Friday, 30 December 2011

A Nice End to the Birding Year (and Reflections for the New One!)

We took a family trip to Drumheller to visit the dinosaurs at Royal Tyrrell Museum - never a bad destination with a 4 year old boy!  As we drove, we kept our eyes out for Snowy Owls as there have been several reports immediately east of Beiseker (click above for a map).  We were not disappointed and saw 7 in total, including possible "repeats" on the way back.
Snowy Owl, Bubo scandiacus, click to enlarge
same Snowy Owl in flight, ditto
It was a nice way to end off the year's birding and quite the year it has been.  If 2010 was the year I started organized birding then 2011 is the year that I started to somewhat have a clue what I was doing.  Consistently paying attention to birds is tremendously rewarding in several ways, the least of which is numbers, but as that's the easiest to put into a blog here they are: my Alberta list had exactly doubled from 85 to 170, starting with Blue Jay on New Year's Day in Fish Creek Park and ending with Northern Goshawk and Hoary Redpoll on the Christmas Bird Count.

My life list has grown even more, thanks to trips to Ontario and Vancouver Island bringing in birds like Caspian Tern, Bewick's Wren and Red-throated Loon.  On my first West Coast trip of the year I managed arguably my greatest ornithological feat thus far: getting Grade 9 students interested in birding. Apparently all it takes is scope-filling views of Bald Eagles mating!

I'll wrap up this little bit of self-indulgence with some goals for 2012:

  1. Improve my birding by ear,
  2. 200 birds for the year (or approximately matching 2011's 202 species),
  3. Review a book a month for this blog, and,
  4. Find the following ten species in Alberta:

  • Eurasian Wigeon, Harlequin Duck, Red-breasted Merganser, and White-winged Scoter - the four more common Alberta duck species I haven't seen in the province (or anywhere in the case of the wigeon and the scoter)
  • Golden Eagle - which will mean at long last taking a trip to the Mt. Lorette count next fall
  • Peregrine Falcon - they nest ten minutes from my house every year so how hard can it be
  • Pileated Woodpecker - seen in Ontario before I was a birder, becoming something of a nemesis bird for me
  • Mountain Chickadee - given the amount of time we spend in the mountains you would think this would have made an appearance by now and it's my only remaining western chickadee
  • Canada Warbler - I just think they're pretty
  • Chestnut-collared Longspur (or any other variety of Longspur would be nice) - a classic prairie bird
Well that's it for 2011 - we'll see in 365 days how wildly optimistic that little list is!

Happy New Year!

Sunday, 25 December 2011

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Happy Holidays to all of you from Calgary!

"The earth never tires;
The earth is rude, silent, incomprehensible at first—Nature is rude and incomprehensible at first;
Be not discouraged—keep on—there are divine things, well envelop’d;
I swear to you there are divine things more beautiful than words can tell."

         - "Song of the Open Road", Walt Whitman

Another year of birds is just a few days away....

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Christmas Bird Count Continued

As promised, a few more Christmas Bird Count images to brighten up your mid-week.  More on Flickr if you're interested and Dan Arndt posted his own recollections of our count over on the Birds Calgary blog.
Our count group in the Weaselhead
Common Redpolls busy feeding
Hairy Woodpecker hammering away
A fairly appalling photo of a lifer juvenile Northern Goshawk
I believe I already mentioned there were a LOT of Pine Grosbeaks (male above, female "on approach")

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Christmas Bird Count

I joined 5 other birders for the 60th Annual Calgary Area Christmas Bird Count today.  We had a terrific day out exploring South Glenmore Park and the Weaselhead in lovely warm winter weather.  This year continues to be a great one for finches with dozens and dozens of Pine Grosbeaks.  We also found a few pleasant surprises such as Northern Goshawk, Hoary Redpoll, Ruffed Grouse, and Boreal Chickadee.  Here are a few photos with comments as necessary - I'll post some more later in the week.  I have also uploaded some to my Flickr account and Dan Arndt said he would be doing likewise in the next day or two.
If the day had a "theme" bird, I think this was it.  I forget the final tally but we certainly saw a lot more than the 6 Pine Grosbeaks of last year's count!
A single Boreal Chickadee tagging along with half a dozen Black-capped gave me best ever views of this species.
A pair of Ruffed Grouse flushed up into the trees as we walked along a trail beside the reservoir.  The intricate pattern of this bird's feathers is remarkable.
We engaged in what John Acorn refers to as "the Great Redpoll Debate" but remain confident that this is a Hoary Redpoll (in front of a Common) based on the white tail coverts, broad white band on the wing, and overall "frostier" appearance.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

High River Red-bellied Woodpecker

With only a handful of sightings and a single official provincial record, this report, originally by Peter Maksymiw, was a big deal for me.  I booked a morning off work and drove down to High River at dawn.  It wasn't hard to find the bird because:

  1. It has a very distinctive call
  2. Red-headed birds show up well in the snow with no leaves on the trees
  3. There was another birder already in the park who said "look, it's over there"!
If anyone is going to look for themselves, it's in George Lane Park in High River - you can click on the location link at the top of this post for a map.  For the entire time I was there it was periodically visiting the feeder at 506 4th St (which is right on the park) and then caching food (and occasionally feeding) in the trees in that area of the park.  All of this information has already been posted on Albertabird.  Anyway, here are some photos from the morning - click on any image to enlarge.

Red-bellied Woodpecker, Melanerpes carolinus, caching what I assume is a peanut

An entirely accidental flight shot included only because the white patch on the wing is a useful identification mark

Another tree, another cache?
Since the bird is caching food and has apparently been in the area since October, there is probably no rush to get there - but try telling that to me at seven o'clock this morning!

Monday, 12 December 2011

Review – "Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle" by Thor Hanson

Looking for a last minute Christmas gift for the birder in your life?   “Feathers” will not only fit the bill nicely but is also an excellent read for the casual naturalist or mildly “bird-curious”.  Conservation biologist Thor Hanson guides readers through the history of feathers in culture, recreational birding and ornithology.  This journey necessarily involves many detours and diversions but Hanson kept me engrossed in two ways.

Firstly, he begins and ends the book with personal anecdotes and then keeps all of the material framed within his own exploration of the topic.  Most memorably, discussing the numbers and types of feathers on a bird (2,000-4,000 on a typical songbird, 25,000 on a swan if you were wondering!) begins with Hanson’s attempt to pluck a roadkill Pacific Wren.  It’s messier than you might imagine for such a little bird and provides a natural segue into the finer details of feather types and evolution.

A Pacific Wren seen in Ucluelet BC this past summer.  Tougher and messier to pluck than you might imagine!  (By the way, what's coming out of that beak sounds much nicer than this picture looks!)
Secondly, I was impressed by the way that Hanson conveys the more technical details of feather evolution in engaging and entertaining context.  Much of the book outlines the story of how birds got their feathers, in other words it portrays the continuing uncertainty around the origin of dinosaur feathers.  Hanson interviews most of the key players and explains the concepts by telling the story of the researchers’ work.

Dinosaur feathers embedded in amber
Of course there’s an important Alberta connection here as University of Alberta researchers announced the discovery of the first fully preserved (three-dimensional) dinosaur feathers back in September.  Here's a good summary of this science news if you aren't familiar with it:

While this development occurred well after the publishing date of “Feathers”, it only makes the book more relevant and timely.  Feathers are an obvious but surprisingly complex aspect of birds and this book was a great read that taught me much about them.

I'm taking this great idea from several other bird book sites because 1) most birders have a copy of "Big Sibley" and 2) it's irritating opening up the mail to find an unexpectedly tiny book (or an unexpectedly huge one!)
"Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle" by Thor Hanson is published by Basic Books as a 352 page hardcover.  A paperback edition is coming in June.  The book is available on Amazon or Chapters for about $20.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Let it Snow!

As one of those irritating people who cheers the year's first big dump of snow, I've enjoyed the last 24 hours in Calgary.  The seven inch blanket of the white stuff that arrived last night added an appropriately wintery touch to picking up our Christmas tree and stringing up new lights in the big spruce in our front yard.  The snow also provided the opportunity for my first winter birding of the year.  All of the usual suspects were to be found at Inglewood Bird Sanctuary including some very friendly Black-capped Chickadees and the usual massive rafts of Canada Geese on the river.  I also found a small flock of White-winged Crossbills, a Calgary first for me.
White-winged Crossbill, Loxia leucoptera, pondering which cone to tackle next
Oh yeah!  That's the spot!
Even with that beak, cones can be cracked only with copious contortions!
After this stop I headed to LaFarge Meadows in Fish Creek Park - having read an article about Gyrfalcon's in the current issue of BirdWatching magazine I was possessed by the wildly optimistic notion that I might find this raptor hunting among the ducks.  Unsurprisingly there were no Gyrfalcons or Goshawks but I did find a lone Bald Eagle surveying the hundreds of Common Goldeneye's and Mallards.  More unusually I also came across a late (and very chilly looking) Killdeer to round out a pleasant winter's day of birding.
One very cold looking, albeit well camouflaged, Killdeer, Charadrius vociferus 

Friday, 2 December 2011

Calgarybirder is Now on Flickr!

In case you missed yesterday's post, I now have some photos uploaded to Flickr so you can follow my quixotic quest to photograph every species of Alberta bird, complete with geotagging of each sighting.

I also wanted to reiterate my recommendation that you check out this site for great Canadian and Alberta bird photography.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Birding When You Can't Bird: Part 2 - Photography

There sure are a lot of bird photos out there on the web.  My Google Reader feed brings me about 70 birding blogs from around the web and, on this random Wednesday in November, that meant well over 100 photos of birds.  Some are spectacular, some are informative and, (like many of my shots) some are "identification only" images of negligible artistic merit.  As has been recently pointed out by some bloggers, photography is only one aspect of birding and not every bird photographer would necessarily consider themselves a birder.  Sometimes these different values can clash in the field - often as mere irritation but occasionally as inappropriate or unethical behaviour.  If you are a birder first and foremost - and I mean that in the sense of someone whose primary purpose is to locate, identify and observe birds in the wild with the goal of learning about their behaviour and distribution - then what role does photography play in your experience?  I offer three ideas, and some places to pursue them online.

1) Practice Makes Perfect
Quick! How many shorebird species?
As I have repeatedly mentioned in the last few months, I don't have as much time as I would like to get out birding.  Even if you are fortunate enough to have time, how prepared are you for trips beyond your regular birding turf?  With a continuous stream of photographs pouring through an RSS reader (a what?) you can be exposed to literally hundreds of identification challenges every day.  I'm certain from my own experience that exposure to images taken at different times of year, in different locations and contexts can significantly improve rapid identification skills.  To engage with this learning process I try to make sure that every photo I see online of a North American bird is identified and that I understand the reasons for that identification.  This improvement even goes beyond field marks and touches on the elusive birding by impression ("jizz"), which can be conveyed by many photos of a species viewed over time.

Want more "Practice Makes Perfect"?
2) Let The Memory Live Again
This is a very bad photo.  It is also a life bird.
I saw a Long-tailed Duck in Calgary.  I had never seen one before anywhere.  I hadn't been birding in weeks.  Everytime I look at that photo it brings a little smile to my face.

Keeping a collection of bird photos can be a great way to reminisce about birding experiences and reflect on trips.  Improving those photos can itself be a motivator to get out birding.

Want tips on helping your birding memories live again?
  • I've started using Flickr which provides a great way to share and organize photos, as well as a mapping tool where you can pinpoint the location of your birding adventures.
  • Birds are often very small and often very far off.  Taking photos through your spotting scope is a way to get record/ID shots and sometimes some great images too.  The topic of digiscoping is too large to tackle in this post and could have it's own blog.  In fact here's a good one!
3) Pure Inspiration
And so we come full circle - back to the spectacular.  Just today there were was inspiration to go out and look for Rough-legged Hawks.  And there was inspiration to save up and visit Peru again - these photos were taken by a Canadian birder who is featured on, alongside David Lily's work.  

We may lack the experience, equipment, time, patience, motivation or money to take these kind of images ourselves but they capture some of the experience of watching these birds in person.  Whether we are birders, birders who photograph, photographers who bird, or some other hybrid thereof, images from the fuzzy to fantastic and from the mundane to the magical can connect us in unique ways to wildlife.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Rumours of my death....

or at least this blog's death, are greatly exaggerated.
Tundra Swan, Cygnus columbianus, nr. Langdon, Alberta
October was a hectic month - a nasty cold made the rounds of the family, we helped my parents move house, and one of the kids had his appendix out.  Combined with lots going on at school there wasn't a whole lot of time for birding and I watched Rare Bird Alerts go through my mailbox with little action on my part.  The last few days have improved somewhat and I managed to catch a few nice migrant birds, mostly on and around Glenmore Reservoir (click above for map) over the course of three visits.  The rarity images are a little Bigfoot/UFO-like but it's nice to have a record of a significant sighting.
An immature Red-necked Grebe, Podiceps grisegena.  The bay where this youngster was feeding was ice-covered when I went by this afternoon, so I'm sure it is long gone.
A very cooperative Townsend's Solitaire, Myadestes townsendi, gave the best views I've ever had of this species before diving back down from the windy treetops.
The Western Grebe, Aechmophorus occidentalis, is a new Calgary city bird for me
A pair of migrant Surf Scoters, Melanitta perspicillata, have been hanging around the reservoir for a while now.  I finally had a chance to add them to my Alberta list.
Worst picture, best bird?  My lifer Long-tailed Duck, Clangula hyemalis 

Monday, 3 October 2011

Birding When You Can't Bird

Two weeks of silence on this blog correlates to two weeks of little to no birding for me.  A big flock of Common Grackle's moving through the neighbourhood were a treat (and a new NMT bird) while walking the dog.  A Blue Jay was a colourful and relatively rare sight in urban Calgary.  And a Bald Eagle made a majestic low pass over our raft when I was out with my students on the river on Friday - it was nice to see Grade 8's getting excited about birds.  Anyway, those are slim pickings for migration season but the new school year and some busy goings-on at home have kept the scope in the cupboard and the field guide on the shelf.

All this inactivity has got me thinking about ways we enjoy birds when, for whatever set of reasons, we can't actually go out and "bird".  The first, and for many people only, point of engagement with wild birds are feeders.  My own experience with these in Alberta has been somewhat frustrating.  With memories of vast flocks of American Goldfinch swarming over the niger seed at my Mom and Dad's house in Ontario, when we moved into this house I gamely hung feeders in the front and back yards filled with bags of supermarket bird seed.  This did not go well.  The front yard was largely the domain of House Sparrows, with the occasional brave Black-capped Chickadee and Rock Pigeons picking over the mess underneath.  The backyard was just House Sparrows.

With some help from the experts at The Wild Bird Store, on Macleod Trail , I now have a plan.  With three feeders, all in the backyard, there is one place for the inescapable House Sparrows to fill up on millet (on the plus side, I'm feeding the Merlins too!)  The two feeders closer to the house hold high quality nuthatch and chickadee mix and a finch friendly mix.  As you can see, the results have been positive.
A young House Finch, Carpodacus mexicanus
Adult House Finch (on the right) seems prepared to brave the aggressive sparrows...
...but the sparrows don't like that
By far the best views I've had of a Pine Siskin, Spinus pinus, and looking forward to more over the winter
It will be interesting to see what sort of birds I can attract once winter begins.  In any case I will keep the blog updated with any worthwhile photos.

On the topic of photos, I'll have another post in the next few days highlighting another way to bird when you can't bird and showcase a few talented fellow Albertan photographers.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Fall Migrants at Namaka Lake

"Of course as soon as the first snow hits, everything just disappears"

That's a comment overheard at the last Nature Calgary Bird Study Group meeting.  As we approach late September in Alberta there is a certain inevitability to the first snowfall and it will indeed chase away many lingering migrants.  With an uncertain and dwindling number of good migratory birding days left, I've been trying to squeeze in a few trips.

On Friday morning I managed to swing by Confederation Park on my way to school.  Large flocks of Wilson's and Yellow-rumped Warblers were a nice way to start the day.  My NMT list (explanation here) grew as well, with Orange-crowned Warbler, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, and (with the help of some experienced fellow birders) a Red-eyed Vireo.
MABO - Red-eyed Vireo - band 715
Red-eyed Vireo looks like it means business!  Image From Flickr Creative Commons taken by
Feeling suitably pumped up by that experience I dragged myself out of bed in the dark this morning and headed out to Namaka Lake, 70km SE of the city near Strathmore.  This is a designated Important Bird Area and a spot that I had been wanting to check out for some time.  Namaka certainly made a great first impression.  A fiery sunrise lit up the sky ahead of me all the way there and I arrived at the east access point five minutes before the sun broke the horizon.  As I walked towards the lake the grass was lit up golden brown.  I couldn't resist the urge to stride through stands that were five feet high, with the loaded ears bouncing off my chest sending seeds for next year flying out in all directions.  

Overblown pastoral prose aside, the lighting was pretty great for the birds too.  One of the first that I saw was a Le Conte's Sparrow.  A life bird for me and, based on my reading back at home, an amazingly cooperative example of its kind!
Le Conte's Sparrow, click to enlarge, image colour has not been manipulated - the sunrise was just this awesome! 
On the lake itself there was no shortage of bird life either.  A few late shorebirds were hanging around the shoreline: a flock of Semipalmated Sandpipers hanging out with a couple of Lesser Yellowlegs, and a few Killdeer scattered around.  The waterfowl were much more numerous with American Coot, and three Grebe species (Eared, Horned, and Western) being particularly noticeable.  The real treat on the water though was the American White Pelicans.
I know it's out of focus but this image cracks me up for some reason.  American White Pelican and a family of Ruddy Ducks
 The flocks of pelicans gorging themselves was quite a sight and I captured some digiscope video.

The video looks pretty decent in fullscreen.  Sorry about the sniffling - it was a cool but great morning of birding!

Saturday, 10 September 2011

The Warbler That Thinks It's a Nuthatch

Nuthatches are an interesting group of birds - superficially related to woodpeckers in habitat and behaviour but in fact a distinct group.  They forage for food by running up and (unlike the woodpeckers) down tree trunks, foraging for insects and seeds.  In the Calgary region, there are two common species - Red-breasted and White-breasted, which is pictured below at Pearce Estates.  This profile view highlights the slightly upturned beak, wonderfully adapted for prying under bark.
White-breasted Nuthatch, Sitta carolinensis
During our August vacation to Ontario, we spent some time on an island cottage on the Rideau Canal.  As we were hauling bags from the boathouse to the main building I saw some movement in the corner of my eye which that little part of my brain that is always birding (yes, you all know what I'm talking about!) processed as "black and white on the head + running around tree trunk = white-breasted nuthatch".  When I had a chance to put down the bags, pick up my binos, and head back out I realized it was something a little more special.  In addition to Song Sparrows, American Goldfinches, Cedar Waxwings, Nashville Warblers, and an Eastern Phoebe, our little island was also home to a pair of Black and White Warblers.

Black-and-white Warbler, Mniotilta varia - Click image to enlarge
As you can see, this quirky species feeds much like the nuthatches and creepers, foraging between the bark for insects.  So strongly is this behaviour exhibited that they were once mistakenly named "black-and-white creepers".  The great benefit for birdwatchers is that the birds' feeding habits draw them down from the tree canopy making them more readily observable than many other warblers.  Add to this the bold stripes that make identification a snap compared to many other warblers and I may have a new favourite wood-warbler!
More nuthatch-like antics! - again click to enlarge
This is supposedly a Calgary bird blog so what about the Alberta distribution of these birds?  I have yet to add one to my Alberta list but the Official List of the Birds of Alberta gives them a 'findability' of 2:  "species [that] are generally less abundant and widespread".  Despite the lower ranking, and the fact that Alberta is the western limit of their range, these birds are still regulars in Calgary and were reported last week in Confederation Park.  A couple of weeks before that I was with a group that found one in Inglewood Bird Sanctuary, although I wasn't able to get on the bird before it disappeared.

In any case these are charming and unique warblers.  Next time you are out in the spring, summer, or fall, if a flash of black and white running around a tree catches your eye, I recommend taking a closer look.

Monday, 5 September 2011


Last week was the first week of school - 3 days of meetings and planning followed by 2 days of new kids, new classes, and new routines makes for an exciting and busy week.  That should explain the lack of posts, as well as the monumentally poor timing (from my perspective!) of 36 straight hours of rain resulting in a substantial fallout in the Calgary area.

What is a fallout?  In birding terms, fallout refers to a weather system that grounds migratory birds and/or forces seabirds to land.  A recent example is the frenetic birding on the east coast as a result of Hurricane Irene which merited its own blog.  You can also read a nice summary of the hurricane birding to be found here.  White-tailed Tropicbirds and South Polar Skuas are fantastic birds for New England (or anywhere?) but there were also some remarkable science stories that emerged from this storm.  I was particularly struck by this tale of a radio-tagged Whimbrel, which flew more or less straight through the hurricane and emerged unscathed.

While our recent wet weather was considerably less dramatic than a Category 3 hurricane, the resulting clouds of warblers and vireos delighted local birders.  A particularly nice spot to catch migrating songbirds is an area of shrubby wetland in Confederation Park (click on the link at the top of this post for a map).  One observer reported eleven species of warbler on his morning commute around this location while another added Chestnut-sided Warbler to the list on the same day.  This area has the added bonus of being my "local patch" - a short walk from work and home.

Can you find 11 species of warbler in this photo?  (Photo taken with smartphone)
Joking aside, I didn't even have time to grab my camera but just headed straight over to the park after school to see what I could find.  Fall warblers are really not an area of strength in my birding skill set but there was much to see.  The bushes were jumping with tiny birds, busily refuelling for the next leg of their migration.  I was able to positively identify Wilson's Warbler, Tennessee Warbler, American Redstart, Northern Waterthrush, Blackpoll Warbler, and Yellow-rumped Warbler, several of which are new NMT (non-motorized transport) birds for me.  Other highlights included a pair of handsomely streaked Lincoln's Sparrows and a Rose-breasted Grosbeak.  This last bird was an Alberta first for me and a special species, as it was partially responsible for getting me into birding in the first place (read under "About Me" for more details).

Not bad for a half-hour of neighbourhood birding and whenever there is poor weather bringing the potential of fallout, I will remember to get out and investigate.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

A Prairie Drive and A Milestone

Yesterday I headed out on a hot prairie drive to Frank Lake and Weed Lake, two of the best spots for waterfowl and shorebirds in the Calgary region.  I had an enjoyable day out and, when I tabulated my list at home, I made a pleasant discovery - scroll down for more.

A map of my route (I went anti-clockwise).  Click to enlarge.

Highlights included a juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron that I flushed from the reeds and a Northern Harrier hunting shorebirds along the edge of Frank Lake.  I had my digiscoping kit with me and caught some images of the shorebirds and others.
Long-billed Curlews are stunningly elegant birds
Marbled Godwits aren't bad either
As I've mentioned before, sometimes the scope is kind of overkill!  Nevertheless, this Barn Swallow  apparently doesn't mind posing.
A Black-necked Stilt pauses to reflect (while Franklin's Gulls take a nap)
These are Red-necked Phalaropes - at least I hope it's not a botched identification because that's my 200th ABA (i.e. North American) species!
Calidris sandpipers are confusing - what species do you think this one is, and why?

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Calgary Birder now Smartphone Friendly!

For the 2% of my readers last month that were on mobile devices, there is now an smartphone friendly version of this website.  Visit the site on your mobile and check it out!

Have a nice day and good birding!

Friday, 19 August 2011

Looking for Warblers at the Bird Sanctuary

I joined a Nature Calgary outing to look for fall migrants at the Inglewood Bird Sanctuary.  After a slow start we eventually found 5 species of warbler: Yellow-rumped, Yellow, Blackpoll, Wilson's and Northern Waterthrush (which is of course, not a thrush).  There were a host of other great birds to be had, as can be seen below (click any image to enlarge)
Immature Great Blue Heron sitting on the rail within a few yards of us! 
Another immature, this one a Baltimore Oriole
Northern Rough-winged Swallow - dozens of them sitting on bushes by the water 
By far the best views I've had of Warbling Vireo - half-decent photos too!
Same vireo again, foraging in the branches
Western Wood Pewee - nice to have an expert guide to help sort out the Flycatchers
The only warbler I managed to photograph.  What species is this....?

...Yellow-rumped!  This is a hatch year bird.