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Expecting the unexpected in the Weaselhead

Posted by Dan Arndt

My first visit back to the Weaselhead Nature Area since the Christmas Bird Count in mid-December turned up a much different array of birds. I always seem to find that birding in the Weaselhead, no matter the time of year, comes in fits and starts. In the winter, this is even more pronounced, as there were times where we’d walked for twenty minutes between running into any birds whatsoever, let alone anything less common than a Black-capped Chickadee.

Weaselhead Nature Area February 2, 2014

Weaselhead Nature Area
February 2, 2014

Maybe it’s the abundance of birds at the start and at the end of this walk that sets the tone for the outings here. The first set of feeders were being visited by the usual Black-capped Chickadees, but with them were a trio of Downy Woodpeckers, a male and female Hairy Woodpecker, and half a dozen amorous House Finches, feeding and singing up a storm.

House Finch Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500@500mm 1/640sec., ƒ/6.3, ISO 1600

House Finch (male)
Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500@500mm
1/640sec., ƒ/6.3, ISO 1600

House Finch Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500@500mm 1/640sec., ƒ/6.3, ISO 1600

House Finch (male)
Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500@500mm
1/640sec., ƒ/6.3, ISO 1600

It was quite a sight to watch the female Hairy Woodpecker pick out a seed from the feeder…

Hairy Woodpecker (female) Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500@500mm 1/500sec., ƒ/6.3, ISO 1600

Hairy Woodpecker (female)
Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500@500mm
1/500sec., ƒ/6.3, ISO 1600

… and then climb up the tree a short way, place the sunflower seed into the hole, and crack it open with a few rapid taps.

Hairy Woodpecker (female) Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500@500mm 1/500sec., ƒ/6.3, ISO 1600

Hairy Woodpecker (female)
Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500@500mm
1/500sec., ƒ/6.3, ISO 1600

On our first pass of the feeders at the bottom of the hill, our only real bird of note was this White-breasted Nuthatch, “hank, hank, hank”ing away for no apparent reason, until a second male came into view before the two of them flew off in a scuffle.

White-breasted Nuthatch Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500@500mm 1/640sec., ƒ/6.3, ISO 1600

White-breasted Nuthatch
Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500@500mm
1/640sec., ƒ/6.3, ISO 1600

While we headed from there to our usual Boreal Chickadee grove, flock after flock of Bohemian Waxwings flew overhead, and we even had a pair of chance sightings of a Bald Eagle, and then a few minutes later, a Rough-legged Hawk, which bulked up our species count just a bit more for the day.

Upon arriving at the grove, Bob stopped the group abruptly to point out a single Brown Creeper feeding at the base of one of the larger spruce trees and I snapped off a couple of photos of this elusive species. I suppose like most of the other birds we found today, these birds simply don’t care what a groundhog says about the season, they know that it’s time to breed soon, and they need to collect their energy before things get into full swing!

Brown Creeper Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500@500mm 1/640sec., ƒ/6.3, ISO 1600

Brown Creeper
Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500@500mm
1/640sec., ƒ/6.3, ISO 1600

We did also find a lone Boreal Chickadee after a few minutes of patience, but unfortunately it didn’t stick around long enough to pose for a photo. Shame!

And so began a long, quiet stretch of our walk. While we did have a few flocks of Black-capped Chickadees with the odd White- or Red-breasted Nuthatch thrown in, we observed no Northern Goshawks, no Merlins, no Cooper’s or Sharp-shinned Hawks, and the largest Bohemian Waxwing flock we found deeper into the Weaselhead was a whopping four (yes, 4) birds.

It all paid off though once we began our trip back. While I was bringing up the rear of the group, the lead observers spotted a female Pileated Woodpecker, which we had seen earlier on in the walk, but this time she was much closer. She flew back into some deadfall, out of sight, and while the rest of the group trudged on, I thought I’d try my luck photographing her.

What do you think?

Pileated Woodpecker (female) Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500@500mm 1/640sec., ƒ/6.3, ISO 1600

Pileated Woodpecker (female)
Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500@500mm
1/640sec., ƒ/6.3, ISO 1600

And closer still.

Pileated Woodpecker (female) Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500@500mm 1/640sec., ƒ/6.3, ISO 1600

Pileated Woodpecker (female)
Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500@500mm
1/640sec., ƒ/6.3, ISO 1600

By the time I reached the feeders again, the group was well ahead of me, and I wouldn’t catch up to them until we reached the end of our walk, but in the time since they had passed the lowermost feeders, a few surprises had moved in, in the form of a pair of Dark-eyed Juncos, a lone American Tree Sparrow, and a surprising first-winter White-throated Sparrow, picking through the seeds on the ground.

WT Sparrow

White-throated Sparrow
Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500@500mm
1/640sec., ƒ/6.3, ISO 1600

I didn’t tarry too long, but thought I’d pause for a moment at another of the lower feeders, as this male Downy Woodpecker obliged me with a few shots while he finished his brunch.

Downy Woodpecker (male) Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500@500mm 1/640sec., ƒ/6.3, ISO 1600

Downy Woodpecker (male)
Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500@500mm
1/640sec., ƒ/6.3, ISO 1600

All in all, another very successful day, and while the light was flat and gray, the birds were accommodating, vocal, and up to no end of entertaining antics! Next week, we head into Bebo Grove in search of the American Three-toed Woodpecker!

Have a great day, and good birding!

 

Travel Tuesday: Fall Migration in Confederation Park

Posted by Dan Arndt

 

Now here’s a post that’s a major blast from the past.

I originally started this post over a year ago, with the plan of getting out as often as I could during the height of warbler and vireo migration to the titular hotspot in the Calgary area, or at least, the one I see the largest number of people at the most often. While I didn’t get out nearly as much as I wanted last year, with my current employment situation I had more than enough time on my hands, and was out visiting Confederation Park at least three days a week for four weeks straight. While it was a lot more birding and a lot more challenging than I was prepared for, I was quite happy to nab a handful more life birds and as wide a variety of warblers and vireos as I have ever seen in my life.

Confederation Park is located between 24 Ave. & 14 St. N.W. and 30 Ave. & 10 St. N.W.. and covers over 400 acres. It contains stream channel whose banks are covered with water willow, aspen, and a wide variety of small shrubs which are perfect for insects to roost on in the evening and overnight, and even more perfect for the vireos and warblers to hunt in the early morning light. As the insects warm and begin to fly, so do the warblers, allowing brief, and rarely satisfying views of each and every one of them. Another advantage to the park is that is is a fairly continuous green belt, which is the last major park before the Bow River Valley, and following the expanses of relatively poorly vegetated communities and grassed over parks, perfect for warblers to end a night of nocturnal migration.

The attached map shows the three primary locations where the majority of the warbler activity is localized, but since they’re birds, and they do have the ability to fly, just about anywhere in the park can be a hot spot. That said, about 75-80% of all the warblers, vireos, thrushes and the like that I have seen in this park have all been at one of these three locations.

Confederation Park

Confederation Park

One major advantage to birding this area in the fall, especially during warbler migration, are the huge number of other birders around, some of which are incredibly experienced and know their warbler IDs pretty much spot on every single time. I’ve learned a lot just by tagging along with some of them on some of the more productive days!

One of the most amazing things I noted this year, while keeping track of both my own sightings and those of others, is that it appeared that just about every species that breeds in the boreal forests of Alberta, Northwest Territories, and the Yukon were found on their way through at this magical place.

Here are just a few of the warblers, vireos and sparrows that I’ve managed to find here at Confederation Park in the past few years.

Yellow-rumped Warbler - September 11, 2011 Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500@500mm 1/250sec., ƒ/8, ISO 1250

Yellow-rumped Warbler – September 11, 2011
Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500@500mm
1/250sec., ƒ/8, ISO 1250

 

White-crowned Sparrow - September 15, 2012 Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500@500mm 1/500sec., ƒ/8, ISO 800

White-crowned Sparrow – September 15, 2012
Pentax K-30 + Sigma 150-500@500mm
1/500sec., ƒ/8, ISO 800

Ruby-crowned Kinglet Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500@500mm 1/500sec., ƒ/8, ISO 800

Ruby-crowned Kinglet – September 15, 2012
Pentax K-30 + Sigma 150-500@500mm
1/500sec., ƒ/8, ISO 800

Lincoln's Sparrow - August 12, 2012 Pentax K-30 + Sigma 150-500@500mm 1/180sec., ƒ/8, ISO 800

Lincoln’s Sparrow – August 12, 2012
Pentax K-30 + Sigma 150-500@500mm
1/180sec., ƒ/8, ISO 800

Blue-headed Vireo - August 29, 2013 Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500@500mm 1/640sec., ƒ/6.3, ISO 250

Blue-headed Vireo – August 29, 2013
Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500@500mm
1/640sec., ƒ/6.3, ISO 250

Black-and-White Warblers - August 29, 2013 Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500@500mm 1/800sec., ƒ/6.3, ISO 1000

Black-and-White Warblers – August 29, 2013
Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500@500mm
1/800sec., ƒ/6.3, ISO 1000

Northern Waterthrush - August 12, 2012 Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500@500mm 1/400sec., ƒ/8, ISO 1600

Northern Waterthrush – August 12, 2012
Pentax K-30 + Sigma 150-500@500mm
1/400sec., ƒ/8, ISO 1600

Wilson's Warbler - August 29, 2013 Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500@500mm 1/640sec., ƒ/6.3, ISO 640

Wilson’s Warbler – August 29, 2013
Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500@500mm
1/640sec., ƒ/6.3, ISO 640

Warbling Vireo - August 21, 2013 Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500@500mm 1/640sec., ƒ/6.3, ISO 250

Warbling Vireo – August 21, 2013
Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500@500mm
1/640sec., ƒ/6.3, ISO 250

American Redstart Pentax K-30 + Sigma 150-500@500mm 1/640sec., ƒ/8, ISO 800

American Redstart
Pentax K-30 + Sigma 150-500@500mm
1/640sec., ƒ/8, ISO 800

 

And of course, anywhere you find small songbirds, there’s always someone looking for a quick meal.

Cooper's Hawk - August 12, 2012 Pentax K-30 + Sigma 150-500@500mm 1/250sec., ƒ/8, ISO 800

Cooper’s Hawk – August 12, 2012
Pentax K-30 + Sigma 150-500@500mm
1/250sec., ƒ/8, ISO 800

 

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.