That’s the “other” CBC, the Christmas Bird Count and not the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation … in other words, what follows will be interesting and will not involve references to Hockey Night in Canada etc.
And so, yesterday was the Hudson CBC which has been running since 1939, making this the 65th (or thereabouts) annual bird census in a 24km diameter circle around Hudson, a bit to the west of Montreal. For the past 15 years, J and I have been responsible for census route #2 and all the previous 14 of those years the countryside has been blanketed in deep snow and ice and a fearsomely cold wind has blasted us as our ice-encrusted eyes have tried to identify small dots in the distance. This year a surge of warm air from the south has melted almost all the snow and the temperatures were several degrees about freezing, almost a British Christmas in fact. Climate change has much to answer for because the temperatures are set to plummet to below normal next week without an insulating blanket of snow over our garden plants – there will be serious damage. My thanks to the oil industry for arranging this most unwanted climate change.
But – back to the birding. Route #2 starts in the north-western part of the count circle and stretches all the way down to the south western part more or less following the eastern side of the 201 road, the western side being the responsibility of the Route #1 people. It involves a lot of driving along narrow roads. In the north there are plentiful wooded areas and a mixture of islands of suburbia giving way to millionaires’ horse farms and riding trails. Further south it drops down an escarpment to very, very flat agricultural land around the village of St-Clet that, were it not for the regular winter birds such as Snowy Owls, would be somewhere nobody would want to venture … it makes the fenland of Cambridegshire positively cheerful and attractive by comparison. A couple of maps follow which indicate the main roads we were birding from …
As expected, we saw the usual 19 or 20 species of birds we see most years but with some very nice additions that made this a most enjoyable day. Near the start of the route we are required to head off into a corner of the suburban wastes of Hudson in search of the birds that make a living around houses. We only do a small corner of the village, mostly residential streets off a main road with woodland behind them. All the usual suspects, including way too many Blue Jays but we found a new road with half a dozen expensive houses on it and a turning circle at the end had been pushed into the wooded area (bad, bad planning – too many houses being built everywhere but the fat cats have to make their profits and the towns will do anything to get more taxes so the wildlife suffers). Getting out of the car to check we were delighted to see a modest sized flock of Common Redpolls moving through the tops of the trees. This was almost at the beginning of the day and so the camera was at the bottom of a bag in the back of the car – consequently the only photo I could grab was of one bird who had hung around a couple of extra minutes in order to rearrange his feathers while his friends moved along. Interestingly, there were several White-breasted Nuthatches seemingly caught up in the flock’s movement but they were soon left behind.
Back at the Hudson Inn, a bit of a greasy-spooon roadhouse beside the main TransCanada Highway that has handy “facilities” we found about half a dozen House Sparrows grubbing in the dirt outside the reastaurant windows. Some years ago there was a good sized colony of our favourite birds living here and making a good living but the owners made “improvements” to the site that involved ripping out shrubs they had used as shelter and we had not seen them for a while. It was very cheering to discover that a small number had survived the onslaught and we look forward to following their progress in the CBC’s of the years to come. The world needs more House Sparrows, handsome and feisty little birds that have lived and travelled with humans for over 7000 years.
A bit further south along a narrow road parallel to and just east of the 201 and bordered on one side by an old sand quarry and on the other by clapboard, cheap and tatty housing all packed shoulder to shoulder without any gardens, we happened on a group of small birds working some buckthorns and dried grass seed-heads in a scruffy corner beside the quarry. Flashes of white revealed that they included Dark-eyed Juncos (not unexpected) but the calls were distinctly un-Junco like and closer examination showed us that almost half the birds were American Tree Sparrows which are usually seen in ones and may be twos if lucky at this season and constitute a “good tick”. We estimated there were a good dozen of them.
I had scouted the flatlands before Christmas while there was snow down and found all of the target winter birds but on this day not a sight was to be seen of Snow Buntings, Lapland Longspurs or Horned Larks. A disappointment. We know this area really well and know where they usually hang out but none were to be seen. However …
… Snowy Owls. This flat, cold, windy land is very attractive to Snowy Owls if they come down to the south, and most years a few do. Unfortunately, for some reason they are much more likely to settle in the fields west of the 201 (team #1’s territory for the CBC) than they are to set up camp in “our” area east of the road although to our eyes the landscape is identical. We are always hopeful, but rarely score a tick there. In late afternoon, driving south along Ch. St-Emmanuel J spotted a lone an very “typical” silhouette perched on top of a post out in one of the farm fields. Screeching to a halt and piling out of the car with binoculars clamped to our eyes we saw that yes, indeed, it was a Snowy Owl and gave us just enough time to take a few grainy photographs (photographing distant white owls against white snow or grey overcast sky must be one of the most technically difficult challenges for the wildlife photographer) before it flew off a few feet above the ground and disappeared behind a barn. More than somewhat elated we drove down to the end of the road before reversing course to check fields and farms on the other side of it. Approaching the farm where we had seen the owl and ever-hopeful of another sighting we spotted a big white owl perched high, high up in a tree directly above a guy hosing down the yard who was apparently totally oblivious to the bird (how do people manage to not see and/or be interested in these birds? Bizarre). It looked a bit different to the first bird, a bit whiter, a bit larger but two so close to each other would be just too unlikely and so we assumed it was the angle we were viewing it from – still, more photos were taken. Then – a couple of hundred yards further north, there was Owl #1 sitting on a barn roof and so we had seen two of them almost next to each other. That certainly (well, almost) made up for the absence of Snow Buntings. Diligent searching failed to turn up any more.
Our last area to check was the gardens and bird feeders of St-Clet itself. You would have to have a really, really good reason to live there in such a desolate community. In the early days of doing this census route we used to find a few nice birds on garden feeders but these days, and certainly yesterday, there were few to be seen, those that were had little or no seed in them and the birds were absent. I guess, modern plastic-sided houses offer no nooks and crannies for nesting in and no nests means no birds to exploit feeders – all very sad.
Finally, all the teams met up at the St-Hubert in Veaudreuil for a snack and drinks and to supply our counts to the census coordinator.