Category Archives: Gamebirds

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.

WIPH

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.

BARS

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.

SNEG

Snowy Egret

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

SNEG

Snowy Egret, Langdon

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

WILL

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.

One Snowy Day…

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!

moose baby

Young Moose

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.

Ravens

Common Ravens

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

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.

Horned Larks

Horned Larks

G. Partridge

Grey Partridge

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.

Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl

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.

Gyrfalcon

GYR!!

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.

Gyrfalcon

Gyrfalcon fly-by

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

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.

Trumpeter Swan

Trumpeter Swan

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.

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owl

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!

2017 – Looking Back on my Favourite Photos From the Past Year

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:

Boreal Chickadee

Boreal Chickadee

Pileated Woodpecker

Hammond's Flycatcher

Hammond’s Flycatcher

WETA (1 of 5)

Western Tanager male

Preening Merlin

Preening Merlin

WETA

Western Tanager

Bohemian Waxwing

Bohemian Waxwing

Yellow Warbler

Yellow Warbler

Rufous Hummingbird

Rufous Hummingbird

Banff Area:

Harlequin Ducks

Harlequin Ducks

Harlequin Ducks

Harlequin Ducks

Lincoln's Sparrow

Lincoln’s Sparrow

Common Loons

Common Loons

Ontario Trip:

RBGU

Ring-billed Gull

Blue-headed Vireo

Blue-headed Vireo

Trip of a Lifetime (Southern Alberta)

Short-eared Owlet

Short-eared Owlet

Baird's Sparrow

Baird’s Sparrow

Caspian Tern

Caspian Tern!

Tree Swallow

Tree Swallow

Purple Martin

Purple Martin

Miscellaneous Locations:

American White Pelicans

Preening session!

Sharp-tailed Grouse

Sharp-tailed Grouse males face off

Mountain Chickadee

Mountain Chickadee

STGR

“Pick me!”

Clark’s Nutcracker

Black-capped Chickadee

Trumpeter Swan

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!

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!