The Meadowlark

It had been a hard winter, although winter was not a word familiar to the Meadowlark, it had no comprehension of words, just sounds. Angry sounds, attractive sounds, hungry sounds, panic sounds. Now it was time to leave, to go north, but Meadowlarks don’t really know what north is. The other Meadowlarks, the ones that are always here in the winter place are losing patience with the ones that are not and it was time to go north.

It wasn’t so far, although Meadowlarks have no real idea of distance, it was just from where it went in winter to where it went in summer. It was still cold, very cold, although Meadowlarks have no concept of hot or cold either, it was cold.

The summer place, the place where it was from was different every year, although Meadowlarks have no way of measuring a year, but it did change. Before, it was home, summer home, the summer place and it lived there, in the summer. Now summer was coming and it had to be there, in the summer place.

The Meadowlark had been taught about shapes, good shapes and bad shapes, and there were lots of bad shapes on the way but, being a Meadowlark it didn’t really know what a raptor was, apart from it being a bad shape, always a bad shape. In the summer place were good shapes, sometimes bad shapes but mostly good shapes, it was the summer place.

It was close now, everything looked familiar, the hills, the fields, the shapes, all looked like it looked every time it made its way to the summer place, mostly. This would be the fourth time it had gone to the summer place from the winter place. The winter place was smaller every year, less to find food and shelter, more Meadowlarks in less space, every year less.

The summer place, where is the summer place? There is the shape of the hills and the shape of the new hills and a new shape, a shape on the summer place, there is no more summer place, what to do, got to find another summer place but it’s late and the other Meadowlark will be looking too, what if they didn’t find each other, they always found each other at the summer place, always.

No summer place, no other Meadowlark, lots of other Meadowlarks but no summer place Meadowlark. What to do, where to go, think, although Meadowlarks have no concept of think as far as we know. No more Meadowlarks from the summer place, no more. Move, keep moving.

Bad shape, oh!

Please forgive me for this rather soppy little story but it was inspired by my finding that some urgent pizza place or something has been built on a meadow in Vaudreuil that has had Meadowlarks for the past 12 years. It was right on the Vaudreuil exit of the 40, to the north, and now it is gone and so too will the Meadowlarks. They can fly though and so can find another summer place, right? Wrong, because the other summer places are also going too, so there are not enough to go around. The winter place won’t be far behind either. Sometimes I wish I could apologise to the Meadowlarks on behalf of the humans and to explain why a Pizza Express is so urgently needed, although I’d have to lie, obviously.


This is known as blatant subliminal advertising!

I actually went out today. The first stop was Hungry Bay and it was cold. After a bit of wandering I ended up back at St-Lazare sand pits, it only makes sense, well to me it does. I did a hawk watch, not a long one but productive. At one point I had three Golden Eagles in the air together, two adults and a second year. I also saw my first Red-winged Blackbirds of the year and a Rough-legged Hawk, a welcome pits year tick.

It looks like we have turned a corner with the weather, well a bit, and we are seeing a steady shift away from the cold over the next few days, -17°C this morning for a while, and spring can finally get cracking.

Incidentally, I will get around the putting the Q & A thing I mentioned a few posts ago although it will be just a book plug post for those that have need of a picture fix. Thanks to those who sent ideas.

The photos for today are mostly Red-tailed Hawk. I did a collage thing because I was bored and I did an arty one as it flew past the Moon (relatively). The other shot is the Mother of all record shots, a Golden Eagle taken from St-Lazare sand pits as it soared over Nunavut.

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UPDATE 25th-March another three Golden Eagles plus first of the season Killdeer and Red-shouldered Hawk.


eReaders and stuff

This is a bit of a rambling post with photos at the end, feel free to wander off if you get bored, I won’t be offended.

What prompted this post, apart from taking advantage of the air time to promote my new eBook ‘My Patch’, now available at $1.99US, is to chat a bit about how best to read the things. People sit and read, or exercise and read, some drive and read but tend to end up in the median facing the wrong way so we’ll rule them out of any intelligent conversation. Many people read in bed and like to do so in comfort. They are usually over 22 years old, have had their fussy out of sex by then, ok, 23 then but come on, nobody is a machine! So what is available to facilitate that reading urge?

Not many people want to take a full-sized pc to bed so they can read an eBook. Some might take their laptop or tablet, but neither are that comfy to read on and an illuminated screen of that nature is not a restful sight before slumber, therefore reading in bed needs to be carefully thought about.  The ideal way to read any eBook is on a dedicated eReader and, at around $80.00 they are not bad vaslue.

Here is a link to the Kobo ones: I chose these because Sandra has one and I can comment directly. I also have a Kobo, it’s a Vox and, while it is an adequate reader, it wants to do too many things such as tell you what you have read – is it me or is this pointless? Looking at their web site, they don’t seem to sell them anymore, which is a good thing because they were expensive, hyperactive junk. The screen on my Vox recently cracked and, while the words of the books I’m reading are not falling out, the crack is off-putting and my next reader will be a real one.

Sandra’s e-Reader is the Kobo touch and she loves it. Before this she got through three Sony e-Readers (The Sony Die-soon was the model I think),they are now no longer available (except at a dump near you!). Her little eReader folds like a book, the pages turn with a swipe or click of a button and they download wirelessly, just what you want really.

Back to my latest eBook ‘My Patch’ and here is another (and last) snippet to tempt you and, if you are tempted, just click on the cover on the side bar to go to the web site. For details of how to download to Kindles and the like, there is info on the eBooks page tab at the top. A lot of Kindle owners think that they can only buy from Amazon, this is not the case, Smashwords offer Kindle friendly versions of all their eBooks.

my patchsmall

The pain and ramifications of missing a patch tick:

You have watched your patch almost daily throughout May for the past ten years. One day you are told by your partner that the – whatever – needs fixing in your house, and that you have to shop for the parts NOW. As you negotiate the slow weekend traffic, it starts to rain, the start of some unsettled weather now arriving on a cool front after days of high pressure. In the DIY store parking lot you see a Blackpoll Warbler in the only tree to survive the erratic driving of the locals; a good sign for migration, bad news for you.

Your birding friend Dan has also noted the change in the weather and, as you browse the confusing aisles of the DIY store while the hailer goes on and on about customer service 6000, he is heading towards the scrubby edge of your shared patch. Within moments of arriving, Dan has started seeing birds and soon delights in letting you know via joyful texts to your phone.

While you patiently wait for the beeping monstrosity of a forklift to get out of the aisle, Dan is picking his way through a fall-out of migrant warblers when he hears a scratchy, chattering song from the scrub. He suspects that he knows the singer, cues up the iPod and attracts it into view, a fine Yellow-breasted Chat. Having had a good view, Dan texts you (again!) and tells you that it is there, exactly where it is and how well it is showing.

The chat is a provincial rarity, Quebec gets one most years but that is about it. Dan also knows that, because of your shared obsession, the skulking chat is a site first – therefore neither you nor anyone else have never seen one there, it is a patch tick for everyone. Dan now has it, you most certainly do not. You have read and re-read the text and have begun to perspire, despite the store air conditioning being set so low that it attracts complaints from the Inuit.

As you pick up the pace around the store you are wondering why every shelf that has the bit you so desperately need is empty, and why the weekend staff, who are obviously not applying customer care anywhere, have no idea what you are talking about. Eventually a grey-top shows up, makes the familiar sucking through the teeth noise, so beloved of people in the home repair field and leads you to a row full of stuff that will do the job but that is in an aisle labelled ‘Timber’.

You get home and do the repair, then get a barrage of texts asking where you are and telling you that the bird was still showing well until five minutes ago, but then got harder to find when the sun came out and the weather cleared, good luck when you finally get there!

You dash down to your patch, arm on the window playing it cool although you actually start playing the chat’s songs and calls on the iPod (loud) about three stop signs before the parking lot and you have all of the car windows open, just in case. You quick-march to the spot, then walk slowly around – playing the sounds of the chat and everything else that you can think of that might attract it or at least make it move, even Colima Pygmy-Owl, you never know. When you have tripped over the same tree root three times in five minutes because it’s now become too dark to see, you finally admit that it has gone and you’ve missed it.

You get home, struggling to hide your obvious despair and your partner commits the cardinal (Northern) sin and says “it’s only a bird”. Six months later you are living in Dan’s basement with a divorce on the horizon. Your now ex is dating the grey-top from the DIY and you are eating unhealthy microwave meals for one while sitting in your underwear, needle in hand as you try to move your pants’ button out another inch.

I have a couple of other writing projects on the go. One is a dragonfly guide, there is the cover, I’ll try to complete it before the first ode flies.

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Now to some recent birds. Yesterday and today I’ve been out looking for Grey Partridges around St-Clet. They can be elusive at the best of times but in soft, fluffy snow you have to hope that you are near enough to see a head appear. Snowy Owls are there in number though, 12 yesterday after 75% coverage, seven today after 35%. I only found Snow Buntings on Montee Chenier but around 250 so a nice flock.

Incidentally, I’ve been to Hudson a few times to try to snap Bohemian Waxwings again but the flock seems to have wandered off, or I’ve just not found them.

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These two Snowy Owls are sat on roofs which have areas without snow. The owls, sensible creatures that they are, only sit on the snow covered bits.

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I’ve not had any feedback from those who have bought ‘My Patch’ yet, if I do get printable comments I’ll air them here.

An no sooner do I make this aside that I get the following, unsolicited comment plus some advice re holding an eReader. Many thanks Richard and Jean:

Richard Gregson:  Somewhat plaintively (wink emoticon) Mark writes at the end that “I’ve not had any feedback from those who have bought ‘My Patch’ yet, if I do get printable comments I’ll air them here.” So, I laid out my $1.99, grossly inflated by the exchange rate to $2.57 in real money, and had a good read. What it says is all set out in Mark’s enjoyably, shall we say idiosyncratic, style and tells it the way it is as far as patch birding goes. Doesn’t pull many punches doesn’t our MD. A topic that is not so generously covered elsewhere. Anyway, I made it to the last page without any effort and I would say that anyone who thinks birding is half-way worth doing will enjoy the book …. even at the exchange-rate inflated price. A jolly good read … go and buy a copy before the store runs out of electrons and they have to order some more. (PS: iPads, better than plain vanilla e-readers – you can do your emails at the same time as reading your book.)

Jean Gregson: Mark refers to comfortable ways of holding e-readers – this works for me:

Twitching Times taster

Since this is my blog I thought I’d shamelessly promote my new birding book, Twitching Times.

It is customary to offer snippets from the book and, to give you some sort of idea what it is all about, here is the account of a bird-filled trip to the Isles of Scilly in October 1985. The accounts are necessarily brief here but you get the flavour. For my Canadian readers, you will know all of these species as being common, especially during migration, in the UK they are mega rare. The equivalent in the Montreal area would be Nun’s Island hosting a dozen European vagrants on the same weekend.

Scilly 12th to 14th-October 1985

‘Jammy bastards’ was the description given to those birders who arrived on the Isles of Scilly on the golden weekend of 12th-14th October 1985. Many had endured weeks of meagre helpings, only for those who had remained on the mainland to show up and tick the lot in one, glorious weekend. By luck rather than judgement, I was one of the jammy bastards, along with the rest of our group, Gill Webb (now Woodhead), Steve Keller and John Hopper. We didn’t feel jammy until we got there, but jammy we certainly were.

The trip started out from Nottingham and would be undertaken in my ageing Renault 5. We’d drive down overnight, sharing the pleasure. On the way, we planned to look for a Black-headed Bunting in Cornwall, and there the fun started. The bunting had been in fields at Porthcothan, north of Newquay. Porthcothan sits at the top of a steep Cornish hill and the Renault had a problem there, it didn’t particularly like hills (well, the up part at least). The only answer was for three of us to get out and walk, and one to coax it to the top, supplemented by shoving as necessary. Coming down was not an issue, what with gravity taking a firm hand.

We went up, we searched the field and we dipped and so we gave up and continued the last bit of our steady journey, to the small airfield at St Just. We later discovered that the bunting had held out until the day before we got there. It is fated that I won’t ever get one for the UK now; no matter, I’ve seen it on Cyprus and in India anyway.

At St-Just airfield, the small plane we’d booked passage on was ready for us when we arrived and we boarded with our limited carry-on set of optics and clothes, ready for an intense few days twitching. Discipline was to be the key and we had a plan, see everything!

Just so you understand the structure, the dates are the dates that the bird was present, the sentence starts with the date of my observation and the figures in brackets are the UK stats. The first figure is records since 1958, the second the number of records for the year (1985).

Yellow-rumped Warbler Setophaga coronata

Scilly St Mary’s, 7th to 22nd-October 1985, (10/4).


Yellow-rumped Warbler

12th-October 1985: We had a pleasant little B&B booked in Hugh Town and, once the bags had hit the floor, we were off. Our first port of call was the trees by the school. It was easy to find the Yellow-rumped Warbler as it fed with Goldcrests and a Yellow-browed Warbler. It was our first yank for the trip, a rudimentary term meaning a bird of Nearctic origin. The Yellow-rumped Warbler was new for us all and we spent a fair while enjoying it, but time was a creeping on, so we set off to target #2.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak Pheauticus ludovicianus

Scilly St Mary’s, first-winter, 9th-28th-October 1985, (14/3).

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

12th-October 1985: Moving off along the main, circular road on St Mary’s we arrived at Longstone and the favoured patch of blackberries. There it sat, eating a bit, preening a bit and resting a bit but in virtually full view for the whole time. We were part of a crowd but it seemed strangely surreal to be seeing these so highly prized ticks, so easily. The time to move on came when the bird had a good stretch and we were able to see well the crimson underwing; next!

Red-eyed Vireo Vireo olivaceus

Scilly St Mary’s, First-winter, 4th-17th-October 1985, (21/12).

Red-eyed Vireo

12th-October 1985: The inhabitants of the Isle of Scilly had become familiar with the autumn arrival of twitchers and, thanks to the negotiations by local birders, would open trails on their land. One such spot was the Silver Trail near Holy Vale, short but through promising habitat. Another canopy denizen was our target here and, very soon after arrival, we watched as the chunky vireo gleaned bugs from the underside of leaves. It was active and showy, and, in terms of the rarities on offer, a relatively minor player. We pressed on.

Bobolink Dolichonyx oryzivorus

Scilly St-Mary’s, Female or immature, 9th-21st-October 1985, (11/1).


12th-October 1985: Another bramble patch, another mega. Again there was no waiting as the bird gorged itself on the ripe fruit, oblivious to the optics trained on it. We were up to lifer #4 in less than two hours, but more awaited. Then the shout came up, there was a mega squared up the road. It had just been found and the good fortune that had placed us on Scilly for the weekend, continued to smile on us.

Black-billed Cuckoo Coccyzus erythropthalmus

Scilly St Mary’s, First-winter, 12th-October 1985, (7/1).

Black-billed Cuckoo

12th-October 1985: We had to work for this one and it was Gill who eventually found it, sitting quietly, deep in cover. It was a case of identikit birding until it emerged into view. We were over by the golf course and the thwack of the odd ball being bullied was audible over the hushed and very reverent tones of the gathering mass. The bird was lethargic, it seemed exhausted and well it might have been, having just made land fall after a particularly long flap. The crowds gathered and those of us that had had their fill drifted off to make space at the front for new arrivals. What next?

Yellow-billed Cuckoo Coccyzus americanus

Yellow-billed Cuckoo

Scilly St Mary’s, 12th-13th-October 1985, (19/4).

12th-October 1985: The CBs were positively buzzing and we heard of another cuckoo, this time Yellow-billed and very close to where we had been watching the Red-eyed Vireo, earlier. Birds were literally dropping in as we moved around and there was a bit of shell-shock going on. We got there in the vanguard and had great views as a much livelier bird hopped about feeding and making short flights. The two vagrant Nearctic cuckoos were truly prized ticks and we felt collectively privileged to be seeing this happen. Our day was just about run and we repaired to the B&B to unpack and find food. Tomorrow, the show would continue.

And rest!

Spotted Sandpiper Actitis macularius

Scilly Tresco, 4th-21st-October 1985, (71/1).

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13th-October 1985: We boarded the inter-island boat ready for a morning on Tresco. We knew that a European Bee-eater had been present there for some time and that was to be our target bird. The golden rule is always to go for what is showing on Scilly and we thought we might luck into something, given the prolific spell we were in. Less rare for us was the Spotted Sandpiper and we didn’t spend so long on looking at it. There were other things to keep us busy.

Bee-eater Merops apiaster

Scilly Tresco, juv, 23rd-September to 1st-November 1985, (180/26).


13th-October 1985: Although the Scilly Bee-eater had been long-staying, it was still a tick for many. Mainland birds, for a long while, had tended to be short-staying or one observer birds – nothing to twitch. Now we were walking the lanes down to its favourite wires. As if to conform to the spirit of the weekend, the Bee-eater was there when we arrived and was much appreciated as it flew repeated sallies for airborne insects, perhaps even bees. It was not a full adult, but that didn’t distract from its beauty and we spent some time watching it.  Eventually, we dragged ourselves away and started to make our way back to the quay, ready for the return to St Mary’s. As we walked along we were part of a strung-out group, all following the same circuit as us and all with similarly full notebooks. We were around 50m from the quay when a shout behind us alerted us to a Yellow-billed Cuckoo that had come in off the sea and had flown into cover. We looked but didn’t see it; still, it wasn’t a tick!

Woodchat Shrike Lanius senator

Scilly Tresco, Juv, 9th to 21st October 1985, (366/8).

13th-October 1985: We hadn’t quite finished on Tresco and took advantage of our remaining time, seeing the Woodchat that had been reduced to a bit part in the rarity extravaganza.

Short-toed Lark Calandrella brachydactyla

Scilly Tresco, 9th to 13th October 1985, (240/14).

13th-October 1985: We also had a look at a Short-toed Lark, briefly but enough, we were to see a couple more during the weekend but they were well and truly eclipsed by the rest of the Scilly show.

Back on St Mary’s, we split up and some of us revisited the previous day’s rarities. The rest just took time to wind down a bit. It had been a hectic two days, mentally both thrilling and exhausting in equal measure. We were to leave the next day but first we had one more serious target, another yank.

Northern Parula Setophaga americana

Scilly St Mary’s, 3rd-17th-October 1985, (6/3).

Northern Parula

14th-October 1985: It would be wrong to call this the big one, they were all big but the parula was up there with them and it had been missing, presumed gone, for the duration of our stay. Now the eager searchers had re-found it and we were soon under its tree, eyes wide in sheer admiration. For birders used to warblers that don’t dress up for the occasion, the parula was something else. It was very confiding and came too close for even the closest focussing bins.

The rest of our short trip was spent catching up on a few birds that we’d had to walk past briskly. A Tawny Pipit, some more Yellow-browed Warblers and quite a few commoner scarce migrants, commoner they may be but no less pleasing on the eye.

We got back to the resting Renault at St-Just and started the drive home. With the Earth being round, our drive north was naturally uphill, something that impacted on the car’s performance, but it blew its way steadily along and we all arrived home weary but well satisfied with our jammy weekend on Scilly.

Incidentally – here are the relative costs in local currency.

Euro = €3.93, UK = £3.07, USD – $4.99, CAD = $5.56

To buy, either click on the link on the side bar or go to directly and search by my name or Twitching Times. Thanks to everyone who buys my books for your support.


Lousy weather this weekend but that didn’t stop us getting out a bit. Saturday was a shortish nip down to St-Lazare sand pits between squalls. It looked empty when I got there but after five minutes an Osprey appeared and started fishing. Soon a second, then a third and so on until six were all actively fishing the largest lake. One caught a fair size meal and headed off to eat it, four drifted off and one kept at it, still hovering around when I left. In between the Osprey party my first Chimney Swift of the season fluttered by, nice.

Here are a few of the Osprey action shots from distance and in rain. Larry, what species of fish is it?

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Today the rain continued but some in-car birding was in the offing. The floods at St-Blaise and to the south of there had pulled in a couple of Glossy Ibis, rare in these parts. An added bonus was a Eurasian Wigeon nearby, so we fired up Red Dwarf and made our way there. Sandra picked up the ibis first, which pleased her no end, and we had a spell of watching through the rain at the distant birds. The photo is pants I admit, a record shot is all.


Moving south slightly we scanned all of the flooded areas, there are lots, and eventually came up with the male Eurasian Wigeon. If you thought the ibis photo was awful, you’ll need an anti-superlative for this one.


Shorebirds are starting to think it’s a good idea to come our way too and both yellowlegs were around. These are Lesser Yellowlegs.


We had planned to bird St-Timothee on the way back, but the skies opened again and we just paused at St-Lazare sand pits briefly. It was a good choice as I was able to add Gadwall and Bufflehead to the burgeoning year list for the site. As we left we spotted an Osprey sat in an overhanging tree and I managed a couple of frames, a bit against the light but an obvious improvement on some of the offerings here!

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I’d just like to say thanks to those regulars who bought my eBook, I do appreciate it. If you want to read the sampler or even actually buy one, the link on the side bar to ‘Going for Broke’ will take you there.

My second eBook, called ‘My Patch’, is coming along nicely and will be on the virtual shelves soon. Just as a taster, here is the section from ‘My Patch’ containing my advice regarding tripods.


Don’t go cheap because cheap is junk, rickety junk. Carbon tripods are nice but expensive and prone to leave three carbon footprints (oh how we laugh). Aluminium ones are heaver but cheaper, although the cost of stabling and feed for the Donkey to carry it tends to even things out. Depending on where you bird you might want to know about the offensive capabilities of your tripod. Will a single blow fell that yob with the glazed expression and flick-knife, or will you need to rain down blows until the unpleasant moment passes?

The head is the most important bit after the last most important bit, and you have a fair range to choose from. If you have five arms and the Circus lets you have time off, then by all means go for one with lots of little clamps and wheels. You can be very precise with that type of head but, by the time the last lock is set the bird has probably moved a bit and aged too. If you are of standard construction then you want a single action fluid head type that locks, preferably on one twist of the handle. You also want one where the handle is not so long, or at least is angled slightly, so that you don’t get garrotted every time you lean forwards to look through the scope. Some heads are fluid but with a single side lock wheel, they work fine too.

The leg locking mechanism is worth thinking about. Some will trap your fingers each time you snap them shut, if S & M is your thing then there you go. The ones that have collars that screw and unscrew to tighten, have a limited life and will rapidly fall to bits with continuous use. Most tripods are designed for photographers such as the ‘wildlife’ ones who like to stand for hours by a roosting owl, and then martyr themselves for having such patience. Our fridge does much the same thing, keeps food cool, and it also makes the same type of squeaking noises too. I don’t know what the ideal locking mechanism for a tripod leg would be, I’ve certainly yet to see it.’

Plus one more.

Yesterday I wrote about dipping on Barnacle Goose and Eurasian Wigeon this week, well you can add the Brossard Summer Tanager to that list because I went and dipped that today too. The tanager had been in this morning but not after and the guy who’s garden it was frequenting said that we were really unlucky, because it had been coming in very regularly since Monday.

26-April additional info: The QC rare bird site reports this bird as being seen between 1:30-2:00pm. I think the observer must have their watch set to another time zone because I was there then and the bird certainly was not.

I had planned, if I got the tanager reasonably quickly, to go to Baie du Febvre and try for the Brewer’s Blackbird too. Sandra hates the place although we have had at least two and very productive visits there, it was the other ten lousy ones that rather colour it for her. With this in mind I thought I would go on my own, especially as Brossard is a good hour nearer to Baie du Febvre that St-Lazare is.

The day had actually started fairly well, with a Greater White-fronted Goose at St-Lazare sand pits plus a Pied-billed Grebe there. A downside was a better view of what the owner has been up to, for some reason he is filling out in into a spring fed water area. I’m hoping that it is just a truck turn but he might just keep going and screw something else up, wildlife habitat wise.

Here are a few photos, the Greater White-fronted Goose was some distance from me!

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In the pocket wood by the Soccer Pitch car park, the privee signs seem to have all gone, a good thing as it saves me from having to pull them down anyway. There were a few birds in there with four Hermit Thrushes busying away and a Ruby-crowned Kinglet in with the commoner stuff. In a few weeks we should have a nice selection of warblers going through there unless the St-Lazare council have a plan to screw this spot up too, you never know with that lot.

The coming weekend looks mixed but a report of Willow Ptarmigan in New York State is intriguing and tempting even though it is a bit of a hike. It is way out of range and you wonder whether it is the one that was in Ontario a couple of winters ago.

Still waiting for my eBook to appear on Kindle and Kobo, if you want to read the preview pages then here is the link: Just use the arrows to scroll through.