Q & A: Odd-looking Birds on the Light Standards

By Bob Lefebvre

Here at the Birds Calgary blog, we receive a lot of questions from bird-friendly folks throughout the province. We are sharing some of them with our readers as just another way to spread bird knowledge. 

If you have a question, email us at  We may post your question and our answer.  We won’t print your name or email address without permission.

Here’s a question we received last September, but which is relevant again this year.

Q:  Hi.  There are birds that sit on the light standards on 16th Ave NE over the tracks alongside Deerfoot Trail.  They appear to be sleeping when I drive by at 8 AM, I am curious to know what they are.  There have been 2 or 3 on the westbound side and usually one on the eastbound side.  Thanks.

A: It’s hard to say what they are without some idea of the size, shape, or colour of the birds.  But I’m familiar with the area, and I think you might be referring to the “odd” birds that are sometimes seen there, which look long, slim, long-necked, and black.  If so, those are Double-crested Cormorants.  Their silhouette looks like this (photo taken in Fish Creek Park last week [September 2011]):

In better light they look like this, also taken last week [September 2011]:

Double-crested Cormorants are waterbirds that dive for fish and crustaceans.  They are often seen holding their wings out to dry off after a dive.  There are quite a few in the area of the weir on the Bow River, but they will soon be heading south.

Q: It’s definitely the Cormorants – last year there was just one, but now there are 2 or 3 on the westbound side and one on the eastbound side of 16th. They are always there in the morning but not always on my way home at 4:30. It’s quite high up so I can’t see much details from the car but definitely have the yellow beak and dark feathers.

(Note: In the past three weeks I have been seeing up to 35 cormorants in the area of Harvie Passage (the old weir on the Bow River) often perched in trees or on light standards along Deerfoot Trail.)

Canadian Lakes Loon Survey

Common Loons have returned to Canadian lakes for another nesting season. Hundreds of volunteers for Bird Studies Canada’s Canadian Lakes Loon Survey are also returning to their lakes – to monitor Common Loons, and to educate lake users on loon and lake conservation.

With more than 80% of the world’s Common Loon population breeding in our country, Canadians have a critical role to play in conserving and monitoring loons. Each summer, volunteers participate in the Canadian Lakes Loon Survey ( Surveyors monitor loons’ breeding success, and undertake conservation activities to help protect wildlife, waterbirds, and especially loons (which build their nests very close to the water’s edge) on Canadian lakes.

Photo by Bob Lefebvre

Bird Studies Canada is extremely grateful to all loon surveyors for their outstanding work. BSC staff are currently analyzing the 30+ years of loon survey data for an upcoming report. The results are impressive: more than 4500 lakes have been surveyed for at least one year, with an average of over 500 lakes surveyed each year, between 1981 and 2011. This translates into information for nearly 19,000 breeding attempts by pairs, enabling scientists to detect trends in the numbers of chicks produced over time. This large and extremely useful dataset would not exist without the valued help of Canadian Lakes Loon Survey participants. Bird Studies Canada is eager to share the report later this year, and to say a big “Thank You!” to all the volunteers who have helped support loon conservation over the last three decades.

Survey Participants Needed

Even with more than 600 participants nationwide annually, there are still many undersurveyed lakes. The Canadian Lakes Loon Survey is a great opportunity for volunteers to help lake conservation and loon research while enjoying their favourite lakes. To participate, first visit the lake map at  Note that there is only one lake in the Calgary area currently being surveyed.  There are many other lakes near the city that have breeding loons on them (if you know of one, please comment on this post to share that information).  Choose a lake that you regularly spend time on, or are able to visit three times each summer (June, July, and August).  Then register as a participating member online at For more information, contact Kathy Jones at or 1-888-448-2473 ext. 124, or visit  It’s not too late to start this year, but if you can’t begin yet, please keep this survey in mind for next summer.

Help Protect Lakes and Loons

At the lakeside, you can help breeding loons and other waterbirds by following these tips: avoid adult loons, chicks, and nests; when boating, steer clear of shoreline areas that show evidence of loon activity; keep pets leashed; and dispose of garbage properly (to prevent ingestion by loons, and to avoid feeding nest predators such as gulls and raccoons).

The Canadian Lakes Loon Survey is a self-supporting program, so participants need to purchase a Bird Studies Canada membership. Membership fees cover the costs of materials, data processing and management, and program administration. Additional costs, such as special reports, educational materials, and program outreach are covered by other funding sources. Special thanks to TD Friends of the Environment Foundation and the Kenneth M. Molson Foundation for supporting 2012 outreach and educational activities and the 2012 report.

Bird Studies Canada ( administers regional, national, and international research and monitoring programs that advance the understanding, appreciation, and conservation of wild birds and their habitats. We are Canada’s national body for bird conservation and science, and we are a non-governmental charitable organization.

For further information contact:

Kathy Jones, Canadian Lakes Loon Survey Volunteer Coordinator

Bird Studies Canada

519-586-3531 ext. 124

Birds Calgary blogger Bob Lefebvre is a participant in the Canadian Lakes Loon Survey. You can read his posts from last year at Loon Survey #1, Loon Survey #2 and Loon Survey #3. 

Wednesday Wings: Tree Geese

A blast of summer among the snowy owls and redpolls! Rob English has sent us some Canada Geese photos that are not your usual view of these birds. He says “This was new to me as I’d seen them in poplars but never  fir trees.  They were scrapping over some old magpie nest they wanted for a perch and were really causing a commotion until the one drove the other off and it went to another fir tree about 25 yards away. I took these shots in Carburn Park last May.”

Birds of Elliston Lake

A little-known gem in the city is Elliston Lake, a stormwater pond at the east end of 17th Avenue SE.   It is the second-largest body of water (after Glenmore Reservoir) in Calgary.  At times it can harbour an impressive array of waterfowl, as well as some interesting mammals. (Click on pictures to enlarge them.)

Photo by Dan Arndt

When the Friends of Fish Creek group went there last Saturday, the lake was mostly frozen over, but there were still several thousand waterfowl on the few open areas.  (The northeast corner of the lake usually has some open water all winter.)

 The north half of Elliston Lake, looking west.

From 17th Avenue SE, turn south on 60th Street to access the parking lot.

The action actually started before we even got to the parking lot – a Merlin was feeding on a Rock Pigeon on the roadway.  I got a poor shot through the car windshield.

There was quite a bit of traffic, so it abandoned the pigeon and landed on a nearby pole.

Photo by Dan Arndt

A few minutes later we saw the Merlin attack a flock of pigeons above 17th Avenue.

Almost as soon as we started the circuit of the lake, someone spotted a Red Fox out on the ice.

Later, we saw the fox check the shoreline for disabled waterfowl, but it came up empty.

Photo by Dan Arndt

The birds didn’t seem to mind the fox much; they just moved away from the shore.

A close inspection of the masses of Canada Geese and Mallards turned up some interesting birds:

Northern Shoveller (rear centre)

The next picture highlights the size difference between a Green-winged Teal and a Mallard, and shows off the brilliant colour in the teal’s speculum.

Photo by Dan Arndt

A juvenile Barrow’s Goldeneye (below, rear) is identified by having a steeper forehead and shorter bill than the Common Goldeneyes.

Many of the Canada Geese on the lake belonged to one of the small, short-necked subspecies, but there was one goose in among them that was smaller yet – only slightly bigger than a Mallard.  At first I thought it might be a Cackling Goose, but those are Mallard-sized and have a very stubby bill.  This goose (lower centre) is just a very small subspecies of Canada Goose.  Compare it to the Mallards just behind it.

Here is a Gadwall (rear):

There were a few Ring-necked Ducks:

Below are two Ring-necked Ducks (right foreground) with Lesser Scaup:

This Lesser Scaup landed on the ice and tried to walk back to the open water, but slipped…

…so he just gave up and sat down.

We also saw some Common Redpolls feeding on birch seeds:

Photo by Dan Arndt

Photo by Dan Arndt

Two Rough-legged Hawks flew over, the second one chased by a Common Raven:

Photo by Dan Arndt

Near the end of our tour, some Canada Geese walked out on the ice, then flew off…

To see more of Dan Arndt’s photos, check his Flickr page at

Posted by Bob Lefebvre

Loon Survey, Part Three

It’s high time I updated the Loon Survey I did for Bird Studies Canada this past summer. You can read about the survey, and see pictures of the eggs, fledglings, and adult loons, on my previous posts: Loon Survey, Part One, and Loon Survey, Part Two.

In late August I returned to Leisure Lake, near Bragg Creek, to check on the Common Loon family.  The purpose of the third visit, late in the season, is to see if the young loons have survived.  Like all birds, loons have a high rate of mortality among fledglings.

I was happy to find that the two young, still in their brown plumage, were doing well.  They were starting to look like adults. (Click on any picture to enlarge it.)

  Juvenile Common Loon, about two months old.

The two juveniles with an adult.

However, despite making a long slow circuit of the entire lake, I only saw one of the parent loons.  I thought that perhaps one of the adults was hiding on shore somewhere, but I’ve been told that loons are so ungainly on land that they only go ashore to incubate their eggs.  It’s possible that it was in the reeds somewhere and I missed it, but that seems unlikely.  Perhaps one of the adults departed for the wintering grounds earlier than the other adult and the young.  I don’t know if they normally do that or if they all leave together.  The other possibility is that the missing adult succumbed to disease or a predator.  It will be interesting to see what happens there next spring.

If you want to participate in the Canadian Lakes Loon Survey, there are plenty of unmonitored lakes with loons on them.  Contact Bird Studies Canada for more information.  Here is a link to the Canadian Lakes Loon Survey page.

Posted by Bob Lefebvre

Nothing But Shoreline

The irrigation canal in southeast Calgary is drained in late September, and as the water level drops, it exposes lush shorelines with plenty for the birds to eat.  From mid-September to freeze-up is the time to get out to look for waterfowl, gulls, and late migrating shorebirds.

Fall colours reflected in the remaining water

I usually explore the sections from the canal headworks near the Max Bell Arena to south of 50 Avenue SE.  There are four parking areas, and you can go up and down a portion of the canal from each one.  It’s a long walk to do it all at once, but a fairly short bike ride.

Click to enlarge the map.

Max Bell Arena:  Access from Barlow Trail SE, just south of Memorial Drive.  There is a large parking lot north of the arena, and you can walk down to the canal headworks from there, and walk along the east bank.  If you want to get to the west bank, you have to cross over at the 17 Avenue SE bridge.

Bow Waters Canoe Club:   Access is off 26 Street SE, just south of 17 Avenue.  Cross the bridge to get to the paths on the west side.  The path on the east side between here and Gosling Way has some steep, difficult terrain, and it is almost impassable by bike.  This lot is fairly secluded and I don’t like to leave my vehicle there.  I prefer Max Bell or Gosling Way.

Gosling Way:  Go west off 26 Street SE at 34 Avenue.  This is the road that goes to the Inglewood Golf and Curling Club.  The parking lot, used by off-leash dog walkers, is just west of the bridge over Deerfoot trail, on the south side of Gosling Way.  It only holds about ten vehicles.  From this lot, walk down to the bridge over the canal and take the paths from there.  In the winter, you can also park at the golf and curling club, but it is a bit of a walk back to the canal.

50 Avenue SE:  It is difficult to park here.  There are only two small spots, each with room for two cars,  at the east end of the bridge over the canal.  It can also be a very busy road, so I avoid parking here as well, and usually just walk from Gosling Way.

The canal has a paved path on one side (sometimes on the east, sometimes on the west) and a dirt or gravel path of sorts on the other side.  I like to go on the east side in the mornings and on the west side in the afternoons, to keep the sun behind me.  This late in the year, the water is usually frozen in the mornings, so there are few birds around.  But on warm afternoons the ice melts, and the birds arrive.

Muskrat and female Hooded Merganser

Detail of Gosling Way Parking.  Click to enlarge.

Looking south from Gosling Way.

Looking north to the bridge on Gosling Way.

Pat and I have each posted about birding the canal before.  You can see Pat’s post here, and my post here.

Lately I’ve seen quite a few Canada Geese, Mallards, and Ring-billed Gulls, and a few Hooded Mergansers, Common Goldeneyes, and Greater Yellowlegs.  In past years I’ve seen Redheads, Blue-winged Teal, Killdeer, Long-billed Dowitchers, and Rusty Blackbirds all feeding along the shorelines.

Mallards and an assortment of Yellowlegs.

Muskrat and Mallard sharing the Muskrat’s lodge.  Background by Monet.

A Black-billed Magpie looks for food on the old canal bottom.

Posted by Bob Lefebvre


Digiscoping is the activity of combining a digital camera with a spotting scope to record images through the scope.  Anyone who has ever looked through a good scope knows how impressive they are at turning distant specks that can’t be identified, even with binoculars, into sharply defined birds.  The combination of big lenses and up to 60X magnification really brings faraway objects into close focus.  Scopes are especially useful for waterfowl far out on lakes, and shorebirds on distant shorelines.

Today’s post features some wonderful photographs taken using digiscoping by local birder and photographer Daniel Arndt.

Eared Grebe and juvenile, by Dan Arndt

Digiscoping can be done with any point-and-shoot or SLR camera (or even a camera phone) coupled with any scope or binocular, but it can very tricky to get to good quality pictures by just holding the two together.  Here is a White-crowned Sparrow I photographed in my yard this week, using my camera phone held up to my 8X42 binoculars:

It’s very hard to tell when you have the shot in focus.  It’s even hard to get on the bird!  You get a better shot with just a good camera:

The same bird, from the same distance, taken with an SLR and 400 mm lens.  Note the leg band.

Here is another shot I took (in the winter) of a House Finch, using a point-and-shoot camera held up to my spotting scope.

However, the birds in these examples were only about twenty feet away.  I could identify them with the naked eye.  If you are dealing with distant waterfowl and shorebirds, the thing to do to get good photographs is to get an adapter that fixes your camera to the scope.  Dan Arndt’s outfit, pictured below, consists of :

Pentax K-5 camera with T-mount adapter
Meade ETX-90EC 90mm Matsukov-Cassegrain Telescope
Meade #844 Advanced Field Tripod
Meade Electronic Focuser
Meade MT-64 Camera Adapter
Pentax 39892 Waterproof Remote Shutter Release

Photo by Dan Arndt

Here are some of the amazing photos Dan took this summer at Frank Lake using his digiscoping rig.

White-faced Ibis with juvenile, and American Golden-Plover, by Dan Arndt

Lesser Yellowlegs by Dan Arndt

American Avocet by Dan Arndt

Black Tern by Dan Arndt

Black-crowned Night-Herons by Dan Arndt

American Golden-Plovers by Dan Arndt

You can see all of Dan’s digiscoping pictures on his Flickr page here, and while you’re there, explore all of his other excellent photographs as well.

Posted by Bob Lefebvre

Shepard Slough Survey

Alberta Environment is conducting an online survey to help determine the future development or preservation of the Shepard Slough and surrounding wetlands, including the new Ralph Klein Park, in SE Calgary. These wetlands are important stopover points for migrating shorebirds and waterfowl. Shepard Slough is the best shorebird habitat within the city of Calgary, and it is vitally important that we birders make our voices heard if we want to preserve it. Please fill out the survey form and have your say in conserving these valuable resources.

Below is the introductory article from the Alberta Environment site.

Why Study Ecosystem Services

As part of its Ecosystem Services (ES) Program, Alberta Environment has undertaken an ecosystem services approach pilot project on wetlands in the greater Shepard Slough area of east Calgary/Rocky View County. This region provides many recreation and education opportunities to people such as birding, nature walking, and field trips to the region. The Ecosystem Services Pilot project in will provide tool(s) to enhance decision making in order to:

  • Test and determine how the approach can be used to help inform tradeoffs between development and the benefits provided by wetlands;
  • Explore ways to provide a broader suite of social, economic and environmental perspectives to information land-use decision making; and
  • Examine the largely unrecognized but important benefits that society receives from nature.

The study is part of a larger transition to a cumulative effects management system and will help ensure informed and robust decision-making.

Once the pilot is complete, we will have a better understanding of how to use the ecosystem services approach and where the approach could be applied to support Alberta Environment priorities.

To better understand the recreation and education benefits enjoyed in the Shepard Slough area, a survey of recreation participation is being conducted. Through this survey, valuable information will be collected including travel distances, costs of travel, and types of activities preferred by users. Anyone that enjoys visiting wetlands in the Shepard Slough, including Ralph Klein Park, for recreation and education purposes is encouraged to complete the survey.

Information brochures about the study are available at Ralph Klein Park, or via the attached PDF below. The survey can be completed by selecting the survey link below.

Thank you to all participants. Your contribution is greatly appreciated

To go to the site, click here.

To go to the survey, click here.

Posted by Bob Lefebvre


Who ever said birds were stupid? They were quite wrong. Many birds are quite intelligent and we get a fine chance to observe this intelligence in the migration of geese.

Everybody can associate geese flying in a ‘V’ formation with fall; the geese head south for the winter and are most often seen flying this way. Down here in Texas, we can often see Cattle Egrets flying this way, demonstrating their often overlooked wisdom. There is actually an intelligent method behind this flight, showing us that birds are smarter than we think.

Birds fly in a ‘V’ to save energy; by traveling this way, they render themselves as a group, more aerodynamic. If these birds were to fly in an unorganized group, flying would be a lot harder. Picture it this way; which car is more aerodynamic, a sports car or a dump truck? The sports car is by far the more aerodynamic of the two, its sleek form enabling it to reduce drag, therefore allowing it to go faster. When the geese and the egrets fly this way, they render themselves more aerodynamic, reducing the wind they have going against themselves and therefore applying less energy into flying. The bird flying at the point of the V though, has all the wind going against him, however this is not permanent. Studies have shown that after flying at the point for some time, upon becoming tired, the lead bird will drop to the back where flying is the easiest, and take a well-deserved break. This just goes to show that birds are a lot smarter than we think.

Posted by Matthew Sim