Castle Provincial Park and Castle Wildland Provincial Park, located near Waterton in SW Alberta, were recently created by the Provincial government to protect this sensitive and valuable bit of wilderness. The government is asking Albertans to provide feedback on the draft management plan for the parks.
The deadline for this is tomorrow, April 19. Please take some time to read the information on this page and complete the survey there. If you had completed the survey for the previous management plan, you can still respond now to the new plan.
One of the main issues at stake is whether off-highway motorized vehicles (OHV’s) will be allowed in the parks. There is an extensive network of trails in the parks, and the OHV community is lobbying to allow OHV use in the parks to continue. Researchers say that the proposed parks are already so heavily used that it will require a lot of restoration before they can really be valuable wildlife refuges. There are so many roads and trails in the parks right now that many species have been negatively impacted.
As birders and conservationists, we should lend our voices to this debate.
Photo credit: Jeannie Stafford/USFWS. A greater sage-grouse male struts at a lek (dancing or mating ground) near Bridgeport, CA to attract a mate. March 1, 2010. (From Wikimedia Commons.)
The Greater Sage-Grouse is the rarest nesting bird in Alberta. We are at the northern and western limits of their range, so they only occur in the SE corner of the province. Historically, the range was much larger, but the species experienced a 98% decline in population in the 25-year span from 1988 to 2012. By 2012, they were extirpated from British Columbia and left with only remnant populations in Alberta with 40 to 60 adult birds, and in Saskatchewan with only 55 to 80 adult birds. By 2013, they were also extirpated from five U.S. states. (See this Wikipedia entry for more information on range and population numbers.)
Conservation organizations have launched a number of legal actions to try to save the birds in Alberta, and protections are now in place. It is important the birders understand these laws and respect the need for the birds to remain undisturbed, particularly when the grouse are on their mating leks.
Recently Greg Wagner was contacted by a birder friend who had gone to view a lek in SE Alberta. He was approached by a conservation officer who told him that the birding party could be charged under the Alberta Public Lands Act. If they had been there a day later, on April 1, they could also have been charged under the provisions of the Emergency Protection Order which was issued in 2013.
All birders should be aware that under existing laws birders could be charged for being near leks and should be aware of the law before they go to view leks. Under no circumstances should people give the location of leks to others, particularly on social media.
Greater Sage Grouse, male, from rear. By U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters – Uploaded by Dolovis, Public Domain. (From Wikimedia Commons.)
Greg Wagner has written the following very interesting and informative account of the Greater Sage-Grouse and the struggle to protect it in Alberta.
By Greg Wagner.
The following information pertains to laws aimed at protecting Greater Sage-Grouse in southeastern Alberta. People should have a clear understanding of these laws before going to view a lek. Charges could be laid under a variety of statutes.
Throughout their range in western North America, declining Sage-Grouse populations have been associated with increased road densities and traffic volumes. Genetic and population modelling as well as habitat modelling in southeastern Alberta indicate that the significant Sage Grouse population declines over the past two decades are related to increased road densities, traffic volumes and human activity.
Because of population declines in Alberta and Saskatchewan, Ecojustice on behalf of the Alberta Wilderness Association, Federation of Alberta Naturalists, Grassland Naturalists, Nature Saskatchewan and the Western Canadian Wilderness Association filed a lawsuit claiming that the federal Recovery Strategy for Greater Sage-Grouse neglected to identify critical habitat for Sage-Grouse despite having ample scientific evidence to do so. It is important to note that naturalists launched this lawsuit. Further information about the lawsuit can be found here. A host of legal and management actions have occurred since then.
On September 17, 2013 conservation groups welcomed the federal government’s announcement that it intended to introduce an emergency protection order for Canada’s endangered Greater Sage-Grouse, but they also cautioned that the devil will be in the details. The federal government’s announcement did not include specific language around one of the key threats to the Sage-Grouse’s recovery and survival: oil and gas development in its critical habitat.
On September 25, 2013, on-the-ground action priorities were identified for the management of Greater Sage-Grouse including access restrictions.
On December 4, 2013, the federal government published its long-awaited Emergency Protection Order for Greater Sage-Grouse. The order came into effect on February 18, 2014. The goal of the Emergency Order was to “achieve the best protection for the Greater Sage-Grouse, while minimizing impacts on landowners and agricultural producers.” The prohibitions contained in the order only apply to habitat on federal and provincial crown lands in southeastern Alberta and southwestern Saskatchewan. Conservation groups welcomed the long-awaited Emergency Protection Order, but were concerned whether it would provide sufficient protection for the species.. The emergency order can be viewed here. Among other things, the Order contains the following provision “A person must not operate a facility, motor vehicle or machine that produces a noise that exceeds 45 dB(A) at any given time between 1.5 hours before sunset to 1.5 hours after sunrise during the period beginning on April 1 and ending on May 30 of any given year” on identified federal and provincial lands.
In 2003, the Alberta Government clarified the rules for recreational and exploration access on agricultural dispositions issued under the Public Lands Act, including grazing leases and farm development leases. On most provincial public lands in southeastern Alberta, access permits are required to access public lands. More information about public land access can be found here.
There are also sections of the provincial Wildlife Act that pertain to harassment of wildlife. If actions of people are deemed to be detrimental to the birds, these types of charges could be pursued. However, such actions would have to be blatant, but could include a photographer who was harassing birds at close range.
The Greater Sage-Grouse habitat is not too close to Calgary, but local birders should also be aware of similar protections in place for Sharp-tailed Grouse. This species was formerly common in the area, and even had a lek on Nose Hill, which is now within the city limits. Like the Sage-Grouse, Sharp-tails are sensitive to disturbance, and their numbers have been in decline in recent years and their range has been reduced. They are seldom seen near the city any more, but there are leks within a 90-minute drive of Calgary.
Sharp-tailed Grouse on a Lek, SW of Calgary, March 31, 2017. Photo by Dan Arndt.
According to the law, you must stay at least one-half kilometer away from an active Sharp-tail lek. The only way to see one up close is to be hidden in a blind before the birds arrive in the morning, and stay hidden until after they depart the lek. If they are disturbed on the lek, they may abandon it, and this could impact their breeding success.
Finally, a reminder that nesting season is underway in Calgary (Great Horned Owl chicks have already hatched), so be aware that it is illegal to disturb most nesting birds. Do not share the location of nests of sensitive species such as owls.
Chris Fisher has prepared the following notice regarding nests and regulations:
By all means get out and go birding, but respect the birds and the law!
The Inglewood Wildlands, a large park immediately west of the Inglewood Bird Sanctuary, is a great place in the summer to see Savannah Sparrows and soaring Swainson’s Hawks. But it used to be so much more, as there was originally a large wetland in the middle of it, which attracted a wide variety of wildlife. In 2007 the pump that supplied water to the pond broke, and the pond dried up.
The Wildlands used to host many visiting school groups who learned about the wetland and all the species that lived there. As the city has now embarked on the ambitious Bend in the Bow project in the area, now is a good time to encourage them to restore this wetland.
Please go to this page to sign the petition to put water back into the Inglewood Wildland Pond. The Inglewood Wildlands Development Society is trying to get as many signatures as possible. They now have over 500. Help them get to 1,000!
The third annual World Shorebirds Day is September 6, 2016. Birders are encouraged to count shorebirds from September 2-6. You can register a location where you intend to go birding that week, and then make a careful count of the shorebirds (and other birds) you see there and submit the results to eBird or to the official website of World Shorebirds Day.
Long-billed Dowitchers, Frank Lake. September 12, 2013. Photo by Dan Arndt
There are plenty of great shorebird locations in the Calgary area so register your spot and help this citizen science project. Only with better knowledge of the numbers and distributions of these long-distance migrants can we help to conserve them.
A little-known gem of a birding location near Calgary is Marsland Basin, a Ducks Unlimited wetland on a private farm about halfway between Eagle Lake and Namaka Lake, southeast of Strathmore. A 75-acre lake with mud flats and cattail marshes can be viewed from the edge of a wooded farmyard.
The homeowners have created a great natural environment for all kinds of birds here, and they invite any interested birders to come by at any time. There are chairs set up at the viewing area, and you can walk around the farmyard as well. Sign the guest book.
To get to Marsland Basin, take Twp Road 232 one mile east from the village of Namaka, then go north a half mile on RR 242. This road dead-ends by the yard. Just drive right up into the yard.
Birders are encouraged to enter their sightings on eBird. Use the Marsland Basin HotSpot. Having a lot of public reports of both nesting birds and migrants is a good way to ensure that the importance of a wetland is recognized, and it is more likely to be protected and preserved.
There is an upcoming Nature Calgary field trip to this location on Sunday July 26. Meet at the parking lot at Carburn Park at 8 am to carpool.
I think that most birders would love to live in a world with stable and prospering bird populations so that we could study and enjoy birds merely as a pleasurable hobby. Unfortunately that is not the case, as birds and other animals face serious threats almost everywhere on the planet. Many birders now spend much of their time and energy trying to combat habitat loss and other threats to the birds.
Traditionally, a typical birder is middle-aged or older. It is often a hobby taken up seriously by adults after their children have left home. When we get together for meetings and field trips, the majority of us are over 50 years old.
The percentage of the population that is interested in birds and birding is quite large – birding is second only to gardening as a hobby in North America. But only a small percentage of those backyard birders do it seriously. Consequently, our political voice is not as strong as it could be, or as it needs to be to effect positive changes for our natural world.
Most children have an innate fascination with nature and truly enjoy seeing birds and animals, and learning about the natural history of the earth. Unfortunately this eagerness to appreciate nature is often not fostered, resulting in a waning interest in nature and a lack of awareness of environmental issues. We need to raise a new generation that can be a strong voice for conservation.
Photo by Paul Gee. Many of us have seen a look of delight like this when sharing our birding experiences with children, or with adults who are new to birding.
One of the most important things we can do as birders, as parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, is to teach the children in our lives to respect and understand nature, and to be a force for conserving and restoring our natural heritage. This is one of the main motivations for many of us who do things like writing for bird blogs, leading field trips, running bird counts, and organizing birding competitions.
There are many opportunities to get and keep kids interested and involved. Nature Calgary offers many field trips of all kinds, which are free and open to everyone. Children can attend as long as they are accompanied by a parent or guardian. Similarly, the Friends of Fish Creek birding course welcomes any paid adult participant to bring children along, for which they are charged only a nominal $5 fee per child for the entire course.
One of our goals in organizing the eBird Calgary 2015 Big Year birding competition was to try to encourage more children (and adults who are novice birders) to get involved in the local birding community. As of today we have 23 beginners, and 13 youths under 17 registered. We would love to have more, and the deadline to enter is Tuesday, March 31.
If you can’t get out with your kids, there is still a lot you can do. I know of one parent in Calgary who takes his three kids on a nature walk to a new location every Saturday – just to get out and enjoy the birds, mammals, flowers, and trees. You could do this in your own yard or local park. You can also make a point of regularly watching nature shows on TV with them, and encouraging them to read about nature.
I ran into one of the youths in the competition early this year, and talked to his mother about his interest in birds. She regularly drives him to various parks and other locations to look for birds, and told me that birding has changed their lives. The following is an excerpt from an email she sent me:
In an age where kids are connecting more with social media and video games, I am very grateful that my son is growing up connecting to the natural world by his own choice. I have not yet bought him a cell phone because I want him to be in his world first, thinking and aware, without electronic distraction. Birding really requires that one is fully present…and it is clear he is learning to use his senses to hear and see birds. Through birding, he is excited to sleuth out (this is a phrase he has used with me) new species; happy to spot birds that he’s only seen in his books or posted by others.
I really should write the producers and actors of the movie “The Big Year” to thank them….that movie lit the fire for my son’s interest in birding. His next steps were birding sites like Nature Calgary and then eBird. Although he still likes a few video games, a good deal of the time he is on eBird, reading his new Sibley’s, looking at his photos…or now setting up his Flickr account.
Birding HAS changed our lives. We were pretty stuck inside, lots of screen time (computer and TV) and it seemed like I was always instructing him on something or asking him to stop the video games on the computer. Ours days were often not as positive as I would have liked. It is delightful to have birding where he is on point rather than me – both for technical content and motivation. I view this as a natural progression of independence for him and it’s wonderful for me to relax and just be with him. When he found the Northern Saw-whet Owl the other day we were both jumping up and down and high-fiving it in the frigid weather 🙂 He was thrilled to find it (our second trip looking) and it’s great to see him so happy. Those are golden moments for me…both to be included in the find and to celebrate with him. Our birding trips are some of our happiest times together. He researches and plans, I drive, the world slows, we look and listen…and companionably walk together. Wow, that’s really what I want in life right now….for both of us!
I am acutely aware that my time with my son is limited; soon (4-1/2 years) he will be off to University. Birding has refocused our priorities and energy towards something rewarding and enjoyable and it’s getting us out and moving. I really believe that birding is drawing us closer while providing him with a pursuit he can call his own his whole life. It’s the best of what we like – books, travel, a worthwhile quest… and beautiful birds. My son said it himself the other day: “Birding really helps you appreciate things.”
What a gift it is, for both the child and our world, to be able to instill that sense of wonder and belonging. I welcome you to share this post, and to please share with us your stories of how connecting with nature has affected your lives.
One of the world’s greatest migrations is happening now. Billions of migratory birds are heading from the U.S., Central and South America to what’s been dubbed “North America’s bird nursery” —the sprawling billion-plus-acre boreal forest that spans the continent from Alaska across Canada to Newfoundland and Labrador—to nest and produce next year’s generation of birds.
However, as abundant as they are, boreal birds face myriad challenges and threats to their habitat. Some of the most iconic species have suffered dramatic declines in recent decades.
Boreal Chickadee. Photo by Dan Arndt
A new science report – Boreal Birds Need Half: Maintaining North America’s Bird Nursery and Why it Matters – released May 5 , recommends protecting at least 50 percent of the boreal forest from industrial development. That level of conservation is vital to provide birds the best chance of maintaining healthy populations for hundreds of species of birds that rely on the boreal forest for nesting and migratory stopover..
The report, produced by Ducks Unlimited and the Boreal Songbird Initiative, offers scientific support for expansive, landscape-scale habitat conservation in large, interconnected protected areas that are necessary to help ensure the diversity of species . It also showcases significant areas across Canada where birds, landscapes and biodiversity are extraordinarily special.
The report also reveals often unappreciated roles boreal birds play in providing ecosystem services—pollinating plants, redistributing nutrients, and controlling pests, for example—and the value they add (more than $100 billion to economies in the U.S. and Canada). It also emphasizes the integral role birds play in the culture of Aboriginal Peoples throughout the boreal.
The Rusty Blackbird used to be a common sight in Alberta, ranging from the prairies to the boreal forest, and often a nice splash of color in a mixed flock of migrating blackbirds both in spring and fall. Over the past 50 years, their population has declined between 85 and as much as 99% by some estimates, and is a particularly vulnerable species at risk, not only in Alberta, but all over North America. It is with great pleasure that I note that eBird.org has organized yet another citizen science project in order to better understand the ecology, migration hotspots, and to develop some strategies to better accommodate this highly vulnerable species.
The Rusty Blackbird Spring Migration Blitz opened March 1, 2014 all over North America, and the usual target dates for spotting them in our area are between April 1 and mid-May. The goal is to get as many birders to go out, as they usually would anyway, and report the observations to eBird under the Rusty Blackbird Spring Migration Blitz survey type.
A whooping crane egg has hatched at the Calgary Zoo’s Devonian Wildlife Conservation Centre near Dewinton. Although every year fertile eggs are sent to recovery partners in the U.S., this is the first chick to hatch at the zoo’s breeding facility in the last three years.
Photos courtesy of The Calgary Zoo
“The whooping crane chick is doing extremely well,” said area curator, Colleen Baird. “It is strong and showing signs of healthy development.”
This chick hatched from a total of six fertile eggs that the whooping cranes laid this year at the Centre. Five eggs will be sent to other facilities in North America to continue to supplement wild whooping crane populations. There are seven breeding pairs of whooping cranes at the Centre and one non-breeding pair on display at the zoo.
As the chick matures, the zoo’s animal care team will determine if it will be part of the ongoing whooping crane breeding program at the Centre or if it will be relocated to be a part of other breeding programs.
Whooping cranes are currently listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List and are one of three bird species in Canada in that category. Through the efforts of the Devonian Wildlife Conservation Centre, the Calgary Zoo is helping to ensure the long term survival of the species through participating in the conservation breeding program and species reintroduction efforts.
Adult whooping crane at the DCRC. Photo P Bumstead
Ducks Unlimited developed the Frank Lake project under the North American Waterfowl Management Plan which is a tripartite initiative between Canada, the United States and Mexico aimed at conserving migratory birds across the continent. The Plan’s goal is to return waterfowl populations to 1970s levels through the protection of upland and wetland habitat.
This has certainly been achieved at Frank Lake where upland habitats have been secured and are managed for nesting waterfowl and other birds, and where wetland habitat has been created and protected through the establishment of dams and the addition of tertiary treated effluent from the Town of High River and Cargill. It is also one of the few large wetlands with large cattail and/or bulrush beds in southern Alberta and attracts a number of breeding bird species that are dependent on these habitats including White-faced Ibis, Black-crowned Night Heron, Franklin’s Gull, Forester’s Tern, Western Grebe and Eared Grebe. Many of these species are listed as sensitive under the General Status of Alberta WildlifeSpecies, largely because of the scarcity of large wetlands with emergent vegetation.
Because of its conservation importance, Frank Lake has also been identified as an Important Bird Area and as an Environmentally Significant Area within the Municipal District of Foothills.
Frank Lake is also a popular area for hunting, birding, wildlife photography, dog walking and hunting dog trials. Ducks Unlimited has also established an educational program at the lake, which had initially been offered to students in Calgary schools, but which is now being offered to rural schools in the area. It truly is the goose that laid the golden egg. If people show some respect for the area and following a few basic rules (eg., dogs on leash during the nesting period from 1 April to 1 July) it should remain as an area that can serve as a significant wildlife conservation area, and at the same time be enjoyed by a number of different user groups.
The best known and most heavily used site on the lake is the observation blind on Basin 1 in the northwest corner of the lake. It is located within an extensive bulrush marsh and provides excellent viewing opportunities of Eared Grebe, Coots, Ruddy Ducks, Blackbirds and Marsh Wrens. Looking out to the east you can count dozens if not hundreds of White-faced Ibis. During the spring, the calls of Franklin’s Gulls are deafening. This reed bed supports the largest breeding population of emergent dependent birds on the lake, and in the province.
In the past photographers have been observed wading through the reed bed near the blind and trying to get close to the reed bed and nesting area of White-faced Ibis on a crudely constructed raft. These individuals cause untold damage to the birds nesting in these areas, in violation of the federal Migratory Bird Convention Act and the Alberta Wildlife Act. I few weeks back I raised my concerns with the local Fish and Wildlife Officer.
Making a hasty retreat.
Unfortunately, last weekend I encountered two individuals (a man with graying hair and a women with long blonde hair) marching through the reed beds north of the blind, cameras and long lenses in hand and pulling an inner tube with camouflage material wrapped around it. They were right in the area where the Ibis and Night Herons nest. About 25 Black-crowned Night Herons were flying around the reeds at the time.
I yelled at them to get out of there and that they were destroying nests in violation of the Alberta Wildlife Act. I also phoned Report a Poacher 1-800-642-3800 and ended up speaking with the local Fish and Wildlife Officer I had met with a few weeks back. I indicated what these two people were doing and that they were disturbing nesting birds in violation of the Migratory Bird Convention Act and the Alberta Wildlife Act. He asked me to record their license plate number. I also took some photos of them in the reeds.
After about twenty minutes they came out ashore and had the pleasure of some lively conversation and in your face time with yours truly. They indicated that they were long-time birders and were doing nothing to disturb the birds. I have left the matter in the hands of the Fish and Wildlife Officer. But I wonder, do these two pick up a couple of six packs of mice from their local pet store anytime the go out looking for owls?
Last spring, I watched the Franklin’s Gull return to Frank Lake and begin nesting over most of May. Unfortunately, I was away for most of June. When I got back, I visited another large reed bed marsh supporting a large Franklin’s Gull breeding colony. The place was deafening with adult birds circling overhead, and recently fledged young everywhere.
Frank Lake was much different. I only saw a flock of 20 birds heading to the lake from nearby fields. No adult birds circling over the reed beds and no recently fledged young. There was zero nest success. I wondered at the time what had happen, and probably will never know. I thought it was probably something environmental, a quick increase in lake levels following a major rainfall event. But now, I wonder if it may simply have been caused by photographers traipsing through the bulrushes.
Frank Lake has become widely known as being the home to White-faced Ibis. I fear the breeding colony, or at least the major colony of the lake, has been destroyed. So if someone is out at Frank Lake and wants to know why there aren’t so many Franklin’s Gulls around the blind, or where all the Ibis have gone. maybe this post provides an answer.
Posted by Pat Bumstead:
We know Frank Lake is a very popular birding destination for many of our readers. Put the Report A Poacher number 1-800-642-3800 in your cellphone. If you see idiot photographers endangering the birds for the sake of a picture, make note of the following and give them a call:
Date, time and location of offense
License plate number of vehicle
Vehicle description, including any identifying features, dents, stickers, etc.
Description of person(s) involved
Description of evidence at the scene, or evidence of the crime that the violators took with them
Details of the violation
Most of our Canadian bird species are in serious trouble throughout their ranges. Bird watchers are the ones out in the field, and can cover far more territory than Fish & Wildlife officers. If you see someone wading through nest sites, baiting owls, stealing eggs from a nest or anything else that threatens the birds, speak up for them! If we don’t, there might not be any birds to watch.