Loons and ducks

Today I was out birding with Alain and NOT at St-Lazare sand pits (swoon). We started at Hungry Bay – it’s that time again and ducks, loons and grebes will be gathering as usual in the coming weeks. Today ducks and grebes were scarce but 12 Common Loons were a sign of things to come. Looking at the photos the bills of the loons appear decidedly weird – there has been no adjustment here, they actually looked like that. One or two Song Sparrows looked equally grotty but they will get better when they have finished moulting.

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Perhaps the highlight from Hungry Bay was a Mink that showed no fear as it sought breakfast amongst the rocks on the jetty.

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Moving on to St-Timothee marsh where we had excellent, up views of 7’ high Phragmites on both sides of the path. Peering through the few gaps we could see lots of ducks, mostly American Wigeon but some fine looking Gadwall, Northern Pintail and Black Ducks.

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The species count for the morning topped out at 55 species – not bad considering that migration was light.



One last check for emails before I donned my scruffs and did something domestic on Wednesday 25th September was a good call, a bird at Baie-du-Febvre had been confirmed as a Sharp-tailed Sandpiper although I suspect that it knew what it was all the time. A quick call to tell Sandra that her high flying job had to go on the back burner for the rest of the day – capable car emergency, this was a lifer – and we were away by 3.30, told you she was a good one.

One morning in February the director of transportation in Quebec got up, had a mouth full of coffee then sneezed on his interactive computer screen. Unfortunately he’d been planning the road works for the forthcoming year and had left the program open, result, most of Québec’s roads are currently being moved three feet to the left for no apparent reason. This meant that it took us three hours instead of a lot less to get there but we were able to enjoy the delights of the Mercier Bridge on the way. Sharp-tailed Sandpiper has been a big ‘want’ of mine for many years and so it was ‘buttocks cracking walnuts’ time for the last 30km as the sun sank and the clock ticked.

Ten birders were staring into the drained sewage tank as we rolled up and we got onto the bird very quickly. It was good to see some of the cream of Québec birding there and to actually say hi in person to Leah, François, Samuel, Olivier etc. They in turn got to say hi to the fool that spends most of his life at St-Lazare sand pits and is always fatter and older than expected.

Going back to the Sharp-tailed and the classic comparison species is Pectoral Sandpiper but, really, they are chalk and cheese when you see one. Drained sewage tanks are always shorebird magnets and this one was no exception although the sinking sun meant that we concentrated on the lifer and didn’t get to look around the rest of the tank much. One bird did attract my attention briefly and I grabbed a few record shots of it, results below. I suspect that it is a hybrid White-rumped x Dunlin, the bill is over large for a White-rump and there is no attenuation to the rear caused by the long primary projection beyond the tail, comments welcome, photos here: Update – after a lengthy web search I’m more leaning towards a Dunlin in transitional plumage now, face on it looks most Dunlin like, side on it looks odd. Instructive at least.

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As well as the Sharp-tailed Sandpiper I did get Ruddy Duck for the year in Quebec but missed out on a Long-billed Dowitcher – didn’t know it was there. The tanks had lots of other shorebirds as well though and, had we had that extra hour, it would have made some difference in terms of looking around. It really is a pity that all municipalities in Québec don’t have these open tanks, like they do in lots of places in Ontario. It’s probably down to some ‘nanny state’ law or other that prevents it – who cares if there is a bit of a stink down wind and the odd person falls in, never to be seen again, think shorebirds people!

Below then are the Sharp-tailed Sandpiper shots – not great due to the light etc. I’ve included a shot taken through the scope on the iPod – I wish I knew how to up the quality of the shots through that thing, it looks quite good in the iPod and was not particularly small as an image, no cropping took place here.

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Jays moving

Today Wednesday 25 September) the sun shone and the skies were blue and Blue Jays kicked off south in reasonable numbers for the first time this autumn at St-Lazare sand pits. By reasonable I mean a modest 153 in around a hour and a half from 7am. Such numbers are not unusual and I have had some good mornings counting the jays going by at this time of year. I don’t know my best counts off-hand but will when I eventually get everything into eBird.

Sparrows numbers are also on the up. My seed carpet is being attended by more every day and I’ll have to top it up soon to keep it attractive. As I walked down to view the carpet a couple of Semipalmated Plovers scuttled on a muddy spit, and indicator that a few shorebirds were moving too. As I watched the sparrow a mid-sized shorebird came in, didn’t call and set me walking briskly towards its landing spot.

Inevitably it turned out to be an Immature Pectoral Sandpiper and I scoped it as it loafed with some noisy Greater Yellowlegs. A small movement then caught my eye and four Wilson’s Snipe were feeding about 25m away from me, time to draw the trusty Canon out of the bag. Looking at the shot of two together they look quite different, all a question of angles I think.

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That time again

Before today, two consecutive days of brisk winds, heavy cloud and cold weather kick-started the autumn goose migration and thousands of Canada Geese must have moved into or through Southern Quebec. Today movement continued but the goose numbers were reduced and there was a smattering of visible migration through St-Lazare sand pits first thing, the highlight being a few small flocks of Rusty Blackbirds going through at tree-top height.

Warblers are also moving, mostly Yellow-rumped but a check of the soccer pitch wood showed that both kinglets had arrived and there was also Black-throated Green, Black-throated Blue, Magnolia and Blackpoll Warblers around. Duck numbers continue to climb with Green-winged Teal now up to 70+ and single Northern Pintail and American Wigeon showing up. Today three Common Loons went south over the site.

Below a few shots that are more descriptive than detailed (except for the flicker). A V-formation of Canada Geese, one of many, and about a quarter of a flock of Common Grackles going to roost, feel free to count them and get back to me! The rest of the week looks interesting for early risers seeking visible migration and the sparrows are coming, with the first Dark-eyed Juncos showing up today and White-crowned around since yesterday – Lincoln’s next.

Jus to go back to the previous post – the recording of the Snow Bunting I made could do with some more ears so to speak. I’ve had a comment that suggests it was the flight call of a Northern Shrike but I don’t think so. I’m investigating again and, if I can get WordPress to let me upload it (it’s a wav. file), I stick in on here for comments. Updaye – just cehcked and they want $99. to give me space to upload MP3 files, guess what! Update 2 – I signed up for Dropbox – this link should take you to the MP3. The call is 4 seconds in. https://www.dropbox.com/s/2dn8fo7px8bb81f/2013-09-21%2007_29.mp3

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Every time I pass my boxes of bird slides I’m tempted to throw the lot in the recyc then, sometimes, I sit down and browse through a few and I just can’t do it. I have a copier but it does not really do the original justice – or at least how I remember it, still, browsing the slides does take me back to each occasion when the shutter clicked and I hoped that the parcel would come back from processing and I’d have a decent shot. Most of my photos used to be taken using an adaptor for the telescope and so the image tended to be a bit one dimensional, oh for a digital camera back then. Later in this post are a few scans of old images with a bit of blurb because they come from various places, I hope you’ll indulge me the memories.

Thursday last week I started a three day contract – work, I know, the curse of the birding classes. The contract involves travelling Quebec’s charming road system, much of which is currently being moved from one place to another. Out west of Montreal we are blighted with road works and if that was not enough, morons who have no patience, courtesy or common sense when negotiating them. I’ve been driving to down town, well Boulevard Decarie, and I truly feel for anyone who has to do it daily for the rest of their natural lives. The other problem is that Quebec’s road system has actually been designed by a complete idiot and frequently where there should be a stop there is a give way – a white triangle bordered red sign that requests an action absent from most Quebec drivers’ repertoires.

I could go on but really I was just explaining why I have not very much to post. I’m working Monday too but then I’m not sure whether I’ll be needed again. Luckily, when negotiating the bomb sites they call roads I am able to call on the trusty Garmin, one of the Helen Keller range of navigation devices that once confidently told me that I’d reached my destination while I was in a tunnel, I may have mentioned it before. This time she tried to send me to the south of the city so I ignored it and got Mark Knopfler to play a bit louder to cover her creative pronunciation of the French road names.

The pits have been quiet except that I had an early Snow Bunting go over calling and was so surprised that I taped the call to prove it! Today (Sunday) was a goose day between rain and the Canada Geese were running at 1500+ an hour to south late this afternoon. I did managed one Cackling Goose on the pits and the regular duck numbers are climbing daily, should be a Greater White-fronted Goose along any day now.

So, now back to the digitised slides. First up are some shots from Texas, taken in 1997. It was our first trip across the pond and I was so excited that I didn’t sleep and was up at dawn. We did a three week trip, starting at High Island, down to the Rio Grande then west to Big Bend before returning to High Island. What trip and so many birds during a fall-out that they were beyond counting.

Below are Ash-throated Flycatcher from Big Bend. A Western Sandpiper – not a great shot but showing the weird tilt forward that helps to ID them. A Forster’s Tern in partial winter plumage. Also a Nine-banded Armadillo (not a bird).

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In 2000 we went to California and dragged an RV around the birding sites and generally had a great time, even when we ripped a bit off the roof chasing Brown-capped Nuthatch near Monterey. Below are Glaucous-winged Gull; Heermann’s Gull; Sooty Fox Sparrow and a bold Bobcat that was hunting California Quail at Pinnacles campsite.

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In 1996 we went to Israel – Eilat. It was an absolute bird fest from first to last. We birded a local reservoir daily and still missed a Wolf. The oasis that is Eilat attracted many migrants including this Wryneck. The reservoirs attracted shorebirds like this Kentish Plover. Northern Wheatears were often everywhere.

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In Britain I took thousands of photos but looking back at them they just don’t match todays digital standards. Below an Ivory Gull – a pure white adult.

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Incidentally, the ID quiz from last time, a Philadelphia Vireo.

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Clear blue skies this morning were a clear sign that today would not come anywhere near to yesterday as a great birding day. A wander around the soccer pitch woods, alternative name for this spot required any suggestions welcomed, proved my point. Warblers were greatly reduced in number although a vocal Philadelphia Vireo was quite enjoyable. An increase in White-throated Sparrows was significant, they tell me how far gone we are towards winter and when to start staking out the seed carpet, now is the short answer. The relative dearth of warblers meant that I could spend more time staring into vegetation and hoping.

This time it worked, I was about to turn and retrace my steps when a small bird dashed over the path and into the vegetation to my left. It was calling quietly and worked its way along the herbage until popping up on a twig – Winter Wren. Now I know that they are relatively common in Quebec but they have not been recorded at the pits before, or they have but the date was not noted and so no date, no record. Obviously it was also a pits tick for me, #219 and my 177th bird there this year.

It has been a long time coming and I knew that it would happen one day and I’very happy that today was the day. After the high I went into the works and was serenaded by a procession of trucks departing the west end having dumped their loads. I’m hoping that the dumping will wrap up soon otherwise viz-mig watches are going to be tough to near impossible. In the works it was quiet but there is a lot more water now, after the recent heavy rains. My seed carpet is pulling in the expected species, I hope Lincoln’s are not far behind. The track also has at least four Palm Warblers chipping and tail-pumping, always nice to see.

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For most of us out there birding, capturing an image of the bird, butterfly or dragonfly is secondary to our identification and enjoyment of it. The line between photographer of wildlife and birder is however quite blurred and many an excellent image have been taken by a birder messing around with a camera. For myself I am a birder who takes photographs and for that to not be an entirely disappointing combination you need to have some kit that does the job.

I’ve mentioned before that I lug around a Canon something or other with the ‘birders’ lens’ the 100-400 attached. I do that because I can get flight shots of dots, record shots of things that need manual focus and moving birds in trees such as warblers. You only have to browse my efforts in these blog pages to see how varied my efforts have been. As well as the big lens I’ve tried digiscoping and seemed to be getting somewhere until my camera proved allergic to hitting a tiled Cuban floor. I’ve tried brackets and sleeves, holding the thing to the lens by hand and just about anything that I thought might work.

My wife has a Canon Powershot 35x optical zoom camera, it fits in your pocket, just about, and I’ve written before about how I have been contemplating shelving the big camera in favour of a back saving sub-compact. I tried it with a Nikon thing and the damn thing would not focus at times for no clear reason. Sandra’s Canon occasionally has the same problem. This is because the camera makers do not test their products with the naturalist photographer in mind and the faults only show up when we find them. Now Canon have upped the ante with their Canon Powershot SX50hs. A camera that offers 24mm-1200mm with the 50x optical zoom.

Last Sunday, Alain Bessette and I wandered St-Lazare sand pits. The light was mostly awful and the day cool and breezy at times. Not the ideal conditions for photography but I’d seen a lot of stuff taken by Alain previously and was interested to see how his $400 camera performed. Below is a selection of the shots that Alain took on the day. Some you would class as a record shot but hey, if you were submitting a Curlew Sandpiper photo as a back-up to a claim you’d be happy enough with the detail in the Semipalmated Plover, a bird that was c45m away.

The time is not far away when a sub-compact camera that has a reliable focus and the sort of optical zoom options a birder wants will be available. I’d fancy the Canon SX50 myself but I have a drawer full of failed experiments and I’m pretty sure that Sandra would (quite rightly) suggest we wait and see what the next one does.

Below are Alain’s shots, Snow Goose, Great Egret, Great Blue Heron, Semipalmated Plover and some Greater Yellowlegs.

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