Twice before I and a team of varying people have braved the barren, cold, isolated plains north-east of Calgary. Only once before has our mission been accomplished. So is the way of the owlers.
This year, the team consisted of me, my dad, and Kevin Barker (one of our birding friends). We set out early, heading for Calgary. On the way, we stopped at the casino to see if any of the Snow Buntings were awake. A few groggy birds flitted around in the parking lot, but most – the sensible ones – were still asleep.
Next on our list was Bowness, where a Stellar’s Jay had been reported consistently in the same few blocks for a good while. Well, the Jay decided that today of all days, he would go exploring! Darn it, he was reported seven blocks over from where we were at the exact same time as we were looking for him! Too bad.
Now came the real hunt. We swung out towards Beiseker, where most of the recent sightings had been. The first place we stopped, we pulled over because a very large flock of Rock Pigeons were circling in a frenzy above a little farming house. Thinking that there must be a falcon somewhere around, we drove in to have a look.
No falcon could be seen, but a small flock of small birds were sighted at a distance, and so out came the scope (my Viper Vortex). After a few minutes, they were determined to be House Sparrows. But wait! A game bird was stalking along in the grass. Binoculars came up! The new arrival had brought friends, about three of them. The grass rustled, and suddenly a grey and red head popped out. They were Gray Partridge. One scuttled out into the open and we were able to get some photos. Unfortunately, they did not turn out very well.
The partridge (plural) waddled behind a large dung pile and I fixed the scope on them. Out of nowhere, another seven birds flew in. “More Partridge!” I called. “Wait” said Kevin. “They weren’t partridge! They were Sharp-tailed Grouse!”. I looked through the scope with a renewed intensity. One of the birds stepped out from behind the pile. Yes! They were indeed Sharp-Tailed Grouse.
These lifers were not to be seen again, but there was no doubt about what they were. Deciding that we had better chances of our goal somewhere else, we left the farmyard to hunt further afield. We sped off down the highway. Suddenly, the car jolted to a stop and my dad was getting his binoculars to his face. Wondering what it was, I looked around and started laughing. When he had slammed on the brakes, my dad had said something like “Present!” What he had actually meant turned out to be “Pheasant!” But these weren’t any pheasant that we could count – they were in an enclosure! The farmer who owned that bit of land was breeding them!
Another hour passed, with no owls. In fact, the only birds that had been seen for ages were black-billed Magpies. Another hour gone. Still nothing. Finally, somewhere where there might be a bird! We pulled in and began driving slowly around the little settlement. As we turned a corner, a smallish, pink/grey bird flushed ahead of us. The bird flew farther down, giving us time to get good views of our first Mourning Dove of the year. Later on, a second one was spotted. This observation was later to be questioned. We had, however, enough information to count it anyway.
At noon, it came down to we either see a Snowy Owl before we get to Irricana, or we go to Frank Lake and see what’s there. The last turn. We swung onto Range Road 272 and headed for the highway. A minute or so away from the highway and Irricana, my dad asked me to count the number of species that we had seen so far. Literally as I bent my head to the notebook, he stopped the car and grinned, “Bingo!”. A first-year female Snowy Owl sat on a telephone pole just a few feet away. The mission was a success.
No matter what else we saw, at the end of the day, all would work out. We had our owl. Granted, more would be great, but one was more than enough.
Happily, we drove the last bit to Irricana, where we filled the tank at a gas station before heading off to Frank Lake. There, the main species we wanted were Snowy Owl, Great-horned Owl, and Gyrfalcon. On the way, we passed a Bald Eagle perched in a tree out in a field. We took the route that passed by Blackie, and decided to check for doves at some grain elevators on the edge of town.
Rock Pigeons sat on the train tracks, while doves pressed themselves against the side of the elevators. What were they? Out came the scope. Black bands on the back of pink/grey necks confirmed them as Eurasian-collared Doves. Seven European Starlings sat on the ladders, phosphorescent feathers standing out a against the dull green paint.
It was at Frank Lake that our second attempt at finding a pheasant was thwarted. We drove in to the resident owl’s area, but did not find him. Next, we tried the North-West entrance. The tiny patch of water held only two Mallards, and four Common Goldeneye, but as we walked back, a feather was found. And then another. And another! Half of a Ring-necked Pheasant’s feathers lay, presumably scattered by another of our targets – a Gyrfalcon. Grrrrrrr!
For our final stop, it was a close-cut race against the darkness. Our timing was perfect (although the cameras didn’t like the darkness), for the birds were strutting around. Suddenly, a Wild Turkey took a small run-up and flew into a tree to roost. Soon, all of the other large, chunky game-birds were following its lead. The Wild Turkeys would not have been seen if we had been 20 minutes later.