Tag Archive | birds calgary

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).

Famous Birders: Roger Tory Peterson

Posted by Matthew Sim

In this Famous Birders post, we take a look at one birder who completely changed the face of birding as we know it today.

Roger Tory Peterson, is one of the most famous birders ever to have lifted a pair of binoculars. Except that a lot of the time, he didn’t even need binoculars. As he once said, “I can recognize the calls of practically every bird in North America. There are some in Africa I don’t know, though.” A master  of ornithology, Peterson is best known for his revolutionary field guides which were “the bridge between the shotgun and the binoculars in bird watching.”

Roger Peterson was born in Jamestown New York in 1908, the son of european immigrants. At the age of 11, birds became a part of his life when his 7th grade teacher taught the class about these remarkable little creatures. From that point on, Roger’s passion for birds and all other aspects of nature grew and grew. After finishing high school, Roger Peterson got a job painting furniture, working hard and saving his money for art school, which he hoped to attend. In 1925, Roger saw a notice about the next American Ornithologist’s Union meeting, to be held in New York City. He also saw that there would be an art show, to which he promptly submitted two paintings of his (both were accepted). At the meeting, Roger met many of the birders and bird artists of the time. Within a year of the meeting, Roger had two more paintings shown at the first American bird art exhibit and was soon meeting the big names and got involved in the big organizations of birding at the time. Within a few years, Roger was even writing his first field guide.

In the year 1933, Roger’s A Field Guide to the Birds found it’s way to Francis H. Allen’s desk, an editor for the publisher Houghton Mifflin. From that point on, there was no turning back. At first, only 2,000 copies were made, sold for 2.75$ a piece. Roger Peterson’s first field guide was a huge hit and within the first week, all 2,000 copies were sold, prompting more copies to be published. This was only the beginning of a very illustrious career for Roger and as of today, he has sold 7 million copies and 52 field guides make up the Peterson Field Guide System. In a time when shooting birds was as close to birding as it got, Roger’s field guides revolutionized the way people saw the natural world around them. What made Peterson’s field guides so successful is that they are simple to look at, with arrows pointing to distinguishing field marks that might help in identification. This simplicity helped many potential birders easily understand and identify what they were looking at.

Roger Peterson became one of the leading birders, nature artists and natural writers of his time and it is in part thanks to his work that so many people are involved in birding today; he truly was a great birder, perhaps, some argue, the best that there has ever been.

Photos courtesy wikipedia.

Lost Forever?

Posted by Matthew Sim

Back in November, the Calgary Herald ran an article on the Sage Grouse, a large and impressive grouse that faces a bleak and dismal future. For me, this was a depressing article; it opened my eyes to a species I never knew even lived in Alberta, only to present very pessimistic prospects for the bird here.

Image courtesy Wikipedia

A scarce permanent resident with a very limited distribution in our province, the sage grouse needs large stands of sagebrush as well as wet meadows, river bottoms or green areas for foraging. This habitat is crucial for the bird and without it, the grouse cannot survive. It is for exactly this reason that population levels have decreased in Alberta since the 1960’s, in fact, the sage grouse population in Alberta is down to just 13 males. Many experts have already given up any hope of saving Alberta’s prairie sage grouse, however, led by the Alberta Wilderness Association, 12 environmental groups are acting to save the species. These groups have asked that the federal government enact an emergency protection order, which would force Environment Canada to do whatever it can to save this species’ habitat. Though it may be too late, let this species plight be a lesson to all of us, and let us ensure that this never happens again.

To read the Herald’s article, follow the link below:

Iconic prairie Sage Grouse facing local extinction

Monitoring a Flicker nest

Posted by Matthew Sim

As spring approaches once again, I like to reminisce about the previous year and all of its most exciting moments.

For the past several years, flickers have nested in my neighbor’s tree. I had never really observed this nest closely before; however, last year, I did just that.  Flickers usually excavate nest holes in dead or dying tree trunks or large branches. These nest holes are most often found at 6-15 feet off the ground and will often be reused.  By late May/ early June in Calgary most flickers have laid their 5-8 white eggs. I started to notice that the flickers were more active around the nest in early June and it is my belief that on around the 3rd or 4th of June, “my” pair laid their eggs.

This is the nest hole with the female looking out on June 10. The flickers had been in and out of the hole since late May

    Incubation of the eggs ranges from 14-16 days and I had been closely following all the bird’s actions in attempt to discover when the eggs would hatch. On June 24, I heard the first sounds coming from the hole. The flickers had been born! I think that we can assume that there is a possibility that the young flickers were born a day or two earlier and I had not heard them until then.

If you compare this shot with the photo above, you can see that the leaves around the hole grew a lot as the summer progessed, adding even more security and privacy to the flicker residence.

The first visible evidence of the young flickers was the clean-up crew. As all parents can attest to, there is a lot of cleaning up involved with kids.  The adult flickers, both male (pictured in photo above) and female, had to work constantly to ensure that their young were well-fed, safe from predators and, perhaps most importantly, in a clean home.

July 1st came around and I had still not seen the young flickers, though I had definitely heard them. Each and every day they were getting louder and louder and soon I could hear them from across the alley, in my yard, maybe 35 feet away. The young flickers cry is often described as a hissing noise and is uttered for two weeks, day and night, growing stronger as the birds grow older.  I was not worried about not having seen the flickers yet as their eyes do not open until they are ten days old, so  wouldn’t be seeing them until then. July 3, I was up in Banff, where I happened upon a flicker nest with two young already poking their heads out of their hole. At that point, I couldn’t help but wonder how my flickers were doing.

July 5th, marked a special day for my monitoring project. That day, I got my first glimpse of the young flickers. I took my first photos of the young flickers on July 9th, and they were looking healthy and fit; all 3 of them!

But that’s where it went all wrong. The nest holes of flickers (and often of many other species of birds) are the scenes of very fierce battles. Three young birds with very sharp bills, duking it out for supremacy and the right to remain looking out of the nest hole, therefore receiving the most food. The stronger birds almost invariably end up on top, and maintain their authority by jabbing the others with vicious pecks of their beak. The opening is only big enough for two heads and the third one gets pushed to the bottom. There, the young flicker receives very little food and consequently, it perishes. July 9th, I took the photo above, showing 3 young flickers. By the next day, July 10th, I was only seeing 2 young flickers.

Disappointed though I was, I realized that sometimes, this is the way nature must work. I continued to watch the flickers for several days, amazed at the rate at which they grew. After about 4 weeks, the flickers would fledge and would begin to leave the nest; my flickers started appearing out of the nest around July 16th. The two young birds started hopping about and practicing flying, getting ready for the day when they would leave the nest altogether.

Than one day, I did not see the flickers. Nor did I see them the next day. Or the day after that. It would seem that the two young flickers that I had watched for a nearly a month had successfully fledged. I don’t think I ever saw these two again, though I was seeing flickers in the neighborhood, which might just have been one of the young. From time to time, I did hear the distant call of several Northern Flickers and I couldn’t help but wonder if it was the fledgelings, calling away.

 

Active feeding!

While I was in Calgary over the holidays I took some photographs of feeding nuthatches and I thought I would share them with you so as to illustrate some of the effort that these little guys put into this common daily activity!

Cornell Lab of Ornithology describes the way nuthatches feed perfectly, ” an intense ball of energy “, is exactly what they are!

When they start hacking away, usually their legs are the only part of their bodies not moving!

 

Posted by Matthew Sim

 

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

Winter Killdeer

Last weekend on the Christmas Bird Count, I came across a very photogenic Killdeer. These abundant shorebirds, usually only stay the summer in Calgary, several birds, however, also stay the winter.

Despite our frigid winters, these hardy Killdeer seem to manage all right, we see them throughout the winter which must mean that they are surviving. They are definitely finding food, as can be seen in the photo below.

This Killdeer seemed to be finding enough food

At one point, I even saw this particular bird with a small morsel of food clenched in its beak.

This Killdeer was fearless and approached me; which is quite a nice change as a photographer! It also engaged in the species peculiar method of moving; they run for a few feet, stop, look around, flick their tail up, bob their head up and down a couple times, and then repeat this cycle over again.

Just finished a short run, the Killdeer stops, looks around and...

Bobs it's head out of the photo, leaving the photographer with an unusual result; but a good story!

Each year, Killdeer are seen wintering in Calgary, somewhere on the Bow River. Though it may seem like a daft idea to many of us, this species obviously are doing just fine!

A Merry Christmas to you from all of us here at the blog!

Posted by Matthew Sim

Schoolyard Swainson’s

Last July, right before I moved to Texas, I was treated to an incredible sight: a dark-morph Swainson’s Hawk perched on a fence in a school parking lot. This hawk was incredibly close to the sidewalk and allowed for some great photos, all the while sitting calmly on its perch.

 This hawk didn’t seem to be injured, it just seemed to be very tolerant of people. Supposedly, Swainson’s Hawks are accepting of human activity and tolerate even more in areas where this activity is more frequent. This species will often become accustomed to disturbance from humans, thus the higher level of tolerability. This hawk, however did still seem to be giving me the evil eye!

After a couple minutes, the impressive raptor, slowly turned away (above) and resumed its activities as if I wasn’t even there.

This is not the first time this year that a Swainson’s Hawk has allowed me to get very close to it, back in May, while we bloggers were doing the Big Sit, we observed a Swainson’s that allowed us to watch it from merely several feet away http://birdscalgary.wordpress.com/2011/05/15/swainsons-hawk/.

This was definitely one of the cooler birding parts of the summer!

Posted by Matthew Sim

Carburn and Southland Park Christmas Bird Count

This year, I also did the Christmas Bird Count; I was assigned the S1 route, encompassing both Carburn and Southland Park. We started the morning birding from the Eric Harvie bridge in Southland, right beside the dog park, before splitting up, 2 groups going south along the river (one on each side) and 2 groups going north along the river. The day was off to a good start as we observed 2 adult eagles and 2 immature eagles flying low overhead; the rising sun was beautiful, adding to the good beginning and silhouetting the many ducks and geese on the Bow River.

We observed thousands of Mallards, Common Goldeneyes and Canada Geese throughout the day with several hundred Buffleheads as well. There were also several Barrow’s Goldeneyes in these waterfowl flocks.

The Common Goldeneyes weren’t quite as numerous as the Mallards however they were still present in large numbers.

We continued to walk further down the river, spotting Redpolls, plenty of waterfowl, Killdeer, magpies and… RUSTY BLACKBIRD!!! As we were hiking along the river, we flushed up a brownish-black bird about the size of a Robin from the bank. It landed nearby at the top of a poplar where we all got good looks at it. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for my photographs of this species! This blackbird, is an unusual bird in Calgary, explaining, perhaps, my excitement at the sighting (also, this was only my second time seeing this species).

We headed back to the meeting spot, the Eric Harvie Bridge, where we saw a Sharp-shinned Hawk and discovered that another group had found an American Wigeon. We then headed to our next stop, Tim Hortons! After warming up and getting refreshments at Tim Hortons, we headed out near the Glenmore bridge, where at a pullout, we walked out and did some more birding, turning up a Killdeer and a Hairy Woodpecker.

The next and final stop for our group was Carburn Park. Our goal at Carburn, was to find an American Pipit  that had been reported here a little while earlier. Though we couldn’t agree to the location where this bird had been seen, we did manage to find it. This happens to be the first pipit recorded on the Calgary CBC since its beginning, 59 years ago.

Also in Carburn, we found a pair of Great Horned Owls, that were extremely well camouflaged against the tree branches they were perched on, several more Barrow’s Goldeneyes and another juvenile eagle. I decided to head home early and only found out later that the rest of the group had also found a Northern Pintail and a Wood Duck in Carburn. I birded around my neighborhood, which was inside our count circle, and managed to add both species of crossbills, a robin and a Merlin to our list, among other species.

The pipit and the Rusty Blackbird were definitely the highlights of the day for me, however they were only two of the 33 species and 7924 individuals recorded by 10 counters in this particular area. Here are the complete results:

Canada Goose, 1500; Wood Duck, 1; American Wigeon, 1; Mallard, 3000; Northern Pintail, 1; Bufflehead, 150; Common Goldeneye, 2800; Barrow’s Goldeneye, 20; Common Merganser, 20; Bald Eagle, 5; Sharp-shinned Hawk, 1; Merlin, 1; Killdeer, 5; Rock Pigeon, 25; Great Horned Owl, 2; Downy Woodpecker, 5; Hairy Woodpecker, 2; Northern Flicker, 3; Black-billed Magpie, 125; American Crow, 3; Common Raven, 12; Red-breasted Nuthatch, 3; White-breasted Nuthatch, 3; American Robin, 1; Dark-eyed Junco, 1; Rusty Blackbird, 1; House Finch, 4; Red Crossbill, 12; White-winged Crossbill, 26; Common Redpoll, 25; House Sparrow, 110; American Pipit, 1.

Posted by Matthew Sim

It’s good to be back…

I flew in to Calgary from Houston last Friday night and was greeted by snow on the ground! Something that I haven’t seen since April. Never thought that I would be so excited to see snow. My first day back, Saturday, I took a walk around my neighborhood and was fortunate enough to see most of the locals; no not the neighbors, the birds.

First thing in the morning, I woke to see several Black-billed Magpies jumping and hollering about in the willow. Several Common Ravens flew overhead and 2 pairs of Chickadees visited the feeders. I was very happy to see the Black-capped Chickadees, nothing can compare with this species’ friendliness!

I have been following the reports from Albertabird still and I have seen all the reports of winter finches; I knew what a good year it was for these birds. I just didn’t know how good! In my hour or so walk, I saw more Crossbills then I did all last winter. I must have seen more than 100 crossbills!

Most of the crossbills were White-winged however there were a few Red Crossbills in the mix ( see photo above). I also observed many Pine Siskins that were flocking with the crossbills and feeding on the abundant cones.

My neighborhood, for some reason, never seems to be popular with Common Redpolls, however this year, within my first 24 hours of being back in Calgary, I had already seen 2 in my community. Also, we hosted a Pine Grosbeak, which is unusual for us. At one point, I was privileged to see several crossbills, a redpoll and many siskins on the ground just feet in front of me, licking up some sort of salt or rock from the ground.

Then, later on in the day, I discovered why my feeders were so empty. Three Sharp-shinned Hawks were all together in a tree. When 3 raptors start calling your neighborhood home, there are definitely going to be some songbird declines.

All in all, it’s good to be back!

Posted by Matthew Sim