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.

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