For the past few years, I have combined my annual Baillie Birdathon with the Taverner Cup, an Ottawa-based event taking place on the last Saturday in May, in which teams of 3-5 competed to see or hear the most species in a day. The Taverner Cup is no more, but our team wanted to continue our traditional event anyway, so we sought a new challenge instead – trying to set the Quebec record for most species seen in a day! For the first time we knew precisely the goal we were aiming for (167 species) and could strategize accordingly. On the down side, we couldn’t visit some of the very productive spots in eastern Ontario that served me so well on past Birdathons.
Around 11:15 pm on Friday May 27, I set out from Montreal with the other “Raven Loonaticks”: my PhD supervisor David Bird and co-supervisor Rodger Titman, and local birders Mark Dennis and Richard Gregson. Our first stop was Ile Bizard, an exceptional marsh and forest complex along the northwest edge of Montreal. To maximize our use of time, we walked into the heart of the park to start our count there at midnight. To our consternation, we heard a Pileated Woodpecker at 11:56 pm, a most unusual bird to detect at night, and one we weren’t sure we’d see again during the count … but rules are rules, and we stuck to our planned midnight start. The park did not disappoint – within the first hour, we had 9 species on our checklist, truly remarkable for a midnight stroll! These included the expected (Sora and Virginia Rail, Black-crowned Night Heron, Marsh Wren, Pied-billed Grebe, American Woodcock), the somewhat unexpected (Mallard, Canada Goose, Eastern Screech Owl – locally uncommon), and the completely unexpected (Least Sandpiper – thank goodness for studying bird sounds in advance!)
seems to be tradition for my Birdathons, we started off in the rain,
though at least it was light. As
we drove north toward Mont Tremblant we passed through some heavier rains,
but by the time we arrived around 3 a.m. it was tapering off again. Though we continued to experience light rain off and on
throughout the day, we were actually exceptionally fortunate with the
weather – not just for having the worst rain always hit while driving,
but in that the cool and cloudy weather likely kept the bird activity
higher in the midday than would have been the case on a hot and sunny
Our first stop in Tremblant was by the north end of Lac Monroe, where we heard a couple of Barred Owls, and some early-singing White-throated Sparrows and American Robins. Shifting over to the east side of the lake, we added Common Loon, and to our surprise, Long-eared Owl. As dawn approached, we shifted down to Lac Chat, where we heard the first warblers and thrushes of the day start off a tentative dawn chorus over the pitter-patter of the raindrops. There we had one of our highlights of the day, a flock of four White-winged Scoters flying in to circle the lake and come in for a landing, kindly grunting to alert us of their arrival.
a 3-km hike hardly seems like the best use of time on a race like this, we
couldn’t resist the lure of the Lac des Femmes trail, which provides
such a great variety of warblers along its length.
This time Blackburnian Warblers and Northern Parulas were the
dominant species, but we also had smaller numbers of Black-and-white,
Canada, Cape May, Tennessee, Magnolia, Black-throated Blue, Black-throated
Green, Palm, Nashville, and Yellow-rumped.
Winter Wrens, thrushes, vireos, and flycatchers rounded out the
early morning chorus nicely.
A bit further up the road at Lac Escalier we had our most productive half-hour of the day as we wandered down an old road leading away from the picnic area. A couple of years ago I had seen Gray Jay there, and sure enough, a couple of them appeared at almost exactly the same spot. Rodger then spotted a female Spruce Grouse on a branch overhanging the track, so we decided to continue along a bit further. That gave us a chance to hear White-winged Crossbill, and in the process of searching for them, we stumbled across a group of at least half a dozen Boreal Chickadees, a local specialty though often hard to find even there. Not wanting to turn our back on the good luck, we went around one more bend and caught a quick but unmistakable glimpse of two Grey-cheeked Thrushes. Also along this trail we had Alder Flycatcher, Bay-breasted Warbler, and Pileated Woodpecker (thank goodness!), none of which we encountered again later in the day.
Though time was already racing on, we had to make the hike in toward Lac Tador, known for Olive-sided Flycatcher and Black-backed Woodpecker. Fortunately both of them were being very vocal, as was a Northern Goshawk in the woods. We marched back to the car very satisfied at having seen a large number of the ‘boreal specialties’, and despite missing Rusty Blackbird at our next stop, headed toward the eastern edge of the park happy with the 75 species we had on our list already. A Red-shouldered Hawk perched along the road was a pleasant surprise, but the real shock of the day came a few minutes later when we saw a flock of ~80 Brant flying north – they are hardly ever seen inland, so catching sight of them more than 200 km north of the St. Lawrence was a true stroke of luck.
unfortunate thing about Tremblant is that it is so distant from the good
birding areas in southern Quebec. We
drove for nearly two hours before reaching our next stop, the flooded
fields at St. Barthelemy. They
yielded a nice variety of shorebirds, plus dozens of late Snow Geese, and
a smattering of ducks including Northern Pintail.
On our way to Trois-Rivieres we made an unsuccessful detour for a
presumed Merlin that turned out to be a Broad-winged Hawk, and also failed
to spot the Glossy Ibis that had been seen several times during the
previous week. As a
consolation prize we had a nice look at a Green Heron, but nonetheless we
headed off to Baie-du-Febvre thinking that we were beginning to fall
ponds and marshes at Baie-du-Febvre gave our list a major boost.
Mark’s exceptional spotting pulled a series of raptors out of the
distant sky for us – first a Northern Harrier, then a Red-tailed Hawk,
Sharp-shinned Hawk, Osprey, and to top it all off, a Bald Eagle!
Meanwhile down below we had Short-billed Dowitchers and
Semipalmated Sandpipers, plus plenty of Gadwall, Wigeon, Ruddy Ducks,
Moorhens, and Coots. Perhaps
most impressive though was the flock of 60+ Black Terns swarming over the
marsh, a concentration far greater than I’ve ever seen anywhere.
Feeling like we were back in contention for our shot at the record, we hit the road for Montreal. A fortuitous stop by the roadside gave us our only Vesper Sparrow of the day, but the possible Cooper’s Hawk for which we halted was nowhere to be seen by the time we got out of the car. At the Ste-Catherine locks on the south shore of Montreal, we had great looks at Arctic Terns (a rare but regular visitor at this specific location at the end of May) and Little Gulls, another great surprise for the day. Trickling west through residential areas from there, we finally got our Cardinal, House Wren, and House Finch – common enough birds, but always tricky to find on ‘big days’ like this.
After a couple of marginally productive detours, we headed southwest to Huntingdon, and the famous Montee Smellie, a road along which there is relatively undisturbed grassland and forest habitat supporting a great variety of songbirds. Though rather quiet by the time we arrived around 7 p.m., it still gave us Field Sparrow, Eastern Towhee, Great Crested Flycatcher, Scarlet Tanager, Indigo Bunting, American Kestrel, and Wild Turkey among others. We would have loved to spend more time there, but were beginning to feel the race against the clock and had to move on to Gowan Road to try to find the forest birds we were still missing, such as Eastern Wood-Pewee and Hairy Woodpecker. We ended up being unable to find them, but did luck into seeing a Common Nighthawk fly erratically over a large open area as dusk approached.
delighted as we were with the Nighthawk as our 159th species of
the day, we realized that we had effectively run out of time to reach the
record – having recorded so many nocturnal species the first night,
there were few left for us to have a hope at after dark.
We did manage to pick up a Whip-poor-will at the ever-reliable
Pitch Pine Ecological Preserve, but that proved to be our final bird of
the day. Although we ended up
a few species short of our target, 160 nonetheless represented a personal
best for each of us, and we agreed it had been a great day.
Included in our total this year were 19 warblers, 11 raptors (finally including a Peregrine Falcon after many years of trying!), 19 waterfowl, 11 shorebirds (our downfall – we had 19 last year), and 18 sparrows and finches. Remarkably we missed Blackpoll Warbler for the second straight year, and also couldn’t find several other usually common species such as Eastern Phoebe, Eastern Meadowlark, and the aforementioned Pewee and Hairy Woodpecker. Needless to say, having come so close to the record this year and knowing that we missed some easy birds, we are already thinking about how to tweak our route to do even better in 2006! Thanks to you and my other generous donors, my enjoyable day in the field has also resulted in nearly $1000 being raised for conservation projects run by Bird Studies Canada and the Migration Research Foundation! On behalf of both organizations, thank you very much for helping me support their important work.
2005 BIRDATHON SPECIES LIST (160 species):
© 2002- The Migration Research Foundation Inc.