It was spring of 2017, and in a rare moment of quiet solitude, I was thinking. Thinking about my hotspot, Policeman’s Creek (see the eBird hotspot here for species and details) and how it was so little birded by anyone but me. Then it struck me – an idea that has prospered in Banff, something that a friend and I had halfheartedly tried in Canmore once – guided walks! It had failed on the first attempt in Canmore, but undaunted I began preparations for that year. And what a success it was! For a new event in Canmore, the participant numbers were great, and we detected almost fifty species across four walks – including a bird not reported in the county for over forty years (Bullock’s Oriole)!
Due to such accomplishment then, I am once again leading these walks on Policeman’s Creek. Commencing at 7:00 AM at Canmore’s well known Big Head sculpture on Main Street, the walks will be held on April 29th, May 13th and 27th and June 10th. Already I have seen unusual numbers of waterfowl passing through the creek, and the spring promises to be a good one.
Northern Shoveler, male
I hope to see you all out on April 29th for the first walk! Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
A flash of white streaks by and alights on a nearby stump. You spin, and place your binoculars on a small white and black woodpecker. It’s either Hairy or Downy, but do you know which? This question is a common one for beginning and novice birders across the continent, as these friendly little chaps will come to almost any feeder – suet, sunflower, peanut – for at least a short visit.
Identification can be a challenge, especially when you don’t know much about the two. Hairy is bigger than Downy, but in the field, this can be difficult to judge accurately, so how do you do it?
In the two above photos, (click to enlarge) you can see the key mark between them – the bills. On the Downy Woodpecker, the bill is a short projection of about one third the length of the head, where the Hairy has a big, thick bill, almost entirely the length of its head. Another interesting feature is the black shoulder mark on the Hairy – if you look closely, most Hairy Woodpeckers have a comma shaped black mark protruding from the back over the shoulder and sometimes on to the breast. Downys almost never have such a mark, but occasionally they can show something similar, so keep an eye out!
Downy on suet feeder.
One final useful tool is the call. As the name suggests, Downy Woodpecker’s rapid fire “dododododododo” slips DOWN the scale towards the end, decrescendo style, while a Hairy’s call stays level or even goes up at the end.
So next time you’re out, take a long look at the local woodpeckers, and try to identify them. Take photos if you can – a snapshot never flies away! – before watching it. Downys especially can be quite tame, and may even land on your hand if you train them. Why not try it? Take your kids out, enjoy nature and provide a cool experience that may start them off on their birding career.
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!
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!
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
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.