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.
I’ve decided to create a 2018 calendar, filled with my photos. All my photos are Alberta birds (though not all common in Alberta – see the Black-throated Blue Warbler taken in Canmore, AB). The thing is, I don’t know which photos to pick! there are twelve months in the year, plus a cover photo, so I need thirteen picks before the October! Please vote in the comments, with a first pick, second choice, etc. Here are my twenty-four candidates:
NOTE – click on photo to view full screen.
Sharp-tailed Grouse male
American White Pelicans
Western Tanager male
Female Western Tanager
Black-throated Blue Warbler
Think I’m missing one that should be in? Feel free to email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Sorry for not posting for a while, I’ve been going through the multiple thousand photos from this trip, in addition to keeping up my birding! This may be a long post, so if you skip through it, I totally understand.
My sister was off to Bible Camp for a week, and my Mum and brother were headed to BC with friends. This left me and my Dad with a week alone, and a steady stream of interesting birds being reported from across the province, mainly in the far South-East. McCown’s and Chestnut-collared Longspurs, Lark Sparrows and Buntings to name a few. Combine the two, and you get a four day birding trip around Alberta with few of the usual hindrances – time being the main one. And so it was that we set out on Monday the 18th of July for the trip of a lifetime.
Our first stop (we hoped) was just outside of Calgary for a Black-headed Grosbeak. This didn’t come off, however, so we birded the area for a while before driving off to Lethbridge. The biggest surprise was the number and boldness of young Soras. Almost 20 foraged alongside Wilson’s Snipe and Black Terns in a small streambed.
Two young Soras in the sparse grass at the edge of the gulley.
Red-winged Blackbirds were also in full evidence, feeding their young, and filling the reedbeds with their throaty calls.
Red-winged Blackbird with insect
Reaching Lethbridge without trouble, we settled into our motel and fell into a restless sleep (on my part at least). The next day, we rose early and, having filled our go-mugs with the hotel coffee, set out towards Pakowki Lake. Six White-faced Ibis were nice additions on the drive there, but the real highlights came hidden among over 200 Horned Larks – two of the fleeing birds revealed white tails marked by a black triangle – Chestnut-collared Longspurs! Almost at the lake, the cherry on the cake sat 100 metres from a Ferruginous Hawk in the form of a Grasshopper Sparrow. Two lifers already, and it was only ten AM!
Spotting the diminutive Grasshopper Sparrow from the road and having it sit in the open long enough to ID it proved to be tough work.
Pakowki Lake was actually pretty bare, with a handful of Willets, some Marbled Godwits and many pairs of Eared Grebes being the most notable species.
Wandering down a vacant road, we were stopped by an inquisitive rancher who, quite naturally, wanted to know who we were and why we were on his land. As it turned out, we were the second birding car he had met on his way out! We soon caught up to the other vehicle, and had a brief conversation with the owners, who we knew. While we talked, a large flock including Vesper Sparrows, Chestnut-collared Longspurs, and life-birds McCown’s Longspurs engulfed us before continuing their passage down the gravel road.
Male Chestnut-collared Longspur transitioning to non-breeding plumage
We had just enough time to drive over to Wild Horse (the way border crossing between Alberta and the US) before heading back up to Medicine Hat where we would spend the night. Wild Horse was supposed to be good territory for Lark Buntings, both Longspurs and Baird’s Sparrow. The first thing we saw, however, was a common yet pretty bird with its fledglings. Western Kingbirds!
“Now kids, smile for the camera man”
It didn’t take long to find the Lark Buntings – a large flock, perhaps 75 in number fed among the fields near the crossing. Baird’s Sparrow was found by pure chance – we pulled over to photograph a Lark Bunting, and it popped up from the grass right beside us!
Male Lark Bunting
The day was progressing quickly, and we wanted to sleep in Medicine Hat that night, so the car swung into a more heavily populated road (almost six cars every ten minutes – counts as a well-used motor-way down there). Stopping at an almost empty Cypress Hills Provincial Park, we found a young Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, but little else. Immediately afterwards, however… A long-winged, pale shaped bird tossed it’s body across a roadside field, fluttering, first one wing up, then the other. It banked, and there was no doubt about it. A Short-eared Owl!
My nemesis bird, the Short-eared Owl has avoided me on many occasions, sometimes by miles, sometimes by hours. I’ve spent countless fruitless trips at dusk among the Alberta prairies, searching for this elusive bird to no avail. So imagine my surprise when this first amazing discovery was followed by six more – four of them immature!
We made it to Medicine Hat in total darkness, and scouted around for a place to sleep for a while before finally crashing into bed. From Medicine Hat, we would continue our journey North, almost reaching Edmonton before dipping back down to Canmore on Thursday night. That part of the trip remains to be chronicled, however, so watch for a second post soon!
We awoke at 5:25 AM for a 5:45 kick-off on Policeman’s Creek, where we successfully saw the Great-horned Owls, Hammond’s Flycatcher and Rufous Hummingbird. Overall, however, the creek was quiet. We did manage Wilson’s Warbler and Northern Waterthrush, as well as a hotspot rarity – three male Blue-winged Teal. After this, we made a short stop up to Silvertip, where a friend had a Cassin’s Vireo, which we heard consistently, but failed to see, unfortunately.
We continued to the Cave and Basin, where we spent just over an hour. The first thing we heard was the local Barred Owl – and his mate! Two Townsend’s Warblers were nice additions to the list, and a Bald Eagle fly-by provided good views in the morning light. At Vermillion Lakes we were afforded a nice surprise in four Trumpeter Swans. The Common Loon pair on the third lake swam by (side note – these loons now have one chick, which hatched June 16).
Fighting time, we drove behind an impossibly slow (it seemed) car to hope desperately for Pipits and Red-necked Grebe at Lake Minnewanka. When we finally got there, we drove slowly along the top of the dam, when I spotted some small shapes out in the water. We stopped, and I snapped three photos at the same time as Gavin. Zooming in on our cameras, we were delighted to find that these six birds were, in fact Harlequin Ducks!
This was the first time I had ever seen a Harlequin in breeding plumage, and the beautiful ducks edged the unseen Cassin’s Vireo for the top spot in the highlight lists.
That concluded the Birdathon, and we ended with 112 species – not my best, but still good considering the locations visited. Anyone interested can see the full list here. Thank you everyone for donating, and if you haven’t already, please go to my site here. There is still time!
The last of the Spring Bird Walks started cool, with the sun just peeking through the clouds. Arriving early at the meeting place, I was fortunate enough to see a Great Blue Heron fly-by – not a common sight there. We headed down the boardwalk, not seeing much but hearing a lot. Waterfowl were in short supply, with only a few Mallards to count, but it was made up for by the now flying owlets.
Two owlets and the female were on the path side of the creek, and the owlets put on a show for us for some time. They bounced around in the branches, unscared of the humans and in full view before working up the courage to fly back across the creek.Singing from the same perch as always sat a male Yellow Warbler, and two Blue Jays offered views from a few feet away. There were plenty of swallows at Spring Creek, and a winnowing Wilson’s Snipe cam crashing down into the marsh near us.
That concludes the series of walks on the boardwalk for this spring, but stay tuned for the walks I’ll be leading in late August and September, when we’ll hope for warblers, finches and hawks among others.
Black-throated Blue Warbler from last September
Thanks for coming out, everyone, and I hope to see you in the fall!
You can read the rest of the Canmore Spring Bird Walk posts here: