Saturday, 21 December 2013

2013 Year in Review

After doing the “Fur and Feathers 500” Canada big year in 2012, birding this year was focused closer to home. In that regard, it was successful as I added six birds to my Alberta list:  Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Arctic Tern, Purple Sandpiper, Piping Plover, Whooping Crane and Parasitic Jaeger.  None of these birds got me closer to my long-term goal of 5000 birds and mammals but, thanks to trips to Argentina and Colombia, I did make some progress.  I started the year with 4058 bird and mammal species and will finish at 4299. 

January – winter birding in Alberta … what could be more fun?  I did a January big day with Phil Cram, birding from Waterton to Calgary recording 44 species. With not many species around, most of which I’ve photographed many times, it is always a challenge to get a decent flight shot of the winter birds.  As you can see from my Gyrfalcon photo, there is lots of room for improvement.

February, March – seven weeks in Argentina with my wife and two other couples.  While not a birding trip, birding opportunities did present themselves along the way.  I’ve already posted pictures of most of the highlight birds so will take this opportunity to share a few others, including some flight shots.
Chimanga Caracara - El Calafate 

Dark-bellied Cinclodes - Ushuaia

Imperial Cormorant - Ushaia

Magellanic Woodpecker (female) - El Chalten

Plush-crested Jay - Iguazu Falls

Swallow-tailed Hummingbird - Iguazu
Spring Alberta – it was still winter when I returned to Canada and I did a fair bit of birding as the birds straggled north.  A visit by Alistair and Sveta Peterson late in April included a delightful trip to Jasper … the scenery is fantastic but we were a bit early to see the bears and any returning migrants.
Ferruginous Hawk

Northern Goshawk (immature)

Pacific Wren - Jasper NP
Common Raven babies - candidates for the ugliest baby?
Early in May, Alberta’s first Purple Sandpiper was found at Inglewood Bird Sanctuary in Calgary.
Purple Sandpiper
June – Ray Woods and I made a one week trip to central Alberta and Saskatchewan, focusing on the Cold Lake region.  This is the place for warblers in Alberta and we recorded 14 species plus a few other good birds.
Cape May Warbler

Black-backed Woodpecker - Meadow Lake PP, SK
Mid-month, Isaac Sanchez from Texas came to the province as part of his photographic big year.  I spent a day and a half with him and we found a number of the common species but missed a couple that I thought we would get.
Chestnut-collared Longspur
Summer birding – pretty quiet but I spent some time looking to upgrade my photos for a few species.  I finally got a picture of an American Kestrel that I'm happy with – a common bird that rarely lets me get close enough.
American Kestrel
Fall birding – family events took precedence over birding but I did chase some local rarities such as Ruff, Parasitic Jaeger, Sabine's Gull and Anna's Hummingbird. 
Sabine's Gull (immature) - Glenmore Reservoir, Calgary
Anna's Hummingbird (immature male)
November – Phil Cram and I went to Colombia on a Rockjumper “Colombia Highlights” trip.  The 2 1/2 week trip focused on the three Andean ranges and the two valleys separating them.  In the coming weeks, I will do an in-depth post or two on this trip.  We saw lots of birds though conditions for photography were not great.  Highlights for me were Andean Cock of the Rock and numerous hummingbirds.  Here are a few of the birds we came across.
Andean Cock of the Rock

Bearded Helmetcrest

Blue-headed Parrot

Chestnut-crowned Antpitta

Collared Inca

Moustached Puffbird

White-bellied Woodstar

Yellow-vented Woodpecker
December – winter birding again!  Isaac returned for a second visit, this time chasing a revised goal of 600 species photographed.  It was pretty cold for his visit with temps hitting -38 C one morning.  We persevered and he managed to get 8 of his targets including this Northern Shrike.
Northern Shrike
Of course, shortly after he left, a few more of his other targets appeared in the area including Northern Hawk Owl, Gyrfalcon and Long-eared Owl.
Long-eared Owl
Looking ahead to 2014, I should be doing posts from southern California and Ontario with perhaps one from Texas.  I plan to do one international trip in the fall to somewhere in the southern hemisphere so hopefully will surpass 4500 species and 4000 birds.

Hope you all enjoy the Christmas season and have a very birdy new year!


Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Bringing Up Baby

I don’t usually bird very much in July but this year poor weather in May and June and some family travels left many holes in my year list.  In the past three weeks I have made day trips to Water Valley, Banff, Waterton and some local sloughs. 
While the birding is definitely better in June there are still lots of interesting birds to be seen in the summer.  Juvenile birds – particularly the water birds – are easy to spot and sometimes come in quite different plumages than their parents.
Pied-Billed Grebe juvenile
Pied-Billed Grebe adult
This Pied-Billed Grebe juvenile got separated from its parents and the adult could be heard calling for its young.  Eventually the two were reunited.  At the same slough east of Calgary, this American Coot had three lovely chicks following it around.
American Coot with three young
Eared Grebes (Black-necked Grebes to my European friends) have a strategy to keep the young one nearby – the juvenile rides on the back of the adult.  Pretty soon the young bird is too big and has to swim on its own.

Eared Grebe with young on back
Eared Grebe with young
Sometimes the young do look like one of the parents as evidenced by this female Ruddy Duck and six ducklings.
Ruddy Duck female with ducklings
It always amazes me how fast the young grow and that they can be larger than their parents.  These two young dippers in Waterton created quite a racket anytime the parent came near.  Notice how much smaller the adult (in the water) looks.
American Dipper juveniles pestering their parent
Feeding the young seems to be a full-time job (at least for one parent).  Here are a couple of birds carrying food back to their young.  The young tern then went for a short flight after being fed.
Cliff Swallow
Black Tern
Black Tern feeding young
Black Tern juvenile
There comes a time when the young have to fend for themselves though they will often chase the parent around begging to be fed.  This young male Yellow-headed Blackbird is now independent whether he likes it or not.
Yellow-headed Blackbird juvenile male
Surprisingly, there was still a reasonable amount of song activity … perhaps the males were hoping to start a second brood or perhaps they were still looking for their first love.  Lazuli Bunting in Waterton and Tennessee Warbler in Water Valley were two species still singing.
Lazuli Bunting
Tennessee Warbler
Despite the parenting theme to this blog, I could resist including a photo of a dark-phased Swainson’s Hawk (perhaps it was looking for food to feed its young?).  The white undertail coverts are the quickest way to differentiate this bird from the Red-tailed Hawk - our other common hawk.
Swainson's Hawk
I hope these photos encourage you to get out and do some birding this summer.


Saturday, 6 July 2013

Focus on breeding birds

By the beginning of June, most of Alberta’s migrants have reached their breeding grounds, either here or further north though there are still a few laggards such as Yellow-bellied Flycatcher which take their time getting here and some shorebirds (such as the Sanderling below) which aren’t in any hurry to reach the Arctic.

Cold Lake/Meadow Lake trip – June 2-5

Ray Woods and I made a quick trip to Cold Lake early in June to look for some of the boreal forest birds that aren’t as common around Calgary. On our way, we visited Charlotte, aka “the prairie birder”, in Vermilion. We birded with her near her farm and saw some good birds including a Common Nighthawk which was a lifer for her … always nice to get a lifer in your front yard (it’s been many years since I’ve had the pleasure).
Ray, Charlotte and me (notice Charlotte's "I just got a lifer look"?)
Charlotte's first Common Nighthawk
We made one more stop before reaching Cold Lake – Kehiwin Lake – to look for Great Crested Flycatcher.  No luck with the flycatcher but we did get some nice views of Philadelphia Vireo.
Philadelphia Vireo
Monday morning, we birded Cold Lake Provincial Park focusing on warblers.  We had some success finding Canada, Blackburnian and Magnolia Warblers and a few others.  Later that morning we enjoyed seeing Sedge Wrens near the Saskatchewan border.
Canada Warbler
Blackburnian Warbler
Sedge Wren
The Primrose Lake road to the west of Cold Lake is another good birding spot.  We traveled it twice – once in the afternoon and again the next morning.  It took us a while but we eventually found most of the expected birds with highlights being Cape May and Connecticut Warblers.  Also of interest was a nesting pair of Ospreys which took to the air when we walked by.

Typical habitat northwest of Cold Lake
That afternoon, we returned to the park to look for a couple of birds we missed the first time round.  Chestnut-sided Warblers proved easy once we looked in the right place (thanks to info from Bob Storms) but Mourning and Bay-breasted Warblers still eluded us.
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Across the border in Saskatchewan (SK), Meadow Lake Provincial Park looked like a good place to build up our Saskatchewan list so we spent Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday morning in the area before heading home.  We did record a number of new SK birds but found that the birding wasn’t as good as on the Alberta side. 

On the way home, we stopped at a site where Ray had seen Piping Plovers many years ago and found one running along the shore. 
Piping Plover

Piping Plover breeding sites are treated much differently in Alberta than on the east coast of Canada.  Here in Alberta, the sites are not publicized (participants in plover viewing field trips are sworn to secrecy) and visiting the sites is discouraged; last year on les Iles de la Madelaine, a breeding site on a beach was demarcated with a rope fence about 15m square (I’m sure the unleashed dogs paid close attention to the ropes).  It seems to me that an approach somewhere between these extremes would be more appropriate.

Day trips from Calgary – June 10 & 12th

Isaac Sanchez is doing a photographic North America birding big year and I volunteered to show him some of our local birds. On the 10th, Isaac, Bob Storms and I birded the Brooks area (a 2 hour drive to the east). We had mixed success finding about ½ of Isaac’s target birds with the highlight being close looks at a Sprague’s Pipit (usually just a speck in the sky). Another highlight for me was an American Badger that Bob spotted … if you followed last year’s blog, you’ll remember the difficulty we had finding this species.

Sprague's Pipit
American Badger
Isaac’s targets included some common species such as Franklin’s Gull and Black Tern.  It’s always nice to have some easy targets and also to practise flight shots.  A couple of days later, I met up with Isaac and his wife in the Water Valley area (40 minutes northwest of Calgary) and we found a few more of his targets including Great Gray Owl.
Franklin's Gull
A grasslands day trip – July 2
The 2nd half of June was busy with a trip to B.C. to visit family and getting some carpet installed (a lot more work than my wife and I anticipated).  The birds are usually starting to quiet down by the beginning of July but Ray Woods and I wanted to get out birding.  Reports of a Black-billed Cuckoo in the Finnegan area (about 1 ½ hours to the east of Calgary) was our incentive and we set off early on July 2. 
We didn’t find the cuckoo but did find a number of new year birds including Lark Sparrow, Yellow-breasted Chat, Burrowing Owl and Grasshopper Sparrow.

Burrowing Owl
The long drive back featured a couple on pleasant distractions – roadside Upland Sandpipers and a young Mule Deer buck with velvety antlers.
Upland Sandpiper

Mule Deer
A brief note on the recent southern Alberta floods
Barb and I live in one of the highest parts of Calgary so were not affected by the terrible floods that hit Calgary and surrounding areas.  Mike Mulligan (one of the Fur & Feathers 500 birders) lives near the Bow River but fortunately his home didn’t suffer any water damage.  As you may have seen on the news, many others weren’t quite so fortunate … I can only imagine the grief the flooding caused (though thankfully with very little loss of life) and hope that everyone can get their lives back to normal as soon as possible.  I also hope that the governments and communities can start taking steps to ensure that this disaster is not repeated.   Bird life and bird habitat was also impacted by the flooding but birders are reporting that the birds are showing as much resiliency as the human population.

Next up?  
July and the first couple of weeks in August are usually pretty quiet but the shorebirds should be returning and there is plenty of water around.  I will also be making a trip to B.C. – primarily for golf but there is always a chance of a new mammal or two.
Good birding and mammaling,