Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Birding in Vancouver

 Upon arrival in Vancouver we set out immediately for our first key target bird, a Costa's Hummingbird. Surprisingly, this very rare bird in Canada has been frequenting a feeder in Vancouver since 2010! I'm sure every keen birder in B.C. has been to see this bird already and we hoped we might get lucky and see it on our first attempt. Alas, this was not to be! We waited about an hour during which time an Anna's Hummingbird and a Fox Sparrow showed up, both new for the year, but no Costa's. Undaunted by this early "miss", we took an hour out for supper and began our search for another key Vancouver target bird, a Barn Owl. It took us a while but eventually we caught sight of one in the Boundary Bay area. Unfortunately we had only a brief view before it flew off into the darkness. 

Iona Beach Regional Park

We drove to Iona Beach Regional Park early the
next morning where we spent time birding the interesting wetlands in the area. While we were there we ran into some banders working with mist nets who gave us some tips on other places we might visit during the day ahead. 

We expected lots of new year birds at Iona Beach and we weren't disappointed! We saw several flights of Snow Geese and along the trail we came across Marsh Wren, Pied-billed Grebe and Tree Swallow.

Marsh Wren
 After Iona Beach we decided to try for the Costa's Hummingbird again and this time we were successful! We also picked up a Bushtit here this morning.

Costa's Hummingbird

Cooper's Hawk

 Next we drove to Terra Nova
following up on advice that a Barn
Owl might be in the area.   Once again we found this bird harder to find than we had hoped but a decent second place prize was a Cooper's Hawk which posed for us very nicely! We didn't give up on the Barn Owl however and managed to find one a little later in the day. We also took time to go and see some of the many Snowy Owls present in the Boundary Bay area right now. We stopped there long enough to see about ten of them! Scattered amongst the driftwood over a long stretch of beach, I must say they seemed very out of place to us Albertans.

We had enough time to visit Reifel Bird Sanctuary next. This is a great area, rich in bird life, but on a warm, sunny Sunday afternoon we were not surprised to find it was very busy! Nevertheless we had a pleasant stroll along some of its many trails, picking up Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Mute Swan, Northern Shoveler, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Golden-crowned Sparrow and best of all - two Sandhill Cranes.

By now we were into mid afternoon and needed to get to Tsawassen. Along the way we came across a field with several thousand Snow Geese. What a spectacular sight! We stopped in the town of Tsawassen to try and find Band-tailed Pigeon following up on a lead given to us by Russ Cannings. We drove to the designated area and within five minutes we found three of them. Thank you, Russ!

Mike, Ray and Phil en route to Vancouver Island

We found Willet and Black Oystercatcher along the shoreline as we approached the ferry and as we waited for the ferry to depart a flight of Brant geese flew by. We were eager to get underway to Vancouver Island and hoping for an interesting crossing with lots of new year birds. One of the most interesting sightings however was a fairly close approach by some Orcas. There was only one problem with this however - the ferry travels through U.S. waters for about 20 minutes once it leaves Tsawassen and by our reckoning, these creatures were not in Canada when we saw them!

Rhinoceros Auklet

During the crossing we added Pelagic Cormorant, Pacific Loon, Brandt's Cormorant, Common Murre, Rhinoceros Auklet and Pigeon Guillemot.

Pigeon Guillemot

We arrived at Schwartz Bay, rather tired but pleased with the day's birding sucesses and ready for the final leg of this B.C. trip

Sunday, 25 March 2012

A visit to "Wine Country"

Phil, Brian, Ray & Mike about to enter BC

Our eagerly-awaited trip to BC began on March 21. We piled into our rented mini-van and headed west from Calgary at 8:00 AM. Recent heavy snowfall and avalanches in the Rockies had been cleared away, and only a few slippery stretches on the highway slowed our progress to Penticton, where we were to spend three nights. Along the way we picked up Steller’s Jay, Turkey Vulture and Great Blue Heron, and Yellow-bellied Marmot in Kelowna, where a short detour to Munson Pond was very enjoyable.
Yellow-bellied Marmot

Before the trip Ray had made contact with Dick Cannings and his son Russell, described in the latest issue of British Columbia magazine as “superstar birders”.  On our first evening in Penticton we enjoyed dinner by the lakeshore with Dick, Marg and Russell, and they helped us lay out plans for our time both in the Okanagan and on the coast.  After dinner, Dick took us owling, an opportunity to explore some logging roads in the dark, and a close encounter with a pair of Western Screech-Owls.

Thursday morning dawned cool and snowy, but the snow soon let up and the following days were to be mostly sunny and pleasant, with little wind. Dick was our guide for the day, and we felt privileged to have such a knowledgeable naturalist take us to some of the birding hotspots of his home region. Among the highlights of the day were sightings of three Long-eared Owls, a Northern Pygmy-Owl, a pair of Williamson’s Sapsuckers, and a small flock of redpolls containing a Hoary Redpoll that was a treat for all, including Dick, for whom this was his first sighting in B.C. in a lifetime of birding.
Hoary Redpoll
After dinner, Dick took us to another location for Western Screech-Owl and this time we were fortunate enough to have excellent looks at the male calling to a nearby female. Mammals of the day included Beaver and Eastern Fox Squirrel. Wild Horses inhabit pasture land close to Dick and Marg’s home, and provided an easier way to see this species compared with our recent long jaunt to the Sundre area.
Vaseux Lake - between Okanagan Falls and Oliver

On Friday we again explored the beautiful countryside south of Penticton, at a bit more leisurely pace. Soon after breakfast we picked up Canyon Wren on the cliffs above Vaseux Lake, but Chukar, not seen well by all yesterday, continued to be elusive. Vineyards and fruit orchards stretch across the valley, and a mid-morning break at the Burrowing Owl winery made a pleasant break. It also re-energised us for a walk below the cliffs where a Peregrine Falcon put on a spectacular aerial display, driving off two Red-tailed Hawks atop a pine, and then joining his mate for further aerial gymnastics. They appeared to be enjoying the spring-like weather as much as we were. Later on we found our first Cassin’s Finch and Spotted Towhee.
Cassin's Finch

Dick and Marg had kindly invited us to dinner, and we enjoyed a delicious meal and a most relaxing evening at their home. We were very grateful for their hospitality, and for Dick’s time guiding us in the field.

Saturday was a travel day from Penticton to Vancouver. On the cliffs east of Princeton we came across  13 Mountain Goats, and finally caught up with Red Crossbills in Manning Provincial Park. 
Mountain Goat
 A walk in Campbell Valley Regional Park yielded our first Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Pacific Wren and a Barred Owl, which we heard clearly and close-by but which we were unable to locate.
Pacific Wren

All in all, we had a very enjoyable and successful visit to western Canada's wine country - good birds, good mammals, good company and good wine!  -- Phil --

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Schedule update

I’ve just uploaded a revised schedule and route map.  It is a good thing that birding is slow in February and March because trip scheduling and logistics take a lot of time.  With a team of 4, planning has been a challenge but doable despite a number of events to plan around – wives’ birthdays, anniversaries, eye surgery, vacation travel (Thailand, Hawaii), destination wedding of a daughter, family visits to BC, ON, NS, MN and the UK, other birding plans (Texas),  and the upcoming birth of grandchildren (twins).  Fortunately, we started planning this year in 2010 so we all kept our schedules fairly open for the birdiest times of the year.
Our preliminary schedule was drawn up last year based on published trip reports and seasonal checklists for various locations in Canada.  Airline seat sales tend to be the catalyst for locking in the dates for the trips – in February we arranged our flights for our Point Pelee spring trip and our East Coast summer trip.  Flights have proven to be the easiest part of planning – the airlines’ websites are easy to use and the various options can be explored quickly.  Car rentals, on the other hand, have been much more of a challenge.

We have found that one way rentals are either not available or often outrageously expensive.  For example, the drop off fee after driving from Whitehorse to Inuvik is $1200!  It was even more going from Charlottetown to St. John’s so we will likely be dropping our rental car in Sydney, NS and then busing it from Argentia to St. John’s.

We have modified our original plans for three trips – Manitoba & Nunavut, East Coast summer and Yukon/NT.
I visited Churchill in northern Manitoba in 1994 and was really looking forward to visiting it again.  Our original plans included a short flight to Arviat to incorporate Nunavut into our travels.  Then came Arctic sticker shock … the Winnipeg-Churchill-Arviat-Winnipeg flights would cost more than $1800 – more than our trip to Ontario and two trips to the east coast combined!  OUCH!  After some more research, we have decided to drive to Thompson, MB, birding southern MB en route, and then take the overnight train to Churchill.  It will save us some money and we’ve got our fingers crossed that the train’s reliability problems are a thing of the past.

From Churchill, we will fly to Rankin Inlet – opting to go a little further north for more of an arctic experience and hopefully some northern mammals.  We are still researching Nunavut locations while we wait for an arctic seat sale.
We debated the best way to incorporate Quebec into our itinerary and finally settled on Blake Maybank’s suggestion to visit les Iles de la Madeleine via ferry from PEI.  We researched the islands and are very much looking forward to visiting them.  This type of location – interesting from a birding and tourist perspective and off the beaten track – embodies the type of travel we were hoping to do on our big year.

We have pushed the Yukon/NT trip back to August as June was a little too crowded.  We had hoped to drive the Dempster Highway just one way but will be doing the return trip instead. 
Our fall travel plans are still open … we plan to visit both the west and east coast.  Timing is dependent on arranging a west coast pelagic trip sometime between Labour Day and Thanksgiving.  Unfortunately, we learned about a BC pelagic trip on April 29 a little too late to adjust our schedule.

Enough of this planning stuff – it’s time to go birding!  We will soon depart for BC and hopefully lots of new species.  Current total is 152 (Mike and I picked up Cackling Goose and Greater White-fronted Goose at Inglewood Bird Sanctuary this morning) and we expect to be around 220 when we return home from BC.

Monday, 19 March 2012

A quick trip to southeast Alberta

Mike suggested a 2 day trip to southeast Alberta to link up with some friends; unfortunately, Ray and Phil couldn't make it. I had a Saturday evening commitment so we couldn’t do the smart thing and leave Saturday night and stay in Medicine Hat.  Mike invited Hank Vanderpol along and the three of us left Calgary at 2 am on Sunday.  The skies were clear in Calgary but we soon encountered fog and snow making for a slow drive for the first couple of hours.
We reached our destination just as the sun was rising and met up with Milt Spitzer and Yousif Attia. 
We did a tour of the area ranging as far as Pakowki Lake to the west, Wild Horse to the south, and Cypress Hills to the northeast.  It was still a bit early for migrants and returning summer residents but we did see some new team birds including Lapland Longspur, Ferruginous Hawk and Western Meadowlark in addition to one new mammal – Pronghorn Antelope.
Pronghorn Antelope
Throughout the area, there was a good selection of birds of prey.  We came across a Great Horned Owl on a nest and a Snowy Owl hunting in a country cemetery.  On our drive, we saw many Ferruginous Hawks and Rough-legged Hawks along with a few Northern Harriers, a couple of Red-tailed Hawks and both Bald and Golden Eagles. 
Clockwise from top left: Red-tailed Hawk, Ferruginous Hawk, Northern Harrier, Rough-legged Hawk
Pakowki Lake was surprisingly almost ice-free but had very few waterfowl.  Ducks included Mallard, Northern Pintail, Redhead, Common Goldeneye, Green-winged Teal and a single scaup.  We didn’t do too much birding in the Cypress Hills but did enjoy seeing a number of male Mountain Bluebirds while driving along the Wildcat Trail.  Near the U.S. border, a highlight was ~10 Sharp-tailed Grouse perched in trees. 
Sharp-tailed Grouse
We had planned to stay with Milt Sunday night and were looking forward to a good meal and a relaxing evening.  We would then bird our way back to Calgary the next morning.  Those plans changed in a hurry once we saw an updated weather forecast – Blizzard warnings for Medicine Hat and Brooks starting that evening and extending through the next morning.  After a brief rest and a quick meal, we hit the road for the 3 hour drive back to Calgary.  We encountered periods of rain and snow but, fortunately, were able to outrun the storm.  We arrived back in Calgary at 9:30 pm … only 19 ½ hours after we had left.

With 4 new birds and 1 mammal, our team totals our now 135 birds and 15 mammals making 150 overall – 30% of the way!

Note: by request, my original post has been edited to remove mention of a particular species which has a low population in Canada (but healthy populations to the south).  Scientists involved in reintroduction efforts would prefer that birders and photographers stay away from the birds until the population is more robust.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Giddy Up

As recent posts have indicated, finding the few remaining “winter birds” we need in Alberta has been difficult, though our bird list is starting to inch up with the arrival of some early migrants. Consequently it is becoming a priority to build our mammal list, and today’s expedition was planned for that purpose.
Our prime objective was Wild Horse, found in only a few locales in Canada. The Sundre region north-west of Calgary is one such area, and we spoke to Jason at Red Deer River Ranches near Sundre kindly gave us very useful advice on where to look.

Leaving Calgary shortly after 6:30 AM, we made our way slowly to the Sundre area, hoping to find Porcupines or Great Gray Owls at recognised spots along the way, but not having any luck. Still, we had nice sightings of Rough-legged Hawks (12 seen today), an American Dipper, a Townsend’s Solitaire (a catch-up species for Mike) and a cow Moose.

By mid-morning the temperature had climbed from minus 7 to plus 5, and we arrived at the start of Williams Creek Road, a logging road which runs into Coal Camp Road about 25 km south of Hwy 584, west of Sundre. The deforested landscape in this area is rather depressing, and we encountered virtually no wildlife as we wound our way up the road, where Jason had recommended we focus our efforts. However, “evidence” of horse at various points on the logging road helped keep our spirits up and eventually, 17 km up the road, we saw a herd of horses about 500 m away.

Wild Horses in the deforested landscape SW of Sundre

Ray and Brian picked their way across the logged-out terrain to get closer and captured definitive shots of the horses. Wild? There were no screw holes in the hoof marks and they were wary of our presence.

Wild Horse
After returning down the logging road, we made our way back to Calgary via the Forestry Trunk Road, Harold Creek Road to Water Valley, and south on Grand Valley Road, arriving home at 4 PM. The wind picked up during the afternoon, and birding became slow but not without interest.
Highlights were three Golden Eagles seen flying north over Grand Valley Road;
 a Northern Hawk Owl by the Forestry Trunk Road;
Northern Hawk Owl

 a male Mountain Bluebird (new species for the year) by Grand Valley Road, and a Ruffed Grouse walking slowly across the road west of Water Valley.

Mountain Bluebird

Ruffed Grouse
A fine day in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains!

Mike, Phil and Brian in the Red Deer River valley, SW of Sundre

Monday, 12 March 2012

Signs of Spring

Spring-like weather has come to Alberta and the first migrants are trickling in.  On Sunday morning, Ray, Mike and I birded the Frank Lake, Carseland and Shepard areas to the south and east of Calgary.  Around Frank Lake, there were still a couple of very conspicuous Snowy Owls in the fields as well as hundreds (thousands?) of Canada Geese and Northern Pintails.  We walked in to Basin 1 of Frank Lake and found two new team birds, Tundra Swan and Redhead.  While looking at the waterfowl, six California Gulls flew over for another team bird.

Moving on to Carseland, the Bow River was surprising barren – we saw only a few Common Goldeneye below the weir.  From there we did our requisite Gyrfalcon hunt in the Shepard area.  Last Friday afternoon, Ray found one just east of Shepard but, of course, it had disappeared before Mike and I could reach the scene.  That morning, Mike and I had a pleasant outing to the Willow Park suburb and various sites along the Bow River – it served as a nice reminder that we are birding for fun and not to get overly focused on our big year totals.  In Willow Park, the American Robins were singing, Northern Flickers calling, Black-Billed Magpies were harassing a Sharp-shinned Hawk and a small flock of White-winged Crossbills were chattering away.  Alas, no Red Crossbills but lots of other birds to enjoy. 
Northern Flicker
Later that morning, Mike found our first Richardson’s Ground Squirrel for the year … a sure sign of spring as the ground squirrels are a major food source for prairie raptors.
Richardson's Ground Squirrel

Total species count is now at 143 – 130 birds and 13 mammals. 


Sunday, 4 March 2012

Birding with style!

Phil & Brian
Earlier this week, we received our team T-shirts and this Saturday was our first chance to show them off.  I can’t say that the birds and mammals were impressed though.  Since it is difficult to see our design in the photo on the left, below is the image that was printed on the shirts.  So far we've seen 6 of the species that are on the shirt - Bald Eagle, Snowy Owl, Rough-legged Hawk, Pileated Woodpecker, Dark-eyed Junco and Moose.  With PEI being so small, you might have to take our word that it is represented by a Yellow Warbler.  Apart from the Wolf, we chose common species so we should be able to tick everything on the shirt.

Early Saturday morning, Bob Saunders, Phil, Mike and I headed southwest to Brown Lowery PP.  Brown Lowery is a square mile of dead spruce (well, not quite) and the 3-toed woodpeckers love it.  We counted at least 8 but did not find our target Black-backed Woodpecker.
American Three-toed Woodpecker (male)
After 3 hours of walking the trails, we headed for Millarville where this is a tremendous feeder setup on one of the acreages.  No new birds but we spent an hour just enjoying the Evening & Pine Grosbeaks and a Pileated Woodpecker along with a number of other species.

Pileated Woodpecker
On the way back to Calgary, we came across a large herd of Elk in a field.  At first we thought they were farmed Elk but the fences were way too low (there are a number of Elk farms in the area, all with very high fences) and the Elk were quite wary of us when we stopped to view them.
Elk herd in the foothills east of Millarville
The last stop for the day was to check the river at Carburn Park.  There was not much on the river but, in the sky, we were treated to two Bald Eagles – judging from their size, a smaller immature male and a larger adult female – doing some aerial acrobatics.
A young male after an older lady?  or vice versa?!
On Wednesday, we had planned an outing along the Bow River.  However, I was up early and decided to check out a potential Gyrfalcon spot on the way to our meeting point.  The Harris’s Sparrow (seen earlier in the year) was singing now and there were a ton of redpolls.  On my way out, I saw a large raptor come cruising over the field … that’s a falcon … that’s a Gyrfalcon!  Before chasing it, I called Phil … come on Phil, answer your phone.  No luck so I decided to text him – an immediate response.  Meanwhile, the Gyrfalcon perched on a transmission line tower.  Phil said that he and Mike would be there in about 10 minutes.  A raven decided to harass the Gyrfalcon but the falcon just moved to a nearby pole.  Ten minutes later, I had a call from Phil, “we’re almost there … just stuck behind a tractor”.  As you might guess, the Gyrfalcon decided to fly away and Phil and Mike arrived about 30 seconds later.  We cruised the roads for about 90 minutes and all that we found was a Prairie Falcon.  After a brief stop at the Bow river, I drove Phil home and, on the way, we finally found a new team bird – Merlin (Phil had already seen a few of them in the city while on his own).

Last Monday, Phil went out with Bob Saunders and found a couple of catch-up birds – Sharp-tailed Grouse and Golden Eagle.  I spent the morning working on my taxes and, pleased with my progress, decided to meet up with Phil and Bob at Frank Lake.  We walked in to the open water and picked up the Trumpeter Swan that has overwintered there.

Trumpeter Swan
We now have 127 bird species and 12 mammal species for a total of 139.  No new mammals but we appreciate the lead on the Striped Skunk and some other tips received by email.  Now we just need to convince ourselves that finding a skunk is worth losing sleep!