Quebec - Feb 18-21, 2017

I had been itching to road trip north sometime this winter ever since the New Year, when it became evident that this was not going to be an "invasion" year in southern New England. Neither the irruptive passerines nor raptors have made much of an appearance down this way. I actually had plans to do a combo birding/skiing/relaxing trip with my girlfriend, but once that fell through I decided to make the best of my time off by taking that trip north with friends instead. Not exactly the romantic getaway I had planned on, sharing a car with three dudes...

Julian Hough, Frank Gallo, and Frank Mantlik accompanied me on said trip, with the focus being Great Gray Owl photography and seeing any other northern goodies that might be up there. I was up for some exploring too - anything north of Montreal would be new territory for me.

We departed oh so early on Saturday morning and B-lined to Montreal, specifically to Refuge faunique Marguerite-D'Youville south of the city itself. We were met by another birder in the parking lot as we arrived who was there the day before and informed us how slow it was on Friday - only one bird seen, and not terribly active. It had been windy and cold then. Saturday was a different story; we were greeted by sunny skies, warming temps, and zero wind. As we would soon find out, the birds would cooperate today.

We encountered three GREAT GRAY OWLS on this day at the refuge. What was supposed to be a few-hour visit turned into most of the day. We could not pull ourselves away, and who would want to? The birds (one in particular) performed above and beyond anyone's reasonable expectations.

One particularly actively hunting individual put on quite a show for the crowd. It spent several hours searching for prey rather close to the trail and made several short flights, from perch to perch, in its pursuit of a meal.

Great Gray Owl

After a couple hours of watching this owl and enjoying every second, it decided to fly back across the trail, something it had done a couple times already this morning. Rather than passing over the group to the other side, it nearly landed on a woman's head before touching down on my tripod directly in front of me. I stood there stunned for a few moments, unsure of what exactly to do. I was face to face with the largest owl in North America. Completely unfazed, the bird swiveled its head to take stock of the humans on either side of it. Immediately realizing that it was safe, the owl switched its focus to looking for prey again. To give you an idea how close this bird was, I could have touched it without fully extending my arm. I actually had to back up a step to fit the entire bird IN THE FRAME OF MY IPHONE CAMERA. It stayed on the tripod for a few minutes before continuing to the other side of the trail.

photo courtesy of Frank Gallo
photo courtesy of Sophia Wong

photo courtesy of Sophia Wong

photo courtesy of Sophia Wong

I was at the time (and still sort of am) in disbelief. Before you go on assuming that this bird was lured in with pet store mice, you would be mistaken. That sort of behavior is highly frowned upon at this refuge, and we chose to come here largely based on this. Through a day and a half there with three owls we didn't see any sign of anyone doing anything like that. A local birding couple that walks here once or twice per week has never seen anything of the kind here either. The refuge staff patrols the trails here, and everyone's behavior was top notch. Nobody even ventured more than a couple feet off the trail, as per park rules. It was impressive. We had been following this bird for 2+ hours at close range before this happened, and it only approached us this once...the bird was in heavy hunting mode and seemed to use the tripod as just another survey post for a few minutes before moving onto the next treetop. Even after it landed on my tripod it spent most of its time looking away from the humans onto the ground for prey as it was doing from the trees, with only the occasional head turn towards me or the crowd. Certainly didn't feel like it was looking to us for food at all. These are notoriously tame birds to begin with, so I don't entirely understand why some photographers feel the need to bait them. You obviously don't need to feed GGOWs to get killer photos!

Before we knew it, it was 2pm and we were dehydrated and sunburned. We left the refuge on a major high from our experience there. After some regrouping and refocusing, the last couple hours of daylight were spent unsuccessfully searching fields to the west of the city for Snowy Owls and other open country birds like Gray Partridge, etc. We did stumble across this BARRED OWL in a farmhouse backyard. Night near Montreal after celebratory beer & food!

Barred Owl

We decided to head back to the refuge on Sunday morning for one last crack at Great Grays, as we were driving northeast from there and were unlikely to run into any more of this species for the rest of the trip. We refound two of the three owls, but on this morning they were far less active. Tame, yes...but active, no. They began to hunt a bit as we were leaving mid-late morning, but to that point it was nothing like Saturday's show.

Great Gray Owl
Our move was to Quebec City, where a NORTHERN HAWK OWL had been wintering. The weather here was a far cry from the warm and sunny skies we had seen in Montreal. It was much cooler and overcast with the occasional snow flurry. Unfortunately the hawk owl did not show itself that afternoon, but it had been seen earlier that day so our hopes were high for the morning. Ben Barkley did point out a distant SNOWY OWL for us. Night near Quebec City.

Our typical view of Snowy Owl this weekend

Monday morning was crisp and cool, but the skies had cleared overnight and the morning light was beautiful for hawk owl viewing, if only the little beast would cooperate. Upon arrival it didn't take all that long for FM to spot the bird atop a tall spruce in a backyard on the south side of the main road. This side of the road is mostly private, so we crossed the street to the field where we were told the bird had been frequenting. It soon flew towards us and teed up atop a tree in the hedgerow for a short while. It didn't spend much time here before returning to the other side of the road where it proceeded to patrol inaccessible areas.

Northern Hawk Owl
It was brought to our attention that this bird has been fed by locals in that field on the north side of the road. I figure there's a good chance the bird flew into that field to see if we had anything to offer. Just an assumption, but I think a fair one.

For anyone looking for this bird, it can apparently be difficult to find for long periods. See the map below for the bird's habits while we observed it that Monday morning.

The blue pin is the intersection you want to shoot for; park on the side road. The yellow space to the north is the field where it is often seen and has reportedly been fed; you can legally (far as we were told) walk across the RR tracks and observe the bird from the field there. The red area to the south is the space it was hunting when it was not occupying the field. You can legally observe the bird from Chemin Michel-Quezel or Chemin du Roy, but obviously do not enter the adjacent yards without permission. In particular, the owl spent a lot of time around a small ravine to the south of Chemin Michel-Quezel .

It was completely out of sight for some time, and who knows where it was hanging out the afternoon before. It can, and will, go low-profile. During our scope views of the bird on the south side of Route 138 it was often hunting from low perches, eating snow in crooks of trees, and the like.

Very pleased with our morning hawk owl experience, we crossed to the east side of the St. Lawrence River and drove north another 90 minutes for our third and final leg of the trip. Two Gyrfalcons, one white and one dark, had been frequenting the agricultural fields between La Pocatiere and Kamouraska. We drove a loop through prime Gyr habitat, focusing on those areas where the birds had been seen, but came up empty. Night in La Pocatiere.

Not much open water behind me!

Dusk over the frozen St. Lawrence

We had one last shot for the Gyrs on Tuesday morning, again greeted by beautiful light with which to work. It was very cold, down to 1 degree Fahrenheit, but the temps warmed quickly thanks to the abundant sunshine. A thick frost had coated the vegetation overnight, making for some stunning scenery. We drove the Gyr loop again without sign of a raptor of any kind. The only bird of prey we saw on two tours through fine habitat was a single SNOWY OWL on our way out of town. We were actually quite struck by the absence of birdlife in general. This was not surprising given the barren Arctic-like landscape of the agricultural fields. What did surprise us was the dearth of life on the St. Lawrence River itself. Though we did not set aside much time for river viewing, we were treated to sprawling views of the mostly-frozen waterway from several locations. Literally the only birds noted were a few Common Mergansers. Not even a single gull fly-by!

Not seeing a Gyr

Gyr country. Not an effing bird in sight.
We also thought we would stumble across flocks of finches or waxwings at some point, but we would have been completely skunked on those if Julian hadn't spotted a group of PINE GROSBEAKS while driving through Kamouraska along the river.

Pine Grosbeaks
Though we were unsuccessful with the Gyrfalcons (Julian's recent shit luck with this species continues), we thoroughly enjoyed the exploration and the scenery. None of us had been that far north along the St. Lawrence before. A few more birds on this last leg would have been nice, but we gave a strong effort! An awesome road trip for sure. Owls and poutine - check and check!

 - Nick


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