One of hundreds of California Gulls in Calgary on Tuesday. We saw these, a Glaucous Gull, a male Eurasian Wigeon and a supremely early Black-crowned Night-Heron at Inglewood Bird Sanctuary along with Herring Gulls, Wood Ducks and others.
I was especially lucky to find this little one amongst the recent migrants in Canmore – a Northern Saw-whet Owl! The bird was well hidden in a tangle of branches and twigs indeed, it was so well hidden that I had to lie down on my belly and shot upwards to get even this partially obscured photo.
Other Feathers on Fridays:
A flash of white streaks by and alights on a nearby stump. You spin, and place your binoculars on a small white and black woodpecker. It’s either Hairy or Downy, but do you know which? This question is a common one for beginning and novice birders across the continent, as these friendly little chaps will come to almost any feeder – suet, sunflower, peanut – for at least a short visit.
Identification can be a challenge, especially when you don’t know much about the two. Hairy is bigger than Downy, but in the field, this can be difficult to judge accurately, so how do you do it?
In the two above photos, (click to enlarge) you can see the key mark between them – the bills. On the Downy Woodpecker, the bill is a short projection of about one third the length of the head, where the Hairy has a big, thick bill, almost entirely the length of its head. Another interesting feature is the black shoulder mark on the Hairy – if you look closely, most Hairy Woodpeckers have a comma shaped black mark protruding from the back over the shoulder and sometimes on to the breast. Downys almost never have such a mark, but occasionally they can show something similar, so keep an eye out!
One final useful tool is the call. As the name suggests, Downy Woodpecker’s rapid fire “dododododododo” slips DOWN the scale towards the end, decrescendo style, while a Hairy’s call stays level or even goes up at the end.
So next time you’re out, take a long look at the local woodpeckers, and try to identify them. Take photos if you can – a snapshot never flies away! – before watching it. Downys especially can be quite tame, and may even land on your hand if you train them. Why not try it? Take your kids out, enjoy nature and provide a cool experience that may start them off on their birding career.
Other Perplexing Plumages:
Our annual Snowy Owl hunt is always one of my favourite birding trips of the year, and this year’s hunt was by far the best yet. It’s a laid back, quiet trip, a single day’s drive out from the mountains to the area east of Calgary, and back through the city. This year, I had set the ambitious goal of 18 ‘target’ species – Snowy Owl obviously coming first, with 15 supporting highlights and two stunners which would steal the show.
We (me and my father) set out at 6:45 AM, heading to Millarville for Wild Turkeys (see 2015) at the crack of dawn. Cruising down the road, we reached the lot where the birds roost, only to find the big birds had already fled the scene. This disappointment was somewhat remedied by the appearance of five moose – one a baby!
With that, we headed east, towards the land of hawks, eagles and owls. Quickly hitting a duo of Rough-legged Hawks (a year bird for both of us), we held high hopes for the remainder of the day, but as it turned out, these were the only two hawks we were to see that day. A strange place known as the “Eco Ag Facility” produced two hundred Common Ravens, 20 American Crows, and two Bald Eagles, as well as Starlings, Pigeons and Magpies. Why this was, we could not ascertain, as other, similar locations held no such bounty.
High River produced it’s now popular Common Grackle, but the real surprise was a pair of Hot Air Balloons – both observations unusual in January.
Frank Lake was the obvious next stop, looking for recently reported Prairie Falcon and Hoary Redpolls. Sadly, neither of these species showed, but we did find twenty Grey Partridge and some Horned Larks at Basin Four.
No Snowies yet. It wasn’t totally surprising, but we were hoping for a few and there was only one more area to check over. Between Strathmore and Beiseker is historically a very good area for Snowy Owls, so we sped on up north, and before long, We spotted one perched on a distant fence post. It’s a very white owl – a male, with almost none of the female’s black barring.
This was a pleasing find, midway through the day, but our second owl came very soon afterwards – a Great Horned, this time! Near the owl, a flock of 35 Snow Buntings fluttered around – another of the passerines of the target list. The biggest shock, and probably the best bird of the day came only half an hour later.
We had just left the flatlands, and were headed into Calgary, our thoughts turning to the water fowl of Carburn Park when we saw a bird atop a power pole on the entrance to the city. Initially dismissing it for a Raven – its back turned, against the sun – was a nonetheless an unforgivable mistake, for as we passed the bird, another glance was enough to send us screeching to a halt. A streaked raptor, like an immature accipiter, but too big, too bulky. There was only one thing this powerful form could be – a bird recently listed as sensitive by eBird – a bird you could no longer track down via reports. A Gyrfalcon.
I have only seen one other of this most stunning member of the falcon family, and this was the best of views. The bird launched itself off the pole, and whizzed along the fence line, parallel to our car. It was gone in a few seconds, but it left a lasting impression on me, reaffirming the species as my favourite falcon.
What can I possibly say about such a wonderful bird? I hadn’t stopped thinking about it by the time we reached Carburn, and even the finding of the over-wintering Red-breasted Merganser didn’t fully awaken me from my dreamlike trance.
We found the three Trumpeter Swans I had missed on my last journey to the park, and all of the Redheads, Scaup and Ring-necked Ducks.
Our final birds were the other contenders for Bird of the Day – a species which, up to July, had been my nemesis – two Short-eared Owls! Once again, however, my photos are not great – the fading post-dusk light obscures much detail.
That wraps up this year’s Snowy Owl hunt, with 39 species across almost 400 kilometres in the day. It was a one Snowy day, with highlights of two other owls and a Gyrfalcon, but unmentioned included a Merlin, Common Redpolls, Sharp-tailed Grouse and a Ring-necked Pheasant among others. It will be hard to top this one.
Thanks for reading, and here’s to next year’s Snowy Owl Hunt!
Sticking to a ‘winter bird’ theme, here’s a Bohemian Waxwing. They are back in town and feeding rapaciously on mountain ash berries. This one was part of a 50+ flock in Canmore, with a hungry Northern Shrike watching on….
Other Feathers on Fridays:
A surprisingly low number of people came out for the third Canmore Spring Bird Walk, with only seven participants compared to 25 last time. The seven, however were treated to a bird not reported in Banff county for over fourty years, and only three times before that – a first spring Bullock’s Oriole! We started as usual at 7:30, but one end of the Boardwalk was closed, so we walked around to behind the Raman bar to see the back of the creek. There we picked up some Yellow Warblers, a Northern Flicker and European Starlings at nests, and Wilson’s Snipe winnowing.
We then worked our way around to the area where there stands a telephone pole, poorly disguised as a tree. My Dad had just mentioned that we rarely, if ever see birds in this “tree,” when I spotted a bird in it. Training my binoculars upon it, I was slightly to slow to catch it, as it flew across the field. We relocated it, however, and it proved to be a Bullock’s Oriole. Keeping us at a distance, it winged it’s way across the tracks and perched in a faraway tree. My photo proves the bird, but not much more than that!
High water levels had pushed a Sora into view, but it still did a magnificent job of not being seen properly. Soras can pick their way through the marsh without moving a single blade of grass more than a millimeter. We also saw small numbers of Lincoln’s and Song Sparrows, and heard Policeman’s Creek’s first ever Willow Flycatcher.
Also, a quick update on the Boardwalk – the eBird hotspot now has 125 species, of which I have seen almost 120. Thanks for coming out last Sunday, and I hope you’ll all be here for the final walk of this spring, on June 18th at 7:30. We’ll still meet at the Big Head. Let me know if you think I should run some walks this fall in the comments, or by emailing me at email@example.com. See you next time!