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.
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!
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.
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 – twice 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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
Great Grey Owl
A short detour to Winchell Lake area gave us the Pygmy we were looking for.
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!
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.
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.
Hot Air Balloons
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.
Red-breasted Merganser (imm. male)
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!
It’s New Years Day, and with a bright new year dawning, I felt it was time to look back at 2017 – events, experiences, but mainly my favourite birds and photos from the year. I hope you enjoy this collection – a bit long, but I couldn’t leave any out!
Policeman’s Creek Trail:
Western Tanager male
Trip of a Lifetime (Southern Alberta)
Sharp-tailed Grouse males face off
As for my favourite birding experiences? Well, the first of the year was a trip to Waterton area, followed by an amazing time with some Sharp-tailed Grouse in April. The Great Canadian Birdathon (part one and part two) was great as usual, and the “Trip of a Lifetime” (parts one and two) lived up to its name. Ontario was fun if not particularly productive, and this year’s Canmore Christmas Bird Count was miles above that of 2016. All in all, 2017 was a stunning year, but with hopeful thoughts of Long Point, Southern Alberta (again!), and maybe even California, 2018 promises to excite. Here’s to the New Year!