Monday, 30 May 2011

Calgary May Species Count

This weekend brought the annual spring species count - a team of birders fanning out to count all the bird species within an 80km radius of Calgary.  My partner and I were assigned an area north of Strathmore - a fairly unremarkable stretch of rolling prairie that was nonetheless filled with birds and we managed to round up 61 species on a lovely sunny day of birding.  The sloughs were filled to the brim from the past week of rainy weather so duck counting was a large part of the day with many Mallards, Gadwall, American Wigeon, Blue-winged Teal, and Northern Shovelers.
Northern Shoveler, Anas clypeata, looking a little goofy
Last week, when we drove out to Kinbrook Island, we had seen lots of hawks in the area immediately east of Strathmore so I was expecting more good things today.  We saw a total of 14 Swainson's Hawks and 7 Red-tailed Hawks, some at very close distances as they performed aerial courtship displays, and some on or around nests.  Another raptor highlight was a Northern Harrier, easily identified by its trademark low altitude hunting across a field and along a roadside ditch.  For one heart-stopping moment we thought that the hawk was going to be hit by a passing truck but fortunately it continued its leisurely glide to the other side and then circled around to make another close pass behind us.
Swainson's Hawk, Buteo swainsoni
There were relatively few shorebirds to be found, perhaps due to high water levels, but we did see a number of Marbled Godwits, several Wilson's Snipe, and a huge flock of Wilson's Phalaropes.  We also found a Long-billed Curlew which was very cooperative while we admired the cinnamon belly through the scope and double checked our field guide.
Wilson's Snipe, Gallinago delicata
Long-billed Curlew, Numenius americanus, Digiscoping skills are slowly improving!
Birding by ear is not an area of strength for me but I had lots of practice and a good teacher on this trip.  We found many sparrows including Savannah, Clay-coloured, Vesper, Lark and Chipping, but the "small bird" highlight for me was a large flock of Cliff Swallows swooping around our heads and under us through a culvert!  Just a short distance down the road from that experience we found three Horned Larks, another new bird for me.
Horned Lark, Eremophila alpestris
Another great day out on the prairie and I found once again that participating in a bird count is a wonderful way to hone one's birding skills.  I'll wrap this post up with a map of the route we took through the area and a list of species seen.

1 Canada Goose
2 Gadwall
3 American Wigeon
4 Mallard
5 Blue-winged Teal
6 Cinnamon Teal
7 Northern Shoveler
8 Northern Pintail
9 Canvasback
10 Redhead
11 Lesser Scaup
12 Bufflehead
13 Common Goldeneye
14 Ruddy Duck
15 Ring-necked Pheasant
16 Pied-billed Grebe
17 Horned Grebe
18 Eared Grebe
19 Great Blue Heron
20 Northern Harrier
21 Swainson's Hawk
22 Red-tailed Hawk
23 American Kestrel
24 Merlin
25 American Coot
26 Killdeer
27 American Avocet
28 Willet
29 Spotted Sandpiper
30 Long-billed Curlew
31 Marbled Godwit
32 Wilson's Snipe
33 Wilson's Phalarope
34 Rock Pigeon
35 Mourning Dove
36 Least Flycatcher
37 Western Kingbird
38 Eastern Kingbird
39 Black-billed Magpie
40 American Crow
41 Horned Lark
42 Bank Swallow
43 Cliff Swallow
44 Barn Swallow
45 House Wren
46 Marsh Wren
47 American Robin
48 European Starling
49 Yellow Warbler
50 Chipping Sparrow
51 Clay-colored Sparrow
52 Vesper Sparrow
53 Lark Sparrow
54 Savannah Sparrow
55 Red-winged Blackbird
56 Western Meadowlark
57 Yellow-headed Blackbird
58 Brewer's Blackbird
59 Brown-headed Cowbird
60 American Goldfinch
61 House Sparrow

Monday, 23 May 2011

Kinbrook Island Provincial Park

We've just returned from a great long weekend camping trip to Kinbrook Island Provincial Park near Brooks, which is about 200km south-east of Calgary.  The park is on the east shore of a large reservoir,  Newell Lake, and the campground is basically an island covered in poplar trees and surrounded by marsh.  The existence of these three habitats together in the middle of vast prairie grassland is, as you can see below, a real bird magnet.

In the campground there were several species of flycatcher ranging from the easily identified and bold to the tricky and hyperactive.  (As usual all photos in the post are click to enlarge!)
Western Kingbird, Tyrannus verticalis

Eastern Kingbird, Tyrannus tyrannus

Least Flycatcher, Empidonax minimus - OK, I heard several Least Flycatchers, this bird was close by, and it looks like a Least Flycatcher but those empids are tricky!
A birding highlight of the weekend came while I was washing breakfast dishes.  There was a flurry of activity in the understory.  A group of 4 male Brown-headed Cowbirds chasing one female were displaying to each other on branches and, ultimately, on the grass about ten yards in front of me.
Brown-headed Cowbird, Molothrus ater

Brown-headed CowbirdMolothrus ater
There are nice walks (if you aren't freaked out by bugs like our 3 year old!) around the marshes, including an interpretive trail around the northeast area that was a little long for our crew of preschoolers.  The dominant species in this area is Red-winged Blackbirds, but spaced out among these territorial birds were Yellow-headed Blackbirds and a large number of Marsh Wrens.
Marsh Wren, Cistothorus palustris

Yellow-headed Blackbird, Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus
During one of these walks we bumped into a group of birders doing the 13th Annual Brooks Species Count.  They commented on the lack of shorebirds, an observation supported throughout the weekend and the drive back to Calgary (one yellowlegs, one snipe, and three large shorebirds on a far off muddy field was all I saw).  I was generally surprised by the lack of birds on the main bodies of water in the park but along with the usually half dozen species of duck we did see Red-necked Grebes, Forster's Tern, and some American White Pelican.
American White Pelican, Pelecanus erythrorhynchos, displaying breeding season "horn"
This relative lack of species on the open water was entirely compensated for by the continual displays of flycatchers, Tree Swallows, Yellow Warblers, blackbirds, sparrows, and ever-friendly American Robins around the campsite.  I would highly recommend this campsite as a destination for the birding-inclined camper or any family looking for a prairie getaway.

In total, 48 species were seen on the weekend getaway and a birder working the area in a more focused way would have no trouble finding many more.  For those interested here's the list of species seen either at Kinbrook or in the immediate Brooks area:

Canada Goose Branta canadensis
American Wigeon Anas americana
Mallard Anas platyrhynchos
Blue-winged Teal Anas discors
Northern Shoveler Anas clypeata
Northern Pintail Anas acuta
Redhead Aythya americana
Lesser Scaup Aythya affinis
Ruddy Duck Oxyura jamaicensis
Red-necked Grebe Podiceps grisegena
American White Pelican Pelecanus erythrorhynchos
Northern Harrier Circus cyaneus
Swainson's Hawk Buteo swainsoni (on nest)
Red-tailed Hawk Buteo jamaicensis
American Coot Fulica americana
Yellowlegs sp. Tringa sp.
Wilson's Snipe Gallinago delicata
Ring-billed Gull Larus delawarensis
Forster's Tern Sterna forsteri
Rock Pigeon Columba livia
Mourning Dove Zenaida macroura
Great Horned Owl Bubo virginianus (adult with two fledglings)
Northern Flicker Colaptes auratus
Least Flycatcher Empidonax minimus
Western Kingbird Tyrannus verticalis
Eastern Kingbird Tyrannus tyrannus
Black-billed Magpie Pica hudsonia
American Crow Corvus brachyrhynchos
Common Raven Corvus corax
Tree Swallow Tachycineta bicolor (on nest - tree cavity)
Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica
Marsh Wren Cistothorus palustris
American Robin Turdus migratorius (on nest)
Hermit Thrush Catharus guttatus
European Starling Sturnus vulgaris
Yellow Warbler Dendroica petechia
Common Yellowthroat Geothlypis trichas
Chipping Sparrow Spizella passerina
Clay-colored Sparrow Spizella pallida
Vesper Sparrow Pooecetes gramineus
Song Sparrow Melospiza melodia
Red-winged Blackbird Agelaius phoeniceus
Western Meadowlark Sturnella neglecta
Yellow-headed Blackbird Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus
Brewer's Blackbird Euphagus cyanocephalus
Brown-headed Cowbird Molothrus ater
Baltimore Oriole Icterus galbula
House Sparrow Passer domesticus

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Update to Inglewood Return

Moments after posting the last post, I noticed that Birds Calgary has posted the results of the Big Sit, and apparently bumped into the same very friendly Swainson's Hawk.  Details here.

Return to Inglewood

A breezy but sunny morning greeted me as I headed out on Saturday morning for a second trip to Inglewood Bird Sanctuary in as many days.  After the success of Thursday's trip I wanted to see what I could find early in the morning and also join the BirdsCalgary group for the first part of their Big Sit.  The first sighting of note was a Swainson's Hawk flying low across the open field and then landing in the line of spruce trees that separates the field from the lagoon.  I took a guess at where it was likely to be found in the tree line and stuck my head out between the trees.  At first it seemed like the hawk was gone, until I looked right up beside me and had a big surprise.  You might think the hawk would be surprised too but there was no alarm call, no fluffed up feathers and no gaping - just "beautiful buteo" about 5 yards away from me.
Swainson's Hawk, Buteo swainsoni

In the woods on the far side of the lagoon I found "first of year" Tree Swallows which were very vocal and chasing each other on and off perches in the tallest snags.
Tree Swallow, Tachycineta bicolor
Directly below all of this dogfighting I heard a rustling in the leaf litter.  Initially discounting it as another one of the many American Robins that kept hopping across the trail it seemed a little too quiet and a little too close.  With a little persistence I made out the following spectacularly helpful view.

Given recent reports of White-crowned Sparrows, I played that call note on my iPhone to no response.  The call of a White-throated Sparrow elicited a very different reaction - the sparrow shot up onto a branch over the trail.  As if to say, "I hear your call and raise you" he performed several refrains of "Oh-sweet-Canada-Canada-Canada" and then returned to foraging in the undergrowth.  You can hear the call at Xeno-Canto
White-throated Sparrow, Zonotrichia albicollis

Friday, 13 May 2011

A Short Walk in Inglewood

A warm sunny evening led to a short post-work stroll around Inglewood Bird Sanctuary on Thursday and I found a couple of rarities along with good views of some of the "usual suspects".  I'll let the photos tell the story...
Over the clatter of three Belted Kingfishers, I hear a House Finch, (Carpodacus mexicanus),  I wonder if I can get a better  photo from the other side....

....looks like no!
 Ducks in love...
American Wigeon pair, Anas americana
Common Merganser pair, Mergus merganser
Mallard pair, Anas platyrhynchos

Redhead pair, Aythya americana
Wood Duck, Aix sponsa, two males - waiting for love?
Walking along the trail a robin-sized bird with a flash of tan on its wing flies across the trail.  I wonder if I'm going to get my first decent look at....
...yep!  The enigmatically named Townsend's Solitaire, Myadestes townsendi
and again from behind.
Arriving at the river a quick scan reveals not very much of interest, except one of those Goldeneyes on the far side looks a little out of place.  Crescent shaped white in front of the eye, steeper sloped forehead, bill a little shorter, must be a...
....Barrow's Goldeneye, Bucephala islandica
Better views on take-off and in flight seem to support this conclusion.  Sorry about the lousy photos - digiscoping equipment is in the budget for the next couple of months - all photos can be clicked to enlarge for marginally better views!

I made out 1 male and 3 female Barrow's Goldeneyes, with the larger white area on the wings of the male Common Goldeneye in the upper right of this image clearly highlighting the differences.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

McDonald Lake - 100 Alberta Birds and Counting

McDonald Lake is just north of the city limits in an area of rapid commercial/retail development next to the now defunct Balzac Gas Plant.  I heard about this waterfowl hot spot at the Bird Study Group meeting earlier this week and took a couple of hours this afternoon to check it out.  There was some discussion at the meeting regarding access but it is currently very straightforward - north on the new Metis Trail from Stoney Trail, right on the first "Crossiron" street (Crossiron Boulevard?) and then park on the dirt road behind the huge Walmart distribution centre - basically right by the lake.  Don't bother with google maps if you are trying to figure this out - things are changing so rapidly that it currently shows the distribution centre as a big pile of dirt and shows Metis Trail as not yet going to Crossiron Mills!

Before I even arrived at the lake there were signs this was going to be a good afternoon of birding.  A Swainson's Hawk chased two pigeons across Highway 2 and landed right between the Stoney Trail off-ramp and the freeway, clutching one of the pigeons in its talons.  I wasn't aware that Swainson's Hawks took pigeons but a little research confirms this is the case and I guess when you've just flown in from Argentina you'll take what you can get!

I parked near the lake and walked across the short grass closer to the shore, flushing three Savannah Sparrows, one of which landed a short distance away and sang from the top of a tall blade of grass.  One of the first birds I saw on the lake was a magnificent male Ruddy Duck which becomes my 100th Alberta bird.  There were great scope views to be had, but no photo so I include the following from the Flickr Creative Commons site.

Ruddy Duck

The were many other species to be seen including Redhead, Bufflehead, Northern Pintail, Ring-necked Duck and Lesser Scaup (the dominant duck species).  Curiously this was the first time I have ever been to a wetland in Alberta and seen no Common Goldeneye or Mallard or Canada Goose.  There were at least 50 Eared Grebes as well as a half dozen Horned Grebes.  In breeding plumage these weren't too hard to tell apart, especially with views like this:
Three Eared Grebes, Podiceps nigricollis (behind) and one Horned Grebe, Podiceps auritus (front and centre)
Standing out amongst all these ducks and grebes were the only shorebirds of the day - three American Avocet looking a little tired and windswept.
American Avocet, Recurvirostra americana
As I drove back down Metis Trail I pulled over to see my first Brewer's Blackbirds of the year, foraging beside the road and on a dirt pile in the field.
Brewer's Blackbird, Euphagus cyanocephalus 
A little further down the road was a small slough with a bunch of old wrecked cars. A Red-winged Blackbird was staking out his territory from the top of a rusty, half-submerged tractor. He was content to continue serenading a few yards away while I sat and admired three pairs of Northern Shoveler and a pair of Gadwall.

I headed home by looping around the east edge of the city, stopping at a another small slough near the East Calgary Landfill to pick up Franklin's Gulls, American Wigeon, and Canvasback to round out the day's list.

Many thanks to the Bird Study Group presenters for the tip and the resulting fun afternoon of birding.

Friday, 6 May 2011

C.S.I.: Ornithology

The past week has been a slow one for both birding and blogging as school has been busy and various members of the family have been fighting colds.  On the bright side we're all doing much better than the bird below, whose remains I found earlier in the week in Queen's Park.

I was looking for a reported Varied Thrush but all I found was a whole bunch of American Robins that frustratingly kept looking exactly like Varied Thrushes out of the corner of my eye.  There were also Kinglets calling (and responding to an iPhone recording - hurrah for iBird!) but remaining firmly out of view - disappointing as I'm not counting heard birds for my Alberta list.  Anyway, the mess of feathers was an interesting find and here are a couple more pictures.  See if you can figure out what happened, I'll explain my theory, and then you can let me know what you think in the comments.

This is the branch above and slightly to the left of the path

My thought was that the feathers were in a relatively neat circle suggesting that they had been dropped from the low perch above the remains.  Looking at that perch closer up, there was some blood as well as other tissue.  Perhaps more tellingly, there was some bird faecal matter and clear scratch marks, which seemed too small for a hawk-sized bird but much too large for a merlin.  The creek at the north end of the cemetery, where I found this scene, has tall deciduous trees above a narrow gully lined with spruce trees - perfect hunting territory for an accipiter.

With those observations in mind, I think the bird was a Rock Pigeon killed by a Sharp-shinned Hawk, which enjoyed it's meal on the low branch across the trail.  That's obviously just a bit of harmless speculation but I think it's fun to try a little bit of nature interpretation.

In any case, it's clear that this bird met with a "fowl" end.