Tag Archive | great-horned owl

Terry’s Travels: The Irricana Sloughs

By Terry Korolyk 

On Saturday, September 17, I decided to go birding to the area between Strathmore and Irricana as my wife was otherwise occupied. This included an area known as the Irricana Sloughs, a once well-known birding destination for many birders in the 1980s, 1990s, and, early in the new millennium. Today, it is still visited by some birders, but, these days more areas have been explored and opened up for birders, so, the choices are greater.

Nonetheless, I set out on this beautiful Fall day. I had chosen the large slough at the Cattleland Feedlots at the north end of Highway 817 north of Strathmore as my starting point. On the way out there, I passed a few migrating Swainson’s Hawks some of them following farmers on their machines who were busy cutting their crops, then, driving north of Conrich, as I approached Highway 564, a congregation of Black-billed Magpies and Ravens were gathered along the roadside. I slowed down hoping to see what the reason might be for this gathering, but, could see nothing.

When I arrived at Cattleland, I was hoping to see Greater White-fronted Geese as over 300 of the birds had recently been reported there. This site had become known as the one that almost always had the first birds of that species to arrive in our area in Fall migration usually in late August. The same had held true this year. This location and Namaka and Eagle Lakes southeast of Strathmore were the best White-fronted Geese sites near Calgary.

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Islands at Cattleland Reservoir. Photo Sept. 17, 2016

But, none were there on this day. The water level was high, but, it had been that kind of Summer. The slough has 3 islands which, with the now high water, were not that far above the surface of the water. Birds tend to congregate on them, and, in breeding season, Terns, both Common and Forster’s, and, once, even a pair of Arctic Terns raised their young on them along with other species such as Canada Goose, American Avocet, and, Black-necked Stilt. This nesting of Arctic Terns in the interior of the continent was not a first; it had happened previously in Montana.

In any event, so far this Fall, the islands were being used primarily by Gulls, including all of Ring-billed, California, and Franklin’s, and, Double-crested Cormorant. Today, there wasn’t that much there to interest a birder. A flock of 13 Baird’s Sandpipers was a highlight and flocks of Icterids there such as Brewer’s, Red-winged, Yellow-headed Blackbirds and, Brown-headed Cowbirds had dwindled in numbers. Large numbers are attracted by the Feedlot following breeding season. By the way, those birding the site must be aware that sometimes a repugnant odour may waft over from the feedlot so, be warned.

I moved on from Cattleland driving eastward on Highway 564. A few kilometres on, I turned northward driving past the few residences composing Nightingale. As I turned, a male Common Grackle flew past the car. I kept on northward a few kilometres turning westward on to Township Road 262. Drive a short stretch and a very large wetland appears on the north side. I was in luck today; over 600 Greater White-fronted Geese were at the wetland. Amongst other large numbers of waterfowl were 10 Taverner’s Cackling Geese, and an adult Bald Eagle, and, a juvenile Barrow’s Goldeneye.

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Greater White-fronted Geese at Range Road 245-Township Road 262 wetland, Sept. 12, 2016.

Whenever I visit this area, I try to visit this location for another reason, that being it is an excellent site for birding for passerines with nearby woodland; a willow swale, and shrub-lined and treed north-south orientation irrigation ditch running under the road to a wooded area. Large numbers of birds can move along the ditch to the woodland and birds found here have included large numbers of Yellow-rumped Warblers with other Warblers being all the common ones plus Chestnut-sided, Magnolia, Cape May, Black-throated Green, Townsend’s, Palm, Blackpoll, American Redstart, Northern Waterthrush, and, Ovenbird. I have found both Hermit and Swainson’s Thrush here along with Rusty Blackbird. Once in November, I found a Swamp Sparrow along the irrigation ditch, and, I have found Long-eared Owl in the woodland.

Driving westward from here, you enter the realm of the Irricana Sloughs starting with Long Lake just west of Range Road 253. Continuing westward will take you to Bruce Lake east of Keoma. One can head into “the Sloughs” from Twp. Rd. 262 going northward on Range Road 253 or by going north on Range Road 261. The heart of “the Sloughs” is generally acknowledged to be the waterbodies from the Range Road 261 junction eastward, and, also north from Township Road 270 north on Range Road 254.

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Great Blue Heron and Double-crested Cormorants at Railway Slough.

The Irricana Sloughs offers a variety of birds. In recent years, some of the water bodies have become very popular with Grebes. Pied-billed and Red-necked Grebes both nest in substantial numbers on the large slough on Township Road 270 immediately west of Range Road 261 and on the slough on the east side of Range Road 261 just south of Township Road 270. Immediately east of the slough on Twp. Rd. 270 east of Range Road 261 is a slough called Railway Slough which, next to Namaka and Frank Lakes, is the most convenient place in the Calgary area to find Western Grebe during breeding season. If one continues eastward on Township Road 270, one may find Horned Grebe at some of the smaller marshier sloughs.

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Bittern at marsh on Twp. Rd. 270 east of Range Road 261, June 4, 2016.                 

Another specialty of the area is the American Bittern most often found in marshy areas at the slough west of Railway Slough and at the marshy slough on the west side of Range Road 261 directly north of Township Road 270. Upland Sandpiper has often been found in grassland along the roads in the area, and, in the past, “the Sloughs” were a fairly reliable location for finding Baird’s Sparrow, an uncommon species in our area. However, there have not been many reports in recent years, but, the area is not birded as thoroughly as it once was. Both Nelson’s and Leconte’s Sparrows have, in the past, been fairly noticeable by call in some of the wetter, grassier areas. Sprague’s Pipit and Long-billed Curlew is often found in the grassland areas, and, Marsh Wren can be found in Cattail marshes.

The Irricana Sloughs used to be one of the most reliable and nearest sites in our area for watching Loggerhead Shrikes. The species has expanded its range somewhat closer to Calgary, but, Loggerheads are still found in the area. Also, if visiting the Irricana Sloughs watch for the Krider’s subspecies of Red-tailed Hawk which used to be fairly regularly seen. Western Kingbird is also a specialty of the area, but, Eastern Kingbird is also resident. Double-crested Cormorant and American White Pelican can be found on Railway Slough and all the other larger sloughs.

The series of ponds and sloughs on Range Road 254 just south of Township Road 273 are probably the best shorebirding locations in the area being at the north end of the area and with lots of shoreline. All the regular species have been there with rarer species including Hudsonian Godwit, White-rumped Sandpiper, and, Red-necked Phalarope. One of the first occurrences of breeding in the area during the rise of the Black-necked Stilt in southern Alberta in the late 1980s and early 1990s was in this area.

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Nesting Black-necked Stilt.

The Irricana Sloughs have for quite a number of years now hosted small numbers of non-breeding Bonaparte’s Gulls during breeding season, mostly on Railway Slough or the slough directly west of Railway Slough. Large numbers of Swans, mostly Tundra, stop off here in migration and the Siberian counterpart to the Tundra Swan, the Bewick’s Swan has been seen here. An adult Whooper Swan paired with an adult Tundra Swan found on April 6, 2000 in “the Sloughs” was seen by many until April 11, but, its provenance was questioned by the Alberta Bird Records Committee. Was it a wild bird or an escapee? To me, the ABRC has shown itself to shy away from making tough decisions. Wild Whoopers have been reported in the Pacific Northwest, but, they are also held in captivity.

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Adult Whooper Swan with adult Tundra Swan on Twp. Rd. 270 east of Range Road 253 southeast of Irricana; April 6, 2000.

Other sloughs included in the area lie on Township Road 264 west of Range Road 261 and on Range Road 264 south of Township Road 264. The slough on Twp. Rd. 264 is a marshy slough which is one of few water bodies east of Calgary which regularly hosts Common Loon during breeding season. One of the leucistic Great Horned Owls was found in the woodland in the northwest corner of the lake as you drive westward past it. A Tennessee Warbler, a species native to the foothills and mountains in the western part of the province, was heard singing in this woodland one Summer. As you continue westward, you would turn southward on Range Road 264. The large water body on your right is called Spoonbill Slough for a Spoon-billed Sandpiper, a Siberian species of shorebird, that was twice reported there. Alberta’s only Baikal Teal was found here and Greater White-fronted Geese stop off here. This water body usually hosts a good variety of species. Nelson’s Sparrow have been regular in the wet grasses at the south end.

Two other sites included in the sloughs are a marsh and woodland a couple of kilometres north of Township Road 270 on Range Road 252 and Range Road 255 running south from the Range Road 254-Township Road 270 junction. The Range Roads both these locations are situated on supply North-South orientation and, thus, provide excellent movements of migrating passerines. All the basic small songbird migrating species have been found on Range Road 252 with others being Philadelphia Vireo and, also, Broad-winged Hawk. A leucistic Great Horned Owl was found there on  a Field Trip. The same can be said for Range Road 255 with Palm Warblers particularly having favoured this road. One Fall day I found several Palm Warblers in migration along the road, but, this also included 3 birds that were so brightly-coloured, I thought they may have been of the Eastern subspecies, the Yellow Palm Warbler.

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Leucistic Great Horned Owl on Twp. Rd. 264 west of Range Road 264.

Probably the final water body that should be included in the Irricana Sloughs region is Bruce Lake which is on Township Road 262 a short distance west of Range Road 261. The road makes a big bend around the north end of the lake, then continues westward to Keoma with Highway  9 beyond. Black-crowned Night Herons and California Gulls used to be common along the stream at the north end and rarities found include Snowy Egret, Black-legged Kittiwake, and, Pacific Loon. Both White-winged and Surf Scoters have been seen on the lake in the Fall season. The woodlands at the north end of the lake can be good for migrating songbirds with Long-eared Owl also being found there. In the winter, Northern Goshawk has been found there, and, Ring-necked Pheasant may be found in the cattails and other marsh grasses.

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Adult Little Gull with adult Bonaparte’s Gull on east side of Range Road 261 just south of Twp. Rd. 270; May 5, 2002.

Other rarities found in the Irricana Sloughs include Cattle and Great Egret, Little Gull, Sabine’s Gull, Red Phalarope, Sage Thrasher, and Yellow-billed Loon. Sandhill Crane, Townsend’s Solitaire, both Surf and White-winged Scoter, and, Turkey Vulture have all stopped off in “the Sloughs.” One rarity I was astonished to see was a THREE-TOED WOODPECKER flying from tree to tree one Fall day along Range Road 261 just south of Township Road 270. This, of course, is a species native to the CONIFEROUS forests of the foothills and mountains!

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Gyrfalcon, Oct. 19, 2013.

Great Horned Owl is resident. Winter sees Snowy Owls and all of Gyrfalcon, Prairie Falcon, and, Rough-legged Hawk found in the area while weedy fields and ditches attract both Common and Hoary Redpolls, while, windswept fields and roads attract both Snow Buntings and Horned Larks. Some winters you may even find a Northern Goshawk out on the prairie there.

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Fall Migration, 2016——

Sabine’s Gull, always a much sought after bird in the Fall, was a bit late showing up this year. The birds are usually here by the first week of September, but, this year September 16 was the first date of report with an adult and an immature bird at Calgary’s Glenmore Reservoir. Since then, a single Sabine’s was seen at Tofield and 3 birds were at Frank Lake east of High River. The 2 Glenmore Reservoir birds were joined by a single bird on September 17.

Major highlights so far include an adult hybrid CALIFORNIA GULL-RING-BILLED GULL at the Shepard Landfill at the east end of McIvor Boulevard in southeast Calgary on September 22, and, a juvenile LITTLE GULL at the Chestermere Lake Dam on September 26. Five first-cycle Thayer’s Gulls were at the Peigan Trail Gull Ponds below the City of Calgary Landfill on September 22.

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Juvenile Little Gull at the Chestermere Lake Dam September 26, 2016.

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Adult California Gull-Ring-billed Gull hybrid at the Shepard Landfill, September 22, 2016.

A male BLACK-THROATED BLUE WARBLER was photographed in a yard in Canmore on September 23. While still a vagrant in the province, the species is fairly regular with most reports coming in the Fall in frosty or near frosty weather.

Scoters are starting to hit the Calgary area as of this writing with 5 Surf Scoters at Glenmore Reservoir and another 5 were with a White-winged Scoter at Eagle Lake, all of these birds being seen on September 23. No northern Loons as yet.

There have been more Swamp Sparrow reports than usual in the Calgary area this Fall, and, also a couple of wandering Varied Thrushes. A Harlequin Duck was reported via  E-bird at Wyndham-Carseland PP on September 18.

Snow Geese are slow to arrive this year, but dark and unusual morph Red-tailed Hawks are seen almost daily now in the Calgary area. There are still some Swainson’s Hawks around, while there have been only a couple of Rusty Blackbird reports so far. From Ken Orich, young Barn Swallows fledged from a nest at Tillebrook PP at Brooks on the amazing date of September 19!

Until next time.                                                                      Terry Korolyk

Sunday Showcase: Carburn Park, September

Photos by Tony LePrieur, taken at Carburn Park in Calgary on September 4-5, 2016.

Can you identify the warblers? Put your ID’s and reasons in the comments.

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House Wren.

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Fall Warbler #1.

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Fall Warbler #2.

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Fall Warbler #3.

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Fall Warbler #4.

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Least Flycatcher.

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Least Flycatchers.

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Great Horned Owl.

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White-tailed Deer.

August Birds of Calgary and Frank Lake

Here are the last of Tony LePrieur’s summer photos from the Calgary area for this year.

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Great Horned Owls, Fish Creek Park, August 12, 2016.

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Black-crowned Night-Heron (juvenile), Fish Creek Park, August 12, 2016.

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American Beaver, Fish Creek Park, August 12, 2016.

The remainder of the photos below were taken on the weekend of August 28, 2016, in Carburn Park and at Frank Lake.

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Cedar Waxwings (juveniles).

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Cedar Waxwings (juveniles).

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Downy Woodpecker.

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Western Grebes.

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Western Grebe.

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Solitary Sandpiper.

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Baird’s Sandpiper.

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American Avocet.

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Lesser Yellowlegs.

Terry’s Travels: It’s Great Seeing Great Horned Owls!

By Terry Korolyk

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Since starting birding in the Calgary area in 1987, I have had the good fortune to be able to see many Great Horned Owls in my travels. As most people know, the Great Horned Owl is our provincial bird. It is widespread, but, local; common in some areas but not others. I get the impression the species is not as common as it used to be, but, we must remember, it is local. A check of this year’s Calgary area May Species Count data held annually the last weekend in May revealed that of a total of 31 Owls recorded, 18 were recorded in only 6 city territories. Leading the way was the Burnsmead east Fish Creek PP territory which had 6. Mallard Point Fish Creek PP, also along the Bow River, had 3. Baker Park in northwest Calgary had 4. These numbers mean that all the rural territories totaled only 13 birds with South of Strathmore leading with 4, and, the Carbon-Acme areas having 3 birds. That’s a total of 7 birds meaning all the other rural territories totaled only 6. Maybe it isn’t me and the species is not as common as it used to be, at least in rural areas. To be fair, numbers would have to compared against past years.

In the 1990s, and, even in the early stages of the new millennium, you could pretty well expect to drive out on the prairie east or southeast of Calgary and expect to see more than one Great Horned Owl perched on the top of a telephone pole, or, on the crossbars of a telephone pole in the fading light of the afternoon as they were preparing to launch themselves off to begin another night on the hunt. One such bird from those days was this bird I photographed along a road in the Blackie area.

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This particular bird, quite dark brown, appears to be somewhat of a battle-scarred veteran with stubby eartufts, one of them flopped over, and a long scar stretching  from one of the bird’s shoulders down one side of its breast. We can only speculate as to how the bird got that scar. These days, I have much more trouble just chancing upon a Horned Owl than I did in those days. I can recall one afternoon in that area when I observed 3 birds not all that far apart enacting that very scenario.

However, we must remember that the species is local. For instance, there was at least one pair that every winter roosted in the White Spruce trees against the back of the building on the north side of Sikome Lake in east Fish Creek Provincial Park in Calgary. Many people knew about them, and, the birds may have been amongst the world’s most photographed Great Horned Owls. At least  1 pair of the birds nests in the vicinity every year, sometimes in a tree cavity. Just down the road from Sikome Lake, one can walk the pathway between the Coniferous trees at the Fish Creek Park’s Visitor’s Centre, and also have a good chance of seeing at least one, if not more birds there. Long-eared Owls have also been found in these trees. Carburn Park on the other side of the Bow River from Fish Creek PP used to be a reliable site for finding Great Horned Owls, but, this year’s MSC numbers showed only 1 bird there. Refer to the opening paragraph for areas where the birds are most common, at least in May of this year.

In Great Horned Owls, as in all other Raptors, the female is larger than the male as is nicely illustrated by this pair photographed near Lake McGregor at Milo.

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This partnership will soon lead to nesting –

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– as indicated by one of a pair perched beside the nest, which in this case, was along 146 Avenue near a farm in southeast Calgary before it became the Copperfield and New Brighton subdivisions. Nesting eventually leads to the production of young –

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– such as this particular bird which was fledging from a nest near the creek in the Votier’s Flats area of Fish Creek PP. Mummy was down on a rock in the creek at the time hunting in the daytime to feed her youngsters. Once the young have fledged, they are officially Great Horned Owls.

In the immediate Calgary area, Great Horned Owls seem, in my experience, to be predominantly grayish birds such as this particular bird:

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However, no 2 things in a species are perfectly alike, so, the degree of grayness and the arrangement of the bars, streaks, and other markings and colours produces no 2 identical individuals. Note the attractive contrast on this Owl between the white tail and the rest of the bird:

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While some birds in the Calgary area can be somewhat darker or lighter; birds, in the foothills seem to be, in my experience, to be somewhat darker gray such as this individual:

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Remembering that no 2 snowflakes are exactly alike, look at this darker gray individual, but, look at the unusual blackish face.

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The city of Calgary sort of lies on the fringe area and some of the birds you see in the area may not be gray and white, but, may have some small degrees of brown, or, reddish-brown tinged feathers. Generally, the further east and south one goes from Calgary, the more liable one is to see birds with brownish, or, reddish-brown tinged feathers and, also, the browner the feathers may be. Look at the scarred veteran of the opening paragraphs and look at these 3 individuals, all photographed at sites east of Calgary:

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All these birds show varying degrees of brown and reddish-brown feathers.

But, it doesn’t end there. Aberrant plumages do occur. I photographed a leucistic Horned Owl once while guiding for a birder from Virginia in the United States, and, I have seen at least 2 individuals that were probably Subarcticus, or West Taiga subspecies birds being very, very pale gray and showing a lot of white. One bird was on the Calgary Christmas Bird Count along railroad tracks in open grassland on the eastern edge of the city, while the other was at a marsh in the hills south of Calgary during wintertime.

The moral is—- be on the lookout for a variety of Great Horned Owl plumages in our area.

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On the local birding scene, Fall shorebird migration thus far has been rather unspectacular, but it is early, with the “best” bird being a Ruddy Turnstone on a muddy spit seen from the viewing area at the south end of Weed Lake at Langdon. Lesser Yellowlegs have shown up so far in strong numbers. Migrating passerines detected on the move already include Yellow-rumped Warbler, Western Tanager, Swainson’s Thrush, Tennessee and Wilson’s Warblers. The report of up to 3 Purple Martins at the south end of Weed Lake recently is unusual as there are rarely reports away from the species’ local stronghold colony at Chestermere Lake. Caspian Terns are being reported with the most recent report coming from the Carseland Weir. Other recent reports have been from the north access of Langdon Reservoir and the south end of Weed Lake. There have been 2 reports of Grasshopper Sparrows from our area in July with one bird being seen south of the Mallard Point parking lot in east Fish Creek PP, and, the other bird photographed carrying food south of Keoma which is on Township Road 262 a short drive east of Highway 9. These birds are north of their range in the province. Recent rarities include a Northern Mockingbird near the Twin Valley Dam east of Parkland on July 13, and, a Great Crested Flycatcher in the Bearspaw region of northwest Calgary on July 12.

The city of Calgary Rare Bird Alert (RBA) number is 403-221-4519. If you have found a rare or unusual bird, noticed some unusual interesting bird behavior, noticed an unusually large number of individuals of a particular species of bird, or have seen a bird in the province out of season, by all means, report it.

Sunday Showcase: Birds of Late Spring

Here are some photos taken by Tony LePrieur in the Calgary region in mid-June. Many young birds have now fledged. The photos were taken in Fish Creek Park and at Frank lake.

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American Avocet.

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American Avocets with chick.

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American Avocet.

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American Avocet chick.

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Great Horned Owl (juvenile).

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White-faced Ibis.

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Swainson’s Hawk with Meadow Vole.

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Eastern Kingbird.

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Western Kingbird.

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Clay-colored Sparrow.

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House Wren.

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Least Flycatcher.

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Cedar Waxwing.

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Warbling Vireo.

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American Coot with chick.

Do you have bird photos you’d like to share? Send them to our email address and we may post them.

Wednesday Wings: Nuthatch, Sparrow, Hawk, Falcon, Owls

Here are some recent photos of local birds taken by some of our readers.

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Great Horned Owl adult, taken by Caroline Soles in her backyard in Alderheights, near the Mazeppa gas plant, north of High River, May 22, 2016.

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Caroline Soles also had this Clay-colored Sparrow in her yard. We can get them in our yards in the city on migration too.

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Another shot of the Clay-colored Sparrow by Caroline Soles.

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Cooper’s Hawk, Bowmont Park, NW Calgary, April 2016. Photo by Lorraine Glass.

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A Merlin, also from Bowmont Park, April 2016, by Lorraine Glass.

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A close-up of the Merlin, by Lorraine Glass.

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Red-breasted Nuthatch at nest hole. Photo by Bryan Simpson, Inglewood Bird Sanctuary, May 2016.

Tim Reynolds GHOWlets

Finally, here are the two downy Great Horned Owlets from Sikome Lake in Fish Creek Park. Taken May 15, 2016 by Tim Reynolds.

If you have some recent photos of local birds that you’d like to share, send them to us at birdscalgary(at)gmail.com and we may post them. Please include the date and location, and the photographer’s name.

The end of Winter in the Weaselhead and North Glenmore Park

Posted by Dan Arndt

For our last outing for our Friends of Fish Creek Winter Birding group, we headed to the Weaselhead and North Glenmore Park to see what winter birds remained, and if any spring migrants had shown up around the Glenmore Reservoir and in the Weaselhead itself. While many of our winter birds had already left, a few die-hards were still around in good numbers, and we definitely were not disappointed with the numbers of spring birds we found all around the park.

Weaselhead - March 20, 2016

Weaselhead – March 20, 2016

We headed down into the Weaselhead first thing, checking the feeders along the way. I had headed down before our group to fill some of the feeders, and managed to spot an overwintering American Goldfinch, but when the rest of our group headed down as a whole all of the feeders were completely devoid of activity. Part of the reason for the vacancy is that now that the weather has turned, the birds were not quite as reliant on the feeders as insects had begun to hatch, and caches stored during the winter would provide plenty of food. We did have one little fellow who turned up, as always, at the tail end of the winter session.

Least Chipmunk

Least Chipmunk

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Fresh from his winter hibernation, this Least Chipmunk seemed completely oblivious to our presence as he stuffed his face full of black-oil sunflower, peanuts, and various other seeds I’d placed at the feeder earlier in the morning. I just love how much character these little mammals have, and how single-minded they can be when they first wake up.

female Hairy Woodpecker

female Hairy Woodpecker

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While she wasn’t right at the feeder, this Hairy Woodpecker was hanging out nearby, hammering a hole in the side of this tree to pick out a tasty meal.

male House Sparrow

male House Sparrow

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A little further down the path and across the bridge we found this male House Sparrow and his mate picking out some twigs, grass and leaves to make their nest for the coming season. Given where they were loafing about, they may have even been considering setting up shop in one of the Cliff Swallow nests on the bridge!

American Tree Sparrow

American Tree Sparrow

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American Tree Sparrow

American Tree Sparrow

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Before we turned around to head back up the hill, we stopped and checked the logs and information signs that have been used all winter as a feeding station, and sure enough we found some American Tree Sparrows singing away in the brush, and coming out to feed. These little sparrows have an amazing song, and are just as striking to look at.

American Wigeon

American Wigeon

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We headed back up the hill and off to the east end of the Glenmore Reservoir to find our returning migrants, and were not disappointed on the first pond. A pair of American Wigeon were floating along the back end of the pond, well away from the Canada Geese and Mallards who were clearly set up on their nesting territories closer in.

White-winged Crossbill

immature White-winged Crossbill

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White-winged Crossbill

immature White-winged Crossbill

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White-winged Crossbill

immature male White-winged Crossbill

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While we were scanning the ponds for waterfowl, sparrows, and anything else we could find, we heard a flock of late White-winged Crossbills in the spruce trees to the north, picking through the few remaining cones that had made it through the winter. Both males and females were in fine form, with the majority of the birds being immature, and as always, seemed to be completely oblivious to our presence.

Canada Geese harassing some Mallards

Canada Geese harassing some Mallards

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These Canada Geese seemed to have their feathers ruffled by the Mallards (in the shade of the rock on the left). It wasn’t until the Mallards had simply had enough and moved on that the geese left them alone. Seeing these inter-species interactions is always a treat, and late winter and early spring can lead to some great opportunities for this behaviour.

Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl

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Our best surprise of the day was coming across this male Great Horned Owl high up in a spruce trying to have a nap… until we disturbed him. He wasn’t pleased to see us. At all.

Common Goldeneye

Common Goldeneye

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These Common Goldeneye (and a very confused Mallard) were still trying to display for the few remaining single females, though most others of their kind we’d found this late in the winter/spring season. Despite that, at least two of them seemed to making a positive impression!

Dark-eyed Junco

Dark-eyed Junco (Oregon)

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One of our last birds of the day, and a great one at that, was this Dark-eyed Junco of the Oregon subspecies that sang a bit for us, but also perched high up in the nearby bushes and allowed everyone very good looks.

The spring course with the Friends of Fish Creek is now well under way, so expect some new posts in the next few weeks from our more recent outings. Have a great week, and good birding!

 

Fish Creek Provincial Park HQ and Sikome Lake – Spring on the horizon

Posted by Dan Arndt

Our outing on February 28 took us to the area surrounding Fish Creek Provincial Park’s headquarters and administration building, and then down near Sikome Lake. Our main goal was to find two pairs of resident Great Horned Owls, but also to check some of the ponds and the river for newly arrived waterfowl, and we weren’t disappointed!

Fish Creek Provincial Park HQ - February 28, 2016

Fish Creek Provincial Park HQ – February 28, 2016

Great Horned Owl (male)

Great Horned Owl (male)

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Our brief walk around the headquarters led us to flush a male Great Horned Owl from the spruce trees, where he perched right out in the sun on some low willows. This is likely the male from the pair that roost here all winter long, and his mate is certainly somewhere nearby!

White-tailed Jackrabbit

White-tailed Jackrabbit

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We headed down the pathway to the west with little to see or hear, and on our return trip we headed over to the brush near where the owl had flushed to only to find a pair of White-tailed Jackrabbits doing their best to stay completely still. They’ve had a rough winter staying camouflaged, with very little snow for much of the season, and now that they’re starting to turn brown, the snow we’ll be getting with our usual spring squalls will be just as difficult on them.

Sikome Lake area

Sikome Lake area – February 28, 2016

After parking near the boat launch and checking the river, we turned up next to nothing nearby. The well above seasonal temperatures had boaters and fishermen up and down the river long before we arrived, so much of the waterfowl had already flown off.

Black-capped Chickadee

Black-capped Chickadee

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Black-capped Chickadee

Black-capped Chickadee

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White-breasted Nuthatch

White-breasted Nuthatch

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Leave it to the chickadees and nuthatches to brighten up the day! As we crossed the road to take a closer look for another well known pair of owls, we found a small mixed flock of birds foraging in the low brush, and they were more than happy to pose nicely for us all to get a good look at them.

European Starlings

European Starlings

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While there are often a few European Starlings that can be found in this area all winter long, there were nearly thirty of them inspecting cavities, calling, and doing their best impersonations of Red-tailed Hawks, Sora, Killdeer, and a number of other birds all morning long.

Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl

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We found the new mate of the female Great Horned Owl guarding the nest in a little more open area than her past mate usually sat, but I have no doubt that he’s got just as good an eye on mom and the eggs. Given that this was three weeks ago, it won’t be much more than another week or two before they begin to hatch.

female Great Horned Owl

female Great Horned Owl

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You can barely see her in the corner of the nest here, but that’s just their natural camouflage at work!

Canada Geese on nest

Canada Geese on nest

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It wasn’t just the Great Horned Owls who had decided it was time to get on their nest! This pair of Canada Geese were nesting nearby in a hollowed out tree top that these, or other Canada Geese use every year without fail. It’s always weird to see them nesting so high up, but they know what they’ve been doing it for years!

Downy Woodpecker with dilute plumage

Downy Woodpecker with dilute plumage

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A couple of the flight feathers of this female Downy Woodpecker that look brown rather than the usual black. This type of plumage variation is known as “dilute plumage”, which is different from both albinism and leucism in that it’s simply a reduction in the normal amount of melanin that is expressed, rather than an entire lack of it. She had been seen there the entire week leading up to our outing, and it looks like she’ll be breeding nearby. It’ll be interesting to see if her offspring have similar plumage as she does!

Cackling (left) and Canada Geese (right)

Cackling (left) and Canada Geese (right)

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With the Canada Geese getting on nests, and actively feeding on the fresh grass shoots all throughout the park, there were huge numbers of them around the edge of Sikome Lake. Whenever there are large numbers of Canada Geese around, it’s always worthwhile to try to scan for Cackling Geese, and we managed to find at least one that day. The bird on the far left has that diagnostic short, triangular bill, very tiny head, short neck, and was much smaller overall than the nearby Canada Geese.

Common Goldeneye

Common Goldeneye

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These Common Goldeneye were happily paired up in the storm water ponds south of Sikome Lake, and were keeping a sharp eye on us as we watched them. Their numbers have diminished a little bit right along the river, but as more and more small water bodies open up, pairs of them will start showing up at each little pond and slough throughout the province.

Green-winged Teal

Green-winged Teal

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Green-winged Teal

Green-winged Teal

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There were also a pair of male Green-winged Teal who had also showed up on the small ponds and sat quite nicely for us to watch, and we got very good looks at their beautiful greens, browns and grays in their breeding plumage.

Bufflehead

Bufflehead

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Our last new birds of the day was this pair of Bufflehead, and it seemed that the female of this pair was chasing around her mate, a bit of a role reversal to the usual situation, but they’re always nice to see in the late winter, as they also disperse throughout the prairie potholes to breed and raise their young.

Next week, we’ll cover our outing on March 6 to Mallard Point, with our first gulls of the new year!

Have a great week, and good birding!

Bebo Grove and the arrival of winter birds

Posted by Dan Arndt

It certainly didn’t feel anything like fall on our last few outings with the Friends of Fish Creek. Aside from a little bit of snow sticking around, and a bit of a brisk start, we’ve had incredible luck with our fall weather here in Calgary, or at least on our Sunday walks!

Bebo Grove is one of our most anticipated outings in the fall for a number of reasons, all of which are owls. Northern Pygmy-Owls were the star last fall and winter, and there’s always the chance of finding Great Gray Owls, Barred Owls, and of course Great Horned Owls. It is also relatively dense spruce forest, which draws in both species of crossbill, Pine Grosbeaks, and even Common and Hoary Redpolls.

While we didn’t have much luck in the redpoll department, we did have a good variety of everything else, and even had a couple bonus raptors show up!

Bebo Grove - November 1, 2015

Bebo Grove – November 1, 2015

For the third (maybe fourth?) year in a row, the star of our show was Bob. Bob is a Red-breasted Nuthatch with a fairly prominent patch of leucism (read: white feathers) on his head. He’s the dominant bird in his little mixed flock of Black-capped and Boreal Chickadees, Red-breasted Nuthatches, and Brown Creepers, which is noticeable immediately when he is being fed. He flies in, right to the food, flushing every other bird nearby, and coming back time and time again to gather more for his numerous caches.

 

Bob the leucistic Red-breasted Nuthatch

Bob the leucistic Red-breasted Nuthatch

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We searched for American Three-toed Woodpeckers, Black-backed Woodpeckers, and even Pileated Woodpeckers in the area surrounding the picnic tables, but came up almost entirely empty. We did find a Hairy Woodpecker a little bit to the west, but once we entered the next stand of spruce between Bebo Grove and Shannon Terrace, things really started getting busy!

Hairy Woodpecker

Hairy Woodpecker

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We stopped shortly after to investigate the tops of the nearby spruce trees, as cones began raining down onto the pathway in front of us. Nearly a hundred White-winged Crossbills were filling the trees above us, calling, feeding, and flying about in a frenzy.

male White-winged Crossbill

male White-winged Crossbill

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As we were walking through the dense spruce, we heard some agitated chattering of chickadees and nuthatches, as if they were harassing a predator of some sort. We searched around and as we came into a clearing to get close enough to investigate, a young Great Horned Owl flushed up from a spruce across the clearing, flying west and away. It definitely pays to check these things out, even if its only a rare occasion where you actually do stumble upon a prize like that! As we scanned the trees north of the clearing for where the owl went, we did spot this distant Sharp-shinned Hawk. It’s just too bad it didn’t stick around when we got just a little bit closer later on.

Sharp-shinned Hawk

Sharp-shinned Hawk

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A little further to the west, we found yet another mixed flock, and had a few Boreal Chickadees, Black-capped Chickadees, Brown Creepers and still more Red-breasted Nuthatches feeding heavily in the trees, and a few even posing nicely for us.

female Red-breasted Nuthatch

female Red-breasted Nuthatch

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Coming into the next clearing, we had a bit of a close encounter with a big Mule Deer buck. We actually found him first having a bit of a sparring match with a willow shrub, but as we walked by, he took notice of us and just had to show off his antlers.

Mule Deer buck

Mule Deer buck

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Mule Deer buck

Mule Deer buck

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We headed towards the barn at Shannon Terrace before turning back. It was a little more quiet to the west than we usually have it, but it wasn’t too much further along that we found out exactly why. This female Merlin was keeping a sharp eye on the ground below, especially one of the feeding stations, and looked quite interested in any little movement nearby.

female Merlin

female Merlin

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So with that, we headed back to take a second look for Northern Pygmy-Owls, Barred Owls, and American Three-toed and Black-backed Woodpeckers, but came up (mostly) empty, so we followed the edge of the wetland back to where we had found Bob earlier in the day, but were alerted to the presence of yet another Great Horned Owl by the chattering and squawking of a pair of Blue Jays. 

Blue Jay

Blue Jay

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Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl

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It didn’t take too long for the Blue Jays to lose interest and fly off, leaving this big, beautiful owl to snooze the rest of the day away.

Thanks again for reading, and have a great week and good birding!

Friends of Fish Creek Spring Birding begins at the HQ, Sikome, and Burnsmead

Posted by Dan Arndt

I did say spring, right? Where did all the snow come from? While our last outing to South Glenmore Park was relatively cool, there wasn’t too much snow left, but in the week since we got a fresh dump of snow which is typical of our usual Calgary spring weather. Certainly the birds and mammals we saw on our walk showed at least a little displeasure at the situation!

Headquarters area, Sikome Lake and Burnsmead ponds - April 5, 2015

Headquarters area, Sikome Lake and Burnsmead ponds – April 5, 2015

We had three stops on our initial outing last week, with a visit to the Fish Creek Provincial Park Headquarters area, then down to Sikome Lake, and finally ended up at the Burnsmead ponds to check out some puddle ducks that one of our leaders, Rose Painter, had spotted before the beginning of our walk. We’ve also begun our walks at 8 AM for the spring course, so we’re getting out a little bit earlier and closer to sunrise to maximize the bird activity for the duration of our outing.

White-tailed Jackrabbit Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500@230mm 1/640sec., ƒ/6.3, ISO 1600

White-tailed Jackrabbit
Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500@230mm
1/640sec., ƒ/6.3, ISO 1600

We spotted this little jackrabbit under a spruce tree, taking refuge from the snow. You can see she’s been hanging out in the same spot for at least a while, and possibly even a few hours given that there’s a completely cleared area right under her. It’s not easy for these rabbits at this time of year, as their camouflage can be almost entirely useless in the snow now that their coats have changed colour!

The main reason we stopped in this area though was to check on a couple of Great Horned Owls in the area, which we were able to find without too much trouble.

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

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

Great Horned Owl and owlet Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500@500mm 1/500sec., ƒ/8.0, ISO 1600

Great Horned Owl and owlet
Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500@500mm
1/500sec., ƒ/8.0, ISO 1600

Here’s mom with a very chilly looking little owlet. Dad is nearby keeping a sharp eye on things though, and it looks like everyone’s happy and healthy, albeit a little cold and snowy!

Herring Gull Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500@500mm 1/500sec., ƒ/9.0, ISO 400

Herring Gull
Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500@500mm
1/500sec., ƒ/9.0, ISO 400

We headed down to the Boat Launch and the area around Sikome Lake in search of some more owls, but also got some good looks at a few other birds as well, including this Herring Gull, part of a flock of about thirty of them on one of the larger gravel bars just north of the launch area!

Canada Goose on stormwater ponds Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500@150mm 1/1000sec., ƒ/8.0, ISO 800

Canada Goose on stormwater ponds
Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500@150mm
1/1000sec., ƒ/8.0, ISO 800

This was probably the best sighting of the day. The stormwater ponds are open and entirely ice-free! Soon we’ll have Cinnamon Teal, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, and tons of other puddle ducks and shorebirds surrounding these ponds, and hopefully the Forster’s Terns will return and breed on their west ends as well again this year!

Red-winged Blackbird Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500@500mm 1/800sec., ƒ/8.0, ISO 640

Red-winged Blackbird
Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500@500mm
1/800sec., ƒ/8.0, ISO 640

Maybe the second best sighting I’ve had all year was this young Red-winged Blackbird. My first of the year, and in many ways, the true “spring” bird. While I suspect that this little guy got lost in a flock of European Starlings that were heading north earlier than the rest of the blackbirds, they are starting to show up at more and more wetlands in and around Calgary!

male American Robin Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500@500mm 1/800sec., ƒ/6.3, ISO 1600

male American Robin
Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500@500mm
1/800sec., ƒ/6.3, ISO 1600

This male American Robin was at the furthest south extent of our walk, searching among the rocks for a nice juicy arthropod or worm in the water below. There were a few of them along this stretch of rocks near a water outflow, picking their way up and down the little stream.

After that, we headed up to the ponds at Burnsmead in search of the Wood Ducks, Gadwall, and Northern Shovelers that Rose had seen earlier in the morning, and sure enough, we found them all! Wood Ducks are sometimes pretty hard to find, but we had a pair of males at these ponds last Sunday and there have been a few more that have shown up around the city this week as well.

Wood Ducks in flight Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500@500mm 1/800sec., ƒ/8.0, ISO 800

Wood Ducks in flight
Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500@500mm
1/800sec., ƒ/8.0, ISO 800

With all those colors, it’s easy to believe that these are the most photographed waterfowl in North America!

male Gadwall in flight Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500@500mm 1/1000sec., ƒ/8.0, ISO 640

male Gadwall in flight
Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500@500mm
1/1000sec., ƒ/8.0, ISO 640

While Gadwall are relatively nondescript, they sure do show some stark contrasts in flight, and while they’re often quite hard to spot, this male (and his mate) were fairly accommodating as long as I was quiet, moved slow, and there wasn’t too much activity around the pond.

Red-tailed Hawk in flight Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500@500mm 1/1000sec., ƒ/8.0, ISO 200

Red-tailed Hawk in flight
Pentax K-5 + Sigma 150-500@500mm
1/1000sec., ƒ/8.0, ISO 200

All the activity on the ponds drew the attention of this Red-tailed Hawk, who made a fly-by at a bit of a distance to check out what all the fuss was about before flying off to the north.

Looking forward to the next outing and most definitely excited for all the new spring birds coming to Calgary over the next few months!

Have a great week, and good birding!