For a second day in a row I was sitting in my car at the parking lot of the Whitemud Creek waiting for sun dawn. At -10 C it was a “mild” morning compared to the previous day when the temperature was a bone chilling -20 C. At this time of the year, the first rays of the sun break the forested horizon around 10 AM. I was set, however, on beating the crowds and score some early birds. Around 8:30 the pale twilight was sufficient, and as a faint pink glow was emerging along the tree distant tops, I headed out. I made sure I brought a spare camera battery and a set of Little Hotties hand warmers, both which had saved my bacon the previous day.
Just as expected, I had the trails all to myself. Despite the midwinter temperature the air was full of bird song and calls. As always, the Black-capped Chickadees were feisty and energetic and the Nuthatches were calling left and right. A half dozen cawing Ravens soared overhead. The previous day I had scored a Great Horned Owl and a flock of Pine Grosbeaks. Today the highlight were the three Pileated Woodpeckers that were making a racket dismantling snags with impressive efficiency. All in all it was a lovely morning, and by the time I made my way back to the parking lot the throngs of runners and dog walkers had started to arrive.
The last birding outing of the year was to the same location as the first one 365 days ago, at the Whitemud Creek. As far as birding goes 2020 certainly did not break any personal records due to the severely curtailed travel. The furthest I ventured were to our local patch of the Rocky Mountains, which of-course never disappoints in their magnificent awesomeness.
During my last birding walk of the year I encountered the usual winter suspects in these neck of the woods. A curious White-breasted Nuthatch was posing for pictures an armlength away, or maybe it was just waiting to see if I would offer it a snack (I did not). In the same patch of trees a pair of female Pine Grosbeaks were nibbling on frozen berries and some sunflowers seeds someone left.
After my walk, as I was getting into the car, I could hear the unmistakable call of a lone Pileated Woodpecker in the distance. It was almost as if it said good bye to me and to 2020. I paused and held out for a minute, just in case it would make an appearance, but I never saw it or heard it again. There is another day tomorrow and, following birding tradition, the first bird spotted on New Year’s Day is an omen for the year to come.
Edmonton--Whitemud Park, Edmonton, Alberta, CA Dec 31, 2020 2:30 PM - 3:45 PM Protocol: Traveling 3.231 kilometer(s) 6 species
Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens) 1 Lone female Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) 1 Calling in the forest. No visual. Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata) 1 Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) 10 White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) 4 Pine Grosbeak (Pinicola enucleator) 2
Yesterday was winter solstice which means that in our Northern Hemisphere it was our shortest day (7 hrs 27 min 41 sec) of the year and last night was the longest night of the year (16 hrs 32 min 19 sec). Today the day was already a modest 6 seconds longer than yesterday. It is curious that although the tide has turned and the light is returning, yesterday was actually the first day of winter. Now we have four months ahead of us of a winter wonderland with every day being ever so slightly longer until the sun greets us on the first day of spring on March 20.
After a long birding hiatus the indoor isolation of these crazy times finally caught up with me. On a whim, I took a few hours off in the afternoon and headed down to the Whitemud Creek, for the first time in seven months.
The usual suspects greeted me along the trail – Black-capped Chickadees, Nuthatches, Magpies and Red Squirrels. But as luck would have it there was something else in store on this day. Further along the trail, high up in a tree, I was able to discern three plump shadow hoping around on the bare branches. With the bright sky as backdrop it was tricky to make out any identifying characteristics, but it was soon evident that this was a new one. While I was ogling the suspects two other birders arrived. They too were stumped by the unidentified flying objects. I always though it would take more than a wee bit of courage for birders to admit to each other that they have no clue what bird they are looking at. But here we were, the three of us staring at these three plump silhouettes and all we were able to agree on was what it could not be. To small for waxwings or robins, too large and plump to be red polls or any other common finch. After going back and forth one of us managed to find a possible match using Merlin…, Pine Grosbeaks. It immediately dawn on me – here I am birding for the first time in seven months and I spot a lifer. More specifically #167. Later on as I was looking at my stats in eBird I realized that the previous lifer was on December 15 (one year and one day ago) at the same spot, along Whitemud Creek (a Black-backed Woodpecker).
Perhaps by coincident or perhaps through some sort of subconscious decision today, December 16, also turned out to be the two year anniversary of me starting birding. Exactly two years ago I brought my newly acquired Nikon Monarchs to my first birdingouting to the Beaver Hills Bird Observatory. It was a snowy and cold day, just like today. That was 185 checklists and 167 species ago. That day I racked up my first eight lifers.
Was the Pine Grosbeak’s auspicious timing a sign that it is time to pickup the binocular and camera again and head back into the green? Is it a sign that the time is ripe to get back to this blog. Maybe. The world has changed in the past seven months. I used to always looked forward to and plan grand trips to far-off destination, binoculars and camera in hand, hunting for new birds. These days, working from home and limiting even local outing, travel is out of the question and all these plans and dreams seem out of reach. The first big trip I did as a birder was to Chile and Argentina. The birds of southern South America blew me away (and this part of the continent is not even know for its bird diversity) and before I even returned to Canadian soil, the next trip to South America was already confirmed. We would have arrived in Chile this week…, of-course none of that happened and who knows when we can dare to dream about trips like that again.
I leave you with a snapshot from a rainy and grey day in Southern Chile. Its the day we managed to finally track down the glorious Torrent Duck. Yes, it was rainy, grey, one of us was suffering from Montezuma’s Revenge and the Torrent Ducks were tiny specks in the far distance…, yet it was one of the birding highlights of the trip. I can wait returning to the land of the Torrent Duck.
Its seems surreal that I actually have reached post 366, that it has been a whole year and that this project has now been completed. So much has happened during this year, I am one year older, my teen is different person altogether and the world has changed profoundly. I was anticipating and expecting some of these changes, others I could not have imagined in even my wildest dreams. All of this in a blink of eye. This post comes in an age of upheaval and pain with an uncertain future where the world is changing at an unprecedented rate and in unpredictable directions. The last year’s development shows the limitations of foresight we humans are capable of. So much for trying to be well-informed and staying ahead of the curve.
I will be scaling back my blogging and quite likely the nature of the posts will change as well. Stay tuned for my reappearance here or somewhere else on the interwebs. I have plans that are forming, but not yet ready to see the light of day. Rest assure, however, that my focus will be creating something beautiful and timeless like a sliver of light dispelling the darkness, even if only momentarily, that has enveloped the world.
Along a long straight stretch of the trail I noticed a squirrel run across the trail in the distance. Of course a squirrel crossing the trail is not anything particularly remarkable in these neck of the woods, so I did not pay much attention to it. I kept on walking. A few minutes later, the squirrel crossed the trail in the opposite direction (I assumed it was the same squirrel). I kept on walking getting closer to the spot where it had crossed,… when it ran across the trail again. I was almost upon it when it,… crossed again. Once I arrived at the location along the trail where the squirrel had been crossing it the reason for its behavior became abundantly clear. I a bush, right of the trail there was a single bird feeder that had had its roof knocked off, leaving it wide open for anyone to help themselves to the sunflower seeds. As I was watching the odd chickadee and nuthatch swoop in for a seed the squirrel came back. It quickly climbed the bush and without hesitating dove right into the feeder to grab a mouthful of sunflowers. Like a smooth and stealthy burglar it was gone it a flash, crossing the trail and disappearing into the forest, presumably to its secret lair to stay its loot. Two minutes later it came back, scampering through the forest, crossing the trail, climbing up to the bird feeder and back in it went.Its industriousness was quite impressive. It had clearly found the mother lode of the day and was hellbent on hoarding as much as possible before any competitor would discover the gold mine.
The female Downy Woodpecker had made a pencil sized hole through the bark and was intent on thoroughly investigating what lied inside. I wonder how she decided to make the hole where she did it. Experience? Can she sense that there is something hiding under the bark? Or perhaps it’s was a random spot.
Today’s picture captures the iconic pose of the Red-breasted Nuthatch – clinging to a tree trunk, upside down and with its head cocked checking out its surrounding. Nuthatches are curious yet cautious. Yesterday, as we were walking along the Whitemud Ravine south of the Snow valley trail head looking for a reported Black-backed Woodpecker, all of a sudden a scrawny-looking Red-breasted Nuthatch landed on a branch right in front of my face, no more than two feet away. It was almost as if it was demanding an offering before it would let me pass b. A nuthatch hold up. Except I did not have any food with me. I hesitantly reaches out towards it, fully expecting it to take off. Instead it eagerly jumped onto my hand and started hopping around looking for something to eat. It started to energetically pecking at my thumb. All of a sudden, out of nowhere, another Red-breasted Nuthatch swooped it, tackles the scrawny nuthatch on my hand and took its place. Once it had determined that I did not have anything edible, it took off. I was quite perplexed by the behaviour of these nuthatches. I have had plenty of chickadees eagerly landing and pecking on my hand hoping for a hand out, but this was the first time nuthatches had shown this behaviour. I am not sure if these two individuals were just more habituated to humans and from getting handouts, or if they were just more desperate to find food. The first nuthatch did look quick scrawny and skinny. In the end we never found the Black-backed Woodpecker, but thanks to these two nuthatches we nevertheless were left with an unforgettable experience.
In a clearing at the Grey Nuns Spruce Woodlot a lone American Three-toed Woodpecker was busy working away looking for a meal on a spruce tree trunk. It is only the second American Tree-toed Woodpecker I have seen, the first one was last winter at the Whitemud Ravine. No wonder this one threw me for a bit of a loop. With too much black in its back to be a Downy Woodpecker and too little black on its back to be a Black-backed Woodpecker it had me scratching my head for a minute. This one had a black back with messy white barring and white spots in the wings. The underparts were white with fine blackish barring on the flanks. The face was black with a white line behind the eye and a thin white line below the cheek. The characteristic yellow head patch that males have was missing suggesting that this was a female.
There is a spot in the Grey Nuns Spruce Woodlot, an opening in the forest where the trail takes a turn, where there is a bird feeder. Someone has scrawled “Feed Us” on the side of the feeder…, and fed they get. The other day when we visited someone had hanged several colourful bird houses in the surrounding trees. All freshly painted this prime real estate is just waiting for someone to move in.