Monday, 27 February 2012

The dead of winter

For prairie birders, the dead of winter isn’t the coldest days of January but mid-to-late February – most of the wintering birds have been seen and the early migrants have yet to arrive.  Members of our big year team are taking advantage of this lull in bird activity to get some other things done in anticipation of a very busy spring.

We have had some outings over the last few days but with little success.  Last Thursday evening, we went looking for a Northern Flying Squirrel that frequents a feeder after dark in North Glenore Park.  It was a beautiful evening – probably too nice as a couple of kids and their dog were noisily playing nearby.   We waited an hour but no squirrel, our only consolation was a Ruffed Grouse wandering nearby in the darkness. 
Ruffed Grouse
It is a bit early in the season for good owling but we decided to give it a shot west of town … we had clear, calm conditions and the night sky was amazing with Mars, Jupiter and Venus all very bright.  It was perfectly quiet – too quiet for our liking.  Eventually we heard an owl but it was just a Great Horned Owl.  Once again we received some consolation for our efforts as a Snowshoe Hare ran across the road and then posed in the headlights.

On Friday, Mike and Phil picked up the Harlequin Duck at Inglewood – a catch-up bird for them – and then Bob Saunders and I joined them for another falconless drive.  On Saturday, Phil, Bob and I went “quilling” – searching for a Porcupine that Ray had seen earlier in the year.  The habitat north of Calgary was quite extensive and there were many bushes near the road that had been munched on by porcupines.  However, it was like looking for needles in a haystack and we came up empty.  We did see lots of American Tree Sparrows as well many Mule Deer. 
We then went for a walk in Big Hill Springs Provincial Park.  There were very few birds but it was a wonderful walk through the forest.  The weather turned nasty – snowing with high winds – but we decided to continue our quilling.  While Phil stopped for gas at a country station, I picked up a couple of coffees.  The cashier asked, “you going a long way today?” to which I replied, “no, I’m birdwatching” and then, to my surprise he responded, “birding, eh … you doing a big year?”!

We made one more pass through porcupine country and saw nothing but a couple of Moose and a pair of Rough-legged Hawks.
Rough-legged Hawk
There are still a few local winter birds that we need but nothing that we shouldn’t get at some time in 2012.  Mammals seem quite scarce and we are seeing very few tracks in the snow.  Has anybody recently seen skunks, weasels, mink or other uncommon mammals in the Calgary area?

We have recorded 125 birds and 12 mammals for a total of 137 species. 

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Calgary to Stavely

Mike, Brian and Ray set off from Calgary at 7 A.M. this morning to do some birding south of Calgary. We've been trying hard for Gyrfalcon for some time now and we decided to follow up on a recent sighting in the Frank Lake area and then continue on south for a few other key winter targets, most notably perhaps, a Sharp-tailed Grouse. We were treated to a gorgeous prairie sunrise as we passed south of Okotoks and as we headed in toward Frank Lake we quickly spotted our first Snowy Owl of the day.

Snowy Owl

 Feeling rather good about life, we drove the circuit around Frank Lake but alas, once again we found no gyrfalcon! We did find two more Snowies mind you! By 9:30 we were exploring the area west of Nanton checking out all our favourite places for Sharp-tailed Grouse. By this time, heavy clouds had moved in from the west and the wind was blowing at about 30 km/h. Despite a reasonably favourable forecast, the skies looked very ominous and as we reached the hills southwest of Nanton we were into intermittent snow flurries. Despite the poor visibility, Brian suddenly spotted a Sharp-tailed Grouse on sentry duty atop a large stack of hay bales. We stopped for a closer look and soon saw there were actually seven of them. Almost immediately after we resumed our drive south we came across ten more! We had some great views!

Sharp-tailed Grouse

Our plan at this point was to meander our way west along some quiet country roads in the general direction of Chain Lakes. Somewhat to our embarassment, we suddenly realised we had missed our way and were headed east toward Stavely! Naturally we blamed this on the bad weather. Fate was on our side however because another key target species for today was Golden Eagle and we found one. There may in fact have been two of them but by the time we stopped our vehicle and got out for a look, one of them had drifted away. 

Stavely - Home of Chocolate Chip Muffins

A second happy result of our flawed navigation was that in Stavely one can buy the most delicious chocolate chip muffins at the town's General Store and that's exactly what we did. Sometimes you can find Eurasian Collared-Doves here too but not today!

With our coffee mugs full and one of these huge muffins in hand, we drove east to Clear Lakes. We came across a small number of Horned Larks in the area which was good news for Brian and I because so far this year, only Phil and Mike had seen this species. From here we drove north to Frank Lake and then west into High River. Here we added a number of trip birds for the day but no new year birds. Eurasian Collared-Dove however was another catch-up bird for Brian. No Red-bellied Woodpecker for us today though.

We were well into mid afternoon by this time so we set off for home. The good birding was not yet over however. While driving north on Highway 2 just east of Okotoks we spotted a falcon overhead in hot pursuit of a duck. Mike, who was driving today, screeched to a halt (very safely mind you!) on the shoulder of the highway and we hopped out in time to see the falcon settle on a distant power pole. We think the duck escaped! Very obligingly, the bird stayed there while we dove into the back of Mike's van for a scope. It was a Peregrine Falcon and not only another new team bird for the year but a very good winter bird here in Alberta!

Mule Deer

All in all it was an excellent birding day with three new team birds for the year and a couple of catch up birds for Brian and I. We also saw seven Bald Eagles today, two Rough-legged Hawks and a number of other more common winter birds.Mule Deer were very common today too. We must have seen 60 or more. And of course, it may be winter but sometimes our praire landscapes with a mountain backdrop are simply magnificent!
 But those Gyrfalcons will have to wait for another day....!

Sunday, 19 February 2012

The first 50 days – Alberta, Nova Scotia & Newfoundland = 1 day in B.C.??

While checking recent sightings in BC, I noticed that Russell Cannings, Jeremiah Kennedy and Jess Findlay recently recorded 131 species in one day in the Vancouver area (  Needless to say, it is tempting to head west and bring our totals to a more respectable level.  However, we will stick to our plan and wait for a month or so before heading to BC.  In checking their list of 131 species, we should get almost all of them at some time during the year.  I was surprised to see Costa’s Hummingbird on the list … hopefully it will stick around for us.

Today we surpassed their 131 total, albeit for 50 days and counting mammals as well as birds.  Ray and I birded along the Bow River – Bowness Park, Edworthy Park and Inglewood Bird Sanctuary – before heading east in search of falcons.
Bowness had its usual group of winter birds including Pileated Woodpecker (a catch-up species for me) and Brown Creeper.  We were looking for a Red Crossbill – there were lots of cones but no crossbills.  At Edworthy, our target was Townsend’s Solitaire which we found fairly quickly for a new team bird.  We then went to Inglewood where we saw a distant male Harlequin Duck … another new bird for us.
There have been scattered reports of a Gyrfalcon SE of Calgary and we cruised the backroads without success.  As a consolation, Ray spotted a Prairie Falcon which was another catch-up bird for me.
Prairie Falcon

Our totals are now 121 birds and 11 mammals for a total of 132.  I also photographed 3 new species but unfortunately, the birds were all quite distant.


Saturday, 18 February 2012

Photos - the good, the okay and the ugly

If you haven't noticed already, I've loaded one photo of each species that I've photographed while doing the big year.  The photos are on Picasaweb (Google's photosharing site) and can be accessed by clicking the link to the right.

I've photographed 94 species so far or about 72% of the team total of birds and mammals seen.  The collection includes a few good photos, lots that are okay and a few ugly ones.  I debated whether to include the ugly ones (normally a photographer doesn't show his bad ones) and decided to do so for completeness.  After all, that speck of dust that I labeled as a Dovekie represents my only life bird so far this year (and was taken during a raging snow storm at Cape Spear).

As the year progresses, hopefully I will be able to upgrade some of the poorer pictures.


Sunday, 12 February 2012

Birding the Slippery Slopes

After a long drive on Thursday, we reckoned a walk in town would provide a nice counterpoint. So on Saturday morning the four of us set out to bird the Sandy Beach area on the Elbow River, below the Glenmore dam. Phil walks this route regularly with his dog, and had recently seen several bird species which are not yet on the team list.
Ray, Phil & Mike along the Elbow River in Calgary
It was a sunny morning, around minus 15 when we started, and a light southerly wind which made for a more typical winter’s day than we have had of late. It was also extremely slippery underfoot, with a thin layer of snow on top of ice, so climbing out of the valley and back down again required some care. There were good numbers of birds around, and we logged twenty species in just over two hours, but disappointingly nothing new for the list.
Wood Ducks

Fortunately we were able to find a male and two female Wood Ducks at their usual winter haunt further downstream on the Elbow River, thereby avoiding being skunked. At Inglewood Bird Sanctuary, we looked for a Harlequin Duck on the Bow River without success.

Friday, 10 February 2012

Ptarget: Ptarmigan … Bow Summit, February 9 2012

Loaded to the gunnels with snow shoes, poles, winter clothing and optics, the four of us met at 6:30 and drove west in winter darkness, laughing about our odds of spotting a white bird on white snow.

Can you spot the ptarmigan?
We take a break in Lake Louise where I’m treated to the finest chocolate chip cookie I’ve ever enjoyed, and probably the largest. Twenty minutes or so later, as we approach the entrance to Num-ti-jah Lodge, driver Phil spots suspicious tracks on the snowbank, and Ray locates the White-tailed Ptarmigan nibbling on willow buds five meters away.

White-tailed Ptarmigan

So much for snow shoes! Our ptarmigan calmly poses for several photographs and we eventually leave it to finish its breakfast. Searching willow patches as we drive on to Bow Summit yields no more ptarmigan.

View from the Banff-Jasper Highway, just south of Bow Summit
The mountain views are spectacular in the morning sun as we work our way back south. At Morant’s Curve (a view spot made famous by Nicholas Morant who photographed for Canadian Pacific in the 1930’s and 40’s), Phil got quite excited when a train came by, providing a view almost like in the old CP ads (alas, the train was headed in the wrong direction).

Morant's Curve
Along the Bow Valley Parkway we find an American Dipper in the open water of the Bow, and at Vermilion Lakes a small flock of Green-winged Teal. Along the way we manage to spot several Elk.

A detour onto Sibbald Trail in Kananaskis takes us eventually down Powderface Trail to Dawson Trailhead. As we are searching for a drumming woodpecker, a Northern Pygmy-Owl hoots nearby and soon flies into view, allowing for great looks and photos, while another calls in the distance. The tooting continues as we pull out of the parking lot and head for home.

Northern Pygmy-Owl

Three new birds and one new mammal as well as breathtaking scenic views made for a wonderful day.


Tuesday, 7 February 2012

125 Birds and Mammals - 1/4 of the way!

Today, all four of us birded together for the first time since our east coast trip.  It was another sunny Alberta day although somewhat cool - temperature was -12 C with a brisk wind.  Our main targets were Harris's Sparrow and any falcon.  The Harris's Sparrow was first reported on the Calgary Christmas count and has been seen by a number of observers including Mike and Ray at separate times (to count as a team bird, we require at least 2 team members to see the bird while birding together).

We arrived at the site in SE Calgary at 8:30 and, initially, the only birds around were Common Redpoll and House Sparrow.  A pair of Gray Partridges were flushed and then we came across a mixed flock which contained the Harris's Sparrow, Red-winged Blackbirds and a White-crowned Sparrow.

Harris's Sparrow

Flush with success, we stopped for a coffee and Phil noted that we were only a couple of minutes away from Bob Lefebvre's place where a Varied Thrush has been spending the winter.  We headed to Bob's and found the Varied Thrush soon thereafter ... we felt we were on a roll.  To make a long story short, the roll ended right there and we had no luck with falcons.

Varied Thrush
With the four new species today, we have recorded 115 birds and 10 mammals for a total of 125.  We are pretty much on track for the birds but mammals are lagging a bit. 


Saturday, 4 February 2012

Inching along, one species at a time....

Mike and Phil set out early this morning to the rolling pasture land in the area of Nanton, an hour south of Calgary, against the backdrop of the Rockies. It was a beautiful sunny day, with the temperature climbing from minus 13 as we passed through Nanton at 8 AM to plus 12 when we returned to Calgary at 2:30 PM.

Yet again, the spectacular winter day did not translate into a long list of birds and mammals. We had excellent looks at a male Northern Harrier, a Northern Shrike, small flocks of Snow Buntings and American Tree Sparrows and two small herds of Mule Deer as we drove over 300 km during the day. But it was late morning before we finally found a new bird, as two Horned Larks flushed up as we drove on a gravel road NW of Staveley. No luck with Golden Eagle or Sharp-tailed Grouse, which can be encountered on the route we took.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Some nice sightings, but nothing new....

Our current strategy is to target bird species which can be found in Alberta in winter and which will be hard to find elsewhere in Canada. In doing so, we will of course add other bird and mammal species which we will undoubtedly find again during the year.

On Thursday afternoon, Mike and Phil went to south-east Calgary, and then eastwards as far as Langdon, hoping to find a Gyrfalcon. (There is a school of thought which says that if you look for Gyrfalcons you are doomed to failure; you have to wait for the Gyrfalcon to find you when you are least expecting it. This may have an element of truth, but unduly defeatist for the Fur and Feathers team to accept.)

Sad to say, we did not find a Gyrfalcon but we spent a very enjoyable three hours in balmy, sunny 3 deg weather. It is very strange to be driving the prairies in February and to see very little snow cover. The highlight was the half-hour we spent on 51st Ave SE, where we had a secondary target, Harris's Sparrow. This bird was found there on the Christmas Bird Count on December 18, and has recently been reported again. While looking for the sparrow (also unsuccessful) we were treated to excellent views of a Prairie Falcon and a juvenile Northern Harrier. Circling above the Northern Harrier at one point was a Sharp-shinned Hawk. All very nice, but these are all already on our list. Likewise a Snowy Owl perched beside Hwy 22X west of Langdon.

We currently have 109 species of birds and 10 species of mammals. For the next few weeks, we can realistically expect that our list will grow at a pretty slow rate. Still, the continuing mild weather is a good incentive to keep plugging away. Mike and Phil will head south-west tomorrow, and Ray and Brian return from their travels this weekend, so we will have a full team back in action next week.