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.
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.
Western Tanager male
Black-throated Blue Warbler
American White Pelicans
Sharp-tailed Grouse male
Female Western Tanager
Think I’m missing one that should be in? Feel free to email me at: email@example.com
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!
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.
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!
First of all, a correction – I had, in the last post, made an error in my identification of photo number six – it is a Savannah Sparrow, not a Golden-crowned.
I’m sorry this comes out late; despite being one of the best things ever to happen to me, homeschooling rhythms have yet to fully settle in.
We started the second week with high hopes – it all revolved around the pelagic tour that we hoped to do in Tofino. Long Beach and Englishman River Estuary also looked promising.
Monday we visited Long Beach, where both of my siblings had a lot of fun jumping over waves.
I, on the other hand, scoped the ocean hoping for murrlets and Pacific Loons.
After about ten minutes of searching, something other than a Pigeon Guillemot or Surf Scoter brought excitement.
Through the fog, I could see something that could possibly be a Pacific Loon!
Nope, false alarm. It was a Red-necked Grebe. Though still interesting, it was not what I had hoped for. A few minutes more, and this time I had found a loon. In fact, there were about 6 of them, but unfortunately too far away for photos.
The only bird other than a gull to turn up actually on the beach, a Least Sandpiper.
That afternoon, we headed into Tofino, and found three Bald Eagles circling behind a sea-side restaurant, which was throwing out it’s fish guts.
Tuesday was the day planned for the pelagic trip. Sooty Shearwaters, Cassin’s Auklets and many others awaited. We walked in to the tour office, and the co-owner radioed a captain who was out near where we would go. Apparently, there was still fog out near the island, and the waters were getting “tricky.” In short, we could not go. That hit us hard. The entire trip had hinged on this outing!
We drove back across the island (meaning Vancouver Island) and once on the other side, met up with some friends who had recently moved there. At least, the others did. My Dad and I went to Englishman River Estuary for a couple hours.
Killdeer were the first things we saw, and we went on to count 35 of them along with the Western and Least Sandpipers, and a few Sanderlings. A bunch of Common Mergansers and a late Western Gull added to a total of 21 species.
The next day, we had a long stop at Rathtrevor Beach, where there were oystercatchers, sandpipers and gulls galore. There was also a quickly approaching tide, so some wet feet were involved.
In Victoria, we did a short whaling trip during which I did as much birding as possible, drawing out Surfbirds from a photo of an island. At the time, I was unsure of their ID, but now there is no doubt, though the photos are bad. An aqua-phobic just can’t take photos from a boat.
Surfbird, Black Turnstone and Black Oystercatcher – 2 of each, but the turnstone
Can you find all the birds?
My Dad’s shot – Rhinocerous Auklet
That evening, we headed out to Clover Point, where we (eventually) found the much-hoped-for Heerman’s Gull.
Back on the mainland, a quick stop-over at the fabled Reifle Bird Sanctuary turned up 35 Herons, 10 Sandhill Cranes and a Virginia Rail among others. This Leucistic Mallard is banded, but unfortunately I was unable to get the band information.
And that’s it from my West Cost Trip #2! Thank you everyone for reading, and stick around to hear about the Canmore Christmas Bird Count.