Winter review

It’s May tomorrow, probably the best month of the year bird-wise although, with the erratic weather patterns we are enjoying these days, who knows how long that will last.

It is well known that Québec only has the two seasons, summer and winter, and so I’m taking the time to review what has been a long, cold and largely uneventful winter unless you are a Snowy Owl. My notebook tells me that it was -10°C on November 13th-2013, but that was not the start of winter, that comes when the horrible white stuff falls and sits belligerently until the thaw. We didn’t have to wait long, it was November 20th when the first snow arrived.

Our winter birding hopes were prepared, as usual, by the winter finch forecast and this winter it was spot on. All of the crossbills seem to be well away from my area and even a good drive north seemed unlikely to produce one, only a few years ago White-winged Crossbill bred in the garden. Pine Siskins and Bohemian Waxwings were nowhere to be found, similarly Pine Grosbeak and any redpolls. Odd things lingered from ‘summer’, a Fox Sparrow in the garden was taken by a Sharp-shinned Hawk just after dawn on December 1st 2013 but at least I’d made the effort to get up and look early for my Québec winter list. I didn’t really consider getting both Fox Sparrow and sharpie in one field of view, however brief for one of them, a bonus.

For those who don’t know, in Canada we have a winter listing season – December 1st – February 28th. My winter list was a modest 80 species, my third best winter list since I started them. The winter list is really just something to stop you looking out the window and thinking it would be stupid to go out in that! So you do. I’m lucky in that we have a regular Snowy Owl wintering area on the doorstep and it offers some compensation for not being able to get to many areas and the general lack of birds. Most winters I have seen between eight and twelve individuals over the course of the winter, although there were rarely more than four present at any one time and, during the winter of 2010-2011, they were absent bar one weekend when two lingered briefly.

Within the winter dates of November 20th to about the beginning of April 2014 I had only one lifer, but it was a bird I’d long wanted to see and one that I never really expected to see so well. It was at Kingston, Ontario and it was a Brunnich’s Guillemot. I refrain from using the North American name, Thick-billed Murre here because I prefer the Brunnich’s bit. The bird, probably exhausted, bobbed gently off the lakefront in downtown Kingston, it was magical.

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In November we started to hear about large numbers of Snowy Owls appearing on the east coast, it seemed that there was something happening, something that we did not understand. We sat at the beginning of an arrival of Snowy Owls so large that it may be impossible to actually be able to accurately state how many were involved. Some of the owls didn’t stop at the east coast and birds in Western Europe are surely of Nearctic origin. With the irruption as a source of inspiration I started to scour the regular owl spots, but we didn’t see the first around St-Clet until December 2nd. Other sites were reporting birds, but nothing that signified that we were part of the irruption, yet.

I continued to see the odd Snowy Owl on my almost daily trips along what I call ‘the lanes’ but it wasn’t until December 18th when I knew we were in for an exceptional experience. On that day I did a bit of light shopping at Walmart in Vaudreuil. The two Snowies in the parking lot were not on my shopping list. Realising that I needed to get out I headed towards the lanes. By the time my circuit was complete I’d seen 16 different birds in perhaps 60% of the available area, game on!

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Every winter trip out seemed to include seeing some Snowy Owls. I went out with visitors several times during the winter and it was great to share the birds with a very appreciative audience. I doubt that there were any local birders who did not see some Snowy Owls this winter, if there are then I can only assume that their life support machine didn’t have a long enough extension cable to allow them to get out.

The year 2014 got off to a stuttering start. We did have what the weather forecasters like to call ‘winterval’, but not for long. The cold persisted and the snow fell at times, it was not much fun. Part of the problem was the interminable biting wind, it’s still blowing today and still has an edge. Many was the time that birding trips out had to be punctuated with warm ups in the car. One bitter day saw myself and my friend Claude from Toronto out on Mont Royal looking for a Black-backed Woodpecker. It was freezing and the woodpecker was being elusive. We did finally track it down and it made up for hiding by showing so well and for so long and even with the light behind it. A few days later myself and another friend, David from the UK, found a male in St-Lazare Pinade. This bird too was happy to show itself, a truly special woodpecker and another moment of joy in this sparse winter.

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So the winter has gone and spring migration is gaining pace. Warblers will be bouncing around our garden soon and perhaps we’ll see a few more good rarities in Québec this spring, we can only hope. In a few short months we’ll get the finch forecast again and we are probably due a crossbill winter, there should be redpolls, siskins and winter waxwings and maybe even Pine Grosbeaks. Snowy Owls might well be in abundance too, there are now a lot of them around even if many are not yet old enough to breed. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

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