Saturday, October 6, 2012

Whirlwind Alberta Trip (June 2012)

From June 16th to the morning of June 20th, I did nothing but bird around the southern half of Alberta. I probably averaged around 4 hours of car-sleep per night, and tallied over 200 species including 24 species of warbler! It's taken me too long to get around to doing this so I'm afraid this will be an abbreviated summary followed by a few photo-highlights.

I had 5 days off from work in Revelstoke, so here's what I did-->

After 6 days out in the bush doing fieldwork, I showered then headed east out of Revelstoke. After some accident-delays near Rogers Pass, I finally made it to my first stop (Horse Creek Marsh) NW of Cochrane, AB some time around 2am. I fell asleep in the car to the metronomic ticking of several YELLOW RAILS, as well as the soft trills of both NELSON'S and LE CONTE'S SPARROWS

Day 1--Woke up at bright and early, with the rails and sparrows still going at it. Also picked up EASTERN PHOEBE and SWAMP SPARROW. Oh and how can I forget? When I awoke in the car, a GREAT GRAY OWL was perched on a fence-post across the road! 

From here I drove straight through Calgary down to Medicine Hat where I turned off south to Pakowki Lake, and spent the rest of the day in the SE corner of the province looking for prairie specials. I was not disappointed as despite some strong winds, I managed to find some great birds including FERRUGINOUS HAWK, KRIDER'S (Red-tailed) HAWK, WHITE-FACED IBIS, UPLAND SANDPIPER, WILLET, MARBLED GODWIT, BURROWING OWL, SPRAGUE'S PIPIT, LARK BUNTING, and GRASSHOPPER SPARROW. Also saw my first BADGER!!!

On this night, I fell asleep to the jumbled song of 20+ LARK BUNTINGS that surrounded my car. I was near the US border at Wild Horse, and these showy black-and-white sparrows were nearly in plague numbers!

Day 2--Finally managed good looks at my lifer BAIRD'S SPARROW this morning. The ever-abundant and noisy LARK BUNTINGS made listening for this secretive sparrow tricky but eventually I got one in the scope about 10m off the road.

After filling my boots with grassland bird treats, I decided to head north to the Cypress Hills. Here an "Inter-provincial Park" (shared with Saskatchewan) protects a good portion of the remaining forested tracks of this unique area. At the time of glaciation, these hills acted as an isolated set of islands for breeding forest birds, and now this place is quite unusual indeed. Surrounded by hundreds of miles of grassland, the hills are high enough to support rich spruce forests, shaded lakes, and aspen copses. Most interestingly, many of the birds here are distinctly western, despite being well east of the Rocky Mountains. Therefore it's a good spot to work on both your Alberta and Saskatchewan bird lists! Here are some of the western birds I managed to pick up today: COMMON POORWILL, RED-NAPED SAPSUCKER, RED-SHAFTED (Northern) FLICKER, DUSKY FLYCATCHER, AUDUBON'S (Yellow-rumped) WARBLER, MACGILLIVRAY'S WARBLER, and BLACK-HEADED GROSBEAK. Some other nice things I picked up here included WILD TURKEY and WHITE-WINGED SCOTERS who both breed near the town of Elkwater, and a few singing OVENBIRDS (the only true "eastern" warbler here).

After sweeping the Cypress Hills specials, I was ahead of schedule, so I decided to do something crazy: Head to Cold Lake Provincial Park in NE Alberta! First I stopped off in Medicine Hat, where after a bit of effort managed to get great looks at both BROWN THRASHER and YELLOW-BREASTED CHAT at a local park, then I headed due north to Oyen, AB as the sun started going down. 

Slept somewhere in the middle of nowhere, not quite sure where.

Day 3--Woke up to the sound of a displaying LONG-BILLED CURLEW, then hit the road where I nabbed some breaky in Vermillion, AB. From there I headed straight to Cold Lake Provincial Park where I rolled in around 10am. The reason for coming all this way is because this park is famous for its great diversity of eastern boreal specialties. It's like the Peace River area but better, and in a much more concentrated area.

Within minutes of entering the park I had already seen 4 male BLACKBURNIAN WARBLERS (my favourite American wood-warbler). Soon after I had added CANADA, BAY-BREASTED, and CHESTNUT-SIDED WARBLER, among many other neat birds such as the (eastern) WINTER WREN, COMMON TERN (on the lake itself). --All the while having to deal with F-18s from the nearby airforce base blasting back and forth across the sky. 

After adding RUBY-THROATED HUMMINGBIRD and PURPLE MARTIN in town as I ate my lunch, I decided to head over to relatively nearby Pierce Lake in Saskatchewan. It was a relatively quiet afternoon, but it was still kinda fun to add some boreal birds to my shrimpy Saskatchewan life-list.

In the evening I birded the Parsnip Lake Rd which head NW out of the town of Cold Lake toward the air-base. It's great for spruce and muskeg birds like CAPE MAY WARBLER, PALM WARBLER, and YELLOW-BELLIED FLYCATCHER. Things were still fairly quiet in the evening, but a pumping AMERICAN BITTERN was nice.

Day 4--Birded the Parsnip Lake Rd at dawn. Not as active with birds as I had hoped (it was quite cold) but I did hear plenty of CONNECTICUT WARBLERS, along with a few other new birds for the trip. I nipped into Cold Lake Provincial Park later in the morning, hoping to pick up Great Crested Flycatcher but I had no luck. I did however scope a beautiful pair of RED-BREASTED MERGANSERS on the lake, and at long last, I found my first BLACK-AND-WHITE WARBLER of the trip.

To cap off the morning I dashed over to Pierce Lake, SK again to try for more Saskie birds. Birdsong was much better in the morning and I heard and saw even more CONNECTICUT WARBLERS than on the Alberta side.

Left Cold Lake around lunch-time and basically drove straight south to the Drumheller area, where I had a hot-tip on some Piping Plover locations. My only detour was through beautiful Elk Island National Park just east of Edmonton, where despite some rain squalls, I finally managed to find a GREAT CRESTED FLYCATCHER. Finally got to a small series of Alkaline lakes where the plovers are supposed to be around 5pm. After an hour of careful scanning, I could not find any shorebirds let alone the endangered piper! With some very threatening storm-clouds rolling in, I was worried my new corolla, as shiny as it is, might not be able to make it out on these muddy roads once rain-soaked. I decided to try for one last scan at the first lake and finally bingo! There along the shoreline was a cute little PIPING PLOVER, seeming pretty casual considering the size of the lightning storm that was about to hit.

Quick side-note: If you haven't driven across the praires during lighting-storm season, you are missing out! Because you can see for so far, there were times when I would be driving along a sunny country road, while 4 or 5 separate thunderstorms could be counted raging off at various directions in the distance. An awesome way to experience the atmosphere of this deceptively beautiful part of the country.

After nabbing the plover, I retreated to Boston Pizza in Drumheller for a "high-class" celebration meal. I was nearing the end of a tiring but fantastic trip, plus the Blue Jays rallied to beat the Yankees in the bottom of the 9th, and a pair of GRAY PARTRIDGE flew across the highway as I left Drumheller at sunset... life was good!

Drove through Calgary in the dark and slept on a side-road somewhere south of Cochrane.

Day 5--Woke up at dawn yet again (like 3-something???), and birded the Bear Hill area east of Canmore where I heard Chris Charlesworth's staked-out male CAPE MAY WARBLER, as well as my first TOWNSEND'S WARBLER and OLIVE-SIDED FLYCATCHER of the trip. From here I headed into the Rockies and birded my way along the Bow River to Lake Louise where I padded my warbler list with the addition of ORANGE-CROWNED, BLACKPOLL, and WILSON'S WARBLER, along with NORTHERN WATERTHRUSH. Once I hit the border, I just drove straight back to Revelstoke.

Time to get back to work.

Woke up in the car to this guy!

Prairie Roads in June; nothing like it (those hills are in Montana)

Male McCown's Longspur near Wild Horse, Alberta

Upland Sandpiper at Wild Horse 
Yellow-breasted Chat in Medicine Hat
Chestnut-sided Warbler in Cold Lake Provincial Park
Palm Warbler (feeding young) along the Parsnip Lake Rd, near Cold Lake

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