Friday, March 15, 2013

Gyrfalcon: The Great Snow Bunter

My kids had last week off for spring break. I don't know why 'spring' break in Canada is during winter and so much earlier than what I was used to in the U.S., but it was, so we had to find something for the boys to do all week. I took them skiing on Thursday and, after my snow-shoeing knee bruising, tube breaking finger cutting, and skiing induced aches and pains, I decided something more mellow was called for. So why don't we go bird-watching?!?! The kids were really excited by this prospect! Well, somewhat excited. Not really. But they had no choice.

On Friday morning, we were off to McGill University's Morgan Arboretum. I had heard all about the arboretum that Damon has been visiting and I wanted to see what all of the fuss was about. Well, an arboretum is a place where trees, bushes and shrubs are cultivated for scientific study, and I guess that birds like these places, and that makes them good bird watching locations. After a brief detour or two (Why is the exit to the arboretum closed? Where do I turn now? Why are we driving in the wrong direction?), we found the entrance and I stopped by the office to pay our entrance fee ($18 Canadian for the family seems a bit steep to see some trees) and to ask about birding opportunities. I was told there was a red-bellied woodpecker around and perhaps a great grey owl. Very exciting! We started off through the woods and saw everything except these two birds: cardinals, mourning doves, chickadees, redpolls, crows, downy/hairy woodpecker. It was, nonetheless, a nice walk through the woods and a very beautiful day indeed. 

Lunch was called for by the boys and, being that it was just a quick drive across the river, we headed off to St. Eustache to have lunch at a sugar shack (more properly known as a cabana a sucre). Lunch is a series of courses: pickled vegetables, bean soup, coleslaw, eggs, ham, fried pork fat, sausages, and ending with sugar pie. And maple syrup on top of it all!

After lunch, I suggested that we drive to Mirabel near St. Jerome to see if we could the snow buntings that had been reported in eBird. After exiting the highway, my wife and I couldn't quite decide where exactly we were supposed to go. We ended up driving down a progression of ever narrower roads; past maple trees, a cow farm or two, and some nondescript rural homes. And then they were sighted.

Snow buntings!

But where did they fly off to? I drove slowly down the road (which was running through a fairly open area of fields) and was slowly scanning the skies for the buntings. There! I looked up and it wasn't a bunting but a raptor of some sort. I looked through the binoculars and got a really good look with my first thought being: this is NOT a red-tailed hawk. I looked at the bird book briefly and back up to see the bird fly off over the fields. No red tail.

So what was it? A quick glance at the book suggested that other than red-tailed hawks, there aren't many raptors in the Montreal area this time of year. Perhaps it was a northern goshawk, though I didn't think a goshawk identification looked correct. This bird was almost entirely a lightish grey with white speckly color... could it be a gyrfalcon? I decided to hold off on deciding until doing more homework on the raptor possibilities. We did another lap of the the country road and saw a nice group of horned larks and then more snow buntings and then drove back to Montreal.

Back at home, I did some internet searching to compare my mental image with photos of the two types of raptors and it was undoubtedly a gyrfalcon. A quick check on eBird showed no goshawk sightings in the area this year and one gyrfalcon report. And the gyrfalcon seen was of a brown color form. So this is how I came to see the gyrfalcon; It was hunting snow buntings in the Quebec countryside. Now that not something I ever thought I would see.

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