Northern Canada somewhere so that’s useful. Better would be some idea of where and when they went since being banded, perhaps with a map but it doesn’t seem to do that, perhaps I could search Ebird, I’ll have to check.

Back to today and the Leveche had gone away shaking its head wondering what it was doing in Canada in November and a blustery westerly wind, telling tales of snow and hardship on the prairies visited. At St-Lazare sand pits only a few Canada Geese were present when I arrived which suggests an eagle had visited early, more likely a Bald as Goldies like a lie in. The weather ripple stimulated a bit more movement than I’d had recently with 15 Pine Grosebeak and three Evening passing through. The Northern Grey Shrike was again present but left in a hurry when an adult Merlin showed interest.

The next few days should be interesting, perhaps a few Leveche related rarities will pop up although in Quebec it usually takes three tanks of gas to see them. Nearer to home, well three hours away, a Mountain Bluebird has been found and will hopefully stay long enough for me to add it to my Ontario and Canada list.

Below a few shots.

Owl winter?

The portents for it being a good owl winter here seem good. Northern Hawk Owls have started to show up, four reports so far I think which is a good sign, perhaps this is the year I get one at the pits. The first Snowy Owl was reported yesterday but I’m not sure where it was, the reporter just said it was near their house! Just up the road from me the McGill Bird Observatory at Morgan Arboretum had three Boreal Owls in the nets recently followed by a Barred, add those to the many Northern Saw-Whets they banded earlier and it has been pretty good already for some.

The winter flavour continues at St-Lazare sand pits with Pine Grosbeaks being seen daily during the morning flight and up to 40 Snow Buntings have been hanging around too. This morning the Canada Goose mob still held three Cackling Geese and a few wildfowl remain, Lesser Scaup, Ring-necked Duck, Northern Pintail and five Hooded Mergansers. The Green-winged Teal flock peaked at 102 which caused Ebird to flag the high count, but it was good. It is only by active birders populating the Ebird database with their record that it will become accurate in terms of location expectations. Today 85 GWT remained and I expect their numbers to dwindle rapidly over the next ten days or so. The Greater Yellowlegs continues to strut around though and six White-rumped Sandpipers were skittering around the frosty ground.

Visible migration today was slow as might be expected. The Northern Grey Shrike was around for about 45 minutes today, the latter part of its visit being taken up with mobbing duties. On the opposite side of the pits from my viz mig watchpoint a Northern Goshawk sat up in a bare tree and attracted a group of fans including Blue Jays, crows, chickadees and even a confused Hairy Woodpecker. It sat tight though, perhaps hoping for something more substantial to swing past below, maybe a tasty Ruffed Grouse. I took a digiscope shot of the tree which is about 400m away, you can see the Gos but not too well. It is not so long ago that they bred in the area and could be seen displaying during March and April but the advance of developments and the arrival of the truck driver training school that now uses the forest roads seems to have pushed them out. 

Patience rewarded

Another cold night saw the ice in the margins of St-Lazare sand pits extend three meters out into the lake, no problem for the geese but of the shorebirds, only a single Greater Yellowlegs remains. From the viz-mig watchpoint the Northern Grey Shrike was active, doing the old furtive tree top to tree top routine. I located the objects of his attention, a small flock of Common Redpolls. On scoping them one was seen to be a nice, bright Hoary (Arctic) Redpoll. Looks like I’d better get the Nyger seed feeders stocked, last time the redpolls came we had hundreds in the garden including ten or more Hoary and several Greenland which dwarfed the Common Redpolls. Only a single Pine Grosbeak was about today but the star of the show was an immature Bald Eagle. Normally they are fairly high or distant when the y visit the pits but this one actually flew towards me before levelling off and landing on a perch about 150m away. I managed to rattle of a few flight shots but the perched bird was well obscured.

I then moved on the relatively nearby Les Coteaux jetty via Montee Chenier which still has seven American Pipits and a Peregrine. At Les Coteaux the dancing chop was much in evidence making visibility very limited when scanning for birds on the surface of the lake. At range I picked up an immature Red-throated Loon which seemed to be drifting my way, albeit at a rather slow pace so I got as close to the end of the jetty as I could and waited. After 45 minutes or so it realised how close it was getting and paddled off pronto but I managed a few shots which are a vast improvement on my recent photographs of this species. I’ve not heard of anybody else locally reporting Red-throated Loons. I seem to have found them on the past three trips to the Hungry Bay/Les Coteaux area, perhaps I’ll have to arrange a master class on loon ID for anyone in the area interested.

I’ve been pressing on with entering my records into Ebird. I am up-to-date with 2012 and part way throught 2011. I also decided to enter my trip records as a break from entering American Crows and Blue Jays at the pits. It was interesting entering Cuba, the ‘are you sure’ flag appeared time after time, even for birds endemic to the area where we saw them. It is probably because many sites have yet to have their Ebird species database established or, perhaps, because Ebird is out of Cornell University and the USA have some local spat going on with some fella called Castro, then the C word is not allowed to be used. Another little problem I’ve had is where bird names have changed, an issue with birds seen in Thailand particularly. It is my intention to enter everything I have in all of my notebooks eventually but it is a huge task. So far I’ve only had three emails asking me to confirm my entries, I expect many, many more.

First ice

An overnight dip to -3°C brought a skimming of ice to sheltered areas of water but the shorebirds seemed unperterbed by it and there are still five White-rumped Sandpipers, three Dunlin and a Greater Yellowlegs to enjoy for a bit longer, below is a snap from range which is as good as it gets at the moment. Because of the temperature drop I did a visible migration watch which turned out to be quite worthwhile. A Northern Grey Shrike was first to show, not moving but certainly watching. Next nine Bohemian Waxwings flew through, species 171 for the pits year. It looked like it might be an eagle day but it was not to be, or at least while I was there it wasn’t. I was starting to think about moving when first one then five more Pine Grosbeaks flew past me, nice to see at the pits again, #172.

With there being berry eaters about I went to check a few prime patches. Nothing there yet but there will be soon and they are nicely lit in the mornings, I feel a photo shoot coming on. On the way to the berry bushes I drove Montee Chenier, as much to see whether any American Pipits were lingering as anything as eBird has now started to flag them as rare. Sure enough five were still gleaning the Chicken dung. Nearbly the field that until recently held the American Golden Plovers was now home to a mobile flock of Snow Buntings, an estimated 250 but perhaps more, no longspurs though.

With a north-easterly event predicted for later in the week it will remain cold but we also might see a good passage of seaduck and birds of that ilk. It looks like the padded trousers and flask of hot chocolate are going to be required for at least the next five days.

Below a couple of photos, one showing that it is not just the birds that find the heat generated by Chicken dung welcome.

Manky Goose

It was a coat, hat and gloves day today with temps around 4°C and a brisk wind. Naturally St-Lazare sand pits was where I went, hoping that I might get something interesting visit on the cold front. Cackling Geese have been around for a while but I’ve never had five together before, until now. Amongst the geese I came across a curiosity, a hybrid Greater White-fronted x Canada Goose. It was miles away and the mass was skittish but I got a couple of record shots showing the pale orange legs, pale bill and white face patch. Also out there on the nippy waves were four pristine male Buffleheads along with Hooded Mergansers, Lesser Scaup and Ring-necked Ducks.

It is getting late for shorebirds but a “shcreep” told me that Dunlin were around. I managed to locate the callers, three Dunlin accompanied by two adult White-rumped Sandpipers and then two Greater Yellowlegs, not bad for November 3rd. Small birds were scarce but five Common Redpolls is perhaps a sign of things to come.

I didn’t hear whether anyone else saw my Pacific Loon from November 1st, I told people by email and I sent the information in to the Quebec rare bird website but they either didn’t get the email or chose not to use it, I don’t know why. It seems that not many local birders made the effort to go out and see what Hurricane Sandy might have brought us, I wonder what slipped past us again!

Here are the record shots of the hybrid goose, lousy I know but not everything (or anything for that matter) is National Geographic standard.