Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Snowy Owl Found

Spot it?
Freezing my arse off, leaning on a barbed wire fence = best New Year's Eve ever

The best view of a Snowy Owl you're likely to get, unless you bring a pillowcase full of mice...
Snowy Owl Bubo scandiacus
Snowy Owl Bubo scandiacus
Dan's crude iPhone + binoculars digiscope attempt
OSO#1 - I think it was also a Snowy...
  I've been waiting to use that obvious and satisfying title for far too long. Dan and I have tried to find this ghostly gargoyle for years, with zero success. Yesterday we cruised around St.Hubert Airport for a couple of hours, scanning the surrounding fields intently. We held one huge advantage this time when compared to past attempts - most of the snow around Montreal has melted over the past week, rendering the Snowy Owl's perfect camouflage much less effective.
  As usual, we pulled over to examine quite a few OSOs (Owl Shaped Objects), only to have them reveal themselves to be stumps, signs, or plastic bags. As we came around the end of the runway, we spotted a good-looking OSO in a promising spot - on a mound of earthen debris at the edge of the runway. We squinted at it for a good 20 minutes from every available angle, but it didn't move. "It's an air vent," then, several seconds later "It moved! It moved! Wait, no..."
  We gave up and headed down the road a bit, vowing to return to OSO#1, when we spotted another OSO on the other side of the road. Same shtick: "I see eyes! Shit, no, I don't see eyes," This was definitely one of my rare 'My-kingdom-for-a-scope' moments, as we were battling with significant distance, and the vicious winds that made it feel like -20 C. We stared at this static blob for a bit then checked out some other fields.
  When we returned 30 minutes later, OSO#1 still had not moved, and we owlucinated on owl-s-d for several more minutes before moving on to OSO#2. "It...moved? It moved! SNOWY *#@%ing OWL!" We were slightly excited. We watched it from the fence line, as it hopped up to the top of the mound for sentry duty, until all 40 digits were frozen solid. Spectacular bird. Massive. Stately. There are no suitable adjectives. Snowy *#@%ing Owl.
  A perfect way to end the year. Interestingly, my birding buds in Korea, JP and Subs, also ended out their years with owlifers.
  Situational symmetry. I just realized that for the last few years, I've been birding hard on December 31st. In 2013 I was in Seoul searching unsuccessfully for Hazel Grouse, and the last day of 2012 saw Dr. Moores and I freezing in the name of a Long-tailed Shrike at Igidae. Here's hoping that 2015 will bring us all more awesome birds, and hopefully less bad news about bird habitat, as well as every other damn thing.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Hi-tech Birding - Birdwatcher's Digest, September/October 1989

Clunk clunkitty clunk
Yea right dude
I can't find the RAM key!
  Slow birding week, so here's a blast from musty old 1989. I believe Dan-lad bought this magazine back then, and I ended up with it recently. He was much more of a serious birder than me in those days, with full-on detailed lists, sweet binos, an actual camera, and a meticulous/hilarious journal. "I saw a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, and it was all fluffed up and chubby and cute, and I went crazzzzzzzy and levitated and said wowowowowowowowowwwwww!"
 I flicked through this and was impressed by how little birders have changed, over a span of time where the toys have dramatically changed. I'm digging the clunky old computers, and antiquated terminology. "Where is my DOS?!"
  I've been in full torpor mode these days, sipping coffee whilst wrapped in blankets on the couch all day. I must get out of the house and check some bird spots in NDG/Westmount, and hopefully Dan and I can cruise around and check for Snowies sometime soon.
  Oh it looks like I'm back to Korea next month. Whaaaaaat?!

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

British Birds - Bewick

  At the last place I was staying at in Devon, I came across this crusty old tome from 1832, written by old Bewick himself. A whimsical romp! I dig it the most.

Prévost Northern Shrikes

Feeder mania 
Spot the Shrike? It's one pixel big :(
Cold white north
  I'm back in the Montreal area for about a month, but I haven't been up to much birding yet. On December 21-22 I was up in Prévost at a friend's, and I spent several enjoyable hours staring out of his back window at several well-stocked and well-attended feeders. Clouds of Chickadees were soon joined by about a dozen Common Redpoll (the first my friend has seen this season), a pair of Hairy Woodpeckers working the suet, two skulking Tree Sparrows, and a Song Sparrow. The highlight was definitely when a dusky Northern Shrike suddenly dropped in for about ten seconds, causing a panic clearout of the feeder birds. The Chickadees returned after ten minutes, the Redpolls wisely never did.
  The following day, while checking out a friend's farm, I spotted another Northen Shrike, perched on a treetop throne, overlooking its kingdom of thorny scrub. I have the impression that Northern Shrikes are fairly uncommon/rare, but I'm not sure. Clueless in my home patch. Yeah, I picked a great weekend to leave the camera at home.
  I wish you all a birdy 2015.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

UK round-up, Devon/Bucks, November 24 - December 7, 2014

Red Admiral Vanessa atalanta (late?) on gorse, Maidencombe, Devon, November 24
Spot the Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita, Shardeloes, Bucks, December 7
Spot the Cirl Bunting Emberiza cirlus, Labrador Bay, Devon, November 24
Great Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo, Shaldon, Devon, November 24
Long-tailed Tit Aegithalos caudatus, Shardeloes, Bucks, December 7
Long-tailed Tit Aegithalos caudatus, Shardeloes, Bucks, December 7
Eurasian Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus, Shaldon, Devon, November 24
Eurasian Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus, Shaldon, Devon, November 24
Remains of a European Robin? Maidencombe, Devon, November 24
European Robin Erithacus rubecula, Shardeloes, Bucks, December 7
Mute Swan Cygnus olor, Shardeloes, Bucks, December 7
  I'm winding things up in the UK, as my six-month tourist visa creeps towards expiration ('And stay out!'). It's been a hoot, har har. The Great Grey Shrike I spotted in Amersham in October definitely has to rate as my UK highlight over the past few months, and it looks like a few locals managed to twitch it, which is awesome. Haven't seen it lately though. You know what they say about shrikes. Do you?
  In Devon, the Cirl Buntings were the bee's knees, just a gorgeous bird, with a rough history in the UK over the past few decades. I managed to spot them again at Labrador Bay, and spent a spectacular 15 minutes watching a group of six at close range without the need for binos. I even managed to see/hear a single male Cirl using the smallholding I was staying at as a highway of sorts. I heard it sing briefly every couple of days as it worked its way towards the coastal heights, sticking to the hedgerows. Was it looking for a territory? Hopefully Cirls will make a comeback - it looks like the they're are doing OK in neighbouring Cornwall at least:
  While on a coastal walk near Torquay on November 19th, I watched a Yellow-browed Warbler as it flitted up from the cliffs below and perched on a twig for a moment, before bouncing casually through the scrub. The YBW is a species I've seen quite regularly in Korea, and it took me a moment to remember that it's not an overly-common bird here, with perhaps only several hundred UK records annually. Because I was too slow to get an image, I didn't report the bird on any local groups. But looking at all the recent YBW records chalked up by local groups on the same small stretch of Devon coast made me think. I'm guessing that a lot more YBW make it to England from Russia than is recognized, maybe they're just greatly overlooked/under-appreciated.
  Back in Amersham, I've been enjoying the influx of winter thrushes here, with flocks of Redwings and Fieldfares lurking in trees along most trails. On that note, it's off to Shardeloes for me.
  Oh, it looks like I'll be winter birding on three continents this year, how merry!

Will I get the UK 100? Wait and see with baited breath, friends, wait and see. Rounding out my UK list:

86. Redwing (Shardeloes, Bucks, October 22, 2014)
87. Fieldfare (Amersham, Bucks, October 24, 2014)
88. Great Grey Shrike (Amersham, Bucks, October 24, 2014)
89. Common Raven (Near Crediton, Devon, October 28, 2014)
90. Stock Dove (Near Crediton, Devon October 31, 2014)
91. Little Owl (Near Crediton, Devon, November 3, 2014)
92. Cirl Bunting (North of Maidencombe, Devon, November 14, 2014)
93. Yellow-browed Warbler (Smuggler’s cove, Torquay, Devon, November 19, 2014)
94. Common Shelduck (Shaldon, Devon, November 24, 2014)
95. Common Redshank (Shaldon, Devon, November 24, 2014)
96. Common Greenshank (Shaldon, Devon, November 24, 2014)
97. Northern Shoveler (Shardeloes, Bucks, December 3, 2014)

Friday, November 14, 2014

Cirl Buntings at Maidencombe, Devon

Looking south towards Maidencombe Beach
Cirl country
male Cirl Bunting Emberiza cirlus 
male Cirl Bunting Emberiza cirlus
female Cirl Bunting Emberiza cirlus
  I found an old Hamlyn field guide from the 1970's that describes Cirl Buntings as "Common in open country with bushes, trees, hedges." The accompanying map shows their range stretching north, just beyond Wales. Since that book was published, Cirl Buntings have been almost completely extirpated from the UK largely due to more intensive farming practices, and today can only be found at a few sites along England's extreme southwest coast.
  That is where I happen to be right now, shovelling assorted animal poo all day - but that is a story for another day perhaps. Over the past week, as the Forrest Gump rain has hammered the area, I've been daydreaming about one glowing thing - Cirl Buntings. I suppose it's not hard to become distracted while shovelling poo all day.
  So today when the weather finally broke, I headed along the coastal trail north of Maidencombe, in search of Cirls. As I started out along the gorgeous little paths, I kept saying aloud 'This is where they'll be! No, over there is perfect, that's where the Cirls are!' About an hour into the walk, that bad 'heebie-jeebies' feeling that I would have my birding dreams go unfulfilled started to cloud the peripheries of my mind, as the clouds did the same to the skyline. But I'd never seen such great bunting habitat, so my spirits remained high. When I got to to top of a small hill overlooking some cliff-top scrub, I knew that 'This is surely where they'll be.'
  And they were. The unmistakeable bunting-shaped sight of a medium-small brown bird with a flash of white in the tail flying up into a patch of thorns had me hyperventilating. I crouched down and honestly, my hot, excited breath was fogging up the binos so badly for the first 30 seconds or so that I despaired I'd miss out on the whole encounter, as they flew off forever, laughing. But thankfully they stuck around for me, a nice group of two males and three females, fidgeting methodically through the thorns, as buntings do. I sat there among them and observed their ways for 20 very happy minutes, until a Buzzard caused them to dissolve in a puff of purple smoke.
  It was one of the more special birding moments I've had lately. There's something about having a close encounter with a long-awaited species like the Cirl that seems to round off life's hard corners for a while. And I'm quite relieved that I didn't have to resort to twitching the batch of Cirls at Broadsands that are fed regularly in a parking lot - just wouldn't have been as much fun. But I would have done it.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Amersham Great Grey Shrike Gen

Come twitch me!

  I've had a few Bucks birders contact me about the cracking Great Grey Shrike I spotted in Amersham two days ago, so rather than replying to each message in detail, I'm putting the intel up here.
  The best way to get there would be via the trail by the Jaguar dealership near the Amersham Tesco. Head down the trail about 10 minutes, and the shrike hedges are just after the path which crosses the field diagonally, past the little footbridge over the mighty Misbourne. The shrike seemed to be pretty keen on this large U-formation of hedges, so hopefully it will stick around. Good luck Amersham twitchers!
  Hmm I wonder if those are Luftwaffe bomb craters on the hill? 

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Last of the Danish birds, October 2-18, 2014

Small remnant of Denmark's pre-agricultural moor landscape, at Stubbergaard Sø
Old boathouse at Stubbergaard Sø
Stubbegaard Sø
Stubbergaard Sø
My temporary backyard in Havnbjerg
Double rainbow all the wayyyyy!

First-year male Common Blackbird Turdus merula (note dark bill)
Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita
Goldcrest Regulus regulus
Terrible record shot of my first Fieldfare Turdus pilaris (a long-awaited bird!)
Barnacle Geese Branta leucopsis
A blur of Grey Partridges Perdix perdix
European Robin Erithacus rubecula - I suspect a victim of the local cat
male Ruddy Shelduck Tadorna ferruginea at Tivoli amusement park - never overly nice to see captive birds, but interesting to see one so close
Distant record shot of a Great Grey Shrike Lanius excubitor
Sandwich Tern Sterna sandvcensis
Sandwich Tern Sterna sandvcensis
Yellowhammer Emberiza citrinella
  The Danish word for bird is 'fugle'. Pronounced by a Dane, the word sounds suspiciously like 'fool'. Consequently, on several occasions when I was birding in Denmark, Danes would point to me while grinning, and say 'Blah blah blah FOOL, blah blah FOOL FOOL, blah FOOL blah FOOLFOOL blahFOOL.' That didn't do much to soothe my latent persecution complex. Ah well, they may be onto something I suppose.
  During my last few days at Ebeltoft on Jutland's east coast, migration was in the air, with small flocks of Twite and White Wagtail on the beach, and daily skeins of Barnacle Geese winging west towards their wintering grounds in the low countries.
  Amazingly, a Barnacle Goose turned up in South Korea during this same period, probably East Asia's first record. It's amazing to think that that directionally-challenged individual and the ones that I was seeing most likely left from the same bit of northern Russia at around the same time. Insert slick computer-generated maps and graphics here, along with a stern British narrator.
  Also seen at Ebeltoft: a pair of Red Kites, three handsome Sandwich Terns dive-bombing close in to the beach, and a raft of six Common Eider
  At Havnbjerg, which is near Sønderborg (close to the German border), I finally saw my first Fieldfare. Unfortunately it wasn't dramatically dive-bombing any intruders with excrement - just my luck. Nevertheless, I was so pleased on seeing one (I've got a 'thing' for Turdus thrushes) that I did back-flips all the way home. Seriously.
  I spent a weekend visiting a friend in Holstebro, which is towards the northwest corner of Jutland, turning the map of my Denmark travels into a giant red spaghetti-squiggle. I whinged and moaned and cajoled him into taking me to Stubbergaard Sø, a lake surrounded by reeds, mixed forest, and apparently some of Denmark's last remaining old scrubby moor habitat. The rest of the country is literally one big grassy agricultural field. Boooo-ring. In spite of all this wonderful habitat, the place was deserted, bird-wise. In fact, I was struck by a tumbleweed filled with chirping crickets on the way out.
  All in all, I had a rip-roaringly good time in Denmark, llama spit aside. I managed to sneak off most days for a spot of good ol Vitamin B, and was able to soak up some excess Danish happiness. The Danes are a happy people (in spite of paying 60% taxes - whaaaaat?!), I'd say one degree short of being smug about it. It's a tiny little country that works well, and it's their little secret.
  Best Danish bird: Crested Tit, hands down.

  'Last of the Danish Birds' = Good name for a pretentious indie band featuring a smouldering expressionless red-headed lady with horn-rimmed glasses playing the xylophone?

Denmark list concluded, for what it's worth:

58. Barnacle Goose (Ebeltoft, October 2, 2014)
59. Twite (Ebeltoft, October 2, 2014)
60. Red Kite (Ebeltoft, October 2, 2014)
61. Sandwich Tern (Ebeltoft, October 2, 2014)
62. Common Eider (Ebeltoft, October 2, 2014)
63. Great Crested Grebe (Havnbjerg, October 4, 2014)
64. Goosander (Havnbjerg, October 8, 2014)
65. Eurasian Coot (Kolding, October 10, 2014)
66. Eurasian Sparrowhawk (Havnbjerg, October 12, 2014)
67. Fieldfare (Havnbjerg, October 14, 2014)
68. Canada Goose (Odense, October 17, 2014)
69. Greylag Goose (Odense, October 17, 2014)
71. Common Pochard (Copenhagen, October 17, 2014)
72. Common Moorhen (Copenhagen, October 18, 2014)