Sunday, 27 May 2012

Camping Among the Songbirds

I'm out of the province at the moment but wanted to leave behind something for the week.  This past holiday weekend we returned to Kinbrook Island near Brooks for a family camping trip.  Our two year old daughter had her first tent camping experience and everyone had a relaxing, if slightly sleep deprived, weekend.  As I have written previously, Kinbrook Island Provincial Park is a wonderful birding location combining prairie grassland, prairie wetland, and deciduous woodland habitats to create a real migrant trap.  For the most part, I was not actively birding - well I guess I always am, but you know what I mean - and we still saw nearly 50 species, including 11 "first of year".  Here are a few photos - as always, click any image for a slideshow:
Kinbrook Island has a healthy population of Tree Swallows, nesting in tree cavities all around the campground.  Perhaps the apparent absence of Starlings is helping them to be more successful here than some Calgary city locations.
Baltimore Orioles were present in much larger numbers than I remember from last year.  Sometimes there were four  or five birds chasing and calling to each other immediately above our tent site.
I associate Mourning Doves strongly with growing up in Ontario, where we could have half a dozen picking up seeds from under our feeders.  Their call is a nice soothing sound to wake up to.

There were probably a lot more warblers to be seen, given more time to quietly look for them.  That being said, this is the best look I've ever had at a Tennessee Warbler.

Yellow Warblers were all over the campground, seemingly calling from every other tree.
Warbling Vireos have also returned, searching for insects in the poplars
Our weekend gave me first of year sightings of both common Alberta Kingbirds - Eastern and this Western Kingbird

The Western Kingbirds were putting on a good show - drawing the attention of even the non-birders with their noisy fighting and displaying above our heads.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

The Hunt

This is the third and final part in a series of posts on my recent Gulf Islands sailing trip.  You can find Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

An important part of the science instruction on our Grade 9 sailing trips is intertidal explorations.  We always have fun wading around in the shallows looking at all of the squishy invertebrates and learning about their unique niches in the ecosystem.  At Montague Harbour we were not alone in our prowling through the shallows.  This Great Blue Heron, with all its breeding season plumes, was also hard at work stalking fish.  It seemed completely unfazed by our group and allowed us to watch it at distances of less than 50 metres until it was time to get back on our boat.
Patient and motionless
The strike
That's close enough folks!
Landing on the other side of the bay

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Gulf Island Passerines

This is the second in a series of posts on my recent Gulf Islands sailing trip.  You can find Part 1 here.

The Gulf Islands are dotted with parks and protected areas, both marine and terrestrial.  The flagship park is the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve which was established in 2003 and covers 36 square kilometres of land scattered around the islands.  There are also eight provincial parks, including Montague Harbour where we spent one night on the trip.  Of course all of these protected areas, with thick forests and dense shrubbery, provide rich habitat for bird life.
Spotted Towhee, Pipilo maculatus, love tangled overgrown shrubbery so they love the Pacific Northwest.  They call "Drink TEA" and occasionally pop up to more visible perches to sing, look around, or be photographed.
Russell Island is a small island off Saltspring entirely held under the Gulf Islands National Park.  We woke up in this anchorage to hear Pacific Wrens singing across the water and found this Orange-crowned Warbler, Oreothlypis celata, during a hike around the trails.
Golden-crowned Sparrows, Zonotrichia atricapilla, are common on the coast but this was a new species for me when I spotted this one mixed in with a flock of White-crowned Sparrows.
Here's one of the aforementioned White-crowned Sparrows, Zonotrichia leucophrys, a few weeks before they show up in Calgary.
I know this is not a passerine, but I wanted to include this Rufous Hummingbird, Selasphorous rufus, as it was another bird that succeeded in drawing the interest and admiration of my crowd of non-birding teenagers.
Those are few of the smaller birds that we saw on our trip but the hummingbird was not the bird that most wowed the crowd, as we'll see next week....

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Sparrows of South Calgary with Friends of Fish Creek

For this week's birding course our group met in the extreme south of the city.  Here the suburbs are quickly consuming the prairie along the Bow River and the landscape is rapidly changing.  A state-of-the-art water treatment plant has just been completed next to the new freeway bridge.  Two housing developments are being expanded, one on each side of the river, and a new golf course abuts the provincial park boundary.  We explored a strip of land that is being preserved against the river, where there are some decent sized islands providing refuges of habitat for various species.  Here's a map of our route:

View Pine Creek FFCPP Birding in a larger map

We enjoyed observing Ospreys and Bald Eagles nesting and feeding along the river but the highlight was probably the sparrows.  There were four species observed by the group and we had great practice identifying them by sight and sound.  I've included a photo of each along with an embedded sound file from the Xeno-Canto public archive.
The Clay-coloured Sparrow is often tricky to see and is easily identified by its call - a series of insect-like buzzes.  The unstreaked breast, grey nape, and buffy feathers behind and below the eye are good field marks visible in this photo.

There were lots of Savannah Sparrows, which are more visible than the other species often singing from the tops of fence posts or grass stalks.  Their song, a mixture of chirps and buzzing sounds tells us to "take, take it EAAAZZZY"!

This Song Sparrow popped into view close to the Clay-coloured pictured above.  Why isn't this another Savannah Sparrow? The lack of the yellow spot above the eye, the longer tail and the larger bill are all reasonable field marks but again what is distinctive is its voice.  These birds start with 2-4 distinct tones and then sings a lazy trill of notes.
The Vesper Sparrow was our last sparrow of the morning.  I heard one singing far off in the distance and eventually another member of the group picked out a bird several hundred metres away on top of a rock.  After setting up the scope we were able to confirm Vesper Sparrow with a similarly fuzzy image to the one above (which was actually taken near Strathmore on last year's May species count).  The song of the Vesper Sparrow often starts with one or two pairs of clear even-toned notes followed by a fast musical trill.Larkwire rather charmingly translates this as "oh, oh, my, my, it's-such-a-beautiful-day"

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Boiling Reef

At the end of April, I took my Grade 9 class on their West Coast sailing trip to British Columbia's Gulf Islands.  Like last year, I thought it would be interesting for you if I featured a few of the birds and birding hotspots that we saw during the trip.  Once again the students were unsurprisingly bemused by my birdwatching but I think I made a few connections.  At least two or three students were getting very good at identifying seabirds by the end of the trip and were doing so without any prompting from me.  We also found a beautiful Townsend's Warbler which hung around on a low branch long enough for one teenager to say "OK, I guess that's pretty cool looking"!  Progress?

The warbler was on Tumbo Island, part of the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve, just a short distance from Boiling Reef where we went to look for sea lions, porpoises, and a diverse collection of seabirds.  As you can see from the map below, the reef sits right at the convergence of currents where the tides empty and fill the Strait of Georgia.  This twice daily flow stirs up nutrients creating a rich feeding ground for all types of marine life.

View Boiling Reef Location in a larger map

The currents were in full flow when we were there, creating surging whitewater between the lighthouse on the point of Saturna Island and the reef, which was covered in Stellar's Sealions.  The loud and smelly marine mammals were certainly the most obvious life to be seen but porpoises were busy feeding between hundreds of bobbing seabirds.  Among the birds, alcids were probably the most common group of species.  These are sometimes described as the penguins of the north, swimming underwater with powerful wing strokes to propel them along in pursuit of prey, and I managed to get half-decent shots of three species during the trip (some not taken right at the above location - click images to enlarge)
Pigeon Guillemot, Cepphus columba, after a successful hunt
Common Murre, Uria aalge, this is a first year plumage bird (according to Mr. Sibley!)
Rhinoceros Auklet, Cerorhinca monocerata, - most of the alcids would dive as the boat approached and surface hundreds of metres away so it was nice to see a few in flight showing off their plumage
Alcids may have provided the diversity but it was the gulls that provided the numbers, specifically thousands of Bonaparte's Gulls rafting up and flying around in huge flocks as they prepared for their spring migration.  A little further to the north, in Active Pass, we sailed through a single tightly grouped flock which had, at a very conservative guess, 5000-7000 individuals.
It's nice to have friends - one of these Bonaparte's Gulls has lost a contact lens! (Actually they are feeding on small organisms on the surface of the water that have been stirred up by the current, which is more scientific but less funny.)
There were also some life birds to be had in the area as well.  Among the many sea ducks were White-winged Scoter, a new species for me, along with Surf Scoter.  Perhaps most exciting were Long-tailed Ducks which felt like a life bird as my previous "tick" had been long range scope views of a female in winter plumage on Glenmore Reservoir.
Oh, that's why they call it a Long-tailed Duck!
So those are some highlights of the impressive diversity of nearshore seabirds that we saw on our trip.  I'll follow-up with some passerines and more familiar landbirds in the coming weeks.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Calgary Herald Features Local Birding

Nice little piece on the front of today's "Life" section on Calgary area birding, focusing on Frank Lake.  Online version at the link below, along with a lovely photo of Frank Lake.

"Alberta Birding 101" at the Calgary Herald website