My First Week in England

Eurasian Robin

I  have now been in England for a week. First impressions? More birds than Canada in winter. Small birds everywhere, many Wood Pigeons, and a few Eurasian Collared Doves. On the lake, Black-headed Gulls galore, with lots of Tufted Ducks and Eurasian Coot around. Little Egrets burst out from the banks on occasion, and Blackbirds dart around the paths. Gold-, Bull-, Green- and Chaff-finches litter the skies while Blue Tits rule the bushes.

And they sing. They sing and they sing and they sing. Being a stranger to the songs of English birds is definitely the biggest difficulty you can have here. The Robin’s song has caught me out more than once. A surprising lack of raptors is present, for I have seen but a Red Kite, two Eurasian Kestrels and one Buzzard in a lot of birding time.

Today I went out to a nearby lake, Stewartby Lake. It is the best birding spot in Bedfordshire, with a species list including Caspian Gull, Little Egrets, Yellow-footed Gull and others. We didn’t leave until about 9:45 local time, but we still got a reasonable checklist.

Starting off with a Blue Tit, we walked around the lake with my uncle, my mother, my sister and a dog. Eurasian Coot, Tufted Duck and Great Crested Grebes were he first thing we found on the lake itself, continuing with a million and two Black-headed Gulls. A Kingfisher roared past, and as we followed its path, we hit upon the first rarity of the day – a Little Egret!

Little Egret and Eurasian Coot

After a while, the Uncle, Mother, Sister and the dog left to go back home, but we stayed on for the full loop of the water. Further on, we came across some strange ducks. Mallard sized, they were mostly black, but with a white throat and upper breast patch. Not a bird either of us had seen before. It took us until we found these birds to figure them out: Mallard hybrids!

Continuing, we walked past the sailing club, and found a small dockyard full of birds. by now, the light was too bad for any good photos. My Uncle has lent me his telescope to use as a spotting scope, and it was with this that I saw something behind the Moorhen on the dock – a Dabchick, or Little Grebe!

IMG_1417Nearing the end of the loop, we passed out of  the lake habitat and into a more wooded area, where a flash of red led us to a Bullfinch, and as we were leaving, we found a Song Thrush!

In a few days, I shall leave for Cley Marshes, in North Norfolk, where I expect to see a good number of species. So though I shall post then, I suspect that I won’t post again until then.

Happy New Year!

The Birder Murder Mysteries

Do you have a hard to shop for birder in your family? Or just want a new series of books to read? Well here it is. I don’t want to sound like an advertiser, but this series is one of the best I have ever read.

A young Chief Inspector in a small North Norfolk town who has come by fame and (some) fortune. But what he really wants to do is go birding. Watch how the guarded Domenic Jejeune weaves his way through dangerous murders, excellent birders, and the ever present doA-Siege-of-bitternsubt of his team.

In the first book, A Siege of Bitterns, Jejeune has to deal with the murder of a well known ecologist known as “Marsh Man.” In the man’s notes, he finds an unusual report – Am. bittern. How does this fit into the death of Marsh Man? Leave it to Domenic Jejeune to find out.

In the second, A Pitying of Doves, two people are found dead in a bird sanctuary, locked in a cage from which a pair of doves had been stolen. Who stole the doves, and why did theya-pitying-of-doves-188x300 ignore the expensive jewellery on the man body? When it turns out that the Mexican Embassy is involved, Jejeune is given very strict instructions – do not even think about blaming any of them. Follow along as the entire North Norfolk police team encounters injury, shame and puzzlement throughout the whole case.

I haven’t read any of the others yet, but I am sure that I will like them, and actually understand the place more, as I’m going to North Norfolk this winter. I leave on Dec. 22 to go to the exact place that these books are based!

Good luck with the books!

The 2015 Big Day

So… I haven’t posted about it for a while, but does anybody remember the 2015 Calgary Challenge? Yeah, Ok, I’ll explain it, just to be sure. The competition does three things: It raises birders knowledge through guided  tours and simple practice, it riles birders competitive nature, and, most importantly, it increases the amount of eBird users. Basically, you need to find as many bird species as you can inside a 80 km circle starting in down town Calgary. Oh, and it would be a good idea to report them to eBird, because if you don’t, it doesn’t count.

Anyway, there was a Big Day planned for June 20th, which seemed like it was going to be postponed because of weather, but eventually we went ahead with it. As it turned out, the weather was beautiful. The group consisted of me, my dad, and 8 other birders. Starting at 5:00 am in Water Valley, we continued to an end place of Frank Lake at around 9:30 pm. It was going to be a very special day, because if I got one life bird, I would have cracked 300 species.

Only a few weeks ago, the first confirmed sighting ever of an Eastern-wood Pewee in Alberta was reported to eBird (my Dad and I recorded the second on the 13, near Lethbridge). Well, you can guess where we started. In just under an hour, we recorded 33 species, but no Pewee. On a desperate last effort, some of the group fought their way off of the path to play the recording once more, and, in the distance, it replied. A total of 3 people heard it!

A little ways off, a Eastern Phoebe became the target. With our sparkling 100 % average, we fully expected the Phoebe. Fifteen minutes later, we left with 13 non-phoebe species. Ok, maybe we missed the Phoebe, but it was still a good day.

Driving along, we came to a field out on the left. Though the routine scan of the field proved nothing, something was perched on one of the over looking posts. A huge grey head swung round. “Great-grey Owl” I breathed. It was only the second that I had ever seen.

Great Grey Owl
Great Grey Owl

At the marsh, the birds started to flood in. Sora and Wilson’s Snipe lurked in the bottom reaches of the wetland shrubbery, while the middle was occupied by Yellow-throats, Yellow Warblers, Chipping, Song, White-crowned and Swamp Sparrows. A solitary Solitary Sandpiper whistled over us.

Swamp Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow

In the woods, Ruby-crowned Kinglets and Tennessee Warblers sang out from the top of the trees, but my attention was held by the high-pitched “Teacha-teacha-teacha-teacha” coming from the forest floor along with the song of the Swainson’s Thrush – yes, it was an Ovenbird! #300 on my life list! Suddenly, a new bird was seen out on the marsh, a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher – another life bird!

Tennessee Warbler
Tennessee Warbler

On the way to William Bagnall Recreation Area,  a medium sized grey blob flew across the road just ahead of our car. As it passed over the car in front of us, I distinctly saw a dash of colour on the head. It was a Spruce Grouse – another lifer! 20 minutes later, we stopped. The leader of the group had heard an Olive-sided Flycatcher. “Where is it?” asked my Dad. “Somewhere high up in the back of that group of trees” was the answer. As I stepped to the side to begin looking, I caught sight of a large flycatcher, which turned out to be the Olive-sided.

Olive-sided Flycatcher
Olive-sided Flycatcher
Olive-sided Flycatcher
Olive-sided Flycatcher

The first thing that we saw at William Bagnall Recreation Area was 3 White-winged Crossbills, birds I figured that I wouldn’t see ’till this coming winter. As we progressed through the area, we picked up a Pileated Woodpecker, Golden-crowned Kinglets, Alder Flycatcher (lifer), and Pacific-slope Flycatcher, also a lifer!

Pacific-slope Flycatcher
Pacific-slope Flycatcher
Pacific-slope Flycatcher
Pacific-slope Flycatcher, also.

Our next stop was at Winchell Lake, which we reached at 9:30 am. around 15 species of smallish songbirds were flitting around the bushes on the side of the road. At one point, a small woodpecker swept into on of these small trees immediately, both me and my dad put it down as a downy woodpecker, but further inspection proved us wrong. It was a Red-naped Sapsucker! A long stretch of marsh and lake lay down a slight slope from the road, and it was here that we recorded the first, and only Sandhill Cranes that day. It was also the first time that I used my spotting scope on the 20th. The pictures are not very good, because they are taken from a distance of about 500 meters, and the zoom on this camera is very good, but when used to full extent, the pictures are not usually very good.

Sandhill Crane pair
Sandhill Crane pair

Horse Creek Road had quite a few marshes, but there was one main section we wanted to stop at. Wilson’s Snipe were perched on fence poles alongside Red-winged Blackbirds and 3 kinds of swallow. Most unusual observations there were Leconte’s Sparrow, Nelson’s Sparrow, and, most uncommon, agitated behaviour from an adult Wilson’s Phalarope. Presumably there was a nest somewhere around, but we did not find it.

Wilson's Phalarope
Wilson’s Phalarope

At Brown-Lowery Provincial Park, we met what were really the first mosquitoes of the day. And they sure made up for any that we had previously missed! The first birds there were 8 Evening Grosbeaks, birds that I had not expected to see again until the winter. We moved on to find a Pacific Wren, 2 American Three-toed Woodpeckers, and, unexpectedly, 8 Cape May Warblers, among 9 other species there.

Recently, a few Bobolinks have been seen, around the area, and some of the people in our group wanted to go see them, so we drove out to where they had been hanging out. Indeed, we saw them. Such striking birds, are Bobolinks.


Searching for Black-headed Grosbeaks, we drove to a place where we saw everything but Black-headed Grosbeaks. A Calliope Hummingbird, a Pileated Woodpecker, young Bluebirds, a Warbling Vireo, but no Black-headed Grosbeaks. Pity, I really wanted to see them again.

Calliope Hummingbird
Calliope Hummingbird

By this Windy Point, we were carpooling. It was there that I saw heard my first Rock Wren. I couldn’t stop looking for it, but I never saw it. Luckily, I saw one not that long ago at Barrier Lake. Other birds we saw there included Lazuli Bunting, Dusky Flycatcher, a Townsend’s Warbler (also heard), a Grey Jay, and 2 Red-tailed Hawks.

Lazuli Bunting
Lazuli Bunting

Indian Oils gave us our first Townsend’s Solitaire for the count circle, but not too much else.

Warbling Vireo
Warbling Vireo (western)

Half an hour at High Wood Camp-ground found us 2 Rufous Hummingbirds, 3 species of Flycatcher, some of the ever-present Swainson’s Thrushes, Lincoln’s, Clay-coloured, and White-crowned Sparrows, and a couple of other species.IMG_3499

Clay-coloured Sparrow
Clay-coloured Sparrow

We stopped at the Rio Alto Ranch to see if we could see a Golden Eagle. We did see one, but it was getting difficult, because of the distracting noises of an angry bull behind us. We managed to clear out pretty fast, so we have no photos. 🙂

We were losing light at a decent pace, so we drove straight to Frank Lake. At the North Parking lot, we found 65 American White Pelicans, a Vesper Sparrow, and the lifer, Sprague’s Pipit!

Always ones for synchronised flying!
Always ones for synchronised flying!

The last place we birded was at the North-West lookout of Frank Lake. There, we increased our Pelican numbers to 135, and picked up Western Grebes, Black-crowned Night Herons, Marsh Wrens, Ruddy Ducks, and, mixed among the 100 odd Canada Geese, there was a Cackling Goose! Thanks to my Viper Vortex, and the two leaders of the group for confirming my identification!

IMG_8407 - Canada Goose Head
Canada Goose

Now I know that this has been a long post, and if you simply skimmed over it, I completely understand, as it had 1328 words and 18 photos! Thank you for your time, those who read the entire thing!

My 2015 Great Canadian Birdathon

Due to unforeseen circumstances, it has come to happen that I did my Great Canadian Birdathon in Long Point. Great, right? Not so much. Birding an important day in unfamiliar territory, with unfamiliar birds and bird songs and not knowing where to go first was not as easy as I would have liked. This was the most unusual Birdathon I have ever done. In terms of species numbers, it was not as good as last year, but in terms of lifers and rarities, it was the best Birdathon ever!

We started at 6:00 am, with a Baltimore Oriole, and finished at 8:10 pm, with a Sandhill Crane. At the Front Porch B&B (which I highly recommend, should you ever be in the Long Point area), we got the starting 6 species, then continued to a variety of short stops, the highlights of which include: Common and Forster’s Terns, Mute Swan and Pied-billed Grebe.

After these roadside ponds, we made our way to the first big stop of the day, at what is called the New Provincial Park, one of the places we had not previously been. In one hour and five minutes, we picked up a grand total of 25 species. I’m sure that the extra five minutes made all the difference.

Blue-grey Gnatcatcher, at the New PP.

Our next stop was at the Long Point Bird Observatory, where  we found Warblers, Vultures, Orioles, Blackbirds and more. The five species that stand out the most are (a lifer) Cape May Warbler, Eastern Towhee, Hooded Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler and Least Flycatcher.

It seemed to be a very casual Birdathon, as we took a longish break for lunch, and to take my siblings and mother to the beach, which was, fortunately, right beside the Old Provincial Park, a magnificent place for birding. On the way, we picked up a Caspian Tern, and a Indigo Bunting. At the Old PP, we observed 29 species, 8 of which were warblers. Many were darting around in the thick foliage, and photographing them was hard. Black-throated Blue Warblers, Black-and-white Warblers, Brown Thrashers, Carolina Wrens and Belted Kingfishers mixed among the Warbling Vireos, Hermit Thrush, Eastern Towhees and Chipping Sparrows.

Indigo Bunting
Brown Thrasher, Old PP

Port Rowan Wetlands yielded 2 Bobolinks, 6 Redhead, 6 Bufflehead and 2 Lesser Yellowlegs, among others.

Bobolink, Port Rowan Wetlands
Lesser Yellowlegs, Port Rowan Wetlands
2 Barn Swallows and 1 Bank Swallow, Port Rowan Wetlands

Backus Woods is a very special place. There nests one of only 20 breeding pairs of Prothonotary Warblers in Canada. For the first kilometre, we scouted out little but a White-breasted Nuthatch. And then we struck gold. A small swampy area proved it’s worth, showing Yellow-throated Vireos, a Pine Warbler, Canada Geese, a Brewer’s Blackbird, and, yes, a Prothonotary Warbler! Typically, it was 50 meters away and through vegetation which, though sparse, prevented photos (what was it with warblers and not getting photos that day?), but it was a Prothonotary Warbler!

Pine Warbler, Backus Woods – It’s not a great photo, but I needed to get at least one photo out of a Warbler!

In 20 minutes at Port Royal, we found American Redstarts, 2 Blue-grey Gnatcatchers, a Turkey Vulture, and a Spotted Sandpiper. It was there that we got our first Rock Pigeons of the day!

On the way to a second check of the Old PP, we halted for a small pond filled with Canada Geese. As we were about to pull away, I called out “Ibis!”
“Yeah, right,” replied my Dad “You’re pulling my leg.”
“No, really,” I exclaimed. He still didn’t believe me. “Ethan,” said he, “This is no time for jokes!”
“Just look,” I replied, exasperated. There indeed, poking around in the long grass, were a pair of White-faced Ibis.

White-faced Ibis, a road in Ontario
White-faced Ibis and Canada Geese, a road in Ontario

The second visit to the Old PP proved nothing more then what we’d already seen, a Scarlet Tanager, and the unusual treat of a Baltimore Oriole building its nest!

Baltimore Oriole, building it's nest, Old PP
Baltimore Oriole, building its nest, Old PP
Scarlet Tanager, Old PP
Scarlet Tanager, Old PP

Hoping to catch a Woodcock, we made what was supposed to be our last stop – at LPBO. Although our search for the Woodcock drew a blank, the trip itself proved fruitful. We found 20 species there, including my favourite Warbler, the Blue-winged Warbler. And so ended my 2015 Great Canadian Birdathon!

Baltimore Oriole, hiding it’s head, LPBO

OK, hang on. I said at the start that it was Baltimore Oriole to Sandhill Crane, right?
On the drive back to the B&B, we drove down the causeway again. Suddenly, the car screeched to a halt. “What is it?” I asked.
“I’m not sure…” My dad answered, unsure.
We backed up anyway. Scanning the water, my eyes settled finally on a long, slim neck of a bird squatted in the reeds. The slightest turn of a head confirmed my hopes –  a Sandhill Crane!

That was the rather brief summery of my 2015 birdathon. I tried to keep it short, as I know that long paragraphs and few photos can be tedious. Please keep in mind that you can still donate to this important cause, either by typing in your browser, or clicking here. Also, for anybody who would like the complete species list, I have it here.

Thank You to all who have donated, your donation is greatly appreciated both by me, and by Canada’s birds!

Feathers on Friday – for two weeks

I have not posted very recently because I am on vacation! I do not expect to get out the weekly posts right now, but will continue where I left off. Here is my feathers on Friday post for these two weeks.
I am currently on my way to Long Point, one of the greatest birding spots in Canada. I hope that I will get a post out after this, but I cannot guarantee that. Here is a photo of a Northern Cardinal I saw recently. Can you guess where I am?


Snowy Owl Hunt 2015

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!

The Pheasant Farm

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.

Snowy Owl

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.

Snowy Owl
Snowy Owl.

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.

There were 14 Wild Turkeys.
There were 14 Wild Turkeys.

And so ended the 2015 Snowy Owl Hunt!

My Summer Vacation, a Drive to Denver #2

The next day, we hit the road to the last stop before Denver. For the first few hours, we saw very little that we hadn’t already seen. And then, just before lunch, my Dad pulled over to photograph a smallish, black bird. At the time, I didn’t think to much of it – it was probably just a Brewer’s or a Grackle. Nine days and many photo examinations later had me thinking differently. It was a Lark Bunting!

Lark Bunting
The Lark Bunting was far away and required our new super-zoom camera, a Canon PowerShot SX50 HS, to get this shot.

Nothing more happened for awhile, but when things did happen, they brought numbers! Birds filled the landscape, darting in and out from shrubs, perching on wires and generally making it clear that they were there. There was no apparent flock, but the birds were obviously all the same species. Speckled breasts, yellow eyes with black pupils and down-curving bills all amounted up to Sage Thrasher.

Sage Thrasher
Sage Thrasher

The thrasher domination lasted almost until the little lake that we had scheduled a stop at.  Saratoga Wetlands was a huge bird attraction in the parched scrubland that surrounded it. There were Barn Swallows, Redheads, Marsh Wrens and many others among them. In the little shelter over looking the area, a Barn Swallow’s nest had fallen, killing two out of the four fledgelings in it. The living two were huddled by the wall, obviously older than their dead siblings.

Barn Swallow
The swallows

High above us, American Pelicans circled in perfect formation.

American White Pelican
American White Pelicans

American White Pelican

Our campsite that night was supposed to be a flat one, and my mother didn’t want to be cold again, so we stayed in a motel. Wednesday was the day that we departed. Stopping at Laramie for lunch, I noticed that a small creek ran by, just through the large, leafy trees.  Determined to find an entrance, I scanned the row of trees and soon found an opening. The creek was bigger than I had first thought, with a whole load of Common Grackles and Cliff Swallows around. Two Western Wood-Pewees called out and some American Robins flew through the afore-mentioned trees.

American Robin
American Robin

We had tickets for a show at Red-rocks Ampitheatre that night, so I wasn’t expecting to see anything other than, maybe, House Sparrows – wrong again! As everybody was taking their seats, I noticed some large, swallow-like birds flying around the cliffs. Further examination proved that they were White-throated Swifts.

This is the chunk of rock that the swifts were flying around. See if you can spot one!












I will tell you more later, so stay with me!