End of a great month

October bowed out today with a damp squib of weather but it stayed dry enough for me to get to the pits and also to check out Coteaux Landing briefly. The pits were interesting enough, the wildfowl numbers are fluctuating but I’m seeing Cackling Goose most days and there are a few Northern Pintail, Northern Shoveler and an American Wigeon today joining the stalwart Green-winged Teal flock.

Shorebirds will soon disappear for the duration of the winter but a late hurrah today involved a party of nine Dunlin that joined the three or so Greater Yellowlegs that are still present. The Dunlin became quite relaxed and I managed to get fairly close for a few shots but in poor light. There is some interest in promoting the long billed race of Dunlin found in North America as a separate species and, if you are familiar with the species from Europe, it is clear that there are plumage and structural differences although to me the voice remains the same distinctive “shreeep”.

New for the autumn at the pits today were five American Tree Sparrows and a Northern Shrike (another split candidate). The shrike was actually singing, they do that sometimes, and may also have had its beady eye on the same sparrows that I was watching. I didn’t get a photo of this bird but might in the coming months, they do tend to stick around a while, in the meantime here is one of last winter’s immature bird.

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Les Coteaux was pretty quiet, no grebes yet and maybe it is getting a bit late for Horned now anyway, they have been very scarce in QC this year. Of interest (to me!) was a leucistic Double-crested Cormorant. Below is a very much record shot, I couldn’t get any closer.

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Back at home and my seed carpet continued to pull in Fox Sparrows. There are two at present along with the odd White-throated Sparrow and upwards of 25 Dark-eyed Juncos. Below is a quick snap, they are always so wary and the first to scoot into cover at the first sign of a lens.

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October for me was a great month. My pits year list went up to 180 species (out of 182 species seen there this year), a personal year record and my Québec year list went up to 245. It is very tempting to go for a year list now, my best was 266 back in 2007 and I know that there are still 30+ species out there waiting to be seen, including QC ticks, Sharp-tailed Grouse and Thick-billed Murre. In the QC year list stakes Gerard Cyr is well in the lead with 264 when I checked last on eBird, I was third. I’m not entirely sure what the actual QC year list record is but I would think Gerard is well placed to best it unless he has already mopped up the species I’m hoping to see before the clock strikes midnight on 31-December. It would be nice to have a local Northern Hawk Owl this winter. There was one east of Ottawa somewhere but kept quiet (again!). It is a disappointing trend this suppression and not always justified but more a knee-jerk reaction to bad behaviour at wintering owl sites by birders and photographers. I would hate to see birding here lurch the way it did in the UK for a while. Suppression brings out a lot of bad feeling and it ends up being tit-for-tat with everyone losing out in the long run.

Below are the Dunlin snaps.

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Nipped out

A few years ago Sandra and I went to see a Trumpeter Swan up north. It was brief experience but it was good to see such a Québec rarity at the time. Since then they have bred (in roughly the same area) and we seem to be seeing the slow (re) colonisation of Québec by them. Their provenance may be open to question as there has been a various reintroduction schemes in the Northern USA and their progeny are known to have dispersed widely. Whatever the origins of the birds now being seen in our area, they are always both welcome and instructive and so with that in mind I nipped off to St-Jean-sur-Richelieu to see an adult that had appeared there recently.

It was easy to find with it being big, white and sat in the middle of the Richelieu River but it was fairly distant. I took a few rough record shots (below) that don’t really do it justice, it definitely looked better in the scope.

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While out that way I took the opportunity to see the crippled Hudsonian Godwit that continues to make a life for itself at the end of Rang 53 in St-Blaise. The bird was easy to find and I was surprised that is was in the company of seven Pectoral Sandpipers and a Dunlin. Today seems to have been the day of the Pec in Southern Québec as I had ten at St-Lazare sand pits this morning (and a Dunlin). Perhaps more ominously I had a party of Snow Buntings flying around – I think snow is the operative word here.

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It’s been quite an October for birding so far here this year and we’ve probably note done yet. The overnight temperature went down to -5°C and there is ice at the pits on the smaller pools. The cold spell will only last a couple of days but it may kick-off a movement of the remaining northern birds that sensibly chose to winter further south. Whatever happens with the rest of the year it has been a great one bird-wise, anything else is just icing on the cake.

Sorry about the lousy photos, they are record shots.

Gordon’s alive!

After the roaring success of the weekends twitch it was back to St-Lazare sand pits on Monday 29-October. Heavy rain kept me out of the field until 9.30 and the fresh and chilly north-westerly that greeted me hinted that this might be a short visit. The water area had already been vacated by most of the Canada Geese, post roost, but six of the ten Ruddy Ducks remained. These Ruddy Ducks have to be of a more westerly origin, it is a relatively uncommon species in Québec and there are no real northerly breeding populations that would account for their presence. The odd one could be just a wandering immature, they do that, but ten is an influx – I wonder how many other waters have them in this area.

Below a rubbish photo of nine of the birds, don’t tell DEFRA where they are (DEFRA are in the process of killing all the Ruddy Ducks in the UK even though there is no proof that some are not wild, like these!)

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Also on the water was a white headed goose that I recognised from last year at around the same time. The bird is a Snow x Canada Goose and last year I christened ‘him’ Gordon, hence the title. You wonder what he has been up to and where he went and perhaps how he avoided the many guns that lie in wait for him every day. If he follows last year’s pattern he’ll be in and out for a few weeks before slipping of south with the rest of the geese. The land birds were fairly quiet, as expected at this time of year, but \i did catch the leaving of the roost by 16 Eastern Bluebirds that seemed to go merrily on their way.

Below ‘Gordon’ from last year.

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I was on the verge of hitting the road when the sky brightened and the rain clouds slipped away. In one last scan I picked up an adult Golden Eagle going steadily south, should I stay or should I go? Deciding to give it half an hour I took up station at my visible migration spot and waited. Thirty seconds later a Northern Goshawk came by and I realised that I would be there a bit longer.

Over the next couple of hours a steady passage of hawks went through – nothing spectacular in terms of numbers just steady. Most were Red-tailed Hawks, a couple of Rough-legged Hawks came through too and a surprise was three Turkey Vultures, one of which was leucistic and was a milky brown colour. The real even occurred just after 11:30 and below is my entry into eBird.

“As I did my regular St-Lazare sand pits patch birding circuit on 28-Otober 2013, an adult Golden Eagle went over and so I decided to do a hawk watch from my visible migration point along the south side of the site, I started at around 10.00 just as the rain clouds cleared out. The temperature was around 3°C and the wind a cold and brisk force 4-5 (Beaufort scale) and out of the north-west. Viewing at the watch point is restricted by trees when looking to north north-east and almost completely to south and south-west but enough sky is visible to be able to pick up most hawks as they pass at some point. During the watch both Red-tailed and Red-shouldered Hawks had been frequent and a Northern Goshawk had also come past quite close but it was likely one of the residents that I see from time to time. Large gulls were also passing in ‘kettles’ with Herring the commonest, all birds were going either to south or south-west.

At around 11:32 I was scanning to the east when got a bird in the scope at long range that I initially thought was either an immature large Gull or a late Osprey. The bird was flying towards and to the right of me from the east north-east and was in a glide. As I watched I opted to stick with it the scope and zoomed in a bit to try to see detail, the sun was to my right behind cloud but it was fairly bright. The only head–on feature noticeable on the bird was a paler ‘face’ against the dark body, the pale area being restricted. The wings and flight attitude remained Osprey like (but perhaps slightly shallower) and the bird occasionally rocked slightly in the wind giving views ruling out a gull sp. Plumage detail was hard to see as it seemed wholly dark from head on apart from the pale area on the face.

As the bird got closer I was able to see long and relatively slim pointed wings, a long looking tail held closed and some pale underneath the tail but only visible in glimpses. A couple of times the uppersides also showed briefly and there was no bold white rump area visible ruling out Northern Harrier, although that species never really crossed my mind, the overall shape and flight attitude were wrong.

I continued to watch through the scope as it approached and was getting ready to grab the camera for a record shot as the bird now appeared quite near but would soon be lost behind trees. It continued to look dark and no clear features were seen other than those already mentioned. Realising there was no photo opportunity I continued to watch it until it passed behind trees and out of sight. I saw pale around the undertail again briefly but nothing else markedly contrasting although the flight position meant that little other than shape could be seen most of the time. Because of the birds structure and the odd bits of plumage I had seen I was sure I was watching a dark form immature Swainson’s Hawk. The period of observation was perhaps three plus minutes and in that time it barely faltered from its glide apart from the odd rocking and buffeting from the strong wind. I last saw Swainson’s Hawks back in March 2013 in Nevada (a few) and in July 2012, again in Nevada (many). I saw many hundreds in Texas but that was back in 1997, I’ve never seen an autumn flight where birds would be in a flat glide in the way Broad-winged Hawks move. I am familiar with all the other regular hawk and falcon species that pass through Québec and this bird was one of eight species of hawk (and eagle)seen today.”

I must admit the irony of this bird was not lost on me. I’d just spent the weekend in the one area of QC where a migrating Swainson’s Hawk would be most likely to be seen ( and studiously looked at every large hawk passing while there), although there have been three records for the flight line that I share with the Senneville hawk watch point in years past, now I’d had one for the pits. I expect eBird to cough at it, it coughed when I put the three Turkey Vultures in so perhaps convulsions are in order, I’ll find out soon enough. The description is not feather perfect but an accurate account of the event. It helps to have experience in these circumstances but perhaps the biggest help is actually being outside and looking up at the right time!

For interest, below is the list of modern day Swainson’s Hawk records for QC. There are two more to add for Tadoussac for this autumn so far and, given the weather pattern I would not discount more being seen. You will note an upturn in records in recent years.

Sherbrooke – 01/04/1974

Valleyfield – 28/04/1981

Rivière-au-Renard – 22/08/1982

Plaisance – 18/04/1992

Tadoussac – 08/11/2004

Saint-André-de-Kamouraska – 01/07/2005

Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue – 23/10/2005

Longue-Rive – 19-20/10/2006

Gaspé – 18/11/2009

Murdochville – 8/06/2010

Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue – 31/10/2010

Rigaud – 25/04/2012

Saint-Fabien – 19/05/2012

Saint-Jean, Île d’Orléans               – 22/10/2012

Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue – 6/09/2013

It’s the wrong kingbird Grommitt

We woke in Les Escoumins this morning to the persistent patter of rain and so made the decision to check out the birds passing on the rising tide, we chose the same spot as yesterday hoping that the birds might be a bit closer in. In the end they were but just less of them. Tons of Long-tailed Duck filed past and three distant auks batted through but once the glare got going we were off, not much point looking of you just can’t see.

We went to Tadoussac via Les Escoumins – the Northern Wheatear was still around – but Tadoussac was virtually birdless until the birding gods finally lifted the veil, revealing four Purple Sandpipers near the boat dock, finally! Thinking that we had well and truly peaked we set off to have a quick look for the missing Grey Kingbird, it was worth a try. Once there we bumped into Jean Bernier who was also having a fruitless search. It was a very fortuitous meeting because he told us that we had driven past a Western Kingbird just the other side of Bergeronnes. It was only 34 km back the way we came although we did have to take the ferry back across the Saguenay, no barrier when such a good QC rarity is at stake.

The roads back were suddenly busier but that was the least of our worries, to our left the sky was boiling up a storm and it was touch and go whether we got to the bird before the storm did. We did and the kingbird sallied repeatedly from its chosen spot never venturing too near but I did manage a few record shots.

The trip home took under five hours and our weekend in the Tadoussac area went well (for a change). Three Québec ticks and the enjoyment of some dynamic birding might just tempt us back that way again even though Purple Sandpiper is no longer my nemesis bird (in Québec). If you didn’t get the reference in the title Google Wallace and Grommitt although, to be fair, you may well remain confused.

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On a twitch

Back in 2006 Sandra and I were about to get on a plane to Rio de Janeiro when news of a Grey Kingbird in Québec broke. The bird lingered a while and keen QC listers duly made the trek while we were suffering the likes of Saffron Toucanet and Blond-crested Woodpecker, we got over it. I had expected that to be the one and only chance of the species up north but the fates conspired to provide another bite at the cherry when one was found and lost at Tadoussac then re-found not too far away at Baie-Ste-Catherine. Readers of this blog will know of our love of Tadoussac and the many happy hours we have spent in lousy, freezing weather looking for Purple Sandpipers. Naturally we had to go.

The trip is not to bad and only adds the same amount of pollution to the atmosphere that Québec’s school buses do when their drivers park up to do their paperwork for just one day and leave their engines running. We set off Friday afternoon and by 10:30 were listening to the steady passing of Malbaie’s Honda Accord drivers. If I had a car that made that repetitive thud, thud, thud that all Accords seem to make I’d have it in the shop pronto. Our plan was simple. Cruise up to Baie Ste-Catherine via a quick stop at St-Simeon and hopefully see not just the kingbird but also another QC tick in the same area, Western Meadowlark.

When we got to the kingbird site another couple of birders were scanning and we joined them with fresh-faced optimism. The kingbird site was a cliff-top scrub area with some mature trees and lots of potential; the meadowlark site was adjacent and was a field. To cut what might have been a long story short, the kingbird had gone, either flown off, had been eaten or just expired – either way it was not to be. The lark however played hide and seek for a while. I had flushed it earlier and both Sandra and I had had good views as it flew to the middle of its field and landed in the long grass. I alerted the others and we gave it a good staring, breaking our concentration only to admire the aerial antics of a Short-eared Owl. After a little while folk’s enthusiasm for long grass began to wane and we had already decided to walk the road and check further afield. As we went to leave I saw the lark some 80m from where it landed and got most people onto it so their day was not a complete washout.

We pressed on to Tadoussac and then to Les Escoumins. Our targets were any auks visible plus a Northern Wheatear and Black-headed Gull that had been there for some time. We got the former but the latter didn’t appear until later when we returned after roaming. The river was fairly active but no auks were to be found and so we thought we’d head for a spot further downstream east of Longue Rive.

As we approached our river lookout we saw a very dark hawk hovering at the roadside and careful stalking using just a three-quarter ton SUV allowed great views and snaps, a dark form Rough-legged Hawk, see below. We then set up camp and scanned the minch, hoping for some action. Long-tailed Ducks were passing with regularity and so were a few auks. Common Murres and seven Dovekies. There were auks further out and likely one of them was my life-bird Thick-billed Murre but what can you do. To wrap up our watch an immature Sabine’s Gull showed fairly well amongst the Bonaparte’s Gulls and Black-legged Kittiwakes and capped a nice little session. Back at Les Escoumins I managed to find the Black-headed Gull to bring a fine day of birding to a close with 56 species under the belt.

Below are some shots – the Rough-legged Hawk, some Barrow’s Goldeneyes and a few of the Northern Wheatear plus an American Tree Sparrow that was daft enough to land near me.

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Snipes

I recently photographed a group of Wilson’s Snipe at St-Lazare sand pitd and posted them on the blog. Two birds facing each other were included and it would be fair to say that they looked pretty different. After the post a reader reasonably suggested that one might be a Common Snipe and, to be fair, you could see where he was coming from. I pointed out that Common Snipe is a very rare species in North America and that I considered both birds to be Wilson’s. I then did my research, referencing a series of useful articles in Birding World (the UK one) on the occurrence of Wilson’s Snipe in the UK and a well-documented Newfoundland record, a link to that is here: http://birdingnewfoundland.blogspot.ca/2011/02/common-snipe.html

I had wanted to illustrate the differences between the two species, or sub-species depending on which ‘wet-finger-in-the-wind’ taxonomy you follow, but I didn’t have any images of Common Snipe, well now I do. Whilst at Leighton Moss in Lancashire, UK, a trio of Common Snipe came darning past the hide using their knitting needles bills to ruin the day of many a worm. Of the three, two were very similar and, it has to be said, a little Wilson’s like. The third, which steadfastly refused to be photographed in the open, was much paler, warmer and buffier, almost a ‘classic’. I’ve been looking at the shots for while now and I’ve been looking at my stock shots from various spots in Québec and Ontario of Wilson’s obviously!) and decided that these are a pair of devils to sort out.

Here’s what I thought I would do, post a load of photos and not tell you which is which plus, post three photos with one Common and one Wilson’s side by side by way of a clue. This topic won’t interest everyone, in fact I’d be fairly confident in saying that most readers won’t give a Beaver’s nostril for the topic but – those of you who struggle to sleep when the weather promises migrants (like me) will like the challenge. Later, if the autumn migration falls on its bottom, I might just do some ID pages using the images – then you can see how right you were, for now enjoy!

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Winding up the trip

October in the UK can be the doldrums in terms of general birding but it is often a great time of the year for vagrants if the conditions allow. Timing is everything and connecting with vagrants requires being in the right place at the right time, that right place being the east coast of England between Scarborough and Great Yarmouth. For us, we were in some of the right places several times but, sadly, a week too early and the masses of rare and sub-rare east coast birds that were being seen last week were most likely ‘in-transit’ when we were around. I suppose it was not outside the bounds of possibility for us to travel across from Lancashire for the day but we were meant to be visiting relatives and not just seeking birds for a year list, so we didn’t.

What we did do was to get around a few Lancashire sites and see a few birds that took the trip list to 127, not terribly bad for about two full days of birding in terms of time spent. We looked at the sea on the high tide and the swaying reeds of Leighton Moss as cold northerlies buffeted the lightweight vegetation.  In truth it was hard work at times and even common birds were not happy to show in the unappealing conditions. We did get a nice day on the penultimate one of our trip and had a couple of hours at Fairhaven Lake in Lytham St-Annes (apparently they have a golf course). Most of the birds we saw were common but a Lapland Longspur was less so, scarce enough for comments on eBird.

It would be fair to say that Lancashire in general is a birding backwater in the UK. There are lots of birds, especially shorebirds, but there are not that many places to go birding per se and, with a logic only a desk-bound RSPB manager could apply, their premier reserve did not stock the Helm guide ‘Where to Watch Birds in Lancashire’, although we could have got the one for Yorkshire there had we needed it – wars have been fought for less. While on the subject of those desk-bound managers, what idiot thought it was a good idea to make the reserve visitors’ wrist band bright yellow? And they sell coats in the shop that are so red that you risk being choked by someone trying to post a letter if you were to stand still for two minutes with your mouth open. Sober colours guys.

Just about our last bird of the trip was pretty much the same as our first, a Red Kite soaring over the Beaconsfield services on the M40. This trip, we concluded, was perhaps the best one we have had ‘home’ despite some challenging circumstances. We saw most (but not all) of the people we wanted to and even saw some we hadn’t expected to at all but were better for it. My Mother managed to stay the right side of the Daisies when it looked pretty iffy for her a couple of weeks ago and we didn’t put any (more) weight on despite the punishing refueling schedule. Now we are back. Everything is red, gold and brown and the winter is peeping over the horizon and planning to employ its own brand of mayhem. This morning I went to the pits for the first time in two weeks. Less water, still trucks everywhere and, on the main lake, four Ruddy Ducks and a Greater Scaup – patch year ticks for me # 178-179.

Below is a selection of common birds from the UK. If you are a UK based reader you will have seen all of these on January 1st for your year list (the old jokes are the best!), if you are a North American reader then there will be some residual interest, especially if you have never crossed the pond.

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For those without a copy of the best bird field guide in the World (above) they are (not in order): Eurasian Magpie, Wood Pigeon, Rook, Black-headed Gull, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Red Kite, Grey Heron and Great Tit.

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