Monday, 30 April 2012

South Glenmore Park with Friends of Fish Creek

The past weekend began with the fourth Saturday of the Friends of Fish Creek Park Spring Birding Course.  I was a little tired out after a week in the Gulf Islands with thirty-two of my Junior High students but made this an "NMT" outing by biking to the reservoir, which is why all images in this post are through a scope.  It was certainly worth the effort as the weather was lovely with the sun periodically peaking out from between the clouds.  We were entertained by a pair of Red-breasted Nuthatches emptying wood chips from their nest hole and, despite the songbirds being a little thin on the ground, we also watched a Ruby-crowned Kinglet singing boldly from the top of a tall spruce.
Unfortunately I didn't capture the nest cavity cleaning process in the above video but it's nice to see breeding behaviour in action anyway

South Glenmore Park is a mix of many habitat types: a stand of old growth spruce trees borders on aspen parkland which in turn borders on fragments of boreal forest in the Weaselhead Natural Area.  Alongside these woodlands there are grassy fields, a river delta, and of course the reservoir itself.  It was there where we found much of the bird activity with twenty-eight species on or beside the water, twelve of which were Alberta "first of year" for me, plus a life bird - the Say's Phoebe.
My life Say's Phoebe, Sayornis saya, seems much less interested in me than I am in him
The reservoir itself was covered in birds which gave great scope (and closer) views.  The variety of waterfowl made for a productive learning experience for the participants as we were able to pick out and compare species.  A Canvasback paddled around beside some Redheads, two pairs of Ring-necked Ducks hung out with a small flock of Lesser Scaup, and so on.  Our group was perhaps most impressed by the Western Grebes, which were actively feeding and calling just a hundred metres or less from our viewpoint.
The Western Grebe, Aechmophorus occidentals, appears both stately and savage. 
As is often the case, I learned a valuable bird identification lesson myself, in the form of a flock of thirty gulls with black heads that flew across the reservoir and landed on the far side.  "More Franklin's!", I called out, assuming that they would match the hundred or so that were already there.  "Bonaparte's Gulls", corrected our group's leader.  Not exactly a rookie mistake - they are pretty close - but I should have known better and not made the immediate logical assumption, particularly as just four days earlier I had sailed through a flock of 5000+ Bonaparte's out on the West Coast.  Birding is certainly a hobby where jumping to conclusions is all too easy!
Bonaparte's Gull, Chroicocephalus philadelphia, not on Glenmore Reservoir,  but earlier in the week in the rain of the Gulf Islands.
In spite of this minor setback, I thoroughly enjoyed the morning's birding and am looking forward to next week's outing.  More on the West Coast to follow in May...

Here's a list of species seen on this outing (plus two en route marked with *):

  1. Canada Goose
  2. Trumpeter Swan
  3. Gadwall
  4. American Wigeon
  5. Mallard
  6. Blue-winged Teal
  7. Northern Shoveler
  8. Northern Pintail
  9. Canvasback
  10. Redhead
  11. Ring-necked Duck
  12. Lesser Scaup
  13. Bufflehead
  14. Common Goldeneye
  15. Common Merganser
  16. Common Loon
  17. Horned Grebe
  18. Eared Grebe
  19. Western Grebe
  20. Red-necked Grebe*
  21. American Coot
  22. Spotted Sandpiper
  23. Greater Yellowlegs
  24. Bonaparte's Gull
  25. Franklin's Gull
  26. Gull sp. (probably California)
  27. Downy Woodpecker
  28. Northern Flicker
  29. Say's Phoebe
  30. Black-billed Magpie
  31. American Crow
  32. Common Raven
  33. Black-capped Chickadee (heard only)
  34. Red-breasted Nuthatch
  35. Ruby-crowned Kinglet
  36. Savannah Sparrow*
  37. Pine Siskin
  38. House Sparrow

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Garden-variety Birds

This is the fourth and final in a series of posts featuring birds from our recent trip to San Diego.  You can find the other parts here: part 1, part 2, and part 3.

When thinking about birding around San Diego, there are so many habitats - like the lagoons, beaches, and deserts in the previous posts - it is easy to overlook the great variety of birds that can be found in backyards throughout the area.  We were fortunate in finding a rental property that shared a lovely garden with our very generous hosts.  This habitat provided some great birding from the moment we woke up on our first morning.
Almost the first birds we saw on the trip - Anna's Hummingbird, Calypte anna, and Black Phoebe, Sayornis nigricans, side by side above the back fence.
The Black Phoebes were quite common and we saw them at almost every park we stopped at along the coast.  Similarly hummingbirds were widespread and often seen feeding on flowers in the same parks and gardens - we had three in the yard at the same time one afternoon.  Of course certain species are very cosmopolitan and we found several species that would be considered "the usual suspects" in Calgary, at a different time of year.
A House Finch regaling us with morning song - the yellow-orange coloration is not a morph I've seen in Alberta 
Yellow-rumped Warblers (Audubon's subspecies) are year-round residents in parts of California but didn't show up in Alberta until about four weeks after I took this photo
Similarly, White-crowned Sparrows spend the winter here and should be showing up any day now
However the backyard birds aren't just different colour morphs or out of season Alberta birds.  In some cases the populations are dramatically different, like what seems to be a swap in numbers between House Sparrows and Song Sparrows, with the latter flitting around in every bush and picnic area.  There are also those birds that are commonplace in the San Diego area but never seen north of the 49th parallel such as the above Black Phoebe and the aptly named California Towhee.  These birds were everywhere, announcing their presence with a distinct, slightly metallic "teek" as they forage in the brush or on the ground.
This California Towhee was feeding underneath a Hyacinth Macaw at the San Diego Zoo - I took a little flak from my wife for taking this photo first!  Definitely an "LBJ" but also a real stunner - it's all in the eyes.
I hope you've enjoyed this little overview of my brief exposure to southern California birding.  I look forward to the next visit and recommend this to anyone looking for a different birding experience.
Bins and beer - probably signs of a good holiday!

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Richard Feynman on Listing vs Birdwatching

No birding this weekend as I'm getting ready to take my Grade 9 class to the Gulf Islands (Vancouver Island, BC) for their sailing trip.  Here's something we should ponder as we're chasing migrants around this month....

Wednesday, 18 April 2012


This is the third part of a series on our recent trip to San Diego - you can find part 1 here, and part 2 here.

This looks promising...
A successful birding trip is usually preceded by careful preparations and review.  When visiting a completely new area this is particularly important, so for our California trip there were three pieces to those preparations.  Firstly, following the appropriate listserv (email bird alerts) to get a flavour for species and locations.  Secondly, based on this information, generating and studying a list of common and target species.  The final piece was researching nearby hotspots - in the case of the non-birding holiday, nearby being the critical word.  "A Birder's Guide to Southern California" by Brad Schram was a fantastic resource and, along with online research, I discovered that our rented vacation property was less than a mile from the San Elijo Lagoon - complete with trails, several different habitat types, and an interpretive centre.

View San Elijo Lagoon in a larger map
Looking west across the marsh from the bend in the river just below the blue place mark above.
The two CalgaryBirder Jr's and I heading up the trail 180° from the above photo.
I made two visits to the lagoon - one with the family for a short walk and later an early morning solo excursion for a couple of hours.  This totalled 39 species including on the adjacent Cardiff State Beach.  The total species count for the lagoon is around 300, with 65 recorded as breeding, which gives you some idea of how I was just scratching the surface.  Here are a few highlights, mostly digiscoped - a scope is very useful although not vital as the waterfowl and waders seemed generally less skittish than in Alberta wetlands.  For more information on San Elijo and the species found there you can look at the lagoon conservancy website or at this birder's overview of the various trails.
Great Egret, Ardea alba, with American Wigeon in the background 
Digiscoping hummingbirds is often difficult (without a feeder) but this male Anna's Hummingbird, Calypte anna, was very cooperative
A Green-winged Teal, Anas crecca, with a small flock of dowitchers - almost certainly Long-billed Dowitchers, Limnodromus scolopaceus 
Certainly the highlight of the lagoon, possibly of the entire trip, this normally secretive Virginia Rail, Rallus limicola, was just wandering about in plain view, at least by Rail/Sora standards.
Passerines tend to be tricker to photograph, but I managed to get a half-decent shot of another lifer - the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Polioptila cerulean.
A taste of home - American Avocet, Recurvirostra americana, and Least Sandpipers, Calidris minutia
A quiet, reflective moment for this Snowy Egret, Egretta thula

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Tree Houses

Yesterday morning was the second Saturday of the Friends of Fish Creek Park spring birding course.  With temperatures around 0°C and a bitter wind blowing snow from the north, the turnout was a little lower than last week but we enjoyed some good birding and stayed out for the full three hours.  If there was a theme to the outing, it was "birds in trees".  This probably seems somewhat trite but as you can see from the photos below there really were some birds hanging out in unusual spots, high in branches and dead trunks around the Fish Creek boat launch.  Two of the bloggers from Birds Calgary lead the Sunday morning outing and you can read about their observations from last week here.
The "as advertised" highlights were the two Great Horned Owl nests in this area of Fish Creek Park.  Here's Dad keeping watch near one of the nest trees.  The video below shows his mate on their nest at the top of a tall dead stump.

Other bird species also take advantage of the snags, hollows, and stumps in the surrounding forest to find nest cavities.
This is business as usual for a Hairy Woodpecker, excavating a nest hole (obscured by the bird's head)
Like the owls, Canada Goose Dad stand's guard while...
...Mom sits on the nest
Wood Ducks, this one a female, are one species of waterfowl that you might expect to find in a tree, although I've not often seen one quite so high up or quite so far out on a branch.
Why do all these birds nest in trees?  Here's one excellent reason...
I was far too busy enjoying watching this Coyote hunting in the undergrowth just thirty yards away to get a good photo.  Still, it's no surprise that all the geese were up high.
The one sighting of note from a biogeographical standpoint were American Pipits.  They have been spotted in this area most days this week - migrating through to their mountain breeding grounds.  We had not seen any all morning until an eagle-eyed Rob Worona checked a section of rocky ground beside the river.  The flock let us approach to within a few yards, I snapped the photos below and we counted about 30 individuals.  Then they took off and we realized that 80 birds had been hiding in the rocks in front of us.  Remarkable!
Three remarkably rock-coloured American Pipits 
A snowed-in American Pipit
As you can see, a productive morning of birding.  To conclude, I'll leave you with the list of species seen and a shot of one of our most elegant birds, the Tundra Swan... its most elegant ;)
31 species total heard/seen - passerines were keeping a low profile in the wind and snow!

  1. Canada Goose
  2. Tundra Swan
  3. Wood Duck
  4. American Wigeon
  5. Mallard
  6. Northern Shoveler
  7. Bufflehead
  8. Common Goldeneye
  9. Common Merganser
  10. Ring-necked Pheasant (heard only)
  11. Great Blue Heron
  12. Red-tailed Hawk
  13. Killdeer
  14. Franklin's Gull
  15. Ring-billed Gull
  16. California Gull
  17. Herring Gull
  18. Great Horned Owl
  19. Downy Woodpecker
  20. Hairy Woodpecker
  21. Northern Flicker
  22. Black-billed Magpie
  23. American Crow
  24. Tree Swallow
  25. Black-capped Chickadee
  26. White-breasted Nuthatch
  27. American Robin
  28. European Starling
  29. American Pipit
  30. Song Sparrow (heard only)
  31. Red-winged Blackbird

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Anza-Borrego Desert Birds

This is the second part of a series on our recent trip to San Diego - you can find part 1here.

Although numerous amusement parks and zoos make the San Diego area a great destination for families with small children, we are really more backcountry and wilderness people at heart.  As a result, by day 4 of our trip we needed a break from the crowds and drove east, across the Laguna Mountains, for a little taste of desert hiking.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is the second largest state park in the US at 2400km² and it is certainly of interest to birders.  The local hawkwatch program counted 9000 Swainson's Hawks making their way north last spring, forming large kettles during the day and roosting in the town of Borrego Springs at night.  The small oases of palm trees, irrigated land, and the nearby Salton Sea also provide waypoints and wintering habitat for migratory birds and it was to one such location that we headed for our hike.

Our first stop was the park visitor centre where I was pleased to find Verdin in the parking lot, as well as a Costa's Hummingbird feeding on cactus blooms in front of the main entrance.
Verdin, an active little songbird native that seems to fill a similar role in desert scrub that the Chickadee does in coniferous forests here - looks better enlarged!
The visitor centre itself is staffed by friendly volunteers and provides a good overview of indigenous people's history in the area, early Spanish exploration, and the flora and fauna of the area.  There were several stuffed specimens of birds, reptiles and mammals, providing an opportunity to photograph the Greater Roadrunner, a live specimen having appropriately run across the road in front of us on our drive in.
This roadrunner isn't doing much running anymore
After checking out the visitor centre and grabbing lunch in town, we headed over to the Borrego Palm Canyon trailhead.  This short (3 mile) walk takes hikers up a dry desert canyon and around a corner to reveal a cool creek complete with waterfall and small palm tree forest.  Unsurprisingly, this little patch of green is a magnet for migratory and resident birds.  Two California Quail were wandering about in the lower section of the trail and we saw them more than once, sometimes quite close.  Black-throated Sparrows, a desert specialist with striking white facial stripes contrasting with a dark black bib, also made an appearance giving great binocular views but sadly no photograph of these little stunners.
California Quail on the trail
Hiking at preschooler pace, it took us a while to reach the creek but when we did we were suddenly surrounded by green bushes and young palm trees growing between the boulders.  There were lots of songbirds here too, including Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, Orange-crowned Warbler, Pacific-slope Flycatcher, and House Finch.  Anna's Hummingbird were also feeding in the bushes and, according to the signage, Hooded Orioles nest in the palm trees, although we didn't see any.
Exploring the habitat in the upper canyon 
I've gone back and forth on the identification of this bird and I'm definitely still open to suggestions but... I believe this is a Pacific-slope Flycatcher based on 1) appropriate range for late March migration for this species but not for Cordillerian, 2) probability based on e-bird distribution, 3) species is mentioned as migrant in regional guidebook.  In any event it seems all wrong for the one "expected" flycatcher in this area which is the Ash-throated (primary projection is too short, no rufous in tail, it has an eye ring etc.).  Now that I've finished talking myself into that, feel free to let me have it in the comments!
If you are in Southwestern California, for birds or any other reason, I would recommend making a detour to this scenic desert location and checking out some of the great birding for yourself.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

An Early Migrant at the Friends of Fish Creek Spring Birding Course

This Saturday morning, and for most of the next 11 Saturdays, I'm assisting with guiding a spring birdwatching course run by the Friends of Fish Creek Provincial Park.  These courses are very popular with well over 100 participants going out basically every day of the week to various locations in Calgary.  If you're interested, there are a few spots available for some days and the course information can be found here (update April 14th: link no longer works - just goes to FFCPP website as registration is closed).  We had a nice morning birding North Glenmore Park and the Weaselhead.  Highlights included great views of a very early arriving Eastern Phoebe,   a small flock of White-winged Crossbills feeding low down in the trees, and a Northern Shrike - a life bird for me.  It was also nice to see small groups of Trumpeter Swans on the Glenmore Reservoir, along with that other harbinger of spring waterfowl, a Northern Pintail.  A few photos follow below, along with a complete species list.
A pair of Blue Jays flew through the parking lot while I was waiting for the rest of the group to arrive - nice birds for Calgary
Maybe they call it a Least Chipmunk because it fits in a tuna can bird feeder.
In a few days there will be no Pine Grosbeaks left in Calgary, as they head north, but this youngster was still hanging out doing it's best at a spring song. 
A Red-breasted Nuthatch, also looking for treats at the feeders
This Eastern Phoebe has returned unusually early to a customary nesting site under the wooden arch bridge on the Weaselhead trails.  We didn't see any insects but this bird was certainly finding them on the surface of the snow-covered creek.  While the bird sat on a bankside perch performing the tell-"tail" phoebe tail flick, I was able to snap this shot which captures another good field mark - the dark smudges on either side of the breast.
We had great views of a small group of White-winged Crossbills feeding unusually low in the trees.  As crossbill photos go, this one turned out ok.
Checking my list when I got home, I was surprised to find that this White-breasted Nuthatch was my first of the year - must be a book-keeping error! 
A nice morning of birding with a friendly and keen group of people - I'm looking forward to the next one!  Here's the list of species seen/heard:

  1. Canada Goose
  2. Trumpeter Swan
  3. American Wigeon
  4. Mallard
  5. Northern Pintail
  6. Bufflehead
  7. Common Goldeneye
  8. Ring-billed Gull
  9. California Gull
  10. Northern Flicker
  11. Red-tailed Hawk (2, one of which was Harlan's)
  12. Northern Flicker (heard only)
  13. Eastern Phoebe
  14. Northern Shrike
  15. Blue Jay
  16. Black-billed Magpie
  17. American Crow
  18. Common Raven
  19. Black-capped Chickadee
  20. Boreal Chickadee
  21. Red-breasted Nuthatch
  22. White-breasted Nuthatch
  23. American Robin
  24. Bohemian Waxwing
  25. American Tree Sparrow
  26. Song Sparrow (heard only)
  27. Pine Grosbeak
  28. White-winged Crossbill
  29. Common Redpoll
  30. Pine Siskin
  31. House Sparrow

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Vacation Birding

We've just returned from a family holiday in San Diego.  Much fun was had by kids and adults alike at the Zoo, Legoland, and so on.  By keeping my binoculars close at hand, and taking a couple of hours early one morning to bird a local hotspot, I also saw 74 species of bird including 28 lifers.  I plan on sharing a few photos as well as details of some great birding locations over the next few weeks.  Hope you enjoy - all photos click to enlarge as usual!
Brown Pelican was one lifer that was a sure thing heading down to southern California.  Very impressive to watch small flocks cruising along the cliff tops like wide-bodied aircraft coming into land, then turning out to sea and plunge diving with unexpected speed and precision.
Western Gulls were another "guaranteed" lifer.  These are BIG gulls made more impressive by the contrasting dark backs and clean heads.  This trio was cleaning up after a show at SeaWorld.
Also looking for handouts at SeaWorld, a Snowy Egret - yet another life bird posing beautifully for the camera.
Visitors to the Calgary Zoo will find many House Sparrows under their picnic tables and dashing around animal enclosures looking for scraps.  At the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park it seems to be Brewer's Blackbirds that fill the same role in a much more aesthetically pleasing manner! 
Migrant shorebirds were fairly abundant on beaches and lagoons in the area.  Here a flock of Whimbrel do a formation flypast...
...and a little further up the shore Black-bellied Plover and a lone Willet hunt for evening snacks along the tideline.
Next week, the San Diego posts head to the desert!

Meanwhile, for those interested, here are those 28 life birds:
Wild Turkey
California Quail
Brown Pelican
Snowy Egret
White-tailed Kite
Peregrine Falcon
Virginia Rail
Least Sandpiper
Western Gull
Heermann's Gull
Common Tern
White-winged Dove
Greater Roadrunner
Costa's Hummingbird
Acorn Woodpecker
Pacific-slope Flycatcher
Black Phoebe
Cassin's Kingbird
Black-tailed Gnatcatcher
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
Northern Mockingbird
California Towhee
Black-throated Sparrow
Great-tailed Grackle
Lesser Goldfinch