This spring a family of Great Horned Owls nested in the Burnsmead area of Fish Creek Provincial Park. Max Ortiz Aguilar got these photos of the family after the young had hatched and were almost ready to start branching.
Great Horned Owls – mother with two downy young. Burnsmead, April 16, 2017.
Photo by Max Ortiz Aguilar.
Great Horned Owl, male standing guard by the nest, Burnsmead, April 16, 2017.
Photo credit: Jeannie Stafford/USFWS. A greater sage-grouse male struts at a lek (dancing or mating ground) near Bridgeport, CA to attract a mate. March 1, 2010. (From Wikimedia Commons.)
The Greater Sage-Grouse is the rarest nesting bird in Alberta. We are at the northern and western limits of their range, so they only occur in the SE corner of the province. Historically, the range was much larger, but the species experienced a 98% decline in population in the 25-year span from 1988 to 2012. By 2012, they were extirpated from British Columbia and left with only remnant populations in Alberta with 40 to 60 adult birds, and in Saskatchewan with only 55 to 80 adult birds. By 2013, they were also extirpated from five U.S. states. (See this Wikipedia entry for more information on range and population numbers.)
Conservation organizations have launched a number of legal actions to try to save the birds in Alberta, and protections are now in place. It is important the birders understand these laws and respect the need for the birds to remain undisturbed, particularly when the grouse are on their mating leks.
Recently Greg Wagner was contacted by a birder friend who had gone to view a lek in SE Alberta. He was approached by a conservation officer who told him that the birding party could be charged under the Alberta Public Lands Act. If they had been there a day later, on April 1, they could also have been charged under the provisions of the Emergency Protection Order which was issued in 2013.
All birders should be aware that under existing laws birders could be charged for being near leks and should be aware of the law before they go to view leks. Under no circumstances should people give the location of leks to others, particularly on social media.
Greater Sage Grouse, male, from rear. By U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters – Uploaded by Dolovis, Public Domain. (From Wikimedia Commons.)
Greg Wagner has written the following very interesting and informative account of the Greater Sage-Grouse and the struggle to protect it in Alberta.
By Greg Wagner.
The following information pertains to laws aimed at protecting Greater Sage-Grouse in southeastern Alberta. People should have a clear understanding of these laws before going to view a lek. Charges could be laid under a variety of statutes.
Throughout their range in western North America, declining Sage-Grouse populations have been associated with increased road densities and traffic volumes. Genetic and population modelling as well as habitat modelling in southeastern Alberta indicate that the significant Sage Grouse population declines over the past two decades are related to increased road densities, traffic volumes and human activity.
Because of population declines in Alberta and Saskatchewan, Ecojustice on behalf of the Alberta Wilderness Association, Federation of Alberta Naturalists, Grassland Naturalists, Nature Saskatchewan and the Western Canadian Wilderness Association filed a lawsuit claiming that the federal Recovery Strategy for Greater Sage-Grouse neglected to identify critical habitat for Sage-Grouse despite having ample scientific evidence to do so. It is important to note that naturalists launched this lawsuit. Further information about the lawsuit can be found here. A host of legal and management actions have occurred since then.
On September 17, 2013 conservation groups welcomed the federal government’s announcement that it intended to introduce an emergency protection order for Canada’s endangered Greater Sage-Grouse, but they also cautioned that the devil will be in the details. The federal government’s announcement did not include specific language around one of the key threats to the Sage-Grouse’s recovery and survival: oil and gas development in its critical habitat.
On September 25, 2013, on-the-ground action priorities were identified for the management of Greater Sage-Grouse including access restrictions.
On December 4, 2013, the federal government published its long-awaited Emergency Protection Order for Greater Sage-Grouse. The order came into effect on February 18, 2014. The goal of the Emergency Order was to “achieve the best protection for the Greater Sage-Grouse, while minimizing impacts on landowners and agricultural producers.” The prohibitions contained in the order only apply to habitat on federal and provincial crown lands in southeastern Alberta and southwestern Saskatchewan. Conservation groups welcomed the long-awaited Emergency Protection Order, but were concerned whether it would provide sufficient protection for the species.. The emergency order can be viewed here. Among other things, the Order contains the following provision “A person must not operate a facility, motor vehicle or machine that produces a noise that exceeds 45 dB(A) at any given time between 1.5 hours before sunset to 1.5 hours after sunrise during the period beginning on April 1 and ending on May 30 of any given year” on identified federal and provincial lands.
In 2003, the Alberta Government clarified the rules for recreational and exploration access on agricultural dispositions issued under the Public Lands Act, including grazing leases and farm development leases. On most provincial public lands in southeastern Alberta, access permits are required to access public lands. More information about public land access can be found here.
There are also sections of the provincial Wildlife Act that pertain to harassment of wildlife. If actions of people are deemed to be detrimental to the birds, these types of charges could be pursued. However, such actions would have to be blatant, but could include a photographer who was harassing birds at close range.
The Greater Sage-Grouse habitat is not too close to Calgary, but local birders should also be aware of similar protections in place for Sharp-tailed Grouse. This species was formerly common in the area, and even had a lek on Nose Hill, which is now within the city limits. Like the Sage-Grouse, Sharp-tails are sensitive to disturbance, and their numbers have been in decline in recent years and their range has been reduced. They are seldom seen near the city any more, but there are leks within a 90-minute drive of Calgary.
Sharp-tailed Grouse on a Lek, SW of Calgary, March 31, 2017. Photo by Dan Arndt.
According to the law, you must stay at least one-half kilometer away from an active Sharp-tail lek. The only way to see one up close is to be hidden in a blind before the birds arrive in the morning, and stay hidden until after they depart the lek. If they are disturbed on the lek, they may abandon it, and this could impact their breeding success.
Finally, a reminder that nesting season is underway in Calgary (Great Horned Owl chicks have already hatched), so be aware that it is illegal to disturb most nesting birds. Do not share the location of nests of sensitive species such as owls.
Chris Fisher has prepared the following notice regarding nests and regulations:
By all means get out and go birding, but respect the birds and the law!
Here are some more photographs, taken by Colin Nakahara, of the Swainson’s Hawk and chicks at a nest in SE Calgary. This post from last week showed the downy young in the nest. Today’s photos, taken on July 14, 21, and 29, show the growing chicks. Unfortunately one chick didn’t make it.
All photos by Colin Nakahara.
Adult Swainson’s Hawk (left) and young in the nest. July 14, 2016.
July 14, 2016.
The adult hawk, keeping an eye on Colin but appearing calm.
July 21. Another week older, and a little closer to leaving the nest.
Swainson’s Hawks commonly nest right in the city, but since the nests are high in the treetops it is usually difficult to see the young birds before they fledge. Here are some photos taken from the rooftop of a business in the Highfield industrial area of Calgary. They were sent to me by Mark Dann, and the photographer is Colin Nakahara.
June 28, 2016: Downy Swainson’s Hawks chicks in the nest. Photo by Colin Nakahara.
July 7, 2016: The young birds are beginning to show their colours. Photo by Colin Nakahara.
The adult bird is aware of Colin when he is on the roof and keeps an eye on him but has not been threatening or agitated. I hope to post more photos to show the growth of these beautiful birds!
Last week took the temperatures well above zero degrees C, and to another of the parks heavily impacted by the flood of 2013. Pearce Estate Park is just upstream from the Inglewood Bird Sanctuary, which is currently still closed due to the damage it sustained, and likely will be until the summer or fall of 2015. Each year, we usually visit Inglewood Bird Sanctuary around this time in search for the first returning gulls of the season, and so we figured that Pearce Estate would also do us a solid and turn up some northward migrants, and we sure weren’t disappointed!
Pearce Estate Park March 16, 2014
Right from the start I knew it was going to be a good day when one of our first bird species seen were a pair of American Robins. It’s likely that they were either local migrants into the city, or overwintering birds dispersing as the temperatures rose. Unless we banded and tracked them, or attached a GPS transmitter to them, it’s hard to say for sure, but they were doing a good job gleaning something to eat from the tall grasses and low brush atop the hill just north of the parking lot.
male American Robin
The calls of newly arrived European Starlings filled the park, along with the odd House Finch, Downy Woodpecker, and almost incessant calls of Northern Flickers asserting their dominance and claiming territory. Along the train bridge we ran into this punk rock Common Raven with his freshly stenciled grafitti.
Only a few moments later, we captured a pair of California Gulls, the first of the season for our group, flying by at a fairly low altitude, but fast enough that I only caught them moving away from us.
California Gulls in flight
On the ice down below was a lone Canada Goose, perhaps waiting for a mate to return, or just taking a breather on the iced up gravel bar.
Back on the pathway, this pair of Northern Flickers put on quite a show for us, flying to and fro and displaying at each other in a very long and drawn out territory dispute. I’m still not sure who the winner is!
dueling Northern Flickers
dueling Northern Flickers
It really seemed as if the area near the train bridge was the hub of our activity, as this male House Sparrow had been caught in the act of taking nest material back to one of the support struts for the bridge. Who’d have thought that’s where they’d make their home?
And once again back on the bridge we had some great views of the iridescence of the feral Rock Pigeons.
Down on the ice they were feeding on something that had likely spilled from rail cars earlier in the week, and this oddly colored brownish pigeon stood out from the rest.
oddly colored Rock Pigeon
We decided that we’d seen enough of the area around the bridge, and were delighted to get some close up looks at the European Starlings that we would have had to have been deaf to miss hearing. This male European Starling posed quite nicely for the group, and proceeded to remove filler from the hole that he and his partner had decided would be their nesting area for the year.
male European Starling
We headed downstream a bit to see if we could see any more gulls, and also to show how badly cut the banks near the Inglewood Bird Sanctuary were. The damage was more extensive than I’d even imagined. Along the way we found a couple of Black-billed Magpie nests, and even saw a few of them taking materials to their nests to either build them anew, or to reinforce the structure that’s in place.
Black-billed Magpie at nest
And so ends another week with the Friends of Fish Creek Winter birding course! Next week, we recap our visit to Lafarge Meadows, where even more migrants have been found!
Earlier this year, we were informed of what appeared to be a female Northern Saw-whet Owl sitting on a nest in a Edworthy Park. To make sure the owl successfully nested and fledged its young, we kept the location pretty quiet, and both Bob Lefebvre and myself visited the nest a few times just to check in on her and make sure she was still there. The area where the nest was located was a fairly low-traffic area, so we suspected chances were very good that she would successfully fledge a full nest of owlets. As the weeks progressed, things seemed to be going quite well, until one day she was simply gone. Here are a few photos of her checking me out as I checked her out:
female Northern Saw-whet Owl giving me the evil eye May 2013
female Northern Saw-whet Owl checking me out from inside the nest May 2013
Last year, I discovered a location in Fish Creek P.P. where I found 2 (and possibly all 3 species of hummingbirds that commonly occur in Calgary) nesting. In June, I had found a pair of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds and not long afterwards, Hank Vanderpol and I discovered what appeared to be a female Calliope hummingbird sitting on a nest. A couple weeks later, a Nature Calgary field trip I led to the area discovered a Rufous hummingbird nest not far away.
This year, I was finally able to get out and search for the hummingbirds last week. It took me about an hour before I finally spotted a hummingbird moving about, but always returning close to me. That’s when I realized that this female Ruby-throated Hummingbird (for this is what it was), might have a nest nearby.
Female Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Sure enough, before very long, the female Ruby-throated Hummingbird had flown to her nest which had not been too far away from me the entire time.
At first the nest was tough to spot…
It was neat to watch the female as she sat on her nest, presumably incubating eggs. From time to time she would fly off but she was always alert and ready to defend her nest.
The most interesting part of watching this hummingbird though was the way she defended her nest from anything she perceived to be a threat, including a confused and startled Cedar Waxwing who twice made the mistake of landing too near the hummingbird’s nest. She swiftly drove the waxwing off despite the fact it probably wasn’t a threat; I suppose one can never be too cautious!
Returning back to her nest
I will do my best to follow this nest in the coming weeks and see what comes of it. Hoping that the female will successfully raise her brood of young!
It was quite evident by the bird activity last week at Carburn Park that spring would be arriving soon, and it became even more clear by the presence of two pairs of nesting Great Horned Owls at the East end of Fish Creek Provincial Park. One of our longest walks to date, at over 7km, we covered a huge amount of ground and saw some amazing sights.
Bow Valley Ranch to Lafarge Meadows and back
Meeting at Bow Valley Ranch, we headed along the hillside on the north edge of the lot to attempt to find a Ring-necked Pheasant which had been seen and heard just before my arrival, but to no avail. Heading southward towards the creek, we found the first male Great Horned Owl guarding a nest, and female, that remained undiscovered by our group. A success in the eyes of any parenting owl, but it would be a great find in a month or two once the eggs hatch and babies begin to fledge, and even moreso if someone were there to get some photos! On the other hand, a well hidden nest keeps away those who wouldn’t treat it with the proper respect.
Great Horned Owl - Male 1
Great Horned Owl - slightly irritated
As we headed across the road through the park, and further south, we were constantly serenaded by the drumming and calling of the incredibly numerous Northern Flickers and Downy Woodpeckers in the area, both of which numbered at least twenty individuals through the course of our walk.
Downy Woodpecker - male
Downy Woodpecker - female
Male Downy Woodpecker digging for a morsel
One of the many male Northern Flickers seen yesterday.
One of the most common questions of the day was, quite honestly, not surprising. With the incredible numbers of European Starlings coming in, many of those on our walk simply had no idea just how wide the range of Starling vocalizations truly was, and almost every variation of their call drew at least one question of “What bird made that call?” To which my answer usually was: “This one.”
The scourge of those who bird by ear.
We headed toward the south end of the park, and stopped briefly by the river to see if there were any unusual birds on the ice, on the shores, or in the water, but surprisingly, there were very few waterfowl at all on the Bow River. Directly on the river were a few Mallards, and on one pond just to the west, a few more Mallards and a pair of Common Goldeneye.
Mallard ducks. (Female on left, male on right)
Common Goldeneye (male left, female right)
Turning back towards Sikome Lake, we came across the second pair of Great Horned Owls. The male appeared slightly agitated, and as we approached, actually flew closer to the nest to better guard it. It also appeared that this pair was much better known, as there were quite a few others viewing the pair as well. The female, though well hidden, was barely visible sitting atop the clutch of eggs.
A slightly more agitated and alert male Great Horned Owl, guarding his mate.
Male Great Horned Owl
Female Great Horned Owl on nest. Nope, I can't see it either.
Not too far away from this pair was another alert parent guarding his potential offspring. I wonder how many of his offspring will help feed the developing owlets in the coming months.
Canada Goose on nest
After stopping to watch this Canada Goose for a bit, we headed back north towards the vehicles, but first stopped to see just a few more woodpeckers in action. Both the Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers in this part of the part are incredibly tolerant to people walking only a few meters away.
Male Hairy Woodpecker
Feeding female Downy Woodpecker
And with that, we headed back to the vehicles, and home. It’s quite an exciting time here during spring migration, and one of the things every birder looks forward to with great anticipation. What will the coming week bring? I suppose I’ll just have to wait until next Sunday to find out!
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.
On a recent camping trip to Kikomun Creek Provincial park in south-eastern British Columbia (near Fernie), I spent hours out on the main lake at the campsite; Surveyor’s Lake, observing and photographing Common Loons. Home to a breeding pair of loons, Surveyor’s lake is a busy lake; hundreds of people crisscross the lake each day in canoes, rafts, paddleboats and kayaks. All these people, however, do not deter the loons and once again, they have nested in the area and have one big young one.
Due to all the traffic on this lake, the loons are not shy and will sometimes even approach people. At one point, I was sitting in my raft photographing these beautiful birds when one of the adults and the young one started to swim towards me. They came closer and closer until I could have touched the young loon with my paddle!
The young loon seemed to be doing an impression of an eel; he would get down low in the water and start swimming about. This last photo shows how close the young loon came; this was taken with my 500mm lens and is uncropped; I had to sit very still, otherwise a sudden motion would have scared the youngster away!
The adult loons were very protective of their young one; when an immature Bald Eagle flew low over the lake, the adult loons had already seen it, were loudly giving their alarm call and both parents were protectively circling around the young loon.
Occasionally, the loons were too fast for me and my camera and would dive right as I would take a photograph.
While I watched this loon family, they consumed a lot of food and I later found out that one pair of loons with two chicks will eat more than 1000 kg of small coarse fish over a breeding season. That is a lot of fish! Hopefully the lake is well stocked!
I immensely enjoyed watching this family; it was amazing to watch their lives as they try to raise the next generation of loons. I also saw hope; despite this species sensitivity to human disturbance, these loons can survive among humans and this adaptability could help keep these magnificent birds off the threatened species list.