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.