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Bird the Irrigation Canal

Posted by Bob Lefebvre

The Western Irrigation District canal in SE Calgary has had the water supply from the Bow River shut off and the water level is falling. The next few weeks until freeze-up are a great time to go birding along the canal as there is a lot of food concentrated in the remaining pools and on the mudflats. The best birding is from the Max Bell arena to 50 Avenue SE, with the most productive stretch being the 500 m or so south of the Gosling Way bridge, on the entrance road to the Inglewood Golf and Curling Club.

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Birds on the canal, October 2011.

Trout Unlimited Canada normally does a fish rescue when the water is shut off, but due to funding cuts they were unable to do it this year. There will be some big fish left in the water and it will be interesting to see if this keeps the Herons and Kingfishers around for a while longer.

The canal is a great place for bird photography as the waterfowl and shorebirds are often quite close to you. Walk along the east side in the morning and along the west side in the evening to keep the sun behind you, and you can get some great views!

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October 2011, looking back towards the Gosling Way bridge. Throughout October the water level gradually falls, concentrating the waterfowl into smaller pools.

Here are links to a few of the posts that Dan Arndt did about birding the canal with the Friends of Fish Creek in the past three years, with photos of many of the birds you can find there.

October 2015

October 2014

October 2013

 

World Shorebirds Day September 6

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 Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500 + Tamron 1.4x Teleconverter 1/1000sec., ƒ/6.3, ISO 400Long-billed Dowitchers, Frank Lake. September 12, 2013. Photo by Dan Arndt

You can read more about this project on the official website.

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.

Celebrity Swans and Weasels at Sikome Lake

Posted by Dan Arndt

This week we headed down to Sikome Lake in search of the beginnings of the massive waterfowl flocks that we find along the Bow River each winter. We were not at all disappointed as there seemed to be no end of Mallards and Canada Geese flying overhead, but on top of that, we had a few pleasant surprises throughout this area of Fish Creek Provincial Park.

Sikome Lake - November 23, 2014

Sikome Lake – November 23, 2014

Underneath the paired bridges over the Bow River, we found this immature Tundra Swan, which seemed to have made friends with a few Mallards. While it was a little out of place among the many smaller waterfowl, it didn’t seem too disoriented, and not visibly injured, so we took some photos, had a bit of a chat about why this particular juvenile was a Tundra Swan and not a Trumpeter Swan, and then headed on our way. Hopefully this young bird will head south before the weather turns again!

Long-tailed Weasel Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500@500mm 1/500sec., ƒ/6.3, ISO 1600

immature Tundra Swan
Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500@500mm
1/500sec., ƒ/6.3, ISO 1600

immature Tundra Swan Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500@500mm 1/500sec., ƒ/6.3, ISO 3200

immature Tundra Swan
Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500@500mm
1/500sec., ƒ/6.3, ISO 3200

We headed over to the area where, for many years, a family of Great Horned Owls has nested, and while we were in the area, we stumbled across another local celebrity. A Long-tailed Weasel in winter plumage was actively hunting and caching food away for the winter, relentlessly picking off every Meadow Vole it can find, as evidenced by the fact that even with our minimal encounter with it, it hunted one down and headed back to its cache again. The entire encounter lasted about five minutes, and left all of us happy and quite satisfied with our looks at this beautiful, and often quite shy creature.

Long-tailed Weasel Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500@500mm 1/1250sec., ƒ/6.3, ISO 3200

Long-tailed Weasel
Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500@500mm
1/1250sec., ƒ/6.3, ISO 3200

Long-tailed Weasel Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500@500mm 1/1250sec., ƒ/6.3, ISO 3200

Long-tailed Weasel
Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500@500mm
1/1250sec., ƒ/6.3, ISO 3200

Long-tailed Weasel Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500@500mm 1/1250sec., ƒ/6.3, ISO 3200

Long-tailed Weasel
Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500@500mm
1/1250sec., ƒ/6.3, ISO 3200

Nearby, we found the adult Great Horned Owl pair in their usual haunt, followed quickly by a pair of Merlins fighting over a meal of relatively unknown identity, which gave us a little bit of concern for the safety of the Long-tailed Weasel, since it would make a fine meal for either of these predatory birds, but with all of the small birds and many voles around, it’s likely much safer than we gave it credit for.

Great Horned Owl Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500@500mm 1/1000sec., ƒ/6.3, ISO 1600

Great Horned Owl
Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500@500mm
1/1000sec., ƒ/6.3, ISO 1600

Merlin Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500@500mm 1/1250sec., ƒ/6.3, ISO 500

Merlin
Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500@500mm
1/1250sec., ƒ/6.3, ISO 500

We actually watched the Merlins chase each other over, around, and through a patch of poplar trees for a few solid minutes, and when it was all over, each of them had a smaller piece of the original prey item that had been caught by the individual above. The aerobatics and speed of the two birds was absolutely stunning to experience.

We headed back north to follow the river’s edge back down to the parking lot at the Boat Launch, and as we were scanning the large flock of waterfowl on the opposite shore, something startled a nearby Killdeer, one of the few that’s still sticking around despite the cold. Moments later, it was gone, flying upstream with its distinctive flight call and drawing our attention to the skies.

Killdeer Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500@500mm 1/1250sec., ƒ/6.3, ISO 1250

Killdeer
Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500@500mm
1/1250sec., ƒ/6.3, ISO 1250

As its flight call moved into the distance, our attention was drawn to not one, but two Bald Eagles in a nearby tree, watching over the waterfowl on the river, trying to identify any of them that might be injured or otherwise unable to escape the talons of these large, powerful raptors.

female Bald Eagle Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500@500mm 1/800sec., ƒ/6.3, ISO 320

female Bald Eagle
Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500@500mm
1/800sec., ƒ/6.3, ISO 320

female (left) and male (right) Bald Eagles Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500@340mm 1/1250sec., ƒ/6.3, ISO 400

female (left) and male (right) Bald Eagles
Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500@340mm
1/1250sec., ƒ/6.3, ISO 400

Soon enough, the two Bald Eagles flew off in search of their next meal, flushing up hundreds of ducks in all directions, and making a perfect end to another eventful and exciting morning in Fish Creek Provincial Park!

Have a great week, and good birding!

Wednesday Wings: World Shorebirds Day (and other days!) at Weed Lake

Posted by Dan Arndt

 

Shorebirds are my thing. I love watching flocks of them wheel and turn in flocks of tens, hundreds, and even thousands at a time, so when I heard about the initiative of World Shorebirds Day, I immediately signed up for a few sites at one of my favourite shorebirding locations just outside the city. Leading up to it, there had been some great sightings of somewhat uncommon birds, and between July 29th and September 6th, I probably spent at least one day a week visiting it for at least a few minutes.

Killdeer Weed Lake July 29, 2014

Killdeer
Weed Lake
July 29, 2014

Early on, the usual shorebirds that breed in and around Calgary were abundant and relatively easy to find. Killdeer, Wilson’s Phalarope, Willets, Black-necked Stilts, American Avocets and Spotted Sandpipers were everywhere, but as migration ramped up into mid-August, the shorebirding really began heating up.  The first Black-bellied Plovers were seen in early August, and by August 10th, just about every species of shorebird we can expect to move through the Calgary area was there to be counted!

Lesser Yellowlegs Weed Lake August 10, 2014

Lesser Yellowlegs
Weed Lake
August 10, 2014

Semipalmated Plover Weed Lake August 10, 2014

Semipalmated Plover
Weed Lake
August 10, 2014

So many shorebirds! Weed Lake August 10, 2014

So many shorebirds!
Weed Lake
August 10, 2014

Baird's Sandpipers Weed Lake August 10, 2014

Baird’s Sandpipers
Weed Lake
August 10, 2014

A trio of Ruddy Turnstones showed up at the lake in late August, and on my scouting weekend they turned up and I had a chance to get relatively close looks at them. One of the more colorful shorebirds that we get around here, I think!

Ruddy Turnstones Weed Lake August 30, 2014

Ruddy Turnstones
Weed Lake
August 30, 2014

Ruddy Turnstones Weed Lake August 30, 2014

Ruddy Turnstones
Weed Lake
August 30, 2014

Willet Weed Lake August 30, 2014

Willet
Weed Lake
August 30, 2014

And if you ever need some sense of scale for some of these small but powerful fliers, my current phone is roughly the same size as a Semipalmated Sandpiper. I’m not quite sure what caused the demise of this little fellow, but in the wild there are so many more things to be worried about than just predators. Disease, untreated injuries, or even simple medical anomalies can bring natural selection into play.

Unfortunate Semipalmated Sandpiper Weed Lake August 30, 2014

Unfortunate Semipalmated Sandpiper
Weed Lake
August 30, 2014

And finally, after months of anticipation, the magical day arrived. Sadly the big numbers of shorebirds were nowhere to be found, though I did still get some good finds on the day!

American Avocet clearing its throat Weed Lake September 6, 2014

American Avocet clearing its throat
Weed Lake
September 6, 2014

Semipalmated and Least Sandpipers taking off Weed Lake September 6, 2014

Semipalmated and Least Sandpipers taking off
Weed Lake
September 6, 2014

Stilt Sandpipers and California Gull Weed Lake September 6, 2014

Stilt Sandpipers and California Gull
Weed Lake
September 6, 2014

Pectoral Sandpiper Weed Lake September 6, 2014

Pectoral Sandpiper
Weed Lake
September 6, 2014

Oh yeah, and I mentioned predators before, didn’t I? A pair of beautiful Peregrine Falcons were doing a great job of scattering the shorebirds that had stuck around. One of them even managed to snag a distant Lesser Yellowlegs while we watched on, and its mate gave us some good fly-bys as well!

Peregrine Falcon Weed Lake September 6, 2014

Peregrine Falcon
Weed Lake
September 6, 2014

Thanks for reading, and good birding!

Travel Tuesday: The Road Less Travelled at Frank Lake – Part 1

As you no doubt have realized by now, not only do I love shorebirds, but I also love Frank Lake. Today’s post is here to highlight not only the photos that I’ve taken at Frank Lake already this year, but also some areas that may be a little bit less familiar to the visitors to the Ducks Unlimited Protected Wetland just 50km SE of Calgary.

 

Frank Lake

Frank Lake

Of course everyone knows what great shots you can get just sitting at the established viewing blind, or on the mudflats around the parking loop at the end of the road at the main basin. For instance, Ruddy Ducks, Eared Grebes, and even Western Grebes can be regularly seen within a few meters of the main blind.

Western Grebe and young Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500@500mm 1/1250sec., ƒ/8.0, ISO 640

Western Grebe and young
Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500@500mm
1/1250sec., ƒ/8.0, ISO 640

eared grebe

Eared Grebe
Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500@500mm
1/1000sec., ƒ/8.0, ISO 800

female Ruddy

female Ruddy Duck
Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500@500mm
1/1000sec., ƒ/6.3, ISO 800

There are a couple of other places along the main access road that are good for shorebirds, Common Yellowthroat, White-faced Ibis, and even Black-crowned Night Herons. The first, labelled (1) on the map, is just east of the water inflow canal. The nutrients in the water provide a huge volume of nutrients in suspension to feed insects, plants, algae, and even shorebirds who eat small particulate food. Here are a few of the species that can often be found at this location in the summer.

Long-billed Dowitchers Frank Lake - September 12, 2013 Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500 + Tamron 1.4x Teleconverter 1/1000sec., ƒ/6.3, ISO 400

Long-billed Dowitchers
Frank Lake – September 12, 2013
Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500 + Tamron 1.4x Teleconverter
1/1000sec., ƒ/6.3, ISO 400

 

Common Yellowthroat Frank Lake - September 12, 2013 Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500 + Tamron 1.4x Teleconverter 1/500sec., ƒ/6.3, ISO 500

Common Yellowthroat
Frank Lake – September 12, 2013
Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500 + Tamron 1.4x Teleconverter
1/500sec., ƒ/6.3, ISO 500

American Avocets Frank Lake - September 12, 2013 Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500 + Tamron 1.4x Teleconverter 1/1000sec., ƒ/6.3, ISO 400

American Avocets
Frank Lake – September 12, 2013
Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500 + Tamron 1.4x Teleconverter
1/1000sec., ƒ/6.3, ISO 400

 

Wilson's Snipe Frank Lake - September 12, 2013 Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500 1/640sec., ƒ/6.3, ISO 800

Wilson’s Snipe
Frank Lake – August 23, 2013
Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500
1/640sec., ƒ/6.3, ISO 800

 

Great Blue Heron Frank Lake - August 23, 2013 Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500 1/640sec., ƒ/6.3, ISO 800

Great Blue Heron
Frank Lake – August 23, 2013
Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500
1/640sec., ƒ/6.3, ISO 800

These are just a few of the areas off the beaten path at Frank Lake. With waterfowl hunting season opening on September 8, and the main gate being locked, there are a few other access points at Frank Lake that might be a bit better for drive-up birding. Check in next week for part 2 of this series on Frank Lake!

Wednesday Wings: Chasing Rarities – Purple Sandpiper – First Alberta Record

Posted by Dan Arndt

Local photographer Eddy Matoud stumbled across this incredibly rare bird on Thursday, May 9. Once the dust had settled and it had been positively identified as a Purple Sandpiper, I knew I couldn’t miss my chance to see this bird for myself. Late Friday afternoon I headed down to Inglewood Bird Sanctuary where Eddy had found it the first time, and spent about an hour photographing it, digiscoping it, and just observing its behaviour. Sadly, it was gone the very next day, disappointing many who had gone out early in the weekend in hopes to see it.

Enjoy the photos!

purple sand16

Purple Sandpiper – a very rare visitor

purple sand15

At least there’s plenty of food around for it.

purple sand14

Splish splash

purple sand13

Drying off the wings

purple sand11

Now that’s a stretch.

purple sand12

Don’t shoot! I’m unarmed!

purple sand10

Streeeeetch!

purple sand9

Fetch, Piper, fetch! Good bird!

purple sand4

Another light snack

purple sand2

Migration is a hungry task.

purple sand6

What are YOU looking at?

purple sand3

Yep, still here.

purple sand7

What do you mean “lost”? I know exactly where I am…

purple sand8

No, that’s not an egg.

purple sand5

K, bye!

 

Postcards from Mexico – Calgary Birds on their wintering grounds

Posted by Dan Arndt

While on vacation, I had planned to look for some of our old favourites from Calgary who might also be down here enjoying the warm weather for the winter. Thankfully, I wasn’t disappointed. I was a little surprised though at just what species I did find down here, and which ones I expected to find, and didn’t.

I do want to clarify too, that many of these birds spend all year long down here, but their range extends all the way back home to Calgary, which, as the crow flies, is about 4100 km. Quite staggering, when you consider that many of them make the migration from Calgary to this part of the world with very few stops for food or shelter.

Here are just a few of our fine feathered friends enjoying the sun, sand, and tequila down here in Mexico!

Belted Kingfisher

Belted Kingfisher

Gray Catbird

Gray Catbird

American Coot

American Coot

Double-crested Cormorant

Double-crested Cormorant

Eurasian Collared Dove

Eurasian Collared Dove

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

American Redstart

American Redstart

Sanderling

Sanderling

Northern Waterthrush

Northern Waterthrush

American White Pelican and Peeps

American White Pelican and Peeps (along with a couple cormorants and Brown Pelicans)

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Yellow Warbler

Yellow Warbler

Least Sandpiper

Least Sandpiper

Spotted Sandpiper

Spotted Sandpiper

Friends of Fish Creek Birding Course – Week 6 – Western Headworks Pathway

Posted by Dan Arndt

Another week, another great week of birding one of the incredible natural areas of Calgary. This time we headed down the Western Headworks Pathway, one of the primary irrigation canals of the Bow River, which extends all the way to Chestermere Lake and provides water to farms even further east and south from Calgary. Our walk took us from just south of 17th Avenue SE all the way to 50th Avenue SE and back again, all the while keeping us incredibly close to the birds and allowing for some decent shots despite the gray, gloomy skies and incredibly poor light all morning long.

One of the best sightings early on were this pair of Yellowlegs, one Greater and one Lesser, showing off the differences in overall body size, bill shape, and bill length.

Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs

Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs

Greater Yellowlegs

Greater Yellowlegs

Shortly after that we came across a large mixed flock of Mallards, Northern Shovelers, Green-winged Teal, and even a lone Northern Pintail was in the mix!

female Northern Shoveler

female Northern Shoveler

A constant reminder of just how close to the Bow River we were was the nearly incessant flocks of gulls, ducks, and even one large flock of nearly forty female and juvenile Common Mergansers.

female Common Mergansers

female Common Mergansers

One raft of Mallards seemed to weave in and out of a flock of American Wigeon and even involved a few Hooded Mergansers, but this lone Pied-billed Grebe nearly escaped our notice hidden amongst some vegetation.

Pied-billed Grebe

Pied-billed Grebe

female Hooded Merganser

female Hooded Merganser

male Hooded Merganser

male Hooded Merganser

At least two of the male American Wigeon were in full breeding plumage, but instead of the usual white crown on the bird, these Wigeon had yellowish crowns. Very strange.

American Wigeon

American Wigeon

Another bonus bird that hasn’t been seen on many of our walks for the past year are these Eurasian Collared Doves. While common in residential neighbourhoods, they aren’t often found in the usual spate of parks the Friends of Fish Creek courses will visit.

Eurasian Collared Doves

Eurasian Collared Doves

In contrast, these Rock Pigeons, while posing beautifully on a train bridge, are as common as, well, Rock Pigeons on our walks.

Rock Pigeons

Rock Pigeons

At the far south end of the walk we found our first Killdeer of the day, well hidden amongst the gravel and vegetation on the shore.

Killdeer

Killdeer

Our walk back was essenially better looks at many of the same birds, and as we came up alongside the Hooded Mergansers, something spooked them and flushed them up off the canal.

male Hooded Merganser taking off

male Hooded Merganser taking off

Travel Tuesday – Elk Island National Park

Posted by Dan Arndt

While this blog usually focuses on the birds in and around Calgary, many folks travel for work, for pleasure, or just to see new great birds in other areas of the province. In the last year, I’ve been up to Elk Island National Park twice, and each time has been absolutely amazing. I look forward to my next visit, and hope it’ll be sooner than next summer, but time is always fleeting and it can be hard to justify a trip without other things to do up there. Plus, with the Friends of Fish Creek Autumn Birding Course starting up in a few weeks, many of my weekends are spoken for!

The Beaver Hills region of Alberta, which includes Elk Island National Park, are a unique topographical area formed by the retreat of the glaciers at the end of the last ice age. As they melted and stagnated, they formed what is known as “kame and kettle topography”. Why is this important to birds, you might ask? These kettle lakes are home to tens of thousands of gulls, shorebirds, and a water source for the surrounding boreal forest that established along the top of the “kames” which are regional topographical highs. In many cases, these are up to a hundred meters higher than the surrounding landscape, and gently sloped on either edge, forming something similar to the foothills style landscape that we’re so used to around Calgary.

Over Heritage Day long weekend, we spent three days up there relaxing by the lake, enjoying the calm, serene waters, and weathering the sometimes frighteningly extreme weather.

Storm over Astotin Lake

This storm cell over Astotin Lake was so severe that we were asked to evacuate our campsite and take shelter in our vehicle.

Thankfully, the weather lightened up over the next two days allowing for some good sightings of some beautiful and amazing birds, some of which paid us many visits at our campsite over the weekend. This juvenile Yellow-bellied Sapsucker was part of a family group that spent every day in the trees nearby.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Western Tanagers are some of the most colourful birds we get in Calgary, and it was great to find not one but two breeding groups on hiking trails in the park.

Western Tanager

Western Tanager

The main campground is located a stone’s throw from Astotin Lake, which is home to dozens of Red-necked Grebes. Last year, there must have been nearly two-hundred just near the shoreline in late September, but this year, since it was a bit earlier, the numbers weren’t quite so high. The population was still healthy this August, as this adult shows.

Red-necked Grebe

A Red-necked Grebe finds his favourite fish breakfast.

Shorebirds were present in small numbers as well, though I would expect by this time, their numbers are much higher, and will continue to climb until late September as migration steps on its perpetual course. A few Semipalmated Sandpipers and Least Sandpipers seemed to be flocking with, and stalking, this Long-billed Dowitcher, who in turn followed around a Greater Yellowlegs every time it was startled and flew off in another direction.

Long-billed Dowitcher

Long-billed Dowitcher

Greater Yellowlegs

Greater Yellowlegs

Semipalmated Sandpipers (centre, left) and Least Sandpiper (front right).

One of my favourite shorebirds was present on the shores of Astotin Lake, and seemed to be the mother (or maybe father?) of at least three juveniles that tentatively poked their heads out of the long grasses every few minutes. This Killdeer kept a wary eye on me and would fly away any time I moved toward it, or toward the young ones, so I simply sat on a picnic table and waited for him to come to me.

Killdeer

Killdeer

Some of the other birds present in good numbers were a couple of flocks of American White Pelicans, Song Sparrows, and even a few Eastern Phoebe made their presence known.

American White Pelican

American White Pelican

Evil Phoebe

This Eastern Phoebe looks downright evil with the flash reflection in its eye!

By far though, the flocks that outnumbered all other birds combined were the huge numbers of Barn Swallows swarming over the lakes, and the massive flocks of Franklins and Bonaparte’s gulls, both quickly losing their breeding plumage and entering their winter molts.

Mostly Bonaparte’s Gulls with a few Franklin’s Gulls thrown in just to make things interesting (and confusing!).

 

Good birding!