Saturday, 28 July 2012

Dusky Grouse

Thursday July 26

Last week we had travelled to Waterton Park in the hopes of seeing a Dusky Grouse. While they inhabit the foothills to the south-west of Calgary, we had been seduced by reports of sightings on the Red Rock Canyon “Parkway” in Waterton and we needed to go to Waterton in any event for Red-tailed Chipmunk. We had been unsuccessful in finding the grouse on that trip (though we did get the chipmunk), so on Thursday Brian, Ray and Phil went to the Sheep River Valley about an hour from Calgary, to ascend the Foran Grade Ridge.  (Actually it’s only about 3km in length with an altitude gain of 250 m, but the vistas up the Sheep River valley are great.) This has been a reliable site in the past.

Soon after we began the ascent we ran across a Bull Moose, giving us one of our best sightings of this majestic mammal.

Bull Moose from the Foran Grade Trail

Winding our way up the treed slopes, we ran across several flocks of Dark-eyed Juncos, Chipping Sparrows and all three species of chickadee. The recently-fledged young were fun to watch, though impossible to photograph. Three indistinct grouse (a hen and 2 juvenile birds or 3 juveniles) tantalized us before we reached the summit of the ridge. At the time, we thought they were Ruffed Grouse (we could see a bit of a crest) but upon closer review they appear to be young Dusky Grouse.

A grouse in the grass

Ray and Phil became momentarily distracted by a nearby Hermit Thrush singing lustily, but Brian stayed focused and spied a male Dusky Grouse on the trail just ahead of us. Although the grouse wandered away from us, Brian and Ray were able to get some good photos. Success! Bird species no. 401 and a Fur and Feathers total of 462.

Dusky Grouse
We took our time on the descent, stopping to enjoy the scenery, the flowers, the butterflies, and a very striking juvenile Townsend’s Solitaire.

Butterfly on a gallardia flower

Windy Point Ridge and Sheep River Valley from Foran Grade Trail

Juvenile Townsend's Solitaire
Our plans for the immediate future will be to try to see some of the local mammal species which have so far eluded us, and of course to go after any bird rarities which may turn up.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Bats and birdies

As I’ve said all along, we are making good progress with the birds but the mammals are driving us batty.  In particular, bats have been elusive.  We did see an unidentified bat at Point Pelee and also found a dead Little Brown Bat there but came up empty on a couple of good leads – no Long-eared Bats at a long established and well known roost in Hesketh, AB and an empty “bat” cave in NS. 

Ray has a bluebird trail and asked other bluebird monitors if they had seen any mammals.  Zoltan Gulyas, a long-time “bluebirder” responded that some bat boxes (which he had built) on his bluebird trail were occupied and he would be willing to take us there to look for bats.
Saturday, July 21

Saturday evening, Ray and I picked up Zoltan and drove to a ranch north of Cochrane.  Zoltan had warned us to bring bug spray and he was right … the mosquitoes were ferocious!.  The bat boxes were attached to the east side of a wooden Quonset hut, about 4 metres above ground level.  The boxes that Zoltan had built were works of art as well as being very functional.  Each box was about .4 metres by .9 metres and could house up to 50 bats.
Zoltan standing below the bat boxes he constructed
Upon arrival, we peered up the bat boxes and could see a couple of bats but certainly not 50.  We were there shortly before sunset so we settled in to wait for darkness and the departure of the bats.  After about 15 minutes, we noticed that a single bat was hanging on the wall just below the right-hand window (can you see it in the picture above?).
Little Brown Bat
We are assuming that these are Little Brown Bats (or Little Brown Myotis) but will send the photos to a local bat expert for confirmation.

At about 10:05 pm, we started to see bats leaving the boxes.  They were very fast and difficult to see in the fading light let alone to take a photo.  Over the next 20 minutes, Zoltan counted 44 bats and we could still hear some in the bat boxes when we left.  Meanwhile, I wasn’t having much success at getting an action photo – closest I came was getting a bat just as it is leaving the box.
Bat leaving its roost
Ray and I quite enjoyed the evening and Zoltan’s explanation of bat boxes, coyote behaviour and just about everything a person could want to know … thanks Zoltan and thanks also to the landowner.

Despite all the excitement, we are still at 61 mammals as the addition of Little Brown Bat to our list means that we have to drop the “bat species” that we saw in Point Pelee (even though the unidentified bat was too big for a Little Brown Bat).  Bird listers will understand the logic which is otherwise too complicated to explain here.

Monday, July 23
Today was the first round of the 6th annual BIRD tournament – BIRD is the acronym for “Birders Invitational for Retired Duffers".  Each year, Ray, Phil and I along with our spouses play a round of golf at 3 different courses.  We have a special scoring system that rewards birdies and also takes into account our individual handicaps.  The prize for the winner is the Birders Cup.
Ray, Brian and Phil - all smiles before the round ... who was smiling after the round?
Today’s round was at Phil’s course – Priddis Greens, southwest of Calgary.  The weather forecast was for a chance of showers and possible thunderstorms but we were undaunted.  Phil, the best golfer of the three of us, started off with a birdie and quickly cut into the strokes that he had spotted Ray and me.  After three holes, the heavens opened and the rain poured down on us.  It stopped after a few minutes and we had sunny weather for the rest of the round.  We each had a few good shots but, at the end of the round, I had the biggest smile :)

Although we were golfing, we did not neglect the birds and mammals – we recorded 21 species of birds and 3 species of mammals.  Next up for the team is another crack at Northern Flying Squirrel and Dusky Grouse.

Sunday, 22 July 2012


This posting was written by Matthew Sim who accompanied us on a trip to Waterton last Wed./Thursday.  All photos in this post (except the one below with him in it) were taken by Matthew.  Thanks Matthew (and we appreciated your good eyes and ears as well!)
Matthew (right) with Mike and Phil
The Fur & Feathers team made a trip down to Waterton Lakes National Park in the hopes of adding 3 new species to the team list and they kindly invited me along for the voyage; an invitation which I gladly accepted.

The afternoon of Wednesday, July 18th saw us leaving Calgary en route south to Waterton. We made a stop along the way at Clear Lake, just east of Stavely where we picked up some shorebirds including Red-necked Phalarope and Stilt Sandpiper as well as some Caspian Tern.

From there it was fairly straight forward and we checked into our motel in the town of Mountain View outside of Waterton early in the evening. We headed out to the national park and did a loop around the bison paddock in search of the first target species; American Badger. Unable to find any Badger despite a good search, we did see Red Fox and Columbian Ground Squirrel for mammals.

From the paddock, we traveled up the Red Rock Canyon Parkway in search of our next target species- Dusky Grouse, which had been seen in the area several times lately. Though we were in the right area to se the grouse, the species was able to constantly elude us. As the sun set, we made our way back to our comfortable motel in Mountain View adding Elk and Great Horned Owl to our trip list.
Elk at dusk

 Thursday morning saw us rising with the sun, in a bid to maximize our chances of spotting the Dusky Grouse. Once again, our search was futile though we did see some good birds along the way. After a few hours of searching for the evasive grouse, we headed to the Waterton town site where we picked up a delicious breakfast and several Violet-Green Swallows during breakfast as well as Brian’s good sighting of 3 Pileated Woodpeckers at the feeders in town.

Once we had finished eating, we went to Cameron Lake to see our third target species; Red-tailed Chipmunk. We arrived at Cameron Lake and admired the gorgeous scenery before soon finding the Chipmunk easily enough.
Cameron Lake
Though we found the one Red-tailed Chipmunk right away, we did not see another one during a walk along the lakeside.  After Cameron Lake, we birded the road back to the Waterton town site before having one last and again unsuccessful look on the Red Rock Canyon Parkway for Dusky Grouse.
Red-tailed Chipmunk
We left the park in the early afternoon and went back to Mountain View where after a couple minutes we found a male Bobolink in the fields north of the town.

 Turning the car north, we commenced the drive back to Calgary with one final stop at Frank Lake along the way where we had some good looks at lots of flying White-faced Ibises.
White-faced Ibis
It was an excellent trip and I greatly enjoyed getting out with the Fur and Feathers team. I know I, for one, will continue to follow their adventures excitedly in the hope that they achieve their goals.


Friday, 13 July 2012

400th bird species; Atlantic Canada wrap-up

We had hoped to reach 400 birds on our just concluded Atlantic Canada trip but came up one short.  Since 400 sounds much better than 399, we were determined to go for #400 at the first opportunity.  With Black Swift as our target, Phil and I headed to Banff early on Thursday.  I had seen a Black Swift on a nest in Johnston Canyon three weeks ago but, when the team went there a few days later, there were no swifts to be found.  This time, the nest where I had first seen the bird was empty but we found an occupied nest just a few metres away.

Black Swift
Black Swifts nest on the canyon walls above the falls
Our Atlantic Canada trip was very similar to most of our other trips this year – very enjoyable, reasonably successful in finding birds and not so successful with mammals.  We visited 5 provinces, drove over 3000 km and rode on 4 large ferries and 5 smaller ones.

Our travels - June 26 to July 9
In doing a big Canada year, one cannot be everywhere at “prime time” and thus must make some compromises.  We chose the past two weeks to go east for a number of reasons: 1) to see some seabirds at their nesting sites, 2) to have a chance at Bicknell’s Thrush and 3) to give ourselves a break after trips in quick succession to Point Pelee, BC and to the Yukon and NWT.  For this trip, prime time would have been a couple of weeks earlier but still we managed to get most of our target birds.  We had hoped to get some more whales but knew that we were a bit early.   It is likely that we will be back in mid-late September and should have a good chance at 2 or 3 of the marine mammals that we missed.
As in past trips, local birders contributed greatly to our success. James Hirtle in Nova Scotia and Anne Hughes in Newfoundland went far out of their way to show us some good birds; Jame’s friends Dorothy and Johnny also were very friendly and helpful.
Dorothy and James

Anne, Phil, Mike, Brian & Ray

Part of our mission this year is to find some interesting places whether it be for scenery, local culture or wildlife.  Les isles de la Madeleine met all three criteria and were a real treat – fascinating geography, touristy but without the tourists, funky restaurants and some good birds.  We even tried to speak French but more often than not, Spanish came out instead. 

View from "Old Harry" - Iles de la Madeleine
The birding highlight for the islands was our visit by zodiac to Ile Brion.  This was our first look at the nesting seabirds that we had come to see … Atlantic Puffins, Razorbills, Common Murres and Black-legged Kittiwakes.  The return trip was also memorable for the rough ride into the wind.

Razorbill and Atlantic Puffin ... wouldn't they create an interesting hybrid?!
It was interesting to see the contrast between PEI and les Iles de la Madeleine – PEI’s economy is based on tourism and agriculture whereas the other is based on fishing.  For whatever reason (perhaps tourist accessibility?), PEI appeared to be much wealthier.

We did enjoy our brief time in New Brunswick and were impressed with the two main birding sites that we visited – Cape Jourimain (at the south end of the Confederation Bridge) and Irving Nature Park (the name Irving is everywhere in NB) in Saint John.  New Brunswick is definitely worthy of a longer birding visit (just not this year!)

Nova Scotia was where most of our target birds resided so that is where we spent most of our time.  The American Oystercatcher and Roseate Terns in the south and the Bicknell’s Thrush in the north were new Canadian birds for most of us.  We had fantastic weather for both of our boat trips - whale watching in the Bay of Fundy and a Roseate Tern expedition.  A highlight of the whale watching trip was up close viewing of rafts of shearwaters.

A Manx Shearwater in the midst of many Great Shearwaters
Great Shearwater up close
We made use of the 800 km in between southern NS and Cape Breton by tracking down some widespread birds that we had missed in Ontario and had chosen not to go after in central Alberta.  With the help of James Hirtle and others, we were pleased to see Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Black-backed Woodpecker and Mourning Warbler.
In Newfoundland, the fog thwarted many attempts to view seabirds. However, Anne Hughes’ sunny disposition and vast knowledge of the birds and where to find them eventually led us to success.  Cape St. Mary’s was somewhat mystical in the fog with thousands of seabirds very close (and noisy) but very difficult to see. 

Seabird cliffs at Cape St. Mary's in the mist
When the sun came out, it was spectacular but we were only able to enjoy the views for a few minutes before hustling back to St. John’s to catch a plane.

Cape St. Mary's in the sunshine
Overall, we had 18 new team birds on the trip and 4 new team mammals.  Including the Black Swift seen on our return to Alberta, we are now at 400 birds and 60 mammals for a total of 460.  This exceeds our original target of 450 (which we figured would be too easy) and leaves us with 40 species to reach 500 … which certainly won’t be easy!  We will enjoy a “summer holiday” at home for the next few weeks before heading off to Manitoba (province #10) and Nunavut (territory #3) in August.  Until then, our posts may be infrequent unless you are interested in our golf scores!

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Foggy Newfoundland

Saturday, July 7

Although last evening’s foggy conditions on the Sydney, Nova Scotia – Argentia, Newfoundland ferry were not conducive to seabird-watching, our compact cabins were convenient and comfortable. Ray’s wife Agnes was to pick us up at the ferry terminal but foggy conditions at the St. John’s airport prevented her plane from landing.  She flew from Toronto to Gander to Montreal to Toronto in the space of 12 hours.  Revised plans have her landing this evening on a plane from Halifax.

Our first views of the Newfoundland coast near Argentia

We’re up early this morning and on deck but see little. At 9am we hear an announcement that we will dock in a half hour, but foot passengers are last off so it is 10:30 by the time we board our shuttle to St. John’s.

Once more we meet local fine birder Anne Hughes who takes us to Cape Spear to view the reported shearwater flight. But this site close to St. John’s is completely fogged in, and we don’t even get out of our vehicles. Anne then guides us to the birdy yard of her friends Catherine and Paul, where we spot over 15 species in a short time, including our only good views of Evening and Pine Grosbeaks for this trip.
Pine Grosbeak
Sunday, July 8

Ray meets us in the morning with my long lost binoculars in hand (because Agnes’s flight was rerouted through Halifax, Rob picked up the binoculars I left in Truro and gave them to Agnes at the airport).  We then meet Anne at the Memorial University Botanical Garden for a pleasant walk in light rain. After a Tim Hortons stop we head south down the Avalon Peninsula coast, past the famed Bay Bulls and Witless Bay. In partial fog at Burnt Cove we manage to see Common Murres, Atlantic Puffins, several Great Shearwaters close to shore and a single Razorbill. At Ship Island the fog parts in time to allow us views of nesting Northern Fulmars.
Ship Island
Atlantic Puffin
It’s lunch time, and a small sign for mooseburgers catches our attention. They are slow in arriving but delicious, as is the poutine ordered by one of us. While taking our lunch we watch a fish-carrying Osprey being pursued by an opportunistic Bald Eagle.
Mike's first taste of poutine

At Ferryland we admire a wheeling, diving cloud of gannets, shearwaters and gulls feeding on a school of capelin.
Northern Gannets and Black-legged Kittiwakes

Back in St. John’s at Anne’s home we share a fine supper, including both steak and ice cream – hard to beat that! It has been a delightful day.

Monday, July 9

Ray’s wife Agnes accompanies us as we travel with Anne to Cape St. Mary’s Ecological Reserve. Fog is the norm here, and we can see no birds as we walk about a kilometer to the Bird  Rock “viewing” site.
Walking to Bird Rock, Cape St. Mary's

However the never-ending racket from the Northern Gannets lets us know they are present, and gradually the fog dissipates and we’re able to see them. The folks at the visitors’ centre tell us that about 15,000 breeding pairs are present on the Cape, many with chicks.
Nesting Northern Gannets on Bird Rock
Northern Gannet

Also here are thousands of Black-legged Kittiwakes and a handful of Great Cormorants. As the fog slowly lifted, patient searching by Anne and Brian finally results in our seeing several Thick-billed Murres through our scopes, with a minimum danger of anyone slipping over the cliff edge.
Anne perched on the edge scanning the cliffs across from us
Kittiwakes and murres
Thick-billed Murres (centre) with Black-legged Kittiwakes and Common Murres
Cape St. Mary's
Thrilled with our clear views (a posting in the visitors centre says it’s been foggy for 23 straight days) we return to St. John’s and directly to the air terminal. Goodbyes are said and Brian, Phil and Mike depart for Calgary. Agnes and Ray stay on for a few days to enjoy the maritime flavour.


Saturday, 7 July 2012

Nova Scotia target birding

Wednesday, July 4 – Bridgewater

In the morning, we met up with James Hirtle (who had been invaluable on our January trip) and drove down to Milton with Yellow-bellied Flycatcher as our target.  There, we met up with Dorothy Poole who led us on a delightful walk nearby.  Even at 8:30, there was a good amount of song activity.  In short order, we had good views of Magnolia Warbler, Blackburnian Warbler and Blue-headed Vireo.  After a while, we came to a spot where Dorothy had recently seen a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher.  We listened intently and could hear one in the distance.  With a bit of coaxing and patience, we finally got some good views of this new team bird.
Birding with James and Dorothy
Yellow-bellied Flycatcher

James then led us back to the Bridgewater area where we walked a couple of birdy trails.  We saw Chestnut-sided Warbler and Gray Catbird, both new for the trip.  We then quizzed James as to where we might find Black-backed Woodpecker and Mourning Warbler.  Armed with this info, we headed northeast (though I’m never quite sure what direction I’m going in Nova Scotia!).

Our next stop was Mount Uniacke Estate Museum Park in search of the woodpecker.  It was mid-afternoon on a hot day so we were a bit pessimistic about our chances.  Along the trail, Winter Wren and a couple of other birds were singing but it was pretty quiet.  In the distance, we could hear a gentle tapping so we quickened our pace and eventually saw our target Black-backed Woodpecker.  A little bit further, we saw a pair of them.  Quite content, we returned to the car and went off in search of an ice cream cone to reward ourselves.
Black-backed Woodpecker

Rob and Caroline – Ray’s son and daughter-in-law – had invited us for dinner and we arrived at their place late in the afternoon.  Rob had told us about a nearby cave that has had three species of bats.  Armed with somewhat vague directions from a website, we figured that we had just enough time to visit it before dinner.  To get to the site, we had to cross a stream, climb up a slope and then descend down into the cave.  I got to the cave opening first so went down into the cool underground cavern.  The others decided they would await my reconnaissance (not that they were afraid of cool, dark, damp places!).  A ten minute search didn’t turn up any bats nor any trace of them (i.e. guano) … another bat adventure coming up empty.
Fording the river in search of the cave

Inside the bat (less) cave (looking towards the entrance)

After a delicious dinner and a pleasant walk through the woods, we headed to a motel in Truro.

Thursday, July 5 – Truro

We were up early and headed to the Folly Lake area before breakfast.  James had given us GPS coordinates where he had seen a Mourning Warbler a week before.  The weather forecast wasn’t good but so far the rain was holding off.  We didn’t find the warbler at Jame’s spot but saw some similar habitat 300 m away and checked it out … success!  Just as we got back in the car, the rain started in earnest.
Mourning Warbler

The rest of the day was spent driving to Cape North on Cape Breton Island.  Our main target bird here was Bicknell’s Thrush.  We had some good location information from a couple of sources but were concerned that we might be a bit late in the season.  As we would need to be at the site before dawn, we decided to check it out that evening.  We found the site okay and determined that we would have to leave at 4 a.m. the next morning … ouch!

Friday, July 6 – Cape North

We awoke to a heavy fog, winds and a light drizzle but didn’t even think of aborting our mission.  Ray did a fine job of staying on the road that he could barely see and we arrived on site at about 4:40 am.  All was quiet at first but then a White-throated Sparrow called out followed by some Mourning Warblers.  We decided to walk the road and finally at about 5:05 am we heard a promising sound.  We walked closer and a Bicknell’s Thrush sang its distinctive song.  We heard the bird call a couple of more times and then it was silent.  With lousy weather and heavy undergrowth to contend with, we didn’t even try to chase the bird.  While we would prefer to see all the birds, we do count heard-only birds – the heard-only list now comprises Bicknell’s Thrush, Boreal Owl, Yellow Rail and Chuck-will’s Widow.
Looking for Mr. Bicknell
Our next target was Black Vulture – one had been reported at the dump a couple of weeks ago.  Unfortunately, the dump didn’t open until 8 am so we went back to our rooms for a while and then had a hearty breakfast.  At the dump, the workers told us they hadn’t seen the bird for a couple of weeks so we didn’t waste much time looking for it.  There weren’t many birds to see en route to the ferry terminal but we did make occasional stops to enjoy the views of the Cape Breton highlands.  Phil got a surprise when he rolled down the window and a gull sent him a present from the sky!
Cape Breton highlands

The foggy, damp weather persisted all day so, instead of birding, we headed to Louisbourg to get a history lesson.  We visited the Fortress of Louisbourg, a National Historic Site ( ).
Mike, Ray and Phil being detained at the Louisbourg gates
The fortress at Louisbourg

We departed Nova Scotia by way of the ferry heading to Argentia, Newfoundland. The weather continued to be a problem as the wind, rain and fog made it difficult to see anything on the sea.

We are pleased with the birds we recorded in Nova Scotia, getting 4 of 5 targets in the last 3 days.  At times the birding was slow (mostly weather related) but not to worry, we had a few adventures along the way to keep things interesting. 
In Bridgewater, one of us went for a walk and upon his return, opened the motel door and ripped the security chain off the wall (obviously, the only security aspect is the noise the chain makes when landing on the floor!).  On our way to Truro, the driver (who shall remain nameless) three times ignored the GPS imploring him to make a U-turn resulting in an extra 15 minutes of driving.  Of course, the gas gauge was reading empty and there were no gas stations around. 
The next morning, two hours after leaving Truro, one of us discovered that his binoculars were still in the breakfast restaurant.  Fortunately, we had a spare pair with us and we continued our journey northward after making arrangements to get the forgotten binoculars to Calgary.   Even dinner can have its surprises – one evening the four of us ordered what we thought were full course meals but only three dinners arrived along with a somewhat puny sandwich.  It turned out that there were two similar sounding items on the menu.  An order of fries provided by a sympathetic waitress and a coconut cream pie for desert were sufficient to stave off any hunger pains.
We would soon find out (as will you with our next post) that some unplanned adventures would also happen in Newfoundland.