Adding up

With the flurry of year ticks and site additions that have happened in the past few weeks my St-Lazare sand pits year list now stands at 169 species. If you have no idea what I’m talking about or what and where St-Lazare Sand pits are go back to your knitting. If you follow my posts with baited breath or even casual disinterest, read on…

Last year (2012) I recorded 175 bird species at St-Lazare sand pits, a site record for the year and very respectable for such a small recording area. If you glance at eBird and review local Québec patch stats you will see that I am top in the year and month categories for 2013. I was top in the local patch life list category too but now eBird now has some guy who has ‘Outaouais’ as his local patch in the life list lead, tsk – I ask you, how can you have a local patch the size of Kent? Answer, you can’t because you just cannot cover it so therefore it is not a local patch.

So why are St-Lazare sand pits so good? Size – my patch is relatively small, you can walk all of it twice in a day, maybe even three times if you don’t keep stopping to look at those pesky birds. Location – I sit between the St-Lawrence and Ottawa Rivers. Geographic orientation – I am on a ridge that runs southwest from Montreal island, down to Lake Ontario (virtually) placing me on a visible migration track. Habitat – I have a bit of everything but the open water is perhaps the biggest draw even though it is but a puddle when looked at in context of other local waters. All this adds up to a welcome stop-off for many species, even if they don’t stay long because of the disturbance the site gets.

After last year’s ‘result’ I thought it unlikely that I would get within ten species on 175 this year but a respectable amount of coverage, especially in the summer months, has put me within seven of a new record and so it seems logical to look at the prospects. I have no doubt missed birds. Owls are there, I’ve just not found them. A Northern Mockingbird was claimed for the recording area – I’m not including it because – (a), I didn’t see it and (b), I didn’t see it, my site, my rules. It may have been a good record but, to be honest, kids saying to Granddad “what’s that funny bird” (as per the translation of the account) does not fill me with confidence.

Below is a summary of what I think is probable, possible and within the bounds of current knowledge although unlikely . I’ve used only the species that I have data for and not species reported by others but without specific dates such as a date of occurrence or even years. That does not discount those records as such but you need the dates in order to be able to make an informed judgement and so, as far as I am concerned, no date, no record. This does not apply to species that historically occurred before status or habitat changes had an adverse impact on them, but that is only two – Grey Partridge and Short-eared Owl.

Good chance, turned up most years: Greater White-fronted Goose; Gadwall; Greater Scaup; Ruddy Duck; Black-crowned Night-Heron; Black-bellied Plover (addendum – two, Sat-31-Aug); American Golden-Plover; Hudsonian Godwit; Baird’s Sandpiper; Long-billed Dowitcher; Black-billed Cuckoo; Black-backed Woodpecker; Yellow-bellied Flycatcher (addendum – one, Tues-03-Sept); Brown Creeper; House Wren; Lapland Longspur; Pine Warbler; Northern Waterthrush; Lincoln’s Sparrow; Pine Grosbeak; House Finch; White-winged Crossbill; Hoary Redpoll; Pine Siskin.

Quite possible but site rarities based on the last ten years of records: Brant; Redhead; Surf Scoter; Long-tailed Duck; Red-breasted Merganser; Red-necked Grebe; Common Gallinule; American Coot; Ruddy Turnstone; Sanderling; Bonaparte’s Gull;  American Black Tern (but getting late); Iceland Gull; Red-bellied Woodpecker, Gray Jay, Horned Lark; Gray-cheeked Thrush; Swainson’s Thrush; Wood Thrush; Clay-colored Sparrow.

Owls – you hear the, you see them or you don’t: Eastern Screech-Owl; Great Horned Owl, Barred Owl.

Outsiders – varying degrees of rare in Québec: Western Sandpiper; Buff-breasted Sandpiper; Lesser Black-backed Gull.

Some of the species listed are common to abundant locally at times but, for some reason, they rarely visit or fly over the pits. There is also the question of potential site additions such as Snowy Owl, Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Wren and Red Crossbill to ponder but they are not the topic of discussion here. There is also the question of true QC rarities, again not discussed but site coverage eventually turns up a rarity, wherever the site is.

If you have read this far, congratulations, you are only a short step away from becoming a patch watcher, now go out and find a manageable patch of your own (I don’t mind sharing) and start recording.

All-time site stats: As of 29-Aug-2013 St-Lazare sand pits has recorded 221 species of bird; 78 species of dragonfly and 42 species of Butterfly. I’m also working on the mammals (13 sp.), reptiles (2 sp.) and amphibians (6 sp.), moths and grasshoppers at the site – will my (unpaid) work never end? Yes, once it’s all filled in and covered in houses!

Below a Solitary Sandpiper from yesterday – I was looking for a Yellow-billed Cuckoo, a site first, from the previous day when I got audio but not a decent view. Didn’t find it.

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Chilling

Idling in the garden yesterday afternoon we were suddenly treated to a feeding flock of around 30 Purple Martins overhead – obviously some sort of insect hatch was underway and the martins were feasting. The aerial show meant that while we were looking up we chanced a fly-over Double-crested Cormorant and Common Loon, both garden year ticks. The unexpected birds sort of concentrated our birding efforts a bit more, the rewards being a passage Northern Harrier, a couple of Veery and a lone Yellow-rumped Warbler and the rest of the garden regulars. As the afternoon waned, a couple of Common Nighthawks turned up and gave us a show, streaking across the sky and barely pausing to pose for the camera except for when I wasn’t holding it.

The shots below are a composite of the best of the 411 photos taken. The light was not too good and the nighthawks appeared to be rocket powered at times.

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Fallout

It is not often that you get to enjoy a warbler fallout in August in Québec but today was one of those days. Yesterday it rain off and on all day and was cold with it. The combination of a temperature drop and a wet front interrupting what had been prime migration conditions meant that my first port of call would be the small wood adjacent to the soccer pitch car park – part of my St-Lazare sand pits patch.

I quickly hit a group of warblers and stayed with them for about 20 minutes when they seemed to peter out. It was a good, mixed flock feeding in Birch and easy to watch. Having seen half a dozen species including my year Cape May I went a bit further on and played a couple of Swainson’s Thrush calls – a trick that has lured catharus thrushes out before. As I played I picked up a thrush like for coming towards me, focussing I realised that it was a waterthrush but not a Northern! I quickly noted the broad, white supercillium, square ended at the rear and the white underparts with uniform dark streaks and no chest cluster, all features of Louisiana Waterthrush. The bird flew closer and I was down to about 3m when I went for the camera – it shot off and didn’t reappear despite my searching and trying both waterthrush calls a few times. I decided to press on and, as I left, saw a yellow/green tanager – a Scarlet Tanager.

I did a full circuit of the works enjoying a flock of Semipalmated Plovers that lingered all of five minutes and finding another smaller warbler flock containing both Philadelphia and Warbling Vireo. The circuit kept adding species to my day list and I realised that I was getting to a pretty healthy total but that I hadn’t seen a Chipping Sparrow. Expecting to bump into one somewhere I headed back to the woodlot, hoping to get another waterthrush view and to pick through the warblers again, if they were still around.

Once back in place it was clear that there were a lot more birds than I thought. I added Wilson’s Warbler to the pits year list and proceeded to wade through the rest of the active flock – it was non-stop action as they moved at all levels. I caught a glimpse of the tanager again then got a full-on view of a Yellow-throated Vireo, another new species for the pits and something that would have been the highlight had that not already have happened. I followed the flock some way before trying Swainson’s Thrush again. The/a waterthrush zipped past and called twice, all over in an instant and I never did re-connect.

The warbler flock started to thin out as birds wandered into adjacent gardens but I saw the tanager again but this time much better – it seemed to have some white in the wing. I was camera in hand this time and managed a couple of poor side on shots that at least show the extent of the white. Now I was confused and still am to some extent. There appears to be a lot of white present, perhaps more than might be expected of a Scarlet Tanager. Is it possible that this is a Western Tanager with heavily abraded wings? I’d welcome any comments from those with more experience of both tanagers in autumn than me. Addendum – the comments I have had suggest that it is a hatch-year bird (Scarlet Tanager) but I cannot find much reference to what appear to be extensive, clear white where wingbars would be.

Below are shots of Least Flycatcher, Lesser Yellowlegs and the tanager.

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Here is my pits day list (so far) – 74 species: Great Blue Heron; Turkey Vulture; Snow Goose; Canada Goose; Wood Duck; Green-winged Teal; Mallard; Sharp-shinned Hawk; Cooper’s Hawk ; Red-shouldered Hawk; Red-tailed Hawk; Wild Turkey; Wilson’s Snipe; Greater Yellowlegs; Lesser Yellowlegs ; Solitary Sandpiper; Spotted Sandpiper; Semipalmated Sandpiper; Least Sandpiper; Pectoral Sandpiper; Semipalmated Plover; Killdeer; Ring-billed Gull; Rock Pigeon; Mourning Dove; Ruby-throated Hummingbird; Belted Kingfisher; Yellow-bellied Sapsucker; Hairy Woodpecker; Northern Flicker; Alder Flycatcher; Least Flycatcher; Eastern Phoebe; Great Crested Flycatcher; Yellow-throated Vireo; Philadelphia Vireo; Red-eyed Vireo; Eastern Warbling-Vireo; Blue Jay; American Crow; Common Raven; Cedar Waxwing; Veery; Hermit Thrush; American Robin; Common Starling; Grey Catbird; Brown Thrasher; White-breasted Nuthatch; Black-capped Chickadee; Barn Swallow; Ruby-crowned Kinglet; American Goldfinch; Song Sparrow; Tennessee Warbler; Orange-crowned Warbler; Nashville Warbler; Chestnut-sided Warbler; Magnolia Warbler; Cape May Warbler; Yellow-rumped Warbler; Black-throated Green Warbler; Blackburnian Warbler; Bay-breasted Warbler; Black-and-white Warbler; American Redstart; Ovenbird; Louisiana Waterthrush; Common Yellowthroat; Wilson’s Warbler; Scarlet Tanager; Rose-breasted Grosbeak; Northern Cardinal; Common Grackle.

Going back later to look for nighthawks!

Additional – went back and added Common Nighthawk (3), Black Duck, Merlin and… Chipping Sparrow to the day list.

First trickle

Today I left everything in the trunk except the bins and did a full pits circuit, taking in the Beaver dams, spreadwing pools, flowery meadow and the main works pools. Naturally a number of things presented themselves for photography – a tame Lance-tipped Darner, the one and only Common Buckeye so far this year and an energetic young Northern Harrier that was never going to catch a shorebird while ever it had white on its rump. The reason for the lack of equipment was that I wanted to check as many spots as possible for Giant Swallowtails. If you read my dragonfly blog you will know that I saw one locally yesterday so naturally I wanted to search the pits to get it on my patch list.

As I ended my circuit I found a Spot-winged Glider, then a Black Saddlebags – both migrants although the saddlebags is too frequent to have not bred at the pits before. As I was only 200m from the car I went and fetched the lot and, sure enough, both odes evaded the net. I wasn’t too worried; I’ll have further opportunities to add both to my ‘trapped, photographed and released’ list in the forthcoming weeks. I didn’t regret not taking ‘full-pack’ either, I walked further than I might have done with the kit and found an American Bittern ‘frogging’ in a ditch and migrant Palm, Yellow and Nashville Warbler. The calendar has quietly clicked over and the birds are on their way back.

At the moment most of the pits areas are in prime condition and will prove attractive to many migrants this autumn. The infilling in the south-west corner continues though and I hope that it is just a cash cow for Meloche and not part of a long-term, fill the thing in and build  more houses on it project. I would say, acre for acre, that the sand pits are as good as anything anywhere in Quebec in terms of diversity in fact, as far as odonata are concerned, it is the #1 site in Quebec.

Not waved the camera at much recently but a nice Bald Eagle came over and took a look and a Great Blue Heron overcame its nerves provided I kept 40m between me and it.

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Comings and goings

Yesterday I spent an hour at St-Lazare sand pits. It was mostly spent watching shorebirds or more precisely waiting for them to emerge from the vegetation before getting a good look at them. This passage season will be challenging because of the lush vegetation covering the wet areas. Recently I’ve found that you can scan the shorebirds for an hour then walk 50m and flush six Wilson’s Snipe that had previously evaded observation. Birds are also commuting to damp patches in nearby fields and even the Chicken sh*t pile on Montee Chenier, a haven for flies as you will find if you stop for a look with the windows down.

As I left yesterday I bumped into Larry Lafleur who was just arriving. Larry was down to take photographs, he’s not yet got to the owning binoculars stage but he will. Last night my in-box had a message asking about the identity of a dowitcher he’d snapped! At this time of year any migrant dowitchers are likely to be Short-billed and this proved to be the case. The turn-over of migrating shorebirds at the pits is such that you could go there four times a day and see a different set of species or at least different set of yellowlegs.

With the news of the dowitcher I went early this morning, but not early enough to beat the trucks arriving with spoil, I think the owner is probably intending to infill the lot eventually. Edging into place so that I could view as much of the shorebird habitat as possible it soon became clear that there were plenty of birds to look at. The dowitcher was still there, roosting out in the open and seemingly bomb proof as the trucks rumbled past. There were plenty of both yellowlegs but lesser numbers were greater – sorry, I just couldn’t resist that sentence. A nice year tick was a Stilt Sandpiper but it was skittish and I never got near enough to get it in the viewfinder. The regular Pectoral Sandpiper, it’s been there two weeks at least, was joined by six more and the wet, grassy area took on the appearance of a tundra migration staging point, briefly!

If you are thinking of visiting to look for the shorebirds be aware that they are active, mobile and not easy to watch at times. Just settle in one spot and wait and don’t be surprised if you see stuff not on my list as there are more species to look forwards to arriving. I usually get a few Baird’s each year and later there are Dunlin, maybe godwits and Long-billed Dowitcher plus Black-bellied and American Golden Plovers. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I might finally get a phalarope of some description drop in.

Below are photos of the dowitcher, it seems to bearlly enjoying having a scratch. There is also a shot of a Semipalmated Plover that was daft enough to stand still instead of panicking. My shorebird totals were: Greater Yellowlegs 4; Lesser Yellowlegs 14; Stilt Sandpiper 1; Short-billed Dowitcher 1; Killdeer 25; Semipalmated Plover 2; Spotted Sandpiper 2; Pectoral Sandpiper 7; Wilson’s Snipe 4; White-rumped Sandpiper 2; Semipalmated Sandpiper 2; Least Sandpiper 16; Solitary Sandpiper 2.

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Various stuff

I thought that it was time for a mix and match post with a few photographs of various things and nary a bird in sight. First up are a few butterflies, an insect group that do not seem to have had a great season this year. The species are: Peck’s Skipper; Roadside Skipper and American Painted Lady a species that has arrived at the pits in small numbers recently.

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Bird-wise the pits remain interesting although the shorebirds are often hard to get a good look at. A pits year tick last Friday was a Great Egret but it seems to have been a one-day wonder as the BPQ trip to the pits yesterday didn’t report it. This coming week is ‘go find a nighthawk’ time as around now is the start of their southward push and the pits usually has a few around dusk time.

At home we have a small pond, just 6’ x 4’, a hole filled with water that freezes solid in the winter. The ponds hosts a few frogs and toads and we get the odd dragonfly show interest, some egg laying. While we were doing some house reno Saturday I passed the pond and was surprised to see a Garter Snake sitting on the Pennywort mat, probably snacking on frogs or hoping to.

Below are a few photos of the event and an American Toad pretending not to be there. There is also a nice photo of a Grasshopper species – they are abundant right now.

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Rail

I’m not neglecting you but I have been busy. This time of year I spend a lot of time looking at dragonflies and it tends to put the birds on the back burner but, sometimes they just jump right out at you and just about run up your trouser leg but first, back to the odes and other stuff.

Last Monday I added another dragonfly to the pits list; if you are a blog cross-reader you will have informed yourself all about it via my dragonfly blog at http://quebecodes.WordPress.com for those who have bird only myopia here is a short résumé. Variegated Meadowhawk is essentially a western species in North America but it does occur as a vagrant. Since 29-July I’ve found 17 tenerals (newly emerged insects) at St-Lazare sandpits, the 3rd-20th records for Quebec. There have probably been more than I have counted because I only spend an hour or so searching and emergence could continue for a few hours after I’ve wandered off. These special meadowhawks are probably the progeny of a single vagrant female who laid eggs in one small area because the insects are only in one 70m stretch of bank. Below is one of the images taken, in you feel a broader wildlife interest shaping up, good for you, now go visit my other blog.

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I’ve also been searching for Swamp Spreadwings – I have seen them before in years past but the site changes through water level variation and M. Meloche and his big digger and so I wanted to find some for this year. Because of the aforesaid landscape changes I know have a large wet meadow that I’m calling the Le Conte’s Field because I am optimistic that I’ll get a Le Conte’s Sparrow there although Nelson’s would also be acceptable. It is a rubber boot scenario and so Friday I togged up and went wandering with my net. After not finding Swamp Spreadwing but plenty of Sweetflag Spreadwings I heard a grunt nearby and knew right away that a patch tick was very close. Thanks to the wonders of technology my trusty iPod and speaker got the grunter more talkative and a Virginia Rail tentatively edged nearer. I got view but no shots, the bird below is from Baie Brazeau but posted in lieu. There were actually about three birds so perhaps they are a migrating family party.

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The rail success has been long awaited and so blinded by the excitement I thought I’d try Sora and the mythical Yellow Rail calls and surprise, surprise – nothing (yet!) Later in the week when August began, I looked more at the birds for a while – recording 52 species that morning including seven Pectoral Sandpipers, my first of the year. I added Ruby-throated Hummingbird and Wilson’s Snipe to the pits year list too, taking it to 154 but still 20 off last year’s 175. There are still a fair few warblers and shorebirds to come plus wildfowl and nighthawks will be moving soon but I doubt I’ll hit the 170s.

One more noticeable piece of wildlife activity started this week too, a few American Painted Lady butterflies started to appear, interesting.

And now a punt on what the next bird addition to the St-Lazare checklist will be. I don’t expect regular readers or even birders who visit the pits to know exactly what has been recorded there although obviously, I do and so here is a list of what I think are the top ten candidates now. I’m updating the annotated pits checklist at the moment; the one under the St-Lazare sand pits pages tab is out of date by about two years.

The candidates in no specific order and with shots to show you what they look like are:

White-winged Scoter – a duck, it flies, there are loads use the St-Lawrence.

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Whimbrel – a shorebird, it migrates long distance, sometimes they appear along the St-Lawrence.

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Red Knot – a shorebird, big migrant, a maybe.

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Marsh Wren – the marsh is ready and waiting for you although probably next year now but a migrant is possible.

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Sora – come and join the rail party while the habitat lasts.

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Snowy Owl – if the tree were not in the way I’d be able to scope them in the fields of St-Clet.

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Northern Saw-Whet Owl – got to be there, may even breed.

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Least Bittern – a migrating juvenile is my best bet but there is habitat.

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Tufted Titmouse – supposedly in St-Lazare somewhere.

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Carolina Wren – they expand and contract locally, they are in nearby Hudson so possible.

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