Saturday, 30 June 2012

Atlantic Canada

We are four days in to our longest trip of the year, two weeks in the Atlantic Provinces. Besides the Maritime Provinces of Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, our itinerary takes in Quebec and Newfoundland & Labrador.

June 26 – We fly from Calgary to Charlottetown, PEI via Montreal. Our arrival in Charlottetown is not too auspicious, as we break through the clouds shortly before landing, and dodge the raindrops as we scurry into the terminal building. Brian picks up our Ford Escape which we’ll be using for ten days, and we drive the short distance to the Super 8 motel. Given the weather, there is no point in any evening birding and we have a fish supper at Maggie’s Family Restaurant across the parking lot from the motel.

June 27 – Making up for lost time we have a quick breakfast in the motel lobby and head for Prince Edward Island National Park, a 50-km stretch of PEI’s north coast. We will need to get as much birding done as we can before catching the ferry from Souris at 2 PM, and fortunately the rain has stopped overnight.

Prince Edward Island National Park

At various points along the shore between Cavendish and Brackley Beach we pick up several sea birds including the majestic Northern Gannet, which we will see in considerable numbers over the next few days.
Northern Gannet

In some wooded areas we find a number of songbirds including an excellent look at a White-throated Sparrow.

White-throated Sparrow

A hiking trail called Bubbling Springs had been recommended as a good birding spot, and we hear our first Winter Wren of the year there, but the trail is thick with mosquitos so we retreat to the car and head to the next birding locale, Pigot’s trail at Mount Stewart. No mosquitos there, as they have been swept away by the freshening breeze. Birding is accordingly quiet so we head for Souris and have lunch in a café by the harbour.
The ferry Madeleine plies the Gulf of St. Lawrence daily between Souris, PEI and Cap aux Meules, Quebec, on the Iles de la Madeleine, a 5-hour voyage. Brian had selected the Iles de la Madeleine (known in English as the Magdalen Islands) as our Quebec destination for the year, an unorthodox choice but an inspired one. The 135 km voyage to this remote outpost of Quebec is very smooth, with few birds except as we rounded the eastern tip of PEI and on the approach to the islands. Brian and Phil slipped inside for a coffee and missed a couple of Sooty Shearwaters spotted by Ray and Mike. We are back on deck to see the first of many Black-legged Kittiwakes and a couple of Humpback Whales and enjoy the final approach into the harbor at Cap aux Meules.

The day ends with dinner at our comfortable hotel, and a tally of our bird and mammal list for the day – 57 bird species recorded in PEI, and 12 in Quebec, and the whales the only notable mammals.

June 28 – Today we begin our exploration of the Madeleine island archipelago , consisting of about twelve islands, six of which are connected by sand dunes by the 65 km long Hwy 199.

Iles de la Madeleine

Before breakfast we bird the wooded slopes on Cap aux Meules Island, tallying over 20 species, several being heard-only, but we do get good looks at a Winter Wren. By late June, many birds are no longer singing with much vigour and two of our target birds, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher and Mourning Warbler prove elusive and remain on our wanted list at the end of our stay on the islands.

Sand dunes on Madeleine Islands

After breakfast we head north-east along Hwy 199, finally reaching Grand Entrée at lunchtime. Along the way we explore the dunes and marshes and take in the small communities and harbours, watching the fishing boats disgorging their catches of scallops, crabs and lobsters. We have excellent looks at both Common and Arctic Terns, Black and White-winged Scoters, Black Guillemots, Common Murres  and several species of sparrow (but unfortunately no Nelson’s).

Black Guillemot
Swamp Sparrow

A family of Red Foxes provides much amusement. This mammal is seen frequently on the islands. In contrast to the fertile soil of PEI, we see few signs of agriculture here. Two dead humpback whales on a long sandy beach are less appealing.

On our return south we check several beaches for signs of Piping Plover, without success. Scoping an offshore rocky island reveals both the numerous Double-crested Cormorants and a number of Great Cormorants. Arriving back at Cap aux Meules, we go into the office of Excursions en Mer to enquire about the possibility of a trip by zodiac to Ile Brion tomorrow. We are in luck, as the weather conditons look favorable and we will be on the second trip which will leave Grand Ile at 11:00 AM. Charming Pauline explains what the trip involves, and tells us she will be acting as our guide on the island tomorrow. She also tells us where to find the scarce Piping Plover on Cap-aux Meules.

We have dinner at a funky café at Cap Etang du Nord, and head home for an early night to ensure a good night’s sleep before tomorrow’s adventure.
An unusual dining experience at Le Salon de The Le Flaneur

June 29 – After a quick breakfast at Tim Horton’s, we do a couple of hours birding in the south before heading up to the harbor at Grand Ile. We are delighted to find a Piping Plover very close to where we park the vehicle by the Dune du Nord, a long expanse of sand dunes. Less delightful is watching a man walk his dogs right where the endangered plover is nesting.
Piping Plover

Our Quebec list is growing steadily, and as we await the zodiac a Glaucous Gull is a pleasant addition. Along with six other intrepid adventurers, we board the zodiac promptly at 11:00  AM. Captain Gaston (and owner of Excursions en Mer) explains the itinerary: a ½ hour journey to Ile Brion; 1 ¼ hours sailing around the island to a landing point; 2 ½ hours on the island; then ½ hour back to Grand Ile. The journey across is very smooth, everyone is having a great time and besides the expected sea birds we are lucky to spot a Manx Shearwater and a Long-tailed Jaeger. The sea cliffs of Ile Brion are filled with nesting Black-legged Kittiwakes, Common Murres, Atlantic Puffins and Razorbills. Several colonies of Grey and Harbour Seals are encountered.

Black-legged Kittiwake
Part of a Large Colony of Common Murres

Atlantic Puffin

We land on a rocky beach, where we are greeted by Pauline. The morning group leaves on the zodiac and we are left behind to enjoy the peace of the island, and a picnic lunch on the beach where the seals can be seen close up.

Our guide Pauline communes with Harbour Seals
We walked to the beach across beautiful meadows and a forest of stunted trees, past the lighthouse. descending the cliff down a narrow gully with a rope to hang on to. Almost all of the uninhabited island is now an ecological reserve, returning to the state it was in when discovered by Jacques Cartier in 1534. The island had been inhabited by one family for about a hundred years until the 1960s, as well as fishermen who lived there in the summer months.

Walking across the meadow at Ile Brion
On the beach at Ile Brion

Time passes quickly and we return to the landing beach, where Captain Gaston soon appears in his zodiac. We are quite unprepared for the rough return crossing, and our backs take a beating as the zodiac leaps and tosses like a bronco at the Calgary Stampede. But it’s only a ½ hour before we are back on dry land at 4 PM.

We spend the next three hours returning to the south end of the island chain, checking out a few birding spots we haven’t visited yet, and enjoying the views under glorious sunny skies. A Black-headed Gull is a surprise sighting.

Black-headed Gull

We have dinner at a lobster “factory”, and spend our last night on the Iles de la Madeleine with many happy memories.
Evening on Iles de la Madeleine

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Prairie Grasslands - eastern Alberta and a bit of Saskatchewan

Friday, June 22

Checking out the attic in the Hesketh schoolhouse
The four of us are promptly away from Inglewood at 6:30, putting miles on Highway 9. Hesketh, about 20 kilometers west of Drumheller, is our first stop. Located in a lovely shallow valley, this tiny community is home to 15 people and a reputed Long-eared Bat population. Assisted by several friendly local folks we search the attics of the ancient town hall and nearby abandoned one-room schoolhouse, to no avail.

We move on, checking the Drumheller area, Wolf Lake and the Emerson campground along the Red Deer River. (A Badger would be nice, we comment 50 times or so.) At Wolf Lake, we find Lark Bunting for our first new team bird.
Lark Bunting
Near Steveville, we check out a site where Brian and Ray had a Grasshopper Sparrow a few years ago and, much to our surprise, we find one.

Grasshopper Sparrow

A short walk in Dinosaur Provincial Park gives us Rock Wren and a Common Nighthawk peents overhead, but we miss a Yellow-breasted Chat.
Overlooking Dinosaur Provincial Park
Approaching Empress Brian steers the car toward the local cemetery, home to the Ord’s Kangaroo Rat. As it’s strictly nocturnal we don’t expect a sighting, but need the lay of the land for our after-dark search. The clean, modest Forksview Motel is our overnight and we enjoy a pizza-and-beer supper at the nearby “restaurant”.  Following a too-short nap we head back to the cemetery, which is actually on the Saskatchewan side of the border. Conditions are perfect; however we find no rats – only a Lark Bunting foraging for insects in total darkness.
Empress Cemetery
Saturday, June 23

The only breakfast in Empress is a one-man operation located in the former bank building, and we take our eggs and toast at a table next to the vault door.
Ready to go after breakfast at "That's Empressive"

Back on the road we’re pleased to quickly spot a Burrowing Owl, and a Striped Skunk waddles across the road in front of the car. We’re impressed by the abundance of displaying Lark Buntings in this part of the province.

Burrowing Owl
Near Burstall we enter Saskatchewan and drive into the Great Sand Hills. An inquisitive Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrel shows itself at the parking lot, likely hoping for a handout. (Two new mammals today!) There were also a couple of Common Nighthawks flying around and giving us much better looks than yesterday.  We meet our friend Milt Spitzer, exchange sightings and watch a Burrowing Owl pair before heading back across the border.

Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrel
Common Nighthawk

Continuing south on Highway 41 we turn off near Chappice Lake, where along an unmarked road we find two target species: McCown’s Longspur (catch-up bird for Phil and Mike) and Baird’s Sparrow. Hanging on to our scopes in the stiff wind we see them well.
Longspur and sparrow habitat near Chappice Lake

Baird's Sparrow
An odd sight here are two dung beetles rolling their cow-patty ball down the trail.
Dung Beetle

A quick Dairy Queen stop in Medicine Hat stokes us up for the drive back to Calgary.   It was another enjoyable and successful trip - 5 new team birds and 2 new team mammals.  Next stop - Atlantic Canada.

- Mike -

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Kananaskis Country

Kananaskis Country (or K Country as it is often called) is a recreational area west of Calgary.  For visitors to Calgary with limited time, it is the closest mountain area to the city – just a 45 minute drive to the west.  It is a multi-use area which means logging and oil exploration are on-going.  However, the birding and wildlife viewing can be quite good.
Kananaskis Country as seen from the Elpoca Viewpoint

This morning, Ray, Mike and I headed to K Country for a leisurely morning outing.  Ray and Mike had a couple of catch-up birds to find, I was looking to get some photos and we had a team target – American Pika.

We started off on Sibbald Trail and headed straight for the wetlands.  Mike needed Alder Flycatcher and they are usually quite common.  However, today, its cousin, Willow Flycatcher, was the common bird but we eventually found an Alder for Mike.  Can you tell the two flycatchers apart?

Any differences you see are probably due to differences in lighting, shooting angle or pose of the bird.  According to Kenn Kaufman in his book, “Field Guide to Advanced Birding”, the two are virtually impossible to tell apart visually, even in the hand.  For the record, the one on the top is an Alder Flycatcher and on the bottom is a Willow Flycatcher.  I was much closer to the Willow, thus the photo shows more detail.  I got even closer to an inquisitive juvenile Gray Jay.
Gray Jay (juvenile)

While flycatcher watching, we also saw a couple of sapsuckers, one a “good” Yellow-bellied and the other had a bit of Red-naped in him.  The Yellow-bellied was another catch-up bird for Mike.  We were looking for a MacGillivray’s Warbler for Ray but didn’t find one.  There were a lot of Northern Waterthrush calling and one posed briefly in nice lighting.
Northern Waterthrush

We then drove to Highwood Pass to look for the pika.  On the road up to the pass, there is a “rock glacier” and this is where the pikas live.
American Pika habitat

I expected that we would need to carefully scope the rocks to find one but, just as we started up a short trail, Ray called out, “I’ve got one”.  The American Pika ran between Ray and me, posed for a photo, and then ran up into the rocks.  If only all mammals were as cooperative!
American Pika

On the way home, we made a couple of more stops, the final one at Mt. Lorette Ponds.  This is a beautiful spot and a reliable site for Townsend’s Warblers.  We saw many of these warblers in BC but the trees are much taller there so it is always a treat to get good views.
Townsend's Warbler

Tomorrow, the four of us will head to eastern Alberta to find five target birds and hopefully, a couple of good mammals.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Back in Action!

We've been back from our Yukon/NWT trip for a week now and I think for all of us it's been a time of catching up on the home front. Today however, Brian, Mike and I were able to make a day trip west of town in pursuit of a few key Alberta species we wanted to get before our upcoming swing through Atlantic Canada. Once out of town we drove west along Big Hill Springs Road continuing west along Weadon Trail to Horse Creek Road. Along the way we came across a White-tailed Deer chasing a Red Fox! None of us had ever seen such a thing before. The fox zigged and zagged with the deer always just a pace or two behind until they disappeared over the crest of a hill. I'm sure the fox wasn't at risk but I'm also sure he had no intention of hanging around!

We stopped along Horse Creek Road to listen for Yellow Rail and after a while heard its characteristic tapping quite nearby. Those of you who are experienced with Yellow Rail will know that hearing it is one thing, seeing it is altogether different and once again, we had to settle for "heard only". A good consolation prize was a close up encounter with a Le Conte's Sparrow - not a new year bird but certainly our best view of one this year and possibly ever.

Le Conte's Sparrow
Our next stop was at Perrenoud Conservation Area where we were hoping for Connecticut Warbler. Within a minute or two of stepping out of Mike's van, we heard its explosive song and a few minutes later we spotted it. This bird was indeed a new year bird for us and a key target for the day! It flew in very close at one point allowing for a great photo.

Connecticut Warbler

From Perrenoud we drove back south along Grand Valley Road keeping our eyes peeled for a Badger which we had reason to believe might be found in the area, but not today! Once we reached Highway 1A we drove west stopping in the small but generally "birdy" community of Exshaw. Out target here was a McGillivray's Warbler - a species the rest of team saw on our late May trip to B.C. but unfortunately not while I was paying attention! Brian and Mike assured me we had only to drive to the spot they knew of, get out of the car and wait ten seconds and we'd be on our way again. As is so often the case, the bird had other ideas and after 45 minutes or so we gave up and continued west to Johnston Canyon.

The first thing we noticed in Johnston Canyon was how crowded it was. Why this would be so on a Tuesday morning in mid June I don't know but I have never seen so many people there before. Despite the crowds we walked the short trail up the canyon to the first falls and then beyond. The creek was a raging torrent of water today and made for some spectacular photo ops. Maybe that's why everyone was here? Our objective however was to spot a Black Swift. Black Swifts can be found here quite reliably, nesting on small crevaces in the cliff face that borders the creek in many places. Brian had found a nest site four days earlier so we knew exactly where to go.

More bad luck! The ledge was empty and despite our close scrutiny of the cliff face over a several hundred yard stretch, we could find no sign of it. On the bright side, we had better luck with our key mammal target for today - a Golden-Mantled Ground Squirrel. We came across many of them along the trail. This is a new mammal species for the year.

Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel
On the way back down the trail we heard a Pacific Slope Flycatcher. It wasn't overly cooperative, flitting around high up in the aspen trees but eventually it must have taken pity on us because it found a nice perch, out in the open and stayed there for several minutes.

Pacific Slope Flycatcher.

From Johnston Canyon we drove a little further west to Moose Meadows, not to find a moose but to listen for a Willow Flycatcher, a species we have seen here in previous years. Sure enough, it is there again this year and we first heard its raspy fitz-bew call and then saw one. From here we travelled on, stopping at one or two more spots but finding nothing new. We were back in Calgary by mid afternoon, happy to have made at least some modest progress on our target species list. Later this week all four of us will make a two day sojourn to southeastern Alberta where - weather permitting - we have a number of species of interest to pursue - a Burrowing Owl for example! Stay tuned!

Monday, 11 June 2012

Midnight sun memories

There are strange things done in the midnight sun,
by the men who search for a bird;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
that sometimes seem quite absurd;

We arrived one night after a two hour flight
and pursued some tales we’d been told
After a brief search, from a rooftop perch,
We found our Yukon Gold

Ray and Brian with some Yukon Gold
 The weather can be surly but we woke up early
and went off with hardly a word
Beyond the docks, flying over some rocks
an Arctic Tern was our first new bird

Arctic Tern
We picked up our RV which was something to see
with its 3 beds, kitchen and shower
We stocked up, got everything locked up
and were heading north within an hour.

Phil driving the RV with Ray relaxing in the back

Nearing a lake, we needed a break
and had heard of Sam McGee.
So we stopped at the marge of Lake Labarge
but there were not even ashes to see

The Dempster scenery with its budding greenery
left us utterly astounded
And with continuous daylight, much to our delight,
the birds and mammals abounded.
Dempster Highway scenery

We saw Snowshoe Hares, two kinds of bears
and a Caribou on the road was nice
There were Long-tailed Ducks and, with a little luck,
Phil found us a tattler on ice.
Wandering Tattler

Despite the hummocky sod, up Surfbird Mountain we trod,
walking  a kilometer, I’d wager
Where Ray and I spied but Phil was denied
a view of a Long-tailed Jaeger.
Where's the darn jaeger?!

The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest and never seen again
Was that night in the park, just for a lark
When a rock became a ptarmigan.

The scenery unfurled as we drove “Top of the World”
to Canada’s far western edge.
Nothing much there but a guard with a glare
and a Hoary Marmot asleep on a ledge.
Ray and Phil at the Yukon's border with Alaska

At Klondike Kate’s the food was great
and the beer made us feel quite jolly
But there was no show, so with Cameron in tow
we created the “Fur and Feather” follies.
Phil, Cameron & Ray doing a dance
Now we were well fed, we headed for bed
safe from the weather so foul.
We woke to the sound, emanating beyond town
of the hoots of a Boreal Owl.

To the Yukon good-bye, further north we did fly
where the climate is like a deep freeze.
Though some lakes were ice-covered, we quickly discovered
that the temperature was twenty degrees!
Arctic tundra north of Inuvik

We flew up to “Tuk”, met up with Chuck,
and the town soon had us awed.
To top off the day, in an arctic-type way,
we birded the area by quad.
Brian on a quad

We were out on the ice and the weather was nice
when I heard an ear piercing scream.
A bear was in sight with Phil and Ray in flight
Whew – it was just a bad dream!
Can Ray and Phil outrun a Polar Bear?

There are strange things done under the midnight sun
some of which I have put forth.
But don’t believe me, go for yourself and see
and experience the magic of the north.