Sunday, 29 January 2012

Northern Saw-whet Owl

On Friday Mike and Phil had struck out on the Northern Saw-whet Owl found the previous day in Carburn Park in Calgary by a group led by Gus Yaki. Gus and another group re-found the bird yesterday, so a phone call to Gus seemed in order, and Gus kindly provided details on the bird's day roost. We had likely walked right past the bird.

Today was a very mild day for late January: 12 deg this afternoon. On arriving at the parking lot just after noon, we ran into Bob Lefebvre and Dan Arndt and learned that the owl was back on its regular roost. A few minutes later we were observing the bird, whose celebrity status had attracted the attention of several wildlife photographers.

A very nice addition to our list. Unfortunately our camera-toting Fur and Feathers companions are away at present, so we hope the owl will stay around until they return, and a picture can be posted.

Friday, 27 January 2012

Clark's Nutcracker and Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch

Mike and I headed west of Calgary today, and added two bird species and one mammal species to the team list. Some of our resident species are often best seen in winter. We had no difficulty in finding two Clark's Nutcrackers in the community of Harvie Heights, which sits close to the Trans Canada Highway just before the entrance to Banff National Park. Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches come down from the mountains in winter, and the hamlet of Exshaw is usually a reliable place for them. A flock of 100 birds obligingly festooned trees beside Barrier Mountain Drive. Between Harvie Heights and Exshaw we encountered a flock of about 30 Bighorn Sheep, a new mammal for the team list.

We had started our day in Carburn Park in Calgary, in hopes of re-finding a Norrthern Saw-whet Owl seen there yesterday. We spent almost half an hour searching the area where the bird had been reported, but saw no sign of it. Good numbers of Black-capped Chickadees and Common Redpolls in the area might have led us to it, but they displayed no agitation.

As our drive home from Exshaw to Calgary took us close to the Water Valley area, we were unable to resist a detour in hopes of finding an owl there, but again we came up empty. These guys are proving problematic.

Temperature today in the minus 7 to minus 1 range, generally not too windy.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

South-west of Calgary

Our two recent team outings in the foothills NW of Calgary had not been very productive, so today Ray and Phil decided on a change of scenery and we went to the Millarville, Turner Valley and High River area south-west of the city for a full day outing. It was very mild for the middle of winter, the mercury soaring to +5 deg in the afternoon, and only a very light wind during the morning. Good weather conditions do not always translate into good birding, but today was very enjoyable in all respects.

The signature bird was undoubtedly Rough-legged Hawk, which we saw throughout the route, perhaps 20 birds in all. In contrast to last winter there are plenty around this year. While we were unsuccessful with our principal target, Northern Pygmy-Owl (which by contrast are in very short supply this season), we did pick up four new bird species. A pleasant half-hour walk in Brown Lowery Provincial Park, yielded two male American Three-toed Woodpeckers (bird species no. 104), the first of five woodpecker species we saw today. The town of High River turned up three new species: Eurasian Collared-Dove (no. 105), Bohemian Waxwing (no. 106) and House Finch (no. 107). There was no sign of the Red-bellied Woodpecker which had been seen in High River until recently.

Other good birds we saw today, while not new for the list, were Northern Shrike, Northern Hawk Owl, Mourning Dove and Evening Grosbeak. We also heard, but did not track down, a drumming Pileated Woodpecker in Brown-Lowery PP. Our grand total for the day was 30 species of birds and 4 mammals, very respectable for January.

Thousands of Mallards in Ralph Klein park in SE Calgary heralded our return to the city. There has been some speculation that these may be very early returning migrants rather than part of the city's resident winter population. Whatever their status, it was an impressive sight.

Monday, 23 January 2012

An Owl and a Falcon!

Immature Snowy Owl,
 Taking advantage of our improved weather and some recent good sightings to the north of Calgary, Phil, Mike and I spent a pleasant afternoon cruising the rural area between Symonds Valley Rd and Balzac looking for a Snowy Owl and a Prairie Falcon.

The owl showed up almost immediately on exactly the same power pole where I encountered it on a solo outing last week! There must be a decent food supply in the area. About an hour later, a Prairie Falcon swooped down right in front of us, providing us with a wonderful view as it raced away to the south, eventually coming to rest on a distant fence post. Both of them new team birds bringing our Fur & Feathers tally to 111.

Also of note in the area was a Rough-legged Hawk and three Pine Grosbeaks.......and several hundred Canada Geese feeding in the surrounding fields. Just eight species in total for this little outing but great to see the owl and the falcon!

Sunday, 22 January 2012

A Search for Owls (2)

Having found a Northern Hawk Owl on our last team outing, we decided this week to look for the two other owl species—Northern Pygmy-Owl and Great Gray Owl — often found in the Water Valley area NW of Calgary.

Mike, Ray and Phil set out before dawn in foggy conditions reminiscent of our journey from Halifax to Lunenburg two weeks earlier. The fog dissipated as we left the Bow Valley behind and our hopes were high, especially as Ray had seen some good birds on a solo outing two days earlier. Unfortunately birds were very few and far between. We saw no owls at all, and only 12 bird species in total, nothing new for the year. A lone Coyote seen by Grand Valley road as we returned to Calgary, a new mammal for our year list, prevented us from being completely shut out.

The very cold spell of last week is over, and we’ll look forward to birding in warmer conditions over the next few days.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

A Search for Owls

After a day off following our trip to the east coast, we took
advantage of a mild spell in Calgary before the expected first wintry spell of
the year. Brian, Mike and Phil spent the morning NW of the city looking mainly
for owl species more readily found in winter. It was a bright, crisp morning,
and birds were few and far between. However, about 3 km SW of Water Valley Mike
spotted a Northern Hawk Owl atop a broken poplar. Our 100th bird
species! As we watched, the bird flew to a lofty perch on a spruce tree, from
which it made several powerful falcon-like flights into the forest in search of
prey, an awe-inspiring sight.
Other hoped for owls were not in evidence today, and we had
to be satisfied with a flock of Mountain Chickadees and a distant Moose as the
only other additions to our count.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

East coast wrap-up

Our week in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland has come to an end.  Today, we added some new birds for the province but no new year birds.  It was cold and windy and two of our rental van doors were frozen shut.  However, the sun was shining and, apart from our feet, we stayed warm as we waited in vain for the Blue Grosbeak to show.  We were still hoping for the Slaty-backed Gull and checked out all of the local gull haunts, once again in vain.

Rob Woods
James Hirtle
Anne Hughes
Overall we had a very successful and enjoyable trip.  Not only did we get most of our target birds, we also enjoyed seeing this part of the country and meeting some very nice people.  In Nova Scotia, Rob Woods and James Hirtle each birded with us for a day; Blake Maybank helped us out and we spent a morning with the NS Bird Society field trip.
James put us in contact with Anne Hughes in St. John’s and she came out birding with us for 3 mornings despite some pretty bad weather (well, maybe not for Newfoundland!).  We were also struck by the friendliness and inquisitiveness of the people on the street.  While we were birding around town, many people stopped to talk with us and showed a genuine interest in what we were looking for.  Anne also introduced us to the local delicacies of Cod Tongues and Scrunchion.

One of our goals was to see many of Canada’s interesting places … Nova Scotia’s coastline and the city of St. John’s certainly qualify.  Most of the birding in Nova Scotia was along its magnificent coastline and, in January, there were few tourists to clog the roadways.
Coast near Lunenburg

St. John’s, apart from its historic sites, has a wonderful network of ponds and streams (they call them rivers) throughout the city. 
Rennie's River walk

The ponds provide an attractive resting spot for the 12,000+ gulls.  We didn’t pay too much attention to the immatures as the rarities found by the local experts were (fortunately!) all adults.  The gulls are also attracted to a sewage outlet in St. John’s harbour – I’ve got a nice picture of a Mew Gull with a piece of you-know-what in its bill!

We will be staying in Alberta the next 8 weeks and hopefully will get a few owls and grouse as well as improving our rather sad mammal list.



Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Gullsville, Canada


After a very successful few days in Nova Scotia we set off at an indecently early hour on Monday January 9th for St. John’s, Newfoundland and the second half of this first trip of the year to Atlantic Canada. Our early start allowed us to be on site at our first stop (Long Pond) by late morning and we were rewarded almost immediately with fine views of a male Tufted Duck!

Tufted Duck (m+f)
 We had five key target birds in mind for our time in Newfoundland; the above mentioned Tufted Duck, a Dovekie, and three particular gull species (Lesser Black-backed Gull, Yellow-legged Gull and Slaty-backed Gull). We knew the challenge would be to pick these out from amongst a few tens of thousands of other gulls that seem to love St. John’s in winter! We were delighted when later that first afternoon we spotted two Lesser Black-backed Gulls!
Lesser Black-backed Gull
We wrapped up that first day with a drive up to Signal Hill, the prominent landmark for which St John’s is well known. The view from the top is magnificent!

View of St. John's harbour from Signal Hill

Signal Hill was an important part of St. John’s defenses in days of old when the French and British navies did battle in these parts. Lots of canons on display.

The punishment for missing a bird can be harsh in this group!

Our early birding success that first day was entirely the result of good advice we received in advance from Anne Hughes, a local birding enthusiast. Even better for us, Anne was able and willing to accompany us throughout our stay here and she seemed to have the magic touch because almost every bird we went looking for showed up at some point! Those readers of this blog who have taken visitors out birding in their home territory will know that this is not always the way things turn out!

One of the highlights of our time here with Anne was an early morning visit to Cape Spear, the eastern most point of North America. This is a great sea-watching spot and our fervent hope was for Dovekies. A fellow we met in Nova Scotia told us he’d eat his socks if we didn’t see Dovekies during our time here in St. John’s. Happily he will not have to do so! We saw a number of them and had a pretty good view of them too, despite the blowing wet snow we had to put up with that morning! Oh yes! The Dovekie was our 100th species on this Fur and Feathers 500 adventure! How fitting is that! We also saw about 70 Purple Sandpipers at Cape Spear, a species we saw only once in Nova Scotia and at a considerable distance too.

Cape Spear - Canada's eastern-most point

Cape Spear is a great spot and we could easily have spent more time there but alas, those tens of thousands of gulls were still waiting for us back in St John’s. We had a few white knuckle moments driving back into town and realized we would need to trade in our rental van for one with snow tires! First however we stopped at the famous Quidi Vidi Lake which we soon learned is known simply as “the lake” in birding circles here. Our good luck continued! Within minutes of our arrival, Anne picked out the very rare Yellow-legged Gull! This was a great bird to get, especially so early in our stay here, and had us all beginning to wonder what we were going to do for the next two days.

Yellow-legged Gull

Later that morning we went looking for a Cape May Warbler and a Sora, neither of which had any business being here in winter. We found both of them.

Cape May Warbler
We all know however that good birds don’t always appear on demand! We spent several hours over the balance of that day and again today, looking for the Slaty-backed Gull that’s been reported here, but so far without success. This search has tested our hardiness, particularly this morning. We had wet blowing snow, heavy at times and increasingly windy as we approached lunchtime. As my wife says, we must all be crazy!

Who says we are crazy?!
Along the way mind you, we’ve found a few other unusual winter birds such as Double-crested Cormorant, Common Teal and even a Red-bellied Woodpecker. This latter species was of particular interest because this winter there’s been one loitering around our home territory back in Alberta and we were all afraid it might have disappeared by the time we get back to Calgary.

Red-bellied Woodpecker
Tomorrow will be our last day here however and we’ll be honing our gull recognition skills once again, trying to find that Slaty-backed! And Anne tells us there might even be a Blue Grosbeak in the area. That would be a great addition to an already very good birding trip. And even if we don’t get that Slaty-backed tomorrow, we’d like to thank Anne Hughes for being such a fine and friendly companion and guide during our time here. Hopefully we’ll see her again this summer!

And for those who’ve been asking...........our team total of mammals plus birds so far stands at 106 species so we’re well on our way!


Sunday, 8 January 2012

Birding Nova Scotia

Three good days of birding in Alberta had got our Big Year up and running, but we were raring to go for our first trip out of the province. Flying from Calgary to Halifax takes the better part of a day and it was 10 PM on Thursday before we settled into our cliff top dwelling in the Travelodge Suites in Dartmouth, overlooking the harbour.
Cow Bay
Ray’s son Rob had paved the way to make sure our three days in Nova Scotia would be fun and productive. He met us in our hotel on Friday morning and joined us on a busy day exploring some of the parks and coves in Halifax-Dartmouth. For birders from the prairies, close-up looks at ducks and sea birds which we rarely see such as American Black Duck, Long-tailed Duck, Common Eider and Black Guillemot were plentiful and a real treat. 
American Black Duck

Common Eider (f)
Black Guillemot

Long-tailed Duck
A Yellow-breasted Chat at Sullivan’s Pond was a nice surprise, and a Common Gallinule at Red Bridge Pond and a back-yard Dickcissel were even better. In the afternoon we went to Terence Bay, spending a couple of hours joined by Blake Maybank. A Yellow-throated Warbler had been visiting the yard of Freeman Dryden, who kindly invited us in to watch for the bird, but our birding luck had run out. Still, our day came to a delightful end as Rob and his wife Caroline had us over for a wonderful turkey dinner accompanied by their own wine.

We spent Saturday in the Bridgewater-Lunenberg area in the company of James Hirtle, who led us through an itinerary beside the LaHave river, and the rocky shores of Lunenburg County and the historic town of Lunenburg. In contrast to yesterday’s bright but cool weather, today was milder but foggy. Kevin Lantz’s feeders got us off to a great start and despite the conditions.  James worked hard to help us find several important birds. The day ended with a distant view of a dozen Purple Sandpipers, one of our key targets, the Atlantic Ocean lapping at our feet.

Black-headed Gull
For our final day, we appreciated the hospitality of the Nova Scotia Birding Society, as we joined them on their annual -Harbour Hop led by Bob McDonald and Suzanne Borkowski in the Dartmouth-Halifax area.  We were pleased to get a close view of a Black-headed Gull which had eluded us thus far and another good find was a Northern Mockingbird in Bedford.
Northern Mockingbird

Thanks again to all the birders from the Halifax area for making this such an enjoyable stay for us.


Friday, 6 January 2012

Jan. 3 - a warm, windy morning in the Alberta foothills

Mike, Ray and I, along with Jerry Pilny, ventured into the foothills SW of Calgary for a morning of birding.  The outlook was for mild temperatures and high winds and, perhaps surprisingly, the forecast was right.  For the first hour, birding was very quiet with only the occasional Rough-legged Hawk to catch our attention.  Around 10am we found a mixed flock comprising Brown Creeper, Boreal & Black-capped Chickadees, Dark-eyed Junco and Red-breasted Nuthatch.  West of Turner Valley we stopped to scan a frozen wetland and a lone Snow Bunting flew over.  The wind was picking up and a Northern Shrike was almost horizontal while searching for prey.
Northern Shrike
Jerry then took us to a feeder near Millarville that he had visited on the recent Sheep River CBC.  He promised us many birds and we weren’t disappointed.  Evening Grosbeaks were the feature birds and were accompanied by Pine Grosbeak, Mourning Dove, Ring-necked Pheasant, Downy & Hairy Woodpeckers and many Common Redpolls.
In case you were wondering - 3 Evening Grosbeaks outweigh 1 Common Redpoll!
The team total is now 37 bird species and 5 mammals.  We are now in Halifax to see what we can find on the east coast.  The forecast is for mild conditions – hopefully the weather person will be right again!

Monday, 2 January 2012

Birding in Sundre

The Snakehead Christmas Bird Count in Sundre was today and Phil Cram and I managed to get away for the day and build on the team's New Year's Day kick off event at Fish Creek yesterday. Since our team rules are that we only need two members to see a bird for it to count, we had a quorum!
There must have been fewer participants than usual today because we were assigned a huge area east and northeast of Sundre all the way to the circle perimeter. The day began very well with our species count building rapidly in the early morning hours. Common Redpolls, Pine Grosbeaks and Blue Jays were all new for the year and all fairly common throughout the day. More impressive was a great close up view of two Golden-crowned Kinglets and then a Pileated Woodpecker which landed on a power pole just 50 metres away. Two Boreal Chickadees showed up soon after and by day's end we had 7 of them. Driving north on Range Road 5.1 we came across the first of 2 Rough-legged Hawks for the day and were treated to a fly by of two Bald Eagles which seemed to be trying to out do each other in a display of aerial acrobatics.
We thought we were in for a banner day at this point but alas, by shortly after 10 am things slowed down dramatically....even though the weather got better and better! Our assigned area was bordered by the Red Deer River along its west side and in previous years, hiking into the river has yielded all kinds of goodies. Not a single duck this year however despite Phil's diligent efforts! And no Dipper and no Killdeer either!
We did manage to spot a Hairy Woodpecker mind you and also our first mammal for the day - a Red Squirrel. Brian Elder is our group photography expert but when he's not around (like today!) the rest of us have to cope. Fortunately this squirrel was wonderfully obliging so even I was able to get a decent shot.
We were hoping for an owl or two today but no luck! That was probably Phil's fault because apparently he had two Great-horned Owls in his back yard last night! We had to settle for a lone Gray Jay which showed up about mid afternoon. But today still had one more good bird in store for us. Late in the day we came across a flock of about 50 redpolls and in amongst them was a nice Hoary Redpoll. A good way to end the day, and ten new species for our team total too!

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Let the fun begin!

Phil, Brian, Ray & Mike
Mike and Phil usually participate in an unofficial count for Fish Creek Provincial Park held each year on Jan. 1 and this year Ray and I decided to join them as did Phil and Mike's wives.  The temperature was -10° C and there was a low layer of cloud (or ice fog) that blocked the sun all morning.  Our section was in the SE corner of the park where Fish Creek flows into the Bow River.

White-winged Crossbill
We started near the Bow Valley Ranch visitor center and found a few species – Northern Flicker, Great Horned Owl, White-winged Crossbill, Common Raven, Black-billed Magpie, Red-breasted Nuthatch and Black-capped Chickadee.  I hope to photograph most of the species we see this year but got off to a bad start as the lighting was terrible.

We moved on to Sikome Lake and added White-breasted Nuthatch and Downy Woodpecker.  From there we went to the boat launch on the Bow River and headed south under Highway 22x. 
Ice fog over the Bow River
Conditions were not ideal as a low mist shrouded the river making it difficult to see anything more than 50 m distant. We picked up the expected Mallard, Canada Goose, Common Goldeneye and Common Merganser. Mixed in with these species, we spotted a strange looking Lesser Scaup (first winter bird we think) and a Green-winged Teal. 

1st winter Lesser Scaup

As we walked along the river, a Killdeer took flight, followed by another and a few more – 10 in all!  Further along, a Belted Kingfisher (a good winter bird for Calgary) flew up into a tree.  Finally we spotted some Bufflehead as well as a Gadwall.  Returning back to the boat launch, we saw a Bald Eagle perched in a tree. 


Belted Kingfisher
 Finally we spotted some Bufflehead as well as a Gadwall. Returning back to the boat launch, we saw a Bald Eagle perched in a tree. 
Gadwall in the mist
The last part of our area, Hull’s Woods produced no new bird species but we finally found a couple of mammals – Muskrat and Eastern Gray Squirrel.

Finally some fur! Muskrat
A final check back at Bow Valley Ranch yielded a pair of Rock Pigeons for a total of 20 bird species and 2 mammals … nothing that we won’t see later in the year but a good start for our big year.
Note regarding our reported species and totals - on this blog we will be listing a team total meaning that at least 2 of us recorded the species on a team outing involving at least 2 of the team.