The Bow Valley has been lit up by a flood of migrating passerines throughout August, and while I’m hoping to find more during September, I thought I’d post a collection of some of my favourite birds.
This Canada Warbler was only the third eBird record ever in Banff County.
Magnolia Warblers are fairly unusual here too.
Something about Ravens has always attracted me, and when I found this one at Vermillion Lakes, I couldn’t resist photographing it. Not really a fall bird, but it can take the place of the two Stilt Sandpipers, which I failed to get good pictures of.
Warbling Vireos are all over the place. (click to enlarge)
Kingbirds are turning up too, amongst the flocks of robins.
And there’s still a few youngsters scattered throughout, like this immature Yellowthroat.
And finally, the Yellow Warblers are all but departed, but I did manage to get this female a week or two back.
Here’s hoping for more fall rarities as we progress into September, and with it, shorebird season!
We set out early from our hotel the day after the pelagic tour, hoping to reach Big Sur by noon. This well-known Condor hotspot would serve as the turn around point for our almost month long vacation. Fools that we were, we thought it would be a simple task – reach the area, find a walking trail with some life birds reported on it recently, and watch the skies. In fact, we never even made it to Big Sur.
The plan was derailed before we even hit the freeway, as a silhouette atop a lamppost piqued our curiosity. Trailing the bird as it dropped from the pole and alighted in the parking lot of the hotel, the white wing flashes of a Northern Mockingbird became apparent. Lifer! Hopping out of the car to fire off a few shots of the bird, I noticed a yellow form swoop up into a nearby palm tree. It soon shifted to a leafless alder, and we confirmed it as our second lifer of the day – Hooded Oriole! With two life birds to our name before we had even departed for the day, things were looking good.
Our next stop was a speciality stop. For many years, a solitary Northern Gannet has been stuck on the west coast – theories run that it came over the continent, through the arctic sea, and no longer knows how to return whence it came. Word was that the bird was currently located at a spot known as the Devil’s Slide Trail, on Egg Rock. After a short, easy walk into the area, we happened across a man who informed us that the Gannet was currently perched atop a rocky island with thousands of Common Murres.
Yep, it’s there! Can you see it among the murres (Gannet circled in red)? Fortunately, I had my scope and we were thus afforded some excellent views of this extreme rarity.
By now, we were running hours behind schedule, so we stopped for lunch in a small Santa Clara town. Birding the ponds nearby, we found Purple Finch, Bushtit and two species of Towhee. The highlight slipped into a small tree unobserved, but when we found it, it was observed with gusto! A lone Lesser Goldfinch made our fourth lifer of the day.
California Condors being our main target that day, we rushed down to maybe twenty miles north of Big Sur, before slowing down and gluing our eyes to the sky. As every Turkey Vulture came into sight, it was rapidly assessed before being dismissed as too small. Eventually, one bird seemed larger, soaring close to the ground to the right of the road. Pulling over to check, we confirmed the sad news yet again; not a Condor.
Yet even as I swung my legs into the car, I saw something appear over the hill on the opposite side of the road. Surely this could not be a bird, it was too large. It had to be! But there was no doubt about it, as we watched a fully fledged California Condor materialise from the heavens, swiftly followed up by three more – a family group!
The majestic raptors soared high overhead, barely moving a wing as they floated over the car towards the sea. Mission accomplished!
From there, we swung the car around and began the long trek north, resting that night roughly thirty miles south of our starting point that morning.
Our first stop of the second day was at a hotspot known as “Arroyo Del Valle” – a place suggested by a friendly young couple on the pelagic for potential Yellow-billed Magpies. Though we found none of the endemic counterparts to our own magpies, we enjoyed an overwhelmingly successful time there, with Oak Titmouse, Acorn Woodpecker and Broad-tailed Hummingbird welcoming us to a lush habitat where we found four life birds in under two hours.
Exploring the area, we added California Thrasher and more Lesser Goldfinches to the list, before finding a pair of Ash-throated Flycatchers right at the end. Turkey Vultures were also very much in evidence, with over 20 observed.
Only three major stops that day – Arroyo Del Valle, Hayward Regional Shoreline and the Yolo Bypass. We visited the shoreline second, searching for Least Terns and Snowy Plovers. Having missed out on the plovers at Leadbitter Point, we were eager to find this threatened species before we drove ourselves out of range once more.
Before long, we had located a plover – more than one, in fact. Six adults shepherded three young ones, being careful to never approach the path; they stayed so distant that it was difficult to get a shot of these diminutive shorebirds.
Yolo Bypass (our final spot of the day) was steaming hot, and while we only found one life bird in the form of the Great-tailed Grackle, we came away with many species of sandpiper and waders. Snowy and Great Egrets mixed with Dowitchers, Western and Least Sandpipers to form a patch buzzing with life in the sweltering heat.
Late that night, we snagged the long-awaited Yellow-billed Magpie.
The last two days were about driving more than birding, though we still saw some exciting species. Breaking through the Oregon border, we picked up our only Black-throated Grey Warbler of the trip along with two Nashville Warblers before reaching Eagle Ridge in Klamath. Though we spent little time here, we managed to pick up five Williamson’s Sapsuckers, an Olive-sided Flycatcher and even a Sooty Grouse. Farther north, we found a lake brimming with Western and Clark’s Grebes.
At last, the penultimate day of the trip arrived. We had but one regret, one which we intended to fix before leaving for good. Time after time, we had missed out on one of my top priority target birds, the White-headed Woodpecker. With only one more chance to get it, things were looking grim. Our last hope lay in the mountain town of Sisters. Here, we hoped to find the AWOL woodpecker, with maybe even a Pinyon Jay thrown in.
After over an hour, we had heard Pinyon Jays, but found no woodpeckers. Giving up, we returned to the car, when I spotted a flash of white at a birdbath. At last, the White-headed Woodpecker had decided to make an appearance. Like the Snowy Plovers, the White-heads proved incredibly difficult to photograph, rarely venturing out into the open, and mostly staying in the dark, out of sight.
On that note, we left Oregon and blazed through Washington back to BC, and from there home to Alberta. We left the trip with an amazing 37 lifers, and 188 total species across 75+ checklists and almost 5000 photos.
The Albatross has long been considered an ill omen among sailors. Ironically, it is in the pursuit of these very same creatures that I come up against my own metaphorical “Albatross.” Despite multiple attempts, a pelagic trip (an oceanic birding tour) has eluded me throughout the years. Blocked by fog in Tofino, closure in Victoria, and lack of transportation on the east coast, I have somehow managed to reach my ninth year of birding without experiencing one of these trips. This, however, would all change on July 14, when we would sail out of Half-Moon Bay, California.
Up at five-thirty to drive out to the pier, where we met Alvaro Jarmarillo and the rest of the group at 6:30 AM. Filing aboard the New Captain Pete, we were met by the pleasant news that the boat was stocked with fresh coffee, biscuits and some excellent fresh strawberries. Departing the harbour in a cloud of fog, we identified the usual mix of Brown Pelicans, Heerman’s and Western Gulls. Two Marbled Murrelets – only the second time we had seen these unusual birds – floated half a mile offshore. Murrelets oddly nest in deep forest groves, miles from the ocean, where they return to spend the majority of their lives.
The first life bird of the day came surprisingly early, and would be a common sight over the course of the trip – Northern Fulmar! These funny little tubenoses were never boring, coming close to the boat for photos in their array of colours, from mottled grey to chocolate brown to a pure, glistening white.
A stark white Northern Fulmar rides the ocean current
As we neared our primary destination, a pod of whales surrounded the boat – Hump-backs, Fin Whales and a small unidentified whale swam further out, but close to ten Great Blue Whales breached nearest our vessel, granting many close views of their broad backs and explosion of mist that was their breath. Having the two largest mammals in the world (Fin Whale being the other) surrounding us was an amazing experience, if a little nerve-wracking.
Great Blue Whale
Approaching the islands, we were treated to our first ever views of Cassin’s Auklet. Impossible to photograph, the tiny alcids would bounce from wave to wave in increasing speed as the boat came near, before finally gaining the momentum to lift off. Eventually, however, one accepted our presence long enough for us to catch a few shots before vanishing beneath the waves.
Sooty Shearwaters skimmed the sea, and, though relatively common, rarely approached the ship.
A Sooty Shearwater springs from the water
Our day was spotted with Puffin observations, each of which was punctuated by a scream of “Puffin!” which resounded from end to end of the boat, alerting all the passengers of the nearby alcid. Once, we were lucky enough to have one fly only a few feet above the boat, and another time a pair rested contentedly as we floated within 100 metres of them. All in all, we were very fortunate with the Puffins.
My highlight came as we coasted along the continental shelf, in a heavy patch of fog.
I gazed into the distance, not expecting much, when a massive shape loomed out of the fog. It drifted towards us on silent wings, bigger than any bird I had seen before, and there was no doubting what it was. An Albatross.
The bird passed, shrouded in mist, but we would see another. Nine more, in fact. Black-footed Albatrosses were the undeniable high point of the day, and while we saw no Laysans, I was more than content with the obliging birds.
And I’d include another photo of the goliaths had it not been for another lifer, the Pink-footed Shearwater. A duo of the avians paused next to a young Albatross, presumably for a patch of food, though we observed none. As we neared their location, a Shearwater flew up, and banked past us offering excellent views of its white underwings and wide wingspan.
Returning to shore, we saw few birds other than the murres, which had shown up in their tens of thousands that day. Eventually, a pair of dark birds were spotted on the horizon, which we could only assume were gulls signifying the proximity of land. Fortunately, we were wrong. Two immature Long-tailed Jaegers zoomed away over the sea, leaving us with an adult Sabine’s Gull as the only gull we saw at any distance from shore.
On reentry unto the harbour, we identified Surfbirds and Black Turnstones, in addition to an extremely distant pair of Elegant Terns as our fourteenth, and last lifers of the pelagic trip.
Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for the final post of the trip!
Once the annual slog of final exams was past at last, I was looking forward to a few weeks of relaxation and quiet birding before really getting into any ‘summer activities.’ I could not have been more wrong. My first two sightings of summer should have warned me that I was in for a exiting time; a rare Cape May Warbler and a lifer Connecticut Warbler on Policeman’s Creek marked two of my best Banff sightings since the Dunlin in March, and it was shortly after these observations that I was to be whisked off to California on a three week birding adventure.
Naturally, the entire trip could not be about birds; my siblings have yet to fall under the spell of ornithology (there’s always hope!), and there are many wonderful things down the West Coast which do not involve avian highlights. For two weeks, we drove down the coast to San Fransisco, frantically trying to combine birding and vacation with watching the World Cup games.
Rest stop birding sufficed for a few days, as our primary goal was to cover as many miles as possible before slowing down. This, however, turned up such highlights as a Rock Wren and Bullock’s Oriole young.
Our first life bird came in the shape of a California Scrub-Jay, a bird we would become gradually familiar with over the course of our expedition. These birds’ brilliant blue plumage spotted the Oregon and California sea line in much the same way as that of the Blue Jay fills our more eastern world.
California Scrub-Jay, the first lifer of the journey.
From that point on, a steady trickle of life and year birds streamed past our eager eyes. Commencing in Astoria, Oregon (I highly recommend the visitor centre there; their efforts to find a place showing the World Cup semi-final was commendable) with Brown Pelicans, we continued to Leadbitter Point in search of Snowy Plovers. While we bombed on the Snowies, we had a great time there, as the entire beach was covered with thousands of Western Sandpipers, with healthy numbers of Sanderling, Black-bellied Plover and Short-billed Dowitcher mixed in.
Small groups of 30 – 50 Western Sandpipers whistled along the beach, mere inches above the sand.
On the Oregon coast, there is a place called Haystack Rock which is known, in particular, for its breeding Tufted Puffins. When we reached this notable stone outcrop, we were greeted by dozens of Common Murres, Pelagic Cormorants, and Western Gulls circling the air. It did not take long to find the object of our desire. Half a dozen of the angular black forms hurtled through the sky with all the grace of a fish hurled from an airplane window. These chunky birds carried their massive bills with a Roman dignity, and seldom approached shore save from high above the beach as they circled the rock.
The final campsite of the first part of the trip was the best by far – we stayed there for three days, and found over thirty species including 3 lifers. The first lifer observed was the daring Black Phoebe, a bird which perched, fearless, on campfire grates, picnic tables and unoccupied tents around the campsite.
The next day brought with it a family of Nuttal’s Woodpeckers, California Towhees, and a Green Heron!
A young Nuttal’s Woodpecker
The Green Heron was flighty, but allowed some photos if you crept up behind some bushes.
The next day, we moved into a hotel in Half-Moon Bay to rest up for the biggest day of the trip – a pelagic tour! The adventures of the long awaited pelagic deserve their own post, however, so you’ll just have to wait for the next post to find out what happened.
Sorry for not posting in a while – I’ve been busy with school and sports, but that should be cooling down for a few weeks before my final exams, so I should be posting more soon.
As more and more birds stream into the province, the annual assortment of birding events, festivals and counts begins. Already, the Global Big Day has been and gone, with 6,098 species reported by over 28 thousand observers on May 5th. One of the biggest events yet to come (at least for me) is the Great Canadian Birdathon. This will be my 6th birdathon, and my 2nd as part of the Saw-it Owls team. I’ll be joining up with Gavin McKinnon of Calgary once more, searching for roughly 125 species in Southern Alberta. While we failed to reach that target last year (112 species), we have high hopes and a completely different route this May, hitting some of the best habitat in Alberta.
The highlight of last year, Harlequin ducks are looking pretty unlikely with the altered route.
For those who don’t know what the birdathon is, it’s a fundraiser run by Bird Studies Canada with intent to protect our birds and preserve their habitat. Participants accept donations either as flat amounts (e.g. $25) or by a per-species gift (e.g. $1 for every species found). Then, we choose one 24 hour period in the month of May to go out and find the most bird species possible. It’s always been a great time, and all for a worthy cause.
The 2018 GCB t-shirt design
Anybody interested in helping out with the fundraiser can go here to donate, or sign up through the Bird Studies Canada Birdathon Page. Thank you everyone who has donated already, and if you haven’t, consider joining the cool crowd by doing so, to keep our backyard beauties in fine feather!
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!
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.