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!

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