Category Archives: Birding Trips

Birding Maitland – the Mysteries of the One Thousand Islands

It was perhaps the most uneventful trip to Ontario to date, in terms of birds. Previous visits have resulted in sights such as breeding Prothonotary Warbler, Green Heron and Bobolink. This time, however, we were not headed anywhere like Long Point, or even as far as Toronto. While this did not prevent us from seeing some good birds, it did mean that we wouldn’t be watching Blue-winged Warblers and Scarlet Tanagers.

Bobolink (May 2015)

We arrived in Ottawa airport at 11:00 PM eastern time, sleeping at last at around two AM. This late night arrival gave my Dad and I the opportunity to slip out to a nature preserve while the others slept in the following morning. The South access was barren, with naught but a Turkey Vulture seen, but the North was more productive – 25 species in a couple of hours.  Standout performers included four Blue-headed Vireos, an Eastern Towhee, some Eastern Pheobes and a Rusty Blackbird.

Blue-headed Vireo

Blue-headed Vireo

The next few days were spent in Maitland and Brockville. Cormorants and Ring-billed Gulls remained prominent throughout, but species such as Grey Catbird and Lincoln’s Sparrow mixed among Northern Cardinals and ubiquitous Blue Jays to exhibit a dazzling spectrum of colours. Hooded and Common Mergansers swam with the Mallards in the river, while Turkey Vultures wheeled above.

NOCA

Northern Cardinal

There was, all in all, a good variety of birds. While the weather did not co-operate, Red-winged Blackbirds, White-breasted Nuthatches and Black-capped Chickadees were all quite cheerful, presenting themselves in numbers throughout the trip.

WBNU

White-breasted Nuthatch

One of the biggest highlights of the time in Ontario was a boat tour of the Thousand Islands. The first bird ended up being the best – a mature Great Black-backed Gull! Not a lifer, but a Canada first and a very nice bird to see.

GBBG

Great Black-backed Gull with Ring-billed and Herring Gulls

Over the course of the trip, we would see three more of these impressive birds, but the above photo is by far the best view we had of one. Thousands of Double-crested Cormorants swarmed the rocks, buoys, islands and houses while Mallards and Canada Geese littered the blue waters. I spotted a few American Black Ducks, Common Loons and Common Mergansers, but the best waterfowl of the day was a small group of six Red-breasted Mergansers flying past the ship.

DCCO-TREE

The cormorants made it look like bare trees were covered with leaves, from a distance.

Returning in the evening light, a flock of maybe fifty Ring-billed Gulls accompanied the boat, floating on the air thrown up, effortlessly keeping pace with us almost all the way back to the docks. Naturally, I took some photos, as they were keeping beside and slightly above us, providing many excellent opportunities. My favourite shot, however, comes from when one dipped down to the second level, and I took one from above it.

A mug shot – Ring-billed Gull

RBGU

Ring-billed Gull

Later in the evening, they became much more bold, and even landed on the moving watercraft just a few yards away from people.

RBGU

An immature Ring-billed attempts to land on the ship’s light

Two days later, we drove out to Arnprior, to visit a friend who’d moved from Canmore; incidentally the very same who began this site for me! On the way, we breezed by Wild Turkeys, wild Turkey Vultures, and even possible Eastern Meadowlarks – what would have been lifers, if we had stopped to confirm them. Once there, a walk around the town centre turned out the first Dark-eyed Junco of the trip, more Herring and Ring-billed Gulls and some European Starlings – dazzling birds in the right light.

EUST

European Starlings

Friday morning, back in Brockville, we headed out on a non-birding expedition which nonetheless proved fruitful – so much so that we went back to the same place two days later. On both journeys, the abundance of White-throated Sparrows and icterids (blackbirds) surprised us, with over 40 individual sparrows identified. The second time, a Mourning Warbler shone out, partnering with another Blue-headed Vireo as the stars of the show.

Mixed Icterids

Mixed Icterids

On our last day in Ontario, we visited Brockville’s most famous sight – the Brockville Railway Tunnel – an older tunnel that has been transformed to a tourist attraction – complete with loud, trashy music, no less. Still, the sight was cool, and they had excellent lighting features.

Brockville Train Tunnel

Brockville Railway Tunnel

And that concluded our trip to Ontario! We boarded the plane that night, and left the land of warmth and warblers for the snow and cold of a Bow Valley October. Thanks for reading!

Trip of a Lifetime – To Central Alberta and Home Again

July 19th, 2017. We had stayed in Medicine Hat for the night, having come in from the bountiful prairies of Southern Alberta. So far the count was at 5 lifers and 2 other Alberta firsts, with other highlights including many Ferruginous Hawks, some Baird’s Sparrows and Upland Sandpipers. Now we started early, hoping for Yellow-breasted Chats and any miscellaneous rarities that might be hanging around Medicine Hat’s Police Point Park.

The first birds to greet us were Grey Catbirds. These thrushes are common throughout Alberta, but never before had I seen them in such large numbers.

Grey Catbird

Grey Catbird

As we proceeded along the rocky pathways, the chatter of House Wrens and Flycatchers pervaded the air, and Bald Eagles soared overhead. Breaking out from the trees, we found ourselves on a large stone beach, and flying above it a —- but it was gone so fast. I had little doubt as to the identity of this mysterious bird, a medium sized white bird with a heavy black crown, but we had to relocate it to be sure. Jogging along the waterfront, we came upon an immature Bonaparte’s Gull, a Great Blue Heron and some Spotted Sandpipers, but no tern. Then, winging it’s way along the course of the river, it reappeared at a somewhat slower pace than previously.

Caspian Tern

Caspian Tern!

It didn’t stop, however, and the bird was gone before we knew it. Jubilantly returning to the car, we happened across a Yellow Warbler feeding its young, a pair of Mourning Doves and two Killdeer. A slightly different find was a small frog that sprung from a small cluster of vegetation onto the path.Frog

Heading north now, we were constantly watching for Burrowing Owls as well as trying to identify all the LBJs (Little Brown Jobs) on the side of the road. The Suffield area turned out to be very productive, offering up Baird’s and Grasshopper Sparrows, four Loggerhead Shrike and a Say’s Phoebe.

Baird's Sparrow

Baird’s Sparrow

Now the landscape was changing, switching back to the familiar farms, scattered with trees and sloughs of the Calgary area, rather than the open and wild scrub land I had come to love in my short time in the south. Towards the hamlet of Patricia, we pulled over at a tiny pond simply heaving with birds. Half a dozen Pectoral Sandpipers, a Baird’s Sandpiper, Wilson’s Phalarope and two Least Sandpipers were pulled out, along with Avocets, Killdeer and Ring-billed Gulls. The entire wetland was about 20 feet long and 15 wide.

Killdeer

Killdeer

An hour in Dinosaur Provincial Park didn’t turn up much, but we did hear a Ring-necked Pheasant there. Cessford was another excellent shorebird location, with species such as Willet and Marbled Godwit foraging among Killdeer and Short-billed Dowitchers, and 12 Loggerhead Shrike caused comment.

Loggerhead Shrikes

Two young Loggerheads

The next place of note was the road running from the town of Dorothy to Drumheller, on which we found Common Nighthawk, American Kestrel and the highlights – two adult Lark Sparrows. We had seen one in the States a few years ago, and an immature already on this trip, but this was by far the best views I have ever had of these beautiful sparrows.

Lark Sparrows

Lark Sparrows

We spent the night in Drumheller, more than pleased with the day’s sightings, before heading out the next morning. With two more main stops left, the trip was almost over, but boy did they live up to the hype! Between Stettler and Rochon Sands, we found two Coopers Hawks, first of the year for me, and numerous Black Terns. Once at the Sands, we ate a casual lunch before heading out to the marsh where we were hoping for Great Egret and American Bittern. Fighting through the cement thick walls of mosquitoes, we were rewarded by an Egret fly-by almost before we had started! This wasn’t the only fly-by, though. Before the Egret, we had found Herons and even some White-faced Ibis flying over.

White-faced Ibis

White-faced Ibis silhouetted against the uniform clouds

Great Egret

Great Egret was a long way across the marsh, but it’s hard to mis-identify one of these!

Making our way out of the bug-infested swamp,  we decided to try one of the forested pathways after scanning the big lake. There was a big island covered in birds quite a ways out, but the bigger birds were still identifiable through my scope, and it was by this that we found the biggest surprise of the trip. A few Snow Geese had started to be reported, but it was still ridiculously early, so imagine our shock when we discovered a lifer Ross’s Goose! Ross’s are smaller than Snow Geese, and pass through in comparatively tiny numbers mixed in with the huge flocks of Snows. This one was seriously early migrating, and all on its own. We were naturally delighted to see it.

Ross's Goose

Can you find it? (just to the right of the two cormorants on their own in the centre)

This photo is closer, but worse quality due to the fact that I was digiscoping by the crude means of holding my camera up to the eye-piece of the scope.

Digiscoped Ross's Goose

Digiscoped Ross’s Goose

There were also quite a few Black and Forster’s Terns, Red-necked Grebes and Pelicans.

Forster's Tern

Forster’s Tern

The final Rochon Sands Rarity was an un-photographed, but easily identified, Great-crested Flycatcher. This bird had been previously reported, but was a very nice bird nonetheless. The final stop on the way home was at Ellis Bird Farm, where we found at least 100 Purple Martins, some kingbirds, warblers and American Goldfinches.

Eastern Kingbird

Eastern Kingbird

The Martins were splashing and drinking at a pond near the nest boxes, which made some interesting photos, but my favourite isn’t even of a Purple Martin!

Purple Martin

Purple Martin

Tree Swallow

Tree Swallow

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Purple Martins

Purple Martins bathing

The real target bird here was a bit silly. Having lived in Alberta all my birding life, I really should have seen a Ruby-throated Hummingbird in the province. However, in my eighth year of Alberta birding, I had yet to see one. Ellis Bird Farm seemed to be a good place for them, so we tried it and in the end, succeeded, making Ruby-throated Hummingbird the fourteenth Alberta first in the week.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Ruby-throated Hummingbird in the fittingly named Hummingbird Garden

That concluded the trip, and we headed back to the enclosed mountains, where I would spend the next two months sorting through the two thousand photos we had taken in three and a half days. It really was the trip of a lifetime.

See the first post here. For a full Species List, see here. And finally for the trip map, click here.

Thanks for reading!

The Trip of a Lifetime – Southern Alberta

Sorry for not posting for a while, I’ve been going through the multiple thousand photos from this trip, in addition to keeping up my birding! This may be a long post, so if you skip through it, I totally understand.

My sister was off to Bible Camp for a week, and my Mum and brother were headed to BC with friends. This left me and my Dad with a week alone, and a steady stream of interesting birds being reported from across the province, mainly in the far South-East. McCown’s and Chestnut-collared Longspurs, Lark Sparrows and Buntings to name a few. Combine the two, and you get a four day birding trip around Alberta with few of the usual hindrances – time being the main one. And so it was that we set out on Monday the 18th of July for the trip of a lifetime.

Our first stop (we hoped) was just outside of Calgary for a Black-headed Grosbeak. This didn’t come off, however, so we birded the area for a while before driving off to Lethbridge. The biggest surprise was the number and boldness of young Soras. Almost 20 foraged alongside Wilson’s Snipe and Black Terns in a small streambed.

Sora-chicks

Two young Soras in the sparse grass at the edge of the gulley.

Red-winged Blackbirds were also in full evidence, feeding their young, and filling the reedbeds with their throaty calls.

Red-winged Blackbird w-food-4307

Red-winged Blackbird with insect

Reaching Lethbridge without trouble, we settled into our motel and fell into a restless sleep (on my part at least). The next day, we rose early and, having filled our go-mugs with the hotel coffee, set out towards Pakowki Lake. Six White-faced Ibis were nice additions on the drive there, but the real highlights came hidden among over 200 Horned Larks – two of the fleeing birds revealed white tails marked by a black triangle – Chestnut-collared Longspurs! Almost at the lake, the cherry on the cake sat 100 metres from a Ferruginous Hawk in the form of a Grasshopper Sparrow. Two lifers already, and it was only ten AM!

GRSP

Spotting the diminutive Grasshopper Sparrow from the road and having it sit in the open long enough to ID it proved to be tough work.

Pakowki Lake was actually pretty bare, with a handful of Willets, some Marbled Godwits and many pairs of Eared Grebes being the most notable species.

Eared Grebe

Eared Grebe

Wandering down a vacant road, we were stopped by an inquisitive rancher who, quite naturally, wanted to know who we were and why we were on his land. As it turned out, we were the second birding car he had met on his way out! We soon caught up to the other vehicle, and had a brief conversation with the owners, who we knew. While we talked, a large flock including Vesper Sparrows, Chestnut-collared Longspurs, and life-birds McCown’s Longspurs engulfed us before continuing their passage down the gravel road.

CCLO

Male Chestnut-collared Longspur transitioning to non-breeding plumage

VESP

Vesper Sparrow

We had just enough time to drive over to Wild Horse (the way border crossing between Alberta and the US) before heading back up to Medicine Hat where we would spend the night. Wild Horse was supposed to be good territory for Lark Buntings, both Longspurs and Baird’s Sparrow. The first thing we saw, however, was a common yet pretty bird with its fledglings. Western Kingbirds!

Western Kingbirds

“Now kids, smile for the camera man”

It didn’t take long to find the Lark Buntings – a large flock, perhaps 75 in number fed among the fields near the crossing. Baird’s Sparrow was found by pure chance – we pulled over to photograph a Lark Bunting, and it popped up from the grass right beside us!

LAGR

Male Lark Bunting

The day was progressing quickly, and we wanted to sleep in Medicine Hat that night, so the car swung into a more heavily populated road (almost six cars every ten minutes – counts as a well-used motor-way down there). Stopping at an almost empty Cypress Hills Provincial Park, we found a young Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, but little else. Immediately afterwards, however… A long-winged, pale shaped bird tossed it’s body across a roadside field, fluttering, first one wing up, then the other. It banked, and there was no doubt about it. A Short-eared Owl!

My nemesis bird, the Short-eared Owl has avoided me on many occasions, sometimes by miles, sometimes by hours. I’ve spent countless fruitless trips at dusk among the Alberta prairies, searching for this elusive bird to no avail.  So imagine my surprise when this first amazing discovery was followed by six more – four of them immature!

Short-eared Owlet

We made it to Medicine Hat in total darkness, and scouted around for a place to sleep for a while before finally crashing into bed. From Medicine Hat, we would continue our journey North, almost reaching Edmonton before dipping back down to Canmore on Thursday night. That part of the trip remains to be chronicled, however, so watch for a second post soon!

The Great Canadian Birdathon – Day Two

We awoke at 5:25 AM for a 5:45 kick-off on Policeman’s Creek, where we successfully saw the Great-horned Owls, Hammond’s Flycatcher and Rufous Hummingbird. Overall, however, the creek was quiet. We did manage Wilson’s Warbler and Northern Waterthrush, as well as a hotspot rarity – three male Blue-winged Teal. After this, we made a short stop up to Silvertip, where a friend had a Cassin’s Vireo, which we heard consistently, but failed to see, unfortunately.

Rufous Hummingbird

Rufous Hummingbird

We continued to the Cave and Basin, where we spent just over an hour. The first thing we heard was the local Barred Owl – and his mate! Two Townsend’s Warblers were nice additions to the list, and a Bald Eagle fly-by provided good views in the morning light. At Vermillion Lakes we were afforded a nice surprise in four Trumpeter Swans. The Common Loon pair on the third lake swam by (side note – these loons now have one chick, which hatched June 16).

Common Loons

Common Loons

Fighting time, we drove behind an impossibly slow (it seemed) car to hope desperately for Pipits and Red-necked Grebe at Lake Minnewanka. When we finally got there, we drove slowly along the top of the dam, when I spotted some small shapes out in the water. We stopped, and I snapped three photos at the same time as Gavin. Zooming in on our cameras, we were delighted to find that these six birds were, in fact Harlequin Ducks!

Harlequin Ducks

Harlequin Ducks

Harlequin Ducks

Harlequin Ducks

This was the first time I had ever seen a Harlequin in breeding plumage, and the beautiful ducks edged the unseen Cassin’s Vireo for the top spot in the highlight lists.

Harlequin Ducks

Harlequin Ducks

That concluded the Birdathon, and we ended with 112 species – not my best, but still good considering the locations visited. Anyone interested can see the full list here. Thank you everyone for donating, and if you haven’t already, please go to my site here. There is still time!

To see part one, follow this link: Great Canadian Birdathon Day One.

The Great Canadian Birdathon 2017 (Day One)

Ten days ago today,  the team Saw-it Owls was kicking off their Great Canadian Birdathon. Starting at a Purple Martin colony in Chestermere, we headed to Weed Lake, then down to Carburn Park. We were starting at the Martin colony because, for the first time in my memory, the Peregrine Falcons were not nesting at the University. With two scopes, three cameras and four pair of binoculars, we set out. Purple Martins are not hard to find at their homes, and we were not disappointed, with nine individuals showing for us.

Purple Martin

Male Purple Martin

Weed Lake is usually a very good place for shorebirds, but the water levels are high this spring, and we only identified the disappointing tally of 3 shorebirds not seen anywhere else. Black-bellied Plovers were the highlights, but a Black-crowned Night-Heron flyover was a nice accompaniment to a conservative estimate of 5000 Franklin’s Gulls, among which rested a single Bonaparte’s Gull.

Franklin's Gull

Franklin’s Gulls

Carburn Park was a good stop, throwing up a California Gull, American White Pelican and House Wrens. We also saw Western Wood-Pewees, a Belted Kingfisher and three Bank Swallows. It was a good thing too, as South Glenmore Park was barren of birds, excepting some out on the reservoir.

American White Pelicans

Preening session!

Heading out of the city, we took a short stop where someone had seen a Golden-crowned Sparrow recently. We missed the sparrow, but there was a lucky Western Tanager and a Tennessee Warbler.

Western Tanager

Western Tanager

We dined in Cochrane, then headed out to Horse Creek Road Marshes. Sometimes tough to find, these marshes are a brilliantly consistent place for Yellow Rails, of which we heard 3. Nelson’s Sparrows were absent, but the buzzy call of a Le Conte’s Sparrow rang out three times. We of course, were 12 hours too early for the Sedge Wren reported there the next day.

Wilson's Snipe

Wilson’s Snipe are a common sight at HCR marshes.

That pretty much ended the first half of the 24 hours, as we saw little on the return drive via Sibbald Creek Trail. That is also the end of this post, but stay tuned for the second half from Saturday in the Bow Valley! There is still time to donate to this important cause, so please click this link to see my Birdathon page. Thank you!

Feathers on Friday – Sharp-tailed Grouse Lek

Sharp-tailed Grouse

Sharp-tailed Grouse males face off

A few photos for this Feathers on Friday. Sharp-tailed Grouse from the lek! They were very tolerant of the blind, coming within ten feet of us, so though the day was overcast, I managed to extract some nice photos. The males would hold their wings out, turn in a circle and stamp their feet very quickly while popping their purple air sacs.

Sharp-tailed Grouse

Sharp-tailed Grouse male

I’d seen Sharp-tailed Grouse once before, but that was distant, and of course, the males weren’t displaying, so this was quite an experiance. We had to be settled in the blind an hour beforee sunrise, which meant a 3:30 start from our hotel (it would have been 1:00 AM from home).

Sharp-tailed Grouse

Sharp-tailed Grouse male

The females were in short supply, and were constantly being chased around by hopeful males.

Sharp-tailed Grouse female

There were only three or four females compared to the 30 odd males.

All in all, a brilliant way to spend Mothers Day!

And Let Birds Fill The Sky – If The Wind Isn’t Too Strong

We had puzzled over where to go during the spring break, as the suite that our friends owned in Kimberly had been sold. I wanted birds, my Mom needed ttranquillity and my Dad didn’t want to drive too far. The kids didn’t care – as long as there were rocks, trees, or snow to play on, they were fine. Flip-flopping between Edmonton and Waterton National Park, we eventually settled on the latter (though I now wish we had gone to south eastern Hanna – there was an Alberta first Common Crane there!).

During the four hour long drive, I observed many dabbling ducks and hawks, but little else. Briefly stopping over at Frank Lake, we found that it is bursting into Spring, supporting Greater and Lesser Scaups, Gadwall, Ruddy Duck and four Red-breasted Mergansers. I think that the male Red-breasted Merganser is probably the most beautiful bird I’ve seen – which means something. Unfortunately, they were half a kilometre out, and we obtained no good photos.

Continuing to Waterton, we identified meadowlarks hawking from roadside poles and hawks hovering over the rolling meadows. When we eventually reached the diminutive hamlet of Waterton, I was surprised at the exact measure of solitude – there was only one shop open in the whole area! I do not believe that we saw more than 10 people the entire time.

Moose

A Moose we saw.

Waterton is very windy, with winter winds whistling through at an average 100 km per hour. Not enough to blow you over, but it can make it tough to hold your camera steady. Despite this, we manged to pick up quite a few species at the Hay Barnes Trail, an excellent short walk for anyone in the area. There is a theory that the first five minutes after you get somewhere are the best, and this was hardly disputed when an adult Prairie Falcon skimmed the long, waving grasses within a minute of our arrival. It alighted on a tall aspen and surveyed the surrounding fields. It took off a second later, joining a high-flying Red-tailed Hawk. However, as is often the case in these things, the fragile peace between the two raptors was broken when a Common Raven came hurtling out of the sky at the Hawk. The falcon joined in, and soon all three had disappeared over the hilly horizon.

A distant shot of the three birds – Raven on top, Red-tail below, and Prairie Falcon to the left.

The Waterfall

The Waterfall – click to see whole photo.

Upon our return to Waterton, we found three American Dippers broadcasting their songs by bouncing them off the stony cliffs by the waterfall. The other treasures occurred during the 50 km drive between Waterton and Pincher Creek, which we completed three or four times. Great-horned Owls, Northern Harriers and Golden Eagles supplemented the Red-tailed Hawks, while countless Mountain Bluebirds sang from the fence line. Every once in a while, we saw some Sandhill Cranes or Red-winged Blackbirds.

Northern Harrier – male

Naturally, when we returned, we learned of the Western Bluebird, the Cassin’s Finch, and that blasted bird, my nemesis, the Short-eared Owl that had been seen. Why oh why must those annoying owls insist on avoiding me? Oh well.

That’s all from me, but I’ll post more as migration continues. In the mean time, please consider donating to my Great Canadian Birdathon if you haven’t already. Thank you to all who have!

Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Cranes

The Great Canadian Birdathon 2017 – A Five Year Anniversary

BirdBoy Great Canadian Birdathon 2013BirdBoy Great Canadian Birdathon 2014BirdBoy Great Canadian Birdathon 2015BirdBoy Great Canadian Birdathon 2016

As I mentioned in my last post (Springing into Spring), the Great Canadian Birdathon is happening again this year, and it is a special one for me, as it will be my fifth time participating. Those of you who have been with me the whole time will remember that some of my first ever posts involved the 2013 Birdathon, back when it was called the Baillie Birdathon.
I have included links to all of the previous Birdathon posts at the bottom of this one.

Great Canadian Birdathon Shirt 2017

The new shirt design

The Birdathon has taken me many places and given my many exiting experiences. I am trying a new approach this year, which is to captain a team. This team will include Canadian Birder, and hopefully we will see some new birds – perhaps even that Short-eared Owl that has been evading me for so long.

James L. Baillie was an Assistant Curator in the Department of Ornithology at the Royal Ontario Museum for roughly half a century, and both the Baillie Birdathon and the James L. Baillie Memorial Fund were set up in his honor. The birdathon’s name was changed in 2015, but the memory continues in the memorial fund, which receives part of the funds raised every year from the Birdathon.

Thank you everyone who has donated already, and if you haven’t, consider joining the cool crowd by following this link: Birdathon, and donating to keep our backyard beauties in fine feather!

 

Photos from Previous Years:

Great Canadian Birdathon 2013:

Raven eating pigeon

Common Raven

Ethan Baillie Birdwatching

Great Canadian Birdathon 2014:

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Great Canadian Birdathon 2015:

American Avocet

Brown Thrasher

Blue-grey Gnatcatcher

Blue-grey Gnatcatcher

Great Canadian Birdathon 2016:

Marbled Godwit

Great Horned Owl

Eastern Phoebe

Links to posts:

2013                             2014                             2014#2                             2015

2016                             2016#2