Nice new kit

For a recent birthday my beloved bought me a new camera, it arrived yesterday and so, naturally, today it had to go out for a full field trial. My old Canon EOS 50D has now retired and been replaced with an all singing, all dancing Canon EOS 70D. I don’t normally get such extravagant gifts to commemorate the date my Mother remembers only too well, in fact it was a combined birthday and Christmas present. I think that the new camera takes me to within a whisker of having had all of my presents up to my 110th birthday so I’d better make it last a while.

You will have realised by now, if you are a regular visitor to my musings, that there will be some photos of Snowy Owls here virtually every time. I did take a few photos today as some of the 11 birds I saw sat still for a while. Below are the shots, one was the same bird I snapped two days ago on the same roof but I used better settings. The one sat in the field is the one I thought was glued to a utility pole but obviously not, it can fly or at least walk – it was also a fair way out. The third is another long stayer, one of my secret stash so to speak. This one sat on a pole then flew around me to another pole. The flight shots are not quite as sharp as I’d have liked but background noise kept distracting the focus. As you can see it knew I was there and kept a beady eye on me as it went by.

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Before bagging the owls I visited one of my local aromatic Chicken dung piles. My reward for bringing home the scent was three Lapland Longspurs grubbing around. On one of the closer ones of the male you can actually see the spurs on the right foot. It is one of those odd things, after there being hardly any Laps around this winter, suddenly there are a now few scattered throughout my regular winter patch. I also snapped a Snow Bunting too. It was a bit distant but not terrible.

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Before stomping around in the dung I went to Rue Higgins in Châteauguay hoping for a Carolina Wren for the year. I was in luck and I took a few photos once it came out and sang to me. I also clicked off a few shots on an American Tree Sparrow and a Black-capped Chickadee to see how they came out, not bad.

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So thumbs up for the new kit so far. It will take me a while to get used to the new functions, I may even have to break the habit of a lifetime and read the manual.

Hot spur

After taking the chilly weekend off I was out again braving the sunshine. The blue skies hid a sneaky little breeze though, and when it whipped up it chilled you to the bladder. The cold kept a lot of birds down but there were still seven Snowy Owls to be found around and about. I don’t know yet whether the ‘low’ count is a genuine reduction in numbers or more likely directly related to my reluctance to get out of the car! Only two of the owls were willing to sit still for very long, snaps below.

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Out in the wilds I bumped into Gay and Alison who pointed out a couple of confiding birds in front of their car, a Horned Lark and a Lapland Longspur (see the post title makes sense now!). Usually the birds feeding on the road margins are skittish and frequently flush at the merest 90kmph approach of a vehicle. These birds were much more laid back though, perhaps it was the absence of the nervous and hyperactive Snow Buntings that they often hang out with. I joined them at ground level to get the shots, the wind was pushing them all over the place but I managed a few of each bird. In the last photo you can see how Lapland Longspurs drink – they suck snow!

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Fingers and toes

Today I was out with Alain, our mission – to find a few birds in the -39°C wind chill and not die. Our choice of destination was the scenic Casselman area, nestling midway between Montreal and Ottawa in Ontario. It was the sort of day where exposure to the frigid wind had to be limited to short bursts, followed by longer busts of the car heater on full blast and a brisk counting of digits and any other extremities considered to be at risk.

You won’t be at all surprised to hear that we saw a Snowy Owl, 13 in fact. Most were way out in the fields or sat where their photos would be unflattering, but a couple were willing to exchange anonymity for glory by appearing in this blog. We also saw quite a few Snow Buntings and a few other odds and ends but it was slow at times. We had a quick look at Limoges and Larose Forest, in the hope of finding an Evening Grosbeak but no joy.

One of the Snowy Owls was pretty active and we finally had a decent photo op of it at its third location, atop a tree. I took the digiscoped image below, not bad considering the distance involved.

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The ‘best’ of the Snowy Owls was one perched on a utility pole right by the main route. Alain took a few photos and the owl was quite happy to sit. Once it started flexing a bit I got out the warm car, focussed and waited. Sure enough it launched skyward and flew off to elsewhere. Luckily I had a lock on it and managed a couple of shots of it as it passed by, nice.

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We still have five or so weeks of this high intensity Snowy Owl winter residency, so probably many more opportunities to enjoy this fantastic bird, especially if one deigns to favour the pits. Such has been my enjoyment of this abundance of Snowy Owls that I’ll be almost sorry to see the end of the winter (he lies!).

Blue sky means blue fingers

It was -29°C overnight but had warmed up nicely to -23°C by the time I’d got my padded trousers on and ventured out. In this weather all birds bar the Snowy Owls are hard to find, well the Feral Pigeons are easy enough to find too but they don’t count. I’ll be presumptuous here and assume that you would rather see the pictures of the owls than the pigeons, even though we have been over-dosing on the owls this winter, well the Snowy ones we have.

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The first owl photos (above) are of the same bird but on different dates. This bird has been sat on a hydro pole in the same area every time I’ve been past in the last three weeks. Most of the time it is obscured as one of the poles has some wire things put there by Hydro-Québec to frustrate photographers. Only twice has it been revealed in all its glory and, in keeping with my ‘grab a record shot when you can’ policy, I duly did.

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On a little further and an owl right by the roadside looked good from behind but that big glowing thing in the sky meant that it was backlit, I blame the PQ Government for this and every other woe we may suffer. Moving to the other side, the owl’s tactics soon became obvious, it was hiding behind the twigs and therefore could not be seen.

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The last bird was high in a tree on a road where no prisoners may be taken. I had a ten second window in the traffic and snapped with middling results, hard to get the white right against that sky.

The area I was birding was in the greater St-Clet area although thinking about it, I doubt that great and St-Clet appear in the same context too often. I did see a few other things but not much, not even a single Starling and believe me, I was looking. My little tour wound down with me taking an unkempt road that receives no gravel blessings in winter. My eyes were firmly on a Snowy Owl just 30m from the road and low down, then they wondered why I was now pointing a different direction. It took all my patience and driving cunning to get off the sheet ice and back to the welcome ruts and pot holes of a normal Québec road.

My morning total of Snowy Owls was 23 including two adult males and I wondered whether more owls had moved in from the north or some from the south were heading back north again. The other option was that they were relocated birds from Michigan Airport but then I remembered that they shoot them there instead of seeking a civilized solution, nine have died so far. From memory I can’t actually remember a bit of Michigan with a gap in the trees big enough for planes to land. I suppose it could be worse and we should be thankful that Kirtland’s Warblers don’t interfere with the planes eh?

Snowy Owl – yay!

Friday I was out with Claude hoping to add to his expanding life list with, perhaps, a few year ticks thrown in for me too. We started off at a chilly Verdun down on the St-Lawrence River. There was much less ice than last week meaning many of the duck were further out. We didn’t pin down any of the Barrow’s Goldeneye present, nor did we espy a Harlequin. Way out were 45 Canada Geese that made eBird ask whether I’m sure, yes I am, I counted them.

The light and weather were a bit iffy but we opted to continue the day at Mirabel, looking for Grey Partridge and Lapland Longspur, both were a bust. We did see six Snowy Owls though. One was a bomb-proof post sitter and various bods with cameras enjoyed her company for a while. Naturally I missed the head on yawning shot – I was feeling the cold a bit – but I did capture her post scratch glare. As sometimes happens with this species, this bird treated us all with utter disdain, passing cars likewise. Below are a few images of it ignoring us.

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Further on we had another bird sitting on a mound out in the field. I digiscoped at range getting a nice arty shot. Later it sat on a barn roof and posed while a small flock of Feral Rock Pigeons panicked a bit.

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In one part of the area we were watching some Snow Buntings (why not snowy buntings like the owl, or, why Snowy Owl and not Snow Owl like the buntings?) when we picked up a distant couple of owls interacting. They swooped in and almost talon locked in mid-air. A National Geographic shot had we been just 700m nearer!

Dragging ourselves away from the owls, we dropped into the dump towards Lachute. The gulls were up on the top and only an adult Glaucous was visible. Then the rest of the birds became active and good numbers of both Glaucous and Iceland of all age classes showed. As the weather close din we headed back, passing yet another Snowy Owl – this bird making it a modest seven for the day but with some great watching to be had.

The weather people are predicting deep freeze temps next week so it’s back on with the padded trousers for a while I think.

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Slip sliding away

Mild weather with rain, actually it’s up there around 3°C some days, has left the smaller roads looking like they have been polished by a Zamboni. Just getting down the drive has been exciting, especially when done sideways. It has had an almost spring like feel recently and the birds are enjoying it too. Not so long ago it could be a trial just to find a Starling, now they are sitting up along with all the other stuff that had to shelter in thick hedges to survive the extremely cold spell. Some fields even have bare patches and a few Snow Buntings and Lapland Longspurs have returned.

The year list is plodding along but plodding is the operative word as it is hard work. I managed to see a couple of male Harlequins at Verdun last week then I found three Common Grackles near home. Today I got Merlin and Lapland Longspur to drag the list up to 43, things will improve though. This year I’m not particularly going for a year list, just seeing what comes along. Having said that, I will put my North America year list up on the side column, just as soon it takes on a semblance of respectability (that would be 150+).

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Another feature of today’s little look around were lots of Snowy Owls again – well twelve to be exact. The weather was pretty dull out there and so the photos are not great but hey, you can’t get enough images of such a great bird eh? One of the shots below was taken using the Denniscope™ adaptor (see previous posts and thanks for the name Alain) and I’m quite pleased with some of the shots I’m getting. It looks like I may have solved my long-standing digiscoping problem.

On this blog and by email I’ve had a few people asking how they can see and photograph the owls. My advice is to go out late or early in the day (preferable a weekday) to large, open areas of agricultural land. Check every house or barn roof and any lone trees plus keep one eye on the hydro poles, these tricksy owls can be sat right overhead just when you are looking for distant blobs. Use your car as a blind if you can but make sure you get rid of the heat – open the rear windows to allow warm air to exit otherwise you are shooting through heat haze.

Obviously some sites are going to be better than others. To the north are the fields that people call Mirabel. North and east is St-Barthelemy. West is the St-Clet area and south east are some large and unexplored areas of very suitable habitat where you can find your own birds. Some Snowy Owls will just sit and look at you, others will fly just away if you get out the car. Whatever your owls do show them some respect and be aware that your actions can impact on their welfare. Please, no baiting.

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Brutal

I know my second favourite topic after St-Lazare sand pits is the weather, well I am English after all, but really, when local records for low temperatures get broken you know that it is downright unseasonable out there. I’ll not quote facts, I tend to judge the temperatures by how quickly my nose hair freezes or how far past the STOP signs I’ve actually gone before I’m legal. Usually it’s not the air temperature that gets you, although -29°C is red nose weather. It’s the wind chill that really does it, it cuts through your super warm coats, padded trousers and snow boots and gets right to your bladder.

One paragraph later and I start writing about the birds, that’s how cold it’s been.

It has been slow, except for Snowy Owls that is, which are easy to find if you look properly and I typically see between 8-12 around a 7km circle that is centered on St-Clet. Naturally that sort of concentration has attracted photographers and the vast majority are treating the owls with the respect that they deserve, most know their craft anyway. I have heard though that some people have been along Chemin Ste-Julie with toy mice on strings trying to lure the owls in. I’ve not seen it (yet) but if you read this and you behave like that where the owls are already in danger of traffic collision you are a total arse. If you are a birder and see this, tell the miscreants of the danger to the owls and if they don’t stop, photograph them and shame them on Facebook. I did actually write to our local MP about the possibility of getting something done but I’ve not heard back yet.

Yesterday I made the first visit of the year to the excellent feeders on Rue Higgins in Chậteuguay. All birders know the place and those interested enough go there to get their Québec Red-bellied Woodpecker for the year or even life, as I did years ago. The parking lot was a skating rink but I got in and only had to wait a short while before a pair came in, not close but I got a record shot. I also got Tufted Titmouse too, not quite the sticky find in QC that it once was. No Carolina Wrens showed this time, I may well take up a friend’s offer to pop in and see his on his feeder sometime soon. It would be nice to think that we might eventually get them on the St-Lazare ridge but they seem reluctant to leave the river valleys. Tufted Titmouse might make it here though, it is reported on the CBC sometimes but, as the site is not revealed I’m not sure where to look.

Below a distant record shot of Red-bellied Woodpecker etc.

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Today was milder, relatively, and so after topping up the seed at St-Lazare sand pits I did a tour of the lanes. It was very interesting to see the geographical spread of the Snowy Owls, eight this time. There were a couple at the ‘traditional’ spots along Ste-Julie but then it was fairly barren until I got in the greater St-Polycarpe area where I found five and all fairly close to the town. I thought I’d done for the day when I pulled out onto the Cites des Jeunes to head back to the pits but there were two Snowies on utility poles along the stretch between St-Emmanuele and Ste-Dominique. In terms of line of sight one was perhaps only 600m from my hawk watch point at the pits. This encouraged me to linger at the pits a while in the hope of a fly-over but no luck, yet. It will be interesting to see whether the March staging around St-Clet happens this year. If it does it could look like a scene from a Harry Potter film during mail delivery time on Privet Close.

While out with my chopper recently, the wood we bought for the winter is all cut about 2” too long and had to be cut down, I found this hibernating Hoary Comma. I was careful around it and hopefully it will make spring OK. Not bad for QC, the first butterfly of the year in January!

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The weather (yes back to that) is going to warm up a bit in the next few day but that will bring unwelcome snow too. I’ll probably try to use the wind-less window to get to the river at Verdun where a couple of Harlequins (males) and a Barrow’s Goldeneye are being seen. I still live in hope of a local Northern Hawk Owl but nothing yet unless suppression is rearing its ugly head again.

I’m afraid that you will have to suffer a couple more Snowy Owl shots, the Cites des Jeunes birds (below). I had to drive the busy road (speed limit 90kmph, translates to 110kmph locally!) a few times to get a window in which to stop and grab a shot but it was worth it. They were a dark immature and what I would regard as an adult female, only the second adult I’ve seen this year out my way. I think my personal winter tally of Snowy Owls is somewhere over 60 individuals at four sites now. Larry Lafleur said he was getting bored with them! I say fill your boots while you can, there will be plenty of times to come when you will struggle to find one.

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