Saturday, 30 July 2011

Fish Creek NMT Birding

A nice sunny Thursday led to a great bike ride along the Bow River.  I took the C-train (Calgary's light rail transit) down to Fish Creek Provincial Park in the city's south and then rode home along the river.  It was a great opportunity to increase my NMT list (Non-Motorized Transport), for which I'm allowing myself transit use, as long as I return home under my own power - this seems within the spirit of low impact birding.  Here's my route back from the LRT station.  The distance was actually about 45km but the online map cuts the corners and I didn't want to pinpoint my house on a public google map!

View Fish Creek to Home via Bow River Pathway in a larger map

This route passes through a lot of Calgary's birding hotspots, mostly riverside poplar stands and some open grassland areas.  Here's what I saw along with some photos.

The first birds to pop in to view were Rock Pigeons and House Sparrows, but I soon found a more interesting Brown-Headed Cowbird juvenile which was waiting for food from some unsuspecting host.  A Northern Flicker was nearby and calling to its mate as it circled around a tall snag.  I then headed to the creek, finding friendly Black-capped Chickadees as well as Downy Woodpeckers and a White-breasted Nuthatch.  In the creek itself, this family of Common Mergansers were learning how to find food and navigate the swift water.
"Hey Mom, what are you looking at?"
"Follow me kids!"
Further down the creek I discovered a small colony of Bank Swallows and set up the scope to have a good look from a discreet distance.  I tried to digiscope a couple of shots but met with limited success on the swallows, although a nearby Spotted Sandpiper gave better results.

Is that Bigfoot? A UFO?  The second gunman behind the grassy knoll?  No, it's a Bank Swallow!
The Spotted Sandpiper worked out a lot better!
Continuing east towards the river, I saw an Osprey flying overhead and then a Swainson's Hawk high up over the south edge of the valley.  There were many flycatchers working an open area of meadow surrounded by poplars and Eastern Phoebe and Least Flycatcher were both identifiable, as were small flocks of Cedar Waxwings and a pair of American Goldfinch.  Watching over the whole area from a wire perch was this American Kestrel.
American Kestrel
Arriving at Hull's Wood and the boat launch on the Bow River, the kestrel's cousin the Merlin was high up in a tree, as well as the first American Robin of the day.  Close to the river there were many small songbirds evident such as Yellow Warblers and Clay-coloured Sparrows.   There were also tricky to identify immatures and fleeting glimpses such as the backside of what was probably a vireo.  On the upside there were several House Wrens which were both bold and vocal - my general sense was of a nervous breeding pair with some fairly mature and curious youngsters.
House Wren
Having taken about two and half hours to ride less than ten kilometres, I unfortunately needed to pick up the pace a little and headed up the Bow River.  There was still much to see: a Double Crested Cormorant flew up the river and an American White Pelican was heading in the opposite direction.  There were the usual Mallards and Canada Geese on the river and, just before I left the park, there were two Eastern Kingbirds, perched on the only piece of tall shrubbery in the middle of a huge meadow in Bankside.  A pair of Gray Catbirds were "meowing" to each other on the edge of a shallow pond and more Least Flycatchers were hunting nearby.
Gray Catbird
At Carburn Park, there were Common Goldeneye and Chipping Sparrows to add to the list as I rode through and a Bald Eagle on the far bank of the river - they are always worth stopping for.  Heading up the Western Headworks Canal, more sandpipers prowled the banks while a lone Hooded Merganser was hunting in the water and Cliff Swallows swooped under the bridges.  Rejoining the Bow River at Pearce Estates, another small pond revealed Red-winged Blackbirds and Tree Swallows, and the weir improvements had a flock of Ring-billed Gulls.  

That about wrapped up the day except for American Crows and remarkably the first Black-billed Magpies  of the day, which I managed to ride 44.6 of 44.9 km back to my house without seeing!  A surprising end to a relaxed day of birding and exercise.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Brood Parasitism in Action

We spent the weekend in Canmore and, while enjoying a patio dinner, spotted a Dark-eyed Junco busy providing dinner to a juvenile.  The young bird seemed altogether too big- perhaps 20% larger than the "parent" - and on closer investigation turned out to be a Brown-headed Cowbird.
Dark-eyed junco - the unsuspecting foster parent
All three species of cowbird that breed in North America are brood parasites - they lay their eggs in the nest of other breeding species.  Some birds such as Redhead and Ruddy Ducks as well as the two North American Cuckoo species do this on an occasional, opportunistic basis.  Brown-headed Cowbirds however, like the Old World Cuckoos, have entirely done away with nesting and lay a dozen or more eggs per season  in the nests of over 200 different species.  Unlike the European cuckoos, cowbird hatchlings do not push their foster siblings out of the nest but are usually larger and born sooner so the host species offspring only survive if they are not outcompeted for food.
Young cowbird waiting for its next meal...
...and having a little nap!
The impact of this breeding behaviour on songbird populations is significant.  Some species have defences against the cowbird.  For example, the Gray Catbird can recognize the parasitic eggs and eject them from the nest while the Yellow Warbler simply builds a new nest right on top of the parasitized nest and starts with a new batch of eggs.  Most birds do not have this mechanism and, while that's all well and good for common species such as the above Junco, it can be a real threat to rarer species such as Kirtland's Warbler and Black-headed Vireo.  In fact there's a pernicious one-two punch at work here, as some species are threatened by clearing and fragmentation of forest and the cowbirds thrive in marginal habitat - the border between grassland and forest created when forest is cleared.

Information in this post is from The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behaviour and the excellent Birdwatcher's Companion to North American Birdlife by C.W. Leahy

Update July 28th - I just discovered that there was a similar post on another Calgary bird blog a couple of weeks ago.  You can find it here

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Weed Lake Shorebirds

This afternoon I headed out to Weed Lake, a short drive east of the city near the town of Langdon.  There had been reports of Black-crowned Night Heron, which would be a new bird for me.  This lake is also a decent spot for shorebirds.  As it turns out, with relatively high water levels in so many places in the province, there was much to be seen.  Here a few digiscoped images.

See how many species you can see in this photo (click to enlarge).  I put my answers at the bottom of this post, if you have any additions or subtractions to my list PLEASE let me know in the comments.
I was excited to see some Sanderling, a new bird for me.  I based my identification on size (compare to the Willet and ducks), the reddish breast with abrupt transition to a white belly, and the behaviour (remaining relatively far from the water and moving around very rapidly).  There are six of them lined up in the centre of this image, the Willet is the pale bird to the right.  These little sandpipers can be tough so if you have any suggestions, please let me know.
There were, of course, many waterfowl on the lake with rapidly growing young.  They included many species of duckling, huddling together in huge rafts far out on the lake...
... and some grebelings (a new term that I have just made up, although I'm probably not the first person to do so!).  In this case, they were Eared Grebes hanging out with a Ruddy Duck mom and three young - she is at the centre of the image.
After leaving the main body of the lake, I drove through some wetland to the south on the charmingly named Dead Horse Road.  A Great Blue Heron flushed from the side of the road, either startled by my van or by the three Red-winged Blackbirds that were in hot pursuit.  Fortunately the target species Black-crowned Night Herons were further from the road and apparently less threatening to the blackbirds.  I found a total of three birds hanging out in the reeds, two very close together, perhaps a breeding pair?
On my way home I saw this Solitary Sandpiper - it was far away from all the other sandpipers ;)
Answers to photo number one: I was able to ID Willet, Black-necked Stilt, Long-billed Dowitcher, Sanderling, Lesser Yellowlegs, Wilson's Phalarope, and Forster's Tern.  Your feedback is welcome. 

Lastly, I was able to get some video of some dowitchers doing their trademark sewing maching impersonation and will post it as soon as I have it uploaded.  Stay tuned!

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Victoria Songbirds

To wrap up the West Coast vacation posts (previous posts here and here), here are a few shots of birds taken in Victoria and elsewhere on the Saanich Peninsula.  As usual, all photos can be clicked to enlarge.

Violet-green Swallow feeding young at nestbox at the Butchart Gardens
Dark-eyed Junco, "Oregon" variety, also at the Butchart Gardens
A very poor photo, included only because it was a life bird! - A Bewick's Wren in shrubby pathway area in Victoria
In the same general location, another denizen of photography-challenging dark shrubs and leaf litter, one of many Spotted Towhee
The poorly named Pelagic Cormorant at Sidney docks
Female Anna's Hummingbird, one of several fighting over my Aunt and Uncle's feeder

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Juveniles at Frank Lake

I returned from Vancouver Island to find my backordered digiscoping bracket waiting for me.  The bracket attaches a point-and-shoot camera to the eyepiece of my scope and has a cable release for vibration free pictures.  I headed to Frank Lake, just east of High River to try it out.
Savannah Sparrow, Passerculus sandwichensis 
As would be expected there were many Savannah Sparrows in the grassland around the lake, as well as two Common Ravens being mobbed by a mixed flock of blackbirds (both Red-winged and Yellow-headed were present in large numbers around the lake).

By the time I reached the hide I realized that digiscoping was going to be somewhat unnecessary - close encounters were to be the order of the day.  Franklin's Gulls were standing on the pathway to the hide, and several Yellow-headed Blackbirds fed juveniles in the reeds beside the boardwalk.  A pair of Forster's Terns were also nesting nearby as one repeatedly flew at my head.  A family of Coots had their nest six feet from the path and swam about happily a little further away while I set up the scope.
American Coot (and 2 very funky looking chicks!), Fulica americana
I spent a little over an hour in the hide while several adult and juvenile Eared Grebes swam about in the reeds.  Further out on the lake, Western Grebes could be seen, including some young.  The distinctive silhouettes of White-face Ibis flew past three times, and a pair of Barn Swallows repeatedly flew up to the window to see who was intruding on their territory.  A pair of Lesser Scaup also landed in front of the hide and the male chased the female around in circles, repeatedly biting her neck until he finally mounted her, pushing her almost completely under the water.  It was easy to see how competitive breeding can, in some cases, kill female dabbling ducks.
juvenile Eared Grebe, Podiceps nigricollis
All in all a pleasant afternoon with 19 species seen at the lake.  I'm looking forward to playing around with the digiscoping some more over the summer.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Birding the Rainforest with "Just Birding"

Well, temperate rainforest at least!  While out on Vancouver Island last week, I joined George Bradd of Tofino's "Just Birding" for a morning of guided birding in the Pacific Rim National Forest.  While the conditions were a little challenging at times, with fairly high winds keeping birds buried in the dense undergrowth, it was an educational and productive experience.

With two other birders, we started out at the Tofino mudflats.  In the spring, this is the location of mass gatherings of migratory peeps, particularly Western Sandpipers and Dunlin.  As it was midsummer, things were a little quieter but we did see Western Sandpipers, Short-billed Dowitchers, and Whimbrel.  A mixed flock of Chestnut-backed Chickadees and Golden-crowned Kinglets made their way through the treetops along the water's edge and a Belted Kingfisher dove into the water, making a successful catch.
Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Poecile rufescens
After checking out a small flock of Eurasian Collared Doves in the parking lot, we moved in to the Pacific Rim National Park.  We spent the remainder of the morning's birding on the South Beach Trail at Wickaninnish Beach (map here - trail is at #4).  In the parking lot we heard Fox and Song Sparrows and just a short distance further along, a Swainson's Thrush, which made a brief appearance in the middle of the trail before returning to the shubbery.  We also took some time near the parking lot to scan the ocean through our scopes, picking up Surf Scoters, Pelagic Cormorant, and most excitingly, a pair of Red-throated Loons diving under the heavy swell.

Through a combination of patience and pishing, George skillfully located all three species of breeding warbler in the park - Townsend's, Orange-crowned, and Wilson's.  Orange-crowned was a lifer for me and these were by far the best views I've ever had of the stunning Townsend's.  In fact, I was so captivated with the binocular and scope views that I only got my camera out for the Wilson's!
Wilson's Warbler, Wilsonia pusilla
We finished up at the end of the trail on South Beach, where there was a large flock of Glaucous-winged Gulls and a dozen or so Pelagic Cormorants sheltering from the wind on a rocky outcrop.  In the forest behind us were more chickadees and a flock of Red Crossbills moving through the treetops.
Red Crossbill, Loxia curvirostra, female - digiscoped
We spent a fair amount of time enjoying the beach and watching a Bald Eagle flush all of the gulls off the rock - the eagle isn't visible in the photo below but the gulls' reaction is!  According to our guide, last year the pair of nesting eagles in the bay had eaten every gull chick off the entire colony.

Brandt's Cormorant made a fly past appearance and there were more scoters as well as some Pigeon Guillemots.  This picture was taken on a boat trip the previous day but it seemed worth including here.
Pigeon Guillemots, Cepphus columba
To finish off a great day of birding a Black Oystercatcher flew into the bay and started making short work of the mussels along the water's edge.  I captured the video below through my scope, so I apologize for the shaky image!

Thanks to George and Just Birding for an informative morning of birding - we saw about 30 species but more importantly I learned a lot about all of them.  The tour was well worth the price and I recommend it to anyone who is fortunate enough to have a chance to bird the Pacific Rim National Park.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

West Coast Whale Watching

Time for a second trip to the West Coast, previously with students, this time with family.  We started our trip in Victoria and took a whale watching tour with "Prince of Whales" on Canada Day.  We had great luck with our trip - Orcas ("Killer Whales") were right outside the Victoria Harbour.  There was a second group near San Juan Island and, on our return trip, we found the first pod again, this time breaching right out of the water.

Oh yeah, and we saw some birds too, including Rhinoceros Auklet, Pigeon Guillemot, Pelagic Cormorant, Common Murre, and of course, Bald Eagle.

Friday, 1 July 2011

Warbling in the Rain - Father's Day Outing Part 2

After returning from the Drumheller outing I took some time in the evening to wander around the local bird sanctuary, which led me to the following random observations:

- Mosquitos are okay, even when they're flying right at your face, because they're the reason that Yellow Warbler is foraging six feet in front of you.

- Rain is okay, because it keeps the mosquitos away, when you're done looking at the warbler.

- Sometimes a scope is really handy...
Spotted Sandpiper, Actitis macularia
- ...and sometimes it's just overkill!
Northern Flicker, Colaptes auratus
- Maintaining a network of blogs is useful, especially when they help you with ID's.  This post, on "Birding Is Fun", finally helped all the pieces fall into place in identifying a loud but well hidden Warbling Vireo (third photo down on the linked page).  They sound like this and I'm sure I won't forget that call again.

- And finally, urban parks are wonderful places where you can be surprised by nature...

- ...and nature can be surprised by you!