Find Your Passion for Birding with Sam Denault

Texte — Mark Mann Photos — Patrice Bouchard, Mark Olsen, Gabriel De Rossi, Jordan Ryskamp, Margaret Strickland, Sam Denault

Pileated Woodpecker | Grand Pic — Patrice Bouchard

When Sam Denault and I walked down into the forest at BESIDE Habitat one morning in May, we plunged straight into the midst of a flock of migrating warblers. Several different species swarmed the branches overhead, and the trees were full of their songs. Sam, who’d been out since 5 a.m., frequently paused and cocked his head to listen, calling out the names of the birds as he heard them. But despite the wonderful cacophony, I could hardly spot a single one.

A biologist and ornithologist based in Montréal, Sam had spent the last few days on retreat at BESIDE, taking in the great spring migration. Starting in late April and ending in early June, millions of birds travel thousands of kilometres north along aerial “flyways” to breed and feast on insects for the summer. For birders like Sam, this seasonal migration and the return trip in the fall are the high points of the year.

The sheer variety of birds is breathtaking. Over the course of his stay at Habitat, he was able to identify 75 distinct species.

Forest | Forêt — Mark Olsen
Rose-breasted Grosbeak | Cardinal à poitrine rose — Mark Olsen

Sam notes each ID in eBird, an online database widely used by birders to document their sightings. This data is prized by scientists and conservationists for keeping track of bird populations. eBird also serves as a social media network for birdwatchers, to save and share their own lists, discover new birding spots, and find out when and where a rare species has been seen.

Sam is one of the top three birders in Québec, according to eBird. At the time of writing, he has personally identified 412 bird species within the province. That’s 87,5 per cent of the total species that have ever been documented in the region using the app. The current record is held by Pierre Bannon, at 418 species.

Sam — Gabriel DeRossi

The challenges of birdwatching in the forest

While most will continue farther into the boreal wilderness, or even as far north as the Arctic, some of the migrating birds will end their journey in the protected forest of BESIDE Habitat Lanaudière. They will choose mates and leave their travelling flocks, fanning out among the trees to build nests and raise their young. Sam estimates that as many as 80 different species are likely to breed in the area around Habitat and stay for the summer.

Once the migrating birds have settled down for the season, however, they can be difficult to find. “For warblers in particular, you have to go after them; they won’t come to you,” Sam tells me. “You have to explore.”

Birdwatching in a mature forest can be more challenging than in the city, where birds tend to congregate in large parks, sometimes referred to as “green oases.” In forests outside the city, there are plenty of birds around, but they space themselves out. “To make good observations, it’s always a question of patience,” Sam explains.

In other words, you have to embrace the challenge.

Ovenbird | Paruline couronnée — Jordan Ryskamp

The difficulty of birdwatching is an essential part of its appeal. It was this hide-and-seek quality that first made Sam fall in love with birding when he was 12 years old. He still remembers it clearly, the excitement he felt in grade six when he learned that there were colourful birds living in the woods near his home in the suburbs of Montréal. They weren’t easy to spot, but he soon discovered that his diligence would be rewarded.

The world is secretly bursting with colourful winged creatures if you’re careful enough to look, Sam realized. After that, he was hooked.The world is secretly bursting with colourful winged creatures if you’re careful enough to look, Sam realized. After that, he was hooked.

Northern Flicker | Pic flamboyant — Margaret Strickland

Three decades later, Sam still enjoys birding close to home. Montréal is a great city for birdwatching, he assures me. Every year he strives to identify 200 distinct species within the city, and most years he achieves it.

But his favourite pastime is going out searching for “target species,” which is just a way of referring to interesting birds that he wants to see. “It’s like a treasure hunt,” he tells me.

Sometimes these quests for rare birds can take him far from home. Once, someone spotted a common scoter — a large black sea duck normally exclusive to Europe — in Abitibi, and Sam drove six hours to take a look for himself.

“I saw it,” he tells me proudly. “I was lucky, because it was gone the next day.”

Broad-winged Hawk | Petite Buse — Sam Denault

The longest drive he ever made to see a bird was 13 hours, to see a rogue Steller’s sea eagle that had wandered 7,500 km from its native habitat in Asia and turned up in Gaspésie. A type of eagle with striking features and a giant wingspan, the bird had wandered east across North America in 2021, garnering international headlines along the way. Sam was one of hundreds who travelled long distances to catch a glimpse of the rare raptor.

Chatting in the cabin at Habitat, Sam keeps glancing out the window, his trained eye searching for bird flight among the trees outside. As our conversation winds down, he’s eager to get back outside and continue birding. When we say goodbye, he immediately returns to the trees, his eyes turned upward and his binoculars ready.

Don’t miss the spring and fall bird migrations at Habitat.

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