Tag Archive | travel tuesday

Travel Tuesday: Southern Alberta’s Snowy Owl Irruption of 2013-2014

Posted by Dan Arndt

There have been many articles published this year about the incredible, record-setting irruption of Snowy Owls in Eastern Canada and the Eastern United States. For example, over the span of one weekend in late 2013, over 300 individual birds were counted in Newfoundland. In a similar fashion to a story from last winter of a Snowy Owl being seen in Hawai’i (where it was unfortunately shot by USDA’s Wildlife Division), this year one was seen as far south as Bermuda!

Snowy Owl Beiseker, AB December 2013

Snowy Owl
Beiseker, AB
December 2013

You can tell just from eBird that there are Snowy Owls all across Canada and the northern U.S., but relatively few make it further west into British Columbia.

eBird map showing Snowy Owl sightings across the interior of Canada and the United States

eBird map showing Snowy Owl sightings across the interior of Canada and the United States
Sightings range from October 1, 2013 to February 10, 2014

Here in the Calgary area, we’ve been rather lucky as well, as this is the third winter in a row where we’ve been on the receiving end of a fairly large irruption. While I haven’t been out as much this year to search for them as I was last, I’ve still had some fairly good luck, netting four owls in a single day in November in the Beiseker area in mid-December, two owls at once in a single day around Frank Lake in late January, and six owls in a single day in the Blackie area in early February. Some local die-hards have even reported finding as many as fifteen (yes, 15) in a single, all-day trip southeast of Calgary.

Snowy Owl Blackie, AB February 1, 2014

Snowy Owl
Blackie, AB
February 1, 2014

This map from eBird shows pretty much what one would expect given those numbers, and I wouldn’t hesitate to consider this the furthest westerly extent of the same population of Snowy Owls responsible for the massive numbers out east.

Snowy Owls in Southern Alberta Note: the red markers indicate owls seen in the past two weeks, while the blue markers indicate older sightings

Snowy Owls in Southern Alberta in the winter of 2013-2014
Note: the red markers indicate owls seen in the past 30 days, while the blue markers indicate older sightings

One interesting thing discovered by Project SNOWstorm is that many of these Snowy Owls are in very good health, which goes against the common belief that these irruptions are the fallout from a crash in the lemming population on the tundra, leading starving owls to search further afield for suitable food to survive the winter. There are some others that suggest that this common belief may be completely erroneous, based on the research of Norman Smith, Tom McDonald, and other researchers in the U.S. and Canada.

Snowy Owl Beiseker, AB December 13, 2013

Snowy Owl
Beiseker, AB
December 13, 2013

Of course, not all the Snowy Owls that make their way down here in the early winter will return north. Even those in great health that simply are unable to adapt to the food supply further south, those that have close encounters with power lines, vehicles, or other man-made hazards will simply be unable to return north due to injury or death.

Snowy Owl Frank Lake January 25, 2014

Snowy Owl
Frank Lake
January 25, 2014

You might have noticed as well that I tend not to label my Snowy Owl photos as male or female. Based on data collected from Scott Weidensaul and Norman Smith indicate that the usual conclusions of all-white individuals being older males, and heavily barred/marked individuals being young females may be much more complex than previously thought.

Snowy Owl Beiseker, AB December 13, 2013

Snowy Owl
Beiseker, AB
December 13, 2013

One thing that is indisputable by any birder, photographer, or even someone who simply enjoys nature and all of its beauty, is that Snowy Owls are absolutely marvelous creatures, and always a treat to find, whether it’s the first one you’ve ever seen in your entire life, or the twentieth one you’ve seen that day. I’ll never get tired of photographing them, especially when they pose in front of such a nice backdrop!

Snowy Owl Blackie, AB February 1, 2014

Snowy Owl
Blackie, AB
February 1, 2014

Have a wonderful week, and good birding!

Travel Tuesday – Kinbrook Island Provincial Park

In all the commotion of the flood, the heartache, and the hard times many of us, our loved ones, and our friends are going through, sometimes you just need to get away for a little while. On Thursday night, my neighborhood was evacuated, and having expected the news earlier in the day, I packed up the jeep and convinced the better half that it would be a good idea to go camping for the weekend, until we could safely return home, so we packed up the only valuables in our basement (our camping supplies) and headed out.

Our destination was unknown initially, and we just wanted to get away from the swelling rivers and get a good night’s rest, but we found ourselves in Brooks, and headed down to the campground at Kinbrook Island Provincial Park.

Situated on Lake Newell, the campground is home to a number of grassland species that you’d be hard pressed to find here in Calgary, and many others that are here, but maybe a bit harder to track down. Located about an hour and a half south-east of Calgary on the Trans-Canada Highway, it is close enough that you can safely complete a full day trip there and back with plenty of birding time within the park grounds, but the camping is phenomenal, especially in early summer with all of the summer species singing their hearts out.

Tree Swallow hunting over the lake

Tree Swallow hunting over the lake

Western Kingbird looking quite regal

Western Kingbird looking quite regal

Baltimore Oriole catching some grub

Baltimore Oriole catching some grub

Mourning Dove skulking about

Mourning Dove skulking about

Brown Thrasher, lead vocals of the Dawn Chorus

Brown Thrasher, lead vocals of the Dawn Chorus

Ring-billed Gull portrait

Ring-billed Gull portrait

Red-winged Blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird

female Canvasback and young

female Canvasback and young

Baltimore Oriole

Baltimore Oriole

I'm very unused to seeing Brewer's Blackbirds in trees. Around Calgary they're most commonly seen on gravel roads near sloughs!

I’m very unused to seeing Brewer’s Blackbirds in trees. Around Calgary they’re most commonly seen on gravel roads near sloughs!

Vesper Sparrow

Vesper Sparrow

This male Northern Harrier was one of two Harriers I saw over the weekend. It was also the only species of raptor I saw on the campground over all three days.

This male Northern Harrier was one of two Harriers I saw over the weekend. It was also the only species of raptor I saw on the campground over all three days.

The irate chatter of the Marsh Wren was by far the most vocal bird I heard on the entire Nature Walk loop on Sunday morning.

The irate chatter of the Marsh Wren was by far the most vocal bird I heard on the entire Nature Walk loop on Sunday morning.

This Eastern Kingbird decided to come investigate what I was doing sitting down by the lake shore.

This Eastern Kingbird decided to come investigate what I was doing sitting down by the lake shore.

 

Now that I’m safely back in my unflooded home, my thoughts are turning more to the cleanup of our city, our parks, and hopes that all our readers made it through the worst of it unscathed.

Good birding, and stay safe.

Travel Tuesdays – Southeast Alberta Big-ish Day

Posted by Dan Arndt

Alberta has such a wide variety of environments that I’m constantly finding new areas, new regions, and entirely new birds around the province. One area that I have never spent any significant time in was in the south-east corner of the province. In fact, the last time I ventured east of Strathmore was in 2005, when I visited Dinosaur Provincial Park in my under-grad to do some prospecting in some of the private access coulees with a friend of mine working on his Ph. D.

I had hoped to visit Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park this summer, or at least Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park, time got away from me and other priorities came up.  Thankfully, fellow blogger David Pugh, over at “A Calgary Birder” had some free time on his hands and asked me along to visit some spots he had heard good things about.

Our route was planned, and we headed out at just after 4:30 in the morning with plans to visit Kinbrook Island Provincial Park, Many Islands Lake, Cypress Hills, Pakowki Lake, and a few other stops along the way.

We arrived at Kinbrook Island Provincial Park campground at just after sunrise. The sloughs on each side of the road in were buzzing with insects, and a few Yellow-headed Blackbirds as well as the ubiquitous Red-winged Blackbirds were feasting. We managed to spot some early peeps for the day, along with some Spotted Sandpipers, a few Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, and we even managed to find some Long-billed Dowitchers in the early-morning light.

After a brief drive through the campground listening for warblers, we stopped at the south end to look over the lake. American White Pelicans, hundreds of eclipse plumage ducks, and even a Common Loon were visible from the point, but I think one of the best birds of the day (so far) was this lone Brown Thrasher, who was mixed with a small flock of Yellow-headed Blackbirds feeding on insects beside the road.

Brown Thrasher

Brown Thrasher – My second ever sighting of this impressive bird.

One final stop at the far south end of the campground was a row of low brush along the lake front, which was inhabited by no less than ten Western Kingbirds, the same number of Eastern Kingbirds, some Wilson’s Warblers, and a few other species of flycatchers, like this (seemingly dark) Western Wood-Pewee.

Western Kingbird

Western Kingbird

Western Wood-Pewee

Western Wood-Pewee

Eastern Kingbird

Eastern Kingbird

After a very successful first stop, we moved out and headed further east to Medicine Hat and points eastward. Just outside of Suffield, I spotted what appeared to be a raptor in the field sitting on the ground, presumably dispatching its prey. I hesitated only for a moment, but thought it would be a great photo opportunity, so we turned around to get a closer look. On the second pass, David and I scanned the field like hawks ourselves, until we both, almost simultaneously blurted out “Burrowing Owl!?”. The brakes were applied liberally, and as we both scrambled with our gear, it seemed our sudden stop had spooked a few of them, who flew off in various directions. Two brave holdouts remained, with one coming quite close to inspect us, then returning to the burrow. The other, a juvenile, attempted to hide in the tall grass at the edge of the clearing.

Burrowing Owl

Burrowing Owl – This brave owl inspects the curious trespassers.

Defending the burrow

Can you spot the second owl in this photo?

After spending about a half hour watching these beautiful little owls from a distance, we decided it was time to continue onwards. We rolled through Medicine Hat without incident, spotting many different birds as we drove, but nothing new for the day until we turned north. The terrain was visibly different than even the farmers fields near Calgary, and the birds present were distinctly “prairie” species, unlike those nearby which are a mix of boreal, grasslands, and foothills species. The first major indicator of this was the massive Ferruginous Hawk that we passed as we headed to Many Islands Lake. Sadly, I didn’t get any shots of the bird until it was too far off to distinguish. As we got onto some of the side roads though, we did find a small slough, along with its iron-fisted dictator overseeing its subjects, which included Mallards, Northern Pintails, and Green-winged Teals primarily. The dictator of which I speak is the majestic and impassionate Peregrine Falcon, ruler of these wetlands.

Peregrine Falcon

Always managing to look regal, Peregrine Falcons are one of my favourite raptors.

As we neared Many Islands Lake, the variety of the sparrows was made up of old familiar faces, some less familiar ones, and some brand new ones to both David and I. First, the Savannah Sparrows were numerous, but nowhere near as widespread as the Vesper Sparrows. Topping off the list though were no small number of Lark Buntings, which we were certain were some strange morph of Vesper or Lark Sparrows… turns out we were both dead wrong! Another old familiar face were the many and numerous Horned Larks, always posing perfectly for the camera.

Savannah Sparrow

Savannah Sparrow

Lark Bunting

Lark Bunting

Horned Lark

Horned Lark

And while we tend to focus on the birds we see on our outings, one cannot ignore the sheer number of Pronghorn Antelope at the SE corner of the province. In the span of the day, we saw no less than 40 of these beauties, but none came quite as close as this large male.

Pronghorn Antelope

Pronghorn Antelope

At Many Islands Lake we saw hundreds of ducks, shorebirds, and even managed to separate out a pair of Hudsonian Godwits among the numerous Marbled Godwits out on the islands, along with a few Willets, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, and Killdeer. Unfortunately they were too far out, and the sun far too hot, to allow for any acceptable photos. Atmospheric aberration at 500mm on a 30+ degree day is stunningly messy.

From Many Islands Lake, we headed south through Medicine Hat, and decided for a brief stop at Red Rock Coulee, between Medicine Hat and Pakowki Lake, turning up a few more Horned  Larks, Rock Wren, and our first distinctively clear looks at a Lark Sparrow.

Rock Wren

Rock Wren

Vesper Sparrow

Vesper Sparrow

Between Red Rock Coulee and Pakowki Lake, we stopped at a few drainage ditches that ran under the road through culverts, and came across a pair of Loggerhead Shrike. Another bonus bird for the day!

Loggerhead Shrike

Loggerhead Shrike

Pakowki Lake gave us good views of Pectoral, Baird’s, and even a lone Stilt Sandpiper. It was a fortunate find, but not so fortunate for the bird who appeared to be suffering from a broken wing. Out on the lake further we spotted Western Grebes, American Avocets, many more Least and Semipalmated Sandpipers, Killdeer, and Willets.

Stilt Sandpiper

Stilt Sandpiper

Leaving Pakowki Lake, we stopped in at Foremost to fill up for gas and spotted a kettle of Common Nighthawks flying overhead. I had no idea they grouped up into such large groups to migrate. David and I estimated at least 40 individuals flying overhead, and at least half that many had already passed before I looked up to investigate that odd “PEENT!” call that they’re so well known for.

We finished the day at Frank Lake in the fading light, adding Clark’s Grebe, Great-horned Owl, and a few others to our list before calling it a day and heading home. In total, our species list came to 104 for the day, with a handful of lifers for the both of us, and many great new places to explore!

Travel Tuesday – Alberta Birds of Prey Foundation, Coaldale, AB

Posted by Dan Arndt

 

One of my favourite trips in the wonderful book “Day Trips from Calgary” by Bill Corbett, is the magical and amazing Alberta Birds of Prey Foundation, located in Coaldale, Alberta. The drive itself is wonderful and offers plenty of opportunities for birding the dozens of lakes, sloughs, and fields in the two and a half hour trip into southern Alberta, but the grounds of the visitor centre would turn any non-birder into a confirmed bird lover.

 

You don’t even have to go in to the centre to get your bird fix. Surrounding the visitor centre are a series of ponds and marshes that are home not only to shorebirds, but also to passerines, flycatchers, and even large numbers of waterfowl.

A few of these Common Yellowthroat were seen just outside the visitor centre just before it opened.

Three or four Greater Yellowlegs were picking food out of the water just west of the visitor centre.

“But neither of these are birds of prey!” I hear you shouting. You’re right, they’re not. So, without further ado, on with the show!

Last year, the visitor centre housed a juvenile Swainson’s Hawk, which was penned near the front desk.

Juvenile Swainson’s Hawk

This year though, we were greeted by Basil, the Burrowing Owl, who cooed and huffed, but investigated us with as much curiousity as we had about him.

Basil the Burrowing Owl

There is a huge portion of the Birds of Prey Foundation that is devoted to rehabilitation of injured or orphaned birds of prey. Some of the current residents are recovering from their injuries, such as the Broad-winged Hawk and the Rough-legged Hawk in their care. Both of these birds are recovering from wing injuries, and will require rehabilitation for quite some time before they can be released back into the wild.

Broad-winged Hawk

Rough-legged Hawk

A few others birds on display are of unknown affinity, and I wasn’t able to track any of the volunteers down to ask them for clarification, but they’re beautiful birds nonetheless.

Northern Harrier

Long-eared Owl

Ferruginous Hawk

Great Gray Owl

Others are permanent residents of the centre, and are part of breeding programs that are incredibly successful. Both the Merlins and Burrowing Owls are successful parents, and have regularly fledged offspring for quite a few years.

Merlin

Burrowing Owl

Arguably just as important as the rehabilitation, breeding, and even the care of these gorgeous raptors are the educational animals that they keep on hand, (and in some cases, in hand!) for public events, or even just for a private moment or two with visitors to the Birds of Prey Foundation visitors centre.

Barn Owl – though not considered “native” to Alberta, they are occasionally reported here.

The Short-eared Owl is quite possibly my favourite owl species.

Spirit, the blind Golden Eagle

Lauren and Alex Jr., one of the Burrowing Owl mascots of the Birds of Prey centre.

 

Don’t we just look SO happy together?

It’s hard to narrow down from the dozens of pictures that I took here to figure out just which ones are the best and which ones to post. Even looking over the post now, I know I’ve missed a few species and quite a few great photos that would represent them, but really, it’s worth going and visiting for yourself. They’re open this season until September 10, 2012, and will reopen to the public early next May. Why are you still reading this? Get down there and visit them for yourself!

Travel Tuesday – The Many Faces of Frank Lake

Posted by Dan Arndt

Frank Lake has been one of my absolute favourite standby birding areas since I started seriously committing myself to the hobby. It’s been a little over a year now, and I must have visited the lake at least twenty times or so, in all seasons. Winter, Spring, Summer, and Autumn, though I’ll admit, I missed out on some great birds down there last fall as I was finishing up my degree, this year will be a very different story!

While shorebirds and waterfowl are the primary draw, sparrows, wrens, falcons, hawks, and even owls are also regularly seen down there.

Frank Lake is located about an hour south of Calgary, and east of High River on Highway 23. 2012 marks the 60th year of activity at Frank Lake by Ducks Unlimited Canada, and is considered one of almost six hundred of Canada’s Important Bird Areas, and you can find a ton of useful information about Frank Lake (and other Ducks Unlimited projects in Alberta) at the Ducks Unlimited website.

The areas most visited by birders are detailed in the map below, with Basin 1 being by far the most popular location, with a blind, driving loop, and water outflow which provides open water even in the coldest winter months.

Frank Lake Map

Frank Lake Map

Winter -

Horned Lark

Horned Lark – March 2012

Trumpeter Swan

Northern Pintail

Northern Pintail – March 2012
In late winter/early spring, these Northern Pintail are some of the first migrants back at Frank Lake.

Spring – It’s hard to gauge when winter ends and spring begins out at Frank Lake, as it sometimes seems that the water will thaw completely overnight… but the arrival of some of these favourites is a good indication.

White-faced Ibis

White-faced Ibis – May 2012
Probably my absolutely favourite bird at Frank Lake.

Eared Grebe

Eared Grebe – May 2012
These beautiful little divers can be found at Frank Lake in the hundreds in early spring.

Northern Shoveler

Northern Shoveler – May 2012

Red-tailed Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk – May 2012
A little more white in this one than usual, another of the predators that patrols the lake.

Summer -

Northern Harrier

One of the more common birds of prey at Frank Lake are the always stunning Red-tailed Hawk.

Black-crowned Night Heron

Black-crowned Night Heron – July 2012
Less commonly found at Basin 1, almost every summer trip I’ve taken to Basin 3 has turned up at least Black-crowned Night Heron.

Wilson's Phalarope

Wilson’s Phalarope – June 2011
A regularly seen species at Frank Lake, they often nest around the shores of the southern basins.

Marsh Wren

Marsh Wren – July 2012
My lifer Marsh Wren was found near the blind at Basin 1 of Frank Lake.

Willet

Willet – July 2012
Another of the great summer resident shorebirds at the lake.

Long-billed Curlew

Long-billed Curlew – July 2012
By midsummer, some of the earliest southern migrants begin to make their appearance around the lake.

Autumn -

Black-bellied Plover

Black-bellied Plover – September 2011
One of the many southbound shorebirds that stop over at Frank Lake on their fall migration.