Tag Archive | mew gull

The Friends of Fish Creek bird the Irrigation Canal

Posted by Dan Arndt

The Western Headworks Canal (known to many of us simply as the Calgary Irrigation Canal, or Bow River Irrigation Canal) is an amazing area to bird any time from early spring all the way through to the beginning of autumn. The canal itself provides foraging and feeding opportunities to all varieties of dabbling ducks throughout the breeding season, while the established trees and shrubs along the edge of the canal are home to no end of songbird species throughout the year.

There is a very special time of year though, just after the first of October, when the Western Irrigation District stops drawing water from the Bow River and allows the canal to drain for the winter. It is at this time that the canal becomes prime feeding habitat for a few more exotic species. Unusual and rare gull species are often found among the flocking Ring-billed Gulls, late migrating shorebirds feed along the extensive mudflats, and the tail end of songbird migration can often bring exciting birds such as Rusty Blackbirds and the occasional Harris’ Sparrow along the edges of the canal. All of this excitement is over far too quickly for some as the water levels rapidly deplete over the course of the first two weeks following the drainage.

According to the Western Irrigation District website, “the Western Irrigation District provides irrigation water to over 400 farms and 96,000 acres of land, and supplies municipal water to over 12,000 people in four different communities through 1,200 km of canals and pipelines.  Like other irrigation districts in Alberta, the WID operates under the rules and procedures of the Irrigation Districts Act.  The WID is headquartered in Strathmore, Alberta, which is approximately 40 kilometers east of Calgary.”

On October 4th, I joined the Friends of Fish Creek to walk the canal a few days after it had begun draining. For one reason or another, this year seemed to have fewer birds than I remember in the past, and the water seemed much lower this early on than previously. That said, the walk started off on a high note while I watched this Northern Flicker feeding on berries in a shrub while I waited for the group.

Northern Flicker

Northern Flicker

::Aperture: ƒ/8|Camera: PENTAX K-3 II|Focal length: 400mm|ISO: 1600|Shutter speed: 1/640s|

Almost immediately upon reaching the edge of the canal, we began seeing some of the diverse assemblage of waterfowl that feed along the canal. The most common of course was the Mallard, with almost all of the males having returned to their brilliant green-headed breeding plumage.

Mallard

Mallard

::Aperture: ƒ/8|Camera: PENTAX K-3 II|Focal length: 500mm|ISO: 1600|Shutter speed: 1/800s|

A lone female American Wigeon dabbled in the shallow water, barely lifting her head to check us out as we walked by.

female American Wigeon

female American Wigeon

::Aperture: ƒ/6.3|Camera: PENTAX K-3 II|Focal length: 500mm|ISO: 1000|Shutter speed: 1/400s|

A little further on, a pair of female Northern Shoveler floated by, followed closely by a pair of female Green-winged Teal.

female Northern Shovelers

female Northern Shovelers

::Aperture: ƒ/6.3|Camera: PENTAX K-3 II|Focal length: 500mm|ISO: 1000|Shutter speed: 1/640s|

Green-winged Teal

female Green-winged Teal

::Aperture: ƒ/6.3|Camera: PENTAX K-3 II|Focal length: 500mm|ISO: 1600|Shutter speed: 1/640s|

The highlight of the waterfowl though are always the Wood Ducks. A fair number of them were found feeding along the canal early in the walk. As we continued down the canal, something spooked them and they flew up the canal and our of sight. These birds are likely from the same stock found at the Inglewood Bird Sanctuary, where they are known to breed each year.

male Wood Duck

male Wood Duck

::Aperture: ƒ/6.3|Camera: PENTAX K-3 II|Focal length: 500mm|ISO: 1600|Shutter speed: 1/400s|

male and female Wood Ducks

male and female Wood Ducks

::Aperture: ƒ/6.3|Camera: PENTAX K-3 II|Focal length: 230mm|ISO: 1600|Shutter speed: 1/640s|

It’s always a bit of a surprise to see what shorebirds we can find down along the canal. It’s one of the best places to get good, close looks at Greater Yellowlegs, often in large numbers.

Greater Yellowlegs

Greater Yellowlegs

::Aperture: ƒ/8|Camera: PENTAX K-3 II|Focal length: 500mm|ISO: 1250|Shutter speed: 1/640s|

Less often though do we get Wilson’s Snipe. This year there seemed to be more than a few feeding along the canal.

Wilson's Snipe

Wilson’s Snipe

::Aperture: ƒ/8|Camera: PENTAX K-3 II|Focal length: 500mm|ISO: 1600|Shutter speed: 1/800s|

It was a little later on that we got a good look at what may have flushed the Wood Ducks earlier in the day. This female Merlin swooped in and perched in the trees right above us for a few moments before flying on and continuing her hunt.

female Merlin

female Merlin

::Aperture: ƒ/8|Camera: PENTAX K-3 II|Focal length: 500mm|ISO: 1250|Shutter speed: 1/800s|

There is one major benefit to the large numbers of Rock Pigeons that take residence in our urban centers here in southern Alberta, but it’s never a pretty sight to see. They make a great meal for any number of hawks, falcons, eagles and owls. Every once in a while though, one of these raptors gets chased off a fresh kill by a family of corvids. It is quite possible that this was a kill stolen from our female Merlin above, or from the Sharp-shinned Hawk that as giving us continuous fly-bys all morning.

Black-billed Magpies scavenging Rock Pigeon remains

Black-billed Magpies scavenging Rock Pigeon remains

::Aperture: ƒ/8|Camera: PENTAX K-3 II|Focal length: 500mm|ISO: 1600|Shutter speed: 1/640s|

While we kept our ears and eyes sharply focused on the shrubs nearby, and our alertness really paid off. We heard a handful of American Tree Sparrows, saw few Dark-eyed Juncos, and caught decent looks at what are likely to be our last Yellow-rumped Warblers for the year.

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Yellow-rumped Warbler

::Aperture: ƒ/8|Camera: PENTAX K-3 II|Focal length: 500mm|ISO: 640|Shutter speed: 1/640s|

It always pays off to check out the gulls down on the canal though. As we walked the canal, we found hundreds of Ring-billed Gulls feeding in the shallow water.

immature (back) and adult (fore) Ring-billed Gull

immature (back) and adult (fore) Ring-billed Gull

::Aperture: ƒ/8|Camera: PENTAX K-3 II|Focal length: 500mm|ISO: 500|Shutter speed: 1/640s|

One of our sharp-eyed participants pointed out this little Mew Gull all by itself. They feed a little bit differently than Ring-billed Gulls tend to, but the real differences are the major field marks. You might note the plain yellow bill, smaller, rounded head, and overall “softer” features than the Ring-billed Gulls above.

Mew Gull

Mew Gull

::Aperture: ƒ/8|Camera: PENTAX K-3 II|Focal length: 500mm|ISO: 1000|Shutter speed: 1/800s|

Mid-November in Pearce Estate Park – But I LOVE identifying gulls!

Posted by Dan Arndt

… said no one ever. I kid, I kid. There are a few die-hard larophiles (from the Latin larus, meaning gull, and the Greek philos, meaning to have a strong affinity for, to love, AKA people with WAY too much time on their hands) out there who spend dozens of hours each year picking through flocks of Ring-billed and California Gulls to pick out a rarity, but I certainly don’t have the patience for that. Some people draw the line at flycatchers, others at shorebirds, specifically peeps, but me, I draw mine at gulls.

Don’t get me wrong. Gulls are wonderful in their own way, but spending hours picking through hundreds of them for something a slightly lighter or darker shade of grey is not my idea of a fun time.

November 15, 2015

November 15, 2015

As fall begins to cool and the ponds and creeks begins to ice over, there are a number of large gravel bars along the Bow River where gulls begin to accumulate in numbers. Our reason for visiting this park were specifically because a couple of uncommon gulls had been reported here resting among the dozens of Ring-billed Gulls. The three species we were here to find were the Thayer’s Gull, Mew Gull, and Lesser Black-backed Gull. We did come up with the first two, but our Sunday group was a few days too late, as the Lesser Black-backed Gull hadn’t been seen since Wednesday.

Mew Gull among Ring-billed Gulls

Mew Gull among Ring-billed Gulls

This photo was taken through my Vortex Viper spotting scope using a PhoneSkope adapter and my Samsung Galaxy S5 built in camera. Can you spot the Mew Gull? I couldn’t for a good half hour. I’ve seen many Mew Gulls in British Columbia, usually associating with California Gulls but never among Ring-billed Gulls. I was expecting to find a gull with a bit of a lighter mantle, rather than darker. The Mew Gull is just a little bit to the left of center, resting with its bill hidden.

Mew Gull and Ring-billed Gulls

Mew Gull and Ring-billed Gulls

Here’s a shot of the bird zoomed in a bit closer with its bill out. It’s now obvious that the bird is a shade or two darker than the Ring-billed Gulls on the mantle, and has a tiny, unmarked yellow bill. Again, the Mew Gull is the one just a little bit left of center with the round head and dark eye. A tough spot, to be sure!

Ring-billed Gulls on the weir

Ring-billed Gulls on the weir

::Aperture: ƒ/8|Camera: PENTAX K-5|Focal length: 500mm|ISO: 500|Shutter speed: 1/800s|

immature Herring Gull

immature Herring Gull

::Aperture: ƒ/8|Camera: PENTAX K-5|Focal length: 500mm|ISO: 500|Shutter speed: 1/800s|

We did get a good look at many of the other gulls, including this immature Herring Gull sitting on the remains of the old weir. It was particularly noticeable due to its large size, pink legs, and overall dark plumage, but that bill shape was also a good indicator!

Ring-billed Gulls

Ring-billed Gulls

::Aperture: ƒ/8|Camera: PENTAX K-5|Focal length: 500mm|ISO: 500|Shutter speed: 1/1000s|

And of course, here are a couple of the ever-present Ring-billed Gulls on the water. The low angle sunlight and the perfectly clear morning sky made it a bit tough to expose correctly, but it’ll be one of the last shots I would get of any gulls until late February or early March next year. It’s surprising every year how they just seem to totally disappear around the end of November and by the time the Christmas Bird Count rolls around, they’re almost a distant memory!

Double-crested Cormorant

Double-crested Cormorant

::Aperture: ƒ/8|Camera: PENTAX K-5|Focal length: 500mm|ISO: 640|Shutter speed: 1/640s|

Another great sighting that day was this immature Double-crested Cormorant, who gave us a fly-by and perched in a tree across the river shortly after. This would be the latest sighting of this bird I’ve ever had, and from other reports, it is apparently sticking around a bit further downstream!

immature Bald Eagle

immature Bald Eagle

::Aperture: ƒ/8|Camera: PENTAX K-5|Focal length: 500mm|ISO: 640|Shutter speed: 1/640s|

adult Bald Eagle

adult Bald Eagle

::Aperture: ƒ/8|Camera: PENTAX K-5|Focal length: 500mm|ISO: 640|Shutter speed: 1/640s|

We headed a little west where earlier groups in the week had found a some Bald Eagles, and we certainly weren’t disappointed. At first, the immature eagle flew in to check us out, and a few minutes later the adult flew in and flushed the younger bird off. When I had visited the park earlier in the week, I noted that the gulls seemed to have a sixth sense for approaching eagles, flushing easily a full minute before they came into view from my angle. When you’re a gull you have to be on alert for predators, especially ones that can so easily take you out like a Bald Eagle can!

male Merlin

male Merlin

::Aperture: ƒ/8|Camera: PENTAX K-5|Focal length: 500mm|ISO: 1250|Shutter speed: 1/640s|

While we were watching the Bald Eagles, we spotted this male Merlin as he flew in with what appears to be a House Sparrow in his talons. Because this part of the park is adjacent to a large residential area, it wasn’t too surprising to hear and see the House Sparrows, it was a bit of a surprise to see this guy!

female Merlin

female Merlin

::Aperture: ƒ/9|Camera: PENTAX K-5|Focal length: 500mm|ISO: 640|Shutter speed: 1/800s|

We walked all the way back to the east end of the park where we watched this girl fly in and perch above us. I suspect she was watching the ground for voles, as she sat there staring at the ground for quite some time while we watched.

Black-billed Magpie

Black-billed Magpie

::Aperture: ƒ/9|Camera: PENTAX K-5|Focal length: 500mm|ISO: 1600|Shutter speed: 1/800s|

As we watched the Merlin, a couple of Black-billed Magpies flew in and began foraging on the ground, but also keeping a sharp eye on her. They spent a good amount of time keeping an eye on us as well.

Around this time, the traffic on the pathway started to pick up due to a running race, so we headed back in to the inside of the park.

distant Common Redpoll

distant Common Redpoll

::Aperture: ƒ/9|Camera: PENTAX K-5|Focal length: 500mm|ISO: 400|Shutter speed: 1/640s|

One of the birds we had heard flitting about overhead for most of the morning was a single Common Redpoll. Towards the end of our walk that morning it popped up into this shrub and perched for a few minutes, giving everyone good (but distant) looks at it. While this season is a pretty good one for these birds, I still haven’t had a chance to see one up close and personal.

male Mallard

male Mallard

::Aperture: ƒ/8|Camera: PENTAX K-5|Focal length: 500mm|ISO: 500|Shutter speed: 1/400s|

On our way out of the park, we walked past a couple Mallards in the floating fen ponds near the entrance, showing off once again their bright green breeding plumage, curly black tail feathers, and complex browns and grays. It’s nice to see them back in full colors after a few months of seeing them in eclipse plumage!

And that’s it for another week! Have a great week, and good birding!