Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Taxidermy and Taxonomy at the Canadian Museum of Nature

I've been invited to contribute to the Bird Canada multi-author blog and will be writing on the 27th of each month.  My first post is up and you can read it by clicking on the image below.
Click it!  (You know you want to!)
By the way, I'll have a little more on my Ontario trip in the next little while - I'm still searching for that American Black Duck!

Monday, 18 March 2013

Weekend at Bluetail's

This past weekend Calgary Birder, Mrs. Calgary Birder and our two nestlings flew to Vancouver.  We were taking their 98 year old great-grandmother to attend her big sister's 100th birthday party!  It was a wonderful celebration and we all enjoyed the time visiting with family.  
As many as twenty Steller's Jays, Cyanocitta stelleri, at a time in our host's front yard - but these aren't the blue tails I was looking for...
Of course, I wasn't going to pass up the chance to chase the Vancouver area's current "mega" - a Red-flanked Bluetail, showing in a park in New Westminster since being discovered by Colin McKenzie on January 13th.  For the non-birding followers of this blog (or birders who have been living under a rock for the past two months) this little Eurasian flycatcher, which should be spending the winter in Indochina, is the second ever mainland North American record of this species.

I slipped out of a dark house in North Vancouver shortly before dawn and headed for Queen's Park in New Westminster.  The only birds I saw on the half hour drive were members of a huge flock of Northwestern Crows leaving their roost in Burnaby but even in the predawn light the park was jumping with activity.  American Robins and Dark-eyed Juncos were busy feeding on the ground along with, to my delight, several Varied Thrushes - a life bird before the sun had risen.

Varied Thrush, Ixoreus naevius.  Not bad views for a shy resident of the damp, dark understory.   The patterning on the feathers gives a textured quality to the plumage.
I spent about thirty minutes exploring the area around the playground, enjoying the melodic but frantic trills and buzzes of Pacific Wrens high above, before seeing a little brownish bird flicking its tail in a low shrub.  It flew a short distance, landed on a tree stump and flicked its tail again.  I brought my binoculars up and, in the dim lit of the understory, made out a faint eye-ring and what looked like reddish sides.  Almost certainly the bird but far from definitive views.  I wandered a little further north in the park and eventually relocated the bird, getting a good look and a passable identification photo.
Red-flanked Bluetail, Tarsiger cyanurus, a long way from home.
Uncropped, 420mm lens!
By this time there were a couple of other birders in the area and we chatted for a little while, enjoying the cedar trees which maybe reminded the little wanderer of the Northern Russian forests where it should be heading to breed at this time of year.  With limited views of the Bluetail and a deadline to be back in North Vancouver, I decided to head back through Vancouver and try to find a Brambling reported in the Fairview neighbourhood.  Thanks to a great set of directions from Dave Ingram over at Island Nature, I had no problem finding the right alley and backyard where another birder was quietly peering through the brambles.  

"Brambling was here until 10 minutes ago"  


"Apparently it's often only seen before 9 or 10 in the morning"


I stuck around in the rain for as long as possible - about forty-five minutes - but no sign of the Brambling.  What we did enjoy was a great selection of west coast songbirds: Song Sparrow, Pine Siskin, Golden-crowned Sparrow, Fox Sparrow, House Finch, Black-capped Chickadee, House Sparrow, and both the Slate-coloured and Oregon subspecies of Dark-eyed Junco.  To wrap things up, here are a few shots of those birds....
"Sooty" Fox Sparrow, Passerella iliaca unalaschcensis
"Oregon" Dark-eyed Junco, Junco hyemalis
Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Year of the Woodpecker?

Regular followers of this blog may remember that my nemesis bird in Alberta was the Pileated Woodpecker.  I finally tracked one down early last year and finally had some decent views in the fall.  This year seems to be off to a different start on the woodpecker front!

To begin with, a Pileated Woodpecker was the very first bird I saw for the entire year. Arriving at dawn in the Shannon Terrace parking lot of Fish Creek Provincial Park for our January 1st bird count, one of these crow-sized woodpeckers flew across the valley calling as it went.  There have been more sightings since then, notably a pair of birds feeding at ground level by the bike path in Bebo Grove a short distance from our bird course group.

Above: Pileated Woodpecker, Dryocopus pileatus, Bebo Grove, Fish Creek Provincial Park
Below: Example of flight call from
On that January 1st bird count, even the Pileated wasn’t the woodpecker highlight of the day, as we found a Black-backed Woodpecker later in the morning.  There had been some sightings earlier in the winter and we soon found tell-tale signs of the feeding activity of a three-toed woodpecker species.  The three species in this group are specialist woodpeckers, needing mature coniferous forests with dead and dying trees, from which they meticulously peel the bark, searching for insect larvae.  The resulting pile of fine bark shavings in the snow around the base of these trees is distinctive but sometimes finding the responsible bird is a little trickier.  Eventually one of our group members spotted this beauty feeding high up on spruce trunk and we were able to watch it at work.
Black-backed Woodpecker, Picoides arcticus, Marshall Springs, Fish Creek Provincial Park
In the same genus (for now?) as the three-toed woodpeckers are the Calgary area's more common species – the Hairy Woodpecker and the ubiquitous Downy Woodpecker - both of which we also saw on that woodpecker-filled New Year's Day.  Although common, these two species can play tricks on birders, as they can be confused with each other.  Here’s the Hairy Woodpecker, in South Glenmore Park last year.
Hairy Woodpecker, Picoides villosus, South Glenmore Park, Calgary.
The red spot indicates that this is a male bird.
There are a few physical characteristics that help to separate the two species.  The Hairy is larger than the Downy, although there is a tiny bit of overlap between the smallest and largest of the two species.  The outer tail feathers on a Hairy are pure white - although this can be hard to see and is not universally true.  Less ambiguously, the bill is always proportionately larger in the Hairy – as long as the head.  However, the easiest way to tell the two species apart is their calls.  The Hairy is fairly flat in pitch while the Downy's call is distinctly descending (“Downy goes down”).  Here’s the Downy Woodpecker, this one at Inglewood Bird Sanctuary.  If you look closely you can see the black spots on the outer tail feathers and the bill is clearly shorter than the bird above, but it's that call that makes it clear, as you can hear below.
Above: Downy Woodpecker, Picoides pubescens, Inglewood Bird Sanctuary, Calgary.
No red spot on the head means this is a female.
Below: Example of call from
Four of Calgary’s woodpecker species on January 1st is a pretty good start to any birding year.  I’ve seen Northern Flicker since then which leaves three more common Southern Alberta woodpeckers – American Three-toed, Red-naped Sapsucker, and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker – to turn up for the remainder of the year.  Here’s to the year of the woodpecker!

Monday, 4 March 2013

The End of Winter?

The Winter List is traditionally kept between December 1st and February 28th and records all the species seen between those dates in the designated area.   The Alberta Provincial list is usually about 120-150 species, with traditional winter residents such as Bohemian Waxwings, American Tree Sparrows, and of course Snowy Owls keeping company on the list with more rare winter hangers-on like the Northern Shoveler at Weed Lake and a vagrant Northern Mockingbird in Vulcan.
Snowy Owl, Bubo scandiacus, near Mossleigh, Alberta
What have I been up to over the last couple of months?  Not much blogging and only a little bit of birding with the Friends of Fish Creek winter birding course.  Nevertheless, as of the end of the winter listing period, I was up to fifty species for the year so far.  The big question today is: why does the list end on February 28th?  To illustrate my point, here are the conditions in front of our house yesterday (March 3rd)…
Snowy weather in Calgary
Even in these kind of harsh conditions, evidence of birds is everywhere.  Judging from the noise, the nicely sculpted tree pictured below was sheltering a dozen or more House Sparrows and a few Black-capped Chickadees in front of a neighbour's house.  Between the dense foliage and the layer of snow, I suspect they were cozier than I was! (I should probably mention that two of the birders over at Birds Calgary were actually out birding in this and turned up a dozen species)

Winter is clearly not yet done here in Alberta but signs of spring are all around.  On this past Saturday’s bird group outing we had Mallards and Common Goldeneye vigourously courting and copulating in the river, we saw our first starlings of the year, and several of the magpies we saw were carrying nesting material. 
A winter Black-billed Magpie, Pica hudsonia
I’ll be taking a break from the course for the spring session.  This change should leave a little more time for photography and blogging, as well as home life.  I’m also interested to see how early morning starts and smaller groups impact the birds I see, although I’ll certainly miss the group birding and learning experience.  Whatever birds I see, there’ll certainly be more time to share with you!
A highlight of the winter session - a digiscoped Barrow's Goldeneye, Bucephala islandica, at Carburn Park showing two of it's most obvious identification traits: a steeper peaked head with shorter bill than Common Goldeneye and the crescent shaped white patch in front of the eye.