Thursday, 26 April 2012

Prairie Birds and Prairie Dogs!

It will very soon be May already and our Fur and Feathers team will be booked almost continously on a series of cross Canada birding adventures for the next several months. This week however seemed like a good time to do some birding right here in the prairies. Phil and Mike are still away so just Brian and I set off on Monday morning for a three day trip, driving first to Val Marie, Saskatchewan and then returning at leisure through SW Saskatchewan and SE Alberta. The big attraction in Val Marie is the nearby Grasslands National Park, famous for its Black-tailed Prairie Dog colonies. This was our key mammal target for the trip but we were of course hoping for a variety of early season grassland bird species and maybe some other new mammals too. We were not disappointed!

Our first stop was in Medicine Hat where we met up with good birding friends, Milt and Elaine Spitzer, at Police Point.  Milt and Elaine had been exploring the area before we arrived and had found a porcupine up in a tree and in plain view. They took us straight to it and stirred up a couple of Nuttal's (Mountain) Cottontails along the trail. Two new mammals and an excellent start to our day!


We could only afford a 30 minute stop in Medicine Hat unfortunately because we were keen to arrive at Val Marie by early afternoon. We said our goodbyes to Milt and Elaine and by 10:30 a.m. were crossing the border into Saskatchewan under lovely sunny skies. By noon the temperature had risen to 26 deg C! Finally - some decent summer-like weather!

Welcome to Saskatchewan!

We didn't start birding seriously until we reached Grasslands Park but we paused at the occasional pothole slough and took note of the various raptors as we drove along. We picked up three new team birds along the way: Mabled Godwit, Chestnut-collard Longspur and Swainson's Hawk. We were surprised how long it took before that first Swainson's Hawk showed up. The first hawks we encountered were all Red-tailed and Rough-legged Hawks. Eventually a Ferruginous Hawk appeared and then, finally, a Swainson's Hawk. Over the next couple of days we came across numerous Ferruginous and Swainson's Hawks in both Saskatchewan and Alberta

Swainson's Hawk
 When we arrived at Val Marie we stopped at the Grasslands National Park Visitor Centre where we got some useful information about both the park and Val Marie and then we got started on the 8o km loop road that runs through the park and back to Val Marie. We soon came across two more new team birds: Savanah Sparrow and Loggerhead Shrike. (We were delighted to come across a second Loggerhead Shrike in Alberta two days later on our return trip.) 

Loggerhead Shrike

Almost immediately after entering the park one reaches the first Black-tailed Prairie Dog colony. It was worth the trip! These Prairie Dogs were abundant and their burrows were spread out over a large flat area bordering the gravel road. This park and the surrounding area is the only region in Canada where these Black-tailed Prairie Dogs can be seen in their natural habitat. We took lots of pictures!

Black-tailed Praire Dog
Prairie Dog Town

We had hoped to spot a burrowing owl amongst all these prairie dogs but alas, we did not! In fact, we circled through the park again later that evening and again the following morning but not once did we see a burrowing owl. We did however see several Long-billed Curlews scurrying around amongst the prairie dogs - another new bird species for the year! We also saw several bison in the park - still more pictures! The loop road exits the park to the south and swings back west and then north to Val Marie. We added McCown's Longspur and Red Fox to our team species list as we completed the loop.

McCown's Longspur

We enjoyed Val Marie! A classic rural community still with a grain elevator in place! We stayed at a place called "The Convent", a country inn and as the name implies, it's a converted convent. It was very comfortable and had a friendly proprietress who even gave us some good birding tips for the area. We gassed up at the only gas outlet in town and had supper at the Val Marie Hotel and Pub.

Val Marie, SK

We took away several good memories of Grasslands Park. On our evening drive along the loop road, we were struck by the increase in Mule and White-tailed Deer activity. We even had a close encounter with four Bison on this evening drive! They moved right out onto the loop road and blocked our exit and while three of them just stood on the road grazing on its grassy margins, the fourth one planted himself squarely in the middle of the road and stared us down as we tried to get him to move - from inside the car of course! Eventually they sauntered off to the side and gave us room to get by. This was a good thing because I was driving Brian's brand new vehicle at this point and didn't really want to be responsible for any buffalo horn puncture wounds so early in its life!
Would you tangle with this?

On Tuesday morning our dawn drive through the park was equally rewarding. A Cooper's Hawk, a Sharp-shinned Hawk and many Sharp-tailed Grouse which seemed to be everywhere and they were very active right along the roadside.  

Sharp-tailed Grouse displaying

Our early morning start was made even better by the very nice breakfast served up at the Convent upon our return! We left Val Marie behind at about 8:30 a.m. and began our drive back west, passing though small communities such as Orkney, Climax and Eastend, where we had lunch. 

Along the way we had great views of a second Red Fox......

Red Fox

Baird's Sandpiper

......... and we picked up several new team birds: Eared Grebe, Black-necked Stilt, Bairds Sandpiper, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Sprague's Pipit and Wilson's Phalorope.

Eared Grebe

The Wilson's Phalorope was our 221st bird species of the year but more importantly, on our combined mammals plus birds list it was our 250th species. Half way to our Fur and Feathers 500 target! There was no champagne handy to celebrate so we settled for a handful of chocolate-coated almonds!

From Eastend we continued west back into Alberta via Cypress Lake, Consul and Hwy 13, picking up Wilson's Snipe and Common Tern. Just moments before we crossed back into Alberta, we added Cinnamon Teal. We spent that night in Elkwater in the Cypress Hills.

Common Tern

Cinammon Teal

On Wednesday morning, we again set off before dawn heading straight south down to Wild Horse where we hoped to find Mountain Plover. We had two of them down here five years ago at the exact same time of year. Not this year however! With our time running out we didn't linger long, chosing instead to spend more time at Pakowki Lake south of Etzikom and then Crow Indian Lake, southwest of Foremost. We spotted a Ruddy Duck and an American Pipit en route and then added Western Grebe at Pakowki Lake and American Bittern at the west end of Crow Indian Lake. Three Lesser Yellowlegs northwest of Coaldale rounded out our list of new team species for the trip.

Gorgeous Praire Sunrise near Wild Horse

All in all we were well pleased with our results. There were some notable misses including, much to our surprise, not a single swallow, and we were disappointed not to see a Burrowing Owl or a Badger. We saw more than 90 species in all and it was nice to accumulate a good count of Saskatchewan birds. We will undoubtedly add to this later on in the summer!

Thursday, 19 April 2012

A fowl day in central Alberta

On Wednesday, Ray and I visited Beaverhill Lake and Elk Island National Park in central Alberta (east of Edmonton).  Our primary objective was to see some mammals, namely American Bison and Franklin’s Ground Squirrel as well as some common ones not yet on the list. 
Because of the distance involved (and our need for a reasonable amount of sleep), we didn’t start birding in the Beaverhill area until 7:30 am.  To see most birds, this wouldn’t be a problem but it could be for our target Short-eared Owl.  We went for a long walk through the grassy, dried up lake bed at Mundare Beach where a large number of the owls had spent the winter.  There were quite a few Northern Harriers flying over the fields and even some Snowy Owls but not a single Short-eared.
Snowy Owl
When we reached what remains of the lake, we saw a good assortment of waterfowl as well as a new team bird – American Avocet.  On the walk back, we had another recent arrival – Vesper Sparrow.
Vesper Sparrow
Our next stop was a small slough on Highway 16 which contained thousands of Greater White-fronted and Snow Geese.  We spent quite a while enjoying the spectacle … it is always amazing how the huge flocks avoid collisions as they take to flight en masse (though I have seen a shorebird collision once and a predator swooped in to nab the dazed bird!).
Greater White-fronted and Snow Geese
Greater White-fronted Goose
Snow Geese ("Blue Goose on left)
Where there are large numbers of Snow Geese, there are usually a few Ross’s Geese and this flock was no exception.  Using scopes, we eventually picked out a few of them for another new team bird.
Ross's Geese (behind GWF Geese on left)
By mid-morning the wind had picked up and the southern sky looked menacing so we did a quick loop around Beaverhill Lake and then headed for Elk Island.  Elk Island has two large herds of American Bison – the Plains Bison to the north of Hwy 16 and Wood Bison to the south of the highway.  Both herds were quite near the highway today so we quickly spotted them for mammal species #25.  The whole park is fenced so one often gets the question: “can you count them?”  My answer is yes – the enclosure is 194 square kilometres, a bit larger than most zoos and no different than many fenced-in African wildlife parks.
American (Plains) Bison
We had done some research on Franklin’s Ground Squirrel and Elk Island was listed as a good spot to see them.  We carefully searched the treed long grass areas but had no luck.  We intended to ask the park staff about them but the door was locked and nobody answered the door bell.  Due to our 4 am start and menacing skies, we decided to head for home.  Rochon Sands Provincial Park is another site for the ground squirrel and was on the way back to Calgary.  The habitat looked good but no ground squirrel – we may have to wait until our trip to southern Manitoba in August for another try.

Many species are returning so our totals should take a jump once we can get a team together.  We know May and June will be very busy so each of us is busy with other activities, making it difficult to arrange team outings!

Thursday, 12 April 2012

A Full Day of Birding!

Yesterday was a great day for both birds and mammals! Unfortunately only Brian and Ray were able to make it as Phil and Mike were busy preparing for other travels. Our first quest was an early morning search for Great Gray Owls and Spruce Grouse northwest of Calgary. We chose our route with good porcupine habitat in mind but once again, this species eluded us. Instead of porcupines however we came across four moose and later in the day we saw three more for a total of seven! Mule Deer and White-tailed Deer were also plentiful.

Once up in the Grand Valley Road area, the birding began to pick up. We missed the Spruce Grouse by about a half hour according to one fellow we met but we came across two Great Gray Owls. They were very obliging allowing us to get a number of good pictures, including some flight shots.

Great Gray Owl

Great Grays weren't the only reward along Grand Valley Road. We also came across two Northern Shrikes, two Townsend's Solitaires, a Northern Hawk Owl and even better, two Sandhill Cranes! We spent some more time driving north to Water Valley and beyond and found a third Great Gray and as we began to move east around mid morning we came across three Rusty Blackbirds, our first of the season in Alberta. These were a very nice surprise. One encounters this species all too seldom, especially northwest of Calgary.

Rusty Blackbird
 Believe it or not, a key objective for the day was to see a Deer Mouse! Yes - hard to believe, but if we're going to move our mammal count ahead, even Deer Mice become a target! Ray and his wife, Agnes, have run a Bluebird Trail in the Cremona area for more than thirty years. Every Spring when they check their nestboxes to be sure they're ready for a new season they find a handful of boxes that have been taken over by nesting Deer Mice. This year was no different and we checked out two such nests. The first was empty but the second held two adult mice as hoped!

The Nestbox...

....and the Deer Mouse
Wild Turkey
Flush with success, we drove south and east in the general direction of the Irrican Sloughs. Along the way we were amazed to spot a Wild Turkey! We've never had one in this area before. It ran across the road in front of us and sought cover in the long grass but not before Brian managed to get a quick photo. This is a new year bird for the team.  

 En route to Irricana we drove past Nier Lakes (still 90% ice-covered) where we added some ducks, geese and swans to our day list. East of Nier Lakes we began to encounter large flocks of Horned Larks and Lapland Longspurs. For Ray, the Lapland Longspur was a good catchup species.

Lapland Longspur

The Irricana sloughs were almost entirely ice-free but our hope to encounter some waders didn't come to fruition! Killdeer was the only shorebird for the day. We did find this splendid looking male Ring-necked Pheasant however. The colouring on these birds really is amazing!

Ring-necked Pheasant
 These sloughs always yield some kind of birding reward and yesterday was no different. Blue-winged Teal was a new team year bird and we also found a Great-horned Owl on a nest with its mate standing guard nearby.

We returned home to Calgary well pleased with the day's results - but the day wasn't over yet! We set off again after supper to do some owling along the Sibbald Flats Road, in the Foothills west of Calgary. We drove straight to Sibbald Pond arriving about 9 P.M. and then worked our way back out to the Trans Canada Highway stopping and listening every kilometre or so. Our primary hope was for a Boreal Owl but once again, we found no evidence of this species. We did however hear a number of calling Saw Whet Owls and actually got to see one of them up close. Once again, Brian had his camera at the ready and the shot below is the result. This was a catchup species for Brian and I as Phil and Mike had it earlier in the year. It was our fourth owl species for the day!

Northern Saw Whet Owl
 We also heard Varied Thrush and spotted a Hooded Merganser bringing our day total to about 50 birds and 7 mammals including two new year birds, one new year mammal and a couple of catchup species.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Birding Brooks & Vicinity

On Good Friday all four of us got together for a relaxed but still rewarding day of birding down in Newell County in the vicinity of Brooks. With Phil at the wheel today, we set off from Calgary at 6:30 a.m. and made it back into town just barely in time for supper. Actually in my case, I arrived at the same time as our dinner guests which was rather bad form but they're good friends and hopefully forgave me!

Winter's blast of the previous day seemed to have dispersed the birds a bit because it seemed to us that the number of ducks, geese and swans was lower than we had expected. Nevertheless, there were still enough of them around to make it feel like Spring and the weather was cool but pleasant with relatively little wind. By day's end we had seen 54 bird species and 4 mammal species including a handful of new team birds for the year.

We saw two American White Pelicans today, the first being just northeast of Brooks.

American White Pelican

We drove southeast of Brooks to Tillebrook PP where we spent a half hour or so. The highlight here was a Fox Sparrow and we had excellent though fleeting views of this bird. Our Alberta Fox Sparrows are a very different subspecies from the Fox Sparrows seen on our recent Fur & Feathers trip to B.C. and far less frequently seen here too so this sighting was a real treat! We also spotted two Townsend's Solitaires here.

We continued east hoping for, but not finding, a Burrowing Owl but at Bantry Reservoir we came across a brightly coloured male Yellow-headed blackbird in the company of about 20 or so Red-winged Blackbirds - our second new year-bird for the day.

Yellow-headed Blackbird

Shortly after our visit to Bantry Reservoir we circled back east and south, coming across a few interesting sightings along the way including a single Snowy Owl and a small group of about 10 Snow Buntings. We encountered several Common Grackles too which was our third new year-bird for the trip.
Common Grackle
Mike and Brian had made a trip to southeast Alberta about three weeks ago so Phil and I were in catch up mode on a few species. One of these was Ferrugionous Hawk and we saw three of them in the area. I hasten to confess that I took this picture - not Brian! His standards are much higher!

Ferruginous Hawk
We continue to find mammals hard to come by, but we saw four of the more common ones during the course of the day: Mule Deer, Richardson Ground Squirrel, Pronghorn Antelope and Muskrat. The Pronghorn Antelope was another catchup species for Phil and I. Surprisingly, this was the only one we saw all day long. What a great feature of the landscape these creatures are in SE Alberta!

Pronghorn Antelope
 We saw very few waders today! By April 6th one would expect to do a little better but Killdeer and Greater Yellowlegs (3) were our only sightings. Maybe we're just becoming a little impatient which is a common failing of birders in early April in Alberta! We shouldn't really rush the season should we? Time passes all too quickly and spring migration will be over soon enough!

Greater Yellowlegs
On our route home we stopped at Namaka Lake where bird numbers and diversity seemed every bit as rich as Brooks! The highlight perhaps was 8 Greater White-fronted Geese which was a catch up species for Phil.

Other notable sightings during the day included American Kestrel, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Double-crested Cormorant and Snow Geese all near Kitsom Reservoir, and a pair of nesting Great-horned Owls near Namaka Lake.

Now it's time for a break from birding! Happy Easter everyone!

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Great Gray Owl and Spruce Grouse, with luck on our side

After returning from our enjoyable and successful BC trip, we are back in Calgary working away at our dwindling “winter” target list here. While we’d been gone we’d read reports of sightings in the Water Valley area of Spruce Grouse and Great Gray Owl, birds which had eluded us thus far. Brian and Phil drove up to Water Valley on Monday, and we came across a Spruce Grouse standing on the verge of Grand Valley Road at about 8:00 AM. Brian took a photo from about 50 m away, and we hoped to get closer, but a fast-moving pick-up truck flushed the bird into the forest. If we’d arrived two minutes later, we would have missed it!  
Spruce Grouse near Water Valley

Our hopes of finding a Great Gray Owl were fading as the morning progressed (the birds are best found near dawn and dusk), but at 9:20 AM Brian eventually spotted one next to a tree trunk, an unusual position for a bird which often perches in prominent view. It dropped onto a snow bank and snatched some prey (undoubtedly a mammal we needed), and almost immediately flew off into the forest. Again, a bird we would have missed had we been two minutes later.

The rest of the morning we spent looking for a Northern Goshawk, without success. Still, we enjoyed great looks at 2 Golden Eagles interested in a carcus near Grand Valley road, at least a dozen Rough-legged Hawks, a few Red-tailed Hawks, 2 Northern Shrikes and several Mountain Bluebirds on or near boxes.

Golden Eagle Soaring over Grand Valley Road

Sunday, 1 April 2012

BC Wrap-up

We’ve just completed a wonderful 8 day trip through the Okanagan, Vancouver area and southern Vancouver Island.  BC has had some dodgy weather this spring but we managed to stay warm and dry despite weather forecasts indicating otherwise.

Dick leading Mike
We chose the end of March as a compromise, hoping to get most of the wintering birds while also getting some calling spring birds.  For the most part we succeeded but we did miss a couple of alcids – Marbled Murrelet and Ancient Murrelet – and we also dipped on the Sooty Grouse.  We should be able to see these birds on a subsequent trip to BC.

There were many highlights but it was the people, as was the case on our East Coast trip, that made it a great trip.  In Penticton, I was able to combine birding and a family visit with my mom and stepdad.  The team enjoyed our time with the Cannings clan – Dick, his wife Margaret and Russ.  Dick gave us a grand tour of the birding hotspots and patiently led us on a couple of owling expeditions.  Russ took some time from his own trip preparations (he was on his way to Alberta) to give us detailed bird-finding info for the Vancouver area. 

Rick & Ray
In Victoria, Rick Schortinghuis showed us many of the island specialties and, if the birding got slow, informed us about some of the area’s flora – we were all impressed with the “Electrified Cat’s Tail Fern”!   
Electrified Cat's Tail Fern

Friends Mike and Joan Cowley served as terrific hosts for our stay in Victoria and Mike took us out for a mini-pelagic on his sailboat.
Skipper Mike and Phil

We had many birding highlights – in the Okanagan: Long-eared Owl, Western Screech-Owl and Williamson’s Sapsucker; in Vancouver, the Costa’s Hummingbird; and in Victoria, Sky Lark, Red-breasted Sapsucker and Hutton’s Vireo.  We also enjoyed some nice looks at mammals such as the Eastern Fox Squirrel in Osoyoos (introduced species), Mountain Goats near Princeton and a Mink in Victoria.
Eastern Fox Squirrel

Mountain Goat
Being retired, we have the luxury of time and were able to take 8 days to cover what probably could be done in 5 or 6.  This extra time allowed us to enjoy some birding experiences that we might otherwise have missed.  We all enjoyed watching the Peregrine Falcons harass a pair of Red-tailed Hawks.  I enjoyed being eyeball to eyeball with Canyon Wren and Red Crossbill – 2 species that usually only afford distant viewing. 
Canyon Wren

Our boat trip was another treat, allowing us some close views of alcids and cormorants.
Pelagic and Brandt's Cormorant

On our last day, we had seen most of our targets (we weren’t willing to do another major hike up a mountain in search of Sooty Grouse), so we spent our time visiting a number of coastal sites.  It was almost high tide and it was fun to watch the shorebirds continually moving to higher ground and occasionally get soaked by a big wave.
Surfbird dancing in the surf

From a numbers perspective, we have to say that the trip met our expectations … we expected to reach 220 birds and mammals and that is exactly where we ended up.  After the first quarter of 2012, we are on track for birds but probably lagging a bit on the mammals.  We’ll spend April in Alberta with perhaps a quick trip to Saskatchewan.  We expect to pick up another 30 birds (mostly common ones returning for nesting); as for mammals, there is an opportunity to add as many as 20 as the weather warms up but we will probably be lucky to add 10.  Stay tuned.


Our first day in the Victoria area was a busy one. After meeting guide Rick Schortinghuis we visited a fallow daffodil field known for Sky Lark activity, and were rewarded with the sight and sound of two singing birds. We then checked Island View Beach where Phil and Mike catch up with a Pacific Loon, and Centennial Park for a miss on Hutton's Vireo, which becomes our nemesis bird. A Virginia Rail called to us from the Quick's Bottom wetlands while Phil noted a Northern Shrike.

Swamp Lantern
Rick directed us to Monk's Road and successfully located three Red-breasted Sapsuckers -- at least one of which was hammering on a steel transmission tower. Moving on to the lovely campus of Royal Roads University in Colwood, we searched (and searched) once more for Hutton's Vireo. No luck of course, but were rewarded by the sight and scent of hundreds of colourful Swamp Lanterns (Western Skunk Cabbage) flowering in the damp spots.

We finished out the day by visiting a series of coastal pullouts looking for gulls and waders, and at Clover Point found Black Turnstones, Surfbirds and a Mink. A River Otter was spotted at Cattle Point, and somewhere an Iceland Gull.

The following day (March 27) is again rain-free in spite of an ominous forecast, and we are back to Royal Roads to dip once more on the unco-operative vireo. Then at Esquimalt Lagoon we cover the long spit seeing many waterfowl -- but no new ones. We hope the heavy seas are quieter tomorrow for our boat ride. Rick then takes us to Mount Wells, a known Sooty Grouse hangout. After climbing steadily for an hour we scour the summit, but no grouse.
Mike, Ray, Rick & Phil near the top of Mount Wells
Consolation prize is a close-up view of a brilliant orange Red Crossbill, captured well by Brian's camera.
Red Crossbill

After lunch in Sooke we walked the nearby Whiffen Spit finding a Thayer's Gull we could agree on. The highlight was sighting four Mountain Bluebirds, rare here. Rick immediately called a friend to pass the word. Final stop: north of Sooke, for a last desperate search for the vireo. In fading light we walked along a gravel road, where Phil picked up a note. We advanced carefully, slowly, and eventually all got satisfactory looks at the Hutton's Vireo. Never has such a small plain-jane bird looked so lovely! At supper at the 4-Mile Pub we toast guide Rick and celebrate our two days of satisfying birding.
Hutton's Vireo

On Wednesday (March 28) we walked the path around the lake at Swan Lake Nature Sanctuary in Saanich, finding no "reported" bittern. But an elderly birdwatcher pointed out the roosting Barred Owl near the visitors centre. The owl appeared to give us a cursory glance and immediately went back to sleep.
Barred Owl

After visiting Glencoe Cove and taking a bit of lunch our host took us out on his sailboat around the Chain Islands. No new bird species but we enjoyed close views of a number of seagoing birds and Harbor Seals. It was a delightlully pleasant way to spend an afternoon.
Harbour Seal

The following morning gave us an hour or so of light rain, our first. Hoping for a new bird (a murrelet, a Western Gull?) we visited Cole Bay Provincial Park, Patricia Bay (many loons and Harbour Porpoise), Harling Point and Clover Point. We were pleased to spot a couple Dunlin with a small flock of Surfbirds. Then it was off to the airport and home, thankful for good friends, fine weather and great birding.   -- Mike --