2013 round-up

This is a long post so if you have the attention span of a fan of reality TV then perhaps you should just skim the photos.

As always at this time of year I cross the i’s and dot the t’s on the past year. 2013 for me was pretty good in birding terms with 652 species seen. I got out birding on 286 bird days, low for me but a screen porch project and snow slowed me down a bit. The year’s efforts take my life total to 7963 bird days and so I expect to crack 8000 bird days in early 2014. I’ll let you know when it happens.

In 2013 my World list went up by 52 to 2669 with additions from Mexico in January (37 species) and Panama in June (nine species). The other lifers were from Nevada in March (four species) and single lifers in each of QC and Ontario.

My North America (ABA) list had nine additions, taking it to 562, they were: White-headed Woodpecker, Northern Pygmy Owl, Western Screech Owl, Pinyon Jay, Thick-billed Murre, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Ross’s Gull, Northern Lapwing and Garganey.

In Québec my usual dodgy luck changed and I added nine ticks to my province list taking it to 324. I finally saw a Purple Sandpiper in QC and also ‘went’ for the breeding Cerulean Warblers at their only regular site at Philipsburg. The other additions were Western Kingbird, Louisiana Waterthrush, Western Meadowlark, Northern Lapwing, Garganey, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Swainson’s Hawk and Ross’s Gull. MY QC year list ground to a halt at 249 species although I didn’t really expend any effort year listing – my best year remains 2007 when I saw 266 species.

There is still a lot of room for improvement where my QC list is concerned, notably in getting my head down in 2014 and finding the regular breeders – LeConte’s Sparrow, Yellow Rail, Sharp-tailed Grouse and Bicknell’s Thrush. I could also add a flush of QC ticks were I to do the Blanc Sablon ferry trip, but it is not cheap and no lifers would be involved. My target in 2014 is to reach 330 – perhaps a bit ambitious but I still need some of the relatively regular species aside from the four mentioned.

I managed to get to my local patch, St-Lazare sand pits, 183 times and added nine species to my personal site list and to the list of species recorded at the site. They were: Glaucous Gull, Red-throated Loon, Yellow-throated Vireo, Louisiana Waterthrush, Virginia Rail, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Eastern Towhee, Swainson’s Hawk and Winter Wren. The additions taking my personal site total to 221 out of 228 species known to have occurred there.

The regular visits and some small dedication to the sand pits saw me recording 180 species during the year. This was a new year list record and one that could have been improved had I not missed Wilson’s Phalarope, Great Grey Owl and Northern Mockingbird that occurred there. I also set a new site day list record on 23rd August when I found 78 species there. Sadly, after I have clocked up 1501 visits in the past ten years the life span of the pits may be coming to an end. The corner near the Base de Plein Air had a constant stream of loaded trucks arriving to deposit their loads for most of the year, destroying the area that held Vesper Sparrow amongst other things. If the level of infill that took place in 2013 continues then 2014 could see another 6-10% lost. At the moment it does not impact on the main birding areas of the site but that may change in 2014. According to the local environmental officer the site after use is housing – I can only hope my constant voodoo chanting brings down the desired plague on developers and the like and that I can get a few more bird filled years out of it.

Every year I set myself optimistic targets for new species that I might possibly find for my local patch, in 2014, they are:  Marsh Wren, Sora, White-winged Scoter, Northern Mockingbird, Snowy Owl, Northern Saw-whet Owl, Boreal Owl, Short-eared Owl, Gyr Falcon, Blue-grey Gnatcatcher, Horned Grebe, Great Grey Owl, American Three-toed Woodpecker and a phalarope, any phalarope will do! My current circumstances allow me to visit regularly but that may change, who knows.

I made eBird a habit in 2013 and it has actually changed the way I record birds when I’m out. I try to count as much as possible instead of just noting what I know to be relevant. My life total of eBird entries, more trivia I know, is now at 4301. I would reckon that will be 12000 plus when I’ve finished entering all my past records from all of my accumulated notebooks and spreadsheets. My 2013 year total of entries into eBird was 621 – modest compared to some but then I don’t believe in entering stuff for every 20 feet but lump contiguous habitats – such as the expansive fields around St-Clet, into one location. Obviously this is not suitable for a mosaic of habitats and it takes experience to know when to lump and split.

In 2013 I also entered my lists into Bubo, an on-line listing site based in the UK but suitable for all wherever you are. If you’ve not already used the software just Google Bubo. If you are an anti-lister, and some are, well you are entitled to your opinion however misguided you are.

Aside from the birds, I had a pretty good year for dragonflies at the pits with six additions to my personal site list including one lifer (Elfin Skimmer). I also added Variegated Meadowhawk and Sphagnum Sprite and Black-shouldered Spinyleg to the site’s unrivaled odonata list. My personal pits ode list is now 76 out of 78 species known to occur at the site. Taking a broader view I also added seven species to my QC list including four lifers taking my QC list to 113 species.

During the year I had the great pleasure of birding with my good lady wife, Sandra. I also spent time in the field with Graham, Colin, Steve & Howard in the UK, Claude, Alain, Rob in Nevada, Jordan and Zoe and Mikkel and I met more fellow QC birders than ever before. It was great fun everybody and I hope to see some of you in 2014.

Right, after all that bumf here are the pictures, all taken during 2013 and selected for the best of reasons, because I like them – captions at the bottom.

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This set of photos are from a January trip to Puerto Vallarta on the west coast of Mexico. We didn’t get shot at or kidnapped by drug cartels but we did see lots of birds and enjoyed a few photo ops. The species are: Brown Pelican, Mangrove Cuckoo, Mexican Yellow Grosbeak, Least Grebe, Military Macaw and Yellow-crowned Night Heron.

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Panama is one of our favourite destinations and this year we took a green season trip, swapping the Gamboa Rainforest Lodge for the Decameron noisy beach hovel two hours east of Panama City. The hotel site aside we birded parts of Panama we’d not seen before and had some luck with the camera. You can see the posts by clicking on the Panama tab at the top – here are shots of: Mangrove Cuckoo, Roadside Hawk, Ruddy-breasted Seed-eater, Aplomado Falcon, Yellow-headed Caracara and White Ibis.

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March found me spending three weeks working in Nevada for convoluted reasons that you just couldn’t make up! While there I took every opportunity to enjoy the bird life around Reno and a little further afield. I was a bit early for the main migration but still saw a lot of birds. Here are shots of California Quail, Northern Flicker, Hermit Thrush and Sandhill Crane.

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A trip to the UK in October allowed me to add two species to my still precious Nottinghamshire list – Cetti’s Warbler and Red Kite. Photo ops were few but some unexpected Glossy Ibis were snapped. It was nice to see common birds like Woodpigeon, Common Gull, Magpie, Rook, and Robin again and to see the first Whooper Swans at Martin Mere in Lancashire.

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Québec hosted a good rarity this year, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper. I dipped one in 1983 in the UK and had not had the opportunity to catch up with one until a bird stayed a few days at Baie du Febvre. It proved very popular with QC birders from far and wide.

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Winter saw an influx of Great Grey Owls and a couple were present around St-Lazare. The bird was very faithful to an easily reached spot near the town and was typically fearless. I later found out that one had been seen at the sand pits but you could only get to it by cross-country ski or snow-shoe, methods of traversing snow that I don’t have any inclination to practice.

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Other much appreciated photo ops during the year were: Rough-legged Hawk (dark form), American Bittern, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Osprey, Swamp Sparrow, Northern Shrike, Least, Baird’s and Pectoral Sandpipers, Grey Jay, Cape May Warbler and a particularly apoplectic Ovenbird.

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One of the birds of the year for me was a Thick-billed Murre – a species I have wanted to see for many years. I never expected my first to be bobbing on Kingston waterfront just a few feet away but it was. In strange symmetry, the first truly twitchable one in the UK is itself bobbing about off Portland, Dorset at the moment.

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Finally, although we are only part-way through it, a clear highlight for the year is the current Snowy Owl influx, the largest for very many years. These magnificent birds never get boring and to be able to go out and see a lot is a treat to cherish while it lasts.

So that wraps up 2013. The snow is falling once again adding to what has been the snowiest December we’ve known in the 10.5 years we’ve been here. The notebook for 2014 is gently snoring on the table but will be ready for the January 1st start. We also have a trip to parts Texan to look forwards too and may well be getting out west again later in the year. In 2014 I might also finally get around to publishing the first of my ‘Just a Birder’ books, I hope so.

Happy New Year to everyone and I wish you great birding.

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29

Today I was out birding with Claude on one of his regular trips to Québec. Photo ops were the order of the day but we wanted to find Rough-legged Hawk and anything else interesting. Snowy Owls played a big part in the day and below are a selection of photos from some of the 29 birds seen – nine in QC and, well you can do the math!

We started off at Wal-Mart in Vaudreuil – no not to take advantage of their tremendous sale but to see whether any of the regular parking lot Snowy Owls were present. We passed one sat above highway 40 on the way and yes, a dark immature was right where I’d left it last week near Reno Depot. Photos were taken and we waved bye bye.

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We went up highway 20, came off at St-Feréol on the way to the St-Clet area and added another three snowies to the score. Around St-Clet, birds the snowies were a bit distant but another four joined their friends on our day list before we decided to go off to the Casselman area between Ottawa and QC. It proved to be a good choice as we found owl after owl, some posing by the roadside, others more circumspect. At a loo stop, one bird sat on the Burger King sign advertising their treats and so I pointed it out to one of the young ladies charged with making our coffee, I could tell she was impressed.

While in the Casselman area we enjoyed many Snow Buntings and Horned Larks before coming across a feeding frenzy out in one of the fields. Something not now qualified for life insurance was attracting a large and unruly mob of Ravens and, several (eight) brawling Red-tailed Hawks and three dignified and definitely top scavenger Bald Eagles – two were adults.

At the nearby Lafleche road dump  http://goo.gl/maps/R65l6 three Iceland and a Glaucous Gull wheeled above the area that no non-refuse guy will ever enter while two more Snowy Owls watched agog.

A fine day in good company and with 29 Snowy Owls seen although I may already have mentioned that!

No mice, just patience and field craft were used for the photography. Some were digiscoped using my new rig – an old Nikon Coolpix with a big rubber bit glued on so that it slides over the scope eyepiece in seconds, marvelous.

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Happy Christmas

Recently the weather has been vile but we did better than Toronto for once with no ice storm and no loss of power. Usually we end up sitting in the semi-dark, frantically stoking the fire until Hydro-Québec do their stuff. This time we got mostly snow plus a few ice pellets but nothing we couldn’t deal with. The harsh weather has been particularly tough on the birds but all birders have feeders and that keeps them going at times like this. I’ve been to St-Lazare sand pits a few times and keep a feeding spot stocked there. Nearby to the pits (within the area I record from) sit houses worth half a million dollars but their owners can’t be bothered to stock the feeders they have so it looks like there will be no end of year House Finch for the pits list as I’d hoped. I keep checking the snowy lumps for snowy lumps too but that is just wishful thinking I think. Below a few views of the snowy pits.

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The owl fest continues when you can actually get out there. The roads today were sheet ice in places and the ploughs still have a lot to do. I got to tour the lanes of St-Clet seeing 14 Snowy Owls, some close as in on utility poles next to the road. Some were high, as in roadside trees and a fair few just sat out on the snow keeping an eye on the Coyotes that become so visible during the winter.

Before New Year I’ll do a review – as usual – and I’ll be recycling the photos I liked the best from the year. For now here are a few photos from this morning. I’d have sat a bit longer with the owl on the utility pole but the local bottom feeders do not like parked cars as it means they have to slow their vehicles down and turn their steering wheel a bit – strenuous!

Finally a Happy Christmas to all readers – whatever you believe in. I hope I’ve kept you entertained and informed this past year.

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Background noise

This morning I had a little list of things I needed to pick up from the stores in the local retail park at Vaudreil. I’d planned to have a look around later in the hope of seeing a few more Snowy Owls now that the temperature had warmed up to -18°C and that blasted wind had gone completely so I had my kit with me.

The shopping went as well as can be expected given the trying circumstances viz, parents spending stupid amounts on stupid presents that their ever ungrateful offspring will either demolish or abandon within hours of the wrapping paper hitting the recyc bin! I wonder if they’d go for the idea of a premium rate shopping trolley there with Ben Hurr chariot style spiked wheels, I think there would be lots of takers.

As I left the profligate to their fun I glanced up and there was a dark immature Snowy Owl ignoring me. My vantage point was not the best but, but using my pigeon-French I got access to the nearby construction site and, thanks to the better angle I was able to get a few photos as the owl looked around and treated all of the human traffic as background noise. I put the bird in the scope and the construction guy came for over for a look. He then told me they always had lots of them where he lived – perhaps the white plumage made him confuse Snow Geese with Snowy Owls!

Below owl #1, a variety of shots and edits.

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As I watched, the owl suddenly perked up and dropped, well like and owl really. It hit a non-descript part of the field next to where I was standing but came up empty. It then sauntered – for want of a better description – up onto a pile of snow and proceeded to ignore everything again. I took a few shots then left. As I pulled out onto Chemin de la Gare I looked up at another Snowy Owl on top of a utility pole just over the road. In short order I’d procured a couple of acceptable shots of this bird too.

Below owl #2.

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The drop in the wind had obviously encouraged owls that had previously been (sensibly) sheltering to sit up and get active. Perhaps a couple of days without much hunting success was also part of the carrot that got them going. With that in mind I set off to see how many there were, I didn’t have to go far. On St-Feréol off highway 20 I found two more. A little further north, on Montee Chenier I found three more and so I then went directly to St-Lazare sand pits hoping for my pits lifer (you knew I’d work it in somehow) and saw none!

For many people this body severe blow in the face of reason would do for them but not me. I went off on my regular owl route out around St-Clet even though I’d done practically the same run yesterday and not seen an owl. The owls out that way were clearly happy to join in the wind free fun and I counted another nine, making 16 for the morning. My haul also included my first adult male of the season – he being the only one close enough for a snap.

With so many Snowy owls around I’m sure I’ll get one for my pits list eventually, probably a fly-over and preferably being chased by a Gyr Falcon or am I being too greedy there?

If you read this and go to the retail park to photograph the owls, please remember that they are wild and that they will let you photograph them at a reasonable range – a range set by them. Also, please, no mice there and especially around St-Clet. You don’t want to put the owls in any danger now do you?

Below the male Snowy Owl including aback shot – mostly because that was the way it was facing but also to show how little black there is on it.

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Sorry to see you go.

I just received my December issue of Birding World, a monthly birding magazine originally devoted to UK birding but that expanded to become on a par with the best periodicals of its kind. In an understated way the editorial board announced that the  magazine was wrapping up – not because of lack of demand, but because the producers, all of whom had been involved since its inception,  were ready for a change.

In the olden days birders in the UK had a choice of magazines that reflected their interests, well it was a choice of one really and it was called British Birds (BB). Although BB is an excellent magazine it was always limited in that it had to strike a balance between those who liked to chase rarities and those who thought a good day out was counting the number of times Eurasian Coots participated in cloaca pecking! Usually the balance went heavily in favour of what some might regard as ‘serious’ ornithology and that meant that a large swathe of what I will call ‘new attitude’ birders were being under represented.

In the mid to late 1980s this situation changed when some of the UKs most active birders started a premium rate service called Birdline. The service brought rare bird information into the mainstream and the income generated by this service spawned the magazine ‘Twitching’. After one volume the name changed to become ‘Birding World’, it was just the monthly fix that many birders in the UK needed.

I got on board by volume three of Birding World which meant that I had to play catch up and seek out the first three volumes on the used market. Such was the quality of the magazine that they were very hard to come by but eventually I got them and now I have the full sweep. The magazine could sometimes seem to just be a collection of photographs but, having been involved in things like newsletters and a low circulation magazine myself, I know how hard it can be to find suitable material sometimes. Besides, you simply cannot have enough photographic reference for some species.

There was also the requirement for the rest of the birding World to buy in to the concept of a new birding magazine. Some, mostly establishment types, never did, often referring to Birding World as a comic, not serious, of low value. For all its readers this was clearly not the case. What it did was to part challenge and part supplement the establishment. The establishment didn’t much like this new kid on the block because they’d had had it all their own way until then and “they don’t like it up em”, to quote the redoubtable Corporal Jones*.

Over the years, Birding World became a valuable birding reference and as valid as any field guide or more lauded tomes. The contents are now out there in both print and as a multi-media reference and the very good they did for us birders will remain ever available. It would be good if, one day, all of the ground-breaking identification papers Birding World publised were collated into a book. While I may have them in magazine form, I’d buy them again as a book.

So farewell Birding World – you were my monthly connection to the UK birding scene and even the Internet will not replace that connection, not in such a readily accessible format. I still pick out volumes for reference or just to browse and, just recently, I came across a piece I wrote for you about taking photographs through a spotting scope. I’d forgotten that I’d even written it but there were my words and photographs telling fellow birders just how good that form of photography could be, just look at us now!

If you don’t have Birding World on your shelves and are serious about the accumulation of birding knowledge then you have a serious gap. Fortunately, with the placing of the entire magazines contents on CD-Rom, you can fill that gap cheaply and save space too, visit http://www.birdingworld.co.uk/ for details.

I stopped taking BB about in 2008 despite my collection going back to the early 1950s. It looks like I’ll be going back but to a changed BB and why changed Because they had to change to compete with Birding World and a whole new generation of demanding birders.

*Dad’s Army – BBC TV UK comedy show about WW2 and a semi-fictitious unit of the Home Guard.

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Warm coat time

Yesterday I was out with Australian birders Jordan and Zoe. Our main target was Snowy Owl and you’d think it would be pretty easy at the moment but no. We drove the St-Clet lanes and only found one bird. Later we passed one near Mellocheville but it was way out in a field and we were hauling bottom down highway 30 to Vaudreuil to rendezvous with the train back to downtown.

We did all the St-Clet lanes seeing just a single Snow Bunting, where on earth have the rest gone? We did pick up a few things new to our visitors before heading to Hungry Bay where we enjoyed some success at the feeders. Tufted Titmice were frequent an a couple of House Finch dropped by. We then went to look at the remaining open water next to the Pont du Gonzague. It was pretty good with a few welcome Snow Geese, lots of Hooded Mergansers, a Bufflehead and, quite surprisingly a Pied-billed Grebe.

Our little jaunt produced 39 species, not too bad when it was -12°C with a wind chill factor of -19°C. Jordan and Zoe coped well with the temperatures although I suspect Zoe will be glad to get back to pleasantly warm Perth while Jordan is here a while longer and it looks like he will get the opportunity to enjoy a real Canadian winter.

Today Sandra and I went off to La Prairie. The reason was to search for a wintering Northern Mockingbird and to have a bracing walk in the -23°C. We came across c40 House Finch, a couple of which posed for shots. After completing a circuit of the woodlot we found the mockingbird back almost right by the parking lot. It sat shivering on a branch but looked healthy enough and so we took a few photos and enjoyed getting a good view of a fairly scarce species in Québec.

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Driving home we passed a Snowy Owl right by highway 20 at Les Cedres but with the bonus of a service road to stop on. The owl was skittish when the trucks went thundering past and eventually gave up on the perch and went off out into the fields to sit somewhere safer and quieter. I got lucky and was looking through the lens just as it went.

The Northern Mockingbird was a new one for my winter list. This year I’m up to 68 so quite encouraging and with plenty of gaps. It would be nice if eBird Canada had the winter list up in their totals.

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Gulls

I rather like gulls. Not in the biblical sense you understand, I wouldn’t stoop so low, well not with my back I wouldn’t. No I like the plumage variety and the subtleties of shades of grey. Then there are the white winged gulls. Glaucous Gulls, big, imposing, murderous. Iceland gulls, more delicate, friendly of face but still equipped with a bill that could do you damage. That is why I like to take the trouble every now and then to visit them at roost or at rest.

In the winter, the dump at St-Andre near Mirabel is the local go to place. The dump itself is inaccessible but the gulls all like to loaf in the fields to the south and can be watched there at leisure. I dropped in this morning, it was -10°C but the gulls didn’t mind and were all spread out over the rutted terrain making a clear view a challenge. The situation for viewing improves when the snow gets deeper but when they are squatted down in ruts they become a jigsaw puzzle. As it was the nearest birds were easy enough to see and contained several Glaucous Gulls and a couple of Iceland Gulls.

As often happens at this site, one of the regular Bald Eagles took to the air causing general panic amongst everything. Naturally the gulls felt the best way to respond to the threat was to fly around in a big group, thereby reducing the odds of being the eagles’ next meal. I took a number of snaps as the gulls swirled and tried to count the white winged gulls to species level. I came to around 20 Glaucous and eight Iceland as a minimum. I’d have liked longer with the gulls on the floor because I thought there might be a Lesser Black-backed Gull in there and who knows what else but it was not to be.

How many white winged gulls can you see in the photos?

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The gulls all went back to the dump after the intervention by the eagle so I was making to leave when a dark-form Rough-legged Hawk came over with a Common Raven on its tail. The raven badgered the hawk all the way across the sky. Mostly the hawk ignored the attention but once, just after the raven had whacked it and a more appropriate response was required, the hawk flipped on its back and gave it the sharp end. The photos below show some of the action. In my defence for the quality of the photos, their little event took place at quite a height.

I’ve created a gallery that can be accessed from the tab on the header. I’ll post photos as I get the time and will eventually have a couple of hundred species up there.

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