California pt. 1: The Family Trip

Once the annual slog of final exams was past at last, I was looking forward to a few weeks of relaxation and quiet birding before really getting into any ‘summer activities.’ I could not have been more wrong. My first two sightings of summer should have warned me that I was in for a exiting time; a rare Cape May Warbler and a lifer Connecticut Warbler on Policeman’s Creek marked two of my best Banff sightings since the Dunlin in March, and it was shortly after these observations that I was to be whisked off to California on a three week birding adventure.

Naturally, the entire trip could not be about birds; my siblings have yet to fall under the spell of ornithology (there’s always hope!), and there are many wonderful things down the West Coast which do not involve avian highlights. For two weeks, we drove down the coast to San Fransisco, frantically trying to combine birding and vacation with watching the World Cup games.

Rest stop birding sufficed for a few days, as our primary goal was to cover as many miles as possible before slowing down. This, however, turned up such highlights as a Rock Wren and Bullock’s Oriole young.

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Rock Wren

Our first life bird came in the shape of a California Scrub-Jay, a bird we would become gradually familiar with over the course of our expedition. These birds’ brilliant blue plumage spotted the Oregon and California sea line in much the same way as that of the Blue Jay fills our more eastern world.

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California Scrub-Jay, the first lifer of the journey.

From that point on,  a steady trickle of life and year birds streamed past our eager eyes. Commencing in Astoria, Oregon (I highly recommend the visitor centre there; their efforts to find a place showing the World Cup semi-final was commendable) with Brown Pelicans, we continued to Leadbitter Point in search of Snowy Plovers. While we bombed on the Snowies, we had a great time there, as the entire beach was covered with thousands of Western Sandpipers, with healthy numbers of Sanderling, Black-bellied Plover and Short-billed Dowitcher mixed in.

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Small groups of 30 – 50 Western Sandpipers whistled along the beach, mere inches above the sand.
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Western Sandpiper

On the Oregon coast, there is a place called Haystack Rock which is known, in particular, for its breeding Tufted Puffins. When we reached this notable stone outcrop, we were greeted by dozens of Common Murres, Pelagic Cormorants, and Western Gulls circling the air. It did not take long to find the object of our desire. Half a dozen of the angular black forms hurtled through the sky with all the grace of a fish hurled from an airplane window. These chunky birds carried their massive bills with a Roman dignity, and seldom approached shore save from high above the beach as they circled the rock.

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Tufted Puffin

The final campsite of the first part of the trip was the best by far – we stayed there for three days, and found over thirty species including 3 lifers. The first lifer observed was the daring Black Phoebe, a bird which perched, fearless, on campfire grates, picnic tables and unoccupied tents around the campsite.

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Black Phoebe

The next day brought with it a family of Nuttal’s Woodpeckers, California Towhees, and a Green Heron!

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A young Nuttal’s Woodpecker

The Green Heron was flighty, but allowed some photos if you crept up behind some bushes.

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Green Heron

The next day, we moved into a hotel in Half-Moon Bay to rest up for the biggest day of the trip – a pelagic tour! The adventures of the long awaited pelagic deserve their own post, however, so you’ll just have to wait for the next post to find out what happened.

The Strangest Birdathon Yet

The Great Canadian Birdathon is complete, and what a birdathon it was! With a final species count of over 115 birds, we beat last year’s total in a shorter time. Somewhat encumbered by my persistent illness, we set off in Water Valley at 5:30am and completed the count at Lac Des Arcs by 9:30pm.

One of our first birds of the day was the Least Flycatcher, a species which, along with the ubiquitous Clay-coloured Sparrow, turned up at almost every location we visited.

LEFL
Least Flycatcher

We headed out to a bridge whch we knew was quite good, and picked up over 30 species there, including a singing Blackburnian Warbler and my FOY Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers.

A few kilometers NW, at a marsh where we hoped to pick up Swamp Sparrow, Ovenbird and an early Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, we were greeted by a very obliging pair of Sandhill Cranes, which flew overhead, echoing their guttural calls for all to hear.

SACR
Sandhill Crane

Unfortunately, we dipped on the Ovenbird and Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, but we did find Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Baltrimore Oriole and a few Northern Waterthrushes to bring the day’s count up to 45.

Two days previous, Miles Tindal and I had located a breeding Cape May Warbler on the Horse Creek Road, so we pulled over there on the way to Horse Creek Road Marshes and not only found the male warbler, but heard a Cassin’s Vireo to boot!

At the marshes, we found very little, but did manage to identify a single Le Conte’s Sparrow amid the Savannahs.

LCSP
Le Conte’s Sparrow

Since we were still lacking the Swamp Sparrow, we made a little detour to Winchell Lake where we successfully relocated one of these pretty little birds. Now came the strange part of the day. Having little hope of a great birdathon in terms of numbers (we were planning to end early, remember), we headed out on a wild goose chase to find a Green Heron which had been seen at an undisclosed location, and we were guessing where it could have been, thanks to the wealth of knowledge belonging to Dan Arndt of Calgary, who knew an area which resembled the photos of the bird.

Needless to say, we missed the heron, but the journey out to the spot was quite fruitful, turning up Baird’s, Pectoral and Semi-palmated Sandpipers, and other shorebirds including many Wilson’s Phalaropes.

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Wilson’s Phalarope

Proceeding now towards Frank Lake, we chanced upon a Least Sandpiper, some Black Terns and best of all, a Long-billed Curlew!

Frank Lake was excellent as usual, though not at its brilliant best (there was a Little Blue Heron seen there today!). Barn Swallows offered good photography options, while White-faced Ibises and Forster’s Terns patrolled the skies. Eared Grebe and Ruddy Ducks ruled the water, and mixed in we found Red-necked Phalaropes, Western Grebes and a Marsh Wren in – surprisingly enough – the marsh.

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Barn Swallow

A stop in High River yielded European Collared-Dove and Pine Siskin, and we were almost at Bragg Creek when the text came in. A bird has been seen at Langdon, a bird which almost never makes it as far North as Calgary. A Snowy Egret.

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Snowy Egret

After originally hesitating due to the distance it was, we had no r-egrets  about making the move to find it.

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Snowy Egret, Langdon

As we observed this special bird, an anxious Willet circled above, screaming out a distinctive”Will-et! Will-et!”

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Willet

We concluded the day with a desperate stop at Lac Des Arcs to find, oddly enough, our first Common Goldeneye of the day. That rounded off our 2018 Great Canadian Birdathon – with no owls, eagles or falcons, and only three of a possible 7 thrushes, a strange one indeed. For any who want to see the full list of 117 species, click here.

Please consider donating to this important cause! The birdathon is not only a great birding experience for participants, but it is also a crucial part of the fundraising efforts to protect our avian life, both in their breeding grounds in North America, and in their wintering territories farther south. To support our valiant volunteers in their vital work, make a donation to my fundraising page here.

Great Canadian Birdathon 2018

Sorry for not posting in a while – I’ve been busy with school and sports, but that should be cooling down for a few weeks before my final exams, so I should be posting more soon.

As more and more birds stream into the province, the annual assortment of birding events, festivals and counts begins. Already, the Global Big Day has been and gone, with 6,098 species reported by over 28 thousand observers on May 5th. One of the biggest events yet to come (at least for me) is the Great Canadian Birdathon. This will be my 6th birdathon, and my 2nd as part of the Saw-it Owls team. I’ll be joining up with Gavin McKinnon of Calgary once more, searching for roughly 125 species in Southern Alberta. While we failed to reach that target last year (112 species), we have high hopes and a completely different route this May, hitting some of the best habitat in Alberta.

The highlight of last year, Harlequin ducks are looking pretty unlikely with the altered route.

For those who don’t know what the birdathon is, it’s a fundraiser run by Bird Studies Canada with intent to protect our birds and preserve their habitat. Participants accept donations either as flat amounts (e.g. $25) or by a per-species gift (e.g. $1 for every species found). Then, we choose one 24 hour period in the month of May to go out and find the most bird species possible. It’s always been a great time, and all for a worthy cause.

GCB Shirt
The 2018 GCB t-shirt design

Anybody interested in helping out with the fundraiser can go here to donate, or sign up through the Bird Studies Canada Birdathon Page. Thank you everyone who has donated already, and if you haven’t, consider joining the cool crowd by doing so, to keep our backyard beauties in fine feather!

Photos from previous years:

2013
Raven eating pigeon
Common Raven eating a Rock Pigeon
2014
Eared Grebes
  2015
Indigo Bunting
2016
Eastern Phoebe
Marbled Godwit
Marbled Godwit
2017
American White Pelicans
American White Pelicans
Rufous Hummingbird
Rufous Hummingbird
See the posts for these years here:

2013                            2014 pt. 1

2014 pt. 2                   2015

2016 pt. 1                   2016 pt. 2

2017 pt. 1                   2017 pt. 2

Don’t forget to donate here!

Canmore Spring Bird Walks 2018 – April 29th Trip Report

It was a cold, wet kickoff for the Canmore Spring Bird Walks this year, but well worth being out! In the early morning chill, a Great Blue Heron flapped across the boardwalk, where Song Sparrows, Yellow-rumped Warblers and some newly arrived Lincoln’s Sparrows burbled out their cheerful melodies.

Great Blue Heron

Four American Pipits feeding amongst the rocks in the big pond were nice, and almost made it as the highlights of the day. Sadly, we missed the Sora which came in on Friday, but towards the end of the walk we ran into a large mixed flock of White-crowned Sparrows, Lincoln’s Sparrows, Ruby-crowned Kinglets and Song Sparrows. Scanning the flock for Orange-crowned Warblers, a loud, harsh “Veeeeer” rent the air behind us. Warbling Vireo! This bird is the first reported in Alberta this year. I unfortunatly failed to procure any photos, but there is no doubt about the identification.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

The usual mix of starlings, chickadees and robins rounded off the trip, but the Vireo took the cake. May this be a lesson to you who chickened out because of the rain Рtwice the first walk has been in poor weather, and twice it has turned up great birds (See May 7th 2017).  I hope to see you out for the next walk on May 13, rain or shine!

Feathers on Friday

CAGU
California Gull

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.

Other Feathers on Fridays:

Wolf Song Blog                                         Birds In Your Back Yard

Back Yard Bird Blog

All About the Owls

With spring migration hitting, Alberta birders are getting out more and more, looking for returning waterfowl, gulls, and raptors. One early migrant found me last week, a bird I had never seen before, only heard – Northern Saw-whet Owl!

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Northern Saw-whet Owl

This was followed up by a big owling trip on Saturday – my Dad, two friends and I set out at 3pm to find 8 or even 9 species of owls, four of which were strictly nocturnal, four diurnal and one crepuscular (dawn/dusk). We started birding east of Calgary, where it didn’t take long to find many Grey Partridge, and a distant lump hunched on a pole which turned out to be a Gyrfalcon! Shortly thereafter, we happened across our goal for that area – one of only a few remaining Snowy Owls. Most of these majestic raptors have already began the short flight north, but there are always some that stay behind for longer.

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Snowy Owl

From there, we aimed for the Water Valley area, hoping for Great Grey Owls and Northern Pygmy Owls. It didn’t take long! In the rapidly falling light, we found three of North America’s largest owls.

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Great Grey Owl

A short detour to Winchell Lake area gave us the Pygmy we were looking for.

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Northern Pygmy Owl – not the same individual as seen at Winchell Lake

Hitting a road where we had all seen our fifth target, the Short-eared Owl, we happened across another Great Grey, and not one, not two, not even three, but four Short-ears!

SEOW
Short-eared Owl
SEOW
One of the owls took off and began flying along the valley

Lamentably, these proved our final owls of the day, as none of the nocturnal birds graced us with a call at any of our numerous stops – where we knew there were owls! Ah well, the owl is a fickle bird, and will turn up only when it wants to – all we pitiful human observers can do is watch and wait for them.

See my other owling posts here:

2015 Snowy Owl Hunt

2018 Snowy Owl Hunt