Feathers on Friday – Sharp-tailed Grouse Lek

Sharp-tailed Grouse
Sharp-tailed Grouse males face off

A few photos for this Feathers on Friday. Sharp-tailed Grouse from the lek! They were very tolerant of the blind, coming within ten feet of us, so though the day was overcast, I managed to extract some nice photos. The males would hold their wings out, turn in a circle and stamp their feet very quickly while popping their purple air sacs.

Sharp-tailed Grouse
Sharp-tailed Grouse male

I’d seen Sharp-tailed Grouse once before, but that was distant, and of course, the males weren’t displaying, so this was quite an experiance. We had to be settled in the blind an hour beforee sunrise, which meant a 3:30 start from our hotel (it would have been 1:00 AM from home).

Sharp-tailed Grouse
Sharp-tailed Grouse male

The females were in short supply, and were constantly being chased around by hopeful males.

Sharp-tailed Grouse female
There were only three or four females compared to the 30 odd males.

All in all, a brilliant way to spend Mothers Day!

Canmore Spring Bird Walk May 21st

The second of my bi-monthly Spring Bird Walks on Policeman’s Creek started at 7:30 AM on Sunday May 21st, the day after the second half of the Great Canadian Birdathon. The sun was long up, and the day was turning out to be pleasantly warm. 21 participants correlated with the date, and was a large enough number to split into two groups, one headed upstream to the Spurline Trail, and the other moving downstream to the Great-horned Owl nest.

Great Horned Owls
Great Horned Owls

If you don’t know where it is, the nest is quite well hidden. There have been many new birds coming in since the last walk, including Spotted Sandpipers, Sora and Yellow Warblers, and between the two groups we totalled 38 species. Coming so soon after the Birdathon, I was more than a little tired, which is why my post is out so late – I slept until 9:30 today, and replacing the deck is a time consuming job. Before the walk had even started, we heard Song Sparrow, Red-winged Blackbird and White-crowned Sparrow among others, all species we would go on to see.

White-crowned Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow

The group headed to Spurline did well,¬†seeing three Clark’s Nutcrackers and a Solitary Sandpiper, while the downstream crew got good views of the four visible owls, Yellow Warblers, Lincoln’s Sparrows and Violet-green Swallows. Rare for the area was a pair of Common Grackles seen after most people had departed.

Clark's Nutcracker
A Clark’s Nutcracker taken at our feeders.

The eBird checklist is here, for anybody interested. If anyone wants to come out to our next walk, it is on June 4th at 7:30 AM (meet at 7:15) at the Big Head on Canmore’s main or 8th Street. See you then!

See previous post here: Canmore Spring Bird Walk May 7th.

Perplexing Plumage: Lincoln’s or Song?

Lincoln’s and Song Sparrows are both common birds in Southern Alberta, and indeed in many places across Canada, but to many people, the two can be tough to differentiate without hearing them singing. They are both generally small, brown birds with a streaked breast. They both have grey and brown striped heads with a white throat and pink legs.

Song Sparrow

So how do you tell them apart? Well, some people would call attention to the Lincoln’s slight crest and (sometimes hidden) white eye-ring. Others might mention the Song Sparrow’s dark breast spot and long, rounded tail. These are all good factors to consider when attempting to identify one, but not, to my eye, the most useful, or even the most obvious.

In my opinion, the best thing there is to tell a Lincoln’s from a Song is the overall color scheme. Song Sparrows are dark brown, and heavy streaking and the dark malar stripe both add to the feeling of a dark bird, as the streaking blocks the pale breast, and the malar stripe subdues the white of the throat.¬† Lincoln’s don’t have a malar stripe, and their streaking is lighter and much finer. Their backs are pale brown, and there is a heavy buff wash across their breast.

Wet immature Lincoln’s Sparrow

The two differ in habitat as well, though there is much overlap. Where the Lincoln’s prefers marshes and riparian thickets (often in mountainous regions), the Song Sparrow turns up in denser vegetation along watercourses, marshes and wet fields. In both cases, the males sing from prominent perches while the females remain highly secretive, and the Lincoln’s females even leave the nest by ‘mouse-running’ along the ground.

Lincoln's Sparrow
Lincoln’s Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Song Sparrow

 

 

 

 

 

 

A final clue can be¬†found at the nest site – Song Sparrows jointly hold the dubious honor of the most common Cowbird host with Yellow Warbler, whereas Lincoln’s are almost never prey to such parasitism.

To sum it up:SONG SPARROW
(Melospiza melodia)
LINCOLN'S SPARROW
(Melospiza lincolnii)
Key differences on the head:Dark malar stripe, notably round head shape.White eye-ring and crested head.
Key differences on the body:Darker overall, note dark breast spot, highly variable but always present heavy streaking.Lighter overall, with light, fine streaks, heavy buff wash (may extend to back)
Other notable differences in plumage and structure:Longer, rounded tail, occasionally bigger than Lincoln's.Short, square tail. less bulky than Song, even when equal sizes.
Habitat & Habits:Wet meadows, marshes, watercourse edges. Will come to feeders in winter.Bogs, marshes, riparian thickets usually in mountainous areas. Shyer than Song.
Range:Common across lower 48 states and all Canadian provinces. Regular on South-western coast of Alaska.Common across Canada and mid-western States as well as all southern states and Alaska.
Notes:Very common Cowbird host. Monogamous except when females outnumber males. Most varied bird in North America with 31 subspecies.Rarely parasitized. Assumed monogamous, but not confirmed.

Canmore Spring Bird Walk May 7th

Townend's Warbler
A Townsend’s Warbler I took several years ago on the Banff Bird Walk

Banff Community Bird Walks are a well known series of Saturday morning walks led at the Cave and Basin in Banff. They are free to attend, and participant may see anywhere between 20 and 40 species, depending on the time of year. It came as a great surprise to me, therefore, to learn (when I started birding) that there were no similar events run in Canmore, where 25-30 species is a regular count for me in an hour.

So I have started the Canmore Spring Bird Walks, led every other Sunday morning (so people can still attend the Banff one) from 7:30 – 9:30 am. My local hotspot, the Canmore Boardwalk, is very productive, and has this year alone turned up such rarities as an Eastern Pheobe on April 7th and a Hammond’s Flycatcher on April 26th. It has 114 species seen one it, (of which I have seen 104) and continues to show more every year.

Hammond's Flycatcher
Hammond’s Flycatcher

The first Canmore Bird Walk was yesterday, May 7th. I woke up to the ever unpleasent presence of a Rockies spring snow – heavy, cold, and above all, wet. Despairing for participants, I pulled on my heavy coat and tried unsuccesfully to protect my brand new camera and lense from the ferocious weather (at the end of the day, I would rejoice in the fact that I had chosen the Canon EOS 80D, as its excellent weather-proofing proved invaluable). As it turned out, my worrying was unjustified, with 8 people coming out that morning to see the Boardwalk’s first ever Solitary Sandpiper, and the largest flock of warblers I have ever seen – over 200 Yellow-rumped Warblers swarmed one section.

Yellow-rumped Warbler (Myrtle x Audubon's)
Yellow-rumped Warbler (Myrtle x Audubon’s)

Other highlights included a male Blue-winged Teal, Chipping Sparrow, and a Great-horned Owl. All in all, it went well, and hopefully on our next walk we will have considerably better weather. By then we can expect Yellowthroats, Yellow Warblers, and Soras to be back in force. Thanks to everybody who came out yesterday, and I hope to see anyone who’s interested on May 21st, 7:20 at Canmore’s famous Big Head.

Lincoln's Sparrow
Lincoln’s Sparrow

And Let Birds Fill The Sky – If The Wind Isn’t Too Strong

We had puzzled over where to go during the spring break, as the suite that our friends owned in Kimberly had been sold. I wanted birds, my Mom needed ttranquillity and my Dad didn’t want to drive too far. The kids didn’t care – as long as there were rocks, trees, or snow to play on, they were fine. Flip-flopping between Edmonton and Waterton National Park, we eventually settled on the latter (though I now wish we had gone to south eastern Hanna – there was an Alberta first Common Crane there!).

During the four hour long drive, I observed many dabbling ducks and hawks, but little else. Briefly stopping over at Frank Lake, we found that it is bursting into Spring, supporting Greater and Lesser Scaups, Gadwall, Ruddy Duck and four Red-breasted Mergansers. I think that the male Red-breasted Merganser is probably the most beautiful bird I’ve seen – which means something. Unfortunately, they were half a kilometre out, and we obtained no good photos.

Continuing to Waterton, we identified meadowlarks hawking from roadside poles and hawks hovering over the rolling meadows. When we eventually reached the diminutive hamlet of Waterton, I was surprised at the exact measure of solitude – there was only one shop open in the whole area! I do not believe that we saw more than 10 people the entire time.

Moose
A Moose we saw.

Waterton is very windy, with winter winds whistling through at an average 100 km per hour. Not enough to blow you over, but it can make it tough to hold your camera steady. Despite this, we manged to pick up quite a few species at the Hay Barnes Trail, an excellent short walk for anyone in the area. There is a theory that the first five minutes after you get somewhere are the best, and this was hardly disputed when an adult Prairie Falcon skimmed the long, waving grasses within a minute of our arrival. It alighted on a tall aspen and surveyed the surrounding fields. It took off a second later, joining a high-flying Red-tailed Hawk. However, as is often the case in these things, the fragile peace between the two raptors was broken when a Common Raven came hurtling out of the sky at the Hawk. The falcon joined in, and soon all three had disappeared over the hilly horizon.

A distant shot of the three birds – Raven on top, Red-tail below, and Prairie Falcon to the left.
The Waterfall
The Waterfall – click to see whole photo.

Upon our return to Waterton, we found three American Dippers broadcasting their songs by bouncing them off the stony cliffs by the waterfall. The other treasures occurred during the 50 km drive between Waterton and Pincher Creek, which we completed three or four times. Great-horned Owls, Northern Harriers and Golden Eagles supplemented the Red-tailed Hawks, while countless Mountain Bluebirds sang from the fence line. Every once in a while, we saw some Sandhill Cranes or Red-winged Blackbirds.

Northern Harrier – male

Naturally, when we returned, we learned of the Western Bluebird, the Cassin’s Finch, and that blasted bird, my nemesis, the Short-eared Owl that had been seen. Why oh why must those annoying owls insist on avoiding me? Oh well.

That’s all from me, but I’ll post more as migration continues. In the mean time, please consider donating to my Great Canadian Birdathon if you haven’t already. Thank you to all who have!

Sandhill Cranes
Sandhill Cranes

The Great Canadian Birdathon 2017 – A Five Year Anniversary

BirdBoy Great Canadian Birdathon 2013BirdBoy Great Canadian Birdathon 2014BirdBoy Great Canadian Birdathon 2015BirdBoy Great Canadian Birdathon 2016

As I mentioned in my last post (Springing into Spring), the Great Canadian Birdathon is happening again this year, and it is a special one for me, as it will be my fifth time participating. Those of you who have been with me the whole time will remember that some of my first ever posts involved the 2013 Birdathon, back when it was called the Baillie Birdathon.
I have included links to all of the previous Birdathon posts at the bottom of this one.

Great Canadian Birdathon Shirt 2017
The new shirt design

The Birdathon has taken me many places and given my many exiting experiences. I am trying a new approach this year, which is to captain a team. This team will include Canadian Birder, and hopefully we will see some new birds – perhaps even that Short-eared Owl that has been evading me for so long.

James L. Baillie was an Assistant Curator in the Department of Ornithology at the Royal Ontario Museum for roughly half a century, and both the Baillie Birdathon and the James L. Baillie Memorial Fund were set up in his honor. The birdathon’s name was changed in 2015, but the memory continues in the memorial fund, which receives part of the funds raised every year from the Birdathon.

Thank you everyone who has donated already, and if you haven’t, consider joining the cool crowd by following this link: Birdathon, and donating to keep our backyard beauties in fine feather!

 

Photos from Previous Years:

Great Canadian Birdathon 2013:

Raven eating pigeon
Common Raven

Ethan Baillie Birdwatching

Great Canadian Birdathon 2014:

Yellow-rumped Warbler
Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Great Canadian Birdathon 2015:

American Avocet
Brown Thrasher
Blue-grey Gnatcatcher
Blue-grey Gnatcatcher

Great Canadian Birdathon 2016:

Marbled Godwit
Great Horned Owl
Eastern Phoebe

Links to posts:

2013                             2014                             2014#2                             2015

2016                             2016#2

Springing into Spring

Spring has finally started to slouch back in to Alberta. Swans, ducks and geese, shorebirds and sparrows are all starting to arrive from down south. And what is spring without a good snow-storm?The Eagle watch is running once more, (see posts here and here about my experiences with that in previous years) and the Great Canadian Birdathon has started (previous posts: 2013 2014, 2015, 2016, 2016 #2). This is the first year that I will be doing my birdathon in a team, and I will be joined by Canadian Birder.

In terms of bird species arriving, it is just starting, but some good birds are coming through already. A first ever Killdeer on my local creek, as well as Robins, Song Sparrows and a Varied Thrush.

American Robin and Killdeer
Varied Thrush

Reports have been streaming across the province of Pintail, American and Eurasian Wigeon, Scaup, Geese and Gulls. A Wood Duck has arrived already, and I saw only the third Trumpeter Swan in the Calgary area this year, then followed it up a week later with five more.

Green-winged Teal and Ring-billed Gull

Flickers and Pileated Woodpeckers are drumming and displaying nuthatches litter the woods. American Crow numbers are growing, and the snow is slowly melting as I type.

I’ll post more photos soon, as the light increases and the birds grow in numbers. There are lots of events coming up, so I’ll be really busy, but I’ll do my best to get some posts out.