Archives

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!

Travel Tuesday

Our travelling birders, Alan and Marg, have sent us some pictures of a species that has never appeared on the blog. They were driving along RR181 near Twp 172 when they spotted this bird.

Lark Buntings are very much a bird of the southeastern portion of the province, and breed on the native prairie grasslands. Adult males in breeding plumage are black with large white wing patches, and can’t be mistaken for any other members of the sparrow family. His bill is blueish, and the bottom mandible is paler than the top one. Adult females resemble the other brown, streaked sparrows.

You have to be fairly lucky to see these birds, and the Status of Birds In Canada explains why.

Lark Bunting populations are highly nomadic from year to year, avoiding areas of drought and seeking out areas with adequate rainfall.

This is a difficult species to survey, with populations shifting around the grasslands of North America in response to annual variations in climate. Data from the Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) in Canada show large fluctuations and it is not possible to determine the direction of the population trend. BBS data from throughout their range suggest a moderate decline since about 1970, but again, the nomadic nature of the species creates uncertainty in this trend estimate.

Because of marked fluctuations and contradications among the available data sources, it is not possible to determine the population status in Canada.

Griffith Woods – New surprises at every turn

Posted by Dan Arndt

As I wrote in my original post about Griffith Woods with the Winter Birding course,  I haven’t had much opportunity to visit this beautiful park on the edge of the city, and Sunday morning was only my second visit. The route we took this week was almost identical to the one we took in March, but the birds we saw were vastly different.

 

Griffith Woods

Griffith Woods – 5km Walking Route

We started by walking east from the parking lot, where we were inundated by a huge number of birds singing. Not only new birds for the year for many of us, but for myself at least one new life bird, and great views of others that I’d only seen in the distance or through foliage. Both White-crowned and White-throated Sparrow species were present and singing, but we also heard and saw a single male Purple Finch.

White-throated Sparrow

White-throated Sparrow

 

White-crowned Sparrow

White-crowned Sparrow

 

On the river itself, a few Spotted Sandpipers searched for food along the shore, while a pair of Belted Kingfishers patrolled the river in search of small fish.

Spotted Sandpiper

Spotted Sandpiper

Spotted Sandpiper

Spotted Sandpiper

Belted Kingfisher

Belted Kingfisher

Further east, on the banks of the large eastern ponds, we had great views of an adult and a juvenile Red-naped Sapsucker, a House Wren at the entrance of a nest hole, and a Gray Catbird who flew in for a closer inspection as we played back a recorded call.

Red-naped Sapsucker

Red-naped Sapsucker

House Wren

House Wren

 

Gray Catbird

Gray Catbird

To top off those great views, we also spotted a pair of what we identified as Least Flycatchers along the edge of the ponds before they disappeared into the deeper brush.

Least Flycatcher

Least Flycatcher

We left the ponds after searching a bit longer for some other birds that we could hear nearby, but only the briefest glimpses confirmed the songs of the Yellow Warbler, Lincoln’s and Song Sparrows, and the ever present Clay-colored Sparrows buzzed in the background.

Turning back west, we continued past the parking lot and deeper into the spruce forest of Griffith Woods, which meanders through a number of small tributary channels of the Elbow River, very small ponds and wetland areas, but is dominated by the White Spruce that make up a significant portion of the foliage. The birds were heard more than seen, and while we heard a number of Pine Siskins, White-winged Crossbills, Boreal Chickadees, and both Hairy and Downy Woodpecker species, it was hard getting our binoculars on them, let alone the camera lens!

Coming to one of the first bridges, we saw a pair of sandpipers, which initially we thought were also Spotted Sandpipers, as before, but the white breast, greenish legs, and drastically different demeanor identified them as Solitary Sandpipers, which can sometimes nest in trees, as we noticed a few minutes after this shot was taken.

Solitary Sandpiper

Solitary Sandpiper

We meandered for the next half hour with very few birds seen, but heard Chipping Sparrows, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, and what we thought was a flock of Black-capped Chickadees mobbing a predator, but turned out only to be an unusually vocal flock. A moment later, the call of the Audubon’s subspecies of Yellow-rumped Warbler was heard only a few meters away. Once again, we had great views of it as it was protective of its territory, indicating that it would very likely be breeding in the area if it can find a mate this season.

Yellow-rumped Warbler (Audubon's)

Yellow-rumped Warbler (Audubon’s subspecies)

Our last really great views were of the male Pileated Woodpecker that we originally saw back in March, once again protecting the nest hole in an abandoned power pole near the condominium complex.

Pileated Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker

On our way out, we did get one other new bird on the year in Calgary. High above us soared a juvenile Golden Eagle, with bright white patches under the wings, and that incredible golden brown hue over the rest of its body. While my camera couldn’t quite zoom in far enough to get a decent shot of it, my binoculars gave me good enough views that I’m looking forward to getting back out into the country to see these birds up close again. As for Griffith Woods, I look forward to exploring it once again this summer, and into the fall once the warblers begin heading south once again.

 

Bird Profile: Western Tanager

Posted by Matthew Sim

Each year, spring migration brings something different. The year I first bought my camera, migration brought to me several brilliant male Western Tangers. This was the first time that I was really enthusiastic about birding and, with birds like this in my backyard, it is not difficult to see why.

The Western Tanager has to be, in my honest opinion, one of the top 5 most beautiful species that we can see in Calgary. Its red, yellow and black plumage make it stand out during migration, when the trees are still bare of leaves, but be warned, once the leaves come out, this brilliant songster all but disappears into the forests, becoming rather inconspicuous despite its bright colors.

A bright-red head combined with black wings, back and tail and canary-yellow underparts and neck are what make the male so beautiful. The female, considerably duller, is green olive above and yellow below. Arriving in southern Alberta in early to mid-May (they arrive later in the month in the mountains), the Western Tanager heads to boreal and montane forests to breed. Though the species prefers coniferous and mixed forests for nesting, during migration, it frequents a wider range of forests.

The Western Tanager can be seen in the city in areas such as Bebo Grove in Fish Creek or Edworthy Park during the summer. Outside of the city, they can be seen in the mountains and in the Water Valley area, among other locations. During the month of May,you might even spot one in your own yard- they are most often seen among the higher branches of trees so remember to look up!

Did you know…

The red on the Western Tanager’s face is formed by the pigment rhodoxanthin, a pigment not usually found in birds. The other tanagers (such as the Scarlet Tanager) make the pigments that give them their bright colors however, rhodoxanthin is not manufactured by the Western Tanager  meaning that they must obtain it from the food that they eat (probably insects who in turn gain this pigment from the plants they eat).

Thousands of Snow Buntings

Snow buntings are notoriously difficult to photograph, as they’re always in motion. Duane Starr was lucky to run into thousands & thousands of them and managed to get a series of wonderful pictures of these hyperactive little birds. He says when the flock was in the air they were everywhere and when they were on the ground they were everywhere. Click here to view his snow buntings on the fence, in the air, on the ground…

My not-so-Common Redpolls

This topic has come up a lot this winter; all the wintering finches here this year. I am going to add on to this topic once again.

My yard in southeast Calgary has gathered a fairly respectable list; about 90 species of birds have visited it in the last 10 years. The Common Redpoll is on this list, having been seen in my yard once in 2009 for all of about 10 seconds. For whatever reason, my community is not favored by redpolls. This year, though, they were everywhere, including my yard.

On December 23, I had a redpoll in my yard for almost half an hour. And not only was it in my yard, but it visited my feeders as well.

We have been seeing so many finches this winter likely because it is an irruption year; a year when food sources (such as catkins and cone crops for finches and lemmings for Snowy Owls) are hard come by on these birds’ normal wintering grounds.

It’s neat for me to be able to see birds I don’t usually see in my backyard, such as the not-so-Common ( in my neighborhood) Redpoll.

Posted by Matthew Sim

Sunday Showcase: Pine Grosbeaks

Rob English took these shots in December right outside his house, resulting in some great pics and a life bird for himself!  Rob says, “the pictures on the ground are of one who had crashed into the neighbor’s window. The first one is right after she hit and the last one was just before she was flying again. I watched her for about 45 minutes before she flew just to make sure the cats didn’t get her. The robin was hanging out in the tree with these guys. There must have been about 15 female grosbeaks and only one male.” Click to enlarge.

Christmas Bird Count (CBC) on CBC

Coordinating all the people and data for the Christmas Bird Count is a tremendous undertaking, and we thank  Phil Cram for his dedication to the birds.

On Thursday Dec 22, Phil will be talking about the Calgary count with David Gray on the CBC Eyeopener show. Tune in to CBC Radio One at 6:40 in the morning – start your day with bird thoughts and discussion.

Update to the Christmas Bird Count

While my Common Grackle didn’t show up on Sunday, he obligingly visited my feeders on Tuesday Dec 20, so he did make it into count week!

Posted by Pat Bumstead