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.
I was especially lucky to find this little one amongst the recent migrants in Canmore – a Northern Saw-whet Owl! The bird was well hidden in a tangle of branches and twigs indeed, it was so well hidden that I had to lie down on my belly and shot upwards to get even this partially obscured photo.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Later in the evening, they became much more bold, and even landed on the moving watercraft just a few yards away from people.
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.
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.
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 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!
July 19th, 2017. We had stayed in Medicine Hat for the night, having come in from the bountiful prairies of Southern Alberta. So far the count was at 5 lifers and 2 other Alberta firsts, with other highlights including many Ferruginous Hawks, some Baird’s Sparrows and Upland Sandpipers. Now we started early, hoping for Yellow-breasted Chats and any miscellaneous rarities that might be hanging around Medicine Hat’s Police Point Park.
The first birds to greet us were Grey Catbirds. These thrushes are common throughout Alberta, but never before had I seen them in such large numbers.
As we proceeded along the rocky pathways, the chatter of House Wrens and Flycatchers pervaded the air, and Bald Eagles soared overhead. Breaking out from the trees, we found ourselves on a large stone beach, and flying above it a —- but it was gone so fast. I had little doubt as to the identity of this mysterious bird, a medium sized white bird with a heavy black crown, but we had to relocate it to be sure. Jogging along the waterfront, we came upon an immature Bonaparte’s Gull, a Great Blue Heron and some Spotted Sandpipers, but no tern. Then, winging it’s way along the course of the river, it reappeared at a somewhat slower pace than previously.
It didn’t stop, however, and the bird was gone before we knew it. Jubilantly returning to the car, we happened across a Yellow Warbler feeding its young, a pair of Mourning Doves and two Killdeer. A slightly different find was a small frog that sprung from a small cluster of vegetation onto the path.
Heading north now, we were constantly watching for Burrowing Owls as well as trying to identify all the LBJs (Little Brown Jobs) on the side of the road. The Suffield area turned out to be very productive, offering up Baird’s and Grasshopper Sparrows, four Loggerhead Shrike and a Say’s Phoebe.
Now the landscape was changing, switching back to the familiar farms, scattered with trees and sloughs of the Calgary area, rather than the open and wild scrub land I had come to love in my short time in the south. Towards the hamlet of Patricia, we pulled over at a tiny pond simply heaving with birds. Half a dozen Pectoral Sandpipers, a Baird’s Sandpiper, Wilson’s Phalarope and two Least Sandpipers were pulled out, along with Avocets, Killdeer and Ring-billed Gulls. The entire wetland was about 20 feet long and 15 wide.
An hour in Dinosaur Provincial Park didn’t turn up much, but we did hear a Ring-necked Pheasant there. Cessford was another excellent shorebird location, with species such as Willet and Marbled Godwit foraging among Killdeer and Short-billed Dowitchers, and 12 Loggerhead Shrike caused comment.
Two young Loggerheads
The next place of note was the road running from the town of Dorothy to Drumheller, on which we found Common Nighthawk, American Kestrel and the highlights – two adult Lark Sparrows. We had seen one in the States a few years ago, and an immature already on this trip, but this was by far the best views I have ever had of these beautiful sparrows.
We spent the night in Drumheller, more than pleased with the day’s sightings, before heading out the next morning. With two more main stops left, the trip was almost over, but boy did they live up to the hype! Between Stettler and Rochon Sands, we found two Coopers Hawks, first of the year for me, and numerous Black Terns. Once at the Sands, we ate a casual lunch before heading out to the marsh where we were hoping for Great Egret and American Bittern. Fighting through the cement thick walls of mosquitoes, we were rewarded by an Egret fly-by almost before we had started! This wasn’t the only fly-by, though. Before the Egret, we had found Herons and even some White-faced Ibis flying over.
White-faced Ibis silhouetted against the uniform clouds
Great Egret was a long way across the marsh, but it’s hard to mis-identify one of these!
Making our way out of the bug-infested swamp, we decided to try one of the forested pathways after scanning the big lake. There was a big island covered in birds quite a ways out, but the bigger birds were still identifiable through my scope, and it was by this that we found the biggest surprise of the trip. A few Snow Geese had started to be reported, but it was still ridiculously early, so imagine our shock when we discovered a lifer Ross’s Goose! Ross’s are smaller than Snow Geese, and pass through in comparatively tiny numbers mixed in with the huge flocks of Snows. This one was seriously early migrating, and all on its own. We were naturally delighted to see it.
Can you find it? (just to the right of the two cormorants on their own in the centre)
This photo is closer, but worse quality due to the fact that I was digiscoping by the crude means of holding my camera up to the eye-piece of the scope.
Digiscoped Ross’s Goose
There were also quite a few Black and Forster’s Terns, Red-necked Grebes and Pelicans.
The final Rochon Sands Rarity was an un-photographed, but easily identified, Great-crested Flycatcher. This bird had been previously reported, but was a very nice bird nonetheless. The final stop on the way home was at Ellis Bird Farm, where we found at least 100 Purple Martins, some kingbirds, warblers and American Goldfinches.
The Martins were splashing and drinking at a pond near the nest boxes, which made some interesting photos, but my favourite isn’t even of a Purple Martin!
Purple Martins bathing
The real target bird here was a bit silly. Having lived in Alberta all my birding life, I really should have seen a Ruby-throated Hummingbird in the province. However, in my eighth year of Alberta birding, I had yet to see one. Ellis Bird Farm seemed to be a good place for them, so we tried it and in the end, succeeded, making Ruby-throated Hummingbird the fourteenth Alberta first in the week.
Ruby-throated Hummingbird in the fittingly named Hummingbird Garden
That concluded the trip, and we headed back to the enclosed mountains, where I would spend the next two months sorting through the two thousand photos we had taken in three and a half days. It really was the trip of a lifetime.
See the first post here. For a full Species List, see here. And finally for the trip map, click here.