When my good friend Ilya Povalyaev moved to Calgary in the fall of 2010 to start work as a biologist, I knew it was only a matter of time before I expanded my horizons past the borders of British Columbia. Birding in BC is of course extremely rewarding, and often very scenic, but there has always been an allure about the Canadian Prairies that has sparked my imagination. As a kid, my family made trips to every province except Saskatchewan and Manitoba, and our only forays into Alberta were to Banff and Jasper--hardly prairie-like! Checking out eBird, I noticed that I only had 5 species registered for AB... apparently from the one time I got gas just across the border near Swan Lake Provincial Park in the Lower Peace District. I know spring comes a little later to central Canada but I'm sure I could build on my five species: American Robin, Tennessee Warbler, Yellow Warbler, Clay-coloured Sparrow, and White-throated Sparrow.
Back in the summer, Ilya had suggested the possibility of a March trip-- a good time to pick up a mix of spring-returnees and winter species, and most importantly, it is hypothetically a good time to see grouse like Sharp-tailed and Greater Sage dancing!
But that is easier said that done, particular with regards to the bigger bird with yellow boobs. Habitat loss to agriculture, and more recently--habitat loss and direct disturbance from oil & gas extraction in SE Alberta has had a severe impact on Canadian sage-grouse populations. Fewer birds means that it's much harder to find them in the vast open prairie, and their tenuous status has not surprisingly led wildlife authorities and private land-owners to keep reliable grouse locations as quiet as possible.
So it would not be an easy task; but I knew that there was plenty more to see out there, from Pronghorn Antelopes and Snowy Owls, to Ferruginous Hawks and Pink-sided Juncos! Jeremy Kimm, an equally crazy birder, agreed to join, so after picking him up at the Greyhound Bus Depot in Penticton at 5:50am (Mar 22), we were on our way north!
Things were decidedly wintery as we passed through the Central Okanagan. Low clouds and constant flurries gave us cause for concern, knowing that Rogers Pass west of Revelstoke has a reputation for closures, be they avalanche-related or jack-knifed-truck-related. Things cleared up however around Sicamous, and our first birding highlight came at the Esso gas station near the Perry River Bridge when a pale "Richardson's" (Prairie form) MERLIN landed in a tall cottonwood. Only my third sighting west of the Rockies!
We crept carefully over the snowy Rogers Pass without much in the way of birds, then stopped in Golden to stretch our legs where we lucked into a large flock of COMMON REDPOLLS (will they ever go north?). No time to waste, Alberta awaits! We gassed up and headed on through Yoho National Park. At one point we thought a sign had indicated that we had just entered Alberta so we jumped out and birded the forest (finding a couple chickadees), only to realize later that this was still BC. Context!
We got to Banff in the early afternoon, and headed up the Icefields Parkway (93) where we had a hot-tip on some wintering ptarmigan. Legend had it, that the odd ptarmigan could be found if you checked carefully along the highway near Bow Lake. These balls of white feathers supposedly popped their heads up occasionally and this is when we birders would spot the black beak and eye against the snow! But after 3 passes of the willow patches near the lake and surrounding area, and having found no fresh tracks, we wondered if we might be 'outta luck.' As we headed back south to rejoin Hwy 1, Jeremy suggested we try a last-ditch effort (literally) at a willowy patch near the base of Mt Hector. This turned out to be a good idea, as we quickly found not 1,2,3, or 4, but 5 WHITE-TAILED PTARMIGAN! This was my first time seeing this species in its completely white plumage. Pretty darn nice way to kick off our Alberta birding.
From here we trucked on to Canmore, where we left Hwy 1 for the more laid-back Hwy 1A. My first MALLARD for Alberta (a pair in the Bow River) was reason for much celebration, along with a small herd of Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep; but our list really picked up when we walked around the small settlement of Exshaw, where we were delighted to find 5 GRAY-CROWNED ROSY FINCHES at a local feeder, along with a few MOUNTAIN CHICKADEES, and singles of DOWNY WOODPECKER and MERLIN.
As the sun went down over the mighty Rocky Mountains, we entered the foothills west of Calgary, where we remarked on how perfect the habitat was for raptors. And yet, after 35 km of gorgeous pine and aspen copses, boggy meadows, cow pastures, and wide-open prairie grasslands, our bird list stood at 2 starlings and 2 ravens... welcome to the Prairies in late winter! Just as we neared Cochrane, our spirits were lifted by a single RED-TAILED HAWK (apparently only just returning according to Ilya...migrant RTHAs, who would have thought?).
Mar 23--Today Ilya had to work until the early evening so Jeremy and I took this time to bird around Calgary. We started off at Inglewood Bird Sanctuary close to downtown, which is where local birders go to see gulls in spring and fall. Well I hadn't seen any gulls in Alberta yet so that sounded good to me! When we arrived at the parking lot, the windchill made it feel like a cool -10, but new AB birds kept us warm. HAIRY WOODPECKERS and YELLOW-SHAFTED FLICKERS were tallied in quick succession, followed by flyover CANADA GEESE. When we got to the river (Bow River), things picked up--with hundreds of geese and gulls present. CALIFORNIA GULL was the most numerous gull, followed by RING-BILLED and a few HERRING GULLS. Not soon after getting out the scope, I got on a bird with a darker back than the nearby Calis, then noticed it had an elongated and bright orange gonydeal spot--adult LESSER BLACK-BACKED GULL! Apparently there are less than 15 records of the species in Alberta, but like elsewhere, it is becoming more regular.
[Mr. BB Gull stretches his wings after a long flight from Kelowna]
We also picked up our only HARLEQUIN DUCK of the trip here (a lone male), as well as both RED-BREASTED and (Eastern) WHITE-BREASTED NUTHATCH, then we spent an hour or so walking around the Inglewood Wild Lands, hoping to spook up a gray partridge. No luck with the target bird but it was neat to see so many RICHARDSON'S GROUND-SQUIRRELS out and about, and Jeremy spotted a juvenile NORTHERN GOSHAWK flying past with one in its grasp! We also flushed our only RING-NECKED PHEASANT of the trip.
Next it was on to High River, about a 45min drive south of Calgary and home to a woodpecker that is quite rare in these parts. About 15 seconds after getting out of the car we heard it calling then got great looks at my first Canadian RED-BELLIED WOODPECKER! This female has spent the entire winter at George Lang Park in High River, living off peanuts provided by a local homeowner. Nearby we also found a pair of BLUE JAYS, as well as a small group of BOHEMIAN WAXWINGS--a nice find since this species has been fairly scarce this winter, even around Alberta.
After lunch we headed to Frank Lake, where a portion of the lake has thawed and was covered in several hundred NORTHERN PINTAIL. We also counted smaller numbers of CANVASBACK, REDHEAD, RING-NECKED DUCK, LESSER SCAUP, GREEN-WINGED TEAL, MALLARD, AMERICAN WIGEON, and a couple KILLDEER walking around on the ice. We continued our search for partridge but only noted a single SNOW BUNTING.
On our way back to Calgary, Jeremy spotted this lone SNOWY OWL. Always a nice find. As with coastal BC, there have been good numbers of snowies on the Prairies too but by the time of our visit, most had cleared out.
Once back in Calgary, we headed out to a weedy area in the industrial outskirts of Calgary where a lone Harris's Sparrow had overwintered. Like many birds, sparrows are hard to come by in winter in Alberta (yes, even Song Sparrows), so this would be a nice find. Try as we might, we could not locate this Canadian breeding endemic, but we did finally flush a few GRAY PARTRIDGE. [Photo: Jeremy points to where the partridge was]
We rendezvoused at Ilya's place, where we decided driving to Medicine Hat that night would be a good course of action--that way we could get to the sage-lands of SE Alberta bright and early and start our search for more chicken-like objects. But just as we were about to leave I checked the local bird chat group and discovered that there was a RARE BIRD ALERT: Barred Owl. I couldn't pass up the ironic opportunity to "twitch" a Barred Owl, especially since it was on our way out of town anyway. So off we went! I teased Ilya that we wouldn't need to memorize the address where the owl had been sighted since there would be a crowd gathered, but he insisted that we would probably be the only ones. He was wrong...
[Photo evidence of the "biggest twitch" in Ilya's Calgary birding-career]
If anyone reading this is wondering why I'm making such a big deal out of this--It is just an example of how "context"relates to birding and bird-listing. Barred Owls are more than abundant on the BC coast and are also fairly easy to find in the hills of the Okanagan Valley(where I'm from). They are even pretty common in the boreal forests north of Edmonton but around Calgary there is not much forest, so any owl is a treat. Furthermore, it is now considered uncool to report exact locations of roosting owls in BC and many other places because of the possible disturbances from birders/photographers. Luckily for Calgarians however, a crowd like this is the extreme, and even this group dispersed after about 15 min. The owl seemed oblivious to the people below, and only started to perk up when it started getting dark.
Okay, back to the story... 3 hours after the Barred Owl, we checked into the "Ranchmen Motel" in Medicine Hat (home of Trevor Linden), with dreams meadowlarks and sage-grouse, dancing in our heads.
Mar 24-- Dawn saw the three amigos out on a back road near the "town" of Manyberries, AB. I was definitely in the Prairies now. It wasn't totally flat, but other than the Cypress Hills, it would take about 5 hours of driving to get to the closest mountain. For miles and miles, all one could see was prairie-grass, snow, and the odd oil pump-jack.
The strategy was simple: Look for sage, then look for grouse. As the sun came up, I realized that the latter would be no easy task. The sage was easy to find, but with thousands of acres of sage out there and only 10-20 grouse... well ya.
Horned Larks flushed left and right from the road, Rough-legged Hawks hovered overhead, and Pronghorn Antelope munched in the distance.
--After realizing that it was highly possible that our map did not match reality, we decided to set up our scopes overlooking a large valley, sprinkled with sage and oil & gas activity. We knew they liked sage, and we knew that oil & gas was impacting them--
In a world without landmarks, you do what you can!
It was getting late in the morning, so if we were going to spot some dancing sage-grouse, we were running out of time. It was do or die: Our Alamo of chicken-hunting.
From up on our turret, I spotted a couple Rough-legged Hawks, then a Northern Harrier cruising north. It seemed that in every direction I looked, groups of Horned Larks were doing flight displays, chasing eachother, chattering, jingly, sip-tip-tip-tipateeteeing, and just being an overall nuisance.... just kidding! Jeremy and I both remarked on how cool it was to be in a place where Horned Larks and American Tree-Sparrows replace juncos and chickadees in the "oh, just another____" category (don't worry, we later saw plenty of juncos and chickadees on this trip).
Flocks of Snow Buntings and Lapland Longspurs flew by calling every once in a while. Every time we heard a flock coming we would try to guess whether they were longspurs or buntings-- we got it wrong every time. It was my first time seeing spring "LALO"s in their breeding finery, so that was a treat. But things were not going well on the grouse front. We had scanned and scanned for about an hour, and I was thinking, "if I can see a Horned Lark 2 miles away, I should be able to see North America's largest grouse dancing around, slapping its air-sacks together."
If there was such a thing as a God of Birding, I think one of his famous quotes would be:
"Go Birding, and thou shall find Birds."
[Unless you are in Nunavut in winter... then it would be "Go Birding, and thou might see a raven."]
Anyway... so I was losing hope, at least for this spot. We had all scanned the valley 20 or 30 times. "One last time," I thought. Then within seconds of starting, there-- were 3 black shapes in the sage. "I've got some gallinaceous-like objects!" I exclaimed. "Maybe partridge... just a second..." Then one turned, showing a long tail. "SAGE-GROUSE!!!!!!!" Then I saw the white bib on the chest... oh man oh man oh man! Turns out all 3 birds were males. We watched them for about an hour from ~1km away (good thing I bought that new scope last summer). They were mostly foraging, but every once in a while they would break out into a display--splaying their spiky tail-feathers, and bouncing those famous yellow boobies (a Manly trait in the grouse world). We were too far away to hear the sound (plus all those damn larks *cough), but still it was certainly one of those memorable nature-moments. I doubt this was an official "lek." More likely a few bachelors walking back from a nearby lek, getting a few extra moves in on the way home in case any ladies were watching.
*Disclaimer: For obvious reasons I cannot disclose this location so please don't ask. Viewing sage-grouse at an appropriate distance (e.g. 1 km) in Alberta is fine, but disclosing locations or taking photographs is NOT permitted by local wildlife authorities. If you are lucky enough to come across one or a few in the field, enjoy them from a respectable distance, inform Alberta Fish & Wildlife, and do not give out the location. Otherwise, you could face serious charges.
SO instead of a grouse pic, here is Ilya playing a celebratory solo on his tripod (later than day).
Well this was a load off the ol' shoulders. We had been considering crazy things like driving to Saskatchewan to look for sage-grouse but now we had all the time in the world to enjoy our surroundings (plus I could avoid going further into debt)! So it was decided that we would head to the fabled Cypress Hills, birding the prairie along the way. Here are a couple highlights:
[Mannyberries' answer to Calgary's "Saddle Dome"]
[Snowy Owl looking off toward Saskatchewan]
[Up on the C-Hills Plateau, where all 3 bluebirds have been recorded!]
[Poor photo of Oregon (top), Pink-sided (middle), and Slate-coloured (bottom) near Elkwater, AB]
[Another one of those pesky Horned Larks blocking the road]
[Ferruginous Hawk--The King of the Prairie]
[Mr. Ferrug, showing off his distinctive upper-side]
[Western Meadowlark (in habitat)]
[Mr. Ferrug, showing off his distinctive upper-side]
[Western Meadowlark (in habitat)]
Other neat things seen out in the grasslands included a flock of MOUNTAIN BLUEBIRDS, good numbers of COMMON REDPOLLS--one flock contained a nice-lookin' male HOARY REDPOLL. We also bagged our first RED-WINGED BLACKBIRDS of the trip (woot, woot), and a couple SHARP-TAILED GROUSE. Birding was fairly snowy and wintery around Elkwater Lake in the Cypress Hills but that didn't stop us from tallying 200+ SLATE-COLOURED JUNCOS with a sprinkling of OREGON and beautiful PINK-SIDED JUNCOS for good measure. By the afternoon, a decision was made to head back to Calgary to save on expenses and bird more around that area (there are only so many birds to find in late March in the prairies).
Mar 25--This morning we returned to Inglewood Bird Sanctuary, where thick fog and an earlier start made for more birds on the river than the last time we visited. Since it was a Sunday, we weren't the only birders out there on the gull-prowl, and we were enthused to hear of a young Glaucous Gull that had been seen that morning. As we scanned through the masses of regular species, we managed to pick up our only WOOD DUCK of the trip, as well as a good mixture of other waterfowl we had seen on Frank Lake but not along the river in Inglewood (context right?). Then all of a sudden the gulls flew up, and Ilya shouted, "I've got a GLAUCOUS GULL!" But try as I might, I could not get onto the bird. As the gulls started to settle back down, I noticed a dark bird coming into land. "I've got the LESSER BLACK-BACK!" But why can't I see the pale one? Wah Wah Wahhh. Anyway, long story short we could not re-find the *adult Glaucous Gull Ilya had spotted, nor the immature bird.
Some locals suggested we try Pearce Estate Park (just up river). So we did, and what do ya know-- there were not one but 2 adult GLAUCOUS GULLS. [Below: Big Fat Glauc sitting on a Rock]
With 5 gull species firmly inked on the AB List, we headed over to the weedy patch SE of town where this time we were successful in scoring the immature HARRIS'S SPARROW, along with his companions: 12 HOUSE SPARROWS, 2 COMMON REDPOLLS, and ~10 AMERICAN TREE-SPARROWS.
Next stop was "Oats and Hay are Us" where a Prairie Falcon had been known to reside, picking off pigeons and what-not... but no luck there. Can't get 'em all right?
Fish Creek Park was next up, where a local bird-photographer kindly pointed out a GREAT HORNED OWL nesting in a broken-off poplar tree. I won't both posting a pic of the nest since all you could see was one tuft of the females ear-tuft, but here is the male who was roosting nearby--love those pale "Taiga" birds!
We also nabbed our only Alberta BARROW'S GOLDENEYE nearby, then it was on to Weaselhead Park, where Ilya's predicted PINE GROSBEAKS performed on cue. The "easy" White-winged Crossbills however were not as straight-forward as we had to settle for one calling in the distance as it flew away.
[Where have all the crossbills gone? Long time passing...]
[A very misleading sign for 4 reasons: Weaselhead is not a good place for shorebirds, Alberta is not a good place for Western Sandpiper, this is NOT a Western Sandpiper; It is an *adult Sharp-tailed Sandpiper which would be uber-rare anywhere away from Western Alaska] #googleimagesearchfail
After Weaselhead, we said our thankyous and goodbyes to Ilya--it was time to head back west to the land of mountains and valleys. We would go on to spend a couple days birding the Okanagan Valley before Jeremy Kimm headed back to the Island.
But not before scoring a few more Alberta highlights!
[Northern Hawk Owl near Cochrane, AB]
[Ooo, he's got a lady!]
[Lake Louise at dusk (Banff National Park)--where we bagged a Boreal Chickadee]
Ended up driving all the way home to Penticton, fueled by a home-made curry dinner in Revelstoke---it's great to have friends! Jeepers this post is getting long. Time for some ice-cream... I think I'll end it here.
Trip List (Alberta only)--83 species
|Greater White-fronted Goose|
|Lesser Black-backed Gull|
|Great Horned Owl|
|Northern Hawk Owl|
|Northern Saw-whet Owl|
|American Tree Sparrow|