Owl back

A bit of brighter weather tempted me out today. I was going to scour the lanes to try to find a February Snowy Owl, but had to drop into St-Lazare town first. On the way out I had to go past the the fields that had hosted the Great Grey Owl until last Thursday. Naturally I cast a glance and there was the familiar oval blob. Plans changed and so I slushed along the skidiot trail hoping to take advantage of the good light. The thaw is underway here and the snow such fun to walk on, it being a couple of feet deep and full of surprises!

The owl took flight as I reached the area and jumped onto a featureless bit of snow then hopped about a bit, looking surprised that it had missed. It stayed on the ground behind some vegetation for a few minutes then flew about 80m away to do the classic ‘look at me’ thing on another sapling top. I watched for a while taking record shots with the new camera, as much to see what it would produce and expecting very little. The owl was clearly in hunting mode having had another sally at some unseen rodent, the latest escapade bringing it a bit nearer. Sensing that there might be some more action, I moved slowly through the snow and parallel in order to get the sun behind me, I then waited.

Eventually the owl launched groundwards again, landing on the open snow roughly 50m away from me, snap, snap, snap. I used the camera on maximum optical zoom plus some shots using the digital zoom too. I also fiddled around taking manual and auto shots, it was almost a toy camera workshop. Bored with stomping around, the owl then settled on an unfeasibly thin stalk just above the ground and set about doing some 360° scanning – all without moving its body. Boots full of snow and trousers wet to the formerly important bits (I am 55 and I’ll get some feeling back by July!), I sloshed back to the car happy, leaving the owl busy with another yet featureless spot in the snow.

Below are the fruits of my labour. There are also a couple of context photos but mostly cropped close up views. BTW, this is a different owl from last Thursday so now I’ve seen both.

DSCN0225 DSCN0223 DSCN0198 DSCN0190 DSCN0186 DSCN0185 DSCN0181 DSCN0180 DSCN0176 DSCN0172 DSCN0152 DSCN0144


Effort rewarded

The Great Grey Owl influx has attracted a lot of birders wanting to connect with what is one of the great owls of the World. I had a request from Mikkel, a Dane living in New York and who had great grey gap in his life experience. I am always happy to help birders and so it was that we met up in St-Lazare Friday for the ‘guaranteed’ bird which had been around since 29-Dec-2012.

In his enthusiasm, Mikkel arrived after 1pm; the owl normally arrives after 4pm. We did a perfunctory search but ‘Old Faithful’ was presumably somewhere deep in the scrub. Plan B was to try around Senneville where three birds had been seen. We found the photographers but no bird, none had been seen that day mmm. I felt very confident that we would still get the bird at St-Lazare so we went back, followed by Bruce who was also keen to see the bird, preferably through the lens of his camera.

We walked and scanned and scanned and walked and the owl, that had shown so well the evening before, simply refused to show. Down, but not out, Mikkel retreated to a local hotel and we arranged to meet back at St-Lazare Saturday morning in the hope that the bird had not gone too far.

The sky said snow later and it did not lie. We searched the area at St-Lazare briefly but it was not there, back to plan B. This time Mikkel followed in his car and we split up the search area, he going along Senneville Road, me checking east to Cap St-Jacques. I managed to find distant bird in fields south of the road and called Mikkel, aren’t cell phones wonderful. Mikkel came haring back and enthused over the reasonable (but not great) views.

I had a hunch that we might be closer if we pretended to have dead relatives in St-Genevieve Cemetery and so it proved. We trekked out behind the cemetery and across some fields, me expecting the French version of “get orf moy larnd” (it’s phonetic) but it never came. After 250m of snow tramping we found ourselves a respectful distance from the bird, getting excellent views.

I left Mikkel still gushing and noted the first flakes starting to drift down, five minutes later another fall of white s**t (to quote a friend) had begun.

The weather people are saying that the warm is on the way, the average temp bar easing to positive. How long the magical owl of the north will stick is anyone’s guess – I hope they do stick a bit longer though, more admirers might be on the way.

Below shots from today.

DSCN0126 DSCN0130

Still there

After one and a half days of snow I finally got out this afternoon. The main reason for going out was to look for one of the local Great Grey Owls in advance of a visitor from New York heading up for a look tomorrow. The snow should mean that hunting will be easier as prey will use it for cover but the owls can easily locate and catch their rodents – before the frozen crust on the snow made hunting so much more difficult for them. The owl was absent when I trudged along the Skidiot trail at St-Lazare but somehow it appeared when my back was turned. On this visit it was not so obscured although the light was quite dire.

Tomorrow we appear to have a clear window in the weather until it resumes snowing on Saturday through Sunday. This is the snowiest winter we have had since we arrived in 2003, I’m hoping this last dump is it and we can get back to the run in to spring.

Below shots from today in the dull light with the new camera, not bad I think.

DSCN0100 DSCN0097 DSCN0112

Fewer hunters, fewer ducks?

We have a blizzard outside and have had from about 8.30 this morning so I thought I’d write you another story – all true.

Many years ago I had a conversation with an angler and hunter. So engrained was the need to hunt and gather in him that he frequented a put-and-take fishery almost daily for his fix. He would also go out a few times a week and hunt local farms, places where he had cultivated a relationship with the owner and had acquired casual hunting rights. I was the joint county bird recorder for Nottinghamshire at the time and had been involved with the recording of birds for many years and we got talking about Common Snipe.

We all know that birds require habitat to survive and lots of it to maintain a viable population. The Common Snipe needs marshes, a habitat that had suffered catastrophic losses for centuries. I mentioned to him how rare Common Snipe were becoming in the county and how I thought that they needed to be removed from the game list (the list of species allowed to be hunted) so that they could recover. This sparked a rant about townies knowing nothing of the countryside and how he could drive to a farm he knew and shoot six or seven snipe any time, every time –  no problem.

I’d cast my line accurately and tied the perfect fly for the situation. Now I just had to wait a while he calmed down because, just like the trout that snatches the fly and then thrashes all over the place when hooked, he was mine to play with.

He eventually regained his composure which was a good thing, because it turned out that his heart had a ‘best before’ date and he was on pills. One serenity was restored we calmly discussed the plight of the Common Snipe. I knew from the accumulated evidence of decades of bird recording that the Common Snipe in Nottinghamshire had a population that was virtually unsustainable, there was simply not enough habitat in Notts to continue to produce more snipe. That didn’t mean that snipe were a county rarity, far from it, snipe from Europe and elsewhere migrated through and wintered in the county and a walk around any gravel pit at the right time could produce a few. The problem was that the breeding population had been reduced to perhaps 20 pairs or less.

When I was a young snot exploring the countryside around my south Notts home, there was a place at a town called Wilford, a marsh that extended two miles in one direction and three in the other. We would walk across the marsh in our plimsolls in April and May and flush 50 or 60 snipe. As they launched themselves airborne we dashed to their point of origin, occasionally finding their nests containing beautifully marked olive eggs blotched brown and black. That marsh is now upscale housing, all of it, not a single plant remains. The habitat destruction which removed the marsh has been replicated throughout the county so that now the handful of breeding Common Snipe left are limited to the little patches of marsh that my thrashing trout and his gun had access to.

In the net he was very docile, even congenial and we discussed the loss of so much that was important to him the hunter and me the birder. He was not so dyed-in-the-wool that he couldn’t comprehend a compelling argument and also appreciated the fact that I was not only interested but was actually as passionate as him about Common Snipe, although I preferred to look at them rather than taste them.

Over the next few months he talked to other local shooters and found that what I was saying was not just anti-hunting rhetoric but true, Common Snipe were disappearing.  Without further prompting he instigated a ‘no snipe’ policy of his own and actually persuaded some of his hunting compatriots that the cause was just. Over the next couple of years he restricted his barrels to mostly Common Pheasant and he and I regularly ‘touched snipe’ over the progress of the hoped for recovery. He felt that he was seeing more birds and was optimistic that his small and entirely voluntary conservation effort was working.

The heart eventually read the label and shut down, thereby saving countless hundreds of trout, Pheasants and Rabbits from a similar fate although he was well into his seventies at the time. During his life he probably killed hundreds of thousands of animals, which you hope were not waiting for him in any sort of afterlife, it would have been pretty noisy!

I write about this because, in North America there has been a reduction in duck hunting (a tenuous link I know) which will likely have serious conservation implications – the link below is to an article on the subject. The domino effect of drought, leading to fewer birds; leading to disillusionment with hunting leading; to fewer hunters etc. etc. Means that the climate-change that is not happening, but appears to be working quietly in the background without our approval, is gather pace. It seems that the revenue generated by Duck Stamps is not what it once was and that that revenue was used to create habitat where ducks could thrive and yes, a percentage could be hunted. For both hunter and birder that means fewer ducks – not  good thing at all.

The photos below are all of Wilson’s Snipe.


wsnip3 wsnip2 wssnip1


Below is an except from the forthcoming and very much anticipated (by my Mum) book ‘Just a Birder’. I will get it finished eventually I just have to stop re-writing it everytime I dip in to do some editing!


It was about my fifth visit to my new and temporary local patch and I was exploring ‘off-trail’ so to speak. Morgan Arboretum was very handy for now, my wife worked less than a kilometer away and so I could drop her off at the door and be in the woods five minutes later. I’d covered all of the trails, had my crutch sniffed by what seemed like a thousand dogs and found Mosquito central for West Island Montreal. I’d also found birds.

It was our third week as immigrants to Canada and I had a window of opportunity before starting a new job, a window that I intended to fill with as much local knowledge about our new avifauna as possible. It helped that it was the end of May and that migration was still underway. Morgan had been the ideal learning center with mixed habitat offering a steady grounding in species, most looking very different from the almost monochrome Chiffchaffs and Willow Warblers I’d left behind in England.

I’d found the trails to be tough going at times. Not just because of the hordes of dogs and their owners out for walkies but because I’d not got my ears working yet. Ears on full alert are a prerequisite for a birder in a Canadian broad leafed woodland. As fortune would have it I’d found an open, scrubby area of the Arboretum which pulled in migrants and had a nice stock of breeding birds like Mourning Warbler, Alder Flycatcher and House Wren. It was there that I’d headed on my previous visist but today I’d fancied following my nose a bit.

I walked down the little slope of a track running off right from the Arboretum entrance road, the area ahead looked promising. Woodland edge always has something interesting and here, where the Arboretum ended and farmland began caught the warming sun perfectly. It was a sun trap if ever I saw one.

When walking new routes progress is inevitably slow. Each movement detected has to be thoroughly examined, a snatch of call sought out and tracked down and rustling leaves on the forest floor investigated. There was enough activity to keep me busy and so it took the best part of twenty minutes to cover 100m or less. Still wondering where exactly the track led to I looked up and found myself face to face with a Bear. OK, so the Bear was about 70m away but it was still a Bear.

Where I come from the most dangerous animal, apart from the locals that is, is a Hedgehog and they are only dangerous if you step on one with bare feet – this was something different. Ancient instincts kicked in, no I didn’t want to slaughter it and make a coat, I just froze. Then the brain started to ask reasonable questions like, did you get Bears in West Island Montreal? Surely not.

The Bear seemed unaware of me, partly due to my having a greater degree of muscle control in my younger days but also because I was down wind, thank you Grey Owl. I knew enough about Bears to know that they don’t have the greatest of eyesight but everything else is pretty sharp including their claws and so I slowly backed up, not taking my eyes of what seemed like a rather large animal. After twenty or so steps, which may have taken between three and four hours to execute, my curiosity told me to have a good look at the Bear through the bins.

The Bear had been on an elevated bank and the portion of it visible was from just below the shoulder and up. By walking backwards uphill my perspective had changed somewhat and now more of this magnificent creature was in view. At ankle level (the Bears) I could just see the top of a fence, good news, if it saw me at least there was some sort of obstacle that might delay my demise and, who knows, my Goat like agility and fleet of foot just might get me back to civilization in time. At this point I noticed people behind the Bear, brilliant, a distraction and it would surely go for them rather than me, a selfish perspective I know but we didn’t survive the nightly attacks of Sabre-toothed Tigers without a bit of a sense of self-preservation! By now I had a clear view of the Bear and realised that it was in some sort of Zoo, the Eco-Museum to be exact. I suspect my slightly hysterical laughter could be heard as far away as Mont Royal, idiot!

My reaction to the Bear was perhaps pretty typical of someone with no experience of them. Bears, real Bears, might be big and handy with their paws but they don’t like humans. In the years since this encounter we have found them very difficult to find in the wild. Footprints yes, steaming piles of recently processed apples in a friends Arundel orchard yes, but so far no solo encounters despite walking hundreds of kilometers of trails. We did once see seven genuinely wild Bears near Tadoussac, but they were being attracted by baiting with Doughnuts and I’m told that they don’t count; the jury is still out on that one.

One day we will be out on a trail and there will be a Bear. We will stand still and watch it or, if it pops its teeth and gets agitated we will slowly back away, preferably without making any involuntary sounds. The Bear will remember that we taste awful and wander off to find some of those nice berries it likes but for now this is my Bear story.

Below is one of the Tadoussac Bears having a face-off with with a Red Squirrel – my money is on the squirrel!


Early spring?

At this time of year the weather dominates your thinking. The cold has been around for long enough thank you and you can’t wait to see your deck again, we all desperately want spring except that is for the deranged who will insist on strapping planks to their feet and sliding down hills. All the indications are that we might be slipping into an early spring here in the frozen north. It might be -29°C wind chill at the moment but the habitual liars at the weather network keep showing the long range temperature indicators depicting average daily temps edging towards the positive. Of course it might be a ruse and the first week of March might come and bite us, again!

Another indicator is the lack of birds. I have been out around St-Clet again recently and the absence of Snow Buntings and Snowy Owls is significant. Yesterday was another example of failure but fortunately at least one of the St-Lazare Great Grey Owls granted us an audience but not a clutter free photo opportunity. He, or perhaps she, proved popular and a couple of groups of photographers showed up to try for that National Geographic shot but it was never going to happen. One old boy that we passed had a very unique method of carrying his not unexpensive gear. Think Buckaroo and the way different parts of a plastic Donkey had bits dangling from it until it bucked and you have some sort of idea of the spectacle.

Although we have only just had a vacation, Sandra and I are already planning the next. That is the beauty of birding, there are always so many options that you are never stuck for ideas and from Canada the tropics continually beckon. Planning trips is a lot of fun in itself but you also need the carrot of something to look forwards to, especially when it is actually still winter and it will be at least six weeks before the first welt of a Mosquito bite from your own stock appears, usually on an exposed elbow.

Below a shot of yesterday’s owl – I could photoshop out the debris but this is how they mostly look, slightly obscured and with an air of aloofness and disinterest. When you are in the company of one of these beasts you get the impression that you are not of any importance and certainly not as interesting as say, a tasty vole – it sort of puts you in your place.


Cuba 2012 report done

I just uploaded the trip report for our trip to Cuba 2012. It took a while because the enthusiasm waned a bit but it is there now, as per usual contact me if you’d like a Word version. To view select the trip reports tab at the top and scroll down.

Below a Wild Turkey snapped on my last Snowy Owl search. Three times I’ve been out looking recently but no Snowy Owls, it has been a very quiet winter for them.